Civilized Adventure: Tucson’s Barrio Viejo

As we all know, quite well, this winter has managed to elude us for the first couple of months; at least until a few days ago! As summer disappeared and fall rolled around I had grand plans of being back in my beloved Rocky Mountains this time to spend endless days skiing powder and climbing “hero” ice (one can dream, right?).

Well, the ice has been pretty darn good from what I hear but the snowpack, slightly less than desirable. Due to the very un-winter trend, something in my gut kept my wandering soles pointed south after leaving the Pacific Northwest. I passed up Utah; I avoided Colorado for fear I just would not leave, and ended up in the land of wide open spaces, Sky Islands, and warm granite. Instead of bundling up in several layers of clothing and attempting to ward off the screaming barfies while swinging my tools into brittle ice, I have found myself in a tank top and sun visor surrounded by gritty granite as far as the eye could see.

After spending an undetermined number of days basking in the glow of a winter sun, riding cactus lined single track,and hiking to high points I decided to take a break to reconnect with the rest of the civilized population. That said I can usually stand two (maybe three) days of being “civilized” before yearning for open sky, towering mountains, and only the wildlife crossing my path. After all, this site wasn’t named Backcountry Vagabond due to my love of martinis and late nights at at trendy club.

While I tend to only write about my latest adventure in the great outdoors, I have grown to realize that a great adventure can unfold when walking down a city street or walking into a bookstore (yes, I have had a great adventure (or four) getting lost in Powell’s Bookstore in Portland or Tattered Cover in Denver). Today’s adventure consisted of a spontaneous walking tour of Barrio Viejo located near downtown Tucson, Arizona.

Barrio Viejo has undergone a revival over the past decade or more and the restoration of the historical architecture is spectacular. Something draws me the Southwest’s turbulently rich history and if large glaciated mountains were not thousands of miles away, I could see myself (and my French Press) living happily within the walls of one of these historic beauties.

Historia del Barrio Viejo

Established in the 1800s, Barrio Viejo is one of Tucson’s oldest neighborhoods and is best known for adobe row style homes. Home to El Tiradito, the Wishing Shrine, and El Parque de Mendoza y Orlando Barrio Viejo is flooded with Hispanic culture. The presence of this culture is visible on almost every corner.

In the 1960s this once largely populated neighborhood located just south of Congress Street was on the verge of being completely demolished. According to Tucson Weekly’s article published back in 2002 “The city of Tucson’s original 1961 urban renewal plan proposed demolishing almost all of the buildings in a 416-acre area bounded by Stone Avenue, Congress Street, I-10 and 22nd Street. More than 1,200 structures were to be bulldozed and 5,000 people relocated to make way for new residential, commercial and civic improvements.”

After walking through this neighborhood on a sunny January day (temperatures reaching the mid-70s), the thought nearly shuttered my heart.

Unfortunately not all was saved though. A smaller (but still quite damaging) project ended up demolishing 80 acres of historic buildings and uprooted around 1,200 people; all in the name of the Tucson Convention Center. Since the 70s families and small businesses have moved back into this quiet downtown neighborhood. Residents have gracefully revived the area’s charm while retaining its rich cultural history.

As I walked the narrow streets of Barrio Viejo today I felt as if I had been thrown back in time. Residents sat on their porch gossiping and turning each corner felt as if I was turning a page in history. I was reminded that it doesn’t always take a snow-covered peak to strike a chord within my soul.

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