To get to Marfa, you’ve got to drive. And with a kid (or a few) in tow, approaching this strange, magical mirage of a town from the west on I-90, past the Prada Marfa installation in Valentine, TX, the required road trip is only the beginning of the adventure. Because even if you flew into the closest airport in El Paso, it’s still a three-hour drive from Marfa. So since you have to drive from El Paso, you might as well drive from further out — say, from Las Cruces, NM, looping through the spooky Guadalupe Mountains along the Texas-New Mexico border. Or head from further North yet in Albuquerque, Santa Fe — or from way up in Taos, like I did.
Eight and a half road hours (with a four-year-old, which counts as 20 road hours, no?) later, we rolled into Marfa late at night after snapping photos of an eerily-lit midnight Prada Marfa. And I’m telling you about the epic journey it took to get there because I need you to understand what I mean when I say: It was so worth it.
Marfa is unlike anywhere else in the U.S. In fact, it’s unlike anywhere else on the planet (Mars, on the other hand, probably has its own Marfa — that would make sense). The desert enclave has reached almost mythic status via its eclectic-western atmosphere and unconventional contemporary art scene, which draws renowned creators, collectors, and regular-ol’ Instagrammers alike to its storied streets season by season. Having visited recently in this latest and strangest season of travel, ie. mid-pandemic, I’m pleased to report that Marfa is doing its due diligence to stay safe (as it has to; the closest hospital is in the neighboring town of Alpine and even it does not have an emergency room) — without losing its true character, despite gallery closures and the like. In fact, the quieter streets and more spacious outdoor dining/drinking options serve to make this a surprisingly lovely time to road trip out here with your family.
But please: Wear your mask. Tread lightly. Tip generously. Keep Marfa weird, and wonderful, and healthy — so that it can welcome the droves of gallery-goers back sooner than later.
Where to stay
Marfa’s oldest hotel is the classic Hotel Paisano, the filming site of James Dean’s final film, Giant, where the actor stayed alongside co-star Elizabeth Taylor. It’s definitely old-school, but the Paisano’s on-site restaurant Jett’s Grill serves fantastic margaritas and offers ample outdoor courtyard seating — so make time for that regardless of where you end up sleeping. For more unstuffy vibes check out Marfa’s modern and minimalist boutique hotels The Lincoln, The Thunderbird, and the iconic El Cosmico Marfa, a self-proclaimed “bohemian West Texas nomadic hotel” that lets you book your choice of room/trailer/yurt/teepee/tent.
That said, IMO nothing can beat a home of your own when you’re on the road, especially with kids in tow — which is why I chose to stay at a Vrbo home rental lovingly nicknamed Casa de Conejito, aka “little rabbit’s house.” This place is a gem, with an off-the-beaten-path energy that’s actually a mere few blocks’ walking distance from all the major must-sees of Marfa. Post up among the ocotillo cacti, hang out in the hammock, gather ’round the backyard fire pit, and pay your respects to the neighboring horse and crooked-grinning goat.
The Casa’s kitchen is fully equipped for family meals — plus a kitschy-chic collection of glassware that will make your backyard cocktails that much more fun. But little ones will agree on the best room in the house: The second (non-master) bedroom, with matching twin beds topped with map pillows depicting the Rio Grande in brightly colored embroidery, plus a dozen blush cabinets in which to hide toys and desert treasures alike. (My son is already asking to go back.)
Where to eat & drink
Marfa Burrito is everything a desert-weary family of harried travelers wants: few options, all of them delicious and affordable. It’s no fuss and no frills, all stick-to-your-ribs homemade. Kids (and kids at heart) are invited to graffiti Marfa Burrito’s courtyard walls with the Sharpies littering the ledges. While you wait for owner Ramona to cook up your order in her home kitchen (seriously, I’m 99% sure she lives here, please comment if you can confirm!) you can ogle the scrawled headshots of Kevin Bacon, Matthew McConaughey, Natalie Portman and more glitterati who, too, love a $7 burrito. When Ramona makes it, at least.
LaVenture at Hotel St. George offers wood-fired pizzas that please both/any generations of travelers, and you can get them to go, too — for that aforementioned backyard fire pit hang at your vacation rental. Another fantastic to-go or al fresco locale is Al Campo Wine Garden & Rustic Bistro, with easy online ordering and delivery (including wines by the bottle) if you want to stay in, and a gorgeously eclectic garden/patio dining situation for those who want to put the “social” back into social distancing. Queso, chips, and meat options are aplenty; veg are slim pickin’s, but what is on offer is superb. Do not leave Al Campo without ordering a cauli salad (or three).
The Marfa caffeine trifecta is made up of coffee shops The Sentinel, Frama, and Do Your Thing. My word nerd heart is partial to the former, housed in the same building as the local newspapers The Big Bend Sentinel and Presidio International. The Sentinel serves breakfast, lunch, coffee, cocktails, and snacks, until 4pm or 10pm — you know, depending on the day! (One thing to learn about Marfa: Shop hours are rarely what they seem.) Do Your Thing provides a quirkier vibe, its site and signage promising “coffee, toast, and magic — did we mention that we make perfume and candles?” and Frama‘s offerings are the simplest, with just coffees, teas, and ice cream my son demanded basically once a day while we were in town. All three coffeeshops, when I visited, had implemented COVID-19 precautions including no-contact online ordering, walk-up windows, outdoor seating, and (often artisanal) hand sanitizer on offer.
Where to shop
The Sentinel has its own delightful mini-shop offering wares such as natural incense and handmade pottery. The Marfa Store will let you get your town swag (water-tower-printed everything!) and locally-made art and fashion as well — including spare but adorable options in kid sizes. At Hotel Paisano’s gift shop — or shops, rather, as it appears to be many mini-shops scattered down a corridor of the hotel that all sort of meld into each other — you can get anything from art books on minimalism to cowpoke souvenirs to James Dean memorabilia to kids’ art supplies, toys, and storybooks about Donald Judd. It’s an astounding range of the elegance-to-kitsch spectrum that ensures there’s something for everyone in your group.
Want a fun and oh-so-Marfa parents’ night out (or just an hour off while you leave tweens and teens at wonderful family-owned Al Campo next door to dig into chips and queso)? Hit up Slowpoke Tattoo, in a converted airstream trailer behind Al Campo, for a stick-and-poke souvenir. The Slowpoke folks promise to send you away with a beautiful hand-poked tattoo that’s “a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.” If that ain’t a Marfa poem, we don’t know what is.
Another standout local shop is Cactus Liquors. Its COVID-safe drive-(or walk-)through, below, lets you shop for plants and tequila all at once, possibly my favorite concept shop of all time. We emerged with mezcal, “prairie bourbon,” plus more prickly pear cacti cuttings than we could carry — the latter gratis, courtesy of owner Faith Gay, who breezily gave us a rundown on Prickly Pear Propagating 101. It seemed impossible, but Faith was so confident we just had to try; two months and 1,183 miles later, my pricklies are thriving in their new home in Nashville. Because of course they are — how could I have ever doubted Faith?
Where to explore
Marfa is Marfa because of the Chinati Foundation. And Chinati is itself, of course, because of founder and celebrated American artist Donald Judd. Missouri-born Judd moved to Marfa from NYC via Mexico with his family in the 1970s. He peppered the desert here with his signature minimalist boxes — and also drew other art and artists, including light installations by fellow conceptualist Dan Flavin. Marfa’s one-woman Chamber of Commerce, Kaki Aufdengarten-Scott, told NPR that without Judd’s Chinati Foundation and the art tourism it brings, “this town would have dried up and blown away.” Chinati was one of the first U.S. museums to close, way back on March 12, 2020, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. It’s now reopened for self-guided walking tours only, but kids of all ages will love traipsing through the wide-open spaces to ogle the hulking sculptures. (Just beware of rattlesnakes — we didn’t see any, but you never know.)
Further afield is the ever-tempting Terlingua, a ghost town at the site of the defunct Chisos Mining Company, which filed for bankruptcy in 1942. Now, the town harbors tourists, trading posts, tequila, a famous chili cook-off — and, of course, plenty of restless spirits.
And speaking of ghosts, if you’re in Marfa in the next couple weeks, the aforementioned galactic yurt/vintage trailer hub El Cosmico is offering its own (haunted?!) pumpkin patch and haystack maze that’s bound to be a delight. Bring your littles and your face masks, and get spooky. Because if there’s anywhere that can make you feel like you’re traveling through time and space — to a Wild West Halloween harvest barn-raising among the constellations — it’s the marvel that is Marfa.
Keep little travelers safe and respectful in these kids face masks.