Part of the fun of some of our trips is often ending up somewhere random and Marfa, Texas was one of those. Unless you live in Texas, are into the modern art, or religiously watched every episode of Parts Unknown, chances are you probably have never heard of this small West Texas town in the Trans-Pecos high desert.
After watching the West Texas episode of Parts Unknown, we not only found out about Marfa but became intrigued by it and quickly looked up how we could get here and realized it wouldn’t be easy and so we dismissed the idea of planning a visit.
In this post, we share information about our trip to Marfa and some tips to help you plan one too.
Marfa has an estimated population of 1,714. It is located approximately 195 miles South-East from El Paso, approximately 430 miles West of Austin, and approximately 520 miles South-West of Dallas.
Temperatures in Marfa are mostly dry due to the desert setting but they do vary between cool to extremely hot. When we were there, it was 103 Fahrenheit.
While Marfa was founded in the 1880s as a railroad water stop, it has continued to evolve to become known for different things, including the mysterious Marfa lights that were first mentioned in 1883. In 1930, it was home to the Chemical Warfare Brigades and during WWII an airfield was built but these were closed shortly after which led to an exodus of people. In 1956, James Dean’s “Giant” with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor was filmed here and in 1971, Donald Judd moved to Marfa from New York City and thus began the transformation of this little town into a world renowned art oasis.
More information about Marfa: https://www.visitmarfa.com/history-of-marfa-texas/
The Flights: We flew on the red-eye from SEA – Seattle-Tacoma Airport to DFW – Dallas-Fort Worth Airport on Alaska Airlines and onwards to ELP – El Paso Airport on American Airlines. For the return trip, we flew from ELP to SEA on Alaska Airlines. We earned 3,580 status miles and 4,500 usable miles.
The drive: We rented a car and drove to and from Marfa from ELP. We actually enjoyed the drive due to the scenery and listening to the playlist we put together for the drive. Overall, it’s pretty easy to drive on I-10 but it is a major corridor for transport trucks which makes it a little nerve racking at times. After branching off for the 90, its 2 lanes all the way and very little traffic. We did go through a US CBP checkpoint in Sierra Blanca but we did not have to wait too long and just answered a few questions before being flagged through.
Our accommodation: There are about 4 hotels in Marfa and we decided to stay Hotel Saint George. The Thunderbird Hotel looked interesting as a renovated motel but the reviews had us rethinking that. In the end, we really enjoyed staying at Hotel Saint George; the rooms were really nice and comfortable, they have Aesop toiletries, and guests have access to Bar Nadar, the pool club/bar across the road. Marfa is not a big town and you can pretty much walk the whole town in about 15 minutes but we liked Hotel Saint George’s location in the heart of the town. The hotel has a cute bookstore, a restaurant, and bar but the gym was closed due to key issues (which we thought was weird). As for Bar Nadar, the best time to go is in the morning when it’s quiet and the music isn’t playing; it is a bit of a scene pool but its adults-only most of the time so no screaming kids at least. We also found the water temperature to be perfect; not too warm and not too cold, it was refreshing and comfortable.
They have a good happy hour at the bar and Max enjoyed finding out more about Marfa by reading the the material they leave in the guestroom: the latest issue of the community newspaper The Sentinel and Lonn Taylor’s “Marfa for the Perplexed”. If there was one thing about the bar at Hotel Saint George that we didn’t care for, it’s the televisions; we understand this is a popular fixture in the US but it does tale away from the atmosphere and experience of being there.
Out and About:
As mentioned, Marfa is a small town and we only had one night so we didn’t get to explore the area as much as we would have liked; we didn’t see the Marfa Lights (not sure if they were visible when we were there), we didn’t get to hike in Big Bend Park, swim in Balmorhea State Park Pool (world’s largest spring fed pool), visit the Chinati Foundation (where Don Judd’s permanent art installation in the desert is located) or go to Alpine or Big Bend.
It was also somewhat difficult planning things due to the irregular hours of businesses in Marfa; many places close early (if they open at all), are closed on Sundays, or are closed to host private events. That being said, we did get to visit a few places on our list, like Al Campo for dinner, the Water Stop for lunch, the Lost Horse Saloon for beers and karaoke (…and to toast to Anthony Bourdain!), both Do Your Thing and The Sentinel for coffee, and the Prada Marfa art installation outside of town in Valentine. We also just enjoyed walking around this small little town to take it all in. Both Capri Marfa and Convenience West were closed during our visit. Convenience West would have been top 50 BBQ #13 for us!!
There is a lot of selfies and photos in general taken in Marfa; it’s hard not to get swept up in it due to how odd the place feels at times and how photogenic it actually is. One really popular photo op spot is Prada Marfa. Interestingly, the Prada Marfa art installation is not actually in Marfa, it’s actually close to 40 miles away in Valentine which looks a little like a ghost town. As people who live minimalist lifestyles and don’t purchase a lot of consumer goods, Prada Marfa resonated with us and its commentary on Western consumerism/materialism. The structure is actually built of an adobe type biodegradable material and will eventually be absorbed back into the earth. Prada Marfa looks like any other Prada store you will find anywhere in the world, minus the vandalism as not everyone is enthused by its presence. We took photos as one does and moved on.
The nostalgia we felt during this ephemeral visit to a place in the middle of nowhere was definitely spellbinding. We felt so far and removed from our daily life and some of other trips while also feeling familiarity for something we couldn’t quite put our finger on.
Max spent a lot of time in small towns in her youth and there was some familiarity but then there wasn’t; Marfa has its own radio station (KRTS, Marfa Public Radio), a community newspaper that is also a café and cocktail bar (a visit to The Sentinel is a must!), an Agave Festival that brings in thousands of people, numerous art and lifestyle shop with things you’d expect to find in large cities, a custom scent journey where you can create your own fragrance in a café, restaurants that remind you of Tulum Mexico, a tavern that hosts outdoor karaoke on Saturday nights and also features musicians that we would love to see play live like Justin Peter Kinkel-Schuster, in addition to a gas station that also serves tacos (Laredo Tacos).
Marfa seems to be an outpost for people who want to get away from things as it draws a diverse crowd of people. One also cannot deny how the popularity has also affected existing residents too by increasing overall living costs especially when it comes to property taxes and the challenges of funding education in such a remote place. All of this is going on in the backdrop of tourists who flock to the town and spend considerable amounts of money to be there. We really did feel like outsiders in Marfa and did our best to not disturb the order of things or annoy the locals, who might get annoyed of these outsiders coming to their town.
Max ended up reading Lonn Taylor’s “Marfa for the Perplexed” cover to cover during our short visit which helped to explain a lot of things. Even if you are not visiting Marfa, it is an interesting read as it explains why people chose to relocate there and all the history of the place.
This was one of those trips that was adrenaline driven due to sleep deprivation and having so little time, but it was worth it in every way. We wish we would have had at least one extra night in Marfa; 1 night was too little but anything more than 3 night might be too much, at least for us.
Donald Judd passed through Marfa when he was in the Army Corps of Engineers in 1946 and sent a telegram to his mom about “beautiful country and mountains” and 30 years later, moved to Marfa and found a home for his art. We may have passed through and spent a short amount of time in Marfa, but we still feel the pull of the place and hope to visit again one day. We can understand why he felt the way he did about this little obscure town.
Have you ever been to Marfa? Are you interested in visiting Marfa?
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