It’s easy to find the magic in Marfa, Texas.
By Niki Jones, Photos by Carrin Welch
The air is crisp and a slight breeze blows from the north. The temperature seems to be dropping by the second. It’s quiet but for the occasional sound of a passing vehicle on the highway. The moon is bright and the clouds are shaped like pieces of broken glass.
It’s five minutes to midnight and I’m standing in the desert in Marfa, Texas, gazing out into the darkness, searching for the famous Marfa Lights. I’ve traveled to this fabled destination to see if I could get a dose of enlightenment, some otherworldly feeling that just doesn’t exist in the daily grind of city life in Austin. It seemed like a pretty promising quest, as the traffic of Austin (Yes, there was still traffic, even at 6 a.m. on a Saturday.) faded as I headed west on Interstate 10. As I drove, the warm light of the early morning sun glinted off the passing white limestone cliffs that hugged the road, and a dense fog hung low in the valleys.
I rolled into Marfa, a dusty town of 2,000 people, give or take, and was struck by how small, calm and quiet it was. In the center of town, Hotel Saint George stood like a modern, minimalist beacon. Inside, the décor was a designer’s dream, with every detail well thought out, from the concrete floors and the exposed-brick lobby right through to the design of the large guest room, which featured open shelving, charcoal-colored walls and a white-tiled bathroom stocked with luxury products. I didn’t want to leave, but there was a whole world outside the hotel to explore.
I started my day off exploring right outside, on the square in front of the pink-hued county courthouse. While not numerous, the shops on the square are certainly unique, like Ranch Candy, with its offerings of retro candy-store classics and local art. Owner Joe Pat Clayton chatted me up and directed me to the Wrong Store, a cool warehouse space filled with an eclectic mix of art pieces, including some in mediums I had never seen before. I then set foot in Cobra Rock, a local boot company with a quaint retail space that features handmade leather footwear, in addition to unique clothing and accessories fashioned by independent designers and local artists.
Clayton wasn’t the only helpful local in directing me to can’t-miss Marfa spots. Ruben, our friendly server in the Hotel Saint George lobby bar, recommended The Capri for drinks as he set the most delicious tacos alambre and vegetarian potato cheddar soup in front of me.
The Capri, a stunning wood- and glass-composed building, half of which is a bar and the other half an event space, evokes an otherworldly feeling as soon as you approach. Its surrounding gardens, with private fire pits scattered throughout and a large patio, are just the beginning. Once I entered the dimly lit, high-ceiling bar, the intoxicating scent of burning copal—a tree resin from Mexico—greeted me, setting a sultry mood for the bar’s interesting craft cocktails and gorgeous cheeseboards.
While the essence of copal was present in other spots throughout town, so was the delicious fire-and-smoke scent of a campfire, especially at El Cosmico, a “nomadic hotel and campground,” where guests can choose to stay in tents, teepees, yurts or vintage trailers, all on the 21-acre property. It was a Saturday when I scoped out the place. Fire pits flashed near hot tubs, and a karaoke party was in full swing.
For breakfast in the chilly, quiet Marfa morning, life didn’t get much better than tucking in next to the free-standing fireplace in the middle of Do Your Thing, a coffee spot that makes everything in-house from scratch, including sublime bread, which is sliced thick, toasted and topped with an array of sweet and savory items. A simple combination of butter, honey and sea salt made for a heavenly piece of toast.
One Marfa experience that’s an absolute must is a visit to the Chinati Foundation, a world-class art museum founded by artist Donald Judd that features large-scale works from renowned artists. Set on the former cavalry base of Camp Albert, the 340-acre location is quite the sight to see, and guided tours of the art are recommended. My tour guide, a fiction writer named Gretel, made my two-and-a-half-hour tour of half the collection (Full-collection guided tours take more than four hours.) a very fun-filled, interactive experience. Gretel had her own recommendation to offer me: Catch the Sunday-night reading of Marfa’s writer-in-residence and attend the reception afterward.
I took her advice, and as I sat in the charming Crowley Theater, riveted by the writer’s tale and among 40 friendly and extremely welcoming locals, I realized I was in love with Marfa. While the places I visited certainly were magical, it was the people I met that I found most otherworldly and enlightening.
- Go during an off time of year. The slower pace, found November through February, allows more interaction with the locals and there are no long lines in the smaller shops.
- If you visit Prada Marfa, take a detour through Fort Davis to see some of the most magnificent landscapes in Texas. You get bonus points if you catch the scenery at sunset.
- Visit the gift shops. The collection of Marfa-themed items spread throughout town is well-curated and many items don’t seem to be available anywhere else:
- Hotel Paisano gift shop, 207 Highland St., hotelpaisano.com
- Marfa Book Company, 105 S. Highland Ave., marfabookco.com
- El Cosmico gift shop, 802 S. Highland Ave., elcosmico.com
- Ballroom Marfa gift shop, 108 E. San Antonio St., ballroommarfa.org
- Chinati Foundation gift shop, 1 Cavalry Row, chinati.org