Five tepees came into view as I pulled into the parking lot of El Cosmico, a luxe bohemian hotel and campground in Marfa, Tex. The circular complex was dotted with yurts, safari tents and a rainbow of vintage trailers with names such as Battleship and ’49 Mansion, all for rent. Because the tepees were booked, I checked into a spacious safari tent with a comfortable double bed and electricity.
El Cosmico is one of Marfa’s many unique attractions. The small southwest Texas town, population about 1,700, was founded in 1883 as a railway water stop and became the seat of Presidio County two years later. A military camp established southwest of town in 1911 led to population growth and later became Fort D.A. Russell, which was decommissioned in 1946. These days, Marfa is a world-renowned art destination thanks to artist Donald Judd, who moved from New York in the 1970s when the town was in severe economic decline after boom-and-bust cycles in the cattle industry.
Judd was inspired by the landscape — the vast openness of the nearly mile-high plain in the Chihuahuan Desert — and was able to manifest his idea to create public large-scale permanent art installations. Many people were skeptical about the long-haired hippie that liked bagpipe music and building bonfires, but he later became one of the biggest employers in town. He bought several properties, including 34 buildings and 340 acres of the decommissioned Fort D.A. Russell grounds, which became the Chinati Foundation, a world-renowned contemporary art museum, in 1987. Although Judd repurposed buildings, he largely preserved the overall structural configurations and architectural qualities.
“Marfa made Judd as much as Judd made Marfa,” says Jenny Moore, the foundation’s director. “There’s a sense out here of possibility, but also, as long as nobody’s hurting anybody else, you’re kind of able to do your own thing. And there’s a spirit … of potential that I think is one of the reasons Marfa has become what it is.”
Even though the nearest commercial airport is about a three-hour drive away, tourism is the main industry in a town that doesn’t even have a proper stoplight; there are two flashing lights and a four-way stop. (Big Bend National Park is only 98 miles southeast.)
My late-April visit was my third trip to Marfa and coincided with the reopening of the recently restored John Chamberlain Building, named after the sculptor whose work fills the 23,000-square-foot space. Judd unified and adapted the structure, which was originally three separate 1940s warehouses for wool and mohair storage beside the railroad tracks, by adding quarter-panel windows and pivot doors, a sotol garden and an adobe-walled courtyard. It was the first permanent installation he opened to the public, in 1983, and one of 11 Judd buildings in the Central Marfa Historic District, a noncontiguous collection of 260 properties added to the National Register of Historic Places in late April. (Two buildings in the district were previously listed on the register in the 1970s.) One of the most notable aspects of the historically significant nomination is the recognition of Judd’s architectural and preservation work at the federal level for the first time.
I climbed to the dome of the peach-colored Presidio County Courthouse to get a better view of downtown and the landscape that influenced Judd. I gazed down at Highland Street, the central commercial street and focal point of the historic district, lined with buildings in an array of architectural styles, including the Art Deco-influenced Palace Theater and the Spanish baroque-style Hotel Paisano. A pastel-pink 1938 fire station across the street caught my eye, along with a silver water tower, one of the tallest structures in town, adorned with “MARFA” printed in black capital letters. The city was encircled by an endless blue sky and seemingly infinite desert scrublands.
To fully experience Judd’s work and vision, I took the Chinati Foundation’s full-collection tour. The guided 4.5-hour visit also explored the artwork of Dan Flavin, Robert Irwin and other artists. The most stunning installation was Judd’s 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, a series of 51-inch-tall rectangular boxes laid out symmetrically across the floor of two former artillery sheds. Judd had replaced roll-up garage doors with walls of square-quartered windows to allow the West Texas sun to create a beautiful shadow pattern among the artwork, which made the landscape feel like part of the experience.
The following day, I explored the plethora of galleries, art studios and shops spread across town, including Cobra Rock. In the sleek, modern space, partners Logan Caldbeck and Colt Miller handmake six styles of Western-inspired leather ankle boots and mules. Another favorite was Ballroom Marfa, a noncollecting contemporary art museum housed in a 1920s ballroom that commissions its own exhibitions. The museum’s most well-known installation is Prada Marfa, a permanent faux storefront by Berlin artists Elmgreen and Dragset, featuring items from Prada’s fall 2005 collection, located about 37 miles northwest of Marfa on a desolate stretch of highway.
Every morning, I went for a sunrise drive around town. Every corner of Marfa is photogenic, including the peeling Stardust Motel sign that towers over an empty lot on Highway 90 and the vintage cars scattered around town.
My favorite photo spot was Casita Bar at Food Shark — a large courtyard fenced in by a school bus and other vintage vehicles, including a neon-green Pontiac Tempest and rusted Plymouth Valiant with creepy mannequins in the seats. Inside the vehicle fence are a handful of tables and the lone Food Shark food truck, a Marfa eatery that was temporarily closed during my visit. Christmas lights were strung across cactus plants, and icicle lights dangled from the carport ceiling. I had heard rumors that the space was reopening after a pandemic hiatus, but every time I stopped by, there was a cardboard sign that read: “Closed until not. Thanks.”
After each sunrise drive, I headed to Marfa Burrito. Everything, including the tortillas and jalapeño salsa, is homemade at this house turned restaurant. The interior is filled with photos of owner Ramona Tejada with celebrity customers such as Matthew McConaughey and Kevin Bacon. Other culinary highlights in Marfa included the gigantic and delicious homemade bagel sandwiches at Aster Marfa (closed through July 27) and the butternut squash tacos from the Sentinel, a cafe located inside the headquarters of the two local newspapers, the Big Bend Sentinel and Presidio International. Planet Marfa, an outdoor dive bar with a courtyard centered around a tepee and a school bus, was my go-to spot to escape the afternoon heat with a cold beer.
On Friday afternoon, I drove to Convenience West, Marfa’s only barbecue joint, located in an old gas station and bus stop on the west side of town. Because Texas barbecue usually involves a line, I arrived 30 minutes before its scheduled 5 p.m. opening time. The menu was handwritten on brown paper on a stand beside two meat smokers. The Carrot Dip Dip appetizer alone was worth the nearly seven-hour drive from Austin. The fire-roasted carrots were mixed with red bell pepper, onion, roasted garlic, olive oil and apple cider vinegar, topped with toasted pepitas and cilantro before being served on a tray overflowing with Fritos. For my main course, I chose the equally delicious Brisket on a Bun sandwich slathered in Duke’s mayonnaise, hot-and-sweet sauce (a family recipe), and pickled onions with a side of sweet potato salad and cornbread.
After dinner, I explored the town’s biggest mystery, the Marfa lights, which appear between Marfa and Paisano Pass after dark. First documented in the 1880s, the lights can vary in color — white, blue, red — and often move around. The attraction is so famous that almost every bar in town has a drink named after the lights, and the Thunderbird Hotel has a large mural that reads, “See mystery lights.” There were over a dozen people at the Marfa Lights Viewing Area, a roadside complex about nine miles east of town, when I arrived. As the sun slipped below the horizon, a man pointed and yelled, “There they are!” Two white lights appeared in the distance, then disappeared and reappeared — too steady to be headlights and too infrequent to be a radio tower. Theories about the lights include UFOs and headlights, but whatever the explanation, it’s a fun mystery.
I drove back to Casita Bar at Food Shark to find the cardboard sign was gone, and a handful of people were sitting under the twinkling carport lights. I felt as if I was crashing a house party as I walked up to the kitchen window to order. I chatted with the proprietor, Chris, about Marfa — its problems (housing shortages, rising living costs) and its beauty (community and culture). I ordered a can of Lone Star beer and a homemade oatmeal cookie ice cream pie and slid into the seat of an old red diner booth in the corner next to a vintage TV stand wearing boots. The interior of the 1970s-style home was filled with more antique TV sets, and a fur-like carpet covered a portion of the floor and ceiling. As I devoured my tasty ice cream pie, I realized the funky, eclectic dive bar embodied the unconventional spirit of Marfa.
I wiped the ice cream off my fingers and headed out to explore more of Marfa, wishing bars everywhere served oatmeal ice cream pies.
If You Go
Where to stay
802 S. Highland Ave.
This funky campground and hotel complex features unique accommodation options, including tepees and vintage trailers. Spacious outdoor showers and toilets are provided for the lodging options without en suite facilities. Book in advance for the tepees, which feature a queen-size bed with a heated mattress pad. Self-camping is also permitted for $20 per person per night. Lodging options from $63 per night.
What to eat
1411 West San Antonio St.
Located west of town in a former gas station and bus stop, this barbecue joint was recently named one of the top 50 in the state by Texas Monthly magazine. Its menu includes brisket tacos, Frito pie and a mouthwatering brisket sandwich topped with hot-and-sweet sauce. Open Friday and Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m., for outdoor dining, but it often sells out by 7 or 8 p.m. Mains from $14.
Casita Bar at Food Shark
909 W. San Antonio St.
This eclectic dive bar is a collaboration between Marfa food truck Food Shark and Casita Bar, a bar located in a 1970s-era house with a large yard fenced in by vintage cars. The decor is Instagram-worthy: antique TVs, vintage diner booths and a spiderweb of Christmas lights. Although the Food Shark truck in the yard is temporarily closed, it has opened occasionally for seasonal events. Walk up to the kitchen window of Casita Bar to order a drink or a homemade oatmeal cookie ice cream pie. Open Friday and Saturday night starting at dusk. Snacks from $5.
515 S. Highland Ave.
Everything is homemade at this house turned restaurant. The exterior walls are covered with the signatures of past guests, while the interior walls have photos of owner Ramona Tejada with celebrities. This cash-only spot also has a large patio. Open Monday to Saturday, 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. Closed Sunday. Burritos from $7.
What to do
1 Cavalry Row
This contemporary art museum founded by Donald Judd is one of the most popular attractions in Marfa. It’s located on the grounds of a former military base, Fort D.A. Russell, where buildings were repurposed to house permanent art installations. There are two guided tours and a self-guided outdoor viewing tour. Open Thursday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tours from $15 per adult.
108 E. San Antonio St.
This noncollecting art space housed in a 1920s ballroom specializes in commissioning work from living artists. Its most well-known and photographed installation is Prada Marfa, a faux storefront of a Prada store located northwest of town. Open Thursday to Saturday, noon to 6 p.m. Free.
211 S. Dean St.
Partners Logan Caldbeck and Colt Miller handmake Western-inspired leather ankle boots and mules in different leather options using the same techniques as small-shop cowboy boot markers. Cutting, crimping and sewing are done in the space behind the storefront, which also features accessories and the work of other independent designers. Because of high demand, there’s a four-to-six-month wait for preorders, which can be placed online. Open Wednesday to Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.