Located in south central Arizona 160 miles southeast of Phoenix in a valley along the cottonwood-lined Santa Cruz River, Tubac describes itself as a place where “art and history meet.” This small community has an impressive collection of galleries, studios, one-of-a-kind shops, and dining options. Tubac was established in 1752 as a Spanish presidio, the first colonial fortress in what is now Arizona.
Here are just a few of the incredible things that are waiting you in Tubac.
Tubac started to developed as an art colony in the 1930s and 1940s. Dale Nichols, a painter and illustrator best known for his rural landscape paintings, played a significant role in shaping Tubac’s evolution into an art center. In 1948, he bought and restored a number of Tubac’s historic buildings and opened an art school.
Today, this village of about 1,500 people has over 100 galleries, studios, and shops, all within easy walking distance of each other. You’ll find an eclectic and high quality selection of art and artisan works that includes paintings, sculpture, pottery, metal work, hand-painted tiles, photography, jewelry, weaving, and hand-carved wooden furniture.
It’s not just the goods inside the shops that are pretty. The village of restored buildings and landscaped walkways is a delight to walk through. There are old, red brick buildings and adobes with wood beams jutting out near the top. Wood pillars support terracotta-tiled roofs to create covered walkways in front of buildings. Pillars, as well as door and window trim, are painted in bright hues of blue, turquoise, yellow or red. Mexican tiles decorate buildings. Hidden courtyards contain more shops or bits of historical information.
High-desert vistas and views of the Santa Rita Mountains form a backdrop. Scenic views to inspire the creative spirit. It is easy to see how artists would be drawn to Tubac’s combination of stunning landscape and history. Tubac is said to have “good lighting” for an artist.
Tubac Festival of the Arts debuted in 1964. The annual five-day February event is now Arizona’s longest running festival, attracting thousands of visitors each day. The juried show features 150 to 200 artists from all over the country. Booths line village streets that are blocked to vehicular traffic. The festival also features musicians and roving entertainers. The festival is free but there is a charge for parking. Horse-drawn trolleys ferry people to and from parking lots and throughout the town.
The celebratory atmosphere associated with the festival and the diverse selection of artwork make this a special time to visit Tubac, but note that it can be busy. Visiting and resident artists display their works in harmony. You can weave your way past temporary booths and into and out of permanent shops as you walk through the village, but you may also want to consider visiting at another, quieter time to properly appreciate the resident galleries and shops.
The area around Tubac is believed to have been inhabited for over 11,000 years. The Spanish Colonial Era began when Jesuit missionary Father Kino came to the Santa Cruz Valley in 1691. By 1731, Tubac was a mission farm and ranch. The Spanish established a fort in 1752. The site of that former fort is now a state historic park.
If you go to Tubac Presidio State Historic Park expecting to see the remains of the Spanish fort, you will be disappointed. Most of the remains are underground. But there is much about this park that makes it worth visiting.
Excavated portions of the walls, foundation, and floor of the Commandant’s quarters can be viewed from an underground archaeological exhibit. Outdoor patio exhibits show how people lived, cooked, and worked in Spanish colonial times. The Park is home to three buildings on the National Register of Historic Places: an 1885 schoolhouse that is the third oldest in Arizona, Otero Hall, built as a community center in 1914 and now housing a collection of paintings; and a mid-20th century adobe vernacular row house.
A Museum on the grounds showcases the timeline of human settlement, with information about the Native American, Spanish Colonial, Mexican Republic, and Territorial Eras. Among the variety of artifacts, you’ll find ancient pottery, Spanish cookware, mining tools, nineteenth century costumes, and the original Washington Printing Press that printed Arizona’s first newspaper in 1859.
Tubac Presidio State Historic Park is open every day except Christmas Day from 9 am to 5 pm.
Tubac is located 40 miles south of Tucson off Interstate 17. You may feel as if you are entering another country when you notice the distances on highway signs are in kilometers, not miles, but you are still in the United States. Tubac is about 24 miles from the Mexican border and you will likely encounter a border check stop just north of Tubac on your way back to Phoenix.
If you are interested in exploring more of the area around Tubac, Tumacácori National Historic Park, which preserves the ruins of three Spanish mission communities, is less than five miles from Tubac.