Even though Ajo, Arizona, is located along a well-traveled tourist route that leads to a popular Mexican beach destination, the historic mining town has the feel of a hidden gem.
With the Sea of Cortez beach town of Puerto Penasco beckoning just 2 hours down the road, drivers often overlook Ajo’s lovely white-stucco plaza and numerous colorful murals as they hurry through the little southern-Arizona town.
Until recently, I was among them, making only quick stops in Ajo as I headed toward beach getaways. Although I had always admired Ajo’s beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival-style town center, I had never stopped to explore. On a recent road trip, I decided to take a closer look.
What I found was a community rich with the history of three distinct nations, a thriving arts community, stunningly beautiful desert terrain, a unique place to sleep, and a warm, sunny winter climate.
At less than 2 hours southwest of Phoenix and just over 2 hours west of Tucson, Ajo makes for a convenient Arizona road trip. And there is more than enough for a perfect day, or even a weekend.
Here are 11 excellent things to do in Ajo.
1. Stroll The Historic Townsite Plaza
Any visit to Ajo should begin with a walk around the gorgeous Ajo Townsite Historic District. You’re sure to spot the white buildings and towering palm trees as you drive through town on Highway 85.
In the center of it all is the historic Ajo Plaza, complete with grassy areas, benches, and vintage street lamps. The plaza dates back to 1917 when businessman John Campbell Greenway bought the mining interests in the area and became general manager of the Calumet and the Arizona Mining Company. The townsite’s graceful arches and stucco buildings are said to have been built under the direction of Greenway’s wife, Isabella.
The best way to explore is to park in the ample spaces provided around the plaza and wander along the shaded walkways. Anchoring the plaza is the historic Ajo Train Depot that features beautifully tiled arches and alcoves. The old depot currently houses the Ajo Visitor Center and Chamber of Commerce office.
While the plaza is beautiful in the daytime sun, it is perhaps at its best at sunset, when the white buildings are often set off by an orange-hued sky.
Pro Tip: Although ajo is the Spanish word for garlic, experts say the town’s name likely originated with the word for paint (o’oho) from the region’s Tohono O’odham people, who obtained red paint pigments from the area.
2. Check Out The Heart Of Ajo’s Artist Community
Just a short walk southwest from the Ajo Plaza is the Curley School Artisan Apartment building that houses 30 live/work apartment rentals for artists, artisans, and creative home businesses. The 1919-era building once served as a public school and was restored as an art center in 2007.
The building was not open to the public when I visited, but it is definitely worth a walk-by for its imposing Spanish Colonial Revival-style architecture and charming grounds.
3. Walk Down Artists Alley
A short distance southeast of the Ajo Plaza is the cool lane known as Artists Alley. All along the alley, the backs of buildings are adorned with colorful murals depicting various Southwestern U.S., Mexican, and Native American images.
It pays to wander beyond Artists Alley as well and take in the many other buildings around the downtown area that feature the work of the town’s active artist community. Some not-to-be-missed murals include the blue-hued desert-and-music scene on the Ajo Copper News building, the dramatic panorama on the side of the 3 Nations Market, and the buildings fronting the pretty Ajo Park.
Pro Tip: A self-guided tour is available in an Ajo Chamber of Commerce PDF brochure.
4. Take A Break At Oasis Coffee
As you make your way around the plaza, be sure to check out the adorable Oasis Coffee, which is housed in the town’s old movie theater.
Today, rather than popcorn, you can get your morning coffee along with a range of delicious pastries. The atmosphere of the coffee shop, with its original black-and-white tile floors and a vintage marquee, is a definite highlight.
Along with its indoor seating in the old theater lobby, the coffee shop also offers outdoor seating under the plaza awnings.
5. Browse 3nations Market ARTs
Bringing together the cultures of the region’s three nations -- the Tohono O’odham people, the United States, and Mexico -- the 3nations Market ARTs features more than 40 vendors offering art, upcycled items, and reused items.
The exterior walls of the warehouse-like building serve as a canvas for an assortment of creative murals. Be sure to walk all the way around the building to get the full impact of the wall of murals.
6. Visit The Ajo Museum
Located in the old St. Catherine’s Indian Mission, the Ajo Historical Society Museum exhibits many artifacts and mementos from Ajo’s history.
The museum has limited hours from late October through late May. But even if it is closed, it is worth a visit to take in the rugged desert setting and the fascinating mining memorabilia displayed outside.
7. Learn The Copper Mining History
For decades, Ajo was first and foremost a mining town. That history is front and center at the Ajo Mine Lookout Facility.
Spread just beyond a chain-link fence at the center is a panoramic view of the open-pit mine (now inactive), which is nearly 2 miles across and 1,100 feet deep.
Along with the view, visitors have access to photos and personal accounts of the mining history from the volunteers inside the center. When I visited, I was able to talk to a volunteer docent who had worked in the mine before it closed in the 1980s.
8. Explore Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Among Ajo’s main distinctions is its proximity to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument -- the only place in the United States to take in large stands of the monument’s namesake organ pipe cactus.
At just a 15-minute drive away, Ajo makes a great base for exploring the 517-square-mile national monument.
Among the best things to check out at the monument are the Ajo Mountain Scenic Drive, the Double Arch Trail, and the Desert View Trail. Plan to stop at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center upon arrival at the monument to get recommendations from the informative attendants about recreational and camping options.
9. Have Dinner At Agave Grill
Sit-down dinner choices are fairly limited in Ajo, but one of the spots to get hearty fare in an outdoor or indoor setting is the Agave Grill. With a range of burger, seafood, and sandwich selections, the Agave Grill is known for its friendly service.
Another spot for dinner, Tacos El Tarasco, can be found in the town plaza area. The restaurant specializes in authentic Mexican cuisine, such as breakfast burritos in the morning and carne asada tacos with house-made pico de gallo for lunch or dinner.
10. Stay At The Sonoran Desert Inn
For a fascinating and comfortable place to stay the night, don’t miss the Sonoran Desert Inn and Conference Center -- a 1940s-era elementary school that has been renovated into a unique inn.
The rooms, with their nearly floor-to-ceiling windows, are sure to take you back to your days of sitting in grade-school classrooms. But rather than cramped school desks, you are surrounded by creative artwork and modern hotel touches.
The school buildings look out onto a large courtyard, where you’ll find vegetable gardens, fruit trees, and more examples of Ajo’s unique art.
The inn is a project of the innovative International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA), which designed the renovation with a “Southwestern Industrial” aesthetic. “At the International Desert Alliance, we design and implement environmental, cultural, real estate, and business development projects intended to preserve and enrich the environment, culture, and economy of the Sonoran Desert,” says the alliance’s website.
11. Take A Trip To The Sea Of Cortez
Although Ajo is a great stop along Highway 85, the main attraction in the region lies 2 hours to the southwest on the Sea of Cortez. Ajo is situated about 45 miles north of the United States/Mexico border and about 100 miles from Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point), the perennial beach favorite of Arizonans.
What was once a small fishing town has evolved into a popular beach resort town. Puerto Penasco, located in northwestern Sonora, Mexico, is known as an excellent spot for ocean fishing, water sports, and relaxing on the beach.
(Note: Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, restrictions have been in place on non-essential travel between the U.S. and Mexico. Before heading to Mexico, be sure to check for information about the status of Lukeville, the port of entry.)
Pro Tip: Winter, with average high temperatures in the 60-to-70-degree range, is a wonderful time to explore Ajo. Late fall and early spring are also good times to visit, with temperatures in the 70s and 80s. Summer is typically hot in Ajo, with high temperatures averaging above 100 degrees in July, July, and August.