Sunday Driver: Coffee In Arivaca

Jim Burroway

August 30th, 2009

Coffee shops have been springing up all over the world, with Starbucks leading the way in the commodification of the beverage. But there are still plenty of coffee shops which offer a uniquely enjoyable experience, either by their service, flavor or setting.

One such coffee shop is in a most unlikely location, on a little-traveled road in the middle of the nowhere. The Gadsen Coffee Company’s Cafe Aribac, just outside of Arivaca AZ, is one of our favorite places to spend an afternoon, although we rarely get to go there because it’s so far out of the way from where we live in Tucson. To get there, you leave the city far behind and head south toward the Mexican border, get off the Interstate at Amado, and go west on Arivaca road, a winding country road that dips and swerves through the hills and brush of the Sonoran Desert.

It’s a winding, 25-mile drive from Amado that takes close just under an hour, but the result is worth it. I can guarantee that there is no more peaceful, restful place in the world to enjoy a cup of joe and homemade desert than on Cafe Aribac’s front porch. The Buddhist prayer banners flutter in the breeze, hummingbirds buzzing around the feeders, and the peaceful desert vistas and mountains rising all around.

My partner and I found the coffee shop quite by accident, and we came to it from the opposite direction. We were taking one of our many wandering weekend drives one day alongside the Baboquivari mountains just to the west, when we decided it would be nice to find a way to cut across the San Luis mountains to the east in order to catch I-19 home. The only road going through was Arivaca Road, so off we went.

When we reached the road’s namesake less than halfway across to the interstate, we found a village caught in a time warp. The town itself is barely a couple of blocks long, and some of it looks little changed from the days of the Gadsden Purchase. There didn’t seem to be a whole lot to do there, so we continued on our journey. And that’s where we found the coffee shop, not even a mile outside of the other side of town.

That’s where we learned that there’s a whole lot more to Arivaca than meets the eye. It was originally a Pima Indian settlement, then a Mexican Land Grant ranch know as La Aribac. After the Gadsden Purchase, it was an outpost for the Buffalo Soldiers, and then a small settlement for European and Mexican miners and ranch hands. The late 1960’s saw the arrival of several bands of hippies. I don’t know how they fit in with the more traditionally-minded ranching culture, but they stayed and started a few small businesses in the area.

Arivaca is typically very tranquil, but tranquility is not synonymous with boredom. Arivaca has found itself caught up with an influx immigration and drug smuggling activities, along with a larger Border Patrol presence. That has everyone just a little bit on edge. To add to their worries, a family was attacked just last May by an offshoot of the nativist Minutemen hate group. The father and his nine-year-old daughter were killed. The mother and another daughter escaped.

But before you worry about whether Arivaca is changing, just remember where it came from. It’s been here long before the latest troubles edged their way in from outside, and it’ll still be here long after those troubles recede. Just sit back and sip some coffee, and take in the expansive view at that little cafe, and you’ll rediscover that truth all over again.

Like I said, we rarely go there because it’s so out of the way. Locals like to say “If you found Arivaca, then you’re really lost.” But if you want to get lost, it’s probably as good a place as any. Sometimes losing yourself is the best way to find yourself in this fast-paced right-this-instant-messaging world we’ve made for ourselves. Some retreat to sanctuaries or monasteries. Chris and I, when we are particularly stressed, are more likely to say, “How about a coffee in Arivaca?”

And why not? Whatever you’re looking for in a sanctuary or monastery is right there in Arivaca. There, you will see both permanence and impermanence existing side by side. You’ll see delicate beauty in a harsh landscape, harsh strength in a delicate people, and unassailable truths in a confusing world. Arivaca is barely a blink on a windy desert road, but it is a blink that has outlasted generations, centuries and nations. In that way, Arivaca is both different and indifferent: it can take us or leave us. We could all go to Arivaca only to leave it behind again, but it will always be there. One way or another, it will always be there.


August 30th, 2009

I’m finally at the point myself where I’m learning that “tranquility is not synonymous with boredom.”

Thanks for a great post. It sounds like a wonderful, beaufiful place.


August 30th, 2009

Sounds like an interesting area…historical and countercultural.

Christopher Waldrop

August 31st, 2009

The line “tranquility is not synonymous with boredom” reminded me of the time I went to French Lick, IN, which I found to be a fascinating place. I told a friend how much I’d enjoyed it when I got back and he said, “You must have a high tolerance for boredom.” He obviously misunderstood what I was trying to tell him, which was that it was a place with an incredible history that I really enjoyed learning about while I was there. Had it not been for the dog show I probably never would have heard of French Lick, or at least never thought of it as a place I’d like to go, but I went with an open mind and discovered it had so much to offer.


May 27th, 2010

Hello Jim,
I received some pics in an email recently that showed the Sonoran desert in it’s current state…A wash running through it strewn with backpacks and garbage and refuse from border crossers and it made me feel ill.I had to look up Arivaca once again since I had been there on a trip to Tucson about 30 years ago and when I read your article it was a perfect description of the feeling of the sit up in the hills and just enjoy the silence alone was amazing to me…I remember hearing a sound like waves washing ashore and then being struck in the face by a gentle breeze…you could actually hear it coming…amazing place…and then after a few hours in the desert Pina Blanca where they had a resort with cold beer and a nice dip in the lake ..thanks for writing this …I actually had to look at my pictures from the trip back then…
Thanks again
Kevin G.

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