And the best small town in all the Southwest, a region spanning California to west Texas, is …
That’s right, and this is no “La La Land” whoops moment.
Ajo, a quiet, isolated community in southwestern Arizona, bested some tourism heavyweights to finish atop USA Today’s 10Best Reader’s Choice Best Southwestern Small Town poll, according to results revealed April 28.
Ajo, for those unfamiliar with the former mining town (that would be almost everyone), is about 110 miles southwest of Phoenix, surrounded by millions of acres of Sonoran Desert. It’s about 15 miles north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
About 3,000 people live there, according to Wikipedia, and Google Earth shows a lovely Mexican-style plaza at its heart that contains, among other things, the Ajo post office and a resale shop. Yelp lists eight Ajo restaurants, topped by a four-star restaurant noted for its burgers and craft-beer selection.
Ajo (pronounced AH-ho) looks charming. The gleaming white domes and turrets of the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church rise opposite the plaza, a grassy palm-lined space that hosts several special events every year. The grand and historic Curley School Campus also overlooks the plaza, its buildings imaginatively redesigned as well-appointed apartments, an inn and a conference center.
Still, the selection begs questions: Is Ajo (Spanish for garlic) really better than Taos, N.M., known for its skiing and historic Taos Pueblo? Or Carmel, Calif., an arts colony perched along a stunning coastline? Or Bisbee, a laid-back charmer with a picturesque downtown and vibrant arts scene?
A majority of voters said, “Absolutely.” And Bo Johnson, executive director of the Ajo Chamber of Commerce, enthusiastically agrees.
“It’s validation,” he said. “We’ve always thought as ourselves as No. 1, and now someone else finally knows we are. It’s such a unique community and it’s great to see it getting some recognition.”
Johnson said Ajo is slowly being discovered by birdwatchers, mountain bikers and stargazers. Though it does have its tourism challenges, including a not-very-convenient location in the midst of a lot of nowhere.
“I’ve met a lot people who have no idea where we are unless they drove through on the way to Rocky Point,” Johnson said. “But that’s changing. We’re coming into our own.”
USA Today 10Best editors considered more than 70 towns with populations less than 10,000, and narrowed those down to 20 for the vote. According to 10best.com, nominees were “travel-worthy for their beauty, culture, shopping, dining, entertainment and lodging options.”
Johnson credited strong local support for Ajo’s remarkable finish as residents were urged to vote once daily, as allowed by rules. Use of automated voting systems (scripts, bots and such) were prohibited, and nominees were not allowed to offer prizes or other inducements to vote. You know, in case you were wondering.
“I hope this means more people will stop in Ajo,” Johnson said. “And not just to purchase Mexican insurance for crossing the border.”
USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Best Southwestern Small Towns
3. Virginia City, Nev.
4. Cloudcroft, N.M.
5. Madrid, N.M.
6. Taos, N.M.
7. Creede, Colo.
8. Genoa, Nev.
10. Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif.