Tucked away on Route 85, between Gila Bend and Sonoyta, sits Ajo. This charming town is a hidden gem for anyone interested in hiking, biking, desert flora and fauna, stargazing, gardening, art, history, architecture…you name it! There’s something for everyone here, if you take the time to stop – which Ajoites hope you will, on your way to and from Rocky Point.
Now there’s another reason to stop in Ajo:
The new Sonoran Desert Conference Center on the historic Curley School campus. This 1940s elementary school has been transformed by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) into a destination for conferences, retreats, family events, and weekend getaways. With 16 spacious guestrooms and five more to be completed this summer, the Center can accommodate groups from one to 50 guests.
The Center also has a full commercial kitchen. Groups may choose from a list of local caterers for meals, and will be amazed at the versatility of chefs living in Ajo – there’s a barbeque pitmaster, barbacoa and tamale experts, and a baker specializing in jalapeno bread, to name a few. These options and more can be tailored for a feast under the stars in the Center’s courtyard or in the air-conditioned indoor dining space. Guests can also opt to eat in town at local spots like Oasis Café (try the Pima Club), Marcella’s (get the chilaquiles at breakfast), or 100 Estrella (the craft beers perfectly complement their juicy burgers). All are a short walk or drive from the Conference Center.
The Conference Center staff, led by Co-Directors Stuart Siegel and Emily Raine, are busy designing a menu of educational, cultural, and culinary options for guests, all centered around the unique environment of the Sonoran Desert and Ajo’s tri-cultural (Anglo, Mexican, and Tohono O’odham) community. These will include mountain biking tours, cooking demonstrations, art classes, archaeological excursions, and golf cart tours of Ajo’s historical sites, gardens, and public art. “Ajo is a one-of-a-kind place,” explains Siegel. “There are intriguing things to discover here, and we’re excited to connect visitors with them.”
“We’ve been stopping for gas in Ajo for years on our way to our house in Rocky Point, and never realized what a fascinating town it is,” says Tucson resident Lauren Bosmeny, who recently participated in a walking tour of Ajo’s historic center. “We’re excited to come back for an overnight stay at the Conference Center!”
Four large conference rooms are available to guests for meetings and workshops, as well as access to an on-site clay studio, wood shop, and an indoor/outdoor performance venue at the adjacent Curley School Artisan Apartments. In March this space hosted performances by artists Verbo*bala and Kimi Maeda and a concert by Tohono O’Odham musicians the Lopez Band, among others, as part of Ajo’s 1st Community Arts Gathering. These artists stayed at the Conference Center and found it a delightful space to connect with one another and get inspired. “The Conference Center rooms are beautiful and very comfortable, which really added to the experience. It gave us the feeling of being on a (much needed) mini-retreat or residency,” says Tucson-based artist Logan Phillips of Verbo*bala.
One of the most unique features of the Center are the gardens, orchards, and chickens housed in its picturesque courtyard. They are part of the Many Hands Farm and Learning Center, designed and managed by the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture (ACSA), leaders in the local food movement in Ajo. Conference Center guests are encouraged to join in the ongoing work and educational sessions in the gardens. Opportunities for special workshops and a fall Pomegranate Festival are in the works as well. “There are many ways Conference Center guests can get involved with our work,” says ACSA Director Nina Sajovec, “and we welcome the experience they bring from other parts of the world to help us build a sustainable and just food system in Ajo.”
The Conference Center is also proving to be hit with locals. “We loved having our wedding here,” says Stacy Bryant, an Ajo native who now lives in Phoenix. “Our friends and family who stayed at the Conference Center loved it!” Siegel and Raine have already started getting inquiries for big Ajo events like the 4th of July, “Red & White” Reunion weekend in October, and Christmas. “We expect to be full at those times, and are excited that Ajo natives who went to school in this very building want to come back and stay here,” says Raine.
Another reason for locals to take pride in this addition to Ajo: much of the work on the building and gardens were done by area residents participating in ISDA’s Journeyman and Get Going Get Growing apprenticeship programs. Apprentices worked side-by-side with local handymen and gardeners to learn building repair, maintenance, and agricultural skills. “Workforce development is a key piece of ISDA’s work, and the Conference Center served as an important job training site for our apprentices,” says Tracy Taft, ISDA’s Executive Director.
If you’d like to learn more about the Sonoran Desert Conference Center, visit www.sonorandesertconferencecenter.com or call (520) 775-2565. They are now taking bookings for individual travelers and groups, and are available to help plan a weekend getaway, event, or conference/retreat. Guest room rates range from $95-115/night, with group discounts and special event pricing.