Two Days in Coachella: Beyond the Music
Greater Palm Springs area’s southernmost city has a name that has become synonymous with one of the world’s most famous music festivals. Going beyond the music, the city of Coachella has some surprising finds.
Coachella is at core an agricultural city. It dates back to 1898 when the Southern Pacific Railroad built a spur in the middle of a vast nowhere. Farmers soon followed. Today, Coachella, with a population of 41,000, has room to boom. Some 98 percent of the land in its boundaries remains undeveloped.
Year-round cultural events focus on Mexican heritage when Coachella hosts the region’s largest celebrations of Mexican Independence Day in September, Day of the Dead in October or November and Cinco de Mayo in May.
Start exploring this ag town with a walk down Sixth Street. Defined by mom-and-pop businesses, the old-fashioned tree-lined street with plenty of benches for a sit pulses as the heart of the city’s revitalization program. One small, two-story building adjacent to City Hall is said to have been the first office of labor leader Cesar Chavez, co-founder of the United Farm Workers union.
Several ongoing mural projects, done by local and international contemporary artists, cover the exterior walls of businesses and draw attention to the region and farm workers. One 1,400-foot-long humdinger tells the story of Chicano history.
With nine parks, Coachella offers generous splashes of green recreation space, including the jewel Rancho Las Flores Park. The city’s largest and newest park, it has too many soccer fields to count, shade structures, picnic tables, ample off-street parking and very cool playground structures.
For green experiences of a different nature, Coachella boasts two Indian-owned casinos. Spotlight 29 Casino, with 2,000 slots, 30 table games, poker room, 3 nightclubs, 3 dining choices plus a mini food court, has a 2,200-seat showroom starring major headliners. Free tribute shows run most every Friday night throughout the year.
Smaller Augustine Casino has 800 slots, 10 table games, a 24/7 restaurant and a casual grill. Local bands play live music every Saturday night.
In town, dining choices center on authentic Mexican food at mom-and-pop restaurants. Although Andy’s Burgers draws a lot of attention on social media, locals stand by favorites such as Plaza Garibaldi Restaurant where the Mexican menu has been packing ‘em in since 1944.
Take a Side Trip
For a few treasures not to miss, from Coachella drive south on Highway 111 towards the Salton Sea.
First, stop at the Oasis Date Garden south of Thermal, one of the few remaining date shops in the desert. You can sample 6 to 7 types of dates and view a date history display and movie. All free. Staffers have been known to give impromptu tours of the grounds that include date palm groves, a sheltered picnic area, cactus garden and collection of antique, horse-drawn farm equipment.
For foodies those features are a mere prelude to the big draw—Oasis has the biggest selection of date shakes in the desert. There’s your regular yummy shake, but it’s hard to pass up added flavor choices—banana, butterscotch, cactus, chocolate, peanut butter, pina colada, pineapple, raspberry, strawberry and vanilla.
Continue south. The date groves give way to fields and packing sheds. In contrast to the beige desert, swaths of green crops grow year-round and include artichokes, broccoli, citrus, carrots, corn, lettuce, melons, peppers, table grapes and tomatoes.
Screech to a halt at the International Banana Museum, nine miles south of Mecca. The what!?! It’s everything you can imagine; a small building packed with thousands of items of banana kitsch, plus an ice cream bar and goodies like banana muffins. Top off your visit here with a selfie of you in a banana costume. And, no, bananas are not a seasonal desert crop.
- For easy access to the Salton Sea and a top photo op, stop at modernist architect Alfred Frey’s restored North Shore Yacht Club and Marina a few blocks south of the Banana Museum.
- After the International Banana Museum, continue south for a few miles to the Salton Sea State Recreation Area headquarters for tourist info.
- If you are in the Greater Palm Springs Area in the winter, join fans and the top show (horse) jumping riders from around the world at HITS Thermal Desert Circuit.
- And if you are here in April, there’s the Coachella (Valley Music and Arts Festival), touted as the largest music festival in the United States.
Farm worker mural by El Mac is one of nearly a dozen in downtown Coachella. It is on the eastern wall of a building believed to house the first office of labor leader Cesar Chavez, co-founder of United Farm Workers union.
The Coachella Valley Cemetery features a ceremonial area and monuments. The Wall of Honor lists 6 Coachella Valley Medal of Honor awardees. Other walls list servicemen and women who have served or died in wars dating from WWII to today, POWs and MIAs. Famous people buried here include pioneer American aviator Jacqueline Cochran (1906-1980) and film director Frank Capra (1897-1928). Nighttime tours of the cemetery are offered occasionally by the Coachella Valley History Museum.