Nearly a half century ago, horticulturist Harrison G. Yocum opened his backyard to the public, displaying a bounteous collection of cacti and palms. After a few relocations, expansions, and the establishment of a nonprofit charter, Tucson Botanical Gardens now spreads 17 distinct plots across more than 5 acres. A delicate rumble hearkens the arrival of the Garden Railway miniature train, which winds through gardens uniquely dedicated to birds, butterflies, wildflowers, and traditional Native American crops. Admission—which is free for garden members and children younger than 3—grants passage to five different tours, and groups of 10 or more can arrange self-guided or docent-led tours at a discounted rate. If visitors awaken their appetites by savoring aromas from the onsite herb garden or by staring at clouds shaped like canned goods, they can dig in at the Gardens' Café, where sun spills through a slatted gazebo onto iron tables loaded with roast-beef baguettes and mexican tortilla soup.
Elemental Artistry's performers play with fire for a living. Blending the fluidity of dance with a theatrical sense of spectacle, the troupe—which includes an NBTA gold-medalist baton twirler—whirls flaming props into fiery vortexes, dazzling spectators at events ranging from the Tucson Celtic Festival to the sweet sixteens of local volcano gods.
In addition to more than 150 performances since 2007—some of which have earned print and television attention in the Arizona Daily Star and on KOLD News—troupe members teach their craft in workshops and classes that lead students of all ages through movements, such as poi spinning, staff and baton twirling, and hula hooping, using unlit props, at least to start. The art form's constant movement and careful coordination can help to tone muscles, awaken ambidexterity, heighten kinesthetic awareness, and occasionally open interdimensional doorways. Elemental Artistry's dance architects can also develop flame-free spectacles using props ablaze with LED lights.
As the sun rises and illuminates the jagged Sonoran Desert with rose-colored light, colorful hot-air balloons rise into the sky right along with it. This scene occurs seven days a week from September to May during Tucson Balloon Rides' one-hour sunrise floats. Soaring with the morning's easy wind currents, FAA-certified pilot Kevin Wilbur ferries passengers for 10 to 15 miles at altitudes between 500 and 4,000 feet over the cacti forests of Saguaro National Park West and the shrub-covered flatlands of Avra Valley. While gliding over the Tucson Mountains, he also points out important sites as well as deer, foxes, and coyotes. After a gentle touchdown, Captain Kevin and guests enjoy a champagne toast and brunch. If the voyage inspires anyone to become a hot-air-balloon pilot or a cloud, he can also help them earn their private or commercial pilot license with his training program.
Until 2 in the morning, the sounds of billiard balls hang like offbeat commas in the conversations of players leaning on their cues. Of the 18 tables at Pockets Pool & Pub, 10 are regulation Brunswick Gold Crown pocket tables, 6 are coin-operated, and 2 are Spider Elite Carom tables, which are heated to keep balls moving smoothly. Like deserted kangaroo towns, carom tables have no pockets—the game is played based on one’s position against the rails. Every week, the tables host nine-ball, pool, and one-pocket competitions.
The thin, twanging guitar notes of songs from the ’40s drift from a jukebox near the pro shop, which furnishes players with gear. Elsewhere, backgammon pieces and dice click against boards sliced by the characteristic triangles, and players hoist glasses of brews and cocktails over plates of sandwiches and fried snacks.
The cultural traditions of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales have enlivened Tucson for more than a quarter century thanks to the Tucson Celtic Festival & Scottish Highland Games. Along with traditional music, dancing, and food, guests can also witness feats of athletic prowess during the internationally sanctioned Scottish Highland Games. The traditional event features activities such as a caber toss, which consists of participants lifting and throwing gargantuan wooden poles so that they land parallel to the thrower but not touching any of their vital organs, and Highland croquet, substituting the usual equipment with bowling balls and sledgehammers. If any questions as to the event’s authenticity remain, one need only look to the audience for confirmation: each year sees 30 to 40 Scottish clans come together to celebrate their heritage.
The weekend before Cinco de Mayo, The Tucson Taco Festival pits 25 teams of taco craftsmen, ranging from amateurs to local restaurateurs, against each other in pursuit of a $5,000 prize as they feed thousands of attendees. Sporting Lucha Libre wrestling masks and working inside intricately decorated booths, the teams collectively produce 30,000 tacos, accompanied by sides such as salsa, guacamole, and more than 30 premium tequila brands. Meanwhile, bartenders rev their blenders in a margarita-making challenge, and visitors show off their ability to ingest spicy food without first ingesting an air conditioning unit during a hot-pepper eating contest. Live music from El Camino Royale and Shrimp Chaperone spurs bodies into motion, while youngsters can stop by the Kids Zone for festive face paint or a jaunt in the bouncy castle.