Southeast from Las Cruces and Mesilla, our route dips south across the Texas border to El Paso, then continues on US-180 for some 150 miles east before reentering New Mexico at Carlsbad Caverns National Park. For the run to El Paso, you have your choice between I-10 or slower and more scenic Hwy-28, the Juan de Oñate Trail, which avoids the freeway and runs through the pecan groves, pepper fields, and dusty small towns that spread along the west bank of the Rio Grande.

This part of New Mexico is chili country, and there’s no better place to sample the great variety of spicy peppers than at Chope’s Bar and Café (16145 S. Hwy-28, 575/233-3420), an unpretentious cinderblock café along Hwy-28 in La Mesa, roughly midway between Mesilla and El Paso. The house specialty here is chiles rellenos—whole chilies stuffed with cheese and deep-fried.