If you are looking for a day trip that is unlike any other, head to Guadalupe, a city of roughly 7,500 people 10 miles east of Santa Maria in northern Santa Barbara County.
Guadalupe is known as the “Gateway to the Dunes,” and this town is the opposite of a big city. At first glance, it looks like an old wild west movie set.
When you arrive in Guadalupe, you will find 1.3 square miles of rich history, authentic Mexican food, friendly people and the Dunes Center. If you are interested in natural and cultural history, ecosystems, birds and artifacts that are almost 100 years old … it is one of the most interesting places in the county to visit.
My recommendation is to drive into Guadalupe early and hit El Tapatio Restaurant for lunch. It is a small Mexican restaurant, at 914 Guadalupe Street, that makes delicious, authentic food. The house-made bean dip is good, the chips are fresh and crispy and they are known for the best Chile Rellenos around. The Diaz family has been running the restaurant for four decades and it feels like you’re in a friend’s kitchen. The soft tacos are scrumptious and the tortillas are made to order from fresh masa.
Next stop, a couple of blocks down at 1065 Guadalupe Street, is the Dunes Center. Don’t expect a museum like you would find in the big city. It is the smallest museum that I have visited and it is filled with fascinating exhibits. Local kids can’t get enough of the center and often come in to hangout after school. A favorite is an interactive display that is an augmented reality, three-dimensional sandbox, which enlightens and educates kids and adults about ecosystems, topographical changes, landscape runoff and erosion.
The people who work at the center and the docents obviously love their jobs and taking school children on field trips. Make sure that you get a map, so you can visit the bird sanctuary and check out the dunes after touring the museum. The dunes are truly beautiful and spiritually grounding. If you’re a photographer don’t forget your camera. Where else does the landscape change with every breath of wind?
Movie and history buffs will love this place. One of the highlights is a sphinx head that was unearthed from Cecil B. DeMille’s 1923 silent film “The Ten Commandments.” The Dunes Center has the only remaining artifacts from the original movie set.
At that time, there were no special effects and everything was life size. Thousands of workers lived in hundreds of tents in the sand while working on set. It was known as tent city. Did you know that Cecil B. DeMille ordered the entire movie set and tent city to be abandoned and buried in sand? Archeologists have excavated prohibition bottles, tobacco tins and other items buried in the sand. Today, it is known as the Lost City of DeMille.
Doug Jenzen, the executive director at the Dunes Center, said that “the Dunes Center is a place where people of all ages come together to learn and have fun. Recently, we turned Guadalupe kids into published authors by publishing their stories, haikus and drawings about the things they’ve learned here at the Center. This is a very special place, where we see and enrich the lives of 3,000 kids per year. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for 130 volunteers, and the ongoing generosity of ERG Oil Company. Also, the Santa Barbara Foundation, the Towbes Group and the County of Santa Barbara, have made it possible to excavate, build displays, do docent led field trips and run educational and afterschool programs.”
If you’re still in Guadalupe around dinner time, try La Simpatia for genuine Spanish food, at 827 Guadalupe Street. It’s not fancy, but the food is great and it has the only full bar in town. Try the Chile Verde. It’s delicious. Even George and Laura Bush ate there on a campaign stop back in 2000.
Whether you seek the beauty of the dunes, nature or the beach, history and culture, or a slower pace with some great, authentic home cooking, make sure to visit Guadalupe.