AN HOUR, A STATE, and an era away from El Paso lies Mesilla, New Mexico, a fetching little town with a multiplicity of charms. In a drowsy plaza flanked by sunbaked adobes, you can shop for Native American silverwork and other treasures on the very ground once trod by legendary outlaw Billy the Kid. The locals are uniformly welcoming and tolerant, which helps make picturesque Mesilla a tourist destination without being a tourist trap. Mesillans are proud of the town’s otherworldly feel; as one resident put it, “When it’s eleven o’clock in Texas, it’s 1963 in Mesilla.”

Early fall is a prime time for visiting Mesilla because the weather is cooler and the chiles are ripe. Although the town is readily reached by zipping north from El Paso on Interstate 10, the compleat Mesilla trip mandates a cruise via the back way, through the rich fields of chiles that blanket the Rio Grande’s upper valley. Begin by taking I-10 west to Loop 375 and go west; proceed through Canutillo to New Mexico Highway 28 and turn north, passing through La Union and paralleling the placid Rio Grande. Signs such as “Tractors Next 27 Miles” and “Plowing on Shoulder Prohibited” announce that you’ve entered prime agricultural territory. Giving the lie to the idea that the Southwest is nothing but sun and dust, onions, cotton, melons, grapes, alfalfa, corn, and lettuce grow thickly along the river, though the chiles (green when young, red when left on the bush longer) are the main attraction. Starting in mid-August, farmers harvest them and often promptly roast them in roadside stands; a casita industry hereabouts is the selling of ristras, strings of fresh or dried red chiles that provide both decoration and seasoning. Continue north on Highway 28 through La Mesa and you’ll enter the immense orchards of Stahmann Farms, whose towering pecan trees provide a cool, dark respite from the summer heat. Mesilla is thirteen miles more down the road.

Except for the cars parked on its brick streets, Mesilla still looks like the nineteenth-century picture-postcard pueblo it once was. A century ago, the railroad bypassed Mesilla in favor of Las Cruces, a newer settlement two miles away; residents not only survived that slight but turned it to their advantage, and today they actively work to maintain Mesilla’s old-fashioned charm. There isn’t a franchise operation in town. Everyone’s favorite food store is the seventy-year-old Frietze Grocery, and except for a few service stations on Highway 28, there has been little modern construction. Emblematic of the town’s timelessness, its heart—like that of all Southwestern hamlets—is the plaza, which is flanked on one end by a handsome church (San Albino’s, usually open to the public from one to three every day except Monday) and on the other by a bar (the El Patio Cantina—a biker favorite, as the Harley-Davidsons outside attest; their owners aren’t unfriendly but may scowl if you order something other than beer). In the center is a bandstand where anything from classical guitar to Dixieland jazz may be featured on holidays and weekends; expect a crowd September 14 and 15, during the celebration of the Mexican holiday Diez y Seis de Septiembre.

Bordering the plaza and lining adjacent blocks are dozens of shops, most of which purvey Navajo, Zuni, and Hopi wares—jewelry, pottery, baskets, sand paintings, kachina dolls, and rugs—as well as mass-market rip-offs of same and the inevitable ghastly-hued howling-coyote dreck. Clerks at some stores will breathlessly inform you of a 50-percent-off sale, but this may be just a ruse to separate you from your hard-earned cash; make the rounds before you buy. Two especially nice tiendas are the Nambé Showroom (505-527-4623), on the southeast corner of the plaza, which offers quality seconds of the famous handcrafted Santa Fe tableware and other unusual craftwork; and Casa de Santiago (523-8880), half a block west of the church, where the goods range from portraits of saints by a local primitive artist to antique beaded Arapaho moccasins.

Western history buffs—who prefer to call the town Old Mesilla—always visit the Billy the Kid Gift Shop (523-5561), a thick-walled adobe that once was the courthouse where the West’s most famous juvenile delinquent stood trial for murder. He escaped the noose, of course, only to fall victim to a bullet from Sheriff Pat Garrett. A staggering variety of tomes on Billy may be perused at the Mesilla Book Center (526-6220), which specializes in Southwestern Americana. The store is organized generally, but not alphabetically; digging through the stacks is half the fun. Mystery lovers drift to the exhaustive regional whodunit section, and the children’s area is stellar too.

The bookstore’s owner lives in back, and when the scrumptious smell of her lunch or dinner recalls the aromatic torture of roasting chiles, it’s time to check out one of Mesilla’s dozen or so eateries. The grande dame is La Posta de Mesilla (524-3524), housed in a former way station on the Butterfield trail, where a wait for a table allows kids time to admire the lobby’s resident pets: nine red piranhas and dozens of parrots. Founded in 1939, La Posta touts as its claim to fame the creation of tostadas compuestas, fried corn tortillas topped with beans, cheese, onion, lettuce, and chunky chile colorado—New Mexico’s answer to picadillo. The menu caters to greenhorns (“Eat tacos with your fingers”), but the spice level pulls no punches. Waiters thoughtfully leave a pitcher of ice water on each table to help quench the fire (some turistas find sour cream or plain tortillas more apt to soothe the burn). Like the bookstore—and many other places in town—La Posta is closed on Monday.

Another site with notable historical credentials is the Double Eagle (523-6700), a former private residence built in the 1840’s. Paying tribute to Maximilian and Carlota, the onetime emperor and empress of Mexico, it is furnished with a staggering variety of antiques: Civil War–era cast-iron gates, Queen Anne chairs, Baccarat crystal chandeliers, a pressed-tin ceiling painted with 18-karat gold, and a thirty-foot hand-carved oak and walnut bar. The Double Eagle is renowned for its massive Sunday brunch (seatings at 11:00 and 1:30; reservations required). Diners can savor breakfast items such as blintzes, crêpes, made-to-order omelets, or Belgian waffles or focus on the midday meal in the form of salmon with Dijon mustard sauce or five-cheese-stuffed pasta shells. The Double Eagle even boasts resident ghosts. The skeptical may scoff, but shortly after one waiter regaled a tableful of brunchers with the exploits of thwarted lovers Inez and Armando, a stainless-steel plate cover clattered noisily to the floor—and no one visible was around.

Other eateries rating a thumbs-up include the Old Mesilla Pastry Café (525-2636), which offers brick oven–baked pizzas, fresh salads, and fresh breads and sweets; the Kokopelli Cafe (no phone; located on Calle de Parian, half a block west of the plaza), which serves caffè latte and cappuccino throughout the day to those who can take the heat (or who require the caffeine); Lorenzo’s (525-3174), a new favorite whose Sicilian cuisine locals rave about; and the Brass Cactus Bistro (527-4656), where the multiethnic cuisine incorporates such regional variations as red-chile fettuccine. Then there’s El Patio Restaurante (524-0982), a culinary stalwart where the Butterfield stage once ran and where visitors may gain more insight into the distinctly New Mexican subgenre of Mexican food. Enchiladas, for example, may be stacked instead of rolled and are often topped with a fried egg. Happily, El Patio offers a bowl of chile con queso along with its potent red sauce and chips for complimentary grazing while you wait for a tender steak tampiqueña or more of the ever-popular green chile dishes.

Although Mesilla is a great day trip from El Paso, two bed and breakfasts make an overnight stay highly appealing. The gracious Mesón de Mesilla (525-9212) is a venerable hotel that is both elegant and atavistic (reservation cards at each table and no phones in the rooms). The pool offers a panoramic view of the Organ Mountains, so named for the spiky rocks along the crest that suggest organ pipes. In the morning, guests sip fresh orange juice and watch hummingbirds dart between feeders. Recent choices were pecan French toast or a frittata with tomato, onion, and (yep) green chile. At night the pricey but reliable restaurant (525-2380) turns out the likes of chile-rubbed lamb chop or tequila-poached lobster.

A newer option for overnighters is Happy Trails Bed and Breakfast (527-8471). Owners Sylvia and Barry Byrnes are transplanted New Yorkers who moved to Mesilla after falling in love with the town on a trip two years ago. The ranch-style home includes mesquite, juniper, and redwood paneling and hand-painted Western murals on the bedroom walls. Guests have the run of the living room, which contains a huge assortment of books, CDs, and videocassettes for entertainment after a dip in the pool or a soak in the Jacuzzi. Sylvia serves breakfast whenever guests wish; a typical spread includes scrambled-egg enchiladas, chocolate-chip and banana-nut muffins, and admirably fierce coffee. A resident wrangler can arrange horseback rides too.

For evening visitors, an essential part of a Mesilla visit is an outing to the Fountain Theater (524-8287), which is practically a show in itself. Named for a pioneering family, the tiny auditorium, built in 1905, contains colorful murals, some one hundred seats, and a dozen tables at which patrons may enjoy homemade desserts and beverages—including wine or beer—while watching foreign and arty films (two of this summer’s screenings were the Academy award–winning Anne Frank Remembered and a rerelease of the 1964 French love story The Umbrellas of Cherbourg). The Fountain has shows nightly at 7:30, Sundays also at 2: 00 and 5:00, and at 9:45 as well on Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

After the late show, Mesilla is essentially closed too. If you’re spending the night, head back to the Mesón or Happy Trails to dream of kachinas and green chiles; if you’re returning to El Paso, take a deep breath and the interstate south—and reenter 1996.