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Roswell, New Mexico: The town with an identity crisis

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When we were planning our New Mexico road trip, it was clear that we could not NOT go to Roswell, the tiny town in the middle of nowhere that suddenly raised to fame in 1947 when a UFO crashed here… apparently. But more on that later.

roswell new mexico 1947Even though we’re no UFO proponents and not sure how we felt about the UFO conspiracies surrounding Roswell, we wanted to see the place and learn more about the crash. And when we discovered that Roswell was half-way between Carlsbad Caverns and our next stop Las Vegas (New Mexico, not Nevada) anyway, there was no question that we’d spend a night here.

roswell new mexico alienFrom the minute we drove into Roswell it appeared that the town was all about the famous UFO crash. Bright green aliens were staring at us from car dealerships, fast food restaurants, donut shops and garages. The local Roswell radio station advertised with aliens, McDonald’s built a custom-made space-themed branch here, and even a local tattoo parlor used an alien as their mascot.

Aliens in Roswell New MexicoAnd we hadn’t even reached the main street yet, where we’d encounter more ‘alien-ness’: An alien-themed Mexican restaurant, alien-shaped street lights, ‘UFO parking only’ signs in the car parks, even a loan shark who advertised with aliens (!) and of course a number of alien and UFO related souvenir shops.

Aliens in Roswell New MexicoWe had to visit Roswell’s small airport to add a second driver to our rental (because it turned out that Jess’ license had expired, leaving me, the foreigner, driving 2,000 miles across New Mexico and finally all the way to Chicago!) where we found ourselves greeted by several aliens as well – even our rental company’s desk had several aliens to welcome us.

Airport Roswell New MexicoOf course there’s also alien beer in Roswell (actually a neat souvenir, you can pick it up in any of the large supermarkets but note that alcohol is not sold on Sundays).

roswell new mexico alien beerAt first sight, everything here seems to be about the funny-looking creatures that put this otherwise uninteresting place on the world map nearly 70 years ago. Main Street, the thoroughfare through the town, is also home to the UFO Museum and International Research Center and the Alien Zone. It is around this stretch of the street where most tourists gather – families, Harley bikers, UFO conspiracists or just curious road trippers like us.

roswell new mexico ufo museumWe headed to the UFO Museum and International Research Center first, eager to learn more about the UFO crash – or The Roswell UFO Incident as it is officially referred to – and the conspiracies around it. Had there really been a UFO crash at all? Were people abducted by aliens? Were aliens taken into captivity to research their bodies? According to the UFO Museum: yes, yes and yes.

roswell new mexico ufo museum displayBut it also became quickly evident that the second part of the museum’s name ‘International Research Center’, (and the museum itself) is way less significant than it sounds. Instead of a sleek, informative museum, we found a place that seemingly has not been updated in any way since the 1980s (except for the addition of poster of the TV show ‘Roswell’, which aired in the late 90s). The exhibits range from childish to ridiculous – as if a bunch of fourth-graders had provided the displays for the museum.

roswell new mexico ufo museum incident timelineWe now also realized why the lady at the entrance had pointed out that the $5 ticket was valid for multiple entries throughout the day: There was so much reading material on the walls, from old newspaper articles to printed interviews with eye witnesses, that it took a while to read through all the info and some folks might want to go and get a coffee in between. The saddest aspect of the museum was that you didn’t even need to visit it to learn all the facts they presented – there was nothing here that you couldn’t find on the internet, and it actually felt like we paid $5 to read the Wikipedia entry on the Roswell UFO incident and could’ve found better information on Roswell-related websites.

roswell new mexico ufo museum displayWhen a cheap light show started around some aliens that were displayed in the center of the museum, we couldn’t take any of it serious anymore:

We left disappointed and went to the Alien Zone just a few minutes down the road, which was supposed to more interesting with actual aliens, and the option to play with them! Okay, ‘real’ aliens might take it a step too far. Look for yourself:

Alien Zone New MexicoWhile the Alien Zone was definitely more fun than the UFO Museum, the place still felt utterly outdated. In the gift shop area, where you buy your ticket for the Alien Zone ($3 per person), they were still selling UFO magazines from 2002, and some of the souvenirs seemed to be from the 1990s. The yellowed postcards certainly had been laying in the store for many years.

Roswell New MexicoWe felt that both the museum and the Alien Zone, along with all the souvenir shops, could use some fresh paint, but we are not sure if Roswell still wants to push the UFO-related tourism. Sure, that’s what made the town famous and brought in hundreds of thousands of tourist dollars, made people stop and spend money here who would’ve just passed through had Roswell not been the place of the alleged UFO crash. However, nobody who was working in one of the alien-related establishments seemed overly enthusiastic or proud to be there, and it didn’t seem like any of the Roswell residents who were NOT working on Main Street would ever come down here.

Alien Zone Roswell New MexicoWe left the Main Street to see what else Roswell had to offer, but came to realize quickly that there is not much beyond the ‘alien zone’. Just venturing a couple of blocks away from Main Street we saw many empty houses and closed-up shops, streets and sidewalks in need of repair and buildings where the paint was peeling off.

roswell new mexico empty buildingIt seemed that the historic center would be completely dead if the Roswell UFO Incident wasn’t still attracting tourists from all over the world.

roswell new mexico rundown streetThe town had tried to expand their tourist attractions several times – in the 1990s, the Anderson Museum Of Contemporary Art opened its doors, and is regularly named as one of the best contemporary art museums in the South West, but if you decide to head there when passing through Roswell, you will barely encounter another visitor (even though it’s free!).

roswell new mexico ufo & alien stuffIn the early 2000s, the Pecos Flavors Winery opened on Main Street in midst of the alien madness, in an effort to promote wines and beers produced in New Mexico and to bring a higher-class establishment to the area. They don’t produce any wines themselves or brew their own beer, but the winery has a large variety of wines and micro-brews from all of New Mexico, many of which are of a surprisingly good quality (even though the state isn’t particularly known for either one!). While you’re trying some wine or beer here (I can vouch for the Alien Amber Ale, despite the cheesy name), you can also pick up New Mexico-made products such as chiles, pecans, pistachios, cheeses and even coffee!

roswell new mexico alien zone hqRoswell beyond the historic center is actually a pretty little town, with some gorgeous historic southern houses in a quaint setting.

Houses in Roswell New MexicoIt felt like people here were ready to move away from the UFO crash that made the city famous, especially since none of the witnesses of the incident are alive anymore. That nobody makes the effort to update the museum or the old alien puppets in the Alien Zone is another sign that Roswell’s residents don’t really care about the UFO conspiracies, but they also don’t really seem to know how to develop and brand their town differently. It felt like the town was in an identity crisis – trying to let go off the past, but uncertain in what direction to head.

Roswell New mexicoI hope that Roswell will be able to reinvent itself, because, quite frankly, the antiquated UFO Research Center won’t cut it much longer.

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40 Comments

  1. LOL that is just crazy!! But kind of cool- I want to see it for myself just to ask wtf? Can you imagine living there? But man those houses are gorgeous! I remember watching a doco about roswell and at the end I was positive there were aliens and it was all true- but isn’t that how docos work, they can make you believe anything when they are one-sided!
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..International Boho-Chic Designers: Saffron Wiehl Illustrations // India

    1. I had to look up Capilla del Monte – why did I not know about that place?! Now I’m bummed that we didn’t go there… it sounds so wonderfully weird 😀

  2. These photos are insane. Who would have thought the entire city is aliens everywhere. If you saw them enough someone might actually start to think they were real.

  3. Totally!!! We were there recently too. Although it was a great experience, it was like the town was stuck in a time warp. But I just love New Mexico in general, it’s one of the treasures of the USA.

    1. ‘Stuck in a time warp’ sums it up perfectly!! 🙂 And I agree, New Mexico is such a special place.. loved every second of our road trip 🙂

  4. Roswell, New Mexico? The Roswell UFO Incident? Who hasn’t heard or read about it? From your blogs and photos, it’s out of this world. I wonder though if the young kids might enjoy the place.

    1. There is so much potential to make the museum into an awesome interactive space for kids!! Hope the long overdue overhaul of the museum will happen some time soon!

  5. Well I have to be honest. I am from EU and I have heard for the accident but did not know it was New Mexico! It would be great experience to see this town. Maybe next time we are visiting USA. Nice pics you made!

      1. Well we do not have so interesting stuff here in EU 🙂 Is this is a long way from LA. As near as I was it was San Francisco last year.

  6. I must admit that the subject of Roswell has always intrigued me, and this does remain on my list of must visits, thanks for the write up that you placed on here, I enjoyed the photo of the green footprints as well!

    1. Thanks, Paul! The green footprints were actually pretty neat.. but most of the alien stuff was just so old and outdated 🙁 Hope they’ll give it all an overhaul soon – you’ll have to report back when you made it there 😀

  7. I’m a Roswell Native. Did you know that the first rocket scientist was from roswell and launched the first rocket here? We had the largest air have and Goddard high school used to be a bomb shelter. Also we have the largest Cheree factory in the world. So much more to roswell.

  8. I am 18 years old and have lived here in Roswell my whole life, as have all my family members, and I can assure you that your statement about us Roswellians not caring about the aliens is very true! Nobody here even thinks about it anymore. Sometimes I completely forget about all the alien stuff even though it’s all around me! It’s really interesting hearing a tourist talk about the town though!

  9. Adding to my comment, I’ve actually lived here all my life and not once have I ever been to the UFO museum! That just shows that no Roswell native really cares about it all!

  10. I’v lived in Roswell most of my life and you are totally correct about Roswell having an identity crisis. I’m pretty sure all the locals are getting sick of tourist coming to see and ask about the aliens! Many locals here have never even visited any of the museums. Roswell is gradually trying to update its town but the process is very slowww due to the stubborn elder citizens of Roswell that are just not ready to except change from the 1990’s. Roswell is definatly a unique and odd town to vist but we do have amazing food and some great hidden town treasures to come and see!

  11. I was born and raised in roswell and you are completely correct about the locals not caring about all the alien stuff I for one have never been in any of the alien shops on main street and I have lived here my whole life. As for the town being stuck in a time warp that is 100% true. It’s because the majority of the population is elderly people who do not want to change the town. As a teenager growing up in roswell it was always boring with nothing to do except go to the movies (even that gets old) or be involved in some type of school activity. Roswell needs to be revamped…and FAST!

  12. I’m also from Roswell, and agree that the locals really don’t care about the alien stuff. More ifteb than not it’s an annoyance. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked if I’m an alien. Like Kali said, when I go back home I hardly even notice the aliens on literally everything downtown anymore. It’s definitely interesting to hear about it from an outsiders viewpoint. To all of you wanting to visit, I’d suggest doing it the week of Independence Day aka the week no local goes anywhere near the convention center. The 3rd of July is the “anniversary” and they have the UFO Convention, a lot more stuff to see/do.

  13. What a pessimistic attitude in this article. Like this is the only place you have been that uses a “theme” to help with tourism. What you must understand Roswell and the surrounding area is so much more. Like in comments above, Robert H. Goddard is from here. Billy the Kid used to ride through the area, we are known for dairy and cattle. The Carlsbad Caverns are just a few hours away. Do a little research before you knock a city and even though there are lots of alien themes around town, the tens of thousands of people that visit especially during July can’t be wrong this is one place for people to visit at least once.

  14. Thanks for the trip back in time. I grew up in Roswell and have been back a couple of times since graduating from college. Being in a “time warp” is not far from the truth but not for the things you noted. Some things just don’t change. I bet I could still drive through and find all the haunts from my childhood. As for the alien-stuff, Roswell really did not really capitalize on it until the mid to late 90s leading up to the 50th anniversary of the UFO crash. We all knew about it, but it was no big deal. I have a copy of the paper from July 8, 1947. I have seen the funeral records and talked to people who were there. Roswell is more than that one incident though. Trouble always got home before I did. I will always treasure my memories of high school football and basketball, of dances and dates, cruising down main street, bonfires, and much much more. It is a small town that never changes, where I still have many friends, and shaped the person I am today.

  15. I grew up in Roswell and there were absolutely zero aliens in town. It makes me very sad to see it as described here as it was a great place to grow up. When the movie Roswell came out, it was a lot of fun to cash in on the hype but it has long since degraded into a joke, which is the main reason I haven’t moved back. You didn’t mention the planetarium, the Robert H Goddard rocket museum or the Peter Hurd art gallery, which are worth seeing.

  16. I have lived in Roswell all my life(74 yrs) . I had never heard of the “incident” until the 50th year celebration. since then, this has been a very big attraction to our city and brings in a lot of money. If you got the impression that it is about to end; you did not get the correct figures of the number of tourists that come here every year from the entire world. I am truly sorry that you missed our many other interests during your visit. The Goddard Museum where the first rocket ship was developed; the Historic Museum showing the many historic occurrences since the settlement of the valley; and the Military Aircraft museum presently house in the air terminal. the many dairies; Pecan orchards; and the “BEST” green Chile grown anywhere. I appreciate that you graces us with at least a short visit and hope that you will come back for a longer stay and see the rest. I would like to offer a personal invitation of a guided tour of the city and the surrounding farm, ranch, oil fields and many other interests. thanks again for you visit

    1. Thank you , Lynn, for a very decent and respectful response. I was born and reared in Roswell. And while I was ‘aware’ of the “Roswell Event” as a child, it was neither a big deal nor a tourist draw. The Roswell of my childhood was, believe it or not, a thriving town of approx 80,000 – it’s main source of employment being Walker AFB. When Lyndon Baines Johnson capriciously closed Walker in 1967, a move many of us “old timers” still view as a political slap, Roswell went into a huge economic slump because the only other industry was farming.My family had to relocate to another state. And, although I probably won’t return to live in Roswell, I am and always will be very proud of my birth city.

  17. There was talk at one point of creating a new museum out to the east of the town, but that has some of the older residents really upset. Then there was talk of a super water park, but it never got off the ground. It will never happen. There was talk even about building a new high school, and trashing to two decrepit old buildings from the 50’s. The rivalry between the north and south sides of town prevented that. Roswell is a stagnant dying town that will never change because the older generation likes it the way it is.

  18. Great pictures and a very fair and accurate assessment of a tourist’s perspective of Roswell. It is a shame more people aren’t at the Anderson Museum every day. It’s a gem! Main Street has become a bit more lively since your visit. There is a new coffee shop and a new music venue. A few blocks away there is a new barbecue restaurant. All of these places have live music at least once a week, including Pecos Flavors Winery which you mentioned. Oh, the winery does have their own wine label. The vineyard isn’t downtown and it’s not public, but they do produce several varietals and blends. The art community here is thriving. Anyway, yes the town is torn on what direction to go in.i think they should go all in with the aliens!

  19. Ive lived in Roswell my whole life and as much as I hate the aliens everywhere, Roswell is a nice little town and a nice place to live!

  20. After living in roswell for your whole life, you kinda just don’t see all the alien stuff anymore. Even though I know it’s there it doesn’t draw my eye or anything. I have never been to any of the museums because I don’t believe in the existence of aliens, but I wish they’d close it down. It’s super embarrassing to be know as “the town with an identity crisis.” But the elderly people here don’t want to let go of all their memories, so we’ll probably have to wait until I have grandkids to get rid of all this stuff.

  21. The way i see it if you’re not from Roswell you hane a harder time understanding it and as for the people from roswell that choose to speak negative of our town you should be ashamed of yourselves and if its that bad of a place then you should pack your stuff up and be gone!!

  22. Next time in New Mexico check in with one of its many roving locals. Alot of them like being off the map and underpopulated,they keep the best places secret.There is so much area to cover you would never come across the best places accidentally. They have only recently decided tourism should be promoted in New Mexico ,so alot of the suggestions in travel guides are very outdated. I grew up in Roswell , it isnt a town laid out in an organized developed upscale downscale way , its very scattered, sometimes you have to travel through downscale to find something interesting.The locals know the backroads , the shortcuts through the desert , the best places to watch the sunset , locals go to white sands to fly kites and sand board , they know the gem like water oasis that are scattered in hidden crevices , the oldest still active indian villages on top of plateaus pueblos high and cut off, the quirky town and open air market life in Albuquerque and Santa Fe that they keep hidden from outsiders,The best apple cider in Carrizozo , the best pistachios in Alamagordo, the best pecans in Roswell, the best hot pepper and coco drink in Ruidoso, the homsteads of Billy the Kid and the illustrator Andrew Wyeth, the bomb bunkers converted into homes , the still very active love hate relationship with government secrets ,the road runners, burrowing owls, and unreasonably tall jack rabbits . We are Westerners and still very pioneer we tend to keep things to ourselves until asked .

  23. After spending several years narrowing down hundreds of places to retire I settled In Roswell a couple years ago, and love it. It has some of the best year round weather in the country, walking around you meet friendly people not graffiti on walls, There is little crime, and it’s a great place to raise a family. If you want another lifeless big box city that’s great- but I prefer this traditional American town. The author managed to take shots of some of the worst old buildings in town not the typical beautiful neighborhoods. The city is gradually tearing down some of the abandoned buildings. After going through Roswell for 8 years, and living here two I finally visited the UFO museum, although I’ve never been in the souvenir shops. We welcome the visitors and I’ll take the many families enjoying our downtown UFO gift shops to many of the other cities that I’ve been to with deserted boarded up buildings in the city center any day!

  24. I moved here about 25 years ago working as an engineer in the oil and gas industry. I was aware of the alleged space craft crash years before I ever thought of being a residence of Roswell. I actually read many books about the subject including Communion, circa 70’s. After moving here, one of my neighbors, an elder man at the time, Walter Haut, who was the press secretary in the military during the time of episodes and good friends of the RN who mysteriously disappeared, was responsible for gathering and releasing the story to the public. But ten years before I ever thought I would be residing here, living in Louisiana and working as an offshore platform engineer, I met a nurse who was taking care of General Marcel during his retirement days. Her stories conveyed from Marcel seemed like science fiction at the time, but held my undivided attention nonetheless. I was familiar with NM because I am a native of that state, avid hiker and fisherman of the mountains and streams. I also a lot, mostly technical books and including encounters with extraterrestrials people claimed to have had. Not to say too much, I must say my Great Aunt, being in love with New Mexico had refurbished an old Hacienda in Tularosa, NM, in the 60’s, with adobe walls, a large yard surrounded by turquoise colored and carved wooded gates, the lizards and roadrunners cohabitated with her and her visitors and where my parents would also spend a few days seasonally allowing me to wander the area as a curious adventurous ten year old. Years later, I discovered that my aunt’s long term tenant was none other than rancher Mr. Brazel. They told me not to bother him as he was a disturbed and unhappy man. He needed his rest and quite. However, as I sat by myself on a bench over the adobe Saltillo tiles, in the Hacienda’s court yard, he approached me carrying a old cigar box. He sat next to me, and began a normal grown-up to kid conversation about things I do not remember. But then he asked if wanted to see ‘ a critter hand”. Being a great hunter of lizards, rabbits, turtles and everything else that comes natural to a boy or gilr my age I said yeah. I don’t even remember knowing what he had asked me, because I didn’t really comprehend what he was saying, until years later when I put 2 and 2 together. He opened his box and inside what I thought was a dried up frog or similar critter of reasonable size. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it and couldn’t perceive a critter, but hey I had seen several dried up critters, -had some at home. But I do remember the word ‘hand’ and my initial thought before he opened the box was the infamous hand on the then popular Adams Family TV series. But this thing didn’t look like ‘the hand” so my cognitive response was ‘duh”. He didn’t say much, yes he did looked disturbed and unhappy. Years later, I came to realize what he showed me was a hand from an alien being, and not any relation to the aliens we have that have flooded New Mexico and many parts of the USA which are mostly illegal.

  25. Your post highlights one of my ongoing frustrations with living in Roswell: the City is too restricted in its promotional campaigns. You came here expecting UFO-related stuff, and you clearly got it, but did you know about any of the other attractions Roswell has to offer? I doubt it, because it gets under the radar. A lot of our residents don’t even know about these other places, or haven’t visited them recently.

    For example, I wish you’d had time to stop by the Roswell Museum and Art Center, which has been around since 1937. It’s got an art collection on par with the museums in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, thousands of historical artifacts from the Southwest, from armor to beaded dresses to rifles, AND the rocketry equipment of Robert H. Goddard, one of the first scientists to seriously experiment with liquid-fuel propulsion back in the 1920s and 1930s. And it’s all FREE to the public. I’ll admit I’m biased because I work here, but the point is that there is a lot more to Roswell than the whole Ufology thing. There’s the ranching history, the archaeological richness of the surrounding areas, an enviable Artist-in-Residency program that has been running for nearly 50 years now , some great WPA projects at Cahoon Park, City Hall, and other places, not the mention the natural wonders of Bitter Lakes, a federal bird sanctuary, and Bottomless Lakes State Park, which features a series of turquoise-colored sinkholes surrounded by red rocks. Plus there are several museums in town beyond the UFO Institute. In addition to RMAC, there’s the Anderson Museum of Contemporary Art, the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico, even the airport has a little museum dedicated to the former Walker Air Force Base. The campus of the New Mexico Military Institute, founded in 1891, is also nice to walk around in and explore.

    You’re absolutely right that the City is experiencing an identity crisis and doesn’t quite know what it wants to be, but seriously, there’s definitely more to Roswell than UFOs.

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