Since we're only about 20 miles from the Mexican border while staying here in Patagonia, Arizona, it seemed imperative that we get down to the border town of Nogales, Mexico for a day. During our travels to Mexico from Belize, we developed quite an affinity for this much-maligned neighbor to our south (or to our north when we lived in Belize in Central America!) Yes, there are drug cartels, violence, and danger in parts of the country, but certainly not everywhere; and the places we'd carefully researched and traveled before (Tulum, Merida, Palenque, Campeche, and San Cristobal) felt as safe (or safer) than most of the US.
So, we did our research and decided that the tourist area in the city of Nogales would be just fine. After all, this city relies heavily on tourist dollars and as such, the police are going to ensure that it stays safe and welcoming for those of us from the other side of the border. And it was! I am pleased to report that we had nary an issue, saw and heard no crime, and never felt worried in the least. There were tourist police riding bicycles and a few police cars patrolling around, but none of the intimidating looking officers standing around with automatic weapons, as we saw when entering the country from Belize. There were no drug-sniffing dogs nor bag searches. Nothing. We just walked right across the border and spent the day walking around, venturing even beyond what would be considered the tourist zone. There's no passport stamping or paperwork involved, and no scam Mexico exit fee (as we were charged when spending the day in Chetumal, Quintana Roo from Belize). You do need a passport to get back into the US as proof of US citizenship, but that's it.
But let's back up a bit. When visiting Nogales, Mexico, you have the choice of parking on the US side in same-named Nogales, Arizona, or driving into Mexico. Driving into Mexico is obviously more complicated, with Mexican car insurance requirements, not to mention trying to drive and park in an unfamiliar, bustling city. Most people who want to go for some day shopping and eating simply park on the US side, and that's what we did.
There are numerous parking lots where you can park all day for $4, a great deal. They're easy to find once you get close to the border. We actually parked at the farthest-away one, but we liked it because it was mostly empty, had excellent security, a friendly attendant, and if you know us, you'll know we don't mind a little extra walking! The parking lots right up at the border were very full, so we were glad we parked where we did. You can also park at the McDonald's or Burger King close to the border for the same $4, but I'm not sure if they have security, if that's important to you.
After leaving the parking lot, we walked south a bit until we found the area to cross the border on foot. It wasn't as well marked as I thought it might be, but we saw others heading that way, through a parking lot, and it was in the right general direction, so we had no problem finding our way. When we saw this sign, we knew we were in the right place!
The tourist zone is a mish-mash of hundreds of dental clinics, pharmacies, and small shops selling Mexican goods like blankets, glassware, and ceramics. As expected from everything we'd read, we were beckoned by vendor after vendor trying to get us to come look in their shop. There weren't a huge number of tourists in the city on a weekday, mostly just a few other retirees, so the vendor competition for our dollars was pretty fierce. But none were rude or overly aggressive, just enthusiastic and very friendly.
We really weren't there to buy anything since we don't even have a house to put things in with our current traveling lifestyle, so we had to disappoint most of them with a "No gracias" or "no thanks". All of the vendors spoke English in this zone, but we tried to use our rudimentary Spanish as much as we could, since this is a great way to practice. We could always fall back on English when needed.
We spent most of our time just walking around, enjoying the local color, and seeing the sights.
One of the main streets was under total construction, but people were still walking up and down, and most shops were still open along the way. Occasionally we had to step over holes or walk across on planks -- this would never be allowed in the US! We didn't see too many gringos once we got down this far, but we still felt perfectly safe, so long as we watched where we stepped!
We did go into a few shops and looked around but left empty-handed in most cases. Barry thought about a t-shirt, but there were very few sold, and he couldn't find anything he liked in his size. Most of the clothing for sale was actually Americanized (and probably made in China - ugh), as opposed to the areas we'd visited before in Mexico, where there was beautiful Mexican/Maya clothing for sale.
The Mexican glassware and ceramics were beautiful but not something we're in the market for right now. There was much sterling silver jewelry for sale, so my one "extravagant" purchase was this pair of silver earrings with mother-of-pearl inlays. The vendor wanted $20 for them (gringo pricing, naturally), I offered $10, and we settled at $15. I probably could have gotten them for less, but bargaining isn't something I'm used to. It's expected in these small shops in Mexico, though. The first price you're given is never "the" price!
I also bought a pack of fresh whole wheat tortillas at this tiny "Super Mercado" for just $13 MX (about $1) This was about half the price we paid in San Pedro, Belize.
And we bought a liter of El Jimador tequila at a huge, American-size supermarket. It was supposed to be on sale, but when we double-checked the receipt after paying in pesos and leaving the store, we realized we'd been charged the original price. This was not a tourist market so hopefully it was a computer mistake, since Barry thinks they scanned the item. It's no biggie, though -- instead of costing us the sale price of $10 something, it cost $12 something -- less than half the price it would have been in the US!
There was some nice public art along the main Avenida.
And we saw several of these colorful "flowers" but were never sure what they were really for.
We'd read restaurant reviews on Tripadvisor ahead of time and decided to try Olivia Restaurant, which was a completely Mexican experience: menus in Spanish, a fast-speaking Spanish waitress (fortunately she understood us, even if we didn't understand much of what she said!), and authentic food. The homemade salsa was excellent, and the food was very good.
The Tacos Dorados caught my eye...
Barry ordered one of his favorite Mexican specialties, chicken mole, and I ordered what I thought was going to be fish tacos, but ended up being chicken tacos. Now I know that dorado is more than dolphin fish: when referring to tacos in Spanish, it means "golden" (i.e., fried)! They were very good, just not what I expected.
Expecting to drink a Mexican cervasa, we ended up ordering sodas because beer was not on the menu, but we later saw a couple order cervasas, which the waitress went and got next door at the bar. Who knew? Another lesson learned -- always ask! Lunch for two cost us $12.50 US plus tip -- quite reasonable.
After lunch we stopped in at a bakery we had seen while walking around earlier. We were too full to eat anything for dessert, but we did buy a couple of goodies to take back with us! And I can report after the fact that they were absolutely delicious. Wish we'd brought more back!
There wasn't too much to do in the part of Nogales we could walk to other than shop, so after lunch and a bit more walking around, we headed back to the border crossing to return to the US.
We'd read a tip online that the crossing on the east side of the train tracks through town was less crowded than the one we came in through on the western side, so we crossed over and got in line at the one on the east side. There was a line -- mostly Mexicans -- waiting to get over to the US (to do their own shopping, no doubt -- there are lots of stores in Nogales, AZ, including Walmart, Safeway, clothing stores, etc.) We waited in line for about 30 minutes.
Barry tried to take a photo of the "Nogales" sign at the border, but the officer there told him no. We'd read that they don't allow photos there, but it was worth a try since we thought they wouldn't mind a photo of the sign so long as no officers were in it. But they must. He was able to take a photo of the fence once we got back to the US side, though.
We showed our passport cards to the officer when leaving (first time we've used them!), and he asked what we were bringing back. I told him of our small purchases, and he waved us on. No problema!
We walked back to the parking lot, paid our $4, and that was that.
We had exchanged $60 US for pesos at one of the many money-changing stations in the tourist zone, and we didn't spend it all, so we still have pesos for our next trip to Mexico! Many places in Nogales do take US dollars, so we used them for my earrings and for lunch, since they quoted the prices in US dollars. We used pesos when shopping in the mercados and bakery.
All in all, it was a very good experience, and we had a great time with no real snafus. The trip, though short, reinforced how much we enjoy spending time in the colorful country to our south. Mexico, you haven't seen the last of the Traveling Twosome!
Emily & Barry
We're a long-married, early-retired couple who are currently traveling as nomads with no fixed home base. After years of living in North Carolina (Emily's home state), we spent 18 months living oceanfront on Ambergris Caye, Belize, a year road-tripping the US in a Honda CR-V, a year in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, and are now roaming North America in our 32' motorhome, Pearl, following warm weather whenever possible.
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