Border towns on the U.S.-Mexico border don’t get much love. I “understand” the reasons people provide for why, but, frankly, I love Mexico. And I haven’t even spent as much time there as other destinations. But each time I go, I love it. My Pinterest boards are bursting with pins of my Mexico daydreams. Growing up in Phoenix, I, for one, always enjoyed day trips down to the sister cities Nogales, AZ and Nogales, SN. I looked forward to Coca Cola with real sugar – not corn syrup, purchasing new paper mache parrots, tin garden sculptures, and lunch at La Roca. I love road trips, and had not taken a road trip to Nogales in years, so….
When another 100-plus day taunted me, I knew I was NOT spending another sweltering monsoon Saturday in Phoenix. I *really* want to go up north. BUT — I also need to practice my Spanish before my move to Oaxaca. What better time and place than a morning border run to a long-missed trip to Nogales? I grabbed all the small bills I could gather, to make for easier bartering. Packed Edie’s vaccination and registration records, in case I was asked (I was asked but not required to verify — but why take the chance), and my passport & GOES cards. We left Phoenix and would be in Mexico by lunch time.
Once we hit I-19 from Tucson and started to pass the missions, San Xavier del Bac, Tubac, and Tumacacari. Further along, I spotted the warehouses where produce coming through the Nogales port waits for shipment to the rest of the U.S. Fun fact: an estimated 80% of U.S. purchased produce enters the country through Nogales. Another fun fact: the produce rests in those warehouses for up to a week before being placed on a transport truck in country.
Speaking of lunch… My favorite place is La Roca. I’ve been going there for over 20 years, and they do it right, every time. This is old school dining. Most of the staff have been there for decades and the service is perfect. The maitre d’ directed me to the patio where Edie and I sat on a balcony lined with potted geraniums. A perfect tamarindo margarita started to sweat on the glass… while the temperature was a sweet 83 degrees, the humidity was darn near tropical. La Roca has a near cult following and once you’ve been there, it’s easy to understand why. From the decor inside the cave to that service I mentioned, and the food…. the food! Seafood from the Sea of Cortez… and everything is fresh. Fresh, fresh, fresh! The pico is so fresh, it’s practically sassy.
Following a delicious meal of mole and more margaritas, Edie and I crossed back over the tracks and pedestrian bridge to start some shopping. The general absence of U.S. tourists made for easy bartering. Alleys filled with steer skulls, punched tin, pottery, and woven textiles in an array of colors were reminiscent of trips before the border frenzy and fear of drug cartel violence when walking across the border required my driver’s license, at most.
Friendly shop keepers invited me in and were eager to sell their wares. Whereas I usually start a barter at about 30% and haggle up to an agreed-upon price, I found myself walking out with a serape and dress for my niece for about a third of the starting price. The bartering was easy and of everything purchased, I paid around 30-40% for everything. I had the advantage of being one of very few shoppers that day.
I was on a mission for a statue of St Joseph to aid in a current real estate struggle (living in an on-the-market house can be a daily struggle of constant tidiness). Repeated pop ins to curios looking for San Jose resulted in empty hands or only giant plaster statues. Finally, the smallest one I could find I bartered down to $7 USD from the asking $22 USD. He, too, was bigger than I wanted, at nearly 10″ tall.
Crossing back into the U.S. was easy. I had my large tote of purchases and Edie in her sling. The customs agent asked me my purpose of my visit. “Lunch and shopping,” was my response. There was no further inquiry or inspection. He asked me if I had current vaccinations for Edie, and when I offered to show them, he politely declined. Like that, I was back in the U.S. A quick walk to the paid parking lot ($4 right across the street from Burger King on the border side of the road) and Edie and I headed toward Phoenix.
Crossing through the more northerly border patrol checkpoint was a breeze. Somehow, my 7.6 lb rat of a dog manages to get the highly trained border patrol canines to lose their minds. I’ve seen one do a back flip on his handler’s leash – granted, Edie tends to start the aggression with her (fierce and imposing — in her mind, only) growls and barks as we start to pull to the check point. At this stage, usually they just wave me through so their dogs will calm down. If Edie weren’t so annoying, I’d probably find the scenario amusing. But, alas, we’ve been through the scene too many times.
We stopped at Tumacacori, but alas, no dogs allowed at the mission! Sorry, Edie!
I made it back to Phoenix in about 2 1/2 hours. Pete balked at the size of St. Joseph and I assured him I endeavored to find a smaller statue. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture of St. Joseph before he went into the ground… We had an accident. When Pete put him in the hole he dug, head first (always), he was decapitated. It remains to be seen if that is going to motivate him to help the house sell quicker or if we are in for a longer sell. This is very much a sort of groundhog day conundrum!
But what about safety, right?
With all the talk about the “great, great wall” a particularly provocative presidential candidate continues to tout, the border – and existing wall – remains a controversial topic. I hadn’t been to Nogales since the Sinaloa cartel and smugglers (human and drugs) descended upon the area with increased violence. A couple of friends and I recklessly camped on a beach along the Sea of Cortez during the height of the violence, but we were not disturbed, threatened, or observant to any activity.
There are varying reports of safety. The biggest risk to U.S. tourists is probably wrong place, wrong time. My thoughts on that are there are plenty of places in Phoenix and any other large U.S. city where wrong place/time can play out. Granted, I’m a bit more adventurous than a majority of my friends, but I’m by no means an adrenaline seeker!
I felt safe my entire time, even when venturing outside of the Obregon corridor (which is generally not recommended). To be fair, though, I only saw one other U.S. couple during my entire day. I sharply observed changes and noted that this was not the Nogales I knew from shopping marathons with my mom and day jaunts with ASU sorority sisters and friends. While the squares and sidewalks were bustling and lively, I found curio shops primarily empty. Vendors were eager and flexible with negotiations.
Overall, from what I saw on my solo shopping excursion, general safety concerns apply. Don’t be a fool, and you’ll be ok. As for my day trip with Edie, I am content with my purchases and think we had a day well spent.