Best Mexican Border Towns and Regions to Visit

Mexico's border regions have far more to offer than their violent reputation would lead you to believe. Former drug-war correspondent Joseph Furey shares the charms of Tijuana, Tecate, and Popotla in Baja California, the striking Sonoran desert, and Piedras Negras in Coahuila.


A Tijuana sign under an archway at the California-Mexico border. Photo © Getty Images / f8grapher

Given the recently sharpened appetite for a wall to be built along the US-Mexico border, one might be forgiven for thinking that every town south of that line is a no-go zone, with nothing to offer the traveler but danger. But opinions, however widely held, aren't facts.

Take a peek behind “the tortilla curtain” and you’ll find natural beauty at its rawest and a wealth of food, art, and culture that will only kindle a desire to return. But as a former drug-war correspondent, whose patch was all 1,954mi (3,145km) of the border, I can tell you that when a destination has a bad reputation among Mexicans, it's not propaganda (highways crossing Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas are called “carreteras de la muerte” for good reason).

I can recommend the following locations with an easy conscience, and in a couple of cases heartily, but with a caveat – if you break the law in Mexico, the law may not prove to be your biggest problem. And if you're partial to taking the road less traveled, understand that the road back is rarely signposted.

Mexico-California border towns


The second biggest city in Mexico, Tijuana is a complicated beast. But a den of iniquity crossed with a cartel shooting range, it isn’t. It's true that cartel infighting isn't something you want to get caught up in, but for the most part the violence is highly localized in eastern colonias like Sánchez Taboada and Camino Verde, which are hardly bucket-list destinations (though yes, possibly, kick-the-bucket ones).

Though it’s still used by Americans wanting to scratch itches that are frowned on at home, TJ, as it's known to locals, is full of pleasant surprises for the traveler whose needs run a little deeper. On the southern side of “the busiest border crossing in the world”, it is, with San Diego, part of an innovative tech hub that is attracting a lot of regular investment. And it's hard to think of a city of even remotely comparable charm where you can eat and drink so well for less.

The vibe at many of Tijuana's attractions is hipster-chic, but most of the patrons are Tijuaneros. At Norte Brewing Co, the Teorema/Lúdica Tasting Room and Cerveceria Insurgente, there's award-winning craft beer; at the vegan-friendly Telefónica Gastro Park food trucks serve Baja favorites with cheffy twist and cocktails; and at the Tijuana Cultural Center, Mercado Hidalgo, and Pasaje Rodriguez, there's art, music, theatre, crafts, and murals.

Street art in Tijuana, Mexico showing a zonkey - a donkey painted like a zebra.
Street art of a "zonkey", Tijuana. Photo credit: Martha Silva / flickr

The beach, just 15 minutes by Uber from downtown, is best at the weekend, when the locals are out in number, strolling the boardwalk. The border wall is open to the public here. Swimming around it to the US is, of course, forbidden, but also perilous.

Nearby, a mere block from the Pacific Ocean, is the Plaza Monumental bullring, but for sport with a more contemporary appeal, Tijuana has soccer and basketball teams, nicknamed the Xolos (“hairless dogs”) and the Zonkeys (the donkeys painted like zebras that still heartbreakingly line the city’s streets, waiting for someone from 50 years ago to pose with them for a souvenir Polaroid).


About an hour east is Tijuana’s far sleepier cousin, Tecate. The home of the beer of the same name, the town, which unusually has no “twin” over the border, is well worth its inclusion on the government’s list of Pueblos Mágicos, places notable for their beauty, historical significance, or cultural import. About 35 minutes away, in the hills around La Rumerosa, lies El Vallecito, where the indigenous Kumeyaay (“Kumiai” in Spanish) left more than 20 sets of petroglyphs and cave paintings a few thousand years ago. In Tecate, there’s a museum, plus an ethnobotanical garden, dedicated to Kumeyaay culture, which is alive and well.


Just outside the spring-break hot spot of Rosarito, a 35-minute drive south of Tijuana, is Popotla, a cheerfully anarchic fishing village that sits in the shadow of Baja Studios, the oceanside movie lot that was built by Twentieth Century Fox for the filming of Titanic. Seafood stands and raw bars pepper the beach. Don’t leave until you’ve eaten your bodyweight in pismo and pata de mula clams, kumiai oysters, and live sea urchin. A nudge further south is K-38, aka El Morro, a year-round surf spot, and one of the most consistent, testing waves around.

Colorful boats along the shore of Popotla, a fishing village in Baja Norte, Mexico.
Popotla. Photo credit: Rebeca Anchondo / flickr

Mexico-Arizona border

Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve

Mexico’s second-largest state, Sonora is also its least explored – and its border area is where the undiscovered takes a startling turn for the peculiar. Covering close to 2,760mi2 (7,150km2), and one of the driest places on earth, the El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site is a place of high – and low – drama, a combination of dormant volcanic landscape and active sand dunes whose peaks and craters are home to a remarkable variety of plant and animal life, including the pronghorn antelope and the elephant tree.

It’s always worth keeping an eye on the weather in Sonora, for when the rains do come, the reserve erupts with color: verbenas, poppies, lilies, and the parasitic plant sandfood (Pholisma sonorae), an important part of the diet of the Hia C-eḍ O'odham people living in the region.

Desert wildflowers in the state of Sonora, northern Mexico.
Desert wildflowers, Sonora. Photo credit: Getty Images / Andrea Copp

Texas-Mexico border

Piedras Negras

Popular opinion has it that Piedras Negras, in the state of Coahuila, is the safest border location in Mexico. Its National Institute of Statistics and Geography agrees but goes one further, making it the seventh safest place in the country. It’s a credit to the city’s close economic, social, and cultural ties with its American neighbour Eagle Pass. Together, each March they celebrate their International Friendship Festival, whose highlight is the Abrazo – Spanish for “hug” – ceremony, when people from both countries line up to embrace each other on Eagle Pass International Bridge.

Piedras Negras also holds the annual three-day Nacho Fest, around the International Day of the Nacho (October 21), which honours Ignacio “Nacho” Anaya, a maitre d’ who invented the Tex-Mex dish at the Victory Club restaurant there in the 1940s.

If such feel-good stories alone, though vanishingly rare on the border, aren’t enough to tempt you to visit, there’s the Plaza de las Culturas, the city’s tribute to three of Mexico’s “founding” civilizations: the Olmec, Maya, and Aztec. As well as sculptures and other artworks, the park has a planetarium and scale replicas of the Pyramid of the Niches of El Tajín, the Yucatan Peninsula’s Chichén Itzá, and the Pyramid of the Sun in Teotihuacan – I was reminded of a Mesoamerican Vegas, with shallower pockets but in better taste.

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  • Dr josefu said

    Its awesome you hiked the border...more awesome to testify and inform the gov how the wall would be tragic

  • Mike McMahon said

    This message is for Dr Josefu , every working America that must compete against illegal labor , that pays no taxes , receives generous taxpayer funded entitlements , wants a border wall , only white guilty ridden academics and trust funded snotty leftists want an open border , America is in decline , you can’t let the entire 3rd world in illegally and maintain a 1st world country

  • Jonathan Cook said

    To Mike McMahon - your white privilege is showing. It is apparent you are far out of touch with the real world, so let me help you out:

    1. Republicans are 90% more likely to hire illegal immigrants and pay them under the table,

    2. Illegal immigrants DO NOT receive social services because they DO NOT have a social security number—NO NUMBER, NO ENTITLEMENTS/BENEFITS,

    3. Illegals do the jobs Americans don’t or won’t do like dishwashing, carpentry (there’s a shortage right now, hence the reason new home prices cost so much), masonry, lawn care, housekeeper, odd jobs that are hard, field laborers, and other manual labor jobs, and

    4. One needs a social security number to work in jobs that “compete” with Americans.

    I can assure you that illegal immigration comes from all borders, not just the one with Latin America. When I was employed with a government agency, I discovered the majority of illegal immigrants were from former EASTERN BLOC countries.

    So regarding the Wall, it needs to be around the ENTIRE USA country—it sounds like you have a skin color problem, not an illegal alien problem.

    America is indeed in a decline and has been since the Nixon administration. In the event you don’t know, Nixon defunded the US Dollar—gold no longer backs our currency, hence the reason it is a fiat currency.

    Each subsequent President and their administration has created policies that have given our power away to other countries; and America “has” to be the world’s bully, so consequently the nations we’ve allowed to become more powerful through trade, resent America…don’t even get me started on the 250+ years America has been at war or has started wars; and the exorbitant greed for more shareholder profits in both politics and corporations.

    Our government has sold you, me, and all US citizens out for profit—healthcare costs through the roof, education costs more than a new home, people working two and three jobs just to stay afloat, corporations putting profit before people, public education system is broken, no modern infrastructure, no renewable energy initiatives, tap water not safe to drink, etc.

    All one needs to do is travel to ANY country outside the USA and see how far we are behind in technology and infrastructure…but I digress.

    So, Mike, I think you should do some rethinking at the very least, and educate yourself at the very most about why America is on a swift decline AND why you have issues with dark skinned people.


  • Marcus said

    Jonathan Cook WOW!! Comment was unfortunately 💯 percent accurate in my opinion. Glad I'm not alone in this mess of a country 😞

  • Samuel OseiSrebour said

    In fact American should consider the poor ineed to take advantage of the bad situation out of them

  • John obrien said

    I associate my views and sentiments with Jonathan cook

  • Bard said

    These comments are a little outdated.
    Millions of immigrants are pouring in and handed benefits like money, phone, voting, insurance, etc... Personally I think we can (and should) allow some immigration - just not at this level and weak vetting. Most Americans are less worried about Mexicans. Certain countries (e.g. Venezuela) are emptying their prisons. Tons of fighting age males from China, Africa and the Middle East with no paperwork. I'm sure 80-90% either want to work or were in great danger. We just have to live with the remaining cost and risk. The taking of jobs isn't even on my radar. 40 years grinding has put me into a decent career and a house. Good luck all.

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