Mexican Border Towns: Where to Visit From the US

Mexican border towns have far more to offer than their reputation would lead you to believe. Former drug-war correspondent Joseph Furey shares the charms of Tijuana, Popotla, and Cuidad Juarez.

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

Given the scaremongering that has accompanied recent calls for The Wall to be built along the US-Mexico border, one might be forgiven for thinking that the towns south of that line must be no-go zones, with nothing to offer the traveler but villainy and violence. But the truth about Mexico's border towns is a more complicated beast.

Take a peek behind “the tortilla curtain” and you’ll encounter a wealth of food, art, and culture that it’s hard to believe you tried living without. But as a former drug-war correspondent, whose patch was all 1,954mi (3,145km) of the border, I know only too well the area has its challenges. With that in mind, I can recommend the following destinations in good conscience, but with a caveat – if you break the law in Mexico, the law may not prove to be your biggest problem.

Mexico-California Border Towns

Tijuana

Popular with American debauchees during the Prohibition era, and recently blighted by drug-cartel violence, Tijuana, like a lot of Mexican border towns, has been roundly used and abused. But its search for a new identity, as part of a bilingual cross-border tech hub with serious cultural cred, has paid off. On the southern side of “the busiest border crossing in the world”, it sees itself as San Diego’s strategic partner, not its poor relation. Its downtown pasajes, once boarded-up, now teem with murals, studios, galleries, and independent stores; and I guarantee that there’s no city of remotely comparable charm where you can eat and drink so well for less.

My perfect Tijuanense day would involve: a “Black Harder” tostada, a local specialty made with sole marinated in squid ink, washed down with a mezcal cocktail; catching a Latin American arthouse flick at Cine Tonalá; getting ringside for a little Lucha Libre wrestling at the Auditorio Municipal de Tijuana; and then cheering on the Zonkeys, the local basketball team (which take their name from the donkeys painted like zebras that still mournfully line the city’s streets, waiting for someone from 20 years ago to ask to be photographed with them as a souvenir).

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

Popotla and Puerto Nuevo

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 more testing and most consistent waves around. A few more miles on from there is Puerto Nuevo, or “Lobster Village”, where a dozen or more restaurants serve pan-fried langosta with beans, rice, and flour tortillas.

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

Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve near the Mexico-Arizona border

Mexico’s second-largest state, Sonora is also its least explored – and its border area is where the merely undiscovered takes a startling turn for the peculiar, if not downright alien. 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 fauna and flora, including the pronghorn antelope and the elephant tree.

They are also home to lots of stories. When I was last there, based in Puerto Peñasco on the north shore of the Sea of Cortez, I was told that, in January 1969, locals had partied with the Apollo 11 crew, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, and the astronauts had sampled bootleg bacanora, a mezcal-like liquor. A late friend, Gustavo Menéndez, a cornettist who played at the party, carried a fading photo of the occasion in his wallet, like an icon. NASA has confirmed that the reserve, on account of its otherworldly appearance, has been used several times for moon-landing training, but wouldn’t give specifics.

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

Ciudad Juárez

Reporting on the drug war in 2010, I was based in Juárez for three months at the height of its cartel violence, when it was declared “the murder capital of the world”. It was heartbreaking to see the city that was once considered El Paso’s better half brought to its knees. Just as it’s been enormously gratifying to watch it piece itself back together over the last 10 years, tackling corruption, extortion, and holding open trials, so journalists no longer have to live in fear of doing their job properly, and children can play in the streets.

Juárez’s patient rebuild can’t hold a votive candle to Tijuana’s reinvention of itself, but the city has had enough upheaval in recent years, and slow and steady suits it better. The Historic Downtown Urban Development Master Plan – to give it its full title – has done much to restore historic buildings and revitalize the tourist and business districts that were ravaged by the violence. For many, the appeal of visiting Juárez is to say that you have done so; its bad reputation has its own perverse credibility. But, as long as you stay away from the more troubled colonias, it’s now possible to visit without coming to any harm. If you’re still in doubt, let The Curious Mexican or Juárez Walking Tour lead the way.

It should go without saying that there’s more to the city than its grisly recent past. Whenever I’m in town, I pay my respects to the Flores Magón brothers, my favorite anarchists, at the Museo de la Revolución en la Frontera; I lunch on morcilla blood sausage and a torta filled with colita de pavo, or “turkey tail” meat; and I down a few sotols (an alcoholic drink made from the sap of the Dasylirion desert plant, which is native to Chihuahua).

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3 Comments

  • 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.

    JC

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