The border between the United States and Mexico is in the news every day, in ongoing debates about immigration and spending on security initiatives. But what is it like to visit destinations along the border? To find out, writers for Travel spent time in five pairings of places: Brownsville, Tex., and Matamoros, Mexico; Big Bend National Park and Boquillas; San Diego and Tijuana; Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico; and El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
As I sat at the market in Ciudad Juárez on a weekday in January, it all seemed so familiar: The clanking of the reusable glass bottles; the greeter hollering for visitors to sit in his corner of the restaurant; the smell of grease meandering through the upstairs eatery where Axl Rose was screaming at me from a jukebox. All this while vendors downstairs sold T-shirts with the image of the late singer Juan Gabriel emblazoned across the chest while others negotiated with visitors over the price of a homemade poncho featuring the logo of the Dallas Cowboys.
The images of daylong excursions to Ciudad Juárez with my father as a child made their way into my memory, where they collided with the flashbacks of a teenage me sharing buckets of beers with friends who were convinced that going south of the border for a day was more important than sitting through biology.
I was one of tens of thousands to cross into Mexico from El Paso that week, challenging the notion that lawlessness in Mexican border cities keeps Americans at bay (but gone are the days of oral declarations; a passport is now required to re-enter the United States as the federal government continues to beef up border enforcement).
Even in tougher times, many of us never stopped coming here. It is because there are thousands of El Pasoans like me whose ties that bind them to Ciudad Juárez are familial or economic, or both. The effects reverberate well north of the Rio Grande. Texas is Mexico’s No. 1 trade partner, and the El Paso customs district saw $85.5 billion in two-way trade with Mexico, from January to November 2017. That is the second-highest total in the United States behind Laredo’s $270 billion.
In the heart of Ciudad Juárez I crossed the street to where the parishioners from the centuries-old Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe were walking through the adjacent park, the Plaza de Armas. Guards were closing up shop at the city’s old government office, now the Centro Municipal de las Artes.
Both are open to the public, and are just two of the museums and tourist attractions city officials and street vendors hope will lure visitors back to a city considered by lawmakers and human rights groups as one of the world’s most dangerous just six years ago.
Two blocks east on Avenida 16 de Septiembre is a museum that captures the spirit of one of the greatest episodes in Mexico’s history, the Museo de la Revolucion de la Frontera. The museum occupies what was the customs building during the civil war that raged in Mexico from 1910 to 1920. Recent renovations have transformed it with a modern sleekness.
Photographs of Mexican revolutionary figures like Francisco Madero, Venustiano Carranza and Francisco “Pancho” Villa in different areas of revolutionary Juárez highlight the importance of the city during the war. There is also an emphasis on how the Americans were responsible for some of the mayhem. Such is the case with the exhibition dedicated to Gen. John J. Pershing, who led his so-called “Punitive Expedition” in pursuit of Villa after the Mexican rebel leader led his forces into Columbus, N.M.
And although the writers John Reed and Ambrose Bierce are perhaps the most widely known Americans who were fascinated enough by the war in Mexico to become a part of it, the M.U.R.E.F. instead dedicates space to local photographers and writers like Melville Jean Herskovits, Harvey Kiefer and Esther Eva Strauss, whose curiosity and dedication to photojournalism helped document the war for readers in Texas and beyond.
After leaving the museum and walking back toward downtown’s Paso Del Norte bridge, I realized there remains a sense of adventure associated with going into Ciudad Juárez, which I assume could still be slightly overwhelming for new visitors. Though violence has decreased significantly, the sight of a federal police truck carrying masked soldiers clutching semiautomatic rifles can still be somewhat jarring to visitors who are not accustomed to it.
I spotted two of these conducting routine patrols before my last stop on this day trip: the Kentucky Club. The bar has been in business since the 1920s and was frequented by Americans in need of a beer, whiskey or tequila during Prohibition. It has retained its reputation as a laid-back place for patrons on both sides of the Rio Grande, and was one of the few pubs that didn’t shut its doors during the drug cartel wars that raged in the city from 2008 to 2011. You can stay here for a beer or two, or one of their famous margaritas, or spend hours on end reading about its famous patrons and watching the flat-screen televisions above the hand-carved wooden bar. As the evening wears on, available seats are fewer and the music louder.
Farther away from the cathedral and the museums Ciudad Juárez offers up more for visitors willing to take a cab, Uber or drive themselves into the city.
Villa del Mar was a family favorite growing up. The owners opened a branch in El Paso after the drug violence began but the original location is still up and running in Ciudad Juárez.
This was my first time at Los Arcos, recommended by a family friend. A delectable dish of bacon-wrapped stuffed shrimp, a beer and a bottle of water was less than 350 pesos, or about $19.
Closer to the Bridge of the Americas and Chamizal Park, Viva Mexico! stages a two-hour-long pageant that celebrates everything from Mexico’s indigenous roots to its vaquero culture with song and dance. That follows a buffet dinner that has become so popular that reservations are recommended.
Much of El Paso’s identity is rooted in its remoteness. It is in a different time zone than most of Texas. It is closer to the capitals of three other states — Arizona, New Mexico and Chihuahua — than it is to Austin. It is surrounded by mountains and desert that offer few clear distinctions as to where the city in Texas ends and the one in Mexico begins.
I was born and raised here. My mom’s house is in the Austin Terrace neighborhood and my father’s house was two blocks from the eastern foothills of the Franklin Mountains, in a part of the city that used to be called Chivas Town (so named because it was where goat farmers lived before the neighborhood was incorporated by the city).
After moving away for school and work for a number of years, I realized I had not taken advantage of what the Franklin Mountains had to offer. So when I came back, I set out to explore the hiking trails and mountain peaks my friends brag about on social media during their bike rides and other excursions.
The mountains have rugged options for outdoor entertainment—they’re one of the premier spots for paragliding in the United States—and the Wyler Aerial Tramway takes hikers and other visitors to Ranger Peak, 5,632 feet above sea level. From the top, Fort Bliss is visible just beyond the middle-class neighborhoods of Central and Northeast El Paso.
The base, one of the largest in the country, is home to the First Armored Division of the United States Army and spreads across Texas and New Mexico on more than a million acres of federally owned land. Its history is on view at the Old Ironsides Museum on the base, which features exhibits about the history of the base and the division, and rationing efforts by Americans during World War II. A plaque next to an Abrams M1 tank honors Sgt. Israel Devora Garcia, who was born in Zacatecas, Mexico, and raised in nearby Clint, Tex. He died in combat operations in Iraq in 2006. (Admission to the museum is free. Visitors must get a pass to the base before entering; it’s easy but can be time-consuming on weekends.)
Fort Bliss is one reason so many El Pasoans are so patriotic (one of the city’s main highways, Route 54, was designated the Patriot Freeway during the first Gulf War).
Like Ciudad Juárez, El Paso is experiencing its own downtown renovation, which includes the successful return of minor league baseball to the city. The El Paso Chihuahuas, the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres, who play at Southwest University Park. The nearby Deadbeach Brewery is just one of a half-dozen or so trendy spots that offer up craft beers and food-truck meals (at Deadbeach, I like the I.P.A.).
El Paso is as well known for its Mexican food as it is for its mountains. It is not that people claim the enchilada or menudo was invented here, they just believe they are better in El Paso than anywhere else. Exhibit A: the L & J Café, which has been around since 1927. Out-of-towners are quick to say the chicken molé is the best they have ever tried, but for me the chicken enchiladas are second to none.
The Tap Bar is what I consider one of the best haunts in El Paso, where it’s hard to tell if it is 8 a.m. or 8 p.m. once you’re inside. The jukebox will go from Los Tigres del Norte or Marty Robbins to Metallica within minutes.
In addition to mountains, desert sunsets and the legend of Pancho Villa, residents of both Ciudad Juárez and El Paso have something the rest of the other cities along the Rio Grande don’t: New Mexico.
Less than 10 minutes from downtown El Paso is the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino. On the way there, people cross south of the Rio Grande but remain in the United States. On my first visit I won enough to gamble and drink for free, which wasn’t bad for a lazy Sunday.
Because it is on the border, the entertainment doesn’t consist of Elvis impersonators or a tribute to the Rat Pack. It is something with more of a local flavor — a live mariachi band.
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