Suggestions for short visits to Mexico: where to park, what to bring, how to shop, and what to drink (safely).
After eight crossings into Mexico (seven of them at border towns), I can share some tips on how to make the most of even an hour or two in that fascinating and diverse country.
First of all, if you're driving for a brief visit, park your car on the US side. Most border crossings have parking lots right near the bridge; in some places, like Eagle Pass, Texas, the parking lot is even free. This saves you the hassle and expense of arranging for car insurance, and also saves you time. Cars crossing back into the US can back up for quite a while getting through customs, while pedestrians often breeze right through; it's actually quite a bit faster, in many cases, to walk across the river than to drive.
You'll want to use a bathroom on the American side. Bring a daypack big enough to hold some purchases, proof of citizenship and/or residency, and a camera-preferably a small, discrete one that doesn't scream "tourist!" If you're planning on doing a lot of walking, you may also want a water bottle (though it's easy enough to buy water on the Mexican side).
At many border towns, the port of entry will lead directly to a tourist strip, lined with shops and sidewalk vendors (and, usually, hard-sell merchants). Do spend some time browsing-but don't buy anything yet.
There will also probably be a tourist office or kiosk and a place to change money. Pick up a map from the tourist bureau, and note the exchange rate-but if you're only staying a few hours, you probably don't need to bother actually changing money. US dollars are freely accepted, and often the street exchange price is about the same as the banks.
When you've had enough of the hustle and bustle, turn off a side street. Now, you'll start to see a very different, much more authentic Mexico.
Suddenly, most conversation will be in Spanish (and if you speak even a few words, you'll get a lot more respect). Prices will be posted in pesos. You may hear Mexican pop music blaring from storefronts and cafes.
Even at the border towns, prices on certain items are only a fraction of what you'd pay in the US. Foodstuffs, Mexican liquors, and handicrafts are especially cheap. Find a supermarket that caters to the locals; we saw vanilla extract for 88 cents a liter (versus $2.99 on the tourist strip) [Reader comment from Linda in Montreal: Most vanilla in Mexico is fake and lots of it is harmful. If it is cheap, it is FAKE. If it contains coumarin, it is FAKE. Remember, Mexico doesn't have the same regulations as you do regarding labelling.], 750 ml bottles of brandy starting around $3, cans of chile peppers for 25 or 30 cents. Stock up! You're allowed to bring a quart of alcohol per person and up to $400 in total purchases, duty free (other than nominal state liquor taxes at some crossings). On a recent trip to Piedras Negras, outside Eagle Pass, Texas, we spent $21 to bring back a large bottle of Kalhua, a good sized bottle of Mexican brandy, a box of the wonderful cinnamon-flavored Mexican hot chocolate, a can of chiles, an instant chilaquiles dinner, and some odds and ends.
Border towns are also good places to find Mexican craft items: carved onyx chess sets, engraved copper plates, gaily painted Oaxacan animal figures, Aztec-style weavings, and more. Before your trip, visit some of the better Mexican craft galleries in your own area, so you can see the difference between quality and kitsch.
Eating and Drinking
US-acclimated stomachs don't always do well with Mexican tap water, or for that matter, food from street vendors. Safe drinks include bottled mineral water (agua mineral con gas -'gas' is pronounced with a very short "a"- is carbonated, sin gas is plain), fruit juices including homemade liquados as long as they're made from fruit that has to be peeled, cerveza-beer, of which Mexico offers a wide and wonderful selection (my favorites include Tecate, Bohemia, and Carta Blanca). And of course, that delicious cinnamon hot chocolate. Coffee probably won't make you sick but in many places in Mexico, it's a fairly wretched drink. Sidral is a wonderful apple soda.
Cooked foods are usually safest, and we've never had trouble with anything based around cheese-enchiladas, chillaquilles, and quesadillas, for instance..
After going deeper into one of these border towns, as you walk back, you may find that the tourist strip, which seemed so very interesting on the way in, has lost a lot of its charm-but still offers some fabulous bargains. Shop if you have the patience. Make your way back to the border-and plan a longer trip well into the Mexican interior-because the borders are the least that Mexico has to offer.
It was a day trip to Tijuana years ago that showed us we really needed to spend time in Mexico. The next time we got a real vacation, we flew to Mexico City and spent three fabulous weeks exploring a dozen cities by bus and backpack-still, seventeen years later, one of the best vacations we've ever had. (Click here to read two stories about that trip: exploring the magical city of Guanajuato and traveling through the Mexican heartland by bus).
Shel Horowitz, Editor of Global Travel Review and owner of FrugalFun.com, is the author of the e-book, The Penny-Pinching Hedonist: How to Live Like Royalty with a Peasant's Pocketbook, and the creator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign.
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