The area along the U.S./Mexico border has long had a negative stereotype in the imagination of many Americans. Assuming the area to be riddled with drug-related murder, poverty, kidnappings, maquiladoras and a scorched desert landscape, many shudder at the mere mention of a trip to Northern Mexico. Though many border cities can indeed be dangerous, to discard the region as a whole would be a huge mistake. If you find yourself near the border and get that insatiable itch to travel south into the Mexican universe, here are a few places, an easy drive from the U.S., that are safe and well worth visiting.
125 miles south of the U.S./Mexico border lies capital of Nuevo León, Monterrey, the third-largest city in Mexico. Not only does it boast one of country’s highest standards of living, but is also the cultural capital of Northern Mexico, with a generous offering of entertainment and cultural activities. The city’s history traces back to 1596, but today Monterrey is an exuberant, modern and youthful city, with cutting-edge contemporary architecture (such as the Puente Atirantado) and imaginative museums.
Monterrey’s most famous landmark is the Cerro de la Silla, the saddle-shaped mountain that rears above the skyline. If you’re fit, there are hiking trails to its peak. The heart of the city, however, lies along the Gran Plaza, also known as the Macro Plaza, a multilevel urban renewal complex filled with monuments, sculptures and fountains, with an eclectic mix of colonial and ultramodern architecture. From the Gran Plaza it’s a short horse-drawn carriage ride to the Barrio Antiguo, the oldest part of the city, home to many hotels, museums, and restaurants.
An interesting place to visit is El Obispado (Bishops’ Palace), which was built in 1789 and stands on a peak overlooking the city. It houses the state’s regional museum, the Museo Regional de Nuevo León, and contains exhibits on Mexican haciendas and the Revolution. Another museum worth checking out is the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey (MARCO), the Museum of Contemporary Art, on the Gran Plaza, which houses a fine collection of paintings and sculptures by renowned international artists.
If it’s action you want, Monterrey is also a great place to get a taste of Mexican profession wrestling, Lucha Libre, which is characterized by its colorful masks and high-flying acrobatics. The matches go down at the Coliseo Arena, across the street from the Central de Autobuses. From May to December you can also catch bullfights, featuring top-tier professional matadors, at the Plaza de Toros Monumental.
Small, handsome, colonial Saltillo, just 90 kilometers west of Monterrey, has colorful history and can be visited on the same trip as Monterrey. Founded in 1577 by Spanish colonists, Saltillo is the oldest post-conquest settlement in northern Mexico. Home to numerous Mexican intellectuals during the 20th century, it was once known as the “Athens of Mexico”, and it is still considered a cultural city. It was the site of the first same-sex civil union in Mexico in 2007 and its living standards are among the highest in Mexico. It was even chosen by Inversionista magazine as the best Mexican city to live in.
The city’s colonial center is its major attraction — built of pink marble, it gives Saltillo’s architecture its distinctive flavor. Prominent buildings are the cathedral (built from 1745-1800; the best example of colonial religious architecture in northeastern Mexico), the Palacio de Gobierno, the Ateneo Fuente and the Instituto Tecnológico de Saltillo.
Saltillo is known internationally for its earthen ceramic floor tiles and its brightly colored shawls, known as sarapes, but it is also home to two world-class museums: The Museo de las Aves de México (Bird Museum), featuring a collection of bird specimens from all over Mexico in realistic displays; and the Museo del Desierto (Desert Museum), which focuses on the geography, geology, paleontology and biodiversity of the Chihuahuan desert.
If you’re shopping for a great road trip and like camping, Mexican beer and beautiful beaches, the Baja peninsula is the place for you. Beginning at the south end of California and protruding 800 miles into the Pacific ocean, the Baja peninsula is one of the longest peninsulas in the world. Quaint old mission towns, desolate and remote deserts, tumultuous sand dunes, towering cacti, dormant volcanoes and luxury beach resorts and are just some of the things on offer as you make your way down the coast. Along the way camping and hiking opportunities are plentiful, and because much of the region is sparsely populated or unpopulated, the possibility of assembling your tent each night on an empty beach is just one of the perks of Baja California.
The peninsula is also a world-class surfing, sailing and deep-sea fishing destination. The Pacific coast is ideal for surfing, particularly Playa Costa Azul’s 3km beach, whereas the eastern shore, along the Sea of Cortez, is potentially more inviting to beach-goers. Baja California is also a great place to see grey whales. From December to April, it’s possible to see them from the shore, blowing or breaching, as they migrate south for their breeding season. Whale-watching tours can be arranged from most major towns and ports. The best spots are are San Ignacio Lagoon, Scammon’s Lagoon and Magdalena Bay.
Read more about Mexico’s Best Surf Spots
Often referred to as the “Galapagos of Mexico”, the biodiversity and unusual ecosystem of Cuatro Ciénegas (Four Marshes) is a must-see for any ecotourist traveling Mexico. Located in the desert region of northern Mexico, among massive white sand dunes of pure gypsum, Cuatro Ciénegas is about four hours’ drive from the U.S. border. The oasis, with its collection of water springs and marshland surrounded by sweeping desert vistas, will simply floor you.
The site is a protected natural reserve where unique plant and animal species thrive in cool pools called pozas, which are fed by underground rivers that percolate up through the desert floor. The cyanobacteria colonies that live in these pozas are extinct in most of the world and can be linked to the origin of the oxygen-rich atmosphere of the planet more than 3 billion years ago. The adaptability of plant and animal life in the region is so unusual that NASA has stated the biological reserve could have strong links to discovering life on Mars. There are some 150 different plants and animals endemic to the valley and its surrounding mountains, including some 30 aquatic species. Cuatro Cienegas’ two main tourist attractions, Poza Azul, home to three rare semi-aquatic endemic tortoises, and Las Arenales are great places to spot these unique creatures.
It takes about 10 hours to drive from El Paso to Copper Canyon (Barranca del Cobre), but the effort is certainly worth it. The canyon system, located in the Sierra Tarahumara in the southwestern Chihuahua, is one of the largest and most complex canyon systems in the world. It is larger and deeper than the Grand Canyon and contains a vast array of habitats, rich in natural splendor, biodiversity and cultural history.
There are numerous waterfalls and hot springs hidden away in the back-country, which can be reached by hiking, horse, or donkey, but the most popular way to get around the canyonlands is by train. The Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacífico, which runs along the main canyon, Canyon Urique, between Chihuahua and Los Mochis on the Gulf of California, comprises 405 miles of rails with 39 bridges and 86 tunnels. The total trip takes approximately 15 hours.
Highlights of the area include Candameña Canyon, the least busy and least explored canyon in the park, and Piedra Volada Falls, which at 463 meters is the highest waterfall in Mexico. The Raramuri Indians who inhabit the canyons are one of the largest and most traditional native American societies in North America.
Bird Watching, horseback riding, mountain biking, rafting, rappelling and rock climbing are also popular activities, and there are numerous hot springs in the area, the most developed and well known being the Recohuata (Recowata) hot springs near Creel. Farther off the beaten path, and perhaps the most atmospheric, is the Owerabo hot springs, which are undeveloped and form natural pools that mix with a waterfall that plunges into the area from surrounding cliffs.
In the nearby town of Creel there are plenty of cheap guest-houses and restaurants, while within the canyons are the towns of Batopilas and Urique.
A 3.5-hour drive from Phoenix, Arizona, about 70 miles south of the border on the shores of the Sea of Cortez, the beach city of Puerto Peñasco, also known as “Rocky Point”, offers a great budget weekend get-away. 25 years ago Puerto Peñasco was a fishermen village that had no more than 3,000 people, but is now one the fastest growing tourist centers of northern Mexico.
The story goes that Al Capone used Puerto Peñasco during prohibition as a transfer point for liquor into the United Sates. It is said that he drilled Puerto Peñasco’s first water well, constructed a landing strip and also built the first solid-structure building, which today is known as “Posada La Roca”, an eight-room hostel in the fish market area.
Fishing trips, Cruises, ecotours to Bird Island, snorkeling, dolphin and whale watching, parasailing and ultralight flights are some of the activities on offer. There are also plenty of quad rental shops and several agencies that rent out horses for rides along the beach. For a more relaxing experience you could stroll the fish market area, which overlooks the Sea of Cortes and has many souvenir shops, restaurants, bars and ice cream parlors.
Puerto Peñasco basically has two beach areas, separated by Whale Hill. To the north you have Sandy Beach, which starts at Playa Hermosa and stretches five miles to Cholla Bay. It is flanked by a congeries of newly developed condos, resorts and hotels. The other beach area is located to the south-east of Whale Hill, starting with the city’s oldest developed beach, Playa Mirador, known for its great tide pools, where a wide variety of sea creatures can be found when the tide is low.
Puerto Peñasco is also known for its riveting nightlife, and there are many great places to get wasted on margaritas and dance, including Manny’s Beach Club, Pink Cadillac, Baja Cantina, The Reef Club, Margarita Villa and Bumaya.
Near the U.S. border in northwestern Baja California, near Mexico’s most popular wine-producing valley, the Valle de Guadalupe, sits the city of Ensenada, locally referred to as “La Bella Cenicienta del Pacífico” (The Beautiful Cinderella of the Pacific). Flanked by small mountain ranges and nestled in a Pacific inlet, Ensenada is a popular port of call with cruise ships in the region. Its beaches, such as San Miguel, great for camping and drinking, as well as private beaches such as Estero Beach and Mona Lisa, which have resort accommodations and facilities, draw tourists from around the region.
The Ensenada area also has several celebrated surfing spots, such as San Miguel Beach, California Trailer Park, Stacks and Tres Emes (MMM), all located on the coast north of the city. Todos Santos Island, a small island about 2 hours by boat west of Ensenada, is a world-famous surfing spot where wave faces can reach above 60 feet. The Billabong XXL surfing contest has been held several times.
About 19 miles southwest of Ensenada, along a road that offer beautiful views over the sea and cliffs, is La Bufadora, or “blow-hole”, the largest marine geyser in the world. It blast up brine more than 100 feet above sea level. Just be sure to arrive early, before the crowds.
Between the months of December and March, as well as April and May, gray whales can be spotted from Ensenada’s coasts. Sightseeing tours are available every day during migration season. Sports fishing is also popular in Ensenada, with short-range day trips good for reeling in Bass, Bonita, Barracuda, Cod and Yellowtail. Longer range trips can also be arranged if it’s Tuna, Albacore or Dorado you’re after. If you’re in town around August you can also check out the Wine Harvest Festival (Fiestas de la Vendimia). Every year the harvest season is celebrated throughout the Guadalupe Valley and Ensenada hosts a series of events, ranging from private wine tastings and galas to concerts in the vineyards. The end of the harvest season is commemorated by a two-day free event at the Santo Tomas winery.
Learn about Baja Mexico’s growing wine region
Paquime (Casas Grandes)
About one hundred miles south of Columbus, New Mexico, in a wide, fertile valley on the San Miguel River, sits the UNESCO world heritage site of Casas Grandes (also known as Paquimé). It is one of the most significant, largest and most complex archaeological sites in the region.
Evidence shows settlement in Paquimé began as far back as 1130 CE and reached its pinnacle in the 14th and 15th centuries. The area served an important role in trade between the Pueblo culture of northern Mexico and the advanced civilizations of Mesoamerica, but the community was abandoned around 1450 CE with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors. Only part of the city has been excavated, but the remains are extensive and could easily make a pleasant day trip. While you’re there, you might also want to check out the village of Mata Ortiz, about eleven miles to the south, home of famed Mexican potter Juan Quezada. It is one of the best place in Mexico to buy pottery.
- David Joshua Jennings