I’ve always wanted to visit Mexico and now that I live in Texas, the proximity is just right for an impulsive road trip. Unlike visiting Canada, which is pretty much safer than the United States, I had to be a little less impulsive about going to Mexico. We all know about the border violence between the cartels and there are some areas that just aren’t safe.
One benefit of working for the TABC is we have people at most border port of entries. These people live and work right on the border so they should have a good idea on how safe the border is. One of the projects I was assigned was to upgrade the software on the handhelds they use at the border for credit card transactions when they collect taxes.
The process was tedious and there was a lot of watching loading bars as the software installed itself on the handheld. Since every port of entry has multiple handhelds, I had to stay on the line with the person assisting me so when each installation completed, they could switch to the next handheld. Since there was a lot of dead time on the phone, this was the prime opportunity to ask the person at the border their take on the other side.
“I haven’t crossed in 10 years!” or “No it’s way too dangerous!” was the typical answer. I guess they were all confirming everything that the media was saying. When I was talking to the person at the Progreso port, I got a completely different answer. “Oh yeah it’s great and very safe. Many people come over and there haven’t been many issues.”
We talked a little more and it seemed like he had a very positive opinion of Neuvo Progreso. Now since everyone had been telling me exactly the opposite, I was very skeptical. Additionally he told me there was a huge festival going on on March 21rst. Coincidentally, that was also my birthday. I thought if additional research checked out, I’d take a road trip down and check things out.
Well additional research showed if I was going to Mexico, this is one of the safest places to go. I made plans to head down on March 21rst and check out the festival. As you have probably read, I have been doing traveling for work and this week I was in El Paso. I was definitely racking up the miles this week! Friday after work rolled around fast and I was tired after work. I decided to take a 3 hour nap to catch up on sleep.
After my nap, I tried getting as much homework done as possible since I was unsure if I was staying overnight or what was going on. I stayed up until about midnight and then went to bed. The alarm went off quickly at about 3:30 and I got ready for my road trip. By 20 after 4, I was on the road for a 5 hour drive to the border.
Obviously safety concerns were going through my mind as I drove. The media tends to sensationalize everything, but after talking to the guys in El Paso, the border danger is definitely real. Obviously Juarez is its own beast, but you never know. Before I crossed the border, I decided to drop by Walmart to get a decoy wallet. I figured if I were to get mugged or something, I’d give them a decoy wallet with some money in it and still have my other wallet with my passport card and the other important stuff in there. When I’d pay for anything, I’d use the decoy wallet to look like that was my primary wallet.
The festival itself was for “Winter Texans” but we all know the real term is “snowbirds.” This festival was a thank you for all the snowbirds who come down and spend their money on cheap prescriptions, dental work, and pretty much anything else that is way cheaper there than in the United States or Canada.
I dropped by the TABC border office to introduce myself and see if there were any computer issues that I could look at while I was there. At that moment everything was working fine. I took a few pictures for back in the office and then chatted with some of the people working there. They gave me some safety tips like stick to the main drag and be back before 6PM. Other than that, they said it should be an enjoyable experience.
The TABC border office:
I then walked over to the bridge, paid my 50 cent toll and started walking over. I got a nice view of the Rio Grande:
I soon find myself at the dividing line between the United States and Mexico:
As I walked on the Mexican side of the bridge I could hear people begging underneath the bridge. They’d stick their hands or hats through the small gaps and beg for money. Some people that were walking across were joking and asking each other if they have their “beggar’s nickels” ready:
I was soon greeted by the Mexico sign:
There was a sign outlining the festival that was happening that day. Notice the barbed wire (which definitely put safety thoughts in the back of my mind):
There was also a sign in appreciation of Winter Texans:
Beyond that there were people walking in the street. When I saw the amount of fellow gringos walking around, it put me at ease:
One thing that is immediately obvious is the sheer number of pharmacies and dentists. A lot of people will cross for cheap prescription drugs and dental work. At each store there was someone outside hounding you to come in and buy something or use their services.
What I find kind of surprising is the drugs the people were yelling out to try to get you into the pharmacy. “Do you need Xanax or Adderall?” Basically these were hardcore prescription drugs that aren’t exactly given out easily in the United States! They were yelling them out and advertising them like they were selling candy or hot dogs! The following is a picture of what was listed on a pharmacy’s window:
A common theme of the past two weeks, is anywhere I go, it’s been raining. It was raining the whole drive to the border and was raining on and off the whole time I was in Mexico. For a while it poured. You could tell their streets didn’t drain too well and there was a lot of standing water:
I’m guessing the drainage issues had to deal with poor design. One thing I found that was poorly designed and dangerous was this exposed power box:
One other thing I noticed was very different was the shops. I guess I am used to everything being bright and well lit. I notice a lot of shops didn’t seem well lit and their shelves looked like something you’d see in a store 40+ years ago. If you put that aside, there was a lot of cheap stuff. The following pictures show the different shops and merchandise available:
I loaded up my backpack with the maximum of 4 liters of allowable liquor that could be brought back into the United States. I also bought some cheap hot sauce, vanilla, and candy. As I walked around I saw various street vendors:
As I walked around I found a Green Bay Packer guitar coat hanger. The vendor saw I was interested in it and told me $25. I already had a backpack full of stuff and wasn’t sure if I wanted to carry it around. He then said $20. I still wasn’t sure and set it down. He then said $15. I nodded my head no and started walking away. He then said $10. Well at that price, I couldn’t walk away from it. I handed him $10 and then he asked for $5 more. I said he shouted $10 last and then he said, “Ok $10.” I did find out from another vendor that was selling also NFL stuff that Packers and Cowboys stuff is selling the best. It’s definitely encouraging to see that Packer stuff is selling well even out of the US. That vendor said he sold out of his Packer stuff.
Well now I had a heavy full backpack and my hands full with the Packer coat hanger. I decided to walk across the bridge and drop the stuff off in my car. I went through customs and actually compared to other experiences with customs, it wasn’t too bad. I just had to open my backpack and show what I had inside. He then swiped my passport card and I was good to go. I headed over to the TABC office to pay the tax on the liquor I bought. I put the stuff in my car. I found out they did have a computer issue at another port about 10 minutes away that needed to be looked at. I went and rode with a supervisor and we went to that bridge down the road. I took a few pictures and worked on their computer issue. I was then brought back to the port. I was a bit hungry so I decided to walk over again and get something to eat. I have heard how the sanitary standards of places, especially the street vendors can be very shoddy. I wasn’t willing to risk a gut bomb on my 5 hour drive home so I decided to go to Chuy’s Red Snapper. On Yelp, they had good reviews and it was possibly suggested they were associated with the Chuy’s chain in the United States, but I’m not sure how accurate that was.
I went up the stairs and was seated. I was handed some chips and a steamy bowl of salsa. It was the first time at a Mexican restaurant that the salsa was actually steaming and not served cold:
I knew the water wasn’t something I should be drinking so I ordered a bottle of coke:
I looked at the menu and everything was very reasonable for prices:
I decided on the Economy Mexican Plate to sample everything. All the food was very good:
After that, it was time to go. I had seen everything I wanted to, ate, and also it was pushing 2:30PM. I finished eating and walked back to the bridge. I had to go to the bathroom so I stopped at the one that was right after where you paid the 35 cent toll to walk back but still on the Mexican side. I saw this cobbled together urinal with urinal pucks used as ornaments:
This time at customs I was asked if I was bringing anything back and I told them, “A fully belly.” They swiped my passport card and then I walked back over. I talked with the TABC guys for a little bit and then hit the road. When I was sitting at a stop light about a mile from the border I saw a car in front of me with Michigan plates and a truck behind me with Wisconsin plates. I did find this to be a bit ironic being I was this close to Mexico and how far from my native Wisconsin. This trip was a lot of fun and I look forward to visiting again. It was very safe and I didn’t really feel uncomfortable the whole time I was there. On my way out, I even saw the Mexican Army patrolling so you know they are being vigilant on protecting tourists:
It was definitely cool to visit another country and experience the culture. I know I didn’t impulsively decide to go on this trip, but I guess the fact that I did make a day trip out of going to Mexico all the way from Austin might qualify as being a bit impulsive. This week I hit San Antonio for my Tour of Texas for work and on the weekend I’ll be in Lafayette, Louisiana to visit relatives there.