If you are a resident of San Antonio, and you are reading this, you have won a free trip to Mexico. You can drive down to Nuevo Laredo for a weekend of leisure and get some overdue errands done while you’re there. And the savings on the latter will pay for the former.
At least that’s how I look at it. In May, my brake pads and my supply of contact lenses gave out simultaneously. I drove around San Antonio — metal screeching on metal — seeking price estimates, and was quoted $300 for a brake job, parts, and labor, and $75 for an eye exam (not including lenses). Sure, you’ll tell me you know where I can get both for less, but my patience was wearing as thin as my rotors, so I cobbled together an overnight bag, made a stop at an auto-parts store, and struck out for the border.
Less than three hours later, I arrived in Nuevo Laredo and paid $28 for a clean and comfortable room at Hotel Diamante. By 8 a.m. the next morning, I was just around the corner knocking at the door of mechanic Antonio Ramos Rodriguez, who agreed to charge about $30 to replace brake pads and machine the rotors. I had also picked up the parts for an oil change and basic tune-up, and he charged me $8 in labor for that job. While Antonio worked, I browsed Nuevo Laredo’s street markets, sampled some local cuisine, and picked up six pairs of contact lenses for $60. I was back in San Antonio by late evening. Including parts purchased in the U.S. and gasoline for the trip, I had spent around $200, I had lenses to last, my car had been tuned and lubed with premium synthetic motor oil, and last, but not least, I could brake.
Maybe I’m just trying to justify a jaunt down there. I lived more than half my adult life in Mexico, so I like to visit the country, plus I can ably arbitrage goods and services across the border. Still, these days Nuevo Laredo is known much more for its rampant violence than for its tourism appeal, so you may be thinking: What an idiot. At least that was the most common response I received from people I mentioned my trip to. The perception that neither the bargains or the leisure activities outweigh the glaring risks is not limited to people living in the United States, either. Many Mexicans regard Nuevo Laredo as a virtual no-man’s land, too, and told me a trip there was a veritable suicide mission.
Without a doubt, the little city across the border in Tamaulipas brooks endemic crime and mayhem. Narcotics-trafficking cartels have fought high-powered gun battles in the streets, public officials have been assassinated, and the federal government was forced to take over the entire city police force a few years back. The U.S. State Department has issued a sternly worded travel warning for Nuevo Laredo; U.S. citizens have been kidnapped and murdered there; and in April someone flung a fragmentation grenade at the U.S. consulate.
So I fully expected the pall one finds cast over a city plagued by such incidents — a prevailing atmosphere of fear and suspicion among residents and streets deserted at night. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a relatively unruffled demeanor, lively nightlife, and plenty to do and see. Foreign tourism remains scarce, with visitors from abroad limited mostly to business travelers, but the locals report that life in the city has regained a sense of normalcy since the anarchic nadir of several years ago. The question for the city is how to broadcast that message across the border.
“It used to be that tourists just came,” said city tourism official Rafael Sandoval Hernandez of the government-backed Nuevo Laredo Institute for Competition and Foreign Trade (ICCE). “Now, we have to work on new ways to bring them here.” Confronting an almost negligible influx of foreign travelers, the city has focused instead on fostering tourism and recreation for regional Mexicans and even just city residents.
The outcome has been a curiously serendipitous boom for the city’s cultural industry and its overall self-image. No longer able to profit as a hedonistic destination for Americans bent on hard drinking or lured by a free-wheeling sex industry, Nuevo Laredo has instinctively turned to museums, theater, and family entertainment. That’s improved the city’s quality of life, and in the process it has created a nicer place to visit. Sure, bacchanalia still abounds, but now Texans interested in a richer experience can more readily immerse themselves in the Mexican culture without having to go as far from home.
It sure helps to leverage the trip with cost-saving chores, too. Visitors in the know — including readers of the Current — can plan a trip that combines mariachi with maintenance, history with dentistry, and alta cocina Mexicana with optometry. And we’ll tell you how.
But safety first. The national media company Grupo Reforma recently published a study based on indicators such as homicide and robberies that found Nuevo Laredo to be the most secure Mexican border city. It might be more accurate to say the least dangerous, but still, there’s a lesson in there somewhere. Nuevo Laredo may not be Mayberry, but it’s not Ciudad Juarez, either.
Los Olvidados, the famed 1950 movie classic about a gang of Mexico City street kids by Spanish-Mexican filmmaker Luis Buñuel, was marred when government censors insisted on a voiceover introduction that assured viewers that Mexico City shares the same urban woes of other world cities such as London, Paris, and New York. All cities may suffer insecurity, but authorities who insist that they all suffer it in the same way or to the same extent deal the public a great disservice. Residents and visitors alike must tread more carefully in Nuevo Laredo than in most comparable world cities. Some precautionary measures and the exercise of common sense come with the territory.
Make Sure To Pack ...
If you are only visiting the border zone of Mexico, and Nuevo Laredo falls within that, you will not have to worry about a tourist permit. You will need your passport to get back into the U.S., however, so make sure each traveler brings his or hers. It is also prudent to carry a list of contact numbers, such as those for the Nuevo Laredo Tourist Police and the U.S. Consulate.
... But Don’t Come Packing
Mexican Customs functions on random red-light/green-light signals that each vehicle or pedestrian activates as they cross into the country. A red light will trigger an additional secondary interview and quite probably a search of your vehicle or person, and if you are caught breaking the law, it will be on Mexican soil that you do so. Mexico has dramatically toughened its border, and agents are especially on the lookout for weapons and bulk cash. All firearms and ammo are strictly prohibited, and can bring hefty prison sentences. Note that you may be also be questioned or searched by U.S. authorities as you leave the U.S.; they have beefed up the exit screening as well.
The Color Of Money
Major credit cards as well as the dollar are accepted pretty much universally in Nuevo Laredo, but it’s not in your best interest to rely on the greenback. Exchange rates can vary substantially and may not always be posted. You’ll frequently be at the mercy of other people’s math skills, or worse, your own. The simplest approach to funding is to withdraw pesos from ATMs once you get to Mexico, ensuring you a decent exchange rate from your financial institution, and to use those when you need to dispense cash. (You can generally use your plastic, too.) A number of U.S. banks have subsidiaries in Mexico and do not impose an international fee if you use their own ATMs (Citibank-Banamex, Bank of America-Santander, and BBV Compass-Bancomer, for example). If you do pay fees, and you should call your bank to inquire if you will, you obviously don’t want to take out piecemeal amounts that generate mounting usage fees. Figure out how much you’ll need for a day or two, and withdraw that amount in one blow. If it makes you nervous to withdraw cash on the streets of Nuevo Laredo, you can go in any large shopping center and find machines within.
After crossing the bridge, the main drag through Nuevo Laredo’s downtown centro is Guerrero; follow it past the clutter of nightclubs, restaurants, pharmacies, and dentists and through the surface street tangle at the Benito Juarez monument; you should emerge on Avenida Reforma. This thoroughfare passes through a more modern, organized part of town with three significant strip malls (anchored by H-E-B, Soriana, and Wal-Mart, respectively, as you drive forward) and an entire range of hotels from which to choose. The Hotel Diamante offers safe, clean rooms, secure parking, and free internet; rooms range from $28 for a single to $43 for a triple. A similar family-run motel around the corner on Cesar Lopez de Lara has larger rooms beginning at $35 per night. For a more upscale experience, a mere $60 at the sparkling, newly remodeled Quality Inn (formerly the Hilton) gets you free high-speed wireless internet, a climate-controlled indoor pool, a buffet-style hot breakfast, and security throughout, including closed-circuit cameras in every hallway. Sumptuous rooms at the ultra-modern, secure, and luxurious Crowne Plaza can be had for as little as $76, a remarkable deal; you can’t miss the building — it’s the tallest in Nuevo Laredo. Further down, the Hotel Camino Real, one of the country’s best-known hospitality concerns, features striking architecture and a fairly good restaurant, but rates are dearer and internet costs about $10 per day extra, depending on bandwidth.
An internet search for Nuevo Laredo restaurants easily turns up such time-honored Mexican favorites as the Real Hacienda, the Papalote, and Rancho Su Majestad El Taco, which continue to thrive, as well as other tourist stalwarts, like the New Orleans-inspired Cadillac Bar in the centro, which are clearly struggling. A newer Italo-Argentine concept with Mexican seasoning, Tomatillos, half a block down from the Quality Inn, has flourished and recently opened a second location in Monterrey. A thick, 700-gram Argentine churrasco cut that feeds two is priced at $27 here; accompany it with a bottle of Mexico’s excellent Monte Xanic cabernet sauvignon for another $57. The best place for breakfast is the moderately priced Los Ajos diner, directly next door to the U.S. Consulate (egg dishes for $5). For a unique and very reasonably priced dining experience, the gleaming Centro Cultural harbors Mona’s, an international fusion kitchen with dishes like the Sirloin Azteca ($12) and the three-chili Desert Soup ($4).
Indeed, it is relatively easy to locate fine-dining establishments in Nuevo Laredo, but they’re not exactly easy on the budget. To eat on the cheap and still savor some excellent local fare, you have to be a bit more adventurous. After work, Tomatillos chef Jose Rubio Roldan swings by a taco stand open only from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. at 6133 Lago de Chapala, about five minutes off Reforma. Tacos of tripe, grilled steak, and spit-roasted al pastor cost 60 cents each. For a daytime snack, ICCE tourism official Rolando Hinojosa prefers a mesquite taco grill on the corner of Arteaga and Aldama in the centro. In each of the Av. Reforma strip malls, food courts have quite inexpensive, tasty, homegrown, fast-food outlets competing side-by-side with the U.S. hamburger chains there. Vegetarians can seek shelter at El Nuevo Sol in the food court at Paseo Reforma, the mall that houses the new Wal-Mart Supercenter on Av. Reforma.
If you are fond of the “Hispanic” aisle at your grocery store, or even if you are not, definitely hit one of the three superstores on Reforma and hunt for items to bring back stateside. The first thing you’ll notice is no Goya; that’s a U.S. brand. Ubiquitous Mexican ingredients entirely absent from the H-E-B Hispanic section in San Antonio, such as the corn-fungus delicacy huitlacoche, line the shelves in H-E-B Nuevo Laredo stores. Foodstuffs that do manage an appearance in Texas, such as Oaxaca cheese, are available in a much wider variety at their Mexican counterparts as well. For instant gratification, all of the aforementioned hypermarkets also operate sprawling deli sections. A passable nopal cactus salad can be snacked on for 50 cents, and a hot rice-and-meat stew for not much more weight out of pocket. In addition, all of these stores will charcoal-grill any beef or pork you buy from their meats department free of charge in their parking lot — just show your purchase receipt.
Drugs (the Medical Kind)
Unless you know whom you are dealing with, it is best to steer clear of the smaller, non-franchise pharmacies overpopulating the centro. Though the men with slick hair, shiny shoes, and good English in the centro might tell you otherwise, controlled medicines in Mexico are highly controlled, and you can go to jail for buying them without a prescription. But there are some products, such as Viagra, Prozac, and antibiotics that do not require a prescription in Mexico (antibiotics will as of August 1). You can only bring up to 50 dosage units of these products back to the U.S. without a U.S.-issued prescription, and you must declare them. A real money-saver can be the widely available bioequivalence pharmaceuticals, genericos intercambiables. H-E-B, Soriana, and Wal-Mart all have store brands for these that are manufactured in certified laboratories in Mexico; Wal-Mart has the widest and cheapest selection.
The best strategy for vehicle-maintenance projects is to determine what auto parts you may need and purchase them in the U.S. They cost less and you won’t depend on a garage in Mexico to have them in stock. You can then have the work done at a huge discount, and labor is charged per job, not per hour. A mechanic such as Antonio Ramos Rodriguez, at 3862 Av. Obregon right off Av. Reforma, will be your cheapest bet. Antonio has five decades of mechanic experience, including at dealerships, and has worked his trade in both Houston and Dallas. But if you don’t wish to worry about negotiating prices, the large, modern shops in Nuevo Laredo are still extremely reasonable, and rates are fixed and posted. The Tyre Express on Av. Reforma across from the Hotel Camino Real, or the Michelin nearby at the corner of Cesar Lopez de Lara and Anahuac are both good bets. At either you can get an alignment for $18, all four tires balanced for $16, or a front-axle brake job (sans parts) for $32. The larger, formal establishments generally have English-speakers on staff.
Fill ’Er Up
Look for service stations displaying the “Pemex Cualli” logo, a government certification of verified gasoline quality, accurate volume controls, and commission-free payment systems (cash or plastic). It is customary for the pump attendant to announce the meter is at “ceros” (zeros) before commencing to fill. All gasoline stations are full-service by law, and tipping is standard. The attendant will cheerfully clean your windshield and check your fluids and tire pressure, and you will cheerfully render a dollar or two in gratuity. Gasoline prices are set by the government, not by the market, so don’t bother hunting around Nuevo Laredo for cheaper stations; they are all the same. Regular “Magna” gasoline (87 octane) was running at $2.47 per gallon at the end of July; “Premium” 91 octane was at $2.85. Though that was in line with San Antonio prices, remember that it is full-service — make sure to take full advantage of it. It’s reason enough to fill up at some point before heading back to the U.S.
Blink and Gnash
The same rule applies with optometrists and dentists as with mechanics: You can find bargain-basement prices at the smaller, independent locales, or at slightly higher prices you can avail yourself of modern franchises with a set menu of services. For eye care you will get a free eye exam with purchase. The nation’s largest optometry chain, Devlyn, will even give you an eye exam with no commitment to buy. A three-pair box of standard soft contact lenses will cost between $30 and $40. Devlyn’s own brand, manufactured by Georgia-based Ciba Vision, goes for $25, and when you buy three boxes you receive a fourth free. At the well-established Dental Sonriza at Independencia 2738 in the centro, a teeth-cleaning will set you back a mere $25, and you can subject your pearls to zoom whitening for around $100. If you are staying at one of the hotels on Av. Reforma, the three big strip malls all have dentists and optometrists; next to Soriana you can find the sleek Imagen Dental office, which offers dentistry, optometry, and hearing aids to boot.
Rafael and Rolando of ICCE spent three days ferrying me around Nuevo Laredo to parks, museums, zoos, rodeos, and more. At the end, they worried that I had seen less than half of what they had planned. I worried about my foot blisters. There is plenty to discover, enough that it goes beyond the scope of this article. Here’re some starters, though. Get more info at tourismonuevolaredo.gob.mx (in Spanish).
At the large municipal park Viveros, there is a new zoo, still quite small; you may never get a more intimate view of Mexican Jaguars. The old passenger train station where Gabriel Garcia Marquez first set foot in Mexico — and legend has it was inspired to make the country his home — has been beautifully restored and now serves as a large facility to promote literature appreciation and a gorgeous cafe with free wireless internet. Bullrings aren’t just for bloodsport anymore, and the Plaza de Toros Lauro Luis Longoria hosts rodeos that draw international competitors, as well as rowdy Mexican lucha libre. If it’s nightlife you’re after, skip the pulsating antros in the centro and go where the chic and beautiful of Nuevo Laredo go: the trendy Maranhao on the corner of Campeche and Reforma behind the Benito Juarez monument. A bit higher up the brow, the Centro de Cultura has the Reyes Meza art museum, a splendid natural-history museum centered on the Rio Grande delta, two state-of-the-art theaters (the large one seats 1,200), and a sculpture garden. The busloads of Americans no longer pour in to paw through largely tacky arts and crafts at the old Mercado Monclovia Herrera, but on Saturday afternoons you can join Mexican families for live mariachi or norteña bands, fight the heat with $1.50 ice-cold beers, and perhaps muster inspiration to hunt out a nice piece of pottery from Tonala or silver from Taxco. Keep a lookout for festivals, such as the upcoming Celebration of Three Cultures, Oaxaca, Yucatán and Chiapas, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. July 1-18 at the Plaza Hidalgo, culminating in the world-renowned pre-Colombian Guelaguetza celebration. •