A century-old church in old town Nogales.

Is Nogales, Mexico safe? Will we get caught up in drug trafficking? How long will it take to cross the border? Is it even worth it? Despite the reputation for drug violence and underground tunnels, we decided to see what the town is really like. Below is what happened when we crossed the border for the day.

Border lot on Park Street.

Walk or Drive Into Nogales?

Not a hard decision really for a first time border crossing. We left our car in a lot on the U.S. side of Nogales and walked across the border. We found a lot on Park Street (really). You can leave your car all day for $2.00, plus they have clean restrooms. There’s also a McDonald’s right in front of the border crossing, which is a good place for a restroom stop. We paid our $2.00, and left the green ticket in the car window. There were a few yellow boots on the tires of several vehicles. It makes one wonder what happened on the other side of the border? We were confident that we would be back by the 7pm closing time. We started walking.

Travel Safety

In 2007 and 2011 (when I was stationed in Arizona), military personnel were prohibited from crossing the border. We weren’t allowed to visit even the U.S. side of Douglas or Nogales. Although I’ve lived in southern Arizona for almost two years, we haven’t had the desire nor the time to cross the border. We really didn’t know if it was safe, or of the stories of shootouts in the streets were true. We decided to take a few safety precautions before we left home:

  • Only brought one credit card, passport, and $40.
  • Left the silver jewelry and coach bag at home.
  • Wore jeans and a t-shirt.
  • Left the big red DLSR at home in favor of a decade-old point and shoot.
  • Packed hand sanitizer and tissue paper.
  • Hats and sunscreen are a necessity. The sun was intense, even in March.
  • Bottled water is sold everywhere but we still brought a liter each.

Crossing The Border

Crossing into Mexico is quite simply, the most ridiculously easy border crossing ever. Just walk through the turnstile and that’s it. Welcome to Mexico. No one looked at, or even talked to us. We weren’t asked for a passport, or to declare anything. No one searched or x-rayed our bags. We felt like we had done something wrong. So this is how it’s done. Stroll across the border like it really isn’t a border. After all, thousands cross every day to earn a living. After crossing the borders of twenty countries, this is by far the easiest.

One of many colorful shops.

Walking Around Nogales

Nogales, is not a tourist town. Were were among a few other Americans wandering around, but most people were going about the business of daily life. The tourists crossing into Nogales are going to visit the dentist or pharmacy, and that’s it.

No one but Joey and I were wearing hats. They’re hiking hats so we stuck out like gringo tourists. The first three blocks are lined with dentists, pharmacies, nightclubs, bars, shops, as well as the usual colorful Mexican tchotchkes. The dentists and pharmacies all have someone outside calling you to stop in for a minute.

No, gracias, I don’t need a half-gallon of unsealed vanilla right now.

Once you leave the three or four tourist blocks, a whole different Nogales emerges. As soon as we started to get the, “what are you doing all the way up here stares,” we turned around to find some lunch.

Be Prepared for the Staring and Requests for Money

Even though it was a Tuesday and the middle of the day, there were a lot of people just sitting around and doing nothing in Nogales. Men, women, children, just sitting. Mexico officially did away with the siesta a few years ago. My guess is that these people did not have employment. People stared at us everywhere we went. Back home my teacher’s salary and side gigs don’t seem like much, but just across the border, it’s truly wealthy.

The requests for money began immediately. Children and adults alike all wanted a dollar. It was much worse and much more aggressive than strolling down the streets in Tulum. Although I did my best to hide my “wealth” by dressing in a jeans and t-shirt, and leaving the jewelry and expensive bag at home, we still looked like wealthy gringos. A few minutes into the trip I realized that we ARE wealthy. We have so much to go back to at home.

A government building in Nogales.

Is Nogales Safe?

First of all, the rumors of gun battles in the streets and drug trafficking on every corner are simply not true. We felt perfectly safe the entire time. However, the people watching our every move made me a little nervous. Nogales seemed fine for the day, but it’s not a place I would want to visit at night. Next to every shop was a bar or nightclub.

Just like Cancun, garbage is everywhere. When I say everywhere, it’s not an exaggeration. It’s also not a stretch to say that Nogales is the worst smelling place I’ve ever visited. China is a close second, but the stench of open sewage in Nogales is unbearable. We saw it bubbling up out of the street and being hosed away at one point.

Let’s Talk About the Sidewalks

Strolling through Tucson and Sedona’s perfectly maintained sidewalks can spoil a person. In Nogales, the pavement is broken and uneven. Unexpected changes in sidewalk elevation occur without warning. Holes big enough for your entire foot and leg to pass through are also common. Joey and I were continually looking out for each other by pointing out the hazards. My visit was uneventful, but it’s easy to see how a serious injury could occur. Be careful and pay attention to the sidewalks in Nogales. The residents are used to them, we aren’t.

Shopping

The main shopping areas are on Campillo street and Obregon streets. As soon as you cross the border walk three blocks on Campillo Street, then turn left on Obregon Street. That was the extent of our three hours of wandering. There wasn’t a single item worth taking back home. Although I’m a huge fan of sterling silver jewelry, all of the “silver” jewelry in Nogales isn’t real silver. It felt weird crossing the border back into the U.S. without anything to declare. Although a pair of $15 Aztec-themed onyx bookends caught my eye, I had nowhere to put them and didn’t feel like carrying them around. My general feeling is that Nogales isn’t for shopping. Americans cross the border to go to the dentist and buy cheap prescription drugs and and then leave. Purchasing a trinket isn’t even on the radar.

A decent lunch at Restaurant Sinola.
Really good ice cream.

Eating

We ate twice in Nogales. Even though I failed to follow my own rule of never eating on the “tourist” strip, both meals were inexpensive and pretty good. We had carne asada tacos at Restaurant Sinaola. The place was packed at 1pm. Crowds at a restaurant are always a good sign. The staff was friendly and the food was good. The beef was a little less lean than I’m used to. The total for five tacos and two drinks, $9. Not bad, even though during our wanderings we saw plenty of shops where lunch could be had for half of that. We also had ice cream at La Michoacana. Even though lunch didn’t win any awards, the ice cream was really good, and I would go there again. 

The border fence.

Crossing Back into the U.S.A.

Joey after seeing the line to get back into the U.S.

My first question is, why do all of these people keep shoving to the front of the line? Yes, shoving, with sacks full of who knows what. While Joey and I were chatting with a lovely couple from Tucson, we noticed people still shoving their way up front. We also noticed tourists bypassing our line to go stand in a line with a big sign overhead that stated “Sentri Only.” I wonder why no one else was in that line? SENTRI is the pre-approved clearance, expedited border crossing process. No one was staffing that line. The tourists standing there were looking angrier by the minute that no one was helping them. It was amusing to watch the spectacle from a distance.

Still Waiting

After ten minutes or so of the line-shoving, our conversation partner asked what was going on. “Oh we’re over the age of 62,” was the scornful reply to us rabble still waiting in line. Evidently our conversation partners were over the age of 62 because by the time we turned around, they had pushed their way up front as well. We were left in a line talking to what was probably a soldier not supposed to be there. We continued to watch the minutes tick by. The line looked really long and it wasn’t moving very often. Since I still have a few more decades before I turn 62, we stayed put and watched the line inch forward. There was lots of complaining and angry looks. I thought to myself that no one in this line has ever snaked their way through three hours of customs at London-Heathrow.

It’s Our Turn

A half hour after we queued up we were finally standing in front of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agent. He looked at my passport and didn’t so much as speak to me before waving me through. Could he see that I was ex-military or where I’ve traveled before? Who knows. Joey was only asked, “where’s home,” before being waved through. The total time from queuing up to setting foot on American soil: 32 minutes. Not bad. Although it was 3pm on a Tuesday. We both agreed to never cross the border on a weekend.

A Privilege Check

We’ve been to Mexico before. After living for almost two months in the Yucatan, we thought, “ok it’s just  touristy Mexico again.” Quintana Roo and Sonora are nothing alike. Nogales isn’t a tourist town. It’s a town filled with ordinary people just trying to get by. Would we go there again? Probably not, but there are other border towns to explore in Arizona. I am certainly grateful to return to a clean, safe home, hot shower, and pleasant smells. We chose a small apartment when we moved to Arizona so we could still enjoy the privilege of travel when we want. Visiting Nogales made us realize just how rich we really are on the other side of the border.

19 Comments

  1. jeffrey holland

    Thanks for your blog and great photos. My sister is a retired Spanish teacher and we make the trip to nogales at least once a month so she can keep up with her Spanish. We live in green valley so the trip isnt far. We enjoy eating at Leos, a Mexican cafe just across the border with great food, prices, and warm people. I also buy some of my medicine at the pharmacy. I have never had to use a passport, only my drivers license and once in a while they will ask for birth certificate. There is a separate line for those without passports though and it is usually slower.

    • Glad you found it useful. We just started using the dentist in Nogales and have nothing but good things to say about it.

  2. Can i get back into the U.S.with just a drivers license..Since Im a felon and cant get a passport

    • Nikki Spaulding

      Yes and no. Technically they “have” to let a US person back in the US. BUT you have to have a chipped license or a birth certificate with a regular license. You have a very good chance of being pulled into secondary if you don’t have proof or passport.
      If I were you, I would not risk it without asking appropriate channels. Many things need to be considered depending on your felony. Plus, on the chance you get stopped in Mexico, you could find it difficult to leave.

    • I wouldn’t recommending leaving the U.S. without a valid passport.

  3. Hey, Jen, thanks for the narrative. Friends and I go to Puerto Penasco a couple of times a year to fish (but it’s not about the fish). We go through Sonorito (south of Ajo, Az) without and time or hassle, in a van. This time, however, we are heading to San Carlos, about 8 hrs from PHX. And passing through Nogales so I wanted some heads up. Thank you.

    • Nikki Spaulding

      I would be interested to hear about your trip to San Carlos. Since my last post in July, I have moved to Nogales, Mexico. Within days I knew all of my neighbors. I’m on my own, unless you count my 4 pugs. As a female, I can say that I feel safe. I’d really like to travel further into Mexico and visit San Carlos, Kino bay, among many other places.

    • How is Rocky Point? We’ve really been wanting to visit.

  4. I have to agree with Nikki Spaulding and also sorry your experience to Nogales was not that good for you. I just finished my first trip there after living in Arizona for 11 years and had a really wonderful time in Nogales. The culture, the food, the people were wonderful. Not once was I hounded to buy anything or stared at for looking different. I had done my research, read all the “travel alerts” from the US State Department and read other reviews on the city. Most of what I read was not very favorable for Nogales which I thought was pretty unfair considering I had a great time during the day and at night. I never had any issues whatsoever- all I came across was very nice and helpful people. Crossing the border was as simple as could be. I think all the “cartel rhetoric” has stopped many from visiting, but I have seen more violence on our side of the border in Tucson and Phoenix. I would say to everyone, no matter where you visit, always be aware of your surroundings, do your research. To those that recommend Tubac, AZ– that’s nice but it’s not Mexico. If you want a real Mexican experience-go to Mexico! I would recommend visiting Nogales and doing just that- at least getting a taste of real Mexican culture.

    • Thanks for the comments. I appreciate your perspective. We’ve lived near the border for over two years now and it’s definitely not as bad as the media claims. I’ve been busy lately but we plan many more trips to border towns. There’s a very rich and diverse culture just over the border. I agree with your comments about Tubac, it’s nice, but it’s not Mexico.

  5. Nikki Spaulding

    I am sorry you did not have a good experience in Nogales. I travel there frequently, at least once every month or two. I have made some great friends there. I have stayed on both sides of the border with no issues. I have crossed back to the US at 10 or 11 pm after going out with my Mexican friends for dinner and drinks. The only thing I agree with is the border line. However, CBP has discontinued the “senior” line although some still try it with the help of coyotes. I’ve seen CBP make them wait or send them back.

    • Hi Nikki. Do you usually stay with friends or in town? We definitely want to explore Nogales a little bit more.

      • Nikki Spaulding

        I have my own apartment now, about 10 minutes from the border. Prior to that, I typically stayed at Fray Marcos de Niza which is right on Campillo. It’s on the “pricey” size at approximately $50-60 per night for a double room, has coffee in the room, is pet friendly and includes breakfast. Plus, I love their restaurant and the general atmosphere. I’ve also stayed at Hotel San Carlos. It’s a decent hotel and costs about $25-30 for a double room. Very basic hotel. San Carlos is off of Campillo on Benito Juárez. The police station is close by which is nice. But there is no restaurant in the hotel, but a cafe attached that I haven’t tried. It’s also right next door to Regis, a popular local bar, which is great! And I was quite surprised how quiet my room was being that close. Both have free WiFi, parking, cable TV, private bathrooms, clean and safe.
        I prefer Fray Marcos but you will need to call yo make a reservation.
        Next time you come down, let me know. After the Thanksgiving holiday. I won’t be heading to the states for awhile (except to go to PetSmart).

  6. I found this info to be very helpful, as I will be in Southern AZ a week from now. I don’t like the idea of walking into Mexico, and would prefer to drive. But I wonder if parking is a problem, and my car is very nice and I am worried a bit about that too. Years ago I heard horror stories of pilots with small planes landing in different areas of Mexico, who had their planes confiscated from them for no reason at all. Not in a mood to have my Benz taken from me…

    I appreciate the good writing, exceptional English, and great info. Fun to read. SUPERB !

  7. Thank you for taking the time to document your experiences… enjoyed!

  8. Steven Shippee

    How much can you incorporate your travels into lesson plans?

    • Hi Steven, I incorporate my personal experiences into my lesson plans whenever possible. SInce I teach history, that’s fairly often.

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