The landscape is stark and the sun relentless as it hits the vast brown terrain of this desert city framed by mountains.
The effect is spectacular.
At night, with the splash of lights from the city that stretch seamlessly into Mexico, it is even more so.
This is El Paso, named by Spanish explorers in Mexico “El Paso del Norte” because it was “the gateway to the North,” providing a route across the Rio Grande River and up between two mountain ranges, an entry point to what would become the American West.
And it still is an entry point, but for Texas tourists it is an entry point for much more — to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico to the south and to Las Cruces, N.M., to the west. Bilingual, bicultural El Paso is not just one city — it is conjoined with Ciudad Juarez, commonly referred to as simply Juarez, named for Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s most distinguished presidents.
In a surprise to first-time visitors like me, Juarez isn’t just nearby or off in the distance. It’s right there. If it weren’t for the checkpoints at the bridges and the fencing along the Rio Grande, there would be no way to tell where the United States ends and Mexico begins.
To a lesser extent, El Paso is also connected to Las Cruces, 46 miles to the northwest.
While the three areas have worked together on regional issues, there is a new emphasis on cooperation, with the 2013 creation of an organization promoting the two-nation, two-state, three-city complex of 2.7 million residents under a catchy name: the Borderplex Alliance.
So, if you start thinking of going to El Paso, you’re thinking Borderplex, or what boosters are saying is a vacation destination times three.
Only for this Texas experience, you need a passport. That is the only way to enjoy the flip side of El Paso — the short walk or drive or bike ride across the border to Juarez to enjoy the shopping, sights, sounds, and especially the food, of Mexico. After all, the city lays claim to being the birthplace of everyone’s favorite Mexican cocktail, the margarita.
But wait, you’re thinking, isn’t Juarez one of the most dangerous cities in the world? Well, it was ranked the murder capital of the world in 2010 with 3,000 homicides. And there were so many kidnappings and carjackings that residents started driving old, beat-up models and some people moved their families to the U.S.
There has been a steep decline in that murder rate in the past five years. In 2014, there were 434 people murdered in Juarez; the U.S. State Department says 340 of those killings were related to the drug trade.
And the drug war is central to understanding the growth of violence in the city, as rival drug cartels had a turf war centered in Juarez. But there was a big reaction, too. The Mexican government clamped down, a grassroots movement exploded from citizens demanding a judicial crackdown and, finally, the cartel war subsided. The homicide rate has fallen dramatically, and in May, the tally was 20 people killed.
The State Department still gives a warning to U.S. travelers visiting Mexico and says specifically on its website: “Exercise caution in traveling to: the business and shopping districts in the northeast section of Ciudad Juarez and its major industrial parks.”
I would say the same thing: Go, but proceed with caution. I went with a group on a study tour, but after seeing the flow of people back and forth across the bridges (we walked) as such a matter-of-fact reality, I really didn’t give security a second thought. There used to be tourist trolleys that rolled back and forth between the cities but that shut down during the years of violence.
There are a few tour operators who will take you across (see “if you go”) but I think if you stick to tourist spots or call ahead to a restaurant so it knows you’re coming, you can have a rewarding visit.
And if you’re looking for what’s new, especially if you’ve been to El Paso before, here are things to see and do:
1. Baseball team and stadium
El Paso is baseball, or beisbol, crazy. In April 2014, the city opened a new stadium, Southwest University Park, right in the middle of the city. It razed City Hall to make room for it, so you know where the locals’ priorities are. It is a really nice state-of-the-art facility with great sight lines. (We went for cocktails at a meeting.)
The El Paso Chihuahuas, a Triple A team, play there now, with the season ending in September and the league championship final Sept. 22. (Juarez is in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.) Of course, the team mascot is the cute, tiny dog of the same name, only in the marketing pictures it looks more like it’s grimacing than growling.
2. New Juarez landmark
Right along the border in Juarez is The X — a red sculpture 197 feet tall right that you can’t miss noticing from either city. Inaugurated in May 2013, The X, or El Equis, by Mexican sculptor Sebastian, sits on a large 84,000-square-foot plaza as part of a complex including an acoustic concert shell and an outdoor theater.
According to the El Paso Times, the artist said that sculpture is a symbol “full of meanings, a mark to welcome people (to Mexico) and to demonstrate the ancestral Mexican culture.” He also said he was paying tribute to former Mexican President Benito Juárez, who changed the spelling of the country’s name in the 1800s from Méjico to Mexico.
3. Spaceport America
Take an excursion about 45 miles north of Las Cruces to Spaceport America, the nation’s first commercial space launching center, home to Virgin Galactic and SpaceX. In June, a visitor center opened in nearby Truth or Consequences with interactive exhibits. From there you’re shuttled for a four-hour tour of the launch area, which has more kid-pleasing interactive exhibits, including a G-Shock simulator that registers what it feels like to lift off into space.
Fair warning: It’s expensive. Tickets are $49.99 for adults (10 percent off for booking online) and $24.99 for those under 18. It’s open daily 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. but reserved for tours Tuesday and Wednesday. No word yet on being able to watch launches on-site, but staff members say that’s probably coming.
Young El Paso
As for El Paso, pop. 674,000, even at the height of the drug war in its sister city, it was a safe haven. It now promotes itself as “the safest city in America” for having the lowest crime rate of cities with a population of more than 500,000 people in the U.S. for the past five years, according to CQ Press, an independent publisher.
It’s hot, too — the arid climate means that during the warm season, late May through September, the average daily high temperature is above 89 degrees. Cool season, November through February, has a daily high around 64 degrees.
Remember you’re in another time zone, on Mountain Time.
The population of El Paso is more than 80 percent Latino and it’s young. So is everything about the city — the food, music, and the vibe are heavily influenced by Mexico, but it is what locals say is the way the U.S. will look in 20 years.
In some ways, El Paso is Texas on steroids, with some of the friendliest and most welcoming people you’ll ever want to meet. I walked into a pharmacy — never having been in the city before — and was greeted by every employee as if I were a longtime customer. Nice.
There is a constant flow of festivals. The Plaza Classic Film Festival, dedicated to the golden age of cinema, just ended (www.plazaclassic.com) and in October, a fun art festival, “Chalk the Block,” welcomes artists to beautify the city with chalk while crowds watch and listen to bands and DJs (http://chalktheblock.com).
El Paso is the state’s sixth-largest city but has a surprisingly limited number of hotels.
It has plenty of dynamite restaurants — L&J Cafe is a classic Mexican place, economical but wonderfully authentic with the best tacos ever. My companions and I had our closing dinner there and everyone raved about the food. We also went to Ardovino’s Desert Crossing, actually in New Mexico but overlooking El Paso, with killer views of the city.
For those going for the first time or those wanting to revisit some great El Paso experiences, there’s nothing like the view from the Franklin Mountains that surround the city. There’s an overlook and scenic drive that weaves around the mountains, and then there’s the aerial view, the Wyler Aerial Tramway, which, for $8 for adults and $4 for kids 12 and under, whisks you 5,000 feet up. It’s open Friday through Sunday and most holidays.
A must for history buffs, the El Paso Mission Trail has three Spanish missions, including the Ysleta Mission, the oldest continuously active parish in Texas. The Tiguas of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, a federally recognized tribe, operate the Speaking Rock and Socorro entertainment centers, which feature concerts and what look like slot machines but technically aren’t because casinos are illegal in Texas.
Among the museums in the city — a very fine El Paso Museum of Art, El Paso Museum of Archeology, the El Paso Holocaust Museum — is one you may not expect, the National Border Patrol Museum. Get a look — for free — at how the Border Patrol has changed since its start in the 1920s and how it has used cars, helicopters, boats and planes to catch people entering the U.S. illegally.
Fort Bliss, the U.S. Army’s massive 1,700-square-mile facility in Texas and New Mexico, dominates the north end of El Paso and yes, even welcomes visitors. The Fort Bliss and Old Ironsides Museums are free, and open Monday through Friday. Visitors need a valid government ID, such as a driver’s license, to get on base.
Venturing into Juarez
Now, back to that visit to Juarez. You should take precautions, of course, but it’s definitely worth doing.
After all, Juarez is what makes El Paso cool.
Crossing the border could not be more routine between these two bustling cities, with cars waiting for clearance, and pedestrian traffic and even bikes making the short trip over the four bridges.
$55 cost of a passport card to cross the border
Driving lanes back up at rush hour, but customs and border agents told me the goal is to keep the wait under an hour, and walkers and cyclists hurry on the pedestrian lanes to jobs and appointments.
If you don’t already have a passport, you can obtain a cheaper passport card that looks a lot like a driver’s license. It’s only $55 versus $135 for the blue passport book and can be used only to cross borders; it’s not valid for airline travel. It’s good for land or water crossings to Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada and Bermuda.
Check out the City Market, with a range of popular products, including leather goods, artwork, pottery and jewelry, as well as restaurants.
Right near the bridges that cross into Juarez, you can find Museo de la Revolucion en La Frontera (Museum of the Revolution on the Border) — after all, this is the land of Pancho Villa.
For younger visitors, La Rodadora is an amazing children’s museum full of interactive exhibits — 120 of them, to be precise.
You can’t go wrong with the Mexican food here. The street food is amazing — our group stopped at a burrito stand, and really, these burritos are nothing like the ones in the U.S., instead made with soft tortillas that were more like crepes and fillings that were small by U.S. standards but wonderfully tasty.
There are high-end restaurants, too, not to mention the must-stop for margaritas, the Kentucky Club Bar & Grill. Although there are competing claims about who invented this tequila drink, Juarez has a compelling story: This is where the margarita was born in 1942 when a young woman at Tommy’s Bar asked for a drink that the bartender, Pancho Morales, wasn’t sure how to make. So he invented something on the spot and, the legend goes, when she asked the name of the drink, he asked her her name.
The margarita I had at the Garufa Restaurante Argentino was unlike any I’d had in the states: a smoother, more refined version.
I can tell you this: The margarita I had at the Garufa Restaurante Argentino was unlike any I’d had in the states: a smoother, more refined version — yes, with salt — of what is one of the U.S.’s most popular cocktails.
New Mexico enchantment
Going west from El Paso, New Mexico is, as the state’s slogan — Land of Enchantment — suggests, lovely and low-key, especially compared to the hustle of Juarez.
And as brown as the landscape is around El Paso, New Mexico oozes green.
The Mexican food variety is different — maybe a little less spicy, certainly as tasty.
South of Las Cruces, stop in Mesilla, a quaint adobe town that dates back 150 years. The outlaw Billy the Kid was held in the jail and tried in the courthouse here — the buildings are still standing.
The lovely La Posta de Mesilla Restaurant, Cantina & Chile Shop is worth a stop on its own. I went through each tile-splashed room — the tropical birds in their cages were a highlight — on what was a city block, and each was different and colorful, with a colorful history to match. The tequila bar, alone, is a conversation piece.
Las Cruces, home to New Mexico State University, is a big arts center, with galleries and restaurants. Set in the Mesilla Valley, it is framed by mountains and, to the east, White Sands National Monument, the world’s largest gypsum field, where you can go dune-surfing.
If you’re willing to go a little farther north, don’t forget Spaceport America.
Lift off to the Borderplex for a true Texas experience, times three.
Maria Recio: 202-383-6103, Twitter: @maria_e_recio
If you go
How to get there
By air: Nonstop flights from DFW are less than 2 hours.
By car: Driving time is about nine hours via I-20.
By train: Amtrak’s Texas Eagle takes nearly 24 hours to get from Fort Worth to El Paso.
Passport information: http://1.usa.gov/1qrYQd6
What to do
▪ El Paso
Wyler Aerial Tramway: http://tpwd.texas.gov/state-parks/wyler-aerial-tramway.
National Border Patrol Museum: www.borderpatrolmuseum.com.
L&J Cafe: Great Mexican food: Family restaurant, www.landjcafe.com.
El Paso Mission Trail: www.visitelpasomissiontrail.com.
El Paso Chihuahuas team schedule: www.milb.com/schedule/?sid=t4904&m=9&y=2015.
Visitor information: http://visitelpaso.com.
For guided tours from El Paso: Amigo Shuttle Tours, 915-355-1739. Cost is $130 per shuttle for 5 people or fewer, plus $20 an hour.
Kentucky Club & Grill: Famous for margaritas, +52-656--632-6113.
La Rodadera Children’s Museum: www.mexicoescultura.com/recinto/66846/en.
Visitor information: www.visitjuarez.com.
▪ Las Cruces
La Posta de Mesilla: Great restaurant and place to visit in Mesilla, www.laposta-de-mesilla.com.
Spaceport America: http://spaceportamerica.com.
Visitor information: www.lascrucescvb.org.
Where to stay
Doubletree Hotel El Paso. Downtown location offers an easy walk to border crossings. www.doubletreeelpasohotel.com.
Camino Real El Paso: Located across the street from the El Paso Museum of Art. www.caminorealelpaso.com.
Hilton Garden Inn El Paso/University: Located by the University of Texas at El Paso and convenient to Mesa Street restaurants. http://bit.ly/1L1yGG5.
Good to know
Many establishments in Juarez will take U.S. currency, but change will be given in pesos.