As usual on a border crossing day, I woke up with a mixture of excitement and dread. Excitement at the thought of Mexico and dread at the thought of dealing with customs agents and paperwork. From my late father I inherited a phobia of police officers and other government officials, which means that I work myself up into a state every time we need to cross an international border. As it turned out, my sense of foreboding was not at all justified in this case. Naturally we were scruffy enough to get called into secondary, but the agents just listlessly poked at our camping gear and confiscated a couple of apples I’d left on the dashboard to distract them. (In correct Mexican fashion, the agent filled out a form in triplicate before confiscating the apples.) Immigration went smoothly and followed the exact same convoluted sequence that I described last time. I think I recognized almost everyone in the office from four years ago. Job security!
I have a nasty flu, which made the bureaucratic tango all the more tedious, but I did feel elated when we finally hit the road and headed out into the open desert. Northern Mexico is exhilarating in its sheer vastness—mindless expanses of rock and sand and scrub and sky. We stopped at a roadside shrine to leave our last U.S. dollar to San Judas de Tadeo (patron saint of lost causes) and we got stuck behind trucks and we bought a six pack of Tecate and 20 peso burritos, and I was happy to be back.
We’d hoped to make it to Chihuahua city, but we were running behind schedule as usual (delayed by a crucial coffee stop in Bisbee), and we ended up on a remote highway as the sun began to sink. I say remote because we’d deviated from the main route in order to avoid paying for the toll roads, and we were heading instead to a town called San Buenaventura. We passed a mansion, crouching on a craggy hill, and then another. The wild landscape was suddenly dotted with suspiciously affluent homes, built in a style that you don’t often see in rural Mexico—peak-roofed and expensive, with nice windows and other fancy details.
We passed through a town that wasn’t on the map, again suspiciously affluent. I looked around for some source of income and saw scattered pecan orchards, barren in winter. But that was about it.
Eventually we rolled into San Buenaventura, a town of about 8,000, with the requisite plaza. The occasional crumbling Colonial-era house hints at an ancient past, but for the most part the town is the usual mélange of bright cement blocks. We were happy to find a hotel, the Buena Vista, which had typical but clean rooms for $400 pesos a night ($20 US). After we settled in, we wandered out in search of tacos but were surprised to find the town dead at 6:30 PM. The plaza was devoid of necking couples, abuelas, and little girls in party dresses. And, worse yet, devoid of taco stands and elote vendors. Maybe it was the weather. Sixty degrees counts as serious scarf and coat weather here.
To be honest, I haven’t spent a lot of time in central northern Mexico. Given the situation with the cartel wars, I try to pass through the border regions as quickly as possible, but even back in the good old days we usually didn’t linger, instead blazing south to warmer and more hospitable climes. I’m used to the south, where there’s always people chatting on the sidewalks and on the square.
We finally found a torta shop, where I ate a truly exemplary beef torta. I was excited to write a glowing review and begin my new log of tortas and tacos for the trip. That is until 10 pm, when Rich was suddenly struck down with food poisoning. (To be fair it could have been many other things he ate, including a leftover sandwich from Tuscon. I prefer to think it wasn’t the delicious torta.) We spent a harrowing night, and are now stuck in Buenaventura until he recovers enough to ramble.
This morning I woke up feeling trapped by the cement room with its one overhead light and oppressive orange walls. From our nighttime ramble, I knew that there isn’t much to this town—one main street, the little empty plaza, three restaurants, an Oxxo convenience store, no bars, and an exceptional number of shops selling boots, high-heeled shoes, and rhinestone spangled jeans. Rich moaned in the sweaty sheets next to me. I sneezed. Suddenly the town’s name, Saint Good Adventure, seemed ironic to me.
I went to get orange juice at a little place across the street. Two old women sat at one long table draped with Noche Buena table cloths. Above us, a fan swiped lazy circles. This cement room was fluorescent lit, and the walls were tacked with Christmas decorations and bright orange cardboard signs with hand-written menus advertising churros and jugo natural. The air smelled like cinnamon and Nescafe and grease. The proprietor, an exceptionally pretty woman in full make-up and dressed to the nines in tight jeans, heels, and a western shirt covered by a Christmas apron, came out and asked me, in Spanish,
“Are you with them?” She gestured to the old ladies. I looked at the old ladies, who sat next to each other and across the room, silent and impassive in their baggy cardigans.
“No,” I answered, wondering in what universe we looked like we were in tandem. She took my order and went back into the kitchen, where a radio blared ranchera Christmas songs. The old women continued to sit in absolute silence.
Suddenly I was struck by how different it is here. There was no way on earth that this particular room would ever exist in the U.S. Everything about it was so profoundly Mexican. As I drank my giant cup of affordable fresh-squeezed orange juice, I reflected that maybe being stuck in Mexico, anywhere in Mexico, wasn’t so bad.
Sierra Vista, Arizona
If you plan on crossing at Douglas/Agua Prieta or Naco and happen to be looking for cheap hotels on the American side of the Arizona/Mexico border, look no further than the Motel 6 in Sierra Vista, Arizona. As Rich put it, “This is the nicest thirty-four dollar motel we’ve ever stayed in.” The room was small and outdated but comfortable and scrupulously clean, and the girl at the front desk was super nice.
Crossing the border at Douglas/Agua Prieta
In the land of no signage, it’s difficult to find the immigration offices in Agua Prieta. They are just past customs. Drive around that corner and down the block and there’s an entrance to the parking lot on the right. You’ll pass through a gate. You can then enter the office through the back door.
Should you happen to make it to Nuevo Casas Grandes too early to feel like stopping, yet realize you don’t have the time to drive all the way to Chihuahua before dark, your best option is the town of San Buenaventura, which is on a short loop off of highway ten. The only motel of any size in San Buenaventura is the Beuna Vista, which offers classic Mexican rooms for about $400 (20 USD at current exchange rate). Someone has obviously taken some care with the rooms, which have bright print curtains and runners of floral wallpaper that clash with the yellow and orange walls. This is by no means a fancy place, but the rooms are clean, the sheets are clean, and the water is hot (though doesn’t have great pressure). Also, rather amazingly, there’s functional Wi-Fi.