Border Bargains

Turn your house into a hacienda with Talavera tile and terra-cotta pots, hand-blown glassware and hand-carved furniture: a guide to thirty shops just across the Rio Grande where the quality is high and the prices aren't.

A THREE-FOOT-LONG WICKER LOCUST WAS MY FIRST HOME-FURNISHINGS purchase from a Mexican border town. I treasured my bug for ten years, despite a chronic beetle infestation that left small pyramids of fine dust on the floor beneath him, and loved the hint of tropical mystery he brought to my boringly provincial bedroom. Since then, I’ve hauled other decorative stuff back from the border: colorful Talavera pottery, thick hand-blown glasses, terra-cotta dancing dogs, woven wool rugs. This affordable craftsmanship dissolves my Sheetrock walls and gleaming appliances, casting a fantasy of thick adobe, warm breezes, and tequila nights.

I’m not alone in my desire to transform my home into a hacienda. Recently, several friends embarked on building and remodeling projects, spending every available weekend dashing to Nuevo Laredo for one more carved-wood column, yet another giant pot for their patio, an additional box of marble tiles. My husband and I went along on one such spree, and it was truly inspirational. The couple didn’t eat. They didn’t sleep. They shopped. And when we pulled out of town two days later, their trailer and our van were so loaded with patio furniture and pots and limestone fountains and columns and statues of the Virgin of Guadalupe that I was lucky to find a space to squeeze in the one luminaria I had bought.

What follows is a selective guide to shopping for home furnishings just across the Rio Grande. The stores run the gamut from border institutions, whose prices reflect their standing, to fledgling shops with ridiculously low prices and a here-today-gone-tomorrow feel. All of them love U.S. dollars—the prices listed are based on an exchange rate of 7.5 pesos to the dollar—and many accept major credit cards. (To phone them from the States, dial 011-52, then the local number.) I’ve arranged the shops más o menos in the order you would encounter them heading away from the river on each town’s main thoroughfare. Maps come in handy and are easily obtained from tourist bureaus on either side of the river. Finally, most car-insurance policies cover you within 25 miles of the border, but it never hurts to check with your agent to be sure.

Based on prices and selection of merchandise, only two of the towns I covered—Nuevo Laredo and Juárez—rate classification as a home furnishings travel destination. In Matamoros and Piedras Negras you could visit all the shops in the morning, pick up a Talavera lamp or a patio table, and still have plenty of time for an afternoon siesta. ¡Vámonos!

Nuevo Laredo

COMMERCE IS KING IN THIS BORDER TOWN. The combination of its enormously varied offerings, competitive prices, and relative proximity to San Antonio (154 miles), Austin (232 miles), and even Dallas (424 miles) via Interstate 35 makes this the premier shopping destination for fans of el estilo Mexicano. Enter Nuevo Laredo by International Bridge #1, which empties directly into the main shopping drag, Avenida General Vicente Guerrero. Navigating the city is a snap in your own car, and in more than ten bridge crossings over the past year, we’ve never had to wait in line for longer than twenty minutes going either way. City maps can be picked up at the Laredo Convention and Visitors Bureau (501 San Augustin, 800-361-3360) or the Nuevo Laredo Chamber of Commerce, just across the bridge (Avenida Guerrero 810, 87-12-77-07), where there’s usually someone on duty who speaks English.

Marti’s, Calle Victoria 2923, at Guerrero, 87-12-33-37; personal checks accepted. Marti’s eclectic selection and comparatively high prices support its reputation as the Neiman Marcus of the border. You enter this three-story shop through an ivy-covered courtyard. The first floor is dedicated to designer clothing and jewelry, with most of the furniture and home trappings tucked away on the top level. Wicker chairs, tables, and bedroom furniture of natural cane with green and burgundy accents were more reminiscent of the Pottery Barn than colonial Mexico (chairs $135 each, small dining table $295). But there was also a nice selection of more-traditional furnishings, like patio sets of the rustic leather-and-cedar furniture known as equipal (chairs $135, table $160, settee $295)—more expensive than at other places, but the quality justifies the price—and dining tables big enough to comfortably seat a convention of vaqueros with their spurs on (a gorgeous wormy cypress table for twelve, no chairs, $1,900; a table for eight fashioned from an antique door and ox yokes, no chairs, $1,795). I kept my eyes peeled for tiny piles of dust under the furniture, a telltale sign that powder-post beetles have invaded. I saw none here, but should you discover your wooden purchase producing dust once you get it home, a pest-control company or furniture refinisher can help you de-bug it.

Some items were reasonably priced, like large, thick wool rugs for $300 to $500, an armoire with an unusual carved basket-weave design at $995, and barstools of carved pine or pigskin and cedar for $125 to $165. But some prices would make even Stanley Marcus blush: $2,500 for a small mystery-wood table that the sales clerk claimed was eighteenth century, and $1,500 for a hip-height chest of drawers painted a rich red and green. But who could say whether $6,000 is too much for a pair of three-foot-high wooden oxen pulling a plow with a wooden farmer tending the reins?

Cem-Pochtecatl, in Los Arcos Market, one block east of Avenida Guerrero at Ocampo and Belden, catercornered from the old Cadillac Bar (now known as El Dorado Bar and Grill), 87-12-69-90, Laredo phone 210-718-2802. The cost of kitsch is high in Los Arcos, but you can find a few bargains at this shop filled to the rafters with baskets, furniture, and antiques. Naturally, I lusted after the most expensive item—a canoe from Michoacán carved from a single cypress log ($900)—but I would have been almost as happy with a couple of the high-back pine dining room chairs embellished with bas-relief swans, suns, or flowers ($93 each) or a set of five punched-tin luminarias for $25.

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