For a quick taste of Mexico, head south to Nuevo Laredo, where you'll find colorful people, wonderful shops, and fine restaurants.
WHEN MY HUSBAND, KIT, SUGGESTED cutting our vacation time in South Padre Island short to go to Laredo for the weekend, I was skeptical. Did I really want to leave the cool Gulf water and surf breeze to head northwest to a border town, where I knew the temperature would be almost unbearable? “But there’s so much to do,” he said. I decided it could be fun. I had been to Laredo only once before, and I had never traveled there from the Valley, so the trip would be a new experience, an adventure.
I broke the news to my parents that we would be leaving the beach early, and my mother immediately informed me that she and my father would accompany us—she had been dying to go to Laredo and Nuevo Laredo for some time. I wanted to follow one of the routes listed in our driving issue (May 2002), the one from Brownsville to Laredo. So we set out on a Friday morning around ten, much to my father’s disapproval (he likes to get on the road early), and made our way through the Valley along U.S. 77 and then U.S. 83. The terrain was brown, like there hadn’t been a drop of water in the area for years. We finally approached Rio Grande City, where we decided to stop for lunch. A friend of ours had recommended the Texas Cafe, which proved excellent. There’s nothing better than good Tex-Mex for lunch. We noticed the incredible temperature difference (inland is much hotter than being on the coast) as we walked down the street to the restored La Borde House, which was designed by architects in Paris and completed in 1899. The two-story structure, with shutters and courtyards, is quite charming.
Back on the road, we made our way to the Falcon Dam, which was built in 1953. (My father remembered when President Eisenhower came to the Valley to dedicate the dam.) I was on a mission to see the ghost town of Guerrero Viejo, which was partially submerged for decades because of the dam but is now dry (Falcon Reservoir has receded after a long drought). Kit followed the directions listed in the driving piece, making our way to the marked turnoff. (For the uninitiated, the roads in Mexico are not like the ones in the U.S.; they are not nearly as nice.) The nine-mile trip from the turnoff, on a very rugged dirt road, took us almost 45 minutes. Finally, we came upon the old sunken city—and it was beautiful. The sheer magnitude of the buildings proved breathtaking. The walls were thick and the architecture elegant. We stopped in front of the Nuestra Señora del Refugio church and thought about what this town must have been like during its heyday.
Now we were in a hurry to get to our destination—the drive had taken longer than I had anticipated. (Isn’t it funny how fathers are always right?) At nightfall, we pulled into town and made our way to our hotel, La Posada, which is right on the border. After we got cleaned up, we walked about half a block and crossed the international bridge into Nuevo Laredo. From the moment we were on the Mexican side, the mood changed. I felt festive, curious. Some folks question safety, but I’ve never felt like I’ve been in danger in Mexico. As with any place, I simply pay attention to my surroundings. My father wanted to see the new Cadillac Bar—to make a long story short, the Cadillac Bar used to be in a location that now houses El Dorado Bar but has since moved. Kit and I had eaten there once before, and the food on this trip proved just as tasty. Tired and full, we made our way back to the hotel and called it a night.
After breakfast at the hotel, I decided we should do a little sight-seeing in Laredo. My mother and I stopped in at the Republic of the Rio Grande Museum, next door to La Posada, while Kit and my father got the car out of the parking garage. The museum, which is one of Laredo’s oldest structures, is located on San Agustin Plaza and is filled with period pieces from the 1800’s. Since we were on a tight schedule—something my parents weren’t used to—we all got in the car and headed for San Bernardo Avenue, where many of the import stores are situated. Our first stop was Basket and Pottery Alley, where we found everything from ceramic garlic and tin trash cans to pottery and talavera bowls. We passed a few more places along San Bernardo that looked pretty much the same; then my mom spotted what she thought would be a nice store. As usual, she was right. Vega’s has everything. We wandered through the first building admiring armoires, Christmas ornaments made of tin, beautifully carved wood furniture, and wrought-iron bed frames. Then we moved outside and raved over the multitude of outdoor furniture before moving into the next building, which displayed artwork and more furniture. Kit and I got the prices for some tables—just in case we wanted to buy something later.
Back at San Agustin Plaza, originally called the Plaza de Armas, we visited the San Agustin church, a Gothic Revival structure that was completed in 1872, before making our way to the Laredo Center for the Arts, which was founded in 1993. As we walked around the space, we saw photographs by T.R. Esquivel of local luminaries in the exhibit “Human Landmarks.” By this point, my parents were about to drop and the heat index was getting hotter and hotter. A bite to eat was in order, but first, I made everyone stop at Marti’s, just beyond the bridge. The salespeople were all too eager to sell us expensive jewelry, but we had fun simply walking around and taking in all the goods—Mexican dresses, furniture, silver, and ceramics.
Finally, we sat down to eat at El Dorado Bar. My father told us he hadn’t been there in some fifty years and started reminiscing about the good old days when he was a college student at A&M and would come down to Nuevo Laredo with his buddies and hang out at El Dorado. He had our friendly waiter—who, like the other waiters, was wearing a white starched shirt and black pants—photocopy the menu for him so he could take it home as a souvenir. After nachos and lemonade (the boys had beer), our waiter called us a cab, and we went in search of a furniture store I had read about on a Web site. It turns out the place had shut down, and according to our cab driver, was now a spot where you could take dance lessons. He told us about another import store that was better—Rafael’s. We thought Vega’s had an enormous inventory, but this place had so many things it was outrageous. We could have spent hours in Rafael’s, rummaging through room after room of tile, wrought-iron light fixtures, silver, and ceramics, but my dad was about to have a heat stroke and the cab driver was parked in the street. Kit and I got a business card and decided we would definitely make another trip—and bring a truck so that we could haul stuff back. The salesperson told us that Rafael’s would take anything we wanted to La Posada so that we wouldn’t have to deal with the bridge or customs.
After a brief nap, everyone was cooled off and in better spirits, just in time for dinner. We took a cab to Las Jarritas, which is too far to walk to from the bridge, and found the place packed with about thirty little girls celebrating a birthday. We didn’t mind the occasional screams of joy while the honoree opened her presents because the food was so good (tasty fajitas, steaming bowls of beans, and grilled shrimp). Note: The menu is in Spanish, but the waiters can translate for you—oh, and the servings are huge, so plan to share items. As we finished our meal, locals kept streaming in, which is always a good sign.
The next morning we reluctantly packed up everything and said our good-byes. Kit and I were headed back to Austin, and my parents back to South Padre. Actually, we did make a stop at Vega’s before leaving town and bought a beautiful iron table and iron candelabra. Pleased with our purchases, we couldn’t wait to get home to see what they looked like in our house.