My first border town memories are of old Acuña: a wooden snake-in-the-box trinket, a shoeshine, the sight of a naked child running along the dusty main street. That was 35 years ago. Since then, the main drag, Calle Miguel Hildago, has been paved and, more recently, the sidewalks of Hildalgo’s first eight blocks have been widened and decorated with flagstone and faux antique street lamps. Now Acuña qualifies as the tidiest border town and one of the easiest to negotiate.

Across from Del Rio and downstream from the Lake Amistad dam, this city of 140,000 people has seen some growth from new assembly plants and, to a lesser extent, transportation. But it is still a pleasant semi-backwater. The main tourist strip of Hidalgo might look familiar. It was the setting for Robert Rodriquez’s El Mariachi, with several scenes, including one bloody gun battle, filmed inside the Corona Club Toltec Restaurant and Bar, a genuine country music kicker bar. Calle Madero, which parallels Hildago, is where Acuña’s non-tourist businesses are located. Here you can get a haircut from Gustavo de Acuña, buy some cool-looking black Perestroika sneakers at the Canada, or stock up on Maria Gamesa cookies and coffee at the tienda. On Hidalgo, the most interesting merchandise I found was at Jesse’s, El Nuevo Bazar, and the Golden Brush, which has extensive stocks of gold and silver jewelry, coins, and hard-to-find devil figurines from Ocumicho, Michoacán. I paid $15 and $19 for my diablitos.

EATS Crosby’s, at Hildago and Matamoros, has been Acuña’s great dining tradition for more than sixty years. Remodeled with fine wood, frosted glass, green trim, and imitation Fiestaware, the place serves up a good meal. I recommend avoiding the Mexican cuisine and going for something more imaginative, like the lake bass in white sauce. Save room for the bananas flambé. Locals are big on Asadero La Posta, 350 Allende, which specializes in grilled meats. The beef and chicken fajitas and the filet Tampiqueña, a steak doused with salsa and accompanied by an enchilada, were not tough or greasy. The lemonade was superb.

HOTELS The best accommodation in town is the Hotel San Antonio (on Hidalgo), a three-story white stucco lodge with a red-tile roof. It offers off-street parking and reasonably-priced doubles. Ask for a room with a balcony overlooking Hidalgo.

SIDE TRIP Take the long way home: Head west on Hidalgo, turn right on Allende, cross a narrow bridge, and then turn left on Adolfo López Mateos, the highway to Lake Amistad (or Route 2). You will pass a large group of maquiladoras, before meandering through open brush country to the six-mile-long Amistad Dam, as dramatic a port of entry as there is on the Texas-Mexico border. Check out the statue of Tlaloc, the rain god, on the Mexico side. Just remember, this crossing closes at 4pm and it’s fifteen miles back to Acuña.

TIPS The bridge, two lanes in both directions, is three miles from downtown Del Rio via Main Street. An alternate route via Qualia Drive passes the Val Verde Winery and the Doc Brinkley mansion. Buses to Acuña leave every thirty minutes until 6:30pm from the station in downtown Del Rio (95 cents one-way; the last bus back to Del Rio leaves at 7pm). The telephone number for the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce is 210/775-3551. The area code for Ciudad Acuña is 011-52-877.