Things to do in Nuevo Laredo

Going to Nuevo Laredo? Rarely does anyone go to Nuevo Laredo for its own sake, but, as the busiest land port in North America, many pass through it. It is the point where the PanAmerican Highway crosses into the United States via Mexico and as such, while it may not be the destination itself, you might find yourself in Nuevo Laredo merely passing through en route to points further North or South. You might also be visiting San Antonio, Laredo, or some other South Texas town and be lured to the border to see what’s on the other side or to say you’ve been to Mexico.

If you are heading to the border only to say you’ve been to Mexico, I might recommend you cross at Eagle Pass/Piedras Negras instead of Laredo. Why? For one thing Piedras Negras is not as busy a town as Nuevo Laredo and, if it is your first time in Mexico, it might be easier to ease yourself into Mexico. The traffic queues are also a consideration, as to return to the US from Nuevo Laredo, the bridges are very often backed up with both pedestrians and cars (I will talk about this later).

Entering

There are three bridges that connect the Two Laredos for private vehicles. If you are driving, you will have the option of crossing Bridges 1, 2, or 4. If you are on foot, you will have to use Bridge 1. Bridge 2 is at the end of I-35 and connects with Blvd. Colosio in Mexico. If you are not stopping in Nuevo Laredo, or are simply not heading downtown, Bridge 2 is often the most seamless option. Bridge 1 is accessed from Downtown Laredo and will connect you directly to Downtown Nuevo Laredo.  Bridge 4 is a little ways out of Laredo and crosses at Colombia, Nuevo Leon, a different state from Nuevo Laredo. While Colombia is an interesting small village, that particular bridge is a rather out of the way option if you are bound for Nuevo Laredo.

Getting into Mexico is generally pretty quick regardless of the bridge you use. All three bridges cost $3.00 to cross going into Mexico, payable in US Dollars or Mexican Pesos. You will notice a different road surface when you pass the border plaque on the bridge. Pursuant to treaty, the International Border is at the half-way point on any of the bridges, regardless of the location of the actual border as determined by the river (or land) below. If you are crossing by foot, there will often be a Mexican soldier standing at the border line. Do not take a picture- they really do not like that!

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The Borderline, Bridge 1

Bridge 1, heading into Mexico

Bridge 1, heading into Mexico

Customs

Once you clear the bridge, you will have the option to drive into one of the gated lanes for customs. Drive all the way up to the gate; it will open and will flash either a green light or red light. If it is green, just drive on- Bienvenidos a Mexico! If it is red, you will hear a short siren and you must pull into one of the inspection spots. The inspection is normally just a look in your windows and trunk. I have never been asked for my passport at this point, but I always have it at the ready just in case. Once you are cleared, welcome to Mexico.

Eating

I have, on several occasions, crossed into Laredo for no other reason but to eat lunch. Here are some of my favourite places:

  • When you cross on Bridge 1 and go straight, you will be on Av. Guerrero, which is a main artery of the city. Several blocks over to the left, there is a hospital called IMSS. In front of this hospital, there are several hawkers set up in front of the hospital. All of them are pretty good (as of 2013).
  • At Guerrero and Heroe de Nacataz, at night, there is a popular and established taco stand set up. Known by locals as “Tacos de Caballo.” Regardless of the name, they do not serve horse meat.
  • If you are on Blvd Colosio, there is a humble little restaurant very close to Parque Viveros. Take the exit for Parque Viveros, head up to the roundabout and take the 4th exit (Calle Carranza). A few blocks down you will see Tacos el Venado on the left just before the baseball fields. Parking is on the street wherever you can find it.
  • Another favourite of mine is very close to La Zona. From the entrance of La Zona, travel north along Calle Monterrey to Calle Guanajuato. There is another well established hawker at this corner across from Mariscos Los 7 Mares. This guy makes some awesome barbacoa on the weekends.
  • If you are not into hole in the wall restaurants or street food, I would point you to El Rancho which is a well established restaurant serving a variety of Mexican favourites.
  • While meat is pretty hard to escape in Norteña Cuisine, there is an excellent chain of vegetarian restaurants called El Nuevo Sol. The main restaurant is on Peru, but there are several others scattered around the city. The daily plated lunch special is always an excellent value or you can sample the menu for vegetarian takes on other Mexican classics.
  • For eating, I’d avoid Mercado Maclovio Herrera in downtown, as it caters a bit too much to the tourists. That being said, if you are looking for tourist trinkets or margaritas, this is the place, indeed really the only place to find them.

Activities

Aside from eating, here are some ideas of things to do:

  • Walk along the Rio Bravo. There are two parks along Blvd. Colosio that are perfect for visiting the Rio Bravo and perhaps having a picnic. Here is a video of one of my favourite spots.
    The Park, under the careful watch of a US Border Patrolman on the American side.

    The Park, under the careful watch of a US Border Patrolman on the American side.

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    At another park, underneath Bridge #1 looking over at Laredo, TX.

  • Underneath Bridge 1

    Underneath Bridge 1

    Centro Cultural. Along Blvd. Colosio is a rather wonderful museum and performing arts centre known as the Centro Cultural. Here there is a permanent history museum that walks you through the age of dinosaurs up to modern day Nuevo Laredo. There are also two rooms that host temporary art exhibitions and a sculpture walk outside. The Centro Cultural also hosts some really decent events, including an annual international music festival.

  • Eat some more.
  • I have to bring it up- La Zona is Nuevo Laredo’s most famous attraction, but its glory days are long gone. IF you go, whether just to see it or for its various recreational activities: do not go there after dark, be extra cautious and alert to your surroundings, and be weary of those seeking to “help” you find anything. It might be prudent to bring a friend with you.
  • If you feel a bit more adventurous. Travel down Mex. 2 and visit Colombia, N.L. and Hildago, Coah. I will be posting a little bit about this excursion in the coming weeks. Both are small and charming towns that are off the typical tourist path. One heads up about the Mex. 2: there is a checkpoint along the road manned by sailors and marines. They will randomly direct cars to pull over for inspection. If selected, they will take everyone out of the car as they search it and will expect to see passports. I would not recommend you subject yourself to this if you do not know Spanish.

Colombia, Nuevo Leon

The Parish Church, Colombia, N.L.

The Parish Church, Colombia, N.L.

  • Markets. There are several markets in Nuevo Laredo. My favourite is open only a few days a week; it is close to Calle Los Dos Laredos (what Anahuac turns into after Calle Monterrey). If it is a market day, the roads will be packed and you will likely need to park several blocks away. If you GPS the address Sonora 6102, you will be led into the midst of it. Another really nice market is along Héroe de Nacataz close to the junction with Tamaulipas [State Road] 1. This market flanks the railroad tracks and offers hours of stalls to browse. If you GPS Calle Héroe de Nacataz 7553, it should take you to the thick of it.
  • Go to the Doctor, Dentist, Pharmacy. Healthcare is far cheaper, and generally a higher quality [according to international rankings], than that in the United States. Are you due for a dental cleaning and check up? In Mexico, you can pay anywhere between $10 and $40 for a checkup and cleaning. Admittedly, I do not know the price of the clinics closest to Bridge 1, where one will be approached by clinic promoters as soon as you clear customs. Many of the clinics accept US Insurance if you have it as well as Mastercard and Visa. If you have a prescription for medicine, you can have it filled in Mexico for less than it would be in the United States. Once I had been prescribed a medicine that was running $60 in the United States… I filled it in Mexico for $11. That being said, do NOT buy a prescription drug unless you have a prescription for it as crossing back into the United States with it will be a problem. While many in the US seem to be under the impression that Mexican medical facilities are substandard or unsafe, I have never known this to be the case.

Tipping

You do not tip at restaurants in Mexico as the employers are expected to pay their employees. If you go to a grocery store, you are supposed to tip the person bagging your groceries.

I should note here that almost every parking lot has at least one parking attendant. These attendants will direct you to a parking spot or help you to back out, whether you need it or not. In the busy downtown, they might help you parallel park. One is supposed to tip the attendant upon leaving for watching your car. One will typically tip only 2-3 pesos, but around Mercado Maclovio Herrera (the only touristy place left in Nuevo Laredo) the attendants might try to hassle you for more. I have been hassled for giving a guy “merely” 5 pesos, he did not know that I lived there and knew the game. Don’t pay them until you are backed out and ready to drive.

Getting Out

Getting back to the United States is generally always a pain. If you are crossing on foot, once again you only have the option of Bridge 1. If you went with your car, take the time to check the bridge cams in order to pick the best option before you set out. Remember when you look at the cameras, that Bridge 3 is not for private vehicles.

If you are comfortable driving a little bit further away from the border for a bit, sometimes it is worth it to drive to Colombia to cross there. It takes about 40 minutes to get to Colombia from Nuevo Laredo, and about 50% of the time that is faster than waiting in the queues of Bridges 1 or 2. The easiest way to get there is to head South (towards Monterrey) and then take a right on Blvd Aeropuerto and then continue on towards Mexico 2 towards Colombia.

On Bridges 1 and 2, you will know which side of the border you are on based on the presence of street vendors capitalizing on the queue. Before you cross the magic line, you will have no shortage of people selling food, water, candy, trinkets, music, and offering to wash your window for a few pesos.

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Nuevo Laredo and the Frontera: The Demonic

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This was inside a rather large chapel to the Santa Muerte along Mexico 85, just south of Nuevo Laredo.

Across all of Mexico, one can see small shrines, tattoos, jewelry, and small knick-knacks honouring this grim reaper figure known as the Santa Muerte. She is often venerated by the underworld and might be regarded as a patroness of drug cartels, hookers, and thieves. Despite this unsavoury following, there is a substantial and possibly growing number of devotees among Mexico’s otherwise law abiding citizens.

While in Nuevo Laredo during my several visits, I found a rather large and open following of the Santa Muerte.  While I never sought out these places, I came across them frequently on the roadsides, in businesses, and on the sides of peoples’ houses. One time, I saw a little shrine at the side of a residence. I asked the homeowner if I could take a picture and he invited me on his property to get a better picture. After I took a picture of the small figure, he showed me a shed beside his house which housed several large figures of the Santa Muerte.

While I consider myself a more intrepid traveler than most, I must admit that these places and that figure give me the creeps. Below are some pictures that I took at a chapel that I randomly happened across on the side of Mexico 85 as one leaves Nuevo Laredo. At this site, there were two buildings on a small property with a large statue of this figure between the two buildings.

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Devotees to this figure leave candles, write prayers, and leave offerings of cash, cigarettes, and liquor. It is interesting to note that, while churches are closed during the day, these shrines are wide open to anyone at apparently any time.

While I did go into the larger of the two buildings, I did not feel safe enough in that place to take more pictures of the exterior of it or the interior of the other building (which had only one entrance and exit). One must be smart and calculate risks, and I am always mindful of possible escapes when I wander into places that I am not expected to be poking around.

The pictures below are from the shrine located within the Zona Rosa.

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At the risk of sounding closed-minded, I have to say that my general impression of this figure and these places is that they are idolatry at its most open and blatant form. The fruits of this devotion are far from enviable and I am weary of anyone who wears this figure on themselves or sets up altars to the same.

While I cannot easily describe the feeling that I got in these places, I can say that it was not a pleasant one. I came, I saw, and I have no desire to go back.

Nuevo Laredo and the Frontera: La Zona de Tolerencia (Boys Town)

Look up other accounts of Nuevo Laredo visitors and you will surely find reference to the Zona de Tolerencia, or as it is known in English: Boys’ Town. La Zona is one of Mexico’s red light districts which spot the border. Being one of the known places of Nuevo Laredo, I decided to go and see what it was all about.

In its glory days, La Zona was a place of bars, brothels, casinos, restaurants, hotels, and just about anything else you could want for a care-free night out. It is most literally a walled town within a town, complete with infrastructure for its residents and visitors. Only ten years ago, rides were readily available to take willing tourists directly from the border to La Zona. Upon arrival, visitors would be searched at a security booth at the compound’s only entrance. To the right, there was a fully functioning police station and clinic. Here is an old map of what used to be in La Zona:

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While many of the places listed are no longer in use, the above map does show the overall layout of La Zona.

Entering La Zona, one passes by a lone guard shack in the centre of a dirt road.

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No one mans neither this post nor the adjacent police station which looks long abandoned with broken windows and broken furniture inside.

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 After checking out the former police station at the entrance, I proceeded down the road in front of me. I was attracted to the other side of the Zona by what looked like a shrine on the outside wall facing the entrance.

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As I neared, I found my suspicions were correct and it was indeed a shrine prominent on La Zona’s main street.

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This altar was not only prominently seen, but it looked down La Zona’s main street for all to see. Here is a view of the entrance from it:

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This part of La Zona is where some of the only remaining bars and strip clubs are. If one proceeds to the left at the black building, there is a road with ruins of clubs, hotels, and brothels. There were also a few rather unsavory characters loitering down there, which is the main reason I took no pictures.

I proceeded to the right, where again my attention was drawn to another slightly bigger shrine.

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La Santa Muerte is a religious figure venerated by people across Mexico. Devotion to this figure is condemned by the Catholic Church, yet many either incorporate her into their faith against the ecclesiastical magesterium or proceed to worship her completely divorced from Catholic teachings and practices.

While regular people will visit her altars and petition her in prayer, she infamously has a reputation as the patroness of the cartels, prisoners, prostitutes, and other underworld figures.

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Next to this shrine was the transvestite strip club and bar. While I was walking past, one of the “girls” called out to me. “Hey you, come here!” I smiled and shook my head.

Walking onward from the Santa Muerte shrine along the perimeter road, I walked by some of the open prostitution cribs where independent working ladies live and work.

At this early hour most of the doors were closed, however there were a few enterprising women who started work early. Some women were simply engaged in cleaning their cribs, ignoring me as I walked by. Some were laying on their beds in costume, apparently hoping that a client would be lured in while they were watching television.  Some of the women were a little more active: standing by their door and greeting passers by. This was rather difficult for me as I had to walk the fine line of being polite and returning greetings while trying to appear completely disinterested. I was not sure what the etiquette is in this situation, so I just returned the greetings and passed by as fast as I could.

I was not at La Zona to purchase any services and I can honestly say that none of these women could have tempted me- even if they offered their services for free. For those who are interested, I later came to learn that the more attractive and younger prostitutes were more close to the center of La Zona or worked the bars.

At that corner, there was a bar playing loud music that seemed to have attracted a share of locals. Beside that bar was another row of cribs that were all shut or having their floors scrubbed. Interestingly, amid these cribs was another altar to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

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In the above picture you can see the front door of one of the cribs to the right and this was in the center of a row of about 7 or 8 total. Amazingly, everyone passing this altar crossed themselves before walking on. It is so odd to me to see the symbols of faith and reminders of God within the Zona, especially so prominently displayed.

Walking past the entrance again, I took the opportunity to check out some of the echos of La Zona’s glory days.

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While I did climb through some of the ruins, I wanted to be a little more on guard and decided against taking pictures. The bar pictured above was pretty small and intimate with most of its space devoted to the brothel that it ran back stage. The brothel rooms were small and simple and the bed frames were often still inside of them.

I also found the building which used to house Nuevo Laredo’s infamous Donkey Show. While some bloggers have written about it I am happy to report that, as of the end of 2012, the Donkey is Dead. Of course I am sure there was more than one donkey, but I mean to say that the Donkey Show is no longer and the facility is now being used as an ordinary bar.

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Before

After (circa December 2012)

After (circa December 2012)

Other ruins and closed shops included some restaurants, a notary office, a barber shop, and some hotels. Some of the buildings show signs of squatters within. While I was exploring the center steets, there were a few men who would approach me and welcome me to Boy’s Town. They would address me in English, refuse to switch to Spanish, and offer to escort me to where the “nice girls” were. One of the men was rather persistent and while he was following me, as if on cue, rather attractive women would approach and start talking to him in Spanish. He would relay prices to me and when I kept walking, he attempted to negotiate a lower price. After a few attempts, he gave up on me and went into one of the bars.

While I was poking around near the front, I attracted the attention of two younger prostitutes. They were done with their work for the day, so they were not too interested in soliciting my business. I ended up having a conversation with them which skirted around the nature of their work.

In the end, I learned that they were going to another part of town and I offered them a ride [which I feel obligated to say had no strings attached]. I learned that these women were 24 and were from the State of Puebla about an hour or so to the south of Mexico City. They seemed intrigued that I came to Nuevo Laredo to spend a week. We had a lovely chat for about 10 minutes until I dropped them off and parted ways.

So, this is the story of my visit to La Zona / Boys’ Town. It was an interesting experience and fascinating place, even at 9:00 AM.

UPDATE: For recommendations of food and other activities in Nuevo Laredo, check out my Things to do in Nuevo Laredo post.

Nuevo Laredo and the Frontera: Inspiration and Arrival

Don’t go there! I hear it from both my fellow Americans as well as Mexicans. The Border is a dangerous place, and Nuevo Laredo is the worst of them all! Everyone merely passes through Nuevo Laredo, and these days they try to do so in broad daylight and as quickly as possible.

The border region has a bad reputation and ongoing bad press. Of course the press goes out of its way to find threats and incite fear sometimes, so I decided to ignore the hearsay and see for myself what the situation is. Bottom line: people live their lives, work, marry, have families, and spend their entire lives in some of these border towns, and I wanted to see who they were and what life was like. So I decided to spend the Christmas holiday with a family in the border town of Nuevo Laredo to see and experience life in a place of such infamous reputation.

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This Christmas trip was to be my fifth time in Nuevo Laredo. I first visited Nuevo Laredo in 2005. On an adventurous whim, I decided to venture into Mexico for a short visit to Monterrey- just three hours south of the border and just far enough in to consider myself fully within Mexico. Nuevo Laredo was, as it was several times after, merely a wayside stop on a bigger journey.

Since 2005, there has been a marked change in the tone of things. In 2011 I rode through to find that soldiers have wholly replaced the local police force. These soldiers took positions at the border, in the city, and along the highway. They were not just standing there with weapons strapped to their shoulders and keeping up appearances: these soldiers were poised and ready for something. One could tell that there was some threat out there which they were taking very seriously.

I arrived via I-35 and crossed at International Bridge #2. The sun had already set and I was rather nervous to be crossing in the dark. Despite my sense of adventure to go in the first place, I kept remembering my friends from Monterrey who had pushed hard to clear Nuevo Laredo before sunset for fear of their lives. The final 3 miles of US Interstate was packed and chaotic as everyone was searching for a place to rest for the night on the “safe” side of the border. Once I cleared this chaos, the bridge had very light traffic which flowed through very quickly after I paid the $3 toll (please note that, unless otherwise indicated, all further references will be in Pesos and not Dollars). On the Mexican side I had to drive through some speed bumps and around barriers, but was ultimately waved through without even the most perfunctory glance at my passport. Before I knew it, I was in Mexico and driving the streets of Nuevo Laredo.