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Nogales nightlife thrives behind the fence

Marcos, the charismatic bartender at Tequila Bar & Grill, poses with the large beer selection available in the kitschy, Mexican-American themed watering hole in Nogales, Sonora. (Photo by: Trey Ross/Arizona Sonora News)

Our taxi driver was supposed to be taking us a few blocks down the road for dinner. But we’d been in the cab, weaving around other cars, aggressively accelerating then quickly breaking for at least 10 minutes.

“Almost there!” He would assure us over the blaring Spanish rap CD in the car stereo.

The three of us were packed in like sardines, tightly into the back seat, exchanging frantic glances about the length of our ride. I invited the two nervous girls next to me to Nogales, Sonora, for a weekend getaway. We were curious about the culture and people, the entire lifestyle, beyond the border checkpoint. I didn’t know what to expect, but we definitely weren’t prepared to be surprised.

Panic hadn’t truly settled in until the cab began to scoot along the on-ramp to a desolate two-lane highway.

“This is it,” I thought. “At least I’m going in Mexico, I always loved this country.”

All three of us were holding hands as the cab slowly rolled into a back alleyway of closed boutique storefronts. With no street lamps to illuminate the shadows and traffic from the city center nearly deafening, we all stared wide-eyed at the driver as he turned around and smiled at us.

“Aquí.” He pointed to a restaurant and its large blue sign — La Roca. We had arrived.

He took one look at our faces and started crying he was laughing so hard.

“I’m not stealing you,” the cab driver said. 

Speechless, slightly shaken, but mostly embarrassed — I was ready to begin my weekend in Nogales. The first tourist tip: All the roads are one-way streets. You aren’t being held hostage, circling the entirety of Central Nogales, you’re just taking the legal route.

Write that one down for your sanity.

A rare moment without traffic on the Sonoran side of the U.S.-Mexico border port at Nogales. (Photo by: Halle O’Neill)

Our taxi driver was supposed to be taking us a few blocks down the road for dinner. But we’d been in the cab, weaving around other cars, aggressively accelerating then quickly breaking for at least 10 minutes.

“Almost there!” He would assure us over the blaring Spanish rap CD in the car stereo.

The three of us were packed in like sardines, tightly into the back seat, exchanging frantic glances about the length of our ride. I invited the two nervous girls next to me to Nogales, Sonora, for a weekend getaway. We were curious about the culture and people, the entire lifestyle, beyond the border checkpoint. I didn’t know what to expect, but we definitely weren’t prepared to be surprised.

Panic hadn’t truly settled in until the cab began to scoot along the on-ramp to a desolate two-lane highway.

“This is it,” I thought. “At least I’m going in Mexico, I always loved this country.”

All three of us were holding hands as the cab slowly rolled into a back alleyway of closed boutique storefronts. With no street lamps to illuminate the shadows and traffic from the city center nearly deafening, we all stared wide-eyed at the driver as he turned around and smiled at us.

“Aquí.” He pointed to a restaurant and its large blue sign — La Roca. We had arrived.

He took one look at our faces and started crying he was laughing so hard.

“I’m not stealing you,” the cab driver said. 

Speechless, slightly shaken, but mostly embarrassed — I was ready to begin my weekend in Nogales. The first tourist tip: All the roads are one-way streets. You aren’t being held hostage, circling the entirety of Central Nogales, you’re just taking the legal route.

Write that one down for your sanity.

On the other side of that ominous, rusting border fence, you can experience an entirely different life.

One weekend in Nogales, Sonora, can transport a visitor into an Old World holiday or a casual and relaxed Modelo-fueled hangout. It just depends on the time of day.

Hotel Fray Marcos de Niza and La Roca Restaurant are two windows into what a fence-less, open border Nogales would have looked, felt, and tasted like. Both ooze a genuine invitation of luxury and indulgence. It’s an originality that is rarely captured so purely in U.S. service industries.

It’s the historic locations, the servers and bell hops and valets in dark, crisp suits. It’s the glamor of real linens on the dining room tables at La Roca and an elevator so old that it requires an attendant to work the manual doors at Fray Marcos. It’s finding that a millennial, like myself, can be nostalgic for a time we’ve never known.

Hotel Fray Marcos de Niza, just yards from the fence, opened its doors in 1950. La Roca Restaurant, also walking distance away from the United States, began serving patrons in the 1970s. If you are coming to Nogales to live like a king, try the $40 upgrade to the Executive Suite at Fray Marcos and the Grilled Tenderloin at La Roca.

“Más tequila!” We chanted to the group of waiters standing around our table at La Roca.

Jewel tones, lanterns, and disco balls make up the funky interior of La Roca Restaurant’s main dining room in Nogales, Sonora. (Photo by: Trey Ross/Arizona Sonora News)

We were one of the only tables left in the cavernous main dining room. It is literally cavernous because the restaurant is built into the side of a mountain. The original structure, Casa Margot, had been built in 1899, and part of the dining room wall was exposed cliff rock. Now, the space is a groovy cobalt blue with disco balls, gold star-shaped lanterns and a massive fireplace.

The waiters kept bringing us our next round of house margaritas (which are divine) in slightly larger glasses, making us burst into fits of Saturday Night Live-status silliness.

The mariachi band, which plays on weekend nights, came to serenade us (Hotel California was our obvious American pick; the band played something more traditional instead) while I dined on the guacamole that will ruin guacamole for the rest of my life. These avocados were so buttery, so fresh and so addicting that ordering it in America feels like a sin.

Three hours and $200 later, I can tell you to order the Shrimp La Roca without hesitation and the mysterious creamed green-chile side dish was extremely spicy.

La Roca used one large wood-paneled menu for the entire dining room, so when it’s your time to order, make it count. Less is more.

But, it was the balance of high-end dining and roadside food trucks that made Nogales such a unique environment. The daytime environment was much more tropical and lazy than the gilded age nightlife.

A man sells fresh grilled corn at a bus stop for locals and tourists on a busy Saturday morning in Nogales, Sonora. The city has every type of food to offer in every tax bracket. (Photo by: Trey Ross)

On a Saturday afternoon, dozens of families, friends and tour groups from both sides of the border wandered the narrow shopping alleys in search of anything from jewelry and painted pots to ponchos and paraphernalia for pot.

One of my friends purchased a Frida Kahlo bracelet from a woman on the street for $10. The shopkeeper next to her immediately started laughing and shouted to my friend, “I would’ve sold that to you for 50 cents!”

It seemed to be a theme that we were often laughed at in Nogales. I liked to have thought they’re laughing with us, but maybe we were just the stereotypical Americans who enjoyed planet-sized margaritas and bought cheap jewelry.

In an alley off the Campillo, Tequila Bar and Grill is nestled between rows of these identical shops and makeshift kiosks. A man named Marcos, presumably the bartender, offered us free tequila shots.

We took the bait, obviously.

American country music ballads roared from a karaoke machine in the corner and cheesy slogans were painted onto the walls: “Everyone who enters this place makes us happy, some when they arrive, some when they leave”; or “24 hours in a day, 24 beers in a case … coincidence? Maybe.”

Erica Robinson, Halle O’Neill, and Trey Ross pose for a tourist photo in Tequila Bar & Grill in Nogales, Sonora. They did not get to keep the sombreros. (Photo by: Marcos, Tequila Bar & Grill bartender)

Marcos threw giant sombreros onto our heads, snapped pictures of us with our Tecate bottles and served us tequila shots with chili pepper (do it; it rocks).

This is the Nogales behind the fence.

It’s the cheerful Fray Marcos valet who shared his story of being deported after a lifetime of living in America, it’s the young woman in La Roca that gave us bar recommendations to experience Nogales nightlife. It’s the cab driver laughing at us, the shop owners that haggled with us, Marcos offering us free shots at noon and a chance to pick the next song.

Nogales, Sonora, is only a fence away.

Trey Ross is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at patriciaross@email.arizona.edu

 

Click here for a Word version of this story and high-resolution photos. 

 

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