Near the Border

Where to travel in México, these places are a few hours to a day away


The border between Mexico and the United States is just under 2000 miles long. It is one of the longest continuous borders in the world. At one time Mexican/American travel, traffic, goods and people passed both ways with little inspection or over sight. Not so much anymore.

The border states, Baja Norte, Sonora, and to a lesser extent Tamaulipas, Coahuila, and Chihuahua, offer people the ability to live full or part time in Mexico and still return to America in a few hours. These vacation spots are quick getaways to travel or visit for a day or a week. They allow one to bypass vehicle paperwork (TIP) by staying within the 35 kilometer 'Free Zones'. In addition the states of Sonora, Baja Norte, and Baja Sur allow a 'Free Zone' exemption for out of country plated vehicles.

Lets start furthest northwest in Tijuana, Baja Notre. Tijuana is a huge border city with two unmovable barriers, the Pacific Ocean and the California border. Once an actual cattle ranch called Rancho Tia Juana (yes, Aunt Jane’s Ranch) The city began as a sleepy border town in about 1890. Later as California grew so did TJ, when prohibition began TJ added drinking and gambling. It was an easy trip, a drive, a boat ride, and later plane ride. Perfect for Californians looking for short vacation and excitement. Today the city of 1.7 million overlooks San Ysidro and Otay Mesa California. The San Ysidro border crossing is the busiest in the world with 300,000 commuters daily.

Tijuana also has a thriving food and beverage scene. It is the home of the Caesar Salad (named after the chef/hotel). The city boast of some highly rated restaurants serving what is called Baja Cuisine. It features fresh seafood from the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez, fresh vegetables grown year round, award winning wines from the Guadalupe Valley, craft beers from Mexico City to Cabo San Lucas and custom mescals. This is a new culture of top-notch chefs and hands on entrepreneurs.

Its proximity to Southern California and other western states also makes it a drug transportation center. Either by smuggling across the border or tunneling under it the demand from up north keeps the Narcos busy. This is the heart of TJ’s crime. Many of its business class work and pay bribes in the city but raise their families across the border in San Diego, Chula Vista or Otay Ranch. Others have jobs in these same cities and but live in TJ where the cost of living is lower. Both groups keep the border crossing open and busy 24 hours a day.

Californians first started traveling into the Baja to Playas de Tijuana and further south to Rosarito. They would visit for the weekends, camp on the beaches or stay at roadside hotels. The beautiful vacant beaches were made for cookouts, surfing, swimming and drinking beer. Today the Pacific beach is developed from Malibu to Mission de San Miguel. Rosarito Beach has gated communities north and south of it and as far down as Bajamar. New condo developments offering security and views are rising from the rock looking towards the Pacific Ocean. The sales price of some $200,000-$600,000. 

Further South on the Pacific side is Ensenada, Baja Norte. This is and always has been a fishing and commercial port. It is also a large Mexican Navy and Army station. Years ago heavily dependent on tourist driving from the border it was hit hard by the passport changes of 2012. Now it has enlarged ports for more container ships and cruise ships. Ensenada is home to one of Méxicos oldest bars, Hussong’s Cantina, Mexican Bar license #02, serving drinks since 1892. They also serve one of Mexico’s first and the worlds finest margaritas. Ensenada is home to the Ensenda style fish taco. A a crisp fried golden brown chunk of fish in a tortilla filled with cabbage and a white sauce.

East of the city, over the hills is Valle de Guadalupe home to Mexico’s newest product, wine. I can remember seeing the vineyards for the first time, there were only 5 or 6. I was amazed and amused at the thought of wineries here six hundred miles south of Napa valley. Now they’re over a hundred vineyards producing some award-winning wines. The area and like its northern cousin, Napa, has tasting rooms, boutique hotels, and some new fantastic restaurants. Little of this wine makes it to the US because it of the small quanity produced and the local demand. The region also produces award winning olive oil.

The area around Ensenada from Baja Mar Golf Resort to San Quintín has a large expats community. This is a nice full time area with weather better than Los Angles at half the price. It is close to the United States border with a decent toll road to and from.

A few places especially in the Baja, developers sold lots to Mexican, Canadian and American buyers to build houses. Later these sales were deemed illegal; repossessed and torn down by the Mexican government. These lands were Ejidos, communal tracts of land mostly agricultural that compose of large portions of Mexican real estate. Ejidos are considered to be community property rather than any single persons. Members hold partial title to these lands. They can if they want, live and work on the land. It might be vacant and considered worthless dirt just forgotten over the years till the lawyer’s get involved.

East of Tijuana to the Sea of Cortéz or Gulf of California, is San Felipe. Mexican Highway 5 from Mexicali/Calexico is the best way to get there from United States. It has an airport and once boasted of flights to and from San Diego, California (stopped in 2016). Established as a fishing village with a small port it was an overland shortcut to Ensenada and Tijuana. Its location at the top of the Sea of Cortez gives its bay extreme tide conditions. The ocean level is almost 10 feet higher than the Pacific Ocean and the tide can recede 3⁄4 of mile from shore. The diminished water flow from the Colorado River and overfishing has reduced fishing as a local industry. Now it is mostly sport fishing with the local tourist. Tourism is big business in San Felipe the population swells by 5,000 when the snowbirds from up north arrive. A few small scattered settlements are further south of San Felipe, but the farther you go the more spartan they get.

Still at the top of the Sea of Cortez but on the mainland of Mexico is Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point). It is the closest seawater for the residents of Arizona. It also started as a fishing village but the first real permanent settlement started with prohibition. A well was dug, hotel was built and a resort town offering booze and fishing to dry Americans began. Later the railroad was built nearby and full time residents started arriving. It was called Rocky Point till the 1930’s when the Mexican government changed its name to Puerto Penasco. The last 20 years have seen huge growth to the area. The government made the State of Sonora a ‘Free Zone’ and began investing money into the state and infrastructure of many cities. They have also began work on port facilities allow for future cruise ships.

Further south but still in the state of Sonora is the city of Guaymas. It is a hot and dry coastal city located in the Sonora desert ecosystem. It is a shallow port city of about 130,00. Historically the city has seen a lot of ups, downs, changes of ownership, and near rebellions. Today it is an industrial shrimp fishing port with some commercial shipping. Its one national claim to fame is the annual Carnival. Carnival of Guaymas has been going on every year (more or less) since 1888. It always begins with the Hoguera, where an effigy of someone (locally loathed or disliked) is burned. The parade starts downtown and ends on the beach days later.

Just north of the city is the resort area of San Carlos. This area was founded as one of the first planned resort areas in Mexico. It has a marina, hotels, private homes, condos, RV areas and easy access from Arizona via Mexico Highway 15. This is also the summer get away for the locals of Sonora’s capital Hermosillo. With the brutal summer heat Guaymas/San Carlos and Bahia de Kino is their beach escape. The local tourists from Sonora often refer to the San Carlos area as Gingolandia.


​The border area from Nogales to the Gulf of Mexico and Matamoros is mostly void of expat enclaves and resorts. Big busy cities do exist on the mexican side, Ciudad Juárez, Nuevo Laredo, Reynosa, and Matamoros. They just aren't the tourist destinations they once were. Chihuahua, to the Rio Grande and Coahuila to Tamaulipas this is the true frontera, a land of bandits and outlaws. Once they raided cattle and smuggled liqueur now its drugs and people. This is a bleak land. The one stand out is Monterrey, Nuevo León. Many people from the south and Mexico City consider it more American than Mexican. One of the richer cities in Mexico, its close proximity to the US makes it an important center for industry and business.  It has a large expat working community of Anglos and Asians.