As the sun floats on the horizon in Del Rio, Texas, this warm Friday evening, cars pour across the U.S.-Mexico border, clogging Hidalgo Street into the town of Ciudad Acuña. Street vendors stake out corners where they'll sell fruit drinks and snacks. Shopkeepers stand in the doors of their establishments, beckoning shoppers to peruse shelves brimming with merchandise.
Two mariachis, each sporting a bolero and cowboy boots, stroll casually among the revelers. As soon as they spy a group of American turistas, they flash practiced smiles and begin plucking their guitar strings. "Oh, oh, oh, cuando caliente el sol," they finish in unison, the last of the popular ballad melting into the velvety darkness of the night.
"I love Mexico," says longtime Del Rio resident Dee Money, who sometimes leads groups into Ciudad Acuña. "I like the people. I like the culture. I like the traditions. We really do have the best of both worlds here."
These two cities--Del Rio, Texas, and Ciudad Acuña, Mexico--call themselves sisters. They share the banks of the Rio Grande, which forms the international border. Yet they've also managed to forge a deep and abiding friendship, defined by necessity and mutual respect.
Of all the Texas border towns, locals claim this is the cleanest and friendliest. Indeed, you can cross the border with few hassles here. Somber guards and the mile-long International Toll Bridge can be somewhat imposing for first-time visitors. But once across, you're greeted by residents and merchants eager to share their rich culture and traditions.
"It's another country, and you have to be respectful of that," says Susan Cottle-Leonard, tourism and convention director of the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce, "but it's an extremely friendly town."
Pilot John Mitchell agrees. "I have been to Mexico numerous times and visited many different border towns," the San Antonio resident says, "but Ciudad Acuña is different. You can easily cross the border here for great food, entertainment, and the exhilarating atmosphere of Mexico."
An Oasis in the Desert
Travelers have long been drawn to this oasis on the Rio Grande. The American Indians who inhabited the area more than 4,000 years ago left detailed pictographs on cave walls, now a sort of primitive history book etched in stone. Spanish missionaries planted a church here in 1635 and christened the spot San Felipe del Rio. It was named not for the Rio Grande but in honor of San Felipe Springs, which still offers up to 90 million gallons of spring water every minute.
Some will remember Ciudad Acuña as the nighttime home of famous disc jockey Wolfman Jack, who blasted the border from the 1 million-watt XERF-AM just south of the city. Today, travelers of all ages come to enjoy the area's raw natural beauty and the excitement of a border town.
Lake Amistad is the embodiment of the friendship between the two countries. Three rivers--the Rio Grande, the Pecos, and the Devils--all converge here to form one of the largest lakes in Texas, with more than 850 miles of shoreline. Two large bronze eagles sit on the 6-mile bridge that spans the lake, signifying the partnership between the two countries. Locals remember that it was on this spot that several U.S. and Mexican Presidents stood, shook hands, and sealed the bond of cooperation.
Anglers and boaters come seeking the largemouth bass and huge catfish living in the lake. Nature lovers come to hike, bike, and experience the wide-open spaces. But invariably, most tourists eventually find themselves drawn to Ciudad Acuña, with its broad, welcoming main street lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and hotels. The city's wide selection of curios is especially popular in November when visitors look to get a head start on holiday shopping.
Cesar Peña takes a knife from his pocket and offers the sharpened blade to his customer. "Go ahead, senorita," the owner of Casa Uxmal implores. "Scratch the plate. It's real Talavera. You cannot hurt it. If it's real Talavera, the glaze will not come off."
In addition to the prized Talavera pottery, merchants offer rustic pine furniture and beautiful Mexican pewter. There's also blown glass, wrought iron, leather goods, and home accessories of all kinds. Tourists can even find colorful serapes, cotton blankets, and studded sombreros. However, the challenge most shoppers face is picking the quality items from a sea of imitations.
"The best thing to do if you're looking for quality is to look everywhere," Senor Peña suggests. "Compare the quality before you decide what to buy."
Friends Donna Moody, Linda Dorris, Terry Pool, and Janice Petty, all from San Angelo, have long planned regular shopping excursions to Ciudad Acuña. "We've been coming here since the sixties when we were just teenagers," Donna says. "We all love Mexican decorative items. That's part of being Texan, I guess. And we like to bargain. Everybody wants a good deal."
Shopkeepers expect customers to haggle over the price. "Always, everybody tries to get a better price," Senor Peña says with a smile. "Everybody is free to try. That's democracy. I do the same thing."
Where to shop: U.S. travelers may bring back $400 worth of purchases for personal use duty-free. Casa Uxmal has the best selection of Mexican pewter, Talavera pottery, and pine furniture. El Patio specializes in wrought iron furniture and home accessories. Stop by The White Horse Leather Store for cowboy boots, belts, saddles, and spurs. Don't overlook the shops in Del Rio. La Antigua and Buffalo Girls are two of our favorites. Mail Box Plus, located on Veterans Boulevard in Del Rio, will gladly ship your purchases home.
Where to stay: There are many chain motels in Del Rio, including the Ramada Inn (rates start at $55;  775-1511 or 1-800-272-6232). In Ciudad Acuña, the new Best Western Villa Real (rates start at $45; 1-800-528-1234) is just minutes from the border crossing. Villa Del Rio, the area's only bed-and-breakfast, has three guestrooms and an adobe cottage set among century-old palms, magnolias, and pecan trees. Rates range $85- $195; 1-800-995-1887.
Where to eat: Long before George Strait put it on the map in his song "Blame It On Mexico," "Ma" Crosbys was serving its lethal margaritas. They serve quail, frog legs, and bass from Lake Amistad, in addition to traditional Mexican favorites. Lando's, also on Hidalgo Street, offers a more upscale menu with steaks, seafood, and Mexican specialties. At La Macarena Restaurant and Bar, located off the main street at 295 Madero, the steaks and homemade fries are wonderful, plus they're reputed to have the best margaritas in town. Restaurante Santa Marta, where the menus are burned onto plyboard, and Mi Tierra, known for its tasty salsa con crema, are also excellent for more traditional meals. If you're tired of Mexican, try Avanti Italian Restaurant in Del Rio.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP
Renting a houseboat on Lake Amistad: From October 31 through April 30, a 56-foot houseboat costs $995 plus tax for three days, two nights on the weekend or four days, three nights on weekdays. A 59-foot boat rents for $1,495, and a 65-footer is $2,395. All of these boats sleep 10. Call Forever Resorts at (830) 774-4157 or 1-800-255-5561.
Peek at the pictographs: Seminole Canyon State Park and Historic Site near Comstock is the best place to view the ancient pictographs. Fate Bell Shelter contains some of North America's oldest rock paintings, carbon-dated at 4,000 years old. Tours are 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.
Insider's tip: Check your insurance policy before taking your car into Mexico. Some domestic policies and rental agreements don't cover accidents across the border. If you don't want to spring for the extra coverage, park your car at the border, and walk across the International Toll Bridge, or you can take a taxi or bus into Ciudad Acuña. Be sure to carry some proof of U.S. citizenship, just in case you have problems.
Del Rio Chamber of Commerce: 1915 Veterans Blvd., Del Rio, TX 78840; (830) 775-3551, 1-800-889-8149, or www.drchamber.com.
"The Friendliest Little Border Town in Texas" is from the November 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.