Back when Texas was still Tejas, EL PASO, the second-oldest settlement in the United States, was the main crossing on the Rio Grande. It still plays that role today, its 600,000 residents joining with another 1.7 million across the river in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, to form the largest binational (and bilingual) megalopolis in North America. At first sight it’s not an especially pretty place – massive railyards fill up much of downtown, the belching smelters of copper mills line the riverfront and the northern reaches are taken up by the giant Fort Bliss military base. Its dramatic setting, however, where the Franklin Mountains meet the Chihuahuan Desert, gives it a certain bold pioneer edge, bearing more relation to old rather than new Mexico, with little of the pastel softness of the Southwest USA. El Paso is also the home of Tony Lama, makers of top-quality cowboy boots, available at substantial discounts at outlets across town.
While it’s tempting to cross the border here into Mexico, remember that escalating drug wars have turned Juarez into one of the most dangerous cities in the world.Read More
The US–Mexico border
The US–Mexico border
Downtown El Paso’s character is shaped by the US–Mexico border. In times past, outlaws and exiles from either side of the border would take refuge across the river, and today’s traffic remains considerable and not entirely uncontroversial. Manual labourers come north to find undocumented jobs, and US companies secretly dump their toxic waste on the south side. Drugs are a major issue, too. The border itself, the Rio Grande, has caused its share of disagreements: the river changed course quite often in the 1800s, and it was not until the 1960s, when it was run through a concrete channel, that it was made permanent.
An attractive 55-acre park, the Chamizal National Memorial, on the east side of downtown off Paisano Drive, was built to commemorate the settling of the border dispute; it has a small museum (Tues–Sat 10am–5pm; free). Elsewhere, the small but engrossing Border Patrol Museum, 4315 Transmountain Drive (Tues–Sat 9am–5pm; free), explains the work of the patrollers and highlights the ingenuity of smugglers.
Crossing into Mexico
On the Rio Grande, the Cordova Bridge – or Bridge of the Americas – heads across into Mexico, where there’s a larger park and a number of museums; there are no formalities, so long as you have a multiple-entry visa for the USA and don’t travel more than twenty or so miles south of the border. Crossing here is free; at the three other bridges – two downtown and one near the Ysleta Mission – you have to pay a 35¢ fee.