Arizona’s busiest border crossing, and birthplace of iconoclastic jazz great Charles Mingus (1922-1979), Nogales is also perhaps the most pleasant of all the “international” cities along the U.S.-Mexico border. Despite being divided by an ugly corrugated steel fence, it gets promoted as Ambos Nogales (Both Nogales). The twin cities (pop. 20,252 on the Arizona side, 212,533 in Mexico) are economically codependent, especially post-NAFTA, as Mexicans come across to shop at Safeway and Walmart, and Americans while away evenings drinking cerveza in south-of-the-border cantinas. The intriguing little Pimeria Alta Historical Society Museum (136 N. Grand Ave., 520/287-4621, Tues.-Sat. 11am-4pm, donation), which documents cross-border history in the storefront-size Old City Hall, 400 yards north of the border crossing, is one of the few real sights to see on the Arizona side, but if you just want to spend an hour or two shopping for souvenirs and practicing your Spanish, Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, is a pleasant place in which to do it.
To save hassle and time crossing the border, drivers should park on the streets or in the $3-a-day-and-up lots on the U.S. side and walk across. Border formalities are minimal, and U.S. dollars are accepted on both sides. There are quite a lot of good taco stands and cantinas, but one place to look for on the Mexican side is the elegant La Roca (Calle Elias 91, 520/313-6313), partly carved out of a cave 250 yards southeast of the border crossing, across the train tracks. Good food at fair prices, stiff margaritas, continuous live music, and a lovely ambience await.