Another good place to stop between Tucson and the Mexican border is Tubac, 50 miles from Tucson, just east of I-19 at exit 34. One of the first European outposts in what’s now Arizona, Tubac was established as a Spanish presidio (fort) in 1751, and a century later boomed with the opening of gold mines nearby.
Scattered around a dusty central plaza, just west of the presidio park, Tubac has developed into a small but diverting arts-and-crafts colony, with a number of good shops and cafés. Local artists are frequently showcased in the Tubac Center for the Arts on the north side of the plaza, near the peaceful, pleasant Secret Garden B&B inn (520/403-6271, $100 and up).
Tumacácori National Historic Park
The preserved ruins of an impressive Spanish colonial mission stand at the center of Tumacácori National Historic Park (520/377-5060, daily, $5), which is 52 miles from Tucson, 20 miles north of Nogales, and just 3 miles south of Tubac, off I-19 exit 29. The site was used by missionaries as early as 1691, but it wasn’t until 1800 that they set to work building the massive adobe church. Though never finished, thanks to Apache raids and the Mexican Revolution, Tumacácori stands as an impressive reminder of the religious passion of the friars and their efforts to convert local indigenous people.
Directly across the highway from Tumacácori is a rare sight—a Greek café—and a half mile north is Wisdom’s (520/398-2397), which serves reliable Mexican and American food.
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.