The phrase Ambos Nogales, which refers to “both Nogales,” captures the idea of looking past the fence and seeing one community—one city that happens to span two countries, rather than twin cities of Nogales, Arizona, and Nogales, Sonora.
An hour south of Tucson on Interstate 19, Nogales, Arizona, is a mix of Native American, Hispanic, and Anglo cultures and the seat of Santa Cruz County, with a population of 20,000 that’s dwarfed by its Sonoran sister’s 220,000 population. A day or weekend trip to Ambos Nogales is enough to discover restaurants, shopping, and sites on both sides of the border.
Gariola Coffee & Deli (3131 N. Grand Ave.) makes for a great inexpensive breakfast, with freshly roasted coffee, smoothies, and a menu of breakfast burritos, and bagel or croissant sandwiches.
Exploring history on the U.S. side starts at the Pimeria Alta Historical Society and Museum (136 N. Grand Ave.). Housed in the old city hall, built in 1914, the museum offers a glimpse of the development of the area, from the Spanish arrival in the late 1700s to the 1918 battle between U.S. and Mexican forces. A vast collection of both English- and Spanish-language newspapers keeps researchers busy, while visitors can examine the old jail and firehouse and the time capsule unearthed for the building’s centennial celebration in 2014.
Downtown shoppers can find everything from hard-to-believe bargains at the Buffalo Exchange Outlet (441 N. Grande Ave., No. 10) to a dizzying collection of furniture, art, crafts, and more at the Bazar de Mexico (491 N. Grande Ave.). A must-see that helped put Nogales on the map is the world-renowned Paul Bond Boot Company, specializing in custom, handmade cowboy boots. Bond moved to Nogales in 1957 and continued hand-making boots until his death in 2012, outfitting American icons like Gene Autry, Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, and Johnny Cash, among many others.
As the lunch hour approaches, consider options on either side of the border. In Arizona, the family-owned Cocina La Ley (226 W. Third St.) has been serving the city’s top seafood since 1993. Whether it’s fish tacos or the incredible soups, shrimp, or fish, or the weekend special mixed seafood bowl, Cocina La Ley serves an absolutely delicious and unpretentious lunch. For lunch on the Sonora side, street tacos can provide a tasty fix, but just a few blocks into the city is the popular Restaurante La Posada (116 Pierson), a welcoming and friendly spot for English speakers. The menu of soups, enchiladas, and tacos will be familiar to anyone who enjoys the great restaurants on Tucson’s South Fourth Avenue.
The downtown areas—Grand and Morley avenues in Arizona and Avenida Obregón in Sonora—are both easily walkable and filled with shops, curio vendor stands, and, especially on the weekends, people. On Fridays from 4 to 7 p.m., the Nogales Mercado farmers’ market sets up at the corner of Court Street and Morley Avenue, featuring locally grown produce from small-scale producers.
For dinner, either side offers one-of-a-kind restaurants. In Sonora, the elegant La Roca Bar & Restaurant (Plutarco Elías Calles 91) opened in 1972 and has been a destination ever since. Tucked into a natural cliff face, the dining room’s back wall resembles a cave. In Arizona, Las Vigas Steak Ranch (180 W. Loma St.) specializes in steaks and traditional Mexican dishes with house favorites including the Steak Picado (Sonoran style beef stew) and Asado las Vigas (steak and potatoes sautéed in a mild salsa).
We’re lucky in Baja Arizona to have international travel so close at hand and no matter how you approach Ambos Nogales, the blending of cultures and languages makes for a fascinating and educating trip. ✜
Eric Swedlund writes about music, travel, and food and drink. He lives in Tucson. Follow him on Twitter @EricSwedlund.