By Curtis Prendergast
Douglas, Ariz. / Agua Prieta, Sonora — “Did you know this hotel is haunted?” said a voice from somewhere down and to the right of me.
I lowered my camera from taking photos of the stained-glass ceiling of the Gadsden Hotel and looked down at the voice.
A girl that couldn’t have been more then ten years old looked at me with unblinking eyes as she told me about a white shadow that appeared in a photo she took of the hotel.
She was one of only a few people that spoke to us in Douglas that Sunday afternoon. For the most part, the city felt like a ghost town.
The bartender at the hotel, who was Mexican-American and spoke Spanish and English, immediately warned us about crossing the border into Agua Prieta.
She said she had not crossed for six years, but used to go all the time. “You could have a great time for five bucks,” she said. Why didn’t she go across anymore? Agua Prieta was simply too dangerous, she said.
We finished our sandwiches and beers and headed to the border.
In order to cross the border into Agua Prieta you have to take a circuitous route that heads north for a few blocks, then west, and finally south back to the border crossing.
The crossing looks like most others of its kind; lots of people with guns, orange roadblocks, various speed bumps, and more signage than you could possibly read. As we edged closer to the border, the Mexican customs agents waved us over to the secondary inspection area. Apparently, we looked suspicious.
In their search, the customs agents found a single .22 round in the bed of the truck. My friend is a true Arizonan and owns several guns. We knew that weapons and ammunition were illegal in Mexico, but our sweep of the truck wasn’t as thorough as it should have been. Eventually they gave us a stiff warning and let us go on our way.
That was the only bullet we encountered on our trip to Agua Prieta.
On the Sonoran side of the border the situation could not have been more different than in Douglas. Rather than the empty streets of a ghost town, Agua Prieta’s streets were full of shoppers, families, and cars. The city pulsed with life.
The international area near the border in Agua Prieta is full of restaurants, ice cream parlors, bars, electronics stores, pizzerias and a variety of other stores. The houses are typical of Sonoran border towns, but interspersed among them are beautiful mansions. In an encouraging sign, several houses were being built or repaired.
This was the first time either of us had gone to Agua Prieta. As always, we had been warned multiple times to be careful. And as always, what we found was nothing to be afraid of. This is not to say that Mexican border towns are idyllic places where everybody knows their neighbors. It is just that if you don’t mess with the drug trade, if you don’t venture into neighborhoods that look dangerous, and if you smile as you walk around, then you probably won’t have a problem.
The only danger we found in Agua Prieta was turning the wrong way down one-way streets. Even then, friendly drivers honked to let us know we were idiots.
As we drove around town, we found a skatepark. My friend Hank hopped out of the car, pulled out his skateboard, and started on the halfpipe. A minute later a young boy of about ten years old approached me holding an orange balloon in his hands. He stood silently and watched Hank go up and down the ramps.
After a moment I asked him in Spanish if he was a skateboarder. He nodded yes and I asked him if he wanted to try Hank’s board. He nodded again and I waved Hank over. Within seconds they were skating. The kid was good.
On a lazy Sunday, two gringos skating with kids quickly became the main attraction. A group of guys in their late teens and early twenties watched us from across the street. Several teenage girls came over and sat by the halfpipe for a few minutes before heading out. Three young girls around eight years old joined the halfpipe party and ran up and down the ramps, giggling the whole way.
After skating for a while, we said our goodbyes and headed to the border to cross back into Arizona. The line of cars waiting to cross stretched for about a half a mile. Vendors hawked gum, crucifixes, hats, wallets, sliced prickly-pear cactus, CDs and DVDs to the waiting drivers. They were accompanied by several people begging for change.
One man wearing a green Notre Dame football hat told us he had broken parole in the U.S. and fled to Mexico. His hands were covered in tattoos, but he was friendly enough. Another guy chatted with us and asked to be in a photo. We happily obliged him. A young woman sitting in a wheelchair held out a cup for change. “Guapo,” she said with a smile.
Once again, two gringos on the Mexican side of a border town drew attention wherever they went. With so many Americans afraid to cross the border, we are an endangered species over there.
The emptiness in Douglas contrasted brilliantly with the vibrancy of Agua Prieta. Where one side lacked movement, the other side was full of people going about their Sundays.
The border towns of Arizona and Sonora have a reputation as dangerous places. With the trip to Douglas, I have now been to every crossing point in Arizona. Although I have felt danger at times, it has rarely been more so than in any city in the United States.
Still, be careful when you go to places you don’t know.