Northwest border to Baja California

Route 2 from Tijuana runs close to the border, going through Mexicali , San Luis Río Colorado, Sonoyta and Caborca to Santa Ana, where it joins the West Coast Highway (Route 15) by way of Hermosillo and the coast all the way to Mexico City. Route 2 continues eastward to Nogales - a major crossing - and ultimately all the way to Ciudad Juárez. The journey is seemingly endless, and precaution should be taken when crossing the desert, as beautiful as the scenery may be. You can also follow Route 3 eastward from Puerto Peñasco to Caborca, where it meets Route 2, seeing slices of an otherwise vanished Mexico along the way. Almost all smaller roads in the region at some point intersect with one of these major routes.

San Luis Río Colorado-San Luis (Arizona)

East of Mexicali the fast four-lane highway crosses the fertile Mexicali Valley to a toll bridge over the much-diminished Colorado River (turn clocks ahead one hour when crossing), and continues to
San Luis Río Colorado
, founded in the 1920s as a military outpost but now a cheerfully tourist-oriented border town in the 'free zone' and primarily known as a regional centre for cotton and wheat. There are summer bullfights and small nightlife districts, like those of the Old West, including a so-called
zona de tolerancia
, best left to those with a taste for risk taking. The town is also the jumping-off point to visit three protected areas: the
Alto Golfo de California y Delta del Río Colorado biosphere reserve
, the
Desierto del Altar biosphere reserve
, and the
El Pinacate biosphere reserve
. While all three are well worth a visit, infrastructure is minimal and none have nearby fuelling stations.

There are several border towns with
zonas de tolerancias
, each with varying degrees of permissibility. Known also as 'boys' towns' or
zona rojas
, these designated areas allow legalized prostitution (and nearly always overlook the other vices that accompany it). Along with that of San Luis Río Colorado, other
zonas
along the border exist in the towns of Tijuana, Ciudad Acuña, Agua Prieta, Piedras Negras, Ciudad Juaréz, Ojinaga, Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo Laredo, and Reynosa. All the
zonas
, and especially those in Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, should be considered extremely dangerous and avoided.

Desierto de Altar

After leaving San Luis Río Colorado, Route 2 crosses the sandy wastes of the Desierto de Altar - Mexico's own mini-Sahara - for 358 km, until the tiny hamlet of
San Luisito
. The desert, home to the largest dunes in the western hemisphere, was used to train US astronauts during the lunar missions. One look at the landscape and it's easy to see why. The road is very narrow in places - watch out for overloaded Mexican trucks. For 144 km there are no facilities (fuel at Los Vidrios), only a few houses and an enveloping landscape of sand dunes, cinder cones and a dark lava flow from the
Cerro del Pinacate
(locally known as
Volcán Santa Clara
). The area around the central range is protected by the
El Pinacate biosphere reserve
. A gravel road 10 km east of Los Vidrios gives access to the northern sector of the park, which contains much wildlife, including puma, deer, antelope, wild boar, gila monster, wild sheep, quail and red-tailed eagle. The reserve's most impressive crater is
El Elegante
, 1 km wide and 120 m deep. Cerro el Pinacate
(1190 m) offers amazing views but is a several-hour hike from the park's closest road.

Sonoyta-Lukeville (Arizona)

After a hot and monotonous 205 km from San Luis de Colorado, Route 2 reaches the sun-bleached border town of
Sonoyta
, a short distance from Lukeville (Arizona). Sonoyta has little of interest itself, but there are several American-style hotels. Arizona's picturesque
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
, is just across the border from Sonoyta.

From Sonoyta, Highway 8 goes southwest through 100 km of sand dunes; outside of San Luisito at Km 80, a sign, 'Dunas - 10 km' points along a sandy road (4WD essential) that leads to dramatic, desolate inland dunes through mountain-rimmed black lava fields. Contiguous dunes in this area, devoid of all vegetation, actually form one enormous dune - technically known as an erg. This is the only erg in the Americas.

Puerto Peñasco

Once upon a time, Puerto Peñasco was no more than a middle-of-nowhere fishing village. It has blossomed in recent years to become an overpriced resort replete with high-rise condos and luxury hotels. As with much of the Pacific coast, the pace of development has been astonishing. Visitors usually fall into two widely divergent categories: beach-starved Arizonans and young gringos out to exploit lax liquor laws (expect a healthy array of beer-drenched, North American-
style bars - some tackier than others); and retirees and 'snow birds' from further north seeking to escape the US and Canadian winters. As a result, the town has an unsightly blend of resort hotels cheek and jowl with RV parks and campgrounds, many overlooking the beautiful, desert-backed beaches - the best of which are
La Choya
and
Las Conchas
to the west of town .

Fishing (especially for marlin sole, and yellowtail), diving and sailing are possible popular and best arranged at the old port. Watersports, such as surfing, snorkelling, windsurfing and jet skiing, are also immensely popular.

The
Centro Intercultural de Estudios de Desiertos y Océanos
(
CEDO
)
, www.cedointer cultural.org, has a wealth of information on local wildlife (rapidly diminishing thanks to unsympathetic construction projects). It runs excellent, informative tours of the region's natural highlights, including to El Pinacate biosphere reserve.

Caborca and around

Caborca
lies on the Mexicali-Benjamín Hill railway in the midst of a gently sloping plain. Caborca's restored church of
Nuestra Señora de la Concepción
(1693) was one of the 25 missions founded by the legendary Jesuit missionary and explorer Padre Kino in Sonora and Arizona 1687-1711. Caborca is the best base for exploring the Kino Missions (although they can also be accessed from Hermosillo to the south). Caborca also holds the distinction of being one of a handful of Mexican towns to successfully defend itself against an armed attack by US ranchers in 1857, for which it was granted the title 'Heroica' (heroic) by the Mexican government. Since then, tempers have cooled and Caborca is considered a sister city to Prescott (Arizona). On 6 April, a large celebration is held in honour of this bilateral friendship. Remarkably, this small town has an outstanding website with detailed information on just about anything happening in the area, www.vivacaborca.com.

The lovely little town of
Pitiquito
lies 12 km east of Caborca on Route 2. It has a splendid mission church,
San Diego de Pitiquito
, founded by Padre Kino in 1689, as well as a small but highly regarded leather goods
artesanía
(crafts store),
Pieles Petic
.

Altar-El Sásabe (Arizona)

Highway 2 continues east through Altar (café, gas station) to join Highway 15 at Santa Ana, a small town of little note but a popular stopping point. The
Fiesta de Santa Ana
is held 17-26 July, with horse racing and fireworks. Its Franciscan mission church is worth a visit. Occasionally indigenous Yaqui can be seen in the main square selling a range of traditional handicrafts.

Keep an eye out for semi-wild longhorn cattle along the road to El Sásabe - a former ranching town turned migrant way stop. Outside the town itself (which is now almost wholly given over to illegal crossings) there is no infrastructure, and the oppressive heat and terrain of the area make it very dangerous. Make sure you take extra water and have a Mexican-enabled cellular telephone when making this trip.

Nogales

Much like other border towns, Nogales is a scruffy, unattractive place with little to offer the casual visitor. Still, as border towns go it's not terribly unpleasant, safer than most, and makes a good place to rest before venturing further into Mexico's interior or travelling north to Tucson along US Highway 19. The town lies astride a mountain pass at 1120 m across from Nogales, Arizona, and is the largest settlement in the Pimería Alta, the area of southern Arizona and northern Sonora occupied by the Pima people at the arrival of the Spaniards. The
Pimería Alta Historical Society
 has excellent exhibits on the history of the region, a valuable library and archives, and also organizes tours to the Sonoran missions.

Day trippers can cross the border at Deconcini Gate and take advantage of the shopping arcades, which are within walking distance from the car parks on the US side.

Cananea

From Ímuris, Route 2 heads east (to Naco and Agua Prieta) through the scenic Sierra los Ajos to the historic and still important copper mining centre of Cananea, founded in 1760. This was the site of a 1906 miners' strike against the American-owned Cananea Consolidated Copper Company, one of the critical events in the last years of the Porfirio Díaz dictatorship. Hundreds of Arizona Rangers crossed the border to join the Sonora militia in putting down the strike, killing 19 Mexican workers, which is commemorated at the former city jail, now the
Museo de La Lucha Obrera
. The Cananea Consolidated Copper Company was founded in 1899 by William Cornell Greene, a wealthy rancher and copper baron from Wisconsin who Mexicans consider the founder of the town. The nearby
Museo Mexicana de Cananea
(Museum of Cacanea), is worth a quick visit for those interested in the area's culture.

The border town of
Naco
is adjacent to its Arizona namesake and a short distance south of the historic, picturesque copper mining town of Bisbee.

Agua Prieta-Douglas (Arizona)

The border area of Agua Prieta-Douglas is growing rapidly with the proliferation of maquiladoras on both sides of the border. On the Douglas side, the
Chamber of Commerce
, has good information on Mexico as well as Arizona, with a wealth of maps (including Agua Prieta) and brochures.

The road crosses the scenic Sierra San Luis, covered by dense oak-juniper woodland, to the continental divide (elevation 1820 m) at
Puerto San Luis
, the border between the states of Sonora and Chihuahua. There are outstanding views of the sprawling rangelands. Southbound motorists from the US must present their papers to Mexican customs at
La Joya
, a lonely outpost 70 km northwest of Janos.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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