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The Treats of Laredo

Shopping South of the Border Guarantees a Feliz Navidad

"You need prescriptions?" the little man rasps over the morning bustle along Avenida Guerrero, the main tourist drag through town. This is the first question I'm asked after paying my 35 cents and crossing International Bridge No. 1 into Mexico, so naturally I'm wondering, "Do I look like I need prescriptions?" I'm also curious about what sort of "prescriptions" I could get my hands on, but I feign innocence and ever-so-slight indignation. The little man doesn't miss a beat. "You want a nice blanket?" he asks, sweeping his arm across a colorful display table. "It's beauuuutiful blanket. Feel how nice. For you, $17 ..."

Ah, the cheap thrill of a Mexican border town, a penny pincher's paradise, a haggler's Shangri-La. Welcome to Nuevo Laredo, the gateway to the best bargains on sterling silver, leather goods, serapes, pottery, liquor, pharmaceuticals ... say, don't you have some Christmas shopping to do? If you're looking to break out of the hackneyed routine of the shopping mall, then make tracks for the border for an economical and culturally enlightening holiday shopping excursion. Andale, already! There're only 10 shopping days until Christmas!

Nuevo Laredo is one of several Mexican towns along the Tex-Mex border where shoppers are expected to haggle for their purchases. I'm touting Nuevo Laredo because I happened to go there recently and because it's a mere three and a half hours, give or take, by automobile. All you do is take I-35 and keep heading south until the freeway ends -- literally -- in Laredo, Nuevo Laredo's oft-ignored U.S. sister city. Once you've cleared out of the heady San Antonio traffic, find yourself a good conjunto station on the radio and surrender yourself to miles and miles of flat, open range dappled with fattened-up cattle, spinning windmills, and an occasional oil rig rising out of the brush. Keep heading south. You'll know you're getting close to your destination when your teeth begin to vibrate from the sheer number of hulking 18-wheelers on your tail, and a like number of semis zooming past in the other direction. Thank you, NAFTA!

From the freeway, Laredo resembles the way Waco looks from the freeway, meaning there's a dizzying number of billboards and fast-food stops. Unlike Waco, however, Laredo is experiencing a crazy boomtown adolescence like the locals have never seen. Times are good, yes, in a scary, new-money kind of way, but the infrastructure is just barely hobbling along, trying to keep up with the growth spurt.

Anyway, we're here to shop, not agonize over another town's woes, for Pete's sake. And look, the sign up ahead reads "Freeway Ends," so brace yourself for a sudden convergence of roads, narrowing lanes, and blaring car horns. You get the distinct impression that you're driving in Mexico.

But you're not. You are merely in Laredo's downtown historic district, which resembles Old Mexico with its quaint brick streets and the purposeful gait of women with children and brightly colored shopping bags in tow. Follow the signs to the pedestrian bridge. We highly recommend parking your car on the U.S. side and hoofing it to the other side. There's parking available near the bridge at Salinas and Water Streets, just below the Riverside Mall. This mall, incidentally, was the city of Laredo's first shopping mall. It's housed with all the same stores you can find back home (Dollar General, Family Dollar, Payless Shoe Source, etc.), so you're better off just heading south.

On this particular Friday morning, the clusters of people walking across the bridge are mostly locals. Midway across, you can look east and west to the Rio Grande River, and from this level, high above the waterway, you can almost forget about the millions of gallons of raw sewage and hazardous waste that you read about getting dumped in the river every day. So just keep walking and get your mind back on shopping.

Once you cross over you're on the retail-heavy strip of Avenida Guerrero, where you can have your pick of shops or vendors lining the streets. The vendors, by the way, are selling fake Rolexes and a lot of stuff of that ilk, so use your best street smarts with these friendly fellows. If you go with the first price they quote you, they'll think you're a sucker, for sure. Same goes with their second price. Offer them a lower price and if they balk, just shake your head and walk away. Slowly. They'll follow after you with their best offer. The shopkeepers are a lot like that, too, but they seem less flexible at some of the more upscale stores in the larger marketplaces. But you never know. Maybe nine o'clock in the morning is considered too early for haggling; and for future reference, that hour is a tad too early for mounting a shopping expedition anyway, as many shopkeepers don't fling open their doors until at least 10am. Also, there's a variety of shops up and down and off the main avenue, so don't limit yourself to the main market.

Anyhow, the shopping is to die for, so make sure you bring along plenty of shopping bags, or you can buy these big sturdy bags in vibrant colors for a buck or two. For my purposes, I bought two lovely ceramic dishes, a small marble pipe, two beautifully framed mirrors, each roughly 14x14 inches in size, a sterling cross, and a bottle of San Pedro brandy all for just under $30. I probably could have made off with another shopping bag full of goods, too, had I brought along a little more cash.

If you're looking to get a bite to eat and rest your weary haunches, try El Rancho, 2134 Avenida Guerrero, for some down-home cooking. Two other inexpensive joints -- Los Platos, 2303 Lopez de Lara, and El Rincón del Viejo, at 4835 Dr. Mier -- also come highly recommended. Of the pricier restaurants, Victoria 3020 (which is also its address) enjoys a grand reputation for fine dining.

Many Austin folks who shop in Nuevo Laredo turn the excursion into a long day trip. It can be done, of course. But if you're getting up in years, or you just don't want to bother driving back right away, there are plenty of chain hotels where you can book a room in advance. If you have a little money to burn on a nice place (like $90 on up), or there's a group of you willing to pool some funds on a terrific suite, then by all means stay at La Posada (956/722-1701), the beautiful historic hotel on Zaragosa Street, which is a mere four blocks from the bridge. In the little plaza across the street from the hotel, and across from the historic San Agustin Church, older men sit on the benches and swap sleepy-eyed gossip or shoot the breeze with taxi drivers waiting for fares.

One more thing: There's no reason to treat Laredo like the neglected stepsister. There's some great places to shop, particularly along the San Bernardo strip near the downtown area. Vega's Imports, at 4002 San Bernardo, is a particular favorite, as is Oscar's Antiques on Guadalupe Street. Good, noncommercial breakfast spots include Cotulla Pit BBQ on McPherson Road, and Los Generales on Santa María; for lunch, head for El Tio Hut on Calton Road, where the Cruz family serves up excellent food. Las Bouganvillas on Chihuahua Street also serves up delicious fare.

But don't spend all your money on food. Go, thee, to the stores. Happy shopping! end story

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