We accepted an invitation to take a tour bus from our resort to Los Algodones, MX, last week. The day was surprising in several ways, and something we’ll do again. Cost for the bus trip was the same as fuel cost of driving our Chevy 2500HD the 300 mile round trip. And we were curious about this border-town thing.
The bus trip was nice for us. We each finished a book, snacked, napped, and had a comfortable trip. Our truck is comfortable but driving is a little like work, especially compared to letting them do the driving for us. And they knew the route, the parking, the whole routine. Our first trip to this border town was simplified by going on this arranged bus.
every business is dental, optical, or pharmacy?
You can research Los Algodones on the web and get a sort of feel for the town’s mission and amenities. We read up on it, talked to friends, and were still surprised at the reality. Our reaction upon returning to the bus four hours later was, “that was surreal”. Everywhere it felt like we were walking a gauntlet — guys, mostly in their twenties, hanging out on the sidewalks every ten or twenty feet, approached us and offered to escort us to the “best dentist”. It only happened 30 or 40 times, or was it more?
We exited the bus on the U.S. side and walked 100 feet to the border crossing into Mexico. Not even a guard shack, no guard, no evident cameras monitored our entry to Mexico. As soon as we entered we encountered a small cultural difference — an attendant sat on a stool between the mens and ladies washroom handing paper towels for tips. Note to self, take a few quarters next time.
The bus tour leader carefully instructed us to return to the bus by 4 pm, no later than 4:30, and the line for customs can at times exceed two hours. Okay, we have two hours to get our shopping done, eat, and queue up for U.S. Customs. This is going to be a short adventure.
Our friends had advised us to do our optical exams and glasses fitting first thing, to give the opticians their needed lead times. We walked intently, scouting out the optical stores for one or two we had found in our on line searches. Aha, there’s one of them.
The fluent English-speaking staff asked us if we wanted to shop glasses frames first or start with eye exams. Deb and I were attended to by two different opticians with equipment that seemed up to date, comparable to what we see at the optical shops in the U.S.
We settled upon the frames we wanted and the types and colors of lenses and we learned the dark glasses would not be ready for pick up until after 3 p.m. Since we anticipated being in the Customs line by 2 p.m., we arranged with the store to mail the glasses to us. Okay, on to browsing some stores.
We shopped a few stores in four blocks, looking at the amazing prices. Just as a sample of prices, how about $5 for 100 amoxicillin, $12 for 50 acyclovir, and less than $3.50 for 60g tubes of diclenofac (Volfenac, like Voltaren). Of course, meds at these prices can’t be safe, right? It depends.
We found an old FDA warning that fits here: “Joe McCallion, a consumer safety officer in the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs, sums it up this way: “If you buy drugs that come from outside the U.S., the FDA doesn’t know what you’re getting, which means safety can’t be assured.”” (source) The FDA needs to know what you’re getting so they can assure profitability for big pharma. We wanted, and couldn’t find, an apt quote on why big pharma is so fruitfully aided by US government in preventing import of lower-cost meds, even by the intended users. Oh well, not our battle today. Let’s go find safe dining.
We will next time, find more interesting eating. Our choice was adjacent to the very long line for US Customs, and it looked clean and straight. So we chose Pueblo Viejo for lunch. One reason, also, was the coupon we received at the optician for free margaritas with lunch. It sold us.
The chips and margaritas arrived almost instantly. Although not large, the margaritas were good. Oh, did I say chips? No, not chips. Instead our salsa was accompanied by some light absorbent fried pinwheel. We’ll remember next time to ask for corn tortilla chips.
Our food arrived quickly and was delicious. We ordered a combination plate each and had a nice array of tasty food. We would have enjoyed this more had we more time. Margaritas were only $2.20 each and we just didn’t think we could spare the time. Seems we were right, too.
the pedestrian line for US Customs is three hours
The line for re-entering the U.S. was just outside Pueblo Viejo. Oh but the end of the line was over a quarter-mile east of the restaurant and the restaurant was at the halfway mark. How long is this wait? We asked when we finally found the tail end. “Usually it takes three hours from here.” And we thought, “what are the options?”
Debbie stayed in that line. Jim left to take a couple of pictures and scout for options. Okay, here’s another line along a sidewalk and no dental, pharmacy, or optical business near. Jim asked and was rewarded with, “the line ends there — this is for the bicitaxis (pedicabs). $5 each person and less than two hours wait. Plus they pedal you all the way to the American side. They weave in front of the lined lined up cars even.” Wow!
Wishing we had brought our handheld ham radios and he could instead just call her, Jim left the bicitaxi stand and found Debbie. She had advanced ten or fifteen feet in the line, not much progress, and was glad to try something else. We scurried over to the bicitaxi line and watched the proceedings with interest.
This long wait is much shorter than the longer wait
We were perhaps seventy or eighty back in the line for bicitaxis. Two bicitaxis were, between them, averaging almost a person per minute by hauling five people at a time. This looks much better than the pedestrian line-up, for sure. Then a couple of small groups of shoppers show up, joining their place-holder spouses in the line. Okay, another ten minutes here and there, we’re still ahead.
street vendors saw us as sitting ducks
Funny how things just fit together, opportunities taken. We were approached at least thirty times by little women (and sometimes a young man or two) selling trinkets or big molded and painted turtles or other figures (made in China?) in the almost two hours we waited for our turn on the bicitaxi.
Drop them off on U.S. side, pick up five more customers, do it again
Finally Debbie gets on a bicitaxi needing one more rider, and two bicitaxis later I am rolling for the border too. The pedaler weaved his bicitaxi around and through the line-up of waiting cars, and we arrived at the US Customs station in a few minutes. The US Customs and Border Patrol officer collected our five passports and disappeared into his booth.
Apparently we were in good company — none of our identities raised any alarms. It may have helped, too, our officer was beyond the end of his shift and had not yet seen his relief arrive. As he returned our passports just a minute after collecting them he told us, “I’m closing this line after you — my shift is over.”
Some folks waited a bit longer
And so the bicitaxis and cars in the line behind us waited a bit longer. As it turned out, they waited a lot longer. A small car inspected a little after us was detained, sniffed by the (drug?) dog, searched, its three occupants handcuffed and led away — leaving the little gray car sitting at the booth. And sitting, and sitting.
Some of our fellow bus tour travelers were less lucky or enterprising than we, and they arrived to the bus an hour and a half after us. We didn’t leave anyone behind, we didn’t bring back any extra people, and the trip home was uneventful and relaxing.
Reflections? This was a good introduction for us and we now know some of the ropes for going to this border town. Parking on the American side is easy. Leaving Los Algodones between 2pm and 4pm may be a bad idea during this high season of snowbirds. Al fresco dining would be fun, given the time. Two hours is not nearly enough if you want to do dental or optical plus any shopping or dining. Our eyeglasses arrived three days later in the mail, and are just what we expected and hoped for.
We may go again sometime. Maybe we’ll sit outside and share a pitcher of margaritas. Want to go with us?
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