Having visited Progreso several times this winter, and Matamoros only once, it is safe to say I’m a bit skewed towards the former destination. Nevertheless, I have rational reasons for enjoying Progreso more than Matamoros. For anyone living along the East Coast of Texas, this will be vital information for you if you are planning on visiting Mexico anytime soon, for everyone else, its a bit of a tale of our visit to Matamoros, where days later there was a shoot out and US customs confiscated several pounds of illicit drugs.
Matamoros inspires looks of fear and awe in Winter Texans, who for so long have heard horror stories of drug deals, border wars and shoot outs occurring at this crossing. Call it naivety, but we wanted to check out the city and see what the market had to offer. We drove to the border and parked the car on the US side before walking gaily across the bridge into Mexico. As soon as we stepped on foreign soil we heard an old familiar sound– taxi drivers whispering discount promises in one ear and steering you quickly towards his patched up vehicle. We saw chickens and other farm life wandering around aimlessly in tiny, makeshift pens, and we saw several people looking at us with disbelief. It seemed more like our recent trip to Uzbekistan, than across a mere 100 yard river from America.
We held up our printed map of Matamoros and decided to walk to the market, a 2 mile stroll following the train tracks before veering into a slum that jetted into the market and bazaar area. Along the walk, people paused to give us strange looks or point the way to the market and shake their head. Perhaps our tiny group of American should not have been there, but hey– we made it through Azerbaijan without incident, why not Mexico?
Finally at the market, we didn’t see a single other American. A mile long street of tiny shops selling Chinese-made shoes, clothes and plastic flowers stretched before us, and we perused the items, snapping pictures, looking at our map frequently, and generally playing the role of retarded tourist quite well. On the walk back to the border, a cab drive hollared out his window, “50 cents a person!” and we jumped in without a second thought. He chatted kindly with us in broken English while we sat bashful and ashamed that we didn’t already speak Spanish. We walked back across the border and the dichotomy was so shocking that suddenly people risking their lives to swim across the river made sense. Hell, I’d do it if I lived in Matamoros.
Progreso, on the other hand, is a town made for tourists. After you park on the US side, you walk across a wheel-chair friendly bridge to Mexico, where several tanks and armed guards keep watch. The streets are lined with liquor shops, souvenir shops, bars and restaurants, as well as cheap dentists and optometrists. We did not encounter a single other tourist under the age of sixty, and the elderly retirees and snow birds were having an amazing time getting drunk on cheap margaritas, dancing to polka and buying up hand-woven baskets and rugs. Its a great place to visit if you want two mustachioed men to play mariachi music to you while simultaneously chugging beer.