Largest by far of the Mexican border cities, Ciudad Juárez (pop. 1.6 million, and growing fast) is a compelling, disturbing, exciting, and unforgettable place to visit, although the ongoing drug-related violence (and an annual average of 2,500 murders) has made the city off-limits to most sensible travelers. The city sprawls through miles and miles of some of the worst pollution and direst poverty in Mexico. If you feel brave, a half-hour walk can take you far away from the United States. From the El Paso side, don’t drive; park and walk down El Paso Street from downtown and cross the bridge on foot. This crossing drops you at the head of Avenida Juárez, the main drag, lined by cantinas, nightclubs, stalls, and stores selling everything from mass-produced “crafts” to knock-off designer goods and Cuban cigars, which will likely be confiscated if you try to bring them back into the United States.
About a half mile south of the border, at the junction with Avenida 16 de Septiembre, Avenida Juárez brings you to the heart of Juárez, where the good historical museum, housed in the old customs building, and a large often packed cathedral give glimpses into the city’s history and culture. Among the many restaurants and bars along Avenida Juárez, the one to check out is the Kentucky Club (643 Ave. Benito Juárez), a 1930s-looking bar that could be used as a set for some Raymond Chandler underworld adventure. Legend has it that Marilyn Monroe got drunk here, celebrating her Juárez divorce from playwright Arthur Miller. The Kentucky Club is also the setting of an eponymous 2012 PEN/Faulkner Award-winning novel by Benjamin Alire Sáenz.
Food and drink aside, the best thing about a trip south is the chance to enjoy some Lucha Libre (about US$8)—professional wrestling, Mexican style. Theatrical and impassioned bouts are often held on Sunday nights, in the large municipal auditorium near the cathedral, and there’s been talk of someone establishing a salón de fama or Wrestling Hall of Fame.