REAL DE CATORCE, Mexico — So you want to go to Mexico, but you don't have a passport? There are still options, at least for one more year.
Using just your driver's license or birth certificate, Americans can cross the border and spend a day buying trinkets and even a bottle of tequila to take home from one of Mexico's dozens of bordertowns, scattered between Tijuana and Matamoros. Or, if you have a long weekend and want to explore farther south, you can take a bus or drive to old mining towns that seem untouched by time, like the mountaintop Real de Catorce.
As of Jan. 23, all U.S. citizens must have a passport for airline travel to Mexico and the Caribbean. But, those traveling by land or boat need only a driver's license or birth certificate. (The U.S. government may require passports for land travel as early as Jan. 1, 2008, although it is still debating an extension.)
If you want to travel to a major city in Mexico without getting on a plane, you can cross the border and take a luxury bus that makes few stops and includes a bathroom, air conditioning, spacious assigned seats, and movies. But beware, you might have to endure hours of kung fu flicks dubbed in Spanish. Buses to small towns are usually second-class, and you might find yourself sharing a ride with a goat or a chicken.
If you're adventurous but don't want to share a seat with a farm animal, you can drive your car or recreational vehicle into Mexico - just be sure to register it immediately after crossing the border. There are a number of Web sites with advice for first-time RV travelers, including some that offer caravan travel.
Even if you don't want to travel far, there are plenty of drive-to destinations in Mexico, including Barrancas del Cobre, or Copper Canyon, a national park filled with pine-clad mountains, precipitous canyons and picturesque Indian villages in the border state of Chihuahua.
If you're looking for a warm getaway, there are beach towns along Mexico's Pacific coast. Puerto Penasco, on the coast of Sonora state, and Rosarito just across from San Diego, already are favorite weekend destinations for many U.S. travelers.
A favorite destination for Texans is Real de Catorce, a former mining town of 1,000 people tucked on top of a 9,000-foot mountain.
Featuring cobblestone streets and colonial buildings, the town is a good option for those looking for a taste of Old Mexico but without hordes of tourists. Here, the stillness of a crisp morning is often broken by the chirping of birds and the braying of donkeys.
The closest route to Real de Catorce is on the toll-road that begins at Nuevo Laredo, across from Laredo, Texas. Visitors travel about 300 miles south of the border, eventually following a narrow, 19-mile cobblestone road and finally driving through a one-car tunnel.
From the 1700s to the early 1900s, Real de Catorce was at the center of one of Mexico's major silver-producing regions. The Spanish founders built lavish theaters, ornate homes, a bull ring, a Roman-style cockfighting arena, a mint and a Roman Catholic church.
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But the once opulent town was almost deserted during the Mexican Revolution. Locals and some Europeans who settled here began restoring the buildings and streets in the 1980s to attract tourists.
Swiss, German, American and Italians opened hotels, coffee shops, art galleries and restaurants, where gourmet food and pastries are served. Prices ranging from $7 to $12 per entree.
But it was Hollywood that catapulted Real de Catorce, in central San Luis Potosi state, to international fame.
In 2000, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt and Gene Hackman were in Real de Catorce to film "The Mexican," a movie about a cursed gun and the man sent down to Mexico to retrieve it. Five years later, Salma Hayek and Penelope Cruz traveled here for the filming of their outlaw movie, "Bandidas."
If you like Real de Catorce, you might consider extending your trip to other colonial cities along the road to the capital, like Zacatecas, Guanajuato, San Miguel de Allende and farther south, Queretaro. Those ready for a really long road trip might even consider a stop in Mexico City and the four-hour drive south to Acapulco. You can drive straight through from Texas to Acapulco in about 16 hours.
There are a few things to consider before embarking on a road trip through Mexico.
Make sure to check the U.S. Department of State's Web site for the latest travel warnings and places to avoid.
All foreigners traveling beyond the border area need to get a tourist visa, an importation permit for their vehicles and Mexican car insurance. All can be purchased at the border.
The car permit can also be processed at Mexican consulates or the Mexican government Web site http://www.banjercito.com.mxand then picked up at a port of entry, a much speedier process than waiting in lines at the border. The Web site explains what documents are required to bring a vehicle across the border.
It's best to travel only during the day, and stick to toll roads, which are generally in better shape and have "Green Angels," crews in green trucks whose help motorists in distress. Also, carry plenty of pesos as toll roads usually take dollars but offer an unfavorable exchange rate.
Road signs in Mexico can be confusing or nonexistent, and some may even point you in the wrong direction. Also, the farther you drive south, the less likely you'll meet people who speak English. Bring a map and don't be shy to ask for directions. Most locals will try to be helpful, even if they can only guide you with hand signs.
Signs that say "Topes" indicate speed bumps, which can be large, so slow down.
Be aware that you will likely come across army checkpoints throughout Mexico, with soldiers searching for drugs and guns. They may ask to search your vehicle.
But the trip is well worth the trouble. Visitors are treated to stunning landscape, like rugged hills, deserts full of Joshua trees, pine-covered mountains, cliffs that plunge into the ocean and towns that look like sets of Old Westerns.
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