I forgot my passport, but that didn't matter. I was in El Paso, technically not Mexico, but close enough.

I knew that Mexico was over there - the country felt like a portrait whose eyes were always following me - but it was also here, on this side of the fence. (One constant reminder of the shared boundary: US Border Patrol vehicles parked along Interstate 10 and helicopters flying overhead.) Signs in restaurant windows advertised menudo soup, and not just for Sunday supper; girls dressed in their quinceañera best posed for photos in San Jacinto Plaza. At H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop, a waitress returned my morning greeting with a "buenos dias" before setting down a heaping plate of huevos rancheros.

At bars around town, I learned that a chile is the cocktail condiment of choice. Two customers at Love Buzz introduced me to the paleta shot, which evokes the chile-fied watermelon lollipops of their Mexican youth, and a bartender at Cafe Central rimmed a mescal-filled glass with ground-up crickets, chiles and salt. Note to high school Spanish teachers: Add the phrase "sal de grillos" to your lesson plan.

Of course, the southern Joneses aren't the sole influences on this sun-broiled city in the Chihuahuan Desert. El Paso is in the United States, after all, which means the Spaniards left their mark, as did - and still do - the Pueblo Indians. A shopkeeper at the Tigua Indian Cultural Center shared her recipe for traditional oven-baked bread. I'd need flour, water, salt, lard and an horno, she told me, or I could throw down six bucks for quicker loaf gratification.

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And then there is the Texas connection. To feel it, I could look up at the 459-foot-long illuminated star set in the Franklin Mountains, or down at the pair of Rocketbuster cowboy boots that taught me how to walk the El Paso walk.

The National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso, Texas, was founded by retired agents in the 1970s. Photo / Katherine Frey
The National Border Patrol Museum in El Paso, Texas, was founded by retired agents in the 1970s. Photo / Katherine Frey

The National Border Patrol Museum, a nonprofit attraction started by retired agents and open since 1984, is full of "who knew?" moments. For example, did you know that the government created the earliest incarnation of the agency in 1904 to apprehend or deter Chinese and European immigrants who had failed their inspections at Ellis Island? (The BP as we know it arrived two decades later, on May 28, 1924.) That the enforcers accompanied James Meredith, an African-American student, when he registered at the segregated University of Mississippi? And that illegal immigrants affix horseshoe-shaped wood blocks and sponges to their shoes to avoid detection?

The information at this compact museum comes at you faster than the Miami Vice-style jet boat that was seized in the Miami area and used by Buffalo's station to police the Great Lakes. At the gift shop, stock up on Border Patrol souvenirs such as beer koozies, a necklace-and-earring set, T-shirts and baseball caps, including two styles that require credentials to purchase.

Franklin Mountains State Park, seen from inside a cave on the Aztec Cave Trail, covers nearly 27,000 acres. Photo / Katherine Frey
Franklin Mountains State Park, seen from inside a cave on the Aztec Cave Trail, covers nearly 27,000 acres. Photo / Katherine Frey

, the country's largest urban park, resembles a rocky mohawk parting El Paso. The nearly 27,000-acre sanctuary stretches to the New Mexico state line and incorporates the Wyler Aerial Tramway (one-way ride time: four minutes) and more than 100 miles of hiking and mountain biking trails. Choose your entrance wisely.

The Tom Mays Unit contains campsites and a diverse network of treks, including the easy-on-the-knees Nature Walk and the moderate Aztec Cave Trail, which ends with caverns that once held pottery sherds and yucca mats and sandals.

At McKelligon Canyon, pick up maps and advice, including a reality check on rattlesnakes and the heat, at the small visitors center and gift shop. (The park is building a new headquarters and visitors center at Tom Mays to replace the old facility; ETO is next summer.)

The challenging Ron Coleman Trail, which inches along Franklin's spine, departs from here and requires rock-scampering skills. With the exception of a sliver of coverage on the West Cottonwood Spring Trail, the park has scant shade and no taps, so visor on and water up before setting out.

Aoudads scamper across rocks at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site outside of El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey
Aoudads scamper across rocks at Hueco Tanks State Historic Site outside of El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey

First things first: How to pronounce Hueco Tanks State Historic Site. Repeat after me, "Waco." The Spanish noun refers to the hollows in the igneous rock that, after a good rain, transform into watery cradles for tadpoles and fairy shrimp. (New visitors must watch an orientation film and learn about the dire consequences of stepping in the egg incubators.) The 860-acre park ranks as one of the world's best spots for bouldering, so don't be surprised to see climbers hauling mattresses to cushion their falls. However, you don't need to leave desert firma to view a sampling of more than 2000 pictographs, including hundreds of masks; a handful of petroglyphs; and a subway car's worth of historical graffiti.

The drawings and carvings range in date from 10,000 years ago to the 1990s. In Newspaper Cave, one inscription reads, "Francisco Avila 4-6-69." Park superintendent Ruben Ocampo mulled the year: "Even though it says '69, is it 1869? 1969?" If only the rock walls could talk.

Along the El Paso Mission Trail, the Ysleta Mission, built in 1682, is the oldest in Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey
Along the El Paso Mission Trail, the Ysleta Mission, built in 1682, is the oldest in Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey

The 14.5km El Paso Mission Trail strings together two missions, one chapel and more than 335 years of history as dramatic as a Larry McMurtry novel. Moving from north to south, the silver-domed Ysleta Mission, which the Spaniards and Tigua built in 1682, is the oldest mission in Texas. The adobe structure survived Rio Grande floodings, fires and a transfer of sovereignty from Mexico to the United States. The altar stars the usual suspects, plus a statue of Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Native American to receive sainthood from the Catholic Church. At the Socorro Mission, look heavenward to see the oldest relic in the state, painted cottonwood ceiling beams (or vigas) from the original 17th-century church. Finally, the Presidio Chapel at San Elizario (established 1877-1882) served as a revolving spiritual door for troops stationed at the garrison. Since the Mexican American War, peace has reigned in San Elizario. "Alleluia" to that.

Like Proust, Octavio Zavala taps into the time-machine powers of food. Instead of madeleines, the chef-owner of Valentine's Kitchen & Bar boards the bone-marrow bus to his El Paso adolescence. "That's a hardcore childhood memory," he said of bobbing for the meaty bits in his grandmother's beef broth.

For his modern take on nostalgia, he pairs a whole femur with tortillas, pico de gallo, sea salt and lime. He also draws on his more recent memories as a student at the French Culinary Institute in New York and an intern for such celebrated chefs as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Thomas Keller, Daniel Boulud and David Chang. The pork belly tacos, for instance, riff on Momofuku's pork buns. "They were delicious," said Zavala, who with his wife opened the current location of Valentine's in March. "But it doesn't need a bun; it needs a tortilla." Once home, Zavala could finally liberate the pork belly.

A quesadilla with locally grown peppers and a side of cabbage at Cafe Mayapan in El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey
A quesadilla with locally grown peppers and a side of cabbage at Cafe Mayapan in El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey

feeds a movement: Garment workers created its mother organization, La Mujer Obrera, in 1981 to fight for the rights of female factory workers in El Paso, many of whom were mistreated and later displaced when the textile industry relocated to Mexico. The group added the restaurant in 2001 to offer the women new skills as well as sustenance.

The menu embraces the Mexican cuisine of their forebears. "We are pushing ancestral foods because we have lost that connection to who we are and to the earth," said Hilda Villegas, the nonprofit group's community organiser. The kitchen staff integrates ingredients - cactus, cilantro, tomatoes, chiles, lettuces, herbs - grown at its nearby garden. Several dishes are vegetarian and all are empowering. The grilled cactus stuffed with asadero cheese and mushrooms with chipotle, for one, can seemingly make the world a better place.

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On a recent weekday, the morning rush at H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop included a businessman in a suit and tie, a gray-ponytailed doctor, a regular in a University of Texas at El Paso sweatshirt and a white pickup truck. At the hybrid establishment, open since 1958, you can wash down breakfast or lunch while your ride receives the salon treatment.

The space is as cramped as a gas station convenience store, with a row of orange stools lining a teal Formica counter and a few tables and chairs pressed against a wall littered with photos of customers and the owners' family members. You can also take your meal outside and watch the car-cleansing show from a chair that folds up - or rocks. The menu specialises in Mexican classics (flautas, carne picada, chile rellenos), with a dash of Denny's (two eggs with bacon or sausage, oatmeal). And no dish is more than the price of a wash.

Lily Villalpando gives a vehicle some loving care at H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop. in El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey
Lily Villalpando gives a vehicle some loving care at H&H Car Wash and Coffee Shop. in El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey

This year, Cafe Central will celebrate its centennial, including its early years in Ciudad Juarez, across the border, as a social hot spot for patrons fond of cigars, gambling and cabaret. The restaurant's founders moved the joint to El Paso after Prohibition, and in 1991, the current owners refined the dining experience with a European-inflected menu and decor borrowed from a wedding reception hall. The restaurant has not completely abandoned its roots, however. Most of the dishes contain some Southwestern pixie dust: The Chilean sea bass, for instance, comes with a dab of chipotle lime butter, and the beef tips are spiked with jalapeño au jus. For its anniversary, the bar will prepare a celebratory cocktail with mezcal, chipotle syrup, bitter chocolate, pineapple slices, lime juice and sal de grillos imported from its birthplace.

Along the Mission Trail, the Socorro Mission, the Socorro Mission has painted ceiling beams from the late 1600s. Photo / Katherine Frey
Along the Mission Trail, the Socorro Mission, the Socorro Mission has painted ceiling beams from the late 1600s. Photo / Katherine Frey

The co-founders of Paradigm Texas could wallpaper Anna Wintour's closet with their résumés. Robert Lomnicki and John Zimmerman, who opened their lifestyle store two years ago, have worked at Bergdorf Goodman, Armani and Prada, to name a high-fashion few. So, when the partners suggest any of their wares - Italian glassware from Vietri, a black resin skull with a crystal mohawk or a pet toy labeled "Chewy Vuitton" - you can trust their taste. "If we wouldn't put it in our home," Lomnicki said, "we wouldn't have it in our store."

You will need to take a few laps around the artfully stuffed store to uncover all of the surprises and delights, which include reclaimed brass and horn jewelry by Kenyan artisans, hand-loom throws from Colombia and large-scale photographs by Peter Svarzbein, a local politician. If your energy starts to wane, stop by the Sugarfina station and pop a champagne gummy bear or Kir Royale cordial in your mouth - the candy of champions.

At TI:ME at Montecillo, a four-year-old development with nearly 10 stores, behold the wonders inside shipping containers. Chuco Relic packs its repurposed structure with El Paso-centric items such as handmade drums by tween wunderartist Chance Bailey Johnson; cheery landscapes by Patrick Gabaldon, a prosecutor in the District Attorney's Office; and fanciful postcards of toads and lizards by graphic artist Andrew Candelaria, the store's manager.

The retailer features a T-shirt design of the month; April was the retro El Paso Sunrise Tee. Texas political insiders will understand the real message behind the "I Love El Paso" shirt: Beto O'Rourke, the Democrat challenging Ted Cruz for his U.S. Senate seat, wore a similar one as a kid.

Next door, at Trendy:Decor, Monica Vela is a one-woman Etsy stop, with mugs displaying cheeky sayings ("I just want to drink wine and rescue dogs"), recycled denim pillows and tiki torches inhabiting empty bottles of booze. Purchase one of her handmade cards and she will type a personal message on her old Royal model. Stock up on Tex-Mex bars at the New Mexico Soap Co. Designs include the Lone Star State, a cactus, Frida Kahlo and a chihuahua, which will please both dog lovers and fans of the local minor league baseball team, whose mascot is the pint-size pup.

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"Boring people don't want our boots," said Nevena Christi, owner of Rocketbuster, which has specialised in custom-made cowboy boots for nearly 30 years. Some of the fascinating people who bust rockets include Taylor Swift, Julia Roberts, Ethan Hawke, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Spielberg. (Check the Wall of Fame for additional heel dropping.)

Artist Xochitl Burciaga paints a design on a pair of custom boots at Rocketbuster in El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey
Artist Xochitl Burciaga paints a design on a pair of custom boots at Rocketbuster in El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey

But even regular people wear the iconoclastic footwear. A geologist for Chevron commissioned a pair featuring fossil-strewn strata and the company's classic logo. A woman submitted 50 episodes from her life, several of which - her Jeep, pet dogs, tennis ball, school emblem - cover her boots like quilt squares. Visitors who can't afford the starting price of US$1000 ($1443) can take a free tour of the workshop and see the Guinness World Records' largest pair of boots and a collection of vintage boots, plus new orders in progress. You can even try on a pair (I chose the Coachella-appropriate desert rose style) and experience the sensation of being a non-boring person.

Three generations of Alvidrez-Herreras showcase their talents at The Eagle's Path, an art gallery at the Tigua Indian Cultural Center. Yolanda (grandmother) and Albert (son) specialise in Pueblo pottery molded of red or white clay. Their mugs, plates, bowls and wedding vases (two spouts on one vessel for the happy sipping couple) are resplendent in Native American iconography such as bears, feathers, flowers, lizards and the sun. Pamela (daughter) constructs nativity scenes populated by traditional and nontraditional figures, and Encarnacion (grandfather) crafts animals, birds and bugs out of metal. Allie Hope (granddaughter, 10) and Paul (grandson, 11) contribute to the family trove with painted wooden crosses, felt ornaments, pottery and ojo de dios, or God's eyes conceptualized in yarn. Opposite the shop, two hornos produce fresh-baked loaves of Pueblo bread, sometimes up to 30 a day.

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From the backyard cactus garden at Casa de Suenos Country Inn, you can tick off Texas, New Mexico and Mexico. The four-room lodge in the Chihuahuan Desert is only 2 miles from West El Paso, although its proximity belies its New Mexico address. Marlene Eichner and her husband purchased the three-acre property in 2002 and set about renaming and redecorating. Out: the original Cowboys and Indians Board and Bunks moniker and John Ford-style props. In: the English-translated House of Dreams and Southwestern-Mexican motif. Each room is named after a spirit animal or figure. In my Kokopelli suite with a private patio and gurgling fountain, the fertility god appeared on coasters, wall hangings and even the soap dispenser. The rate includes a homemade breakfast - ask Marlene for green chiles, if you dare - and the patios are equipped with brushes to sweep away the sand whipped up by the spring winds.

The Five Points neighbourhood combines the new and the old in El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey
The Five Points neighbourhood combines the new and the old in El Paso, Texas. Photo / Katherine Frey

The two-year-old Hotel Indigo El Paso Downtown is a bed-to-bathroom, pool-to-parking-lot tribute to its home city. The nod to El Chuco - the city's nickname - starts in the garage, site of the "Downtown El Paso" mural painted in part by one of the hotel's concierges. The street-level restaurant, the Downtowner, is named after the previous occupant, a 1960s motor inn. On the fifth-floor lobby, a satellite view of the city cuts the topography out of denim, an ode to the earlier garment industry. (Ditto for the staff's uniforms.) On the guest room floors, the hallway carpet pattern echoes the shape of the Franklin Mountains, and window boxes filled with (fake, to avoid a slow and withering death) succulents hang outside each door. Colourful serapes warm the beds, and mimbre baskets from a Native American reservation provide light. If you need a respite from El Pasorama, command one of the plastic Acapulco chairs at the rooftop pool. Then, close your eyes and let yourself slip south.

If you dreamed of robbing a bank during your night at the Gardner Hotel and Hostel, don't worry: You aren't drifting to the dark side. More likely, you stayed in Room 220, 221 or 222, where John Dillinger and two members of his gang slept shortly before their arrest in Arizona in 1934. The oldest continually operating hotel in El Paso (established 1922) retains much of its old-timey look and feel. The 44 private rooms and six dorms are furnished with original pieces, and an evaporative cooler in the hallway blasts Arctic air through the transoms. The lobby displays artifacts from the early years, including Dillinger's death mask and wanted poster. (Further up the timeline, the owners could add the novels of Cormac McCarthy, who lived and wrote in the hotel on and off for two years.) In the basement, guests have access to a kitchen and game room, where they can play ping-pong.

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Five Points makes a strong case for retaining authenticity and grit without sacrificing hipster tastes. "The older businesses didn't want to gentrify," Adam Bedoya said. "They wanted keep the feeling of Five Points alive while bringing some new life into it." That new vitality includes the year-old Salt and Honey Bakery and Cafe, where Bedoya, a waiter, serves all-day brunch and breakfast, housemade pastries and coffee drinks, such as a tri-flight of espressos.

Across the street, Joe, Vinny & Bronson's Bohemian Cafe hydrates patrons with the holy trinity of beverages: coffee, wine and craft beer. JVB's signature drink is the Golden Milk, a symphony of turmeric, honey, soy milk and cinnamon, with a crescendo of espressos.

Around the corner, Pershing Inn, which opened in 1946, takes its booze and bands outside to an open-air patio with a full bar, stage and picnic tables that encourage family-style drinking. Love Buzz hosts live and loud music - metal, punk and indie rock - three times a week. For a taste of Old Five Points, grab a red plastic tablecloth-covered table at the Italian Kitchen, which recalls the neighborhood from seven decades ago.

Several nights a week, a vintage bar at Pershing Inn in El Paso, Texas, supplies the soundtrack in the Five Points neighborhood. Photo / Katherine Frey
Several nights a week, a vintage bar at Pershing Inn in El Paso, Texas, supplies the soundtrack in the Five Points neighborhood. Photo / Katherine Frey

Known as the "Ellis Island of the Border," El Segundo Barrio was established by Mexican immigrants in the late 19th century and is considered one of the most historic Hispanic neighborhoods in the country. It's also a great place to experience Mexico without a passport. "Do you want to try some pig skin?" asked a woman behind the counter at Burritos y Carnitas Yoni, which also sells burritos, tortas and tacos. At Ruidoso Super Market, pick up bilingual religious candles and Costco-size packs of tortillas. Murals illustrate the area's people and past in vivid detail. "El Paso Port-All," a 27-metre-long artwork at the International Bridge, offers a highlight reel of El Paso. Images include the crocodiles in San Jacinto Plaza (once live, now sculpted), a taco cart, a Mexican woman harvesting crops and the giant star over the Franklin Mountains that shines down on two cities sharing one border.