The Big Plans Of A Small Border Town

Naco's main plaza.
December 05, 2011

Naco, MX – Mexican border cities get some really bad press, which, in turn, leads to worse reputations.

That's why major cities like Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez have launched publicity campaigns and festivals of late, celebrating their business strengths and their tourist attractions, trying to lure American dollars.

Now, the little border town of Naco in the Mexican state of Sonora, is getting into the game. It's promoting itself as the gateway to rural Mexican tourism along the banks of the Río Sonora.

Recently, a few hundred locals lined the rough main street. They are part of a fiesta cooked up by business and local political leaders to showcase the offerings of this little border town. Naco is just 6,000 people and one main road that starts at the U.S.-Mexico border near the Arizona-New Mexico state line and runs up into the Sierra Madre Mountains.

It has one gas station, one nightclub, and no building over two stories tall. An abandoned brothel is almost as large as the high school.

Dory Debrees is visiting today. She travels frequently to Mexico, but she usually flies to the interior, and never drives across the border. This is her first trip to Naco.

“I’ve become afraid to cross the border,” Debrees said. “So I told my husband, I said: ‘I’m going outside of my comfort zone today.’ ”

Naco, Sonora, Mexico

The town of Naco along the U.S.-Mexico border in Arizona.

Gus Ruffo helped her and about 50 other Americans onto a bus in Arizona and ushered them across the border to show them his plans for turning this tiny town into a gateway to the rarely visited Sonoran villages just down the road. This trip is all about samples of good tequila, enormous plates of carne asada, songs and dance.

Ruffo describes the sights that lie further south.

“There are towns that started in the 1600s. You know the churches, the missions, the little towns,” the guide said. “The architecture of those towns is very Mexican, very Spanish colonial."

Ruffo grew up here but now lives in Arizona and owns a company that promotes this part of Mexico. He was hired to get Americans to stop and shop in Naco while they drive down to those haciendas and hot springs and cobblestone streets in the mountains.

Those onboard the bus are mostly southern Arizonans. Usually this border town is just a drive by.

“Generally it’s down the main drag and: ‘Hello Naco, good-bye Naco,’ " Eyr Dree said.

She travels across all the time, but Dree mostly heads straight for the Sea of Cortez. This time she's enjoying what little Naco has to offer.

“But it’s got some wonderful little shops and things going on,” Dree said. “You’ve got good restaurants, you’ve got a jewelry repair shop that I have the business card for.”

This is all very new here.

Consider that up until now, Naco's main claim to fame was that it was the intended target in what turned into the first aerial bombing of the U.S. It happened a decade before Pearl Harbor. It’s the story of an American named Patrick Murphy, who was drinking in an Arizona border bar when he answered the call to help a brewing Mexican rebellion.

Rebecca Orozco is a border historian who knows the story well.

“He was not an experienced bombardier by any means,” Orozco said. “He made the bombs from dynamite in suitcases and his assistant sat in the back seat, smoking a cigar, lighting the fuses and tossing them overboard.”

He was aiming for Sonora but blew up a building in Naco, Arizona, instead. Alcohol may have been a factor.

So not much has happened here since.

The town seems unprepared for a surge in tourism, with only two tiny hotels. But Ruffo – the businessman promoting the town – is not buying the skepticism that Naco is too small to be a tourism destination.

“Well, it is, but things start little by little,” Ruffo said. “Just the fact that we named the town the gate to the Río Sonora, it’s a start right?"