Tourists abandoned the Mexican border city of Juárez in droves when a vicious drug war erupted in its streets beginning five years ago. Now the city wants to win them back with the help of a new shuttle service that will chauffeur visitors from the American side of the border into Mexico.
On its maiden voyage Wednesday only two women showed up to ride the tour bus from El Paso to the heart of downtown Juárez. Nancy Ontiveros, a local businesswoman, was one of them.
"I'm excited to see things opening up again so that we can enjoy our neighbors," Ontiveros said.
Ontiveros grew up in El Paso, but figured the last time she crossed into Juárez was 10 years ago. Constant shoot-outs and one of the highest murder rates in the world kept her away.
"I miss doing a lot of the things I used to do over there, shopping, going to the dentist," she said.
Unfortunately Ontiveros didn't know she now needed her passport to make the journey and had to stay behind. It's a mistake that will undoubtedly be repeated by others who've stayed away as long as she has. But Ontiveros said she'd return.
The bus departs every day at 11 a.m. from an El Paso souvenir shop and costs $12 round-trip per person.
"This was an idea to promote our city," said Jose Ramos, special projects director for the city of Juárez.
In March, the city opened up a tourism office in El Paso and is now organizing the daily tours in partnership with a private bus company. The tour, which lasts four hours, stops in downtown Juárez, where travelers can hire a guide or wander on their own with the aid of a map on a brochure. Highlighted sites include the central cathedral, a museum, markets and a prohibition-era bar.
"We started taking people from the office on tiny tours," said Ramos. "Then more people came and asked if they could go to Juarez."
Violence in Juárez has been on the decline. Murders have decreased from eight per day to less than two. New businesses have popped up, and the city has a vibrant nightlife.
Rocio Andazola offers $5 walking tours in the historic city center. She said demand is steady.
"We have people from all over the world," she said. "Europe, from United States and also from the south of Mexico."
Still, the U.S. State Department issued a warning in August telling Americans to exercise caution when traveling to Juarez. And small businesses that depend on outside visitors are still suffering.
Joel Gonzalez sells parakeets and Mexican crafts at a tourist market not far from the border.
"We need tourism to survive," he said. "In the last few years our sales have dropped 70 percent."
Gonzalez said his family stopped taking vacations and he's held off on replacing their old car. He hopes this new shuttle service will bring more customers.
At a nearby stand Maria Espinoza browsed for herbal tea. She lives in southern New Mexico and only recently began coming back to Juárez after a long absence.
"I encourage the people to not stop coming to Mexico," she said. "Keep coming and just have the good times that we had before. Don't be afraid."
In a week Juárez will revive its annual city fair, which shut down in 2009 due to security concerns. The fair will go on for 17 days and include food and rides, all less than a mile from the border.