People from other parts of Arizona and the United States often have misconceptions and fears about border communities like Nogales and the rest of Santa Cruz County, associating them with violence and human and drug smuggling. That’s a perception local tour operators say they’d like to change by offering out-of-towners a sense of the region’s natural, historical and cultural beauty, as well as an opportunity to gain a more nuanced perspective on border life.
“We want to share the good news of the borderlands,” said Alex LaPierre, a tour guide and program director with the Border Community Alliance, a Tubac-based nonprofit focused on education and cultural exchange in the U.S.-Mexico border region. LaPierre helps lead BCA’s cross-border tours showcasing food, art, culture and history in Nogales, Sonora. The tours, he said, are a good way for people who might be nervous crossing the border alone to experience Ambos Nogales in a way that feels safe, allowing them to get a first-hand look at highly politicized issues like immigration and border security, he said.
“At the end of the day we kind of tell them, ‘This is your nudge. Come back on your own. Don’t be afraid,’” he said.
Linda Rushton, who runs Ambos Tours of Arizona in Santa Cruz County and Northern Sonora, also said bringing people to Nogales and helping them feel “comfortable coming to the border” was one of the main purposes behind starting her business.
A seven-year resident of Nogales, Rushton said that when she moved to the area from Phoenix, her friends “thought I would be raped, pillaged and plundered.” She had worked here for years and knew it was a safe community, she said, but convincing people who only know what goes on at the border from what they seen on TV is a challenge.
Once they see it for themselves, however, many people are surprised at how much they enjoy the history and culture of the area, she said.
“Absolutely, people feel more comfortable coming again once they’ve been on a tour,” Rushton said. “I should get a commission from the dentists because they all feel so good they start calling to make appointments.”
Assuaging fears about the border isn’t the only outreach offered by local tour operators. Santa Cruz County is also home to fascinating historical sites, binational culture and what wildlife biologist Victor Pinto calls the “gorgeous and atypical” Sky Islands.
Pinto and his wife Claudia Campos-Pinto run eco-tours at a 42-acre nature preserve in Patagonia called Raven’s Nest, where they work to educate visitors about environmental conservation through customized tours and wilderness survival courses in the Patagonia Mountains.
While he does tell guests who are nervous about coming to the border region that they are statistically safer at the border than in the cities where they live, he said, his real focus is creating a sense of “awe” in the natural wonders of the borderland’s Sky Islands. “I think people need inspiration, not just education,” he said.
Even people who are drawn to the region because they have heard about its biological diversity and are interested in seeing rare birds and other wildlife, still leave the tours with a new sense of appreciation of the area, Pinto said.
“Even really experienced people, often I see a fresh look on their face by the end of the day,” he said. “It doesn’t fit their stereotype (of southern Arizona), in a good way.”
Spirit Steps Tours, owned by the Global Community Communication Alliance in Tumacacori, also strives to both educate and inspire tourists, offering visits to Avalon Organic Gardens and EcoVillage, where guests learn about sustainable, communal living, said tour guide and resident Paldeschi Tarenta.
“The whole purpose is to educate,” he said, adding that Spirit Steps Tours also guides groups, including university students, out-of-town visitors and researchers, on treks in the Santa Rita Mountains and visits to area missions and historical sites or across the border. “We’re really local people who know the local problems, so people have a real in-depth understanding of the area, so (visitors) can form their own opinions,” he said.
Jessy Zamorano, who offers historical tours in Santa Cruz County through her company Baja Arizona Tours, said her main goals is to create an enjoyable and informative experience for visitors, but she also hopes tourists gain an appreciation for the culture and beauty of the borderlands.
“I want them to feel the kinship that we have (across the border),” she said, adding with a laugh: “But I don’t tell them that. It’s my secret mission.”