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The Rio Grande river curves between low brown hills dotted with lush sub-tropical plants. Parks and wildlife refuges are scattered along the banks of the slow-moving, sinuous waters, and birdsong can be heard in the trees. It easy to forget that this is the heart of a contentious part of the world -- until you spot a big truck filled with US border control guards watching you.

Welcome to Texas's 2,000km border zone, which makes up almost half the length of the line separating the US and Mexico. This region has always been about how two cultures blend rather than divide -- until recently. Uncontrolled narcotics violence, illegal immigration and the United States' domestic politics have driven a wedge between the nations in the last decade, with locals struggling to adapt to the profound changes.

Nowhere are the differences between the two sides more starkly apparent than in El Paso, the huge city at the western end of the Texas border. On the Mexican side, Ciudad Juarez is a sprawling city verging on anarchy, with a murder rate among the world's worst. Yet just north of the Rio Grande, which narrows to a concrete-lined trickle, El Paso is tied with Lincoln, Nebraska, for being the safest city in the United States. Its near-constant sunshine bakes the traditional adobe buildings, giving it a distinctly Hispanic feel. The city has always been a place where the cultural currents of the border mix, which is possibly why El Paso is home to some of the United States’ best Mexican and steak joints, such as L & J Café and the Great American Land and Cattle Company.

The safety fears that have devastated cross-border tourism are barely an issue on the US side. Thousands of Mexicans continue to cross legally into the US each day for work and shopping. Popular Mexican restaurants and businesses have opened outlets in Texas. In downtown Brownsville, an 800-mile drive east from El Paso, colonial-era buildings abut the river -- yet this could be a Mexican market town; its shops and streets buzz with day-trippers from Mexico. Its streets are lined with myriad small businesses where it seems anything cheap is for sale, and the chains that have homogenized the US are nowhere to be seen. Wander the sidewalks with the bag-wielding, bargain-hunting masses, listen to Mexican pop music blaring from stores and sample simple treats from cart-pushing food vendors.

Yet it is the stark natural beauty and the horizon-spanning open spaces that make this region unmissable. The truly iconic border lands are found on the long, lonely drives through the region's majestic vastness. Remote stretches of the border, such as east of Eagle Pass, have an uneasy desolation where hidden tensions seem to ride the ever-blowing winds. Stories of smugglers -- both of drugs and people -- are repeated constantly. Looking across this vast and arid landscape, you cannot help but wonder what lurks just beyond the next lonely mesa. Drama aside, it should be noted, the entire length of the Texas border is safe on the US side: the huge sums spent on border guards see to that.

In the eastern region around Brownsville, you will spot a long rusty-brown line south of Route 281 which follows the Rio Grande. It is a 200-mile stretch of the recently built wall between the US and Mexico. At nearly seven metres tall, this metal divide is deeply controversial: whether it is a latter day Maginot Line, the solution to several problems or some combination of the two is hotly debated, especially in a US presidential election year.

While the wall's effectiveness in stopping human and drug traffic is contentious, its effect on wildlife migration has been profound, with the tall metal structure cutting across wildlife trails used by goats, coyotes and many other animals. Even the birds that make this one of the richest regions in the world for twitchers are affected. Still there is some good news, the Sabal Palm Audubon Sanctuary, a gorgeous slice of nature on the Rio Grande east of Brownsville reopened in 2011 after years of closure due to border politics. Change, for better and worse, remains constant in these fascinating and troubled lands.

© 2012 Lonely Planet. All rights reserved. The article ‘Texas’s troubled border region’ was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.

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