Back in the UK, I lived on the border between England and Wales for many years. As a teenager growing up in Shropshire, on the north of the border, I remember hearing stories, maybe urban myths, about the English Border Front or EBF, a bunch of thuggish youths who would beat up Welsh interlopers who shopped and drank in their towns. Later in my life I lived in South Wales. Down here, it seemed the thugs had grown up and instead of physical fisticuffs, the national rivalry had matured into a war of words, with skirmishes only taking place when England and Wales played each other at rugby or football.

Texas, too, is a border state. All of its south-western edge butts up against Mexico. In places there is just a scrap of desert separating the two countries, in others, a fence tries to stop the traffic of people, drugs, guns and other contraband. Further south, the Rio Grande river forms a natural separation.

Judging from the news, the Mexican border is a dangerous place. Stories are published daily about drug gangs killing civilians, politicians, and the occasional tourist. Nonetheless, the flow of traffic from the US to Mexico continues seemingly unabated. So what’s the attraction? After a recent trip to Nuevo Progreso in the far south of Texas, I would say the answer is money. By going there, we save it and they want it.

Over the border, American-qualified professionals offer cut-price dentistry. Instead of paying $120 to get your teeth cleaned, they charge about $40. You can get implants (in teeth or breasts) for hundreds rather than thousands of dollars a time. Prescription medicines, too, are cheaper than in the US. It often pays to fill up the car with petrol, book a motel and spend the weekend stocking up on cholesterol tablets and pain killers.

You can save money on more than just your teeth and medicine though. A litre bottle of vanilla essence cost me less than $2. A packet of coriander seeds was just $1. In Austin, at the Whole Foods store, they would cost at least five times the amount. Leather goods, hand-painted pottery, pewter, hand-woven rugs, beautifully embroidered raw-cotton dresses – all are for sale for a fraction of the cost you would pay for them in the US or the UK.

But for all the discounts, there is a price to pay. I didn’t see one ‘fair trade’-style notice anywhere in the street. I can only hazard a guess at how much profit the stallholders make selling their wares to us ‘gringos’ but I bet it’s not much. Judging by the pot holes and the general state of disrepair in Nuevo Progreso, it’s clearly a poor town by US standards. Having only ever visited here and made a day trip to a tourist trap in Cancun, I can’t compare it to other places in the country.

The ‘price’ we pay is to be hassled by persistent, sometimes skilled, salespeople. Women line the streets chanting “pedicure, manicure, haircut, wax” to every female tourist who passes by. Their voices compete with the shouts of men trying to entice you inside their chemist for some cheap (legal) drugs. Doe-eyed children weave through the crowd clutching trays of chewing gum or sweets. They stop in front of you and offer up the tray, silently imploring you to buy. At one point on our trip, we stopped in a square off the main drag for a quiet drink before heading back into the throng. We hadn’t been stationary for more than a few minutes before a steady stream of about ten vendors came strolling over, trying to sell us avocados, chewing gum, shopping bags and hideous hologram paintings of eagles eating snakes or bears catching fish. I soon learned not to make eye contact as even the slightest acknowledgement would encourage a persistent salesman.

Not being used to such a direct sales pitch, it started to wear on me after a while. I stopped browsing at stalls and instead headed into the relative peace of a department store. Here I could browse unhindered in a brightly lit shop called the Canada Store; I could have easily been in Texas, shuffling through the racks at Target or Ross. Returning to the street, reality bit. An emaciated dog, patchy with mange and hobbling on three legs, slid past the ankles of passing shoppers. Leather-skinned old ladies huddled in doorways begging for a scrap of change.

As the day wore on and our enthusiasm for shopping wore out, my friends and I headed to a bar and dancehall above one of the main shopping centres. Here, in the dark, we sipped our drinks and took turns around the dancefloor, two-stepping to a live Mexican band singing country and western classics. As the afternoon turned to evening, the music moved from country to salsa and the tourists started to leave, eager to get back across the border before nightfall. We joked about it being like a scene from Dusk Till Dawn – if Salma Hayek came out to perform her snake dance then we knew we were in trouble. Even though we were the last tourists to leave, we still headed out, ostensibly to have dinner. In the restaurant a few metres away, which the menu prices quickly marked out as a tourist spot, we were the only customers.

An hour later we were heading across the bridge, spanning the river and separating two countries that were so close in geography and yet so shockingly different. As we walked, we heard plaintive appeals from women with young children who were begging from the banks of the river, asking us for a bit of spare change. With a guilty heart, I threw them the remaining nickels and quarters that I had in my pocket, wondering what my pathetic contribution might make to their lives.

Then I drove back to my $70 hotel room in my eight-seater SUV, lay on one of the two king-sized beds in the hotel room and flicked on the flat screen TV.