Tijuana is the second-largest metropolitan area on the west coast of North America (or perhaps by now the largest; some reports claim it has now surpassed Los Angeles, California), and by now is likely one of the five largest cities in Mexico. However, Tijuana is sometimes described as "Mexico's cast-off child." As many border towns are, it exists in a twilight state that places it not truly in Mexico, while still not being in the US.
A huge number of Tijuana's inhabitants are undocumented. If fortunate, they live as transients in one of the many cheap hotels. If not so fortunate, they may live in a cardboard box in the city dump. Usual estimates of the undercount in Tijuana's population range from 15-25%. Some estimates of the population are as high as 2 million.
To gringos, Tijuana is a place they probably visit for one of two reasons: either they're going through it to get to someplace in Mexico, or they're looking to buy things that are either more expensive or unavailable (read: illegal) in the US.
To those already south of the border, Tijuana is a place they probably visit for one of two reasons: either they're going through it to get to someplace in the US, or they're living in Tijuana and either making money from everyone else who comes to Tijuana for all the other reasons or just trying to survive.
Entering Tijuana To Head Further South
Tijuana is a convenient entry point for those wishing to head further south into Baja California. Rosarito is a mere 15 minutes south of Tijuana. Ensenada is about sixty miles from the border. There are other pleasant towns in Baja California such as San Felipe and La Paz. It is also a popular destination for camping and kayaking.
Things to be aware of when entering:
- BUY MEXICAN AUTO INSURANCE. I cannot stress this enough. Your US auto insurance will not be accepted in Mexico! If you get in a car accident, you will be personally responsible for all damages. Even if your US policy claims that you are covered in Mexico, this makes no difference to the Mexican authorities. If you do not have the money with you to cover the damages, you will likely sit in a Mexican jail until someone can wire the money from the US. Buying Mexican auto insurance (there are literally dozens of insurance agents in San Ysidro, the town just north of the border) will be well worth the cost.
- If you are staying more than 72 hours or travelling more than 16 miles from the border (except to Ensenada or San Felipe) you will need a Mexican tourist card. You even need them for your children.
- Do not bring guns, drugs, or agricultural products into Mexico.
- Be prepared for poor road conditions, although the toll road south to Ensenada is usually in better repair than most other roads you will come across. In Tijuana itself, an estimated 50% of all roads are considered in "poor repair." As an example of how poor the roadways can be, Mexicans travelling between Tijuana and Mexicali (a few hours east) often drive into the US, take I-8 east to El Centro, California, and then drive back south into Mexico, thus avoiding the unpleasant Mexican roads.
Those warnings being said, Baja California can make for a peaceful and relaxing vacation. Enjoy yourself.
Gringos Visiting Tijuana
If you're just visiting Tijuana, don't bother driving in. Park at one of the parking lots in San Ysidro and walk across. The most convenient parking lot surrounds the duty-free shop just at the border, and can be reached if you just keep driving straight from the last USA exit off the freeway. Except for busy holiday weekends, parking is $7 for each 24 hours or fraction thereof.
To get to "Main Street," actually called Avenida Revolución, you can either take the red Mexicoach buses from the parking lot (for cheap) or walk across the border. If you walk across, it's either a 20 minute walk or a $5 taxi ride. Either way, follow the streams of people through the metal turnstiles and past the Mexican border agents. Then:
- To walk it:
- Turn right when the walkway forks
- Proceed through the turnstiles and across the street
- Turn left at the fountain and proceed past the pharmacies
- Turn right into Plaza Viva Tijuana and walk all the way to the ramps and steps on the southern edge
- Go up the ramps, and cross the bridge over the Tijuana River, then go down the ramps on the other side
- Turn right as you exit the rampway, and cross another small plaza
- Cross the street, and walk up Articulo 123
- When you reach the giant arch, you've reached Ave. Revolución. Turn left for the tourist zone.
- To cab it:
- One choice is to proceed straight when the walkway forks, to the large taxi stand. This is the usual choice made by newcomers because of the large "TAXI" signs pointing you this way.
- Alternately, you can take a left and cross the street to the pharmacies -- there are always taxis along this street, and the drivers tend to be friendlier and less likely to overcharge passengers than the ones at the taxi stand.
- Helpful hint: It can be considered more polite in Mexican taxis to ride in the front seat next to the driver, rather than in the back, unless you have bags or packages which would get in the way. And do not be afraid to talk with the driver! He may be able to recommend a bar or restaurant you hadn't known about.
Also note the giant arch looming over Ave. Revolución near its northern end. It is a very convenient landmark which can be seen from just about anywhere that a novice will be going in Tijuana.
There are two "mainstream" shopping areas and a few minor ones. The first major shopping area is just across the border, in Plaza Viva Tijuana. As this is the most convenient to the border, the prices will be highest. It is also the safest. There are also several restaurants here if you want food and drink.
The other primary shopping area is Ave. Revolución itself; more specifically, the ten-block area south of the Archway. While many of the bars are upstairs, the shops will just about all be either on street level or in two-level shopping arcades.
Most of the walking path from the border to the arch will be lined with street vendors and smaller shops. Very often you can buy the simpler merchandise (toys, cheap jewelry, and small artworks) for lower prices here than in the more established stores. And you're also helping the less advantaged part of the population.
You will also undoubtedly be approached by people selling simple jewelry such as silver chains or rings right out of their coat pockets. I recommend against buying from these sellers, as it it much more likely that you will be buying fake or inferior merchandise.
Above all, make sure that you bargain with the sellers! Often the final price you pay can be less than 25% of the original asking price. Note that this does not apply to bars and restaurants!
Special note if you are planning to go to pharmacies: Be sure you bring a prescription written by a US doctor. If you do not, you may be detained or fined, and your drugs may be taken away, when you return to the US.
Another precautionary note: Unless you know where you are going, you should not walk more than a block away from Ave. Revolución. Especially do not go into the area west and north of the giant arch (unless you have a specific destination in this area), or you will quickly end up in parts of town that can be dangerous or deadly to novices!
Tijuana has the same variety of culinary styles as any big city. In my time here I've eaten not only Mexican food, but Chinese, Italian, Argentinian, pizza, and French cuisine! Still, most people go to Tijuana expecting Mexican food, so here are a few recommended restaurants:
- Tijuana Tilly's: This is on Ave. Revolución at 5th Street. Their margaritas are strong and flavorful, and the portions of food are generous. A personal favorite is the aztec bowl, which is a very hot bowl of volcanic rock, filled with meat, vegetables, and a delicious sauce, along with rice and tortillas -- kind of like volcanic fajitas. Note that the music gets loud and the dance floor heats up at night, so I tend to go in the late afternoon or early evening.
- Caesar's Restaurant: Also on Ave. Revolución; this is where the Caesar Salad was invented (by Chef Caesar Cardini). Be aware that there is a strip club in the back of the restaurant.
- Tilly's Terazza: Further south on Ave. Revolución, in front of the Jai Alai arena. This is a much quieter Tilly's, but they make the most excellent chicken mole I've had in Tijuana. Usually the music you hear here will be from wandering musicians; tip them a few dollars for a live performance.
- Los Panchos Taco Shop: This is a standalone building on the east side of Ave. Revo. The burritos are absolutely huge and delicious, but the tacos are tasty as well. This is also one of the best places to try a churro, which is the Mexican version of a doughnut.
- Guadalajara Grill: This is a fun, family restaurant located in Zona Rio, one of the upscale areas of Tijuana. Take a cab, since I don't remember the address. Interestingly, it's located right next to a traffic circle which has, in its center, a statue of Abraham Lincoln. I've never found out why there is a statue of Abe in Tijuana.
By these, I mean bars where alcohol is consumed and usually dancing is done, but there is no adult entertainment as we usually understand it. Just be smart: if you will not be staying in a hotel within walking distance (of your bar or of the border), have a designated driver. San Diego police often hang out just outside the border parking lots waiting to pick up drunk drivers. Be extra careful if you are under 21, even though you can drink legally in Mexico if you are over 18. Studies have shown that about 40% of US citizens returning from Tijuana to the US on weekend nights are under 21 and are legally drunk. The San Diego Police Department is known for citing underage drinkers with possession of alcohol if they are drunk when they return to the US!
(The obvious solution is to not act drunk and obnoxious, and the police will not have any reason to hassle you. No, they don't give blood alcohol tests to everyone returning from Tijuana.)
Also avoid doing other stupid things like carrying your beer out of the bar, acting drunk and disorderly, or starting fights. A Mexican jail is not where you want to end up.
That being said, here are a few "party bars" to enjoy:
- Buckets, Animale, Peoples, and Señor Magueys are some of the pretty average "upstairs" bars along Ave. Revo.
- I personally recommend against Iguana-Rana, as they have in the past had overzealous bouncers (resulting in the death of a US tourist a couple years ago).
- Tijuana Tilly's (mentioned above) is smaller, but still gets fun on weekend nights.
- Baby Rock and Señor Frog's: These are in Zona Rio, so take a cab. They are also more upscale and expensive, but have more impressive sound and lighting systems.
- For a more local flavor, go south along Ave. Revolució to Las Pulgas, across the street from the Jai Alai Arena. This dance club has multiple dance floors, so you can dance to various types of music. This can range from Tejano to spanish rock to salsa. Many of the locals come here to party, and they will sometimes have live music. Be prepared to pay a cover charge.
You have two primary choices: visit the strip clubs along Ave. Revolución, or visit Zona Norte. I'll only go over the Revo clubs here, as Zona Norte can have its own writeup.
Things to watch out for:
- Watch your money. A very common scam is perpetrated when a tourist pays for beers or private dances with a large bill ($20 or more). The waiter or attendant will palm the large bill and show you a $1, trying to convince you that you gave them the wrong bill. ALWAYS state what bill you are giving them, and make sure you and the waiter agree on its denomination! You would be surprised at how often this scam works on drunk gringos, and then they wonder where the $50 or $100 bill went!
- Better yet, make sure you have plenty of small bills to use to pay for beers and for tipping strippers. If I am in such environments, I keep large bills in one pocket, and small bills in another, to avoid having to even expose the large bills.
- Sex with the strippers is illegal, even though it is not uncommon for it to be offered. Usually there will be no problems, but be aware that if the police raid the club, you may have to pay a fine.
- Because prostitution is illegal except in the Zona Norte area of the city, you may also be arrested if you take a stripper from the club to your hotel room for sex. If you insist on doing this, be safe and have her leave seperately and meet you at your hotel. But also be aware that doing this may be three or four times as expensive as visiting the prostitutes in Zona Norte.
- It is not uncommon for clubs along Ave Revo to employ transsexual strippers. If you encounter these and they are "not your thing," please be polite when declining their services. If you make a scene you may be asked to leave, or at worst, you may get in trouble with the police. I will mention several clubs that are "safe" if you want to avoid such encounters.
Top tier strip clubs will almost never have transsexual dancers. The women will be more attractive, but things will overall be more expensive. Note that the scams go on even in the top tier bars! These bars include:
Mid-tier bars may have transsexuals, as noted:
- Peanuts and Beer: These days, the dancers here are all women. Don't be afraid to have the barker escort you down the alley; it's safe.
- Madonas: Pretty average for an Ave Revo strip club.
- Bambi Club: Some transsexuals here, but the club itself isn't bad.
- Sans Souci: Some transsexuals here as well.
Lower-tier bars either have transsexuals galore, or ugly women:
- Unicornio: not at all recommended.
- El Tigre/Zorro Bar: Reportedly, this club has very pretty (female) dancers downstairs, and very pretty (transsexual) dancers upstairs. I haven't checked.
If you wish to stay in a hotel in Mexico (and stay in the tourist area) there are several comfortable ones in Tijuana:
- Hotel Pueblo Amigo is right near the border, and one of the very best in the city. Rooms here can cost over $100 a night.
- More affordable is Hotel La Villa de Zaragosa. It is located just one block east of Ave. Revolución, but is quiet and comfortable. It is family operated, and the staff is polite and efficient. This is where I stayed when I first started staying overnight in Tijuana. Rooms will cost from $40-60 a night.
- The Hacienda Del Mar is an alternative that puts you near the beach. It's not in walking distance of downtown, though.
- The Hotel Nelson is on Ave Revolución, right by the archway, and has a nice restaurant downstairs that serves a delicious breakfast.
Returning to the US
Catch a cab to la linia (la LEE-nee-ah), which means "the border". Be prepared to wait in a long line, unless you are crossing in the middle of the night. (My usual crossing time when I crossed frequently was at about 2:30am, and it took me about 3 minutes.) Crossing times during most of the day now are running up to an hour. At rush hour, it can take two. As others have said, you can rent a bike to speed up the process, because it lets you cross in the bicycle lane.
Be sure you have photo ID to show the nice officers. It makes things go much more smoothly. If you are a US citizen, you do not need a passport. If you are a US permanent resident or other non-citizen, then bring the appropriate papers or it could delay your return significantly.
And of course, don't bring any contraband back with you. No drugs, no agricultural products. You can bring back one liter of alcohol and one carton of cigarettes. Make sure you have the prescriptions for any drugs you have bought at a pharmacy.
Locals in Tijuana
Current estimates are that tourism accounts for over 12% of Tijuana's economy. A significant additional portion goes to providing for those who are "in transit" to the north, a process which can take quite some time (in some cases, a lifetime). Barely 50% of the population (over the age of 12) is considered to be "economically active," pointing to a significant population of consumers rather than producers.
Tijuana's employment figures are overwhelmingly geared toward tourism and manufacturing. Currently, 53% of the employment is in "services," which includes the tourism sector. Another 46% is involved in manufacturing, primarily in the maquiladoras. This leaves 1% of the workforce that is involved in agriculture.
The people who are making decent money can live relatively well in Tijuana. In the better parts of the city, housing quality is comparable to that of the US, complete with all the usual amenities (like electricity and cable television) -- although some utilities (such as water) might not be as reliable as we are used to in the US.
Those that are not so lucky, aren't classified as producers or consumers -- they aren't classified as anything at all, because they never officially show up in any counts. As much as 10% of Tijuana's population lives in this condition. The city claims on one hand that it has a shortage of almost 37,000 housing units -- yet other indicators show that there is a significant vacancy rate. The problem is not necessarily the availability of housing, but the availability of affordable housing as well as acceptable housing: many of the existing homes are in such disrepair that they are not livable; others are self-constructed and generally inadequte.
The problem is especially bad for the poorest residents. The family members (usually just a mother and her children) crowd into a cheap hotel room paid for by selling trinkets on the streets, if they are lucky. If they aren't so lucky, they might be living in the city dump.
In northern Mexico, the city dump is called "el dompe," a variation on the English word. Even el dompe has a pecking order. Gangs rule the dumps, deciding who can pick through what area of trash, and keeping the choice areas to themselves, or even demanding "tribute" from the poorer residents for the privilege of digging for trash and living there. Even the dump has outcasts -- imagine being thrown out of the place you were thrown out to -- that are forced to build makeshift shelters in an area called the "pig village", where they sleep next to the pigs waiting to be slaughtered.
The better shacks might have floors composed of carpet scraps and squares of linoleum, with walls of discarded wood. Some of the shacks might even have a television, even though they had no electricity -- they would take a car battery out of a wrecked car and hook it up to the television.
At the summit, though, where the best shacks are located, is one of the best views of San Diego. The "residents" pick through the trash looking for bottles, tin, or glass that they can sell. They hunt for wood or furniture they can use to build a home. On a good day, they can find discarded meat that is not TOO rotten, which they can cook for a better meal than usual. And through the haze of burning animal carcasses (for that, too, goes on at the city dump), the shining buildings of San Diego's coastline look close enough to touch, but are a world away.
Entering Tijuana to Head Further North
Tijuana is, more than any other place I know, a city of migrants. Less than 50% of the population is local to the area; more than half have come from somewhere else, either to make a life in Tijuana or to try to get to the US.
Most people in the US have no idea of the hardships endured by the many migrants travelling north through Mexico, just to get as far as Tijuana. They travel hundreds, or thousands of miles, and even if they never make it to the US, living in the garbage dump and begging on the street is almost always a vast improvement over their former lives. They've faced police corruption, robbery, rape, hunger, even murder. And some of them are determined to make it into what they see as a promised land.
Tijuana is a city that thrives on taking advantage of the weak and innocent, and it does not limit itself to gringo tourists. Even the border crossing itself is fraught with opportunities for scams. A migrant may pay his last money to someone who promises to get them to Los Angeles -- and who then leaves them waiting on a street corner in the dark for the bandits to prey on.
If a migrant starts making the border crossing, they will have to worry about more robbery, rape (if a woman, or if one brought wives or daughters or mothers), or just plain violent fun from the local gangs. Sadly, these gangs are usually teenage boys who have finally become bored with their video game or MTV, and pick out easy prey to rape and mutilate -- just for fun.
If these migrants get picked up by the border patrol and returned to Mexico, they may be among the lucky ones. They might have avoided death or hamstringing, and after all, they can just try again the next night. Of course, if you've already been robbed or spent all of your money on a pollero (guide) to take you across, then you'll start the next day with no food, no place to sleep, and possible separation from the family members you came with.
The problem of migrants being attacked, robbed, and brutalized by bandits after already making it to the US became such a problem that in the 1970's a San Diego policeman, Dick Snider, received permission to form the Border Alien Robbery Force to patrol the undeveloped areas of San Diego just on the US side of the border, and protect people being victimized on US soil. This experiment lasted only eighteen months, and now the border crossing is once again very dangerous. It is a testament to the startling lack of opportunity south of the border that people are still willing to risk the crossing.
Enough of them do make it across that there are signs along the highways in San Diego warning motorists to watch for groups of pedestrians running along or across the freeway. Unfortunately, over a hundred deaths have been tallied over the years due to vehicles running down migrants along San Diego's freeways. Based on reports by survivors, a fair number of these deaths were intentionally caused.
The US-Mexican border, especially at Tijuana, is not a wall, or a fence. It is a dam. From elsewhere in Mexico -- and from Colombia, from Guatemala, from Panama, from El Salvador -- the pool of hope-seekers just keeps growing. Our immigration laws are like the smallest of floodgates that keeps this mass of humanity at bay, allowing a trickle to flow in. It seems that the US has two choices -- either to ease the pressure by finding ways to invite and integrate more of these people into the US, or to keep adding more stone and mortar to the dam, in an attempt to make it stronger. Because one day, the dam will burst, and as far as I can tell, the US is not prepared for the changes that will make to our country.
- Luis Alberto Urrea
- Across The Wire
- Joseph Wambaugh
- Lines and Shadows
- Several years of visiting and living near Tijuana