editor’s note: guest writer extraordinaire Nikki Biefel explores Tijuana, starting at the San Ysidro crossing.
“Tijuana! Oh yeah, ‘The Happiest Place on Earth!’” said no one whom I told of my travel plans. People mostly mushed their faces at me and asked if I enjoyed being raped and murdered. I booked tickets for my husband and myself anyway, even though my husband was also dubious. I’d heard Tijuana had risen from the dead and was ready to show off again.
You park your car at a fenced lot about two blocks from the border. Taking a rental car into Mexico violates the rental agreement, but a car can be rented once you are on the other side. One could also take the two hour bus ride from the airport but I have to pee too often for that. Decline the pedicabs, it’s only a two block walk from the parking lot to the border. There’s a few patrol men standing at Customs who will ask why you are there. “Vacation,” you reply and they wave you though. They did not ask to see our passports or identification.
Our first sights were of people selling water, then candy, then souvenirs. I’d wished I’d changed my dollars into pesos and wished I brought a large backpack to do my Christmas shopping. When we bought food and water and a taxi, dollars were accepted anyway.
You walk across a bridge and into a traffic circle. You can take a taxi for a few dollars but once we declared that we were walking, the taxi drivers pointed us in the direction of the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Rio Tijuana. We were on our way to see Avenue Revolución, the alleged Bourbon Street of Tijuana. Both of us possess crappy Spanish, but we never needed to try. Everyone we spoke to spoke English.
Tijuana is poor, but really, most of the world is poor. Tijuana looks like it is trying really hard not to be and to make the best out of what it has. Workers maintained El Arco as we walked by. The city is recovering from the drug war and is poised to become a hot spot again. But it needs tourists. Fortunately medical tourism is big in Tijuana. We passed a storefront that declared, “Closest Dentist to the Border.” We saw billboards advertising Prozac, Viagra, and an assortment of cancer drugs.
Avenue Revolución had zebra painted donkeys, snake tequila, and souvenirs. We bought postcards, oogled the Aztec-inspired stone sculptures, and learned about Jai Alai at the lovely Jai Alai Palace.
Time and money has been invested into the bus terminal and it looks beautiful and lively, nothing like its Google Street View from five years ago. I enjoy taking pictures of graffiti murals and the alleys soon drew us away from the main drag. We found the Parque Teniente Guerrero and joined the locals in watching a break dance competition in the bandstand. We ate near the Jai Alai Palace. I had a sort of paella with clams and mussels and shrimp and crab, and we had wine, flan, bread, and two salsas, red and green (which was my favorite, I ate them with a spoon). It was delicious. After dinner I asked our waiter how things in Tijuana were doing. He said that if you wanted a good time, you would be safe. Tijuana was safe now. But if you wanted trouble, you could find trouble.
At dusk we checked into our Avenue Revolución hotel, I found a bottle opener mounted to the wall in our bathroom. After all the puppies, kittens, ice cream carts, palm trees, and now a bottle opener in the bathroom! I had to Tweet announcing that Tijuana was in fact The Happiest Place on Earth. Later I looked out our window hoping for an all night party to watch or join if it looked good, but it was a quiet Tuesday. Even the taquerias closed just after sunset. I heard a lone tuba oompa-ing down the street around 9 p.m. but he was the only sign of life.
Anticipating a long line back into San Diego, we got up early to beat the heat. The wait was only about 20 minutes. The custom agents took our passports and asked us what we’d purchased. We passed drug sniffing dogs.
We never felt unsafe in Tijuana. The reasonable but beautiful hotel, good food, and friendly people make me want to go back.