Welcome to the New Tijuana
Whatever you think you know about Tijuana, Mexico, it’s probably true. Just 15 miles south of sunny San Diego, Tijuana is home to more than 1.5 million residents, making it Baja California’s most populous metropolis. But Tijuana is also home to a far reaching and most unflattering reputation.
The truth about Tijuana is that, yes, there is an abundance of street prostitution in its red light district. Yes, until recently powerful drug bosses held sway here, and the military routinely patrolled Tijuana’s main thoroughfares with heavily armed convoys. And yes, Tijuana was for decades an accommodating hot spot for under-21 American college students training in the fine art of nightclub binge drinking (and all that that entails). To call Tijuana the Spanish-speaking world’s sin city isn’t too far off the mark.
But to dismiss Tijuana as a travel destination — as most Americans have since about 2008 — is a mistake. Crime has fallen dramatically. Gone is the overt military presence. Visitors should only exercise the same common-sense precautions you would if you were visiting any other Latin American big city. What tourists today are finding in Tijuana today is a city transformed.
If you find yourself in southern California, if you have your passport handy and are game to experience one of the America’s most resilient cities, Tijuana is waiting and ready. One of the best places to start your trip is in Tijuana’s beach district, known as Playas de Tijuana.
The Other Other Side
Playas is less than a 10-minute car ride from the port of entry, and driving there offers a fantastic view of the various border walls along the northern edge of the city.
The border walls wrap the contours of the hilly, jagged terrain leading to the coastline. The drive offers fantastic sweeping views that stretch all the way to the San Diego skyline. You can also see U.S. border patrol agent jeeps and helicopters actively patrolling el otro lado (the other side).
For much of the 1980s Playas de Tijuana was underdeveloped and mostly ignored by city planners. No longer. In the last ten years, the coastline has been completely revamped. A new beach boardwalk has attracted a slew of cool, quirky cafes and some high-end restaurants that all boast fantastic views of the Pacific Ocean.
Playas is also the city’s unofficial arts district. Here you’re likely to run into local artists, musicians and photographers hanging out, setting up their tripods, painting murals or playing guitars. Members of the city’s emerging middle class are always out for coffee or an evening stroll after dinner.
Playas Day and Night
As you walk along the top of the beach bluff, a must-have experience is to stop at one of the fresh coconut stands, where for a couple bucks you can watch as they deftly hack and scalp a fresh coconut and hand it to you with a straw. When you’re done drinking the cool coconut juice, you hand it back and they’ll scrape the edible parts of the coconut and return them to you in a plastic bag. Squeeze some lemon and add some chile, and you’re good to go.
A stone’s throw from the beach is the Monumental Bullfighting Plaza, which is where big music acts like Manu Chau and Vicente Fernandez play for the masses. There’s also a shopping center about a five-minute walk east of the beach. But the main attraction along the Tijuana coastline is the actual border that cuts land, sand and ocean.
The Great Divide
Walk north along the beach until you can walk no further. You’ll arrive at the intersection where ocean meets terra firma, and north meets south. As of January 2012, U.S. contractors were erecting a new border wall to replace the rusted metal fence that for decades divided the two beaches. The bluff has a lookout, and here you’ll join people silently pondering the border, what lies beyond, and the incoming waves eternally sliced in two by the fence.
It’s precisely here that you can see how in Tijuana, the whole of Latin America comes to an abrupt end. And there, just beyond that wall, the infamously coveted American Dream awaits. Tijuana’s border wall infrastructure is, after all, not just the corporeal attempt to stem human migration’s mighty thrust northward, but it’s also the real and symbolic space that enjoins these two countries, cultures and people. Just like U.S.-Mexico bilateral relations, the wall that divides these countries isn’t appropriate for a pretty postcard pictures. But it’s a sight you won’t easily forget.
One place to see its changes close-up is in the Zona Rio district, which lies along the Paseo de los Heroes avenue. Before the economic crisis struck in 2008, and before drug crime started scaring away tourists, Zona Rio was where middle- and upper-class Tijuanenses (as locals are called) shopped, ate out, got culture and partied. It still is. But now that there are more middle- and upper-class Tijuanenses, and there’s a lot more to do.
You’re first stop in Zona Rio should be Centro Cultural Tijuana (Cultural Center of Tijuana). You can’t miss it, as the compound’s centerpiece is a giant beige ball, inside of which lies a 180-degree IMAX theatre. There is always a lot going on at the Centro Cultural Tijuana, and you can with little effort happily spend half your day there.
This year Centro Cultural Tijuana celebrates its 30 anniversary, and in addition to an IMAX theatre, it offers an indoor exhibit of the history of Baja California, rotating and permanent art exhibits of Mexican and international artists, an outdoor garden featuring amazing replicas of pre-Colombian artifacts from across Mexico, film screenings, literary lectures and an excellent book store.
If you’re lucky you’ll be here when they hold outdoor music festivals and book and craft fairs on the large plaza surrounding the IMAX theatre.
It’s a shame that for decades American tourists completely shunned this cultural gem in Zona Rio, which is one the nicest and safest parts of town. Don’t make the same mistake. More information on the Centro Cultural Tijuana’s events and exhibits at www.cecut.gob.mx.
A city block east of Centro Cultural Tijuana is Plaza Rio, a large outdoor shopping mall that offers some of the best people-watching. Zona Rio has grown not just in size, but also in stature, and hosts a luxury Cineplex VIP movie theater, high-end clothes, boutique, music, shoe shops, and some can’t-miss snacking opportunities.
They have two great ice cream shops here, but if you are in the mood for the best nachos and cheese you may have in your life, try out Acuario Frozen Yogurt. Finding the locale is worth the effort. Their cheese is mouth-wateringly good, has a kick to it, and they’ll add some sliced jalapeño peppers for extra spice. People come from all over the region to try these nachos and cheese. And you’ll have a good time wandering about the outdoor mall munching away and observing Tijuana’s middle class families, young couples in love and business people hanging out while street performers, comedians and musicians regularly entertain shoppers.
Tijuana After Dark
By now, you’re going to have developed a nice appetite, and food and drink is one of Tijuana’s strengths. One place to try out is Caesar’s Restaurant in downtown, which offers great pastas and is known for inventing the Caesar salad in the 1920s. The service is excellent; the atmosphere lively and accommodating. The walls are adorned with historic photos and documents from Tijuana’s past while your server makes your fantastic caesar salad from scratch right next to your table.
Caesar’s also has a recently restored long bar, outdoor seating with a great view of the fascinating street scene, and is a regular dining spot for the city’s powerful (Tijuana’s mayor, his wife and a throng of his friends and associates sat two tables away from me in November).
The New Cuisine
If you want to try something totally new and spectacular in Tijuana, Mision 19 is an absolute must. Located in Tijuana’s first LEED-certified “green building,” (a fantastical grey 14-story modernist structure), Mision 19 is a “signature cuisine” restaurant self-described as “sustainable, organic, Mediterranean, artisan, contemporary, from the heart, classic, spontaneous…”
Owned by chef Javier Plascencia, one of Mexico’s hottest young chefs, Mision 19 is the first of its kind in Tijuana. In 2011, a New York Times restaurant review said Mision 19′s “menu is loaded with show stoppers” and praised everything from its views of the city to its philosophy of using locally grown food. For $80, you can get a five-course dinner that’ll blow your socks off. Try the Arborio Risotto, with Italian and Mexican truffles, heirloom beans, wild mushrooms and epizote herbs. Or try the ribs baked and roasted in fig leaves, bathed in fig syrup and served with mole, kabocha squash and cacao.
If you’re looking for a taste of Tijuana’s history, there’s Tijuana’s Agua Caliente. This is where Rita Hayworth was discovered in the 1930s by Fox Film Corporation’s chief Winfield Sheehan. It’s also where many Americans drank freely and legally during prohibition. Aqua Caliente is a large leisure compound opened in 1916 that today features greyhound dog racing, casino style gambling (more than 1,000 slot machines), restaurants, twin tower hotels and a soccer stadium that hosts the local professional soccer team, Xoloitzcuintles. On any given night, you’ll hobnob with more than your fair share of Tijuana housewives determined to let their hair down, and the dog racing is fun even if you’re not betting.
If you want a taste of Tijuana’s new nightlife scene, head straight to the corner of Avenida Revolucion and la Calle Sexta (Sixth street). When American college students stopped coming to Tijuana, the bar and club business along Avenida Revolucion took a big hit. But these tourists were soon replaced by a still-expanding Tijuana hipster crowd that’s big on alternative and electronic music.
Fusion and the intermingling of different sounds, cultures and fashions comes naturally to most Tijuana youth, who grow up consuming much of their media in English (the border wall doesn’t keep out radio or TV signals.) One of the most famous home-grown bands is Nortec, famous in much of Latin America for its unique mix of electronic techno with traditional Mexican accordion, drum and brass instrument sounds. You can experience local DJs experimenting with new sounds on any given night.
The downside of the bars is that you can’t really hold a conversation over the loud music, but it’s a young crowd and what you get in people-watching more than makes up for it. After a few drinks grab a pizza at the always-busy Pizza al Volo, located on Calle Sexta just south of Avenida Revolucion.
Also, consider checking out the Web site for Turista Libre, (free tourist), which sets up off-beat tours for more adventurous tourists.
The Only Downside
When you’re ready to leave Tijuana and return to the U.S., it’s likely it’ll be the most difficult part of your visit. The lines to pass through customs, whether by car or foot, are inexcusably long. The U.S. General Services Administration plans to increase capacity to reduce wait times, but until then, give yourself a couple hours to get through the customs. While you may have forgotten about the border while savoring at Mision 19, drinking on Calle Sexta, or strolling through a photographic exhibit at Centro Cultural de Tijuana, the experience of crossing it again will remind you exactly where you are: the dividing line between two worlds that is Tijuana.
How to get there:
The best way to visit Tijuana is to fly into Los Angeles or San Diego and drive a rental car south. Rental car agencies charge an additional insurance fee to cross the border, but you can avoid this by parking in San Ysidro (last freeway exit) and walking across the border to move around the city by taxi.
About the author: Raul Vasquez is a journalist, photographer and independent video producer born and raised in Southern California who has been traveling to Tijuana since he was a baby, and continues to visit often.