Saturday, January 12, 2013

Tijuana Day Trip: The Basics

Most people thought I was crazy when I told them the part of my trip I was most exited about was going to Tijuana. "WHY?!?!?" is the answer I got from almost everybody when I told them of my planned adventure. But, after chatting with several people in San Diego and Tijuana, including a fellow Parole Officer, I was reassured that the chances me coming home in one piece were very high.

So why you ask? Well, the food of course. But I'm guessing you already know that. How can a Mexican food obsessed kid go to Southern California and NOT talk a walk across the border to TJ? That just wouldn't be right.  So, after spending the night in a $22/night motel just by the San Ysidro border (it was just a very old Travelodge...right beside an outlet mall with Starbucks, Old Navy etc...not a total crack house) I parked my car at a lot right on the border and started walking.  

The parking lot is literally on the border. 

1.  WALK, don't drive.

All it takes is walk through a turnstile (top pic) to arrive in Tijuana. Make sure to check that you have your passport before that gate! You don't need it to get in to Mexico, but you will definitely want it to get out.  You'll probably walk by a couple heavily armed guards at some point too, but the chances are actually getting questioned by them are slim to none. One of the first things you will see after crossing the border is the line up of people heading into the US for work. Some days the wait can be about 2 hours for them to get through the line. It's for this reason that you want to make sure you time your time accordingly. Go into TJ first thing in the morning and head back in the afternoon to avoid the crowds. Thankfully if you do get stuck in line on the way back there's lots of street vendors to keep you hydrated and well fed!  If you drive you can expect even longer wait times, and there's no point since cabs are cheap and many places are within walking distance.

2. If you're not there looking for trouble, you have nothing to be afraid of.

The last time I made this walk was almost 20 years ago with my family. We of course did the touristy thing and stayed on Av Revolucion.  I remember annoying store owners and 3 year old kids selling Chicklets by themselves on the streets.  And the Zonkeys...but we'll get to that later.  Since that time it seems that there has been nothing travel warnings and negative media attention as a result of ongoing drug wars.  But let's get one thing straight...if you go to TJ looking for drugs and/or trouble, you will find it.  And you're an idiot.  The only indication of any criminal activity I saw was a bunch of guys getting arrested and thrown in the back of a pickup truck.  Not really anything too scary considering I'd probably see more walking through the market in Ottawa on any given day.  So if you look past all that and all the tourist trap garbage, you find a fun and quiet little border town with great people, food, and culture.

Avenida Revolucion - See...nice and clean! But prepare to be heckled.
3. Taxis

But let's get back to the basics.. Cross the border and (easily) navigate a little maze of bridges and walkways. There are signs to Av Revolucion, but you can also just follow the giant archway. Even if you are not going to the tourist area, this is the way to go. It takes about 5 minutes come to a street that hosts all the taxis. There are a few different types of taxis in TJ. The yellow cabs won't have a meter and you need to negotiate price before you go anywhere or you'll probably get screwed. These guys are also brutal for hassling you to use their service. When you see their taxi stand (just to the left when you cross the border), keep walking and cross the street. The white and orange "Taxi Libre" cabs have a meter, so there's no screwing around with price.  If you're not in a metered cab it's common to pay $5 US to Av Revolucion. I paid $10 US to go to the Mercado Hidalgo (which my next post will be about). 

4. Money

As far as money goes, I didn't buy my pesos until I was in TJ. Mainly because I got lazy and knew that worst case scenario, everybody would accept my American money. As you navigate the town there are hundreds of shops that will exchange your American money. I honestly couldn't be bothered to deal with exchange rates and all that crap, so I just went to the bank machine (cajera automatico).  Since I was spending the majority of my time in the local markets and at street vendors, I wanted to use pesos. 

5.  Learn a little Spanish

If you are straying from Av Revolucion, although it's not necessary, I really do recommend learning some basic Spanish. Although most people will understand English, not all will, and I defintiely found it helpful to have a few weeks of Spanish lessons under my belt.  Downloading a translation app for your smart phone is helpful too, but beware of roaming charges! I found the most helpful was knowing numbers for counting money and paying for stuff. While you are less likely to get scammed in the local markets and street vendors (and many prices are posted), it's still nice to understand a little...basically out of respect for their culture. Of course, the basics like "where's the bathroom" - Donde esta la bano? also seriously important.

While we're on the topic of bathrooms, be prepared to pay a couple pesos to use the facilities. At the Mercado Hidalgo there's literally a gate to get in that you need to insert coins into. Don't forget to grab some of the (neatly folded) toilet paper before entering as there will be none in the stalls. There is usually a helpful and friendly bathroom attendant that keeps everything sparkly clean too!

Lunchtime at a taco stand with entertainment from a random guy playing guitar. I love this culture!
 6.  Don't be afraid to try new foods!!

I cannot stress this enough.  Seriously, eat different cheeses and grab a pile of greasy carnitas from a street stand. The chances of you getting sick are must better in a local McDonald's than at these vendors. These families care about the product and customers more than most in Canada and the US. This is the heart of street food for me.  So sit down at a taco stand, listen to some guitar music, eat some amazing food and experience the true culture of this awesome little border town.

One of the streets parallel to Av Revolucion all decked out with bandarillas (little flags) for Dia de los Muertos.
 7.  If you're a tourist, be a tourist.  And shop at the liquor store...

Although I am stressing that you should visit the local markets, if you have never walked down Revolucion it's something that should probably be experienced. If anything, it will give you a laugh and prove that you never need to waste your time there ever again.  I walked back to the border through this area as I figured I should see what it was like compared to my childhood memories. Also, it's a great opportunity to grab some Tequila and vanilla before heading home. Research the different types of tequila to decide what you want and try samples from the liquor store vendors. For a quick decision, just look for anything that is made from 100% blue agave from the state of Jalisco.

As for the vanilla...just buy it. At $5 for a small bottle, there's no excuse not to if you enjoy cooking. Mexico is where vanilla originated and it really is a completely different flavour and aroma. Our supermarket vanilla extract smells like chemicals compared to this stuff.

8. Check out the Zonkeys

What is a Zonkey you say?? Well, quite simply it's a donkey with black stripes painted on it. There's usually a few along Revolucion where they are hooked up to a cart and tourists can get their picture taken on them. I can't recall how this started, but it's been going on since the 1940's apparently. I only saw one on my trip this time, and although I hope it wasn't, it appeared to be eating a pile of crushed up Doritos....

The TJ pro basketball team is also named the "Zonkey's". A true cultural phenomenon!

And yes, back in 1995 my family took a Zonkey picture. Probably one of the most embarrassing experiences ever to climb onto the poor animal. I remember my dad asking the photographer if we could get the picture in colour. The guy responded; "Yes, two and white". Ah, classic TJ memories...

Of course I had to choose the "Tequila" hat!
So, that was my little day trip. If you're thinking of taking the walk over the border, do your homework and learn a few words en espanol. Be safe and enjoy some of the local culture away from Revolucion!!

Stay tuned for the next post with details on my visit to the Mercado Hidalgo. One of the best food experiences of my life!


  1. I like your positive approach, and yes, I agree with it.

  2. Great blog! We're planning on a day trip in two weeks--in for breakfast, then head home at 2PM. Is it safe enough to carry my SLR, or should I stick to something less conspicuous? We did 2 day trips to Juarez last summer & found the main drag relatively safe at that time of day. I'm assuming TJ is much more tourist friendly.