Getting around Tijuana
If you walked across the border, you will now be on your own two feet in what is known as the Zona Federal. If you got off a bus, you will most likely be downtown somewhere. To get where you want to go, most likely you’ll be looking for a taxi or you’ll be walking.
If you’re walking from the border, leave the Customs pavilion by the western turnstiles (on your right) and head for the McDonalds. From there you can look west past the collection of curio shops, restaurants, pharmacies, doctors, and dentists called Plaza Viva Tijuana toward a large arch in the distance.That’s where you’re headed, to El Reloj at Revolución and First.
Otherwise you’ll be looking for a cab. There are four kinds of taxis in Tijuana. The two kinds you don’t need to worry about are the taxis terrestres and the taxis colectivos. The taxis terrestres operate out of the international airport, the most expensive taxis in town. The colectivos are the cheapest, traveling a fixed route for about nine pesos a person and carrying their passengers sardine-fashion; you can recognize them by their odd paint-jobs and their identification number, which will be in the series TIJ-TC-9999. You’ll be using the other two kinds of taxis, the tourist cabs (numbered TIJ-TS-9999) and the taxis libres (numbered TIJ-TL-9999).
Herb Alpert wrote a song about the tourist taxis half a century ago. They have been in Tijuana since the 1920s and, in order to make the U.S. tourist feel at home, they’ve been painted yellow since the early 1930s. Their rates are in dollars and they charge by the trip because they are not fitted with meters. They describe themselves as taxis de categoría or taxis de lujo because the cabs are large four-door sedans and the drivers, who are held to a dress code, are reasonably bilingual. The municipal government refers to these as taxis de sitio because they wait for passengers in fixed locations. There are three groups of tourist taxis: the yellows, the crocodiles, and the diamonds. A trip as far as the U.S. Consulate (by Caliente Racetrack) should not cost more than five dollars with any one of the tourist cabs but a trip to the Consular Annex should cost about three.
The yellow cabs, because of their long history, have a lot of political clout. As a part of Tijuana’s version of Tammany Hall, they were instrumental in promoting Jorge Hank Rhon, our recent drug-lord mayor, in his failed bid for governor and they have employed violence against their competitors on a few occasions in order to maintain their share of tourists. On the other hand, they have also responded to the recent economic contraction by introducing fixed prices for its customers and paramedic training for its drivers. There are several hundred taxis in this fleet.
The crocodiles are painted yellow with thin checkerboard stripes running down the middle and sides. There are about fifty taxis in this fleet. Its general manager, who works from his own cab, wants the group to be known as the checkered cabs instead of the crocodiles but neither the public nor his own drivers have caught on; he appears to be attempting to dissociate the fleet from an unsavory connection to the yellows. They have a stand outside the U.S. Consulate, Hospital Ángeles, and many of the best hotels.
No one has a complaint about the diamonds, so of course they’re the hardest to find – they don’t even have a stand at the the border. These taxis are painted yellow with a large black diamond on their doors. They have a stand at Revolución and Seventh, half a block south of the Mexicoach stop, as well as at better hotels throughout the city. Like all taxis, they will stop for you if you flag them down when they’re empty. Typically, though, doctors and dentists summon them by phone to return their gringo patients to the border safely. If you want one to pick you up at the border, you can phone Salvador García in cab #1218 to meet you in front of the SIMNSA building. From U.S. phones, dial 011-521-664-338-6209; from Mexican phones, 044-664-338-6209.
The taxis libres were instituted eight years ago in a maneuver designed to break the power of the yellow cabs. That effort was not successful. But now we have a new species of taxi that operates freely (“libre”) throughout the city and is supposed to charge by flag-drop and kilometer rather than by the trip. They are white compacts with an orange or green chevron painted on their hoods. By law the libres charge in pesos but they also accept dollars at more or less the prevailing rate. The taxi libre is the only taxi in Tijuana to be fitted with a meter.
When the libres came on the scene, they were the city’s heroes. They measured each trip scrupulously while the yellow cabs charged as much as the traffic would bear. Traditionally, a trip in a tourist cab within the tourist areas cost five dollars (a point from which the diamonds have never varied), but the yellows tend to size up their customers and assess whatever they can get away with. The same trip might cost two or three dollars according to the meter of a taxi libre. Since the libres charge by distance, a trip to the extreme end of the tourist area (such as to the U.S. Consulate) might also cost five dollars.
The idea behind the taxi libre is that the drivers would not be controlled by a powerful union – some drivers own their own cab, as the state government intended when it invented the concept, but most rent their cab or work for someone else who owns a few cabs. Consequently, many taxi libre cabbies would prefer to work “off the books” in order to make more money. You might need to insist that the driver use his meter in order to pay the lawful price for your trip, otherwise you’ll wind up coming to an agreement at the end of your journey.
Those of us here at The Real Tijuana use taxis libres by preference. But our readers need to understand, first, that the taxis libres were created to serve local customers, also that the cost of calibrating the meter is paid by the cabbie, and, ultimately, in order to use the taxis libres effectively nowadays one needs a certain savoir faire. Some libre cabbies are generous, considerate, and completely bilingual; some are out for a quick buck. In the future, The Real Tijuana will stand witness for the ones you can rely on. At the moment we mean only to describe the terrain.
The yellows strike back
To compete directly with the libres, the yellow taxis created the taxi económico, a yellow compact with the phrase “taxi económico” on its windshield. These are operated by the yellows but they charge fixed prices set by distance and posted next to their cab stands. Their prices are comparable to those of the taxis libres.
You can follow this link to Tijuana without your car, part 1, which deals with stateside travel to the border.
You can follow this link for a map of the landmarks mentioned in the two parts of this article.