Tijuana without your car, part 1 of 2

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 Getting to and from the border

People who have moved to Tijuana from southern California all mention the same thing, that their friends don’t visit out of fear of driving across the border. Well, you don’t have to take your car across the border. You can have a much better time if you do but that’s really a question of your own comfort level. Most visitors, it seems, would rather leave their cars somewhere north of the border and proceed on foot. Fortunately, that’s an easy thing to do.

You don’t even need a car if you live close to the railroad. The train can take you all the way from Seattle to San Ysidro. Heavy rail (the Sunset Limited and the Coaster) will leave you at Union Station in downtown San Diego. Light rail (the trolley) continues on to the border. The trolley will take you from Union Station to the San Ysidro terminus in just under an hour. The Tijuana trolley is called the Blue Line even though every trolley in San Diego is painted red. There are also the Orange, Green, and Special Event lines, which go to other parts of the county, all painted red. Look for destination signs that read “San Ysidro / Tijuana” to be sure.

Wikipedia’s article on the trolley is found here. The official site is here. Both can supply you with more information.

Free parking is available at the last four trolley stations before the border as well as in Old Town. The trolley comes by every quarter-hour (during peak times, every eight minutes or so) and costs $2.50 per person one way. Vending machines at each station dispense tickets in exchange for U.S. quarters, dollar bills, and five-dollar bills. Passengers are spot-checked by the MTS police: those without a valid ticket are assessed a fine in excess of a hundred dollars.

The Blue Line is the trolley’s Cinderella – it brings in more than half of the money collected by the entire MTS and yet it is forever late and overcrowded. If you find your first trolley to be so full that its passengers are preventing its doors from closing, wait for the next trolley. Overcrowding is often caused by tardiness, meaning that the next trolley will likely show up quickly and be relatively empty.

MTS bus lines 929 (departing from Broadway and Front) and 932 (departing from the Eighth Street trolley station) also end at the international border. These busses stop at the end of Camiones Road, mere steps away from the entrance to Mexico. Both bus lines also stop at the Iris Avenue trolley station, where people who don’t want to walk over the causeway can transfer from the trolley to the bus. Be forewarned that these busses are often more overcrowded than the trolley.

You can also drive directly to the border and park there. To do so, get off the I-5 at the last exit before Mexico, Camino de la Plaza, and look for signs dealing with private parking areas. Rates vary both for price and duration – the lot behind Jack-in-the-Box, for example, charges on an eight-hour day. A much better option is the Border Station lot immediately to your right as you exit the freeway, which not only charges on a normal twenty-four-hour day but is also the U.S. terminus for the Mexicoach shuttle.

Everyone walking into Mexico passes through Mexican Customs. The Customs officer is supposed to inspect the baggage of every tenth person, as determined by the red and green lights controlled by what looks like a crosswalk button, but nowadays everyone puts their baggage on a conveyor belt to be x-rayed like Homeland Security does.

Tourists usually fly under this guy’s radar. If you make eye contact with the Customs official, just smile and keep walking. If he gestures to you, you’d better stop to see what he wants. If you need a translator, someone nearby is sure to be bilingual. But there’s really no reason to be afraid of the Mexican Customs official unless you’re carrying something extremely illegal.

You do not have to cross the border on foot. You can use a shuttle bus. Mexicoach TJ Passport leaves from the Border Station parking lot every hour on the hour from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., passing to collect more passengers from the San Ysidro International Border trolley station and then heading into downtown Tijuana. Currently tickets cost four dollars one way or six dollars round trip.

You can follow this link to Tijuana without your car, part 2, which deals with getting around once you’ve crossed the border.

You can follow this link for a map of the landmarks mentioned in the two parts of this article.

Epazote and Esquites

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On its home turf, the herb is called eptitzotl, meaning skunk’s sweat. European botanists received it in the seventeenth century and named it Chenopodium ambrosioides, meaning the leaf shaped like a goose’s foot that is fit for the gods. Both descriptions are accurate. Epazote has also been called, with varying degrees of accuracy, wormseed, Mexican tea, Jerusalem parsley, sweet pigweed, and hedge mustard.

This herb is to Mexican cuisine what tarragon is to French – astonishing, almost overpowering, and indispensable. Heaven only knows what possessed the first person to have eaten the stuff because, in its raw state, it smells like petroleum or creosote or … possibly … skunk’s sweat.

The Emporium, a Tijuana tradition for museum-quality folk art

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Raúl Mendiola started the Emporium half a century ago as a way to showcase the best arts and crafts that Mexico has to offer. He began in the historic Pasaje Rodríguez but quickly outgrew the place. He moved to larger quarters at the entrance to Pasaje Sonia, next door to the historic Hotel Caesar, where he’s been ever since. In that time, his offerings have diversified, he’s added two partners (a cousin and a godson), and he’s created thousands of repeat customers from around the world.

The shop looks to have outgrown its present location as well. It’s stuffed floor to ceiling with collectible items – fine Taxco silver jewelry, stained-glass windows, repoussé tin wall ornaments, ceramic birds, talavera from Puebla and Tonalá, unique stoneware from Ken Edwards’s atelier, wood carvings and black pottery from Oaxaca, fine ceramic sculptures by the artist Tlalli, pure cotton guayabera shirts from Mérida, local stained glass, and for Christmas, nativity scenes (known as nacimientos or pesebres) in a variety of media from all over Mexico.

Mendiola attributes the success of the Emporium to the philosophy of the three partners: “honesty, quality, service”. The merchandise is accurately described and fairly priced. Selection is unusually broad. Not just a piece or two from Ken Edwards, instead, the entire Collection Series is available from open stock. Not just run-of-the-mill Oaxacan woodcarvings, but rare pieces from recognized masters like Gerardo Ramírez of San Antonio Arrazola and the Tribus Mixes of Trinidad de Viguera. As for service, “if a customer is afraid because of those stories they read in their local papers, we’re happy to drive them in our own cars to a restaurant or to the border, or wherever they want to go. We want our customers to feel comfortable here,” says Mendiola.

Free Rein – The Street Is Yours

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In March of this year, the city of Tijuana inaugurated an ambitious open-air program called Vía Libre, La Calle Es Tuya in which, every Sunday through October, a section of Paseo de los Héroes was closed to vehicular traffic. From 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on these days, the full width of the boulevard is turned over to families out for a stroll, joggers, skaters, dog-walkers, street performers, and pretty much anyone else who wants to enjoy the urban outdoors.

La Oaxaqueña in Mercado Hidalgo

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Oaxacan cuisine is at once some of the most traditional and the most unusual in all of Mexico. The Spanish influence dates to the beginning of the Conquest (Hernán Cortés was the valley’s marquis), whence their cecina, sailors’ meat dating from Roman times.  Before the Conquest, Oaxaca was the crossroads for all Mesoamerican commerce and from that it acquired its nickname, the Land of the Seven Moles. Centuries before some desperate nuns invented mole poblano, Oaxaca had perfected el coloradito, el rojo, el manchamanteles, el verde, el amarillo, el chichilo, and el negro.

Mercado Miguel Hidalgo

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Two short blocks south of the City Tour stop at Cecut (the cultural center) is the Mercado Miguel Hidalgo, Tijuana’s historic open-air market. What distinguishes it from the traditional mercado municipal found throughout Mexico is the parking lot at its center, a holdover from a generation ago when it was the city’s market for wholesale produce.

The original mercado municipal, in the middle of heavy pedestrian traffic downtown, was a tourist attraction in its day. It has become a somnolent food court with a couple of florists on the side. If you find yourself on Niños Héroes, it’s a great place for some genteel street food. But the bustling marketplace moved east a couple of kilometers.

Mercado Hidalgo was originally built away from pedestrian traffic and, even now that one can easily walk the Zona Río, few tourists go there unless they’re driving. It’s worth visiting in any event – taxis libres are plentiful and cheap and the City Tour runs close by.

Serious mass transit comes to Tijuana

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Many visitors have commented favorably about Tijuana’s public-transportation system because our busses are plentiful and cheap. Our current system’s greatest drawback, on the other hand, is that the routes serve individual colonias rather than the city as a whole. Traveling some distance within Tijuana can now be expensive and time-consuming and, as the city continues to expand, this one drawback will soon outweigh the existing system’s advantages.

The city of Tijuana has just opened bidding worldwide for the construction on the first trunk route of our new Sistema Metropolitano de Transporte Masivo. The plans are indeed metropolitan and massive, covering most of Tijuana’s twelve hundred square kilometers and comprising seven transit stations, eight trunk routes, ninety feeder routes, three local routes, nine suburban routes, and two auxiliary routes. According to the City Administrator’s office, this is a holistic approach to Tijuana’s public-transportation needs designed to increase efficiency, to lower costs, to reduce pollution, and to dovetail with the binational changes in store for the primary border crossing.

Tijuana Is Not Mexico

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How many tourists have ventured south of San Diego for the day simply so that they might return home to tell their friends that they have visited Mexico and it’s just as horrible as one might think? It does not matter that all they saw was a sham Mexico concocted to play on the visitors’ preconceptions, like Tom Sawyer’s Island in Disneyland. Nor does it seem to matter that the three millions of us here in Tijuana are offended by such an off-handed characterization.

And yet the tourists keep on coming in spite of the bad press. What’s our attraction? For that matter, why are these tourists satisfied with knowing only seven blocks of Avenida Revolución (known locally as La Revu) or two square blocks of the Zona Norte (known locally as La Coahuila)? The answer to these questions, I suspect, is waiting for a long and psychologically complex book that few will care to read. The short answer is most likely that one’s expectations will always color one’s perception of reality: the real Tijuana is nothing like folks north of the border have experienced nor is it what they would have you believe.

Tijuana is a product of its historical isolation. It was more wild than the Wild West; it was more remote than Anchorage. And then, shortly after 1985, it was drop-kicked into the modern age.

Back around 1980, a couple of us were heading out of town in search of horses that we might ride on the beach. It’s against the law in California to ride a horse on a beach (unless you happen to own the beach) but there is no such prohibition in Baja California, which is a good thing because in Mexico you can’t own a beach unless you're Vicente Fox. We didn’t know quite where we might find horses for rent so we pulled off the road to ask at a desolate fonda somewhere near San Antonio del Mar.

This was one of those rural businesses that sell basic groceries, simple meals, soft drinks, cold beer, and even shots of hard liquor. The proprietor was out on the property; he saw our dust as we pulled up and came inside shortly after we did. Under these circumstances, it would be terribly rude to blurt out “Hey, man, where are the horses?”, so we got to know each other a little first.

“Where are you from?” the proprietor asked. “From Los Angeles” I said.

“Ah. Do you know much of Mexico?” He might be at this for a while, so I tried to cut him short. “Well, we did just drive through Tijuana” I said.

“Ah, Tijuana.” He shook his head sadly. “Tijuana is not Mexico.”

At the end of our visit, the proprietor suggested we take some beers with us. “I wish I could”, I said, “but I’m driving. I don’t want to get into any trouble.” My answer confused him. After thinking about it for a moment, he said “You won’t get into any trouble here, not unless you cause an accident.” So we took a few draught Coronas with us and the trip was that much more enjoyable.

For the longest time, Tijuana really wasn’t Mexico. Its natives belonged to Misión San Diego de Alcalá and its somnolent ranchos derived title from the old land-grants of the Spanish Crown. Tijuana was part of Alta California – the dividing line in those days was Rosarito – but with the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 someone noticed that the peninsula needed to be connected to mainland Mexico and so the border was drawn more or less where you find it today.

Tijuana was as remote a place in Mexico as you could find, lying at the northern tip of what has been called the forgotten peninsula, the other Mexico. And yet it was of great strategic importance to the country because, were it to be populated, it could serve to keep Mexico’s imperialist neighbor from invading once again. With no apparent natural resources, with no overland transportation to the mainland, and with the closest seaport a day’s journey away, what else might Tijuana do but open trade with the gringos of San Diego and offer them what they could not find at home?

A hotel and spa utilizing the local hot springs (agua caliente) opened in 1880, before title to lands in the area had been settled and while the area was still part of the municipio of Ensenada. The first racetrack was also built in 1880: tourists arrived by regularly scheduled wagon service in order to attend the horse races as well as boxing matches and bullfights.

The town of Tijuana was founded under the name of Pueblo Zaragoza in 1889 in an attempt to quell the land disputes that had arisen among the holders of the Spanish grant (the extended Argüello and Olvera families) and to prevent foreign speculators (the Compañía Americana and the Compañía Inglesa) from using contemporary presidential edicts to take that land for themselves. With title settled, the land was parceled out and development began in earnest. In contrast, San Diego had already experienced four real-estate booms by that point.

As early as 1911, Tijuana's main street, then called Olvera, contained bars, liquor stores, and night clubs in response to the vices that had already been prohibited north of the border. When California outlawed horse racing in 1915, Tijuana responded by building a world-class hippodrome near the present City Hall. The new track’s innovations included a moveable starting gate, the first photo finish, a sprinkler car, races on Sundays, and a public-address system.

On the first day of 1920 the U.S. imposed Prohibition, in response to which the Cantina La Ballena (“the longest bar in the world”) and the Azteca and Mexicali breweries were founded; on July fourth of that year, sixty-five thousand people attended the horse races and 12,654 vehicles crossed the border. Most visitors of this decade were wealthy or upper middle-class, well-behaved, and generous: Tijuana was happy with them and the city prospered.

The 1930s were lean years. Prohibition came to an end and a series of morally conservative presidents ruled Mexico. Tijuana all but dried up and blew away. What a sorry irony – those same presidents had relied on Tijuana’s income to fund their armies during the Revolution.

As the U.S. militarized in the late 1930s in order to enter the Second World War, San Diego became a major naval base and Tijuana responded to the sailors’ needs by saturating the area around the old bull-ring with hotels, restaurants, and bars. Informal betting along the lines of three-card monte was common. The vida alegre, that is to say, prostitution, extended into the suburbs of Colonia Libertad and Colonia Independencia. In 1947, the jai-alai palace opened for more betting. All of this infrastructure was again useful during the U.S.’s Korean conflict in the 1950s. And so two generations of corn-pone warriors came to remember Tijuana as the place they visited before they shipped out. No wonder that Tijuana’s sullied reputation became so entrenched.

Baja has been a duty-free zone off and on ever since 1885, and during such times tourists avoided the Customs and excise taxes on a varying list of imported luxury goods. Around 1965, “duty-free” was extended to include maquiladora services for U.S. companies, thus providing the benefits of cheap Mexican labor without the stigma of wetback employees. Prostitution experienced a resurgence in the 1960s due to the Vietnam War: now the Marines of Camp Pendleton joined the sailors of North Island in pilgrimages to what coalesced into La Coahuila. During the 1980s, the sale of ethical pharmaceuticals was liberalized such that U.S. visitors could buy most medications over the counter easily, cheaply, and legally without the prescription they needed back home. About the same time, Playboy magazine glamourized the area as a haven for so-called underage drinking, in response to which the bars on La Revu became so festive that their younger customers occasionally died from alcohol-related accidents.

In the final third of the twentieth century, the tourist business was booming. Those were La Revu’s salad days. We shall not see their like again.

Thoughout Tijuana’s short and colorful history, the city has made its living by providing U.S. tourists lawfully with goods and services that they could not acquire legally in their own country. An unfortunate confusion has arisen as a consequence: there is a widespread notion among the tourists that one may come to Tijuana in order to break laws.

It really doesn't work like that. You can come to Tijuana in order to enjoy the culture, the people, or even the relative liberality of its laws. You can behave lawfully here in ways that you cannot in your hometown. But you may not violate local laws nor offend local decency with impunity – those who have done so have returned home to tell horror stories and to spew dire, ignorant warnings about the strange and devious people who lurk just south of The Known World.

All the while that Tijuana has been San Diego’s sinful sister, it was also growing into a full-fledged metropolis thanks to the influx of grocers, educators, auto mechanics, doctors, dentists, lawyers, restaurateurs – people who service those who worked in the tourist industry. These people also offer their goods and services to the tourists, albeit not with the in-your-face style of Avenida Revolución. They are not always as facile with the English language nor as forgiving of gringo rudeness as are the tourist-tenders of La Revu. These, however, are the people who have been instrumental in Tijuana's development.

Tijuana has been changing quickly and radically. There were 353 inhabitants in 1900; a hundred years later there were perhaps two millions. Because of this growth, the ideas that tourists retain about the place are necessarily out of date. Donkey shows? If those existed, that would have been in the 1950s and ’60s. Bacteria-infested municipal water? That became passé in the 1980s – nowadays the Escherichia coli are showing up in San Diego's water instead. Dogs in the streets? All but gone by 2010. The haggling for trinkets and the bribing of traffic cops? Who knows, we might keep those around as part of the folkloric ambience, rather like that authentic Indian turquoise jewelry you find in Phoenix.

When friends visit me from other parts of Mexico, I try to take them to La Revu in order to give them the True Tijuana Experience. We come in from a side street in order to encounter one of the zebras unawares – that always gets me a nervous, sidelong glance. After a few more steps we are beset by the touts, the enganchadores or jaladores, who seem to jump out of nowhere shouting in deliberately bad English for us to come into their curio shop or for us to enjoy two-for-one margaritas or for us to see, no cover charge, the most beautiful naked girls in Mexico dancing for our pleasure. I do not need to translate what the enganchadores are shouting: my friends are already shocked by the tone of voice and the aggressive gestures. “What the hell is this?” they invariably ask me. “Why, it’s Mexico, of course” I tell them. “It is no such thing. What is this really?” they counter. “Really, we’re still in Mexico,” I tell them, “but this is Mexico for tourists. Folks here have been acting like this for as long as anyone can remember. The tourists expect it of them.”

An earthquake in Mexico City demolished a lot of their newer buildings in 1985, primarily because of lax enforcement of building codes on governmental construction. The consequences of this earthquake brought a tidal wave of chilangos (people from Mexico City) into Tijuana. Their initial reception was hostile: the slogan ¡Haz patria, mata a un chilango! (“be patriotic, kill a chilango”) showed up everywhere because the newcomers were felt to be too aggressive, too ill-mannered, and pretentious. And yet, with their advent, Tijuana joined the twentieth century. We have the chilangos to thank for developing Playas as a residential community and for bringing us such niceties as chipotle, huitlacoche, and Victoria beer.

At the same time, there was a major change in the government of Tijuana – in fact, throughout Baja – in which the ruling group, the PRI (whose corruption produced the faulty buildings in Mexico City), was replaced by the pious, conservative PAN. Many new laws have been passed since then, laws that look as if they might have been borrowed from the U.S., laws that replace the libertarian approach of the old days with “tiered response”. You can no longer drive around Tijuana with a beer in your hand and get in trouble only if you cause an accident: you will now get in some trouble for an open container, or more trouble for driving while intoxicated, or even more trouble for an open container and an accident, or much worse trouble for being involved in an accident while intoxicated and carrying a beer in your hand. Personal freedom and population density tend to work in opposition.

Nowadays Tijuana really is part of Mexico. We’re no longer the end of the world: we've become the fourth-largest city in the country. People from all over have been moving here for the past fifty years, bringing with them the accents and customs of Sonora, Sinaloa, Nayarit, Michoacán, Veracruz, Oaxaca, Jalisco, Puebla – even a few Cantonese and Iraqi Chaldeans. Tijuana still retains a lot of its frontier past, like how La Revu has remained garish to meet the tourists’ expections or how most of its older residential districts, built into steep hillsides, still lack paved side-streets and piped natural gas. But now there is a great confluence of Mexican cultures in the blood and sinews of Tijuana’s body-politic, which finds its expression throughout the city in commercial, governmental, and non-profit events. That achievement alone sets it apart from the culture north of the border, which is generally treated like its body-politic’s cellulitis.

With the repeal of Prohibition, alcohol lost its attraction to all but the 18-to-21 crowd. The hot springs and casino closed in the middle 1930s. The two breweries ceased operation about the same time (although Mexicali is now being made in Tecate by Coors). The horse races came to an end in 1992, when the current owner bought the Agua Caliente Racetrack in order to exploit its lucrative off-track gambling licences. Jai-alai and frontón became unfashionable: their palacio is now an occasional venue for pop music. Tijuana’s bull ring is now in Playas: the famous one where Lucille Ball posed has been demolished in expectation of a shopping mall. Changes in Customs laws during the 1980s and ’90s brought an end to inexpensive Lladró and Chanel. Gambling is now available stateside in the Kumiyaay reservations and homegrown prostitution is available through the Internet.

The city’s older forms of tourism have become all but extinct, leaving behind them, petrified, an unsavory reputation. About all that Tijuana has left to offer is its melting-pot culture and the difference between the U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso.

Tijuana's culture, understated by U.S. standards, is nonetheless breathtaking for those who would make the effort to know it. The arts are everywhere: half a dozen places from Playas to Otay regularly offer trova performances and poetry readings; writers, sculptors, and painters have made Tijuana into an artists’ colony; dancers not only perform post-Cunningham ballet but Arabic, Flamenco, and Irish; opera is performed, not in a pretentious auditorium to Harry Partch’s sea of blue-haired ladies, but to the rank and file of the city out in the middle of the street. Our food and our style of life hold their own against all others worldwide.

The difference in the dollar and peso means that coming here for medical, dental, and retirement needs has been making more and more sense lately. Without that stimulus, people north of the border would have little reason to discover the rest of our culture.

The real question now is whether the new tourists will be sophisticated enough to deal with such a different culture. This was not much of a problem in the past because day-trippers don't stay very long and they kept pretty much to their own street. But what now if you want to hear tuneros at El Potrero or trovadores at Cervecería Tijuana or to catch the Cuban film festival at El Lugar del Nopal? You're going to wind up in the culture for at least a few days.

The cultural issue becomes even more important for the economic refugees from southern California, those who have moved to Tijuana for the cheaper housing. A number of these people have already been deported because they couldn’t shift gears – they kept behaving as they did in the U.S. – and so annoyed their neighbors enough to call the INM (Immigration).

This blog isn’t directed at the Revu day-tripper or the hit-and-run foodie, although the few who remain will find something useful here. The blog is meant for the new tourists, the ones who come for longer stays, so that they might come to understand their new environment and enrich their lives thereby.