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.
Passengers leave the trolley on the eastern side of the border complex; people enter Mexico on the western side. The two sides are separated by the confluence of freeways 5 and 805. A pedestrian causeway, which passes along the roof of the U.S. port-of-entry building and over the freeway, connects both sides of he border. Pedestrians can also cross over the freeways on the Camino del la Plaza bridge, for which Burger King serves as the eastern landmark.
If you come by bus, by taxi, or by driver, you can access the entry to Mexico directly from the cul-de-sac on the western side of the border complex called Camiones Road, which runs past the UETA duty-free store.
Otherwise, 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.
The entrance to Mexico is on the western side of the border complex. The MTS busses drop their passengers off fifty meters from the northern turnstiles; the parking lots on the western side are a block or two north of that. If you came down on the trolley or if you parked on the eastern side, you will need to cross over the pedestrian causeway that runs above the freeway, for which you need to enter from the stairwell at the extreme eastern end of the Customs and Border Protection building: you will come out a stairwell at the other end, close by the MTS bus circle.
Everyone walking into Mexico passes through a turnstile into a pavilion guarded by a Mexican Customs officer. Passing the Customs officer, you'll exit the pavilion either through a turnstile straight ahead, signed “taxis and buses”, or the one to the right, leading to the first McDonalds in Mexico and then beyond to a half-mile stroll that takes you to the top of Avenida Revolución.
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. Since it’s very hard (although not impossible) for a pedestrian to carry more merchandise than the law allows, the official tends to exercise personal discretion instead of relying on the lights. As a result, no one pushes the button as they walk by and the official will gesture to those he suspects of being overladen with wholesale electronics, firearms, narcotics, or Garbage Pail Kids paraphernalia (illegal in Mexico because they portray children in a degrading manner) in order to review their baggage on a case-by-case basis.
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, the person who works in the Tourist Information office ten steps in front of you is fluent in both Spanish and English. 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 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. The Mexicoach website has, from time to time, offered a discount coupon for parking in the Border Station lot.
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.