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Tijuana Mapatext
a geographical & historical meander
un meandro historico y geografico

Part Two :
The River -- el Río--
source of all water -- all life.

Zona Rio

PASSING THROUGH this valley in 1769, changing California from wild to colony, Junípero Serra might have written a note in his diary:

We found the land to be full of lovely fields where
a beautiful stream of good water was running, and
we camped there, without approaching the
             nearby village. 

It is a large piece of flat land a league more
or less from the sea - or so it seemed to me. 
The animals pastured greatly there and ourselves,
without any worries except to reach San Diego tomorrow
              where so many souls were waiting....

The "good water" was the Tijuana river.  She is fundamental to understanding this town and the world around it.  The river created Tijuana valley, gave it the first fresh water of life.  She made us humans choose her in our path north or south into and out of the peninsula.  Between the mountains and the ocean swamps, she has opened the road to the other side, her side.  These latter years, when the modern world imposes its regime of empires and nation states, she has found herself pressed forward onto the line of change between twin worlds.

Flowing down from sacred mountains toward the sea, she passes through jagged canyons, and then broad, flat valleys where hills come close on every side.  In these valleys, on this coast, our cities squat down a million homes and shops around her belly, her thighs, her arms and face.  We human beings have turned the river into a filthy, polluted beast, flushing our toilets and dumping [out our] factories into her distant fingers.  But she still reaches toward her end, and struggles to purify her breath, although we... we... well, truth be told, with all our wisdom and power, we have transformed her into the gates of hell.

Every night the fires of immigrants lick against her fence, her wall, her cement channel.  Every day the police cars chase drug addicts and thieves up and down her no man's land of stinking garbage and sewer water ditch.  Every tourist or worker or deported Mexican who walks from the border gate into downtown crosses over her weeping stretch, where the little beggar girl screams "Cielito Lindo" on a wretched toy guitar.

That is the river, today, tonight, tomorrow, the same end in the burning dead sea.  Yes I exaggerate you get the picture, somewhere on the coast of California.  She is not alone.  In parallel dimensions of string theory there are secret passageways and tunnels between here and Ciudad Juarez, El Paso.  See: here is the floorwalker.  Here is her picture with our line drawn on it.  Here is her valley, and back there, her other valleys, canyons, mountains... see, it all belongs to her, she is mistress of the world, earth, land.  She is the river.

There is another river.  She will come into her own again, with fresh water flowing down the valley of Palms, on the far upper right of the foto above, sí, cuando construyeran el esquema eductor.

First you must understand that we
have always crossed the river here.     

Upstream rise the ragged mountains
downstream stretch the muddy swamps.

For travelers on the coast,
here is the place to cross this

desert river

and the

from: Codex TijuanA
03. Voices from the Rocks.

the river will make you decide to do two things
  • you must cross over the river to get to downtown
  • and the river zone, la zona río, is a swinging hot spot


    River Smells

    there are floors available
    in an office tower
                    across from
    Plaza Rio
    shopping mall

    eyeballs and cheekbones
                    of glass

    that noisy current burns more gas
    than water flows in the river

    where hands of cement
    wash themselves

    seagulls harvest trash
    emigrants wait for departure

    and the migra patrol      watches

    over that channel
                         cross by the bridge
    that leads to Revolution

    ¿who cares if it stinks?

    'The impossible railroad' picture from S.D.Railroad Museum - click to visit.

    The wild river comes from jagged mountains (this picture exaggerates like us but you do get a true picture, almost, from the impossible railroad that used to run from here to there, yes, that was true, it did).  For a while, for a place, for a time, the Tijuana river follows the watershed - not that jagged canyon, but one something like it, and Nostrendamus says the railroad will follow it again, as well as this canyon perhaps when planets align and hurricanes do not destroy it all over again no.  You can see one almost this bad and wild by driving out the toll road cuota to Tecate from farthest Otay.  It is quite a splendid drive, into the savage Alamar canyon, toward the Cottonwood feet of Tecate Peak.

    On the coast, as all men know, all women see, a river is life, a river is water, and a river seeks the sea.

    It still runs half stinking from the holy mountain to the western, south sea, where rocks and sand meet one last stretch of bay, beach, and coast, here before the deserts of our south devour the bight of Santa Barbara, here, where the peninsula begins to break away from America, here, in the world where we live at the end of the earth, with its climate Mediterranean, only California, San Dieguino.  This is the true story of the other river.  I was studying it an old book about climate last week in the library, here, across the line, in San Diego, yes U.S. face to face, eyeball to eyeball, see?  Here is the floorwalker. 

    See both sides of the line?  This was taken before the year of the great fire left 2003 just was.  On the right they let them burn more, for less.  Multiple columns combine and separate integrative congniscience.  Or: in other words: Studying the picture of this world from space you can see that the river is responsible for opening the valley.  The thin white line angling past Zona Rio toward La Mesa is the flood control channel built in the 1970s by the federal (Mexican) government.  The dark grey line tracing from Agua Caliente into La Mesa is the intense commercial development following "the boulevard" of Agua Caliente and Diaz Ordaz over to 5&10 "cinco y diez".  Spanish leaves the period outside the quote mark so I did break an English rule.  The blotch under the letter "C" of "Caliente" is the Club Campestre -- the country club golf course -- which used to belong to the Agua Caliente Hotel/Casino resort (1928-1935).

    As Serra saw spiritually and physically this is good ranching and farming country -- the gift of water was truly a blessing we and agriculture was a leading activity in the Tijuana valley -- especially around La Mesa -- up until the mid-20th century when the valley and hills got full of buildings and houses.  On both sides of the border the tributaries of the Tijuana river have now been stopped with dams.  You can see one of those in the upper right portion of the picture: the reservoir blob to the right again from Cerro Colorado: that is water backed up behind Rodriguez Dam.  Furthermore, pumps and wells have sucked much of the ground water right up out of the earth.  And here is a picture of your sometime baseball capped servant, Daniel, staring into an old postcard of the dam....

    If it weren't for the aqueduct from the Colorado River, we would all die of thirst, like Lost Angels.  Unless when they build the "Eductor -- a solar-powered water scheme.... to evaporate water by solar energy from Laguna Salada in the desert and let it run down Valle de Las Palmas to the reservoir, yes....   No, no, it's absolutely true; unbelievable, but true.  Of course, it Will Co$t Money to build it and they will come, Yes... ye$.  But water is the only real gold around here.  You must understand that.  That.  Thi$.

    Nevertheless & whatever, the Tijuana River remains the dominant natural feature of this frontier.  It draws the water from the mountains toward the ocean.  Its main channel through the city, three channels that finally join together as one, will divide the megalopolis into huge, unequal portions.  Roughly 40% of the city, including Libertad, Otay Mesa, Buena Vista, Lagos and El Florido, rises to the east and north of the river valley, while more than 60% of Tijuana, including La Mesa, Agua Caliente, Centro downtown, and the colonias (neighborhoods) of Hipodromo, Chapultepec, Cacho, Juarez, Independencia, Altamira, "la mera" Villa et al, Mexico, Obrera, Linda Vista, Castillo, Soler, Miramar, Mirador and many more all sprawl to the south and west, into the hills and out toward the beaches.

    The river (as you can see in the photo of border city) makes an almost 45 degree bend near the borderline, and flows into the swamps and lagoons of what is now (on the U.S. side), the "Tijuana River National Estuarine Research Reserve".

    The main border crossing at San Ysidro is the historical place to cross the river, where the streambed was just sandy enough for horses and wagons to get across without sticking in the mud -- not like downstream in the swamps and ocean lagoons. 

    This crossing place at San Ysidro -- just below the hills -- lies right on the ancient north-south route used by Indians and then Spaniards and Mexicans and Yankees -- that is why the world's busiest border gate is there -- because wagons heading north or south could cross the river best at this spot.

    From the border gate, downtown Tijuana is just across the river and about thirteen paragraphs down this page.  If you decide to walk, look up from your feet as you cross the pedestrian bridge over the river where that Indian girl screams Cielito Lindo on her broken toy guitar.  Surrounded by the smell of sewerage, behold the planet and Tijuana in its ancient valley.  Look upriver to your left; you can see the hills rising on both sides of the valley.  Those modern buildings upstream are the new (since 1980) Zona Rio.  Back to the right, straight ahead by the monumental metal arch (2001-2002), old downtown began just above the river where the floods couldn't reach it.

    Here are the old Mexican Fair towers, close-up, in the olde towne itself, across the river.  Click to see more photos at http://www.digthatcrazyfarout.com/oldtj/index.html Originally Tijuana was just that small town you see in this old postcard (from digthatcrazyfarout.com postcard collection thank you), over there across the river.  We mentioned above how it became a tourist destination after the first California land boom and Baja California gold rush in the 1880s, then later went through its own boom in the 1920s. In fact, this postcard photograph can be dated to around 1916 or 1917, oweing to the presence of those little round dome-towers over there on the geography of the old town - see them there?  Little pinkish things to the left of the road coming up from the river?  Those are the entrance gate towers to the original "Mexican Fair" which was built to attract visitors down from the even bigger (much Much BIGGER) Pan-Pacific Exposition in Balboa Park, San Diego, 1915-1916.  On the right should appear a closer photo of those towers, at the corner of 2nd and Constitution (as it is named now), in the olde towne itself (looks like a dusty place, eh?), across the river.

    In the painted post card back above, you can see the old border gate buildings at the bottom, the road leading to the river, the first old bridge ("la marimba") and the road leading up to town.  If you walk from the border gate over the river to downtown, today (2003-2004), you will follow roughly that same path.  Roughly.

    See that dirt road cutting sideways up the hill, over there, beyond the bridge?  Here's how a piece of that road looks heading up the street toward the millennium arch - old Mexico Bridge Avenue - Avenida Puente México - nowadays also called Calle Primera - First Street - or Calle Articulo 123 -- ALL those names ARE used here and there but the most common is simply First, or Primera.  This street up from the river pedestrian bridge is now refinished with new street-wide sidewalks for pedestrians-only as part of the redevelopment of the "corredor turistico" to attract more visitors and make the most famous walk in Tijuana, from Revolution Avenue to the border.

    Notice that the new (2001) arch is quite a useful landmark, actually, to orient yourself toward the corner of First and Revolution.

    Zona Rio.

    Zona Rio -- the River Zone -- is Tijuana's premier urban renewal project from the late 20th century. Technically, the river (see above) is miles long, and includes zones of redevelopment numbered 1, 2, and 3 (actually I, II, and III). But for touristic purposes -- and for locals, too (including bus and taxi routes) -- the words "Zona Rio" usually mean only zone I. This is the best developed and swankiest part of the river -- and the urban showplace of Tijuana. Here you will find numerous excellent restaurants, nightclubs, office buildings and hotels.

    The Mercado Hidalgo produce market -- an important stop for many visitors, locals, and travelers -- sits on the downtown side.  Many knowledgable people come to Tijuana from both sides of the border specifically to enjoy this place.  It has much more than just produce, incidentally.  Is a real market in the ancient Mexican sense of the word.

    Zona Rio begins just south of the international border near the superhighway spaghetti snarl, and stretches over flat, flat ground, extending roughly two miles upstream to the area of Agua Caliente, where the valley and the river make almost a 45-degree bend toward the east and the surrounding hills come very close to the riverbed. Because of this bend of the valley and the encroaching hills, geographically, logically, as well as urbanically and planistically (?), Zona Rio appears to be one large but coherent area.

    Often "Zona Rio" is mistaken to mean only the downtown side of the river, but it means both sides (of Zone I). On the west shore (the better known side, toward downtown) you will find the big round brown ball -- "la bola" the natives call it (an Omnimax theater) -- and museum/theater spaces of CECUT (Centro Cultural de Tijuana) as well as Plaza Rio Centro Commercial (shopping mall). Both are located along Paseo de los Heroes on either side of Independencia. Mercado Hidalgo sits only a couple blocks away at the corner of Independencia and Sanchez Taboada.

    Across the river (on the "other shore") you will find Pueblo Amigo and the municipal and state palaces at the foot of the hills of Libertad. Many important festivals as well as outdoor free concerts are held at the big plaza outside the Palacio Municipal (which has interesting murals inside), while next door, at the Instituto Cultural de Baja California (ICBC), there is a gallery space and small auditorium where art exhibitions are regularly hosted, musical and theatrical performances are staged, and films are screened, usually free.  There is also a cafe.  In 2003, with the city closing the downtown city gallery, ICBC became suddenly more important as an institutional gallery/cultural space.  And that is as far as we will go toward making ANY political comment about that.... *sad wink* ;)

    Several automobile and pedestrian bridges connect both sides of the river.  Walking here from downtown will take you through the produce and meat/fish market zones. "Zona Rio" is the River Zone, which stretches on either side of the concrete-channeled river.  Sometimes people think "Zona Rio" only means the fancy blocks around Cecut, Plaza Rio Shopping Center, numerous nightclubs and restaurants and Mercado Hildalgo produce market on the south side of the river.

    Don't forget, however, that across the river on the northeast bank at the foot of Libertad is also part of the old rebuilt river zone.  Over there, you will find the "Palacio" -- the city hall and state government buildings, as well as Pueblo Amigo (location of and Ley giant store and Señor Frogs).

    A few kilometers farther upstream -- where the river valley splits into two branches -- sits the main bus station -- "Central Camionera" -- beyond Buena Vista, by the bridges crossing over to 5 & 10 in La Mesa.

    Numerous automobile bridges cross the river, many leading to and from those marvelous traffic circles with their monument statues.  Several pedestrian bridges cross the cement channel -- most important (for tourists) is the pedestrian bridge from the border to downtown.  Another convenient pedestrian bridge crosses between Plaza Rio shopping center and the "Palacio" (city hall), but watch out when you go walking, especially at night. Same as anywhere in any world city.

    One-way high speed roads -- Via Rapidas -- run beside the river.  Via Rapida Oriente heads northbound (toward the border) on the northeast (Libertad/Otay) side, and Via Rapida Poniente runs southbound on the southwest (Cecut) side.  If you're driving, these twin roads are the fastest way to get to/from the main bus station or La Mesa.

    Part III
    La Mesa, 5 & 10

    gringo tijuanense


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    Tijuana Mapatext
    a geographical & historical meander
    un meandro historico y geografico


    Send Daniel or Michael e-mail at tijuanagringo@yahoo.com
    Copyright 2001 Daniel Charles Thomas. Revised: 2002, 2003, 2004.