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WHY should you visit Tijuana?

Seven Reasons.

Culture / Party / Shop / Eat / Add-on Trip / Weekend Trip / Begin Long Trip

1ST REASON: {BIGGEST ReasoN}: Get a touch of Mexican culture.

Most tourists come to spend the day here, buy Mexican curios, eat a Mexican meal, or drink and dance the Mexican night away the Mexican way down buey in Mexico way buey je eh?.

Ever since tourism began here, there has been an underlying reason for these excursions. Visitors come hoping to "see Mexico," or in other words, to experience Mexican culture, whether that experience be in cantina, bar, bullring, restaurant, store, music hall, nightclub, or just walking on the street. 

Somewhere there is a fiesta mexicana involved.

Yet, for many years, cynics on both sides of the border have complained that Tijuana is not very Mexican at all, that it is more like L.A. than Mexico City, that it's a border half-breed, a mixed child cut off from its roots, with only a "cholo" culture.

However, even though Tijuana is far from the national capital (fathest city in all of the Republic, actually), nevertheless this municipio is definitely very Mexican in language, culture, world-view and personality. It was founded by Mexicans and filled up with Mexicans.  The historical roots go back to New Spain, and Sonora, Sinaloa, and Guadalajara, from "fundadores" (founding families) in the late 19th century. In the 20th, waves of immigration have brought the frontier new citizens from all over the country. This town of a few thousand exploded into a metropolis of some two million. The vast majority of its citizens are now first and second generation immigrants from all parts of the republic. Jalisco, Sinaloa, Veracruz, Guanajuato, Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas and every other state of the nation have given to the frontier in one generation and another, representing every region enrich and enliven Tijuana, transforming it from distant border outpost to something almost more Mexican than Mexico City itself. Strange postmodern irony: that the frontier should become more representative than the center. Coincidence the municipal motto says "this is where the homeland begins."

Speaking of Mexico City, there are tens of thousands of "Chilangos" who have moved north and now make Tijuana their home in spite of the grafiti on the wall to kill a Chilango be patriotic. So, the tension between Capital Culture and Provincial Culture, like in San Diego, is strong. Old-time residents make fun of the gente chilanga, but these "Capitaleños" (a more polite name for them) have contributed greatly to the culture and economy of the border, and help to make Tijuana a more Mexican city.  We all make happy love in the multicultural propaganda.

As for looking like L.A., well, we should remember there are more Mexicans in Los Angeles than anywhere else in the world except Mexico City. Is it any wonder they come here, then? The difference is that here, in Tijuana, you really are in Mexico, where Spanish is the dominant language, and English is foreign. A large indigenous population has also migrated here, representing most of the Indian groups in Mexico. Mixtec and Zapotec from Oaxaca, Huichol from the Sierra Madre, Nahuat and Otomi from the Altiplano, have all come here with others. You can hear their languages mixing with Spanish throughout the city.

Of course, to see the "real" Mexico in Tijuana, the visitor must make the effort to get off of Revolution Avenue. This street - the primary tourist destination - has its peculiar charms (and it should be seen). It is, furthermore, the biggest "paseo" in town. In a disneylandia kind of way, it is also Mexican. But like the burros painted to resemble zebras, "la Revo" is a strange beast indeed. To see more of a truly Mexican culture, not a touristic hybrid, you must also walk to another street.

Fortunately for the day and overnight visitor, within two blocks you can experience the heart of Tijuana. Parallel streets immediately west from Revolución - streets named Constitución and Niños Heroes - are each packed with ten blocks of stores and shoppers. They provide an excellent opportunity for the tourist to savor a taste of "real" Mexican culture.

The market area around 2nd (Juarez) & Niños - the Cathedral corner - is particularly satisfying. Daylight hours - when most shops are open - are recommended. Go ahead, buy something. We often get our cheese and vegetables there (when we're not lazy and only go to the supermarket) at "El Popo" Market -- which has two entrances -- one on 2nd, one on Niños -- in the block diagonally across from the cathedral corner -- several doors to the left or right of the taco shop. There is an old movie house back inside behind the market stalls which shows tons of Mexican movies and occasional Hollywood and European films. Cheap admission (under three dollars in 2002), this old movie house was the site of one of INSITE 2000 art/event/works. The cinema house is locally known as "El Piojito" -- the louse-pit. *Grin* but I have seen -- Nor Felt -- No Lice there.

Down Niños (past the cathedral and the school) is the entrance to yet another large roofed-over market ("El Mercado Municipal") which has lots and lots of economical puestos de comida -- places to eat -- with dozens of women asking you to sit down and eat at their place, here, now... (but Be AWARE that anything they offer you, you will pay for). Across the street, by 1st & Niños, is the Cafe Combate store with its Mexican instant and bean, and fresh brewed cups for fifty cents five or six pesos and, if you come during December, the whole street gets turned into an outdoor market with kitchens and loteria.

For a different subculture, if you keep on walking down Niños you get to First Street, where the sex workers begin to hang out all over the sidewalks and corners. One block further is Coahuilla Street, the heart of the Zona de Tolerancia -- the Zona Norte. Be-ware.

Zona Río

For travelers with an interest in more "highbrow" Art, History, and Culture (with a capital A, H, & C), we highly recommend a visit to CECUT (Centro Cultural de Tijuana) in the river zone (across the street from the shopping mall with its movie theaters). Experience the Museo de las Californias (a museum of Baja California history), or the art galleries, bookstore, theater stage, lectures, video screening, OMNIMAX dome and garden-window cafe (most of the CECUT is closed Mondays -- traditional museum-closed day in Mexico). Incidentally, the bathrooms are excellent, free, and well-maintained.

Across the river, via a pedestrian bridge from the mall, you will find the gardens outside the new city hall (Palacio); the ICBC (Cultural Institute of Baja California) sponsors art exhibits and events. Next door is a library.

Back downtown

Only a block from Revolución, at 2nd and Constitución, in the ex-city palacio (now the offices of IMAC -- Instituto Municipal de Arte y Cultura) you will find the city archives -- open to researchers, and with a small history gallery, and also a branch of the city library. The interior courtyard plaza is a quiet, restful place to take a break, and has the quietest payphone site in downtown. But no public bathrooms, alas. On many Saturdays the courtyard hosts an artistic flea market with live music. Not so quiet then! Look for the metal gates under the red arches near where the harmonica playing beggar crouches and plays and plays.

The Casa de la Cultura, also run by the IMAC, holds galleries, café, classroom spaces, and theater, in the big old beautiful ex-school building on the hill of Altamira above the west end of downtown. There is also a branch of la Casa de la Cultura in Playas de Tijuana, at the Cortijo San Jose.

Nina Moreno, a fairly well-known artist and patron of Mexican, Latin American, and Baja California artists, has recently (2001) closed her gallery on Third Street across from the park. There is now (2004) a café looking over the park street. Nina continues to work on her own art, produce her radio program, and provide space for master-teachers to give classes. She hopes to open an internet gallery some time soon, for on-line browsing, viewing, and buying.

A daytime visit to Teniente Guerrero Park across the street six blocks west of Revolución between 3rd and 4th and "F" and "G" will provide a view of this pueblo's living heart: the popular culture of family, friends, couples and singles who come to the park to picnic, play, and chase after love. Good sets of playground swings for the children. Weekend music and entertainment. At night it has a dangerous reputation.

This is a medical neighborhood. There is an important church ringing bells in front of the park. Just being there is a cultural experience, on the most basic, and true, level. Then get something to eat.

Numerous cafes and small spaces abound throughout the city with music and other. Check for advertisements in Bitacora a weekly arts paper (in Spanish) available every Thursday night or Fridays at CECUT and EL DIA bookstores, and usually not too many days late online at ?____________________.

Also must note... El Lugar del Nopal, the living legacy of the late Felipe Almada, at the head of Cinco de Mayo (F Avenue) above 6th, is an Art Cafe open Evenings for: Drinks, snacks, art, music, meetings, etc., on a varied schedule. Almost always music on Thursdays (El Gume's fantastic guitar and voice) and weekends (cover charge usually on Friday & Saturday nights). Quality performers. Gets crowded after 9:00 p.m. on Thursday, very much a "scene to see" (still no cover that night [as of August.2001]).

Also, every Wednesday night, beginning around 9:00 p.m., the Caesar Hotel Bar (where they say the Caesar salad was invented) sponsors its Noche Bohemia with music and drink specials and sometime free buffet. (Summer 2002). Good place to watch artists mingle and see gringos wander through headed for the naked girl table dance bar in back. Ah, Tijuana!

2ND REASON: Drink, dance, and party.

For a hundred years Tijuana has been infamed as a party town. Drinking, gambling, and prostitution have painted a reputation into the world's eye, forgetting that you can do all that sin in New York, London, Mexico City or Tokyo. Meanwhile, on this frontier you can find nightclubs and cantinas in every variety possible from raunchy with whores, up to your more standard neighborhood bars, and then dance hall and highpowered nightclub featuring norteño, rocknroll or techno. Cantina culture is an old tradition in Mexico. It flourishes here in multiple forms, with its music either live or jukebox, its billiard table, its men (and women) talking for long hours together, and, of course, its beer, tequila, and mixed drinks. You can also, by the way, get a soda or fruit juice.

3RD REASON: Shopping.

The secret is out: many Californians come to Tijuana for one commercial reason: to buy things we can't get in the States, or to get a better price here than on the U.S. side.

Prescription drugs (bring your prescription!) and over the counter remedies (this writer takes asperinas for my heart) are available here for a significantly lower cost (but make sure it's legal in the States). Do not buy illegal drugs. Do not exceed the limits of your prescription.

Name brand cigarettes cost around fifteen dollars a carton, or $1.50 the pack. Duty must be paid on more than two cartons crossed into the U.S.

Tequila (especially the deliciously smooth premium varieties) and coffee liqueurs are also a good buy (hint: check out the supermarkets as well as liquor stores). Mexico is famous for its beer (another good reason to stay overnight), and there are intriguing brandies and wines coming out of Baja California. U.S. citizens can only cross over one liter of alcoholic beverage. Stay a while and enjoy the drink here, instead of rushing back. Tour the winery in Johnson Canyon. Have a cocktail. Wine with dinner. Tequila and music after a movie or concert. And then, ah, a soft bed in a good hotel. But I digress. Where were we? Oh yes, shopping.

The artistic products for sale here are literally innumerable, and they range from the weird to the sublime. From this gorgeous hand painted teapot to that lurid Elvis on black velvet.

Pottery and ceramics are ancient traditions in Mexico, and the items available just in this medium alone, from plant pots to fine plates and hand painted tiles, are mind boggling in their scope and variety. Look around a few stores and artists bazaars, comparing prices and workmanship, before you decide which items you want.

Piñatas, leatherwork, glass, clothing, jewelry, laquer, etc., from all over the republic, are available in Tijuana. True folk art is there, hidden amidst a lot of kitsch and clutter.

Of course, maybe you really do want that fake-intravenous beer drip, instead of the folk sculpture from Oaxaca. Whatever. It matters most that you suit yourself. That's what Tijuana wants. That you find something you want.

Wander through the bazaars, from cheap little shops to hidden upscale treasures. Don't be afraid to say no, gracias. Don't buy anything you don't want. But, if you are interested, well then, take your time and bargain. Trust me, they want to sell it to you.

4TH REASON: Eating.

A veritable cornucopia of dining experience awaits the visitor. "Mexican food" is much more than your tipico taco, enchilada or tamale - although these can be delicious! You can also find multiple varieties of seafood ("mariscos"), as well as the different regional specialties like mole (a scrumptious sauce), carnitas (bits of pork), and other dishes from Puebla, Michoacan, Oaxaca, Vercruz, Yucatan, etc.

Furthermore, Tijuana is blessed with many restaurants featuring Chinese, Argentine, Italian, French and other international cuisines. Day trippers will find themselves hard-pressed to decide where to eat that one meal. Visitors who spend a night or two here, in addition to having time to take in a concert, movie and nightclub, will have the opportunity to enjoy a variety of meals, whether economical, moderate or expensive.

Best bargains - and often the best food - are the daily specials offered by smaller, family restaurants. The daily meal is called "Comida del Día" or "Comida Corrida." These specials will usually offer a choice of entree, and include soup ("caldo") and side dish, and sometimes a beverage and desert. Price: three or four dollars (beer costs extra).

5TH REASON: The perfect addition to a trip to California.

American and international travelers who tour California can easily enrich a trip to San Diego or Los Angeles by including a day or three visit to Tijuana and northern Baja California. No special visa is required for a stay of up to 72 hours in the border area (includes Rosarito, Ensenada, Tecate, Mexicali or San Felipe), but you should carry identification. Non-Canadian or non-U.S. citizens should carry their passports.

Rail and bus transportation from San Diego or Los Angeles is regular and convenient. Major highways link Tijuana to California. If you drive, buy auto insurance before crossing over, or park on the U.S. side and walk across.

6TH REASON: The perfect weekend trip from California.

Ditto reason #5, above.

7TH REASON: Begin a longer trip into deep Mexico.

For residents of the Canadian and U.S. pacific coast, Tijuana is the logical place to begin a longer trip into Mexico, especially if you are going overland, or want to begin with the sights in Baja California and Sonora.

Southern Californians who plan on flying should look into the Tijuana airport, which sends daily flights direct to most north Mexico cities, and Guadalajara and Mexico City, with connections to the rest of the country, including Oaxaca, Yucatan, and the Ruta Maya.

The bus service in Mexico is excellent, with connections to everywhere - although bus station announcements are notoriously hard to understand and the restrooms are often smelly (and cost two pesos - bring your own paper just in case). The "Central" bus station in Tijuana is located six miles up the river from the border, nowhere near downtown. But it has long-distance busses departing for most points - especially those favored destinations around the Gulf of California, like Mulege, La Paz, Mazatlan, and Los Mochis (starting point for the world famous scenic railroad trip over the Copper Canyon mountains to Chihuahua). There are also departures to a more limited list of destinations from the "Linea" bus station by the border.

Travelers heading deeper into Mexico can benefit by resting a night in Tijuana, taking in a movie, dinner, or just stocking up on supplies at any of the hundreds of supermarkets or produce markets. Before you go into Tijuana, GET YOUR TOURIST CARD AT THE SAN YSIDRO GATE!!!!!!!!! At the border customs office right there when you first come across at the gate. Stop if TOURIST CARDS are required, and get them right there. If you're driving, get an automobile permit. You should already have bought car insurance.

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Copyright 1999-2002 Daniel Charles Thomas 1