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Tijuana, BA

About the City

In DepthNote: For current information about safety/security issues in Tijuana, refer to the U.S. State Department website (travel.state.gov).

The First World meets the Third World in Tijuana (tee-HWAH-nah), arguably the planet's best-known international border city. The name alone conjures a blizzard of images, from white-knuckle taxi rides to throngs of college students tanked on tequila shooters.

Downtown Tijuana is by turns crass, bawdy, cheap and touristy—which of course is all part of the fun. An illicit reputation has lured Californians south of the border for more than a century, and generations of visitors have the wild stories and barroom brawl scars to prove it.

“TJ,” as the city is often called, is about 18 miles south of downtown San Diego. The view to el norte is the orderly San Diego Trolley plaza and a tidy freeway. The view to the south is ramshackle urban sprawl behind an imposing metal border fence. Your first instinct may be to turn and run, but for adventurous travelers an interesting city awaits exploration, one that isn't as chaotic and intimidating as it first appears.

Unfortunately the drug cartel-related violence that peaked between 2007 and 2010 resulted in massive—and perhaps permanent—PR damage. About the only gringos hitting La Revo and Tijuana's Zona Río district these days are college kids from San Diego, Americans seeking inexpensive south-of-the-border medical and dental procedures, and a handful of dedicated foodies in search of eateries featured on Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel show “No Reservations.”

Most day-trippers stick close to the border or head directly to Avenida Revolución, downtown’s main drag. For decades boisterous cantinas, sleazy strip joints and the dirt-cheapest of souvenirs ruled on “La Revo.” And while you can still knock back one too many margaritas at a loud nightspot or score a $5 Che Guevara poncho, the avenue also has wide sidewalks dotted with trees and wrought-iron benches.

Matches are a thing of the distant past at the Jai Alai Palace (Frontón Palacio), at the corner of Calle 7 and Avenida Revolución, but the building itself remains a Tijuana landmark, a Moorish-inspired structure with tile mosaics adorning its front. Now it's a venue for concerts, boxing and lucha libre (wrestling) matches. Next to the building is a Caliente Sportsbook betting facility. Wagers can be placed for most major U.S. and Latin American sporting events; multiple big-screen TVs broadcast the action. There are a couple of Caliente Sportsbook locations within walking distance of the border.

Greyhound racing takes place at the Caliente Racetrack (Hipódromo de Caliente), about 5 kilometers (3 miles) east of downtown off Boulevard Agua Caliente. The first post time at matinee races is 1:30 p.m.; evening races begin at 7:45. General admission is free. Race days vary by season; check race forms or the Caliente website for additional information, or phone (619) 941-3190.

Although Tijuana remains on the U.S. State Department's travel warning list, currently the Avenida Revolución tourist zone doesn't feel any more dangerous than the downtown area of a major U.S. city. Travelers have varying comfort levels, however, and if the mere thought of visiting Tijuana makes you nervous, you'll probably want to stay away.

If you do choose to cross the border, be aware that as one of the few tourists walking La Revo, you'll be constantly approached by nightclub barkers and souvenir vendors. They're harmless, but the aggressive solicitations can be annoying in the extreme.

PracticalitiesTijuana International Airport is on the eastern edge of the city near the Otay Mesa border crossing. Volaris offers direct flights from the United States. Other airlines providing service to the airport include Aeroméxico.

Colectivos (shared shuttle vans) and taxis provide transportation to downtown hotels. Colectivo fares are about $5 (U.S.). Taxis are more expensive; fares are posted at the counters where you purchase tickets.

The Cross Border Xpress (CBX) pedestrian skybridge links Tijuana International with a CBX terminal in Otay Mesa, Calif. The 390-foot-long, purple-hued bridge arches over the U.S./Mexico border fence. It is accessible only to ticketed airline passengers flying out within 24 hours; both a boarding pass and a CBX ticket must be presented to use the bridge. A border crossing checkpoint also operates, with the same protocols as at land crossings in effect. The bridge is open daily 24 hours. Late January to late May and September through October, a one-way ticket is $19 (U.S.), round-trip ticket $35. Mid-November to mid-January, a one-way ticket is $26 (U.S.), round-trip ticket $46. Tickets can be used up to 1 year after purchase. Passengers must carry their own luggage. CBX shuttles provide service from the Otay Mesa terminal to San Ysidro and the Santa Fe Train Station in downtown San Diego; fares are $6 (U.S.) and $11, respectively.

Greyhound buses travel frequently between Tijuana and San Diego; for fare and schedule information phone (800) 231-2222 (from the United States). Tijuana's Central Bus Terminal (Centro de Autobuses) is southeast of downtown on Boulevard Lázaro Cárdenas. Frequent passenger service is available to cities in the state of Baja California and Southern California.

Five Star Tours offers charter shuttle service and bus tours from San Diego to downtown Tijuana as well as Rosarito, Ensenada and Guadalupe Valley wineries. Sightseeing tours depart from San Diego's Amtrak depot at Broadway and Kettner Boulevard. For additional details, schedule and fare information phone (877) 704-0514 (in the United States).

For day visitors who want to avoid traffic congestion and the hassle of finding a parking space, it's much more convenient to park on the U.S. side of the border and enter the city on foot via the Puerta Este Mexico-San Ysidro customs facility. This three-story building is on the east side of I-5 (east of the northbound vehicle lanes leading into San Ysidro). U.S. citizens and Mexican nationals are processed in separate lines. a valid passport is required in order to enter Mexico.

Yellow tourist taxis are not metered. Always ask how much the fare is (“Cuanto?”) and state your destination before getting in, as drivers may try to get more money out of tourists or take you somewhere other than where you want to go.

Fares from the border to Avenida Revolución and the Zona Río should run about $6 to $7 (U.S.). Within the downtown area fares are $4 to $5; from downtown to the racetrack about $10; and to the airport or Bullring-by-the-Sea about $15.

If you're crossing the border in your vehicle, most shopping centers have free parking lots, and there are pay lots along Avenida Revolución downtown; either option is preferable to parking on the street.

In addition to the yellow tourist taxis, there are red-and-white taxis libres, which are metered. They travel all over town, and the fare is often a little cheaper than the set rates charged by the tourist taxis. “Route taxis” are solid-colored (red, brown, etc.) colectivo cabs that follow set routes and are mainly used by locals.

The weather in Tijuana is similar to that in southern California—mild, overcast and rather wet in winter, warm and dry in summer. Daily maximums are usually in the 60s during the winter months, rising to the low 80s in summer. While there are occasional hot spells, the moderating influence of the Pacific Ocean largely spares the city from the blazing temperatures common in many other parts of Baja. Precipitation averages only about 10 inches a year, with almost all of it occurring during the winter; from May through September practically no rain falls.

Border TipsThere are two border crossings—at Tijuana-San Ysidro and at Otay Mesa, just east of Tijuana International Airport and south of SR 117 (Otay Mesa Road). U.S. Customs and Border Protection offices are open 24 hours daily. Mexican customs offices are open Mon.-Fri. 8 a.m.-9 p.m., Sat. 8-5. Both crossings are open to travelers daily 24 hours.

The Tijuana-San Ysidro border crossing complex recently completed a $740 million renovation. The major change for U.S. citizens visiting for the day on foot was the opening of the Puerta Este Mexico-San Ysidro Mexican customs facility, which replaced the former pedestrian walkway into Mexico. The three-story building is located on the east side of I-5 (east of the northbound vehicle lanes leading into San Ysidro). Foreigners (extranjeros) are required to present a valid passport in order to enter Mexico.

Crossing the border by car south into Tijuana or north returning to the United States can sometimes involve significant delays due to enhanced security measures meant to curb the flow of illegal firearms and drug cartel cash. Mexican customs officials may conduct thorough vehicle searches, including X-rays.

Travelers also are likely to encounter routine backups in the morning and late afternoon on weekdays, as thousands of commuters travel between their Tijuana homes and jobs on the U.S. side of the border. Friday afternoon backups are especially common. The best times to cross the border north into the United States are in the very early morning and after 8 p.m.

Crossing on or around major holidays—Memorial Day, July 4, Labor Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas—also can entail long waits. The 2-week college spring break, the first 2 weeks of December and Mexican holidays are other times when significant delays can be expected.

For day visitors walking across, there are several parking lots in San Ysidro within minutes of the border. Border Station Parking, next to the San Diego Factory Outlet Center, is fenced, lighted, has surveillance equipment and is open and attended 24 hours daily. The per-day rate Mon.-Thurs. is $9, Fri.-Sun. $18 (cash only; credit cards are not accepted). Keep in mind that if you exit the lot after 10 a.m. the day after you park, you will be charged an additional day. For additional details, phone (619) 428-9477.

San Diego Trolley's blue line provides transportation to the San Ysidro station (at East Beyer Boulevard and East San Ysidro Boulevard) from various downtown San Diego stations, including the Santa Fe Depot, America Plaza (West C Street and Kettner Boulevard), Civic Center (C Street and 3rd Avenue) and 5th Avenue (5th Avenue and C Street at the north end of the Gaslamp Quarter).

There are public parking lots at each station; daily rates range from $7 to $10. One-way fare from downtown San Diego is $2.50; over 59, $1.25. Day passes good for unlimited trolley rides are $5. Trolley tickets are available from self-serve kiosks at each stop. Phone (619) 557-4555 customer service, (619) 685-4900 for recorded route and schedule information, or TTY (619) 234-5005 (southern San Diego County). Closed Thanksgiving and Christmas.

City LayoutIf you're driving, you'll enter Mexico at the Puerto Mexico El Chaparral vehicle crossing. To get to Avenida Revolución and the Zona Río neighborhood, move to the far left-hand lanes and follow the “Zona Centro” signs. If you're heading toward Playas de Tijuana and/or Rosarito/Ensenada, immediately move to the far right-hand lanes and follow the signs to access the Mex 1-D toll highway. If you're headed for the airport, stick to the middle lanes.

Downtown Tijuana (El Centro) is less than a mile from the San Ysidro border crossing. The Monument Arch (Arco Monumental, also called Reloj Monumental) marks the north end of Avenida Revolución, the main thoroughfare. Running south for some 10 blocks, “La Revo” is packed with bars, restaurants, discount pharmacies and loads of souvenir stands and vendors selling everything from stuffed Tweety birds to Bob Marley paintings to San Diego Padres blankets.

Streets in the immediate border vicinity, plus north-south Revolución and Avenida Constitución, are all very congested, and traffic signals are not always readily visible. The traffic circles, or glorietas, along northwest-southeast Paseo de los Héroes and Paseo de Tijuana also can be confusing; always bear right when entering a traffic circle, following the flow of traffic counterclockwise. There are many one-way street signs as well, so make sure you have an up-to-date downtown street map.

In the decades before cartel violence scared off most Americans, TJ's famed “zonkeys” (burros painted with black and white zebra stripes) were a common sight on every other corner. Their handlers urged tourists to don a giant sombrero and pose for a photo on the poor burro's back.

These days, however, the spray-painted beasts are an endangered species and part of a wider trend—the downturn in tourism that has also encouraged residents to reclaim the heart of their city. The nightlife renaissance along La Revo and adjacent Calle 6 (La Sexta) is all about young Mexican artists and musicians conversing at coffeehouses rather than drunk gringos trading punches outside the strip clubs of yore.

About a mile southeast of Avenida Revolución is the Zona Río. Along wide Paseo de los Héroes, four massive monuments stand at traffic circles. The most unexpected, a towering statue of Abraham Lincoln, was a gift from U.S. president Jimmy Carter. Many tourists never visit the Zona Río, but upscale restaurants, a contemporary shopping mall and an impressive cultural center make it the sophisticated flip side of brash La Revo.

Divided, fully access-controlled Mex 1-D provides a quick and safe route to Ensenada and points south and is preferable to Mex. 1, the older, free roadway. From the international border, it proceeds west to Playas de Tijuana, paralleling the border fence and bypassing much of Tijuana's congestion (follow the “Ensenada Cuota” signs along Calle Internacional). At Playas de Tijuana Mex. 1-D turns south, with the ocean in view along most of the drive to Ensenada. There are three toll plazas between the two cities. Toll highway Mex. 2-D runs parallel to the border from Tijuana east to Mexicali.

Things To Do

ShoppingAvenida Revolución is lined with souvenir stalls and maze-like arcades filled with curio shops. Although many have closed in recent years, there are still enough left to keep browsers busy. Shopkeepers call out from doorways or pace the sidewalk pleading with you to stop and take a look. And no matter what the item, they always have “the best price, amigo.”

Keep expectations in mind; if you're searching for authentic silver jewelry instead of a simple trinket, avoid the street vendors whose arms are garlanded with necklaces. Leather boots, shoes, sandals, luggage, purses, wallets, briefcases, belts and jackets can all be bargained for—but again, evaluate quality before committing your dollars.

A standout shop with fixed prices is The Emporium, on Avenida Revolución near Calle 4. where you'll find a nice selection of silver jewelry and stained glass, Oaxacan wood carvings and other examples of Mexican folk art. Hand Art, a block north on Avenida Revolución between calles 3 and 4, specializes in traditional, hand-embroidered men's and women's clothing, along with lovely handmade tablecloths.

If you'd rather browse in a more concentrated area and avoid the roving vendors, outdoor Plaza Río Tijuana, along Paseo de los Héroes next to the Tijuana Cultural Center, has shops, restaurants, several department stores and a movie theater multiplex. Baseball fans will find a San Diego Padres team store selling discounted logo gear.

A block southwest of the cultural center on Avenida Independencia is the Hidalgo Market (Mercado M. Hidalgo). This lively public market is filled with bins of fresh produce, heaps of fresh and dried chiles, a mind-boggling array of spices and candy, and craft stalls that feature, among many other things, a great selection of piñatas.

Pueblo Amigo, a 5-minute walk from the border, has shops, restaurants, nightspots and a Caliente Sportsbook betting facility. At Plaza Viva Tijuana, just across the border on the way to Avenida Revolución, there are craft stalls, curio shops, liquor stores and a few casual bars.

The Mexican peso and the American dollar are practically interchangeable in Tijuana, and visitors rarely have to worry about currency exchange. Haggling is expected if you're buying from street vendors or at open-air stalls; in more established shops, ask if bargaining is accepted. The only ground rule is to maintain a serious yet light-hearted approach, for a merchant's initial offering price will usually be about twice what the item is worth. Some stores accept U.S. credit cards.

Dining and NightlifeA Tijuana time warp not to be missed, Caesar's Restaurante Bar, on Avenida Revolución between calles 4 and 5, is a good choice for a relaxed drink and bite in a classy atmosphere that feels more like Old Hollywood than tawdry TJ. Opened in 1927, its claim to fame is inventing the Caesar salad, which is prepared at your table. Locally brewed cervezas (try the dark morena) are best enjoyed at the polished wood bar, backed by antique espresso machines.

Restaurante Chiki Jai, Av. Revolución #1388 (across Calle 7 from the former Jai Alai Palace building; look for the classic blue-and-white tiled facade) has been a La Revo fixture since 1947. Excellent Spanish dishes are served in a cozy dining room; try the seafood paella or a freshly grilled fish fillet. If it's a nice day, sit at one of the half-dozen sidewalk tables for two.

Street tacos are cheap, filling and often better than what you'll find in restaurants; look for food that is hot and freshly prepared. Those in the know head for Las Ahumaderas (Spanish for “the smokehouses”), a string of six connected taco stands near the Zona Río on Avenida Prieto (about a block south of Boulevard Agua Caliente). They can be tricky to find on your own, so definitely take a taxi; every cabbie knows the place. One-way fare from La Revo should run about $5 to $6 (a buck or two more from the border).

In business since 1960, these open-air joints prepare taco and torta meats on simple wood-burning grills that give everything—from carne asada to chorizo—a fantastic mesquite flavor. There are also exotic fillings like cabeza (cow head meat) and lengua (beef tongue), plus tender al pastor (pork) cooked on a proper rotisserie spit—difficult to find in the states. Grab a counter stool (the “El Paisa” and “Las 3 Salsas” stands are best) and experience taco heaven. All are inexpensive and cash only.

If you're leery of street food, stateside franchises like TGI Friday's, Burger King, McDonalds and Starbucks can be found in Tijuana.

When deciding what to tip in restaurants, do not include the 11 percent IVA tax that is automatically added to the check. A 20 percent tip is not expected in Mexico; 10 percent is acceptable, unless you feel the service has been truly outstanding. See the Lodgings & Restaurants section for AAA Diamond designated dining establishments.

Loud music—both recorded and live—booms from a handful of clubs on Avenida Revolución Thursday through Saturday nights. Shills stationed at every door lure potential customers with free drink cards and frequent shouts of “$1 beers!” Traditionally high cover charges have also dropped in recent years.

If thumping dance beats aren't your thing, party bars are a good alternative. Local institution Tia Juana Tilly's, next to the Jai Alai Palace on Avenida Revolución at Calle 7, attracts an all-ages crowd with standard Mexican dishes, strong margaritas and fun waiters. During the day and early evening, sports fans gather at the sleek El Copeo bar (Av. Revolución #1240, near the corner of Calle 6), which is loaded with HDTVs.

Feeling lucky? Casino Caliente, Avenida Revolución between calles 3 and 4, has rows of video slot machines to reward or rob you of a few pesos. Note: To enter the casino you'll need to pass through a security metal detector. Also, smoking is not permitted.

The nightlife scene along Calle 6 (aka “La Sexta”) stretches for a few blocks both east and west of Avenida Revolución. The center of TJ's bar and nightclub rebirth is a hangout for the city's young artists, musicians and DJs. La Mezcalera (Calle 6 #8267) is a trendy, colorful spot where friends chill over mezcal cocktails.

If you crave the classic Tijuana dive bar experience, make your drinking destination El Dandy Del Sur (Calle 6 #8274, just east of La Revo). Although the exterior looks sketchy, once inside you'll knock back cheap drinks alongside a friendly mix of Mexican hipsters, local borrachos (drunks) and a few tourists. If dance clubs are your thing, walk the street and take your pick.

Note: While Tijuana promotes fun, remember that you are in a foreign country where different rules and laws are in effect. The police invariably arrest those who are inebriated and causing a disturbance in public, and nothing will ruin a vacation like a night in a Mexican jail and the ensuing bureaucratic red tape to get out.

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