20 September 2010

I WENT TO TIJUANA, LIVED TO TELL THE TALE & HAD A GREAT TIME


The first thing that happens when you tell most people that you are planning to go to Tijuana, Mexico is that they ask you if it's safe. Then, when you assure them that you're no more certain than you would be traveling anywhere, but that you're pretty sure it is, they ask you why you'd want to go there anyway.

Let's get these two questions taken care of right off the bat.

As for safety, if Tijuana were a city in the U.S., its violent crime rate would rank it somewhere in the lowest third of big cities. On any given day there are a whole lot more shootings, stabbings, rapes and assaults in Houston, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami or most other big American cities than there are in Tijuana. Sure, shit happens and you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time anywhere. And if you're really stupid when you walk around a big city, you can invite trouble. But, in spite of what the media seems to want you to believe, visiting Tijuana is not unsafe.

As to why you'd want to go to Tijuana, it is for the same reasons why you might want to go to any big city, anywhere.

And it is a big city. Current estimates of its population fall somewhere between two and three million people. It would be the second biggest city in California. It would be in the top five in the U.S. And like in any city of that size, there's a lot going on.

This past weekend I went to Tijuana with the enormously talented and frighteningly energetic - even with an only partially healed crushed (and I mean that in its very most awful bone smashing literal sense) toe - Ashley Ream. She's working on a book in which there are a couple of chapters set there, and she'd never been. So we spent the better part of two days and a night wandering around the city while she took notes and I took pictures - and a few notes as well. (You can read Ashley's take on the whole thing by clicking on this sentence.)

It took us under three hours to drive to the border from my house. We parked on the U.S. side and walked across. I only regretted not having my car in Tijuana a couple of times, and I sure didn't regret avoiding the several hours of sitting in traffic on Sunday afternoon to get back north.

The last time I'd been to Tijuana was about 12 years ago and that was a different sort of trip altogether: a wild, drunken night of revelry that ranged up and down the sleazy tourist hellhole of Avenida Revolucion and into Zona Norte (the red light district.) The pre-op tranny hookers at Molino Rojo had, en masse, become post-op tranny hookers since the time I'd been before that. We stayed in the $34 per night Presidente Suite of the very stale and rundown Hotel Cesar where the mattress was so damp and lumpy that we resorted to sleeping on the not-very-well-vacuumed floor. It was a good thing we were drunk. I think we may have done some other things - a market, a pottery shop, possibly an art gallery - but mostly I recall the hangover. It seemed like a good time at the time.

This trip was different. Only minimal time was spent on or near Avenida Revolucion. We walked past the Zona Norte in the day, only to get somewhere, and the hotel was clean, comfortable and modern. I have no regrets about having done what I did in the past, but I had an equally great - maybe even better - time this time and no hangover to take me to task for it.

Here's some pictures. As usual, you can click on them to blow them up.(The one at the top of this post is one of the hillsides of Colonia Libertad, one of the poorest neighborhoods in Tijuana. There are some interesting places in there, but without my car we couldn't get to them. I took the picture from my hotel room window.)The lobby of our hotel - the Pueblo Amigo. It is also a casino and is about a five minute walk from the border.
There's a branch of this place in Chicago. It has the best carnitas I've ever had in the U.S. The carnitas at the Tijuana branch were actually not quite as good, but they were still excellent. I'm very fond of how Mexican restaurants are fond of signs in which the animal being served up to eat, is cooking or serving itself. They must have very accommodating pigs.There are a number of traffic circles in town, all of which have large statues in the middle. I never quite figured out what this one memorialized, but I was proud of my limited, bad Spanish for getting a laugh out of our taxi driver when I made a joke that it was a monument to Chinese food - chopsticks.
There are quirky design and architectural elements to be seen all over the city.My friend, having never been to Tijuana, did have to at least stroll along part of Avenida Revolucion. If for no other reason than to admire the famous zebra-donkeys. (Apparently it is actually possible to cross breed zebras and donkeys, but these aren't them.)
There was a festival of sorts setting up on Revolucion. Among other things it featured the very sad spectacle of this tiger cub in a small cage on the hot street, within reach of the prying fingers of children whose parents didn't watch them closely enough to make sure they kept their hands out of the cage. A couple of cages down, past the wolves, the monkeys and the parrots - in similar small and too easily accessible cages - there were three near frantic bear cubs.
At the far north end of Revolucion, there is a huge, ugly arch with a clock, built to commemorate the Millennium. It's right by the entrance to the Zona Norte, the redlight district, and also by a square in which mariachi and other bands hang out waiting for someone to come along and hire them. There's a bandstand for free concerts.There's a scene in my friend's book that is set in the Cathedral of Tijuana. It was built in 1902 and is very pretty inside.
At night we had dinner at a fantastic, beautiful restaurant called La Differencia. (Sorry, I don't have a picture of it.) The appetizer of huitlacoche (corn fungus) and Oaxacan string cheese in a crepe with a roasted chile poblano and cream sauce was one of the best things either of us has ever eaten. The duck carnitas with tamarind sauce and fresh handmade blue corn tortillas was extraordinary, as was the chile relleno stuffed with crab with a cilantro and chile verde sauce. The wine, from an old winery in Baja California, was also great. After that we went to a club / restaurant / art gallery place called El Lugar del Nopal. We were the only foreigners - that we could tell - in the place. The crowd ranged from 20 something year old hipsters to people in their 70s. The music was great, fun - a mix of folk and rock in different styles, some of it political, some of it humorous.There are murals, both small and large, painted all over town. We came across this deceptively simple one on the gate of a house as we walked through the residential district after leaving the club.The little details are among the things I most love about walking around in different cities. Here's a window display in a nail salon.
Tijuana's Cultural Center includes a great museum of Baja California history, and at the moment has a special exhibit of art and history and culture and politics about the massacre of students at the University in Mexico City in 1968. It also has performance spaces, an Imax theater and is a fine place to spend a couple of hours.


The Mercado Hidalgo is one of the biggest, most interesting markets in the center of town. There are great places to eat in the market, as well as an amazing variety of produce, household and kitchen goods and other stuff.A very small part of the horrendous traffic getting back across the border on Sunday. Luckily we walked and it took about 20 minutes to get back across.

2 comments:

Dianne Emley said...

Great photos and commentary, Eric. I haven't been to Tijuana in decades. The meal you recounted made me long to visit.

Crossborder-Kenn said...

Eric - just came across your blog post re: Tijuana, as well as Ashley's. I left a more detailed note on her blog - but thanks for taking the adventure to go to Tijuana and contact the Tijuana Visitor' Bureau (COTUCO) if you have any future questions or needs in Tijuana... There are some great festivals coming up (Beer Festival and Tequila Expo, both in October).

Saludos and thanks!