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The Gringo’s Guide to Tijuana

I’ve been pretty excited to write about this subject since the idea hit… The only bummer is that once you’ve read this you’ll no longer view me as an international man of mystery, just some guy who is willing to drive an hour south to pig out on really great food with friends.

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My first time driving through the city I was in my old Toyota truck with my friend Celina, she was my Baja/Tj tour guide. We’d spent the weekend exploring Rosarito, Popotla and anything in between if it involved food or alcohol. We were returning back to the states sitting at a traffic light in Tijuana and I felt like the walls were closing in on me.

Where was all the mayhem I’d heard about? Are the doors locked? Do we have enough gas to make it in case of emergency? Do I need to hide money in my undies? Have I forgotten anything else to panic about? Queue the normal first time in Tj emotions that are entirely unfounded and make you look back and laugh at yourself.

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On the drive home I thought to myself, how many things in life had people tried to scare me away from that had turned out to be super awesome… pretty much everything.

Starting my first business, closing that business and moving to California, quitting my cushy corporate job to start my second business, backpacking for months in South America, doing embarrassing things and realizing everyone is too busy worrying about themselves to care. I noticed a trend, maybe I should check this place out for myself.

So it was decided, Tijuana needed to be explored. I was due for a teeth cleaning and Celina’s business of purchasing high end fashion items from throughout the world and selling them (Gypsy Treasures Plug) was due for some Tj swag. Dental work and purse shopping was on the agenda and still I was amped to go.

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Just about anyone I know will head down to Rosarito or Las Gaviotas, the ultimate in being in Mexico without actually “being” in Mexico. Now I’m being a little hard on Gaviotas but it’s also where I blew myself up with a gas fireplace and the locals nickel and dime tourists because they know they can.  When it comes to Tijuana, that is a different story. It’s avoided, the underdog that is looked down on without anyone even knowing why.

It wasn’t after my first visit to Tijuana that the idea to write about it occurred. You can have a great time in almost any city once or twice, then usually you’ve ran out of things to do (small town midwest we’re looking at you). Tijuana delivers endlessly on adventures for any type of taste you might have. Food, drink, sporting, dancing, art, gambling, social it has it all and here is the part that makes it such a novelty to me…

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If you love to travel you know the time and effort it takes to go to a foreign country. The saving, the planning, the time off work. It’s a project but we do it so we can get our fix, the craving for the unknown experiences we anticipate will be life changing in ways we cannot even predict.

Or you could just drive south for half an hour.

We have one of the greatest international borders in the world and without a doubt the greatest in the United States right in our backyard. No other place has access to such an amazing and vastly different foreign city anywhere else in the U.S.

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This is why I chose to take advantage of Tijuana and all it has to offer me. Those travel cravings hit hard once you’ve got a taste and you can’t always hop a plane across the world, but you could take an evening or weekend to Tijuana.

Weird looking money, practicing Spanish, experiencing a different culture all while it costs a fraction of what it would just across that little line to the north. What else could you ask for out of a sister city? Ironically every time I hit Tj I see a ton of foreign tourists from all over the world who are in San Diego but decided to cross over for the day. There is something very funny about a group of old English women or a bus of Asian tourists who are more eager to explore all that Tijuana has to offer than the people who live right next to it.

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Now that I’ve worn out my soap box proclaiming my love for this city and why you should too I’ll explain how you can explore Tijuana safely and really see what makes this city amazing.

The metro area of Tijuana has a population of 1.9 million people, this city can cater to any interest that you might have. My interests could be a little different than yours but let me promise you that if it’s fun you can find it in Tijuana. Just remember, with a city of this size I’m only scratching the surface with my tips here…Hopefully one day you’re tipping me off from your own adventures down south.

Entering Tijuana

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There is really no point to driving in, drive down to San Ysidro (the world’s busiest land border crossing). There is paid parking all over ranging from $7-$25 that is secure and convenient. You’ll see all sorts of action, the San Ysidro border is also the busiest location in the United States for Ambulance calls. Great facts I’m throwing out while trying to convince you this is a safe place… well, technically the odds of an ambulance being there are high should you ever need one.

Once you’ve parked I’ve got my own little ritual. You must be sure to have cash on you, cards won’t work most places and it’s just a pain in the ass. I’ll also convert money into pesos as I get a better deal and look less like an idiot gringo. Regardless of the currency you bring don’t just bring big bills, have change!

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Now you’re ready to walk over to Mexico, be sure to turn off data on your phone and also switch it into airplane mode. Free Wi-Fi is easily found in Tijuana and if you’re a T-Mobile customer your phone works for free in Mexico. This is also why I love coming here, no one uses their phones! Conversations flow and interruptions vanish.

Follow the signs and walk up the pathway, until recently you simply entered Mexico and that was it. Sometime around September they finalized an immigration process that does now require you to pass through immigration. Bonus for those who like to feel special, they will be stamping your passport.

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Once through a very painless immigration process you can either walk into the city or get into the taxi line and get a ride. The taxis are really convenient and cheap; all of the locations mentioned below can be reached via a taxi and shouldn’t cost more than $6-7. One rule is to ALWAYS agree on a price before getting in. This helps avoid surprise overcharged rates.

Remember, even if you get ripped off we’re talking about a few dollars here and there. I consider it a cost of doing business, a great learning experience and an interesting story for you to share one day.

Congratulations you’ve safely made it into Tijuana, now to have some fun…

Futbol & Sports

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After many visits to Tj to eat and drink a group of maniacs rallied to catch the local futbol team, the Xolos at Estadio Caliente. They play on Friday nights and put any San Diego sporting event to shame. Tickets are cheap, people are friendly and the entire stadium has an energy that’s a hybrid of a college football game and professional sports event. You’ve got tailgating out front, dozens of people with musical instruments going nuts in the parking lot and the stadium and the cheapest beer matched with the best stadium food.

For $100 you can live like a king at a Xolos game and you could easily enjoy it all for a fraction of that. The halftime show where fans are randomly picked to try and score penalty kicks against a team of Carl’s Jr’s mascots dressed in giant foam stars is my bucket list of sporting event shenanigans. These games are family friendly, affordable and easy to reach via a $6 taxi ride from the border.

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I’ve met countless folks who salivate at the idea of catching a futbol match in a foreign country, here it can be done for less than it would cost to addend an SDSU game and you’ve got a great city to go out and explore once the game is over.

There are also professional Baseball games, dog racing, bull fighting & Jai Alai all within a short drive of Tijuana or within the city. Those are yet to be explored…

Drink

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There is nothing that can come close to competing with San Diego when it comes to craft beer. If you want to get a feel for how this industry was like in its humble beginnings, go explore Tj. There are numerous breweries producing some great beers on a shoestring budget all over the city. From warehouses to inside an Architectural School the craft beer industry of Tijuana is young and energetic.

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All you have to do is walk across the border and catch a $5 cab to “Plaza Fiesta” to get yourself in front of numerous mini-breweries who often share liquor licenses. This plaza, a former center for shoe stores is now an alcohol mecca inside the city of Tijuana. Mescal, Tequila, Pulque you name it they’ll have it there to try. This is also a great area to watch futbol or fights on T.V.

There is also a fantastic local brewery tour available via Tourista Libre that I would highly recommend, this allows you an organized tour that might help those of you who would like a little more assistance in your first few adventures across the border. The tours offered by Tourista Libre are excellent and cover numerous interests beyond drinking, I joined in on a birthday brewery tour not long ago and it was awesome!

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Gambling

Always wanted to learn Craps but weren’t up for losing $15 a roll? Tijuana has your back. At the current exchange rate $1.00 / 16.9 pesos you are balling hard. The minimum bet at casinos in Tj is typically $25 pesos for Roulette & Craps and $50 pesos for Blackjack. That is essentially $2.95 per hand in U.S. dollars. There is a Casino nearby to the Estadio Caliene (its namesake) as well as one right on Revolucion, the most common area to go explore in Tj.

I’ve only became a recent fan of the Casino’s in Tijuana but I love em, a group of friends and I shut down the Craps table while on a heater. There’s something about holding stacks of $100 peso chips that lets you briefly forget you’re only holding $5.91 in your hands.

Dinner

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Food is what Tj does best. You’ve got choices, from some of the fanciest restaurants I’ve ever seen to deck chairs on the sidewalk. This city has it all, I won’t be able to scrape the surface here but we’ll try.

Mission 19 is likely the most well-known restaurant in Tj, featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations this place is fancy. I’ve eaten here several times and it’s ideal for a date night or when you feel the need to “treat yoself”. With the current exchange rates it’s insanely affordable and you look like a  rock star when you take friends here.

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Beyond that some highlights for more fancy eating would be Verde y Crema, numerous places along Sonora between Agua Caliente & Calle Nogales. We hit Bodega 8 last weekend and had more options than we could handle. For reference, five people ate like kings. Drinks, entrees etc… And our bill came to $20 a person including a tip.

For the more casual diner this when things get fun, there is an emergence of food trucks and collective areas for restaurateurs just starting out can share a space. Creating a Mexican food court of some of the best types of food and it’s not just Mexican. Many are taking their own interpretations of foreign cuisine and adding their own touch to it.

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The two best places for this are Telefonica Gastropark on Ocampo & Colectivo Nueve on Revolucion. Both are close to all the action and walking distance from all the sites.

Street Food

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If there are two topics I am not doing justice on this post it is dinner and street food. I’ve explored and eaten my way through Tijuana endlessly and I’ve still barely seen what this city has to offer. Here’s a simple rule, if there is a huge crowd eating or a line to eat… it’s probably good. I don’t care if it’s on the street or a real location. If it smells good I’ll eat it and I’ve not had an issue once.

The Tj Dog is one of my personal favorites but it’s never the best tasting, you get a hot dog wrapped in bacon on a bun smothered in mayonnaise. Really, all that’s good about it is you can smell bacon and you’re likely drunk by the time you are eating it.

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Top honors go to Churros (the love of my life), street tacos, tortas, ceviche, the bowls of fruit covered in hot sauce and anything that smells good and I don’t care what it’s made of.

Tacos Franc was my newest introduction Tijuana street food, technically it’s a brick and mortar location but don’t let that ruin the moment we’re having. Imagine plastic tables and chairs spilling onto the sidewalk, great tacos from just about any part of the cow and adobada done just right. Lucky for me one of our friends bribed them with beers so we could run to the local Oxxo (Mexican 7-11) and drink at the tables. This is the ideal late evening stop with great company.

The People

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I really had no clue what to expect when I came down to Tijuana. All I had to go by was some really biased opinions from folks who’d never been there or if they had it wasn’t in the last five years. There are sights in Tijuana that will remind of you the people you see struggling on the streets downtown and in some cases they are with children. That is likely the biggest shock to anyone that is not used to traveling outside of the United States.

You will also encounter hipsters… everywhere. It is an internationally spoken language. Where you see hipsters you see economic growth. These young professionals are hustling their asses off in Tijuana. Creating restaurants, clothing lines and numerous other businesses that are changing this city in an insanely creative and entrepreneurial way. It’s really exciting and impressive to witness.

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The one thing you’ll notice quickly is how hard everyone hustles here, from children to their grandparents. This city isn’t forgiving and many people work to barely survive but there isn’t any anger or frustration seen in their faces. As someone who grew up in the Midwest and thinks most Californians are soft (sorry) I really admire how life is lived in Tijuana. People are friendly, work doesn’t scare them, family is really important and smart phones are only just starting to turn folks into assholes.

Getting Back

Long border wait times cause many a wannabe adventurer to back down from a trip to Tj. Truth is the wait isn’t bad these days and there are numerous tricks to make it better. First of all, if you cross during off peak times (think non rush hour) you drastically reduce the chance of a long wait.

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The Sentri pass which runs just over $150 and lasts for five years is money well spent if you enjoy your travel adventures plus it gets you free access to TSA-Pre Check. The other alternative which isn’t as fast as Sentri but only runs $50 is the Ready Card. It is a passport card for land border crossings only. It will reduce your wait time by usually 10-50%

There are a few great apps you can use like Border Wait Times to let you know where you stand on wait times. We’ll often keep an eye on it and by 10PM you’re waiting 15-30 mins to cross back into the states. It really isn’t bad unless you try to come back Saturday morning, Sunday evening or Holidays.

Final Thoughts…

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If you are sitting somewhere in Southern California reading this and you haven’t been to Tijuana you are missing out. This city has something for everyone. Whether you’re a fancy pants who wants a night out on the town at five star restaurants and hotels, a sports nut or a total foodie looking to eat some really weird shit. Tijuana has it.

One of my biggest frustrations with the work model in the United States is how no one ever has time to take a real vacation and see different cultures. People get these measly three day weekends to keep them from going insane while the rest of the world travels, explores and relaxes.

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Although this truly is a band aid to a very broken system, Tijuana is your vacation for the day. A chance to see outside of the bubble, remind yourself you are in a big world with lots of interesting, friendly and vastly different people. I fell in love with this city for all of the reasons listed above and many more that I haven’t even discovered yet. I hope this post helps some of you gain the confidence to take a walk south and take a look for yourself.

– Tim