Since moving from Austin, TX to San Diego, CA I have been to Tijuana about 10 times. I love it. Mexicans are super friendly, everything is way cheaper than California and the weather is just as good. I am also a traveler so I have a natural curiosity to explore. The startup scene is also accelerating at an incredible rate. I have more friends down there than San Diego and it is the perfect place for me to practice my Spanish with locals. I predict that in a few years, there will be a higher percentage of American entrepreneurs and freelancers running companies down there due to the rents and property prices being so low. Ignore the US media that tries to convince you it is not safe to travel with alerts and shock tactics. That was in 2010 when the cartels had a stronghold on the city. It is 2017 and much safer. The media is trying to fool you into staying in the US so it can keep you spending your money in this economy. Where else are you going to find a zonkey?!
Here are a few tips for getting across the border and back safely:
1). Take the MTS Trolley
I get the Blue Line from City College in Downtown San Diego south to San Ysidro at the border. It is clean, there is wi-fi and it is safe to use. The trains also come frequently so your longest wait might be 15 minutes. A single ride is only $2.25 and will take you to the border in 45 minutes.
2). Switch Currency At San Ysidro
When you get out, use the currency exchange booths nearby to change your US dollars into pesos. You will get a better rate in the US. The rate will depend on your timing but will be between 17 and 20 pesos to $1.
The sign for the crossing is not that clear but as you walk towards the end of the trolley line, you take a left and then wind around to the right. You will eventually see a revolving gate. Go through this and walk to the left. Then stay to the right which is for non-Mexican passport holders. Sometimes you get a friendly customs person who will fill out the form for you but most of the time, they get you to do the work. Once you have your temporary visa (don’t lose this!), head to the right, through the X-ray scanner (this will literally take 10 seconds) and then out of the door to the left. It is one of the fastest customs processes you will ever experience and this alone makes you want to keep coming back!
On the other side, it can be a little intimidating the first time you cross. People are trying to sell you anything from tacos to candy and you get bombarded by taxi drivers. Resist the yellow cabs as they are expensive. Head around to the left and then follow the path that leads you to a busy intersection with more cabs and lots of traffic. You have two options here: 1). Head right over the bridge and go to the other side or 2). Go over the road then head to the right and follow this street around to the left. When you get to the first crossroads, take a right. Wherever you end up, call an Uber from here. The reason for doing this is that in Tijuana, there have been wars between Uber drivers and yellow cab drivers. If your Uber ride arrives where all the yellow cabs are, your driver might get beaten up (this is how they deal with competition!). So go away from these guys and then order your ride. Your Uber rides should never cost more than $2 (even a 45 minute ride to Rosarito only cost me $15!).
5). Avenida Revolución
This is where most Americans go. It is the Gaslamp District of Tijuana and buzzing with people. Simple rule here: if you wouldn’t do it in the US, don’t do it here. There have been horror stories of Americans getting arrested but when you ask them what they were doing, you realize that they would have had the same result Stateside. I’ve never had any incidents involving the police simply because I respect the people and place. I have heard from some people to have two wallets on you (one with very little cash in and another with more cash in). If a cop ever tries to ask you for cash and will accept a bribe (unfortunately the police are paid so little that they sometimes rely on tourists to increase their salary), you give them the near empty wallet. I have never done this though so cannot comment on the outcomes of a bribe. If you stay in a group on main streets or with your Mexican friends, there should never be a problem. Avenida Revolucion is a sensory overload but has a few great spots. Make sure to hit:
Colectivo 9 – a small alley of Revolucion leads to 9 tiny stalls all serving different types of food. There is also a little bar tucked in the corner.
Pasaje Rodriguez – great little stores in an arcade.
Telefonica Gasto Park – lots of food trucks serving amazing food.
Container Coffee – a coffee shop made out of a shipping container. Really nice interior design and great place to people watch.
Caesar’s Restaurant – Where the Caesar salad was invented. Fact!
Bars – Mamut Brewery (beer and tequila), Mustache Bar (bands and cheap drinks), La Mezcalera Bar (amazing deep house DJs in the back and seats in a Cadillac!).
Estacion Federal – a new development which is like a micro community. There is a co-working space, a restaurant, coffee shop, bike shop and brewery coming soon.
The soccer team of TJ is Club Tijuana (nicknamed “Xolos” after a hairless Aztec dog). Their home stadium is Estadio Caliente which is South East of Revolucion. It is definitely worth watching a game there for the atmosphere. The fans are way more into it than San Diego Padres fans.
About 45 minutes from Tijuana is the beach town of Rosarito. The main strip is called Blvd Benito Juarez and is a nice walk with some really progressive looking restaurants and bars. There are also some unassuming taco joints which have incredible tacos for $1-2. It gets really busy down here during American holidays and it can feel a little bit trashy at times (Papas & Beer is where everyone heads for the $15 all you can drink deal!). I stayed at The Rosarito Beach Hotel which was pricey ($120) although it does overlook the ocean. The beach is nice and there are lots of bars to stop at.
8). Spanish Expressions
It is easy to be lazy and rely on the fact that English is the most spoken language in the world. But I find nothing more satisfying than when I cross into another culture and communicate with the locals. Here are a few expressions that will help you out:
“Como estas?” – How are you
“Que padre!” – So cool/awesome
“Quiero ir a Avenida Revolucion” – I want to go to Avenida Revolucion
“Cuanto cuesta?” – How much does it cost?
“La cuenta por favor” – the check please
“Mucho gusto” – pleased to meet you
“Tienes un habitacion sencillo” – Do you have a simple room?
“Buen probecho” – enjoy your food
“Como te llamas” – What is your name?
“Me llamo” – my name is
“Hasta luego” – see you soon
“Adios” – goodbye
9). Getting back to San Diego
Most people will go to the San Ysidro border crossing which is logical because that is where you came in. However, I always recommend using the Garita El Chaparral which is just west of San Ysidro. This is a newer crossing so more efficient. The fastest crossing here was 10 minutes and longest 30 minutes. The only time I have crossed at San Ysidro took 1 hour. Once you have gone through customs, take a left out of the building and then a right. Go right and walk over the bridge to get back to the San Ysidro trolley station or just get a cab in front of Chaparral.
Hope this was useful. If I missed anything, please add the spots in the comments and I’ll update the article.