Day-tripping in Tijuana

WASHINGTON POST

It took only a few quick steps to cross the border into Tijuana, but I felt as if I had leaped a hundred leagues into the very heart of Mexico. Suddenly I was caught up in a chaotic south-of-the-border swirl of honking taxis, boisterous mariachi tunes spilling from boomboxes, street vendors hawking cheap silver trinkets draped in mounds over their arms, and shy Indian women frying up crispy tacos over smoking charcoal braziers.

One elderly vendor seated behind a rickety curbside cart was busily peeling ripe orange papayas, which she stuck on a short stick and sold for easy eating. The colorful confusion was at once intimidating and thoroughly delightful.

Tijuana is America's favorite day trip into an exotic foreign culture. Simply walk across the border and you find yourself immediately immersed in the vibrant, intriguing land of fiesta.

Tijuana claims to be the foreign city most-visited by Americans (mostly Southern Californians)--and with justification. I arrived late one afternoon and was confronted by a parade of hundreds, if not thousands, of fellow American tourists heading back north again after a day of sightseeing, eating, drinking and shopping. They looked like a victorious army hauling armfuls of loot, although I could see many of their packages contained bargain-priced bottles of tequila and rum, vividly painted pottery and huge pinatas in the shape of cartoon characters.

Once a city of sin, Tijuana has shed most of its notorious excesses and is now a reasonably sedate family destination. Oh sure, an occasional street-corner tout will try to lure unattached males into sleazy-looking bars and strip joints. But nowadays, these places are all but hidden by long rows of tourist shops and lively outdoor cafes serving wonderfully inexpensive platters of spicy Mexican burritos, refried beans and other treats. Good shopping and good food, not illicit sex, seem to be the biggest draws these days.

Shopping is concentrated along Avenida Revolucion, a refurbished seven-block-long promenade aswarm with sightseers. Alleyways lead off the street into maze-like interior courtyards, where more vendors in rows of stalls sell the many crafts of Mexico--straw hats and baskets, leather bags, woodcarvings, hand-woven rugs, ceramic figures, grotesque clay masks and silver necklaces. Some of it is good stuff and bargains can be found, but a lot of it is junk. Never mind, it is the search that is the real fun.

Pressed hard against the high chain-link fence that marks the U.S.-Mexico border, Tijuana represents much of what is most attractive about Mexico and some that isn't. Conscious of Tijuana's position as a major gateway to the country, the Mexican government, well aware that the century-old border town lacks the magnificent Aztec ruins or Spanish colonial structures found deeper in Mexico, has built a very good alternative--a fascinating cultural center and museum complex where elaborate exhibits examine Mexican culture and trace the nation's turbulent history.

On the downside, real poverty is always evident, although an influx of labor-intensive industries has made Tijuana one of Mexico's more prosperous cities. Off busy Avenida Revolucion, many streets are crumbling into dust under the hot sun, heaps of trash pile high in the gutters and the odor of urine is pervasive.

Many Mexican towns are much prettier, but Tijuana nevertheless has a certain zest, a bounce that belies the myth of Mexico as the land of manana . Perhaps this is because much of the city's population of 850,000 has come from elsewhere in the country, seeking jobs and a better life. New high-rise hotels, office buildings and American-style shopping malls are going up, and the entrepreneurial spirit has always been high.

Just off the main drag is the two-block-long cluster of auto body and upholstery shops that have been offering cheap, around-the-clock repair work (some of it dubious) to gringos for at least three decades. Tijuana dentists and opticians also draw patients from the north because of their modest rates. Drugs such as Retin-A, AZT, painkillers and others also cheap and sold over the counter (although bringing them back across the border without a doctor's prescription is illegal).

Like any big city, Tijuana abounds in restaurants, and they offer a variety of cuisines--French and Chinese among them. San Diegans looking for an elegant but inexpensive dinner frequently scoot across the border for the evening. A full Mexican dinner with beer, tip and a mariachi serenade in a highly rated restaurant comes to less than $20 per person. Fun-seekers from the north are drawn, too, by the city's lively nightclubs and such spectator attractions as jai alai, dog racing, horse racing and the bullfights.

The Mexican government has taken a special interest in Tijuana, aware that day-trippers who like what they see may be encouraged to return and explore more of the country. Construction is just getting underway on a large new theme park called Quetzalcoatl, which has been patterned after Disney's Epcot Center in Orlando, Fla. Designed to be both educational and entertaining, the park's exhibits and amusements will focus on Mexico's pre-Columbian Indian civilizations and its Spanish colonial era. It will be a massive promotion to get you excited about visiting the real thing.

But that's for the future. This time around, I found myself rather pleased by Tijuana's simpler pleasures. Down one side street, I came upon an open-air tortilla factory, La Mexicana, where I watched kernels of corn by the barrel-load being ground into paste and transformed into freshly baked and packaged tortillas right before my eyes. Hand-counted and wrapped two dozen to a bundle, they were stacked in a pushcart for immediate delivery. I figure they were the same ones served to me when I rested later at a sidewalk cafe on Avenida Revolucion, sipping a Mexican beer and enjoying the passing scene.

To enter Mexico on foot, I left my car parked in a large, 24-hour guarded lot on the U.S. side of the border. Unlike the day-trippers, however, I planned to stay over a couple of nights, which meant I was carrying a light suitcase. With or without luggage, the procedure for entering Mexico at the Tijuana border is simple. An arrow pointed the way, and I pushed through a revolving turnstile and stepped onto a Tijuana sidewalk. There were no immigration or customs formalities, nor even a Mexican official in sight. (U.S. officials, on the other hand, do check returning sightseers.)

I considered catching a taxi to my hotel, but decided instead to continue on foot, agog at the sights, sounds and smells of the city. Just beyond the hubbub at the border lies a broad new plaza, called the Viva Tijuana, which serves as a ceremonial gateway. Splashed in vivid pinks and greens, the plaza looks quite festive, but it also proved to be a quiet sanctuary. I took a table at one of the outdoor cafes to rest my suitcase and collect my wits. Avenida Revolucion, the heart of the tourist area, was just beyond, across the footbridge over the Rio Tijuana.

But it was to the southern edge of town I needed to head, so I hailed a cab, deposited my suitcase at my hotel--the Palacio Azteca--and then doubled part way back toward the city center for a stop at the Tijuana Cultural Center. The modernistic complex is the focal point of a gleaming neighborhood of new high-rise office buildings and an American-style shopping mall built alongside the Rio Tijuana.

Tijuana's sometimes bawdy history is briefly outlined in one of the museum's exhibits. Founded in 1889, Tijuana in its early years was a remote border outpost surrounded by ranches. But very soon it began to lure Americans in search of gambling, cockfights, bullfights and other activities forbidden at home. The dusty town flourished in the Roaring '20s, when Americans escaping Prohibition flocked south for free-flowing booze. Casinos, bars and hotels shot up to meet the demand. Even after Prohibition was repealed, gambling was an attraction until Mexico banned it in 1935.

For a few years Tijuana slumbered, but the outbreak of World War II put the city back in the sin business. During and after the war, armies of servicemen passed through Southern California en route to the Pacific and back again, and some of them found their way into Tijuana's notorious bordellos. Ironically, it was the sexual revolution of the '60s that substantially diminished the trade in sex and opened the way for the city's refurbished reputation.

Today, , because of better jobs and better wages in the city's assembly plants and other industries, migrants from elsewhere in Mexico have flooded north. Many came after the 1985 earthquake that struck Mexico City. And much of the city's economy also is dependent on providing goods and services to the San Diego community and the hordes of other tourists arriving daily across the border from the United States.

Elsewhere in the cultural museum, a circular ramp directs visitors past a series of tableaux depicting important events in Mexican history--from the age of the Mayan and Aztec empires to conquest by Spain and independence three centuries later. Even if you can't quite follow the complex politics, the exhibits are decorated with beautiful artworks, crafts and traditional festival garments. To cap this introduction, a movie projected on a giant wraparound screen takes viewers on a fast-paced tour of Mexico, from the border south to the Yucatan Peninsula and the country's Caribbean beaches.

From the museum, I walked across the street to Plaza Rio Tijuana, a modern shopping mall that wouldn't look out of place in any American suburb. To my eye, Mexican shoppers seemed to be outnumbered by Americans, with prices in the department stores at least 25% to 40% cheaper than in San Diego for many everyday consumer goods--from toilet paper to socks, underwear and sport shirts carrying familiar brand names.

I, however, followed my nose to Panificadora Suzett, an amazing bakery filled ceiling-high with shelves of fresh-baked breads, sweet rolls, muffins, cookies, frosted tarts, jelly-filled doughnuts and odd-shaped goodies I had no idea what to call. Through a window into the kitchen, I could see other pastries being popped into the oven. Like everyone else, I picked up a tray and circled the room making my selection for later snacking.

A visitor can get a good look at Tijuana in a single day. The Tijuana Trolley Tour offers an informative 50-minute narrated tour of the city center--departing frequently from Avenida Revolucion--to help you get your bearings. But I was not sorry I'd scheduled myself for two full days. The street scene kept me fascinated, the food was great, the beer cold and I'm a pushover for a mariachi band.

I was impressed by how friendly the shop clerks, waiters and taxi drivers seemed. Obviously, they wanted to make a buck, but they did it with honest smiles and good-humored bantering. "Come on, spend your money," shouted one shopkeeper from his doorway. I might have been annoyed except for the wide grin on his face.

The other Tijuana, the community of schools, churches and shops catering to local residents, can be found on the side streets to the east of Avenida Revolucion. Few gringos appear to venture into this part of town, but I spent a couple of rewarding hours taking in the local color. Here the language of the streets was Spanish, not English, and I might have been in any big city in the Mexican heartland. That is, except when I lifted my eyes to the horizon. Then I could see the dry, empty hillsides that mark the U.S. side of the border fence.

One of the pleasures of Tijuana is the food, and I decided I wanted to indulge in spicy Mexican platters, beginning right off with breakfast. On the first morning, the lengthy menu at my hotel caught my attention with its "papaya plate." I thought maybe papaya might be a way to ease into the hot stuff, but I was mistaken.

My plate came heaped with slices of ripe fruit, but alongside was a steaming serving of shredded beef and sausage mixed with chili peppers and onions and topped by two fried eggs. A bowl of refried beans was set on the table as the Mexican equivalent of hash browns, and this was followed by a full basket of soft corn tortillas instead of toast. I also ordered fresh-squeezed orange juice and tea, and with tip, the bill came to about $6.50.

One evening, I took a taxi to the nearby Hacienda El Abajeno, a polished restaurant attractively decorated in hacienda style with good Mexican pottery and other artworks. A mariachi band played, and I drank the local beer and ate the restaurant's featured dish--a small tender steak accompanied by a tamale, a taco and large bowls of rice and refried beans. For dessert, I ordered the traditional flan, a custard, which is one of the best I've eaten. The entire meal, which began with a margarita, came to just under $20. My stomach, by the way, held up quite nicely throughout, thank you.

When it came time to leave Tijuana, I caught a taxi from my hotel to the border. Traffic was backed up at least half a mile on the highway leading to the border gates, a regular occurrence. But I was crossing on foot, so the taxi driver skirted the jam by turning onto a side street and taking me to the walkway back to the United States. Once again, no Mexican officials were in sight. But U.S. Immigration checked my identification as I passed through the U.S. Immigration and Customs building.

Once again I had stepped from one culture into another in no more than a couple of minutes. In contrast to my arrival in exotic Tijuana, only acres of mostly empty parking lots greeted my early morning return to the United States. But I could see they would fill soon. A fresh day's crop of gringos--Mom, Dad and all the kids--already were arriving for their quick trip to a foreign land. I hefted my luggage, which now included a plastic bag stuffed with ceramic souvenirs, and walked toward my car. I hoped these eager faces would enjoy their visit as much I had.

GUIDEBOOK

Tijuana

Getting there: A day trip across the border is an easy excursion from San Diego, via several means of transportation:

The San Diego Trolley departs for the border every 15 minutes from downtown, making a loop through the city center to several pickup points near public parking. The service operates between 5 a.m. and 12:30 a.m., the ride takes about 45 minutes and the one-way fare is $1.75.

By car, it's about half an hour to the border from either the airport or downtown, via Interstate 5. The road continues into Mexico, but it is more convenient to park your car and walk. Just shy of the border, a sign reads "Last U.S. Exit Parking." I parked in the first fenced lot I came to, about two blocks from the border gate. The charge was $7 for 24 hours, and the lot never closed. Once past the gate, you can take a taxi or walk the quarter-mile to the city center.

Full-day escorted bus tours out of San Diego are also available.

Getting around: Taxi drivers gladly accept U.S. currency. The fare almost anywhere in the city is about $5. Border formalities: No passport or tourist card is necessary for entry if you plan to stay in the Tijuana border zone less than 72 hours. If you plan to stay longer or head south of the city, you must obtain a tourist card, which is free and available at the border. For easy return to the United States, carry some form of identification, such as a passport, birth certificate or voter registration card and photo ID--especially if you are foreign-born or speak English with a non-American accent. Most returning Americans probably won't be asked to produce any documents. Or at most, you will have to show a driver's license. If you drive across the border, Mexican auto insurance, sold at the border, is recommended even for short visits.

Where to stay: Tijuana has several good hotels, including the Fiesta Americana, a gleaming high-rise ($111 double per night); the smaller, more intimate Lucerna, and the Spanish colonial-style Hotel El Conquistador (both $65 double a night). I stayed at the older and more modest Palacio Azteca, which is in some need of refurbishing. The staff there is helpful, and the price was right at $52 a night. All four hotels are south of the city center, about a five-minute, $5 taxi ride away.

Reservations can be made for lodging in Tijuana and elsewhere in Baja California through International Marketing and Mexico Information (see below).

For more information: For information or lodging reservations in Tijuana and the state of Baja California, contact Baja California Tourism, 7860 Mission Center Court, Suite 202, San Diego 92108, (800) 522-1516 (in California) or (619) 298-4105.

Tijuana's chamber of commerce operates a small but helpful tourist office at Avenida Revolucion and Calle 1, just after you descend from the pedestrian bridge at the border.

Also contact the Mexican Government Tourism Office, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd., Suite 224, Los Angeles 90067, (213) 203-8191 or (800) 262-8900.

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