…as the song goes…
Anyway, this certainly wasn’t the plan! I mean, it’s not like there were any plans, but I definitely didn’t see myself living in Tijuana! That’s what you get when you say f*** it, I’m going to give this thing a red hot go. And here I am, two months later, safe and sound and steadily developing my chilli tolerance. A lot of people have heard of Tijuana, and generally they don’t hear good things. So I would just like to share some of my observations of TJ and my life here so far.
Tijuana is ugly
In contrast with pretty much all of the other destinations I have visited to Mexico, some of which are up there with the most beautiful towns and cities I’ve seen in my travels, Tijuana is unfortunately nothing to look at. It’s a sprawling, arid, dusty, dirty city- things I could overlook if it had a charming old centre and a pretty main plaza, but no, it’s not a colonial city. While there are a couple of large parks and the odd bit of green here and there, TJ is basically made up of big roads and shopping plaza after shopping plaza- the sort of open mall arranged around a car park. In fact, shopping plazas are such a feature of TJ that most people don’t know the names of streets or suburbs – they will give directions based on plazas.
Public transport is awful
TJ is a car city. There are many big avenues and large distances to cover – many people wouldn’t dream of being without their own wheels. I am a public transport girl through and through, but managing the system here has been a steep learning curve. Perhaps system is too generous a word- getting around requires the use of a different bus company for almost every route, which are not numbered or organised in any efficient fashion. Each bus has a list of destinations painted on the front window (mostly the names of plazas, see above) and if that isn’t clear you could always ask the driver.
I however have become somewhat adept at using the share taxis which are a unique feature of TJ and service many destinations much faster than the buses can. They can be a 15-seater mini-van, an 8-seater Tarago, or even a regular sedan. They follow a set route and pick up people anywhere along the way as long as they have room, and you just have to yell out when you want to get out. It’s taken me a while to get used to this, since I hate yelling in general, and much less in Spanish from the back seat of a packed mini-van that is shooting down the Via Rapida weaving in and out of traffic and doing their best to either get their passengers to their destinations in the best possible time, or kill them in the process. I do appreciate how quick they are though – the one time I took a bus instead of a taxi the usual half hour journey became over two hours of painstakingly slow progress. Taxis de ruta are the way to go, if you can get a spot. Those rare times when you are left standing on the side of the road because every bloody taxi is inexplicably packed and just zooms past can really test your appreciation.
It’s RIGHT on the border
Literally. The main nightlife street downtown is a stones throw from busiest land border crossing in the world. There are houses that back on to the fence. In the beach-side neighbourhood of TJ the fence that separates Mexico from the United States continues maybe 20 metres or so into the ocean. And what a fence it is! Or rather, two tall, razor-wire-topped fences, past which you can see border control cars patrolling the line. Being from a country that does not share land borders, I find them intriguing. Especially in this unique case, where you have the world’s super power backed up onto a developing country over 3,169 kilometres. And at least in this part of the country, there is no river or mountain range to define the frontier. You walk over an imaginary line after a couple of hours of queuing and suddenly you can drink the tap water and flush the toilet paper. It’s weird.
It’s a manufacturing hub of Mexico
Since I have started working and meeting more people it is more often than not that these new acquaintances work in manufacturing. Particularly the electronics and medical devices industries, but here they also make cars and many other things. This means that many people are not from TJ originally, but come here for the work opportunities. Along with the proximity to the US, and the links that the majority of people have with friends and family on the other side of “the line”, the people of Tijuana are known to be more open and progressive than other parts of the country. Indeed, contrary to the perceptions many people have, it is a friendly city.
It’s a party town
Calle Revolucion in the centre is a party strip, with huge dance clubs and venues that charge an entry fee but have an open bar. There are also loads of restaurants (including Caesars Hotel- the birthplace of the caesar salad, who knew?) as well as souvenir shops galore and donkeys painted as zebras which for some reason are a famous icon of the city. Look beyond the Kings Cross-esq trashy vibe however and there are some great bars hidden away, you just have to know where to go. That really sums up the city – there are loads of great places around, but you either have to randomly stumble upon them or know where they are. An industrial street will be home to a cool cafe, or a nondescript plaza to a boutique brewery.
It’s got great food
Duh, it’s Mexico! But the cuisine in this country changes so much from state to state and even town to town, I’m glad the TJ staples are as good as they are. My number one has to be fish tacos, which I probably consume on average of once a week. The birria is also fantastic – a beef stew that can be eaten as such or my preferred method is with the meat in a taco and the broth separate. Tacos varios is something else I haven’t seen elsewhere in Mexico – a taco stand will have as many as 20 different options (rather than 3 or 4 different meats only) and you can combine them if you desire. Aside from tacos Tijuana is big on seafood, and getting quite a name for itself for Baja-Med cuisine. That is, Baja California (the state) cuisine with a Mediterranean flare. I however am very much a street food chick so I’ll happily stick to my tacos.
There are tons of cultural events
I swear every single weekend there is some sort of street festival or concert, many of them free. In the short time I’ve been around there has been a jazz festival, a boutique beer festival, a taco festival, a food festival, a book fair, a crafts fair… and I’m probably missing stuff. There is also a large cultural centre that has an extensive program of events, from cinema to free music to exhibitions. You are never lacking for something to do on the weekend, that’s for sure.
It’s not dangerous
I should qualify that – it’s not dangerous like you probably think it’s dangerous. The perception of TJ is that drug cartels and kidnappings run rampant, and it’s true that in the past the city has gone through some dark times. Nowadays TJ is just like any big city – stay out of dodgy areas and use common sense and you’ll be absolutely fine. Nobody I have met so far has ever had an issue. If one more person tells me I’m going to be kidnapped I’m going to snap. Is it so hard to accept that in TJ, like most parts of Mexico, people are just living their lives – normal lives I might add – in peace? Don’t go looking for trouble and you won’t have a problem.
Tijuana has made me reassess what it takes for a city to be a good place to live
While I love an aesthetically pleasing city or town and do not disregard the power of beauty – natural or man made – to contribute to a city’s livability, being in TJ has made me question what it is that I want out of my home. I’m not going so far as to say that I love it here and plan to stay forever, but it’s good to challenge one’s comfort zone and learn to see the beauty in everything.
TJ has reaffirmed my strong belief that good public transport is right up there with the most important aspects of city living – something that years dealing with Sydney transport had already made clear to me. Having lots to do -especially free things- and good nightlife if definitely a plus. I could do with more green spaces, but it’s probably due to the climate as much as the lack of city planning.
All in all, once you get past the superficial, Tijuana has got lots to offer. I wouldn’t spout it as a tourist destination -there are no monuments or important architecture and the aforementioned ugliness doesn’t stand it in good stead for a short visit, but spend some time here and it’ll break down all sorts of misconceptions.
How does this compare with your image of Tijuana?