Updated March 4, 2015
If you are walking across the border into Tijuana, note that they have changed the entry location. For now (early 2015), the new entrance is behind McDonald's restaurant to the left of the trolley tracks. (The plan is to move it even farther east to a new location in the near future.) Leave some extra time because it is a long walk from where you get off the trolley or get dropped off by car. Sometimes---but not always---you will find someone there to help wheel your luggage to where taxis wait for passengers, about a 5- to 10-minute walk from the border.
Getting Into Mexico at Tijuana
The throngs of tourists that once made T.J. (as many foreigners call it) “the most visited city in the world” have diminished since a spate of violence around 2009 gave the city a heap of negative press. The situation has since normalized, but the tourists are nowhere near what they were before the brief but alarming eruption of violence. Nonetheless, Tijuana still attracts Mexicans from all over the country for business and pleasure, medical tourism, and the curious and adventure-minded who can’t resist a brief foray across “la línea” to visit Mexico for at least one day. Those who want to stay longer will find plenty of lodgings, and a wide variety of eateries from world-class restaurants to cheap and delicious tacos served from mobile carts. Bars range from grungy cantinas to upscale nightclubs with bottle service and plenty of bodyguards in attendance.
TJ’s main tourist area is within walking distance of the international border at San Ysidro, which happens to be the world's busiest land port of entry. The shops are filled with touristy wares, and there are ample restaurants and cantinas interspersed with the seemingly endless parade of blankets, silver (or fake silver) jewelry and giant velveteen sombreros all along the main drag, Avenida Revolución.
Tourists and children love to have their picture taken on a “Mexican zebra,” a donkey painted with stripes, parked on various street corners with a cart which doubles as a backdrop for your picture. Sport a huge sombrero and get your picture taken in black and white with an old-timey camera.
One street to the south of Avenida Revolución, Avenida Constitución is a mirror image of endless shops of things you really don't need ... except that Constitución is for locals. The sidewalks are narrower and wandering gringos tend to look out of place, but it is safe and entertaining to walk among the locals, a mere block from and parallel to “gringolandia.”
Tijuana boasts one of the largest middle-class populations in Mexico. Most of this is due to its proximity to affluent San Diego, California, just across the border. Tijuana's industrial-strength economy is owed at least partly to NAFTA, the North American Fair Trade Agreement, signed in 1992. Since then many U.S. companies have set up assembly plants and light industry in the Tijuana area, benefiting from the preferential trade status among Canada, the United States, and Mexico. China, Japan, Korea and other powerhouse economies have manufacturing businesses in the area was well. Salaries for entry-level jobs are superior to those of traditional unskilled labor for Tijuana and, to an even greater degree, the rest of Mexico.
The dollar is therefore widely accepted in this town that deals regularly with outsiders and has perfected the fine art of selling trinkets, blankets and Bart Simpson piggybanks, as well as more sophisticated items. When bargaining, there is a slight advantage to having pesos over dollars, but for the visitor planning to spend less than a few hundred dollars, the financial edge is negligible. Heck, many locals pay their rent in dollars.
The beaches in the Tijuana region are not terribly attractive. Not until Rosarito Beach (AKA Playas de Rosarito, about 30 minutes to the south) does one find cleaner water and prettier beaches for lounging or swimming. Less than an hour south of Rosarito, but before Ensenada, surfers congregate at many well-known swells; kilometer 38 (called K38) is famous for its series of point breaks. (Look for the kilometer markers by the side of the road.) The area has undergone a construction boom during the past decade, however, and access to pristine, primitive beaches has been seriously reduced.
While many who grew up regularly visiting Tijuana from San Diego and Southern California now find the town anathema, it’s still a worthwhile destination, in our opinion. Because no matter how close to the U.S. border and how funky and sometimes disreputable border cities tend to be, it is still Mexico.
By Mike Harris
For more things to do as well as hotels and restaurants, check out our Tijuana Travel Guide.