First things first – dispel what you’ve likely heard about Tijuana. It’s true that it is a city that saw a remarkable amount of horrific violence in its not too distant past. It’s also true that it can be a day trip location to drink bad tequila, buy some trinkets and pose for pictures wearing a sombrero. But there’s a lot more to Tijuana than the shadow of its history and what can be found in its overly touristy areas.
When I found out I’d be traveling to San Diego, I wanted to visit Tijuana as I find it hard to be so close to an international border and not pop over for a look. I’m also intrigued by Mexican culture and food and couldn’t pass up the opportunity for even a brief taste, both literally and figuratively. As I read more about Mexico’s fifth largest city the pull became too strong to resist. I found an incredible local guide, Derrik, from Turista Libre, and my wife and I committed to a day trip as part of our week on the west coast.
We took a morning train south from San Diego, met our guide and walked across the border into Mexico. No document checks, no wait… we just swung through a few turnstiles guarded by some folks with impressive looking guns strapped across their backs and presto, we were in Mexico. Our day had a loose plan of a market visit, spending some time on a beach, a bit of touring the city and a meal of tacos. Had I known how good those tacos were going to be, I might have considered just heading there straightaway.
Stop one was the Mercado Hidalgo, the largest market in Tijuana. After a quick stop for a taste of traditional Mexican coffee simmering in a pot on the stove, we entered the market and were most enthused by the food vendors. We walked past mounds of moles (my mind was spinning with what I could do with these):
… and chiles:
… and exotic (to us) fruits:
This got both of us dreaming of having all of this back home to better prepare a wider range of Mexican dishes we love so much. The market also had a few vendors that specialized in piñatas, including these ones that I can guarantee are not endorsed by Disney:
After leaving the market, we did a bit of a driving tour of the city. Along the Paseo de los Héroes there are a few roundabouts, each with a large monument in the middle. You could make a full day trip just to see Tijuana’s large form public art and we were lucky enough to see two monuments. On the left below is the statue of Chief Cuauhtemoc (Montezuma). On the right is the Monumento a la Raza (for obvious reasons, this piece of art is better known locally as “Scissors”) celebrating Mexicans and Latin Americans who sought national independence and fought Spanish invasions.
The border fence (and in many places, fences) separating Tijuana from the United States provides a stark visual reminder of the troubled history between Mexico and the USA. We walked along a section of the border fence just a few hundred metres above the Pacific Ocean in a place named “Friendship Park”. My wife made an interesting comment here as we heard of how families would gather on both sides of the fence to have lunch together so children could see parents and grandparents and so couples could share a kiss. She told our guide: “Back home (in New Brunswick) we only build fences to keep the deer and moose in the woods and away from the highways.” We were standing beside quite a different government-sanctioned fence here.
There are two fences in the area of Friendship Park, the older one nearest the Mexico side is decorated by some vivid murals along its length. In an expression of the desire to find a way over the border, many of the murals featured imagery of birds, insects and the country just beyond:
Those murals were beautiful, but for me the most poignant piece of art was this stencil of a family clutching balloons in a desire to float over the border. That simple stencil made me think about how many families are separated by this fence and how they dream of a better life.
It wasn’t until our guide pointed out the official border marker between the two countries that I realized that one of the two fences weren’t the actual border. That gave me a few moments of juvenile fun as I put one foot in Mexico and one foot in the United States and for the first time in my life could say I was standing in two countries at the same time:
The beach along the Pacific Ocean was calling me so we set off on a short walk toward the water. On our way down to the ocean, we stopped for this interesting view of the border fence extending into the Pacific. Someone had painted one of the sections a light blue colour so that from a distance it looked like there was a hole in the fence.
Like it always does, the water was calling me, so for the second (but not last!) time on this trip, I waded out into the Pacific. In a month, I had been in the Pacific Ocean in three countries: in Canada (Victoria, BC) a few weeks earlier, in the USA just about 40 minutes north of here the day before, then today in Mexico:
As we walked, our guide stopped us for this picture on the beach, about a half kilometre south of the border. You can see the fence extending out into the ocean behind us:
Having worked up quite an appetite, it was time for those tacos I mentioned earlier. Now, I love tacos in an almost obsessive way. When I travel in the USA, the first thing I search for in every new city is their top taco joint. For the week we were in San Diego, I had tacos every day. The one night we went out to a Spanish restaurant, I felt a sense of dread in missing out on more tacos. With that as context, our guide took us to Las Ahumaderas, which I think using my limited Spanish translates to “The best bloody tacos in the world”. This spot well away from the tourist trail through Tijuana features six taquerias under one roof. We sat down at the counter at Tacos el Paisa and I felt like a kid at Christmas as pork and tortillas were being grilled up at a furious pace. From this angle, you can just see the huge spit of pork that gets shaved onto the grill (a very similar preparation to one of my hometown’s downmarket culinary delights, the donair):
This is a place Anthony Bourdain visited and has his stamp of approval so you don’t have to take just my word on this… My first taco was made from the pork on the rotating spit tossed onto the grill to char up with some bits of crispy pig skin. That was added to two puffy corn tortillas with guacamole, cilantro and chopped onions. Without a hint of exaggeration, this was literally the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Yeah, I said it. Best. Ever.
Of course, one life altering taco isn’t enough, so I ordered a beef taco too:
In the spirit of “a picture is worth a thousand words”, here’s how good a meal this was. That’s a look of pure joy on my face:
As I picked at the bits that had fallen to my plate and finished up my ice cold Tecate, I had a glow from knowing that I just had an incredible meal at the end of a eye opening day in a vibrant, if conflicted city. Our guide took us for some Mexican fruit ice creams (oh how I wish we could get guanábana in Nova Scotia) before we headed to the border to line up to get back into California. It took about two hours to cross back into the USA, a very small price to pay for the experiences of this day in Tijuana.