What You Need to Know
Deciding whether to visit Tijuana, the Mexican border town near San Diego can be confusing.
Some people say they had a lot of fun visiting it and others think you should just stay away. Here's the lowdown on today's Tijuana, with some tips and insights that might help you decide whether it's right for you.
In the late 2000s, Tijuana was super-touristy. Within a few steps from the border crossing, you could find a dozen places selling cheap tourist trinkets. Everything was decked out in a way that felt calculated to please the gringo tourists.
Today's Tijuana has a Mexican flair but is also distinctively different from cities further inland. That makes it a unique place to visit. You can still find the cheap souvenirs and tourist traps of yesteryear, but you can also find world-class cuisine and exciting local art - if you know where to look.
Is It Worth My Time?
Some people can't resist the idea of crossing an international border if they're close. If you're one of them, then it's easy enough to do that.
Whether it's worth the time for everyone else depends on what you expect and what you enjoy. If all you want is the tired old tourist stereotypes, go right ahead. Buy a giant sombrero, a colorful pinata and take a few selfies. It will be fun.
If you're a curious traveler who wants to find out more about what other places are really like, you can do that in Tijuana. Skip down to the list of things you didn't know you could do in Tijuana to find out more.
Do It Yourself Day Trip
This easy day trip starts at the U.S./Mexico border and assumes that you will walk from there into town. Options for getting there are listed below.
Getting into Tijuana: Take a look at the pictorial, step-by-step border-crossing guide that shows you how to reach Avenida de la Revolucion, Tijuana's main tourist street.
What to do: On Revolucion Avenue, you'll find ample opportunities to get your photograph taken with a cart hooked up to a Tijuana zebra (a donkey with black stripes painted on it), a tradition for more than 100 years. You can also do some shopping, and it's a great place for people-watching.
Just pay attention or take photos at your major turns and stops and you can retrace your steps to get back to the border.
Things You Didn't Know You Could Do
Guided tours can be the absolute worst way to get to know a city, but the super-interesting tours given by Turista Libre are the exception. Run by a friendly Americal expatriate who lives in Tijuana, the company offers a wide variety of exciting things to do that could keep you coming back for more.
With Turista Libre, you'll get a look at the unique and fascinating place that Tijuana has become. You may go to a local market where people buy sugar, cheese, chocolate, and candles - or out to the beach to see the border wall plunging into the ocean. They offer lots of specialty tours that may include food tours, "Lucha Libre" Mexican wrestling, a brewery tour or an artists' tour.
Things You Can Do On Your Own
- Dine fine: Foodies flock to Tijuana these days to try "Baja Med" cuisine, which combines traditional Mexican recipes with ingredients like olive oil, abalone, and arugula that flourish in the coastal, Mediterranean-like climate. Chefs like Javier Plascencia of Mision 19 (who you may have seen on ABC TV's The Taste) and Miguel Angel Guerrero of La Querencia are just a few of the many serving up innovative and delicious food.
- Catch some culture: Centro Cultural Tijuana (Tijuana Cultural Center) is a fine museum that chronicles Baja peninsula history from ancient cave paintings to modern times. Exhibits are explained in English. It's in the Zona Rio area at Paseo de Los Heroes and Mina.
- Shop for art at PRAD: Short for Pasaje Rodriguez Arte y Diseño (Rodríguez Passage Art and Design), it's a narrow alleyway between Avenida Revolucion and Avenida Constitucion, with its entrance between Third and Fourth streets. Once filled with shops selling tourist souvenirs, it's now occupied by more than 20 small artists' spaces.
Ways to Get to There From San Diego
Most San Diego visitors use the San Ysidro border crossing to Tijuana. Here's how to get there:
- The Easy Way: The San Diego Trolley (which is also sometimes called the Tijuana Trolley), takes you directly to the border crossing.
- Don't Drive: Driving to Tijuana from San Diego is possibly the absolute worst way to go there. In theory, it's easy. Just drive south on Interstate Highway 5, and you'll be at the border crossing. You can find parking lots on the U. S. side of the border from Tijuana. To get into them, take the "Last U.S. Exit, Camino de la Plaza" off-ramp, paying close attention, so you don't end up driving across the border when you didn't intend to. However, many visitors report break-ins and thefts in these lots.
- You could also drive across the border, but then you'd end up with parking hassles on the other side and stuck in a long line of traffic trying to get back across. And if you rented a car in San Diego, rental agencies prohibit taking it into Mexico.
- Take a Bus: Bus tours also leave San Diego daily. They aren't as much fun as the Turista Libre tours mentioned above, but they do offer an easy way to get across the border. However, you can't go home early or stay late.
- The Go San Diego Card also offers Tijuana tours along with a lot of attractions at a very reasonable price.
Crossing the Border and Getting Back Into the U.S.
To get back to the border from Avenida Revolucion on foot, just look for the big arch. Walk to it, turn right, go across the bridge and through the small shopping plaza. Take the pedestrian bridge over the highway and get in the line.
Once inside the building, have your documentation ready. U.S. and Canadian citizens must present either a passport or a government-issued photo ID plus proof of citizenship.
You can bring back up to $800 in purchases duty-free from Tijuana, including up to one liter of alcohol per adult more than 21 years old, 100 cigars and 200 cigarettes. You may also be able to bring back medicines purchased for your personal use.
Once you're back on the United States side, the San Diego Trolley station will be straight ahead.
Getting Around by Bus, Taxi, and on Foot
Don't wait until you're standing in Tijuana beset by confusion and choices to decided how you're going to get around. Read up now, and you can move around like a pro.
Tijuana taxis come in three kinds, and you need to know which one you're working with before you get in. Tipping is not expected but is appreciated if someone is extra helpful.
- Taxi Libre: These taxis are easy to recognize. Most are white with a big, orange stripe and "Taxi Libre" written on the door. They have meters. The downside is that the drivers may speak little English. If you don't speak Spanish and are going somewhere other than the standard destinations, you'll have better luck if you bring a map or written address with you. To avoid any trouble, check to be sure the driver starts the meter when he takes off.
- Taxi Vans: You may also see mini-van-sized vehicles in Tijuana that are marked as taxis. They cover defined routes from the city center to the suburbs and are not for the casual visitor.
- Uber: The app-based ride service operates in Tijuana - but beware that you might have to pay international data roaming fees to use it. However, uber passengers have been attacked for using the service. Do a quick search for "uber in Tijuana" to find out the current situation before you decide to go this route.
- Yellow Taxis: These taxis are best avoided. They do not have meters, so you have to negotiate your price before you get in. They charge more than other services, and the drivers can be very aggressive when trying to get your business.
Local buses are the least expensive option other than walking. The fare is less than a dollar. If you decide to try them, you should know that bus numbers are meaningless here. Instead, look for the destination written on the front of the bus instead. Downtown is "Centro." To get to Cultural Center, look for "Zona Rio."
Tips for Getting the Most out of Your Visit
These tips will help you have the most fun in Tijuana with the least trouble. If you were going somewhere else, they might sound like the things your mother tells you that you mostly ignore - but for Tijuana, listen up and pay attention.
Before You Go
- Bring documentation:
- U. S. citizens can visit Mexico for 72 hours or less without visas, but they need proof of citizenship when they return, A passport or government-issued photo ID and birth certificate are most common.
- Permanent Residents should bring their green cards and passports.
- Citizens of other countries need valid passports and a valid I-94, multi-entry visa or visa waiver.
- Take cash: You'll get better prices in the shops. For most places, U.S. dollars are fine. Use ATMs only for emergencies; they'll give pesos that you'll have to figure out what to do with if you don't spend them all - and may incur foreign transaction fees.
- Time your trip: It can take hours to get back into the U. S. from Tijuana on Saturday evening. Leave town by mid-afternoon, or go on a less-busy day.
- Wear comfortable walking shoes. Walking is the best way to see Tijuana. But if you're exploring a lot you could walk quite a few miles.
While You're There
- Cell phone roaming: As soon as you get to the border crossing, put your phone on airplane mode to avoid international roaming charge.
- Beggars: Baja Mexico's tourism department says giving beggars money won't help the problem. They suggest that you contribute to a charity that helps needy people instead.
- Young girls selling flowers. Pickpockets may try to distract you by trying to sell you something while at the same time lifting your wallet. Cute kids are even easier to give in to but stay alert.
- Say no: Tijuana shopkeepers want your attention, and they all have a way of getting it. Some resort to stereotypes (serape and sombrero), others to politeness ("just let me show you something") and yet others to humor: "Give me a chance to rip you off." A firm "no" works with all but the most persistent.
- When you've gotta "go": Some Tijuana shops have restrooms and so do some shopping complexes. There may be a small charge to use them.
- Food and drink: It's still true that you need to be careful about eating and drinking in Tijuana. Stick to bottled water and beverages, avoid drinks with ice, skip the street snacks, and eat only well-cooked food, just to be safe.
Shopping: How to Bargain With a Shopkeeper
You can find much merchandise in Tijuana: Leather goods, cigars, fine Mexican handicrafts, and cheap souvenirs. However, designer clothing and perfumes can actually cost more in Tijuana than in the U.S.
If you don't like to haggle, shop in a store that has fixed prices. They're fair, and you don't have to negotiate.
Bargaining for a better price is a way of life in Tijuana. If you're unsure how to do it, follow these steps to save some money. Or if one of your companions likes to bargain, let them make your purchase for you.
- Know the price of the item. If you haven't shopped for it at home, look around at several shops to get an idea of the going price.
- Bring cash. You will pay more if you use a credit card.
- Don’t carry an expensive purse or wear high-end designer clothing or jewelry. You might look cute in it, but shopkeepers will notice and aren't likely to give you the best bargains. Keep expensive jewelry out of sight, too. If you have a fancy diamond, turn your ring inside your palm, so only the band shows. Keep expensive watches pushed up your sleeve out of sight.
- Compare quality and price at several shops before making a purchase. Pay attention to the location of a shop you like, or you may not be able to find it again!
- Shops that actively solicit your presence are most open to bargaining.
- When you're ready to buy, try not to appear too interested. It weakens your negotiating position.
- Ask the price, but unless it's marked firm don't settle for it. Currency marked with a $ sign can be pesos or dollars. If it doesn't say, ask.
- Wait until the shopkeeper makes several rounds of reductions before you counter with a lower price than their last quote.
- When the shopkeeper reaches a price close to what you want to pay, counter with your price and be firm.
- If you're unsure about the item, or can't get the price you want, turn away and start to leave the shop. The shopkeeper will either come down further, or you'll know where the rock-bottom price lies.