The Tijuana Marriott Hotel is located in a quieter part of town. // © 2017 The Tijuana Marriott Hotel
Feature image (above): Tijuana locals say that conditions are slowly improving. // © 2017 iStock
For the last several years, Tijuana has been digging itself out from under a mountain of bad press. Things were beginning to look brighter, especially with the successful marketing of Baja Med cuisine and cross-promotion efforts with the nearby Valle De Guadalupe, Mexico’s wine country. But this year saw an uptick in crime and cartel violence in Tijuana, so it seemed prudent to visit the city to get a clear idea if it’s a viable destination for your clients from the U.S.
“The message I have for travel agents is try not to focus solely on the bad press coverage of Tijuana,” said Gerardo Tejeda, a member of the marketing and promotion team for Baja California Ministry of Tourism. “While there’s some truth to the reports, the good things about Tijuana far outweigh the bad.”
Should you send your client to Tijuana? Maybe. Tijuana is not a destination for travelers who expect smooth-running packaged tourism since it’s still rough around the edges. Tijuana gained its fame during the Prohibition era (1920-1933) when booze was banned in the U.S. So, Californians made the easy drive to Tijuana, which welcomed visitors with free-flowing liquor, jumping nightclubs and an infamous red-light district. These aspects of Tijuana still exist, but can be avoided by visitors.
“A recent internal survey found that 37 percent of visitors, both international and domestic, come to Baja California for the Baja Med cuisines in Tijuana, the wine country of Valle de Guadalupe and for the craft beer scene, which flourishes throughout the region,” Tejeda said. “Even if they’re primarily coming down to visit the wine country, visitors often include an overnight in a Tijuana hotel to experience Baja Med cuisine.”
Jorge Espinosa, the owner of the Jorge Espinosa Designer, a shop on Avenida Revolucion, is a second-generation shop owner in Tijuana. According to him, things are slowly improving.
“When people ask me, ‘Is it safe?’ I always respond, ‘Are you going to buy drugs, get drunk or frequent the red-light district?’” Espinosa said. “If you’re going to do those things, then you have a greater chance of getting in trouble.’”
A Tijuana landmark is Caesar’s Restaurant, in operation since 1927. The restaurant has held on to its atmospheric caught-in-time ambiance and is home to the original Caesar salad. Armando Villejas Leyva has been a waiter at Caesar’s for 32 years.
“I’ve seen big changes in the last few years,” Villejas Leyva said. “Since 2010, we’ve seen more Americans making the trip across the border. They have more confidence to come to Avenida Revolucion.”
One accommodation option for travelers is the 50-room Hotel Caesar’s, which is adjacent to Caesar’s Restaurant, located right in the center of Zona Centro. The hotel has been in operation since 1931 and has double rooms for $60 a night. The location can’t be beat for those who want to stay overnight in the heart of the action, although it would be a poor choice for light sleepers since people in Tijuana go to bed late.
The most reassuring hotel for skittish clients would be the name-brand-friendly Tijuana Marriott Hotel, probably the premier hotel in the city. While the Marriott is not in the Zona Centro district and would require a cab ride, it also would provide a quieter night’s sleep.
“If I have friends coming to Tijuana for only one night, I tell them not to miss two things,” Tejeda said. “That would be to have Caesar salad at Caesar’s Restaurant and to make an excursion to the Telefonica Gastro Park, where the city’s famous food trucks are located.”
Perhaps the best way for first-time visitors to experience Tijuana is to join one of the food tour groups — such as Wild Foodie Adventures — that meet and depart from the U.S. side of the border in San Ysidro, Calif. This will alleviate the fear of getting lost while traveling on their own. As a frequent driver in Tijuana, I still find myself confused by the number of traffic circles and poorly engineered streets, and I imagine a newcomer would be even more flummoxed.
Another option is to cross the border into Mexico on foot, a simple process with usually no line to speak of. Then a traveler can hail one of the numerous cabs waiting on the Mexican side. A very short cab ride would bring a traveler to Tijuana’s Zona Centro on Avenida Revolucion. I suggest having a specific destination in mind to give the cabbie, such as Hotel Caesar’s. A person could then spend the day wandering up and down Zona Centro, shopping, dining and checking out the local color.
Is Tijuana the bucket list trip of a lifetime?
Not even close.
But a day trip would get a person’s feet wet and give them a taste of Tijuana’s unique border-town culture.