Baja California

Why I Feel Safe as a Visitor to Tijuana

One gringo's perspective on safety in the burgeoning border town

TIJUANA.- When I write about an event or restaurant in Tijuana, I avoid beginning stories with rote commentary about the city's problems with crime and cartels. Or assuring my readers that "…the streets are safer now, come on down and have a taco and some Baja Med!"

After all, if I were writing about deep-dish pizza in Chicago, would I open with a statement about the homicide rate there? I'm reporting on a ceviche, not the whereabouts of El Chapo.

So when my editors at San Diego Red asked me to write a piece on why I feel safe in Tijuana, I was reluctant at first. Do I really need to add to this already saturated topic? Isn't my current lack of editorial comment on the matter enough?

Regardless, the city, region and indeed much of Mexico are still maligned in the minds of many living north of the border. After a recent afternoon in Tijuana with an out of town friend, his Carlsbad cousins admonished him with post-cautionary tales of beheadings and kidnappings. I was shocked, but not surprised. Though much of the sensationalist media coverage on Mexico has faded, the impression remains with some.

Subsequently, two young chefs, fresh from the Tijuana Culinary Art School, approached me at a food event in Monterrey last month, asking if people in San Diego were starting to think differently about coming to TJ. While I emphasized the positive – the culturally adventurous are returning or visiting for the first time – I had to report that many are still reluctant to travel south, such as my amigo's cousins.

Ultimately, I decided to write this piece for those young chefs, Jorge and Ivan, and for all of my friends in Tijuana. They are involved in and passionate about cuisine, hospitality, the arts, education, tourism and business and have shown us the best their city has to offer. In experiencing the best, the formerly dark edges recede a bit and we're more comfortable with each visit. The people of Tijuana are genuinely hopeful that their neighbors to the north will come back to enjoy their city once again.

Chatting with Itz Miranda, chef and owner of the Sobre Reudas food truck at Tijuana's Telefonica Gastro Park.Photo: W. Scott Koenig.

As far as safety concerns, I won't cite statistics or splash news headlines across the page here. You can find that information elsewhere and judge for yourself. The bottom line is that I feel safe in Tijuana based on the sum of my experiences there.

I'm 6'4" with blonde/grey hair. I stand out everywhere I go, especially in Latin America. In Tijuana, I'm ALWAYS treated with kindness, hospitality and respect — maybe made the butt of a joke or two at the taco shop (hey GÜERO!). But I've never been hassled, harassed or shaken down. I'm not saying I couldn't be. But I haven't and I've been going down to TJ since the mid 90s.

During those initial visits, we stuck to the gringo route – bad tacos, two-for-one margaritas, cervezas, cheap souvenirs and good times on the city's notorious tourist drag, Avenida Revolución. The street was loud with raucous partiers from the US and the blowing whistles and come-ons of souvenir, nightclub and strip club hawkers. Littered with drunken gringos – and those that sought to take advantage of them – the area never felt safe to me back then.

After the birth of our son in 2008, I didn't return to Avenida Revolución until 2013. I was amazed at the transformation. Walking down the street on a Sunday night, US partiers had long gone, now replaced by local families walking hand in hand. They were out to get a bite to eat, to shop, and just spend time together. Revolución had quieted to a conversational tone and slowed to a convivial pace. This part of Tijuana had re-invented itself in our absence.

And while we weren't looking, this city of 2 million grew its middle class, became host to maquiladoras for an international Fortune 500 clientele, spawned a craft beer industry, created a market for affordable medical tourism and developed an international reputation for its cuisine.

The Culinary Battle at last year's Tijuana Innavadora is just one of the events highlighting Baja California Cuisine. Photo: W. Scott Koenig.

I cross south about 2-4 times a month to Tijuana and other destinations in Baja California. My wife and 7-year-old son often join me. It's not Oaxaca. It's not Puebla. "It's not pretty, but it's safe," Tijuana resident and tour guide Derrick Chinn of homegrown tourism company Turista Libre recently said. But there is beauty to be found in many places around Tijuana — from the colorful Mexican wares on display at Mercado Hidalgo to the costumed dancers and Norteño bands at Plaza Santa Cecilia.

Tijuana's fun and colorful Plaza Santa Cecilia. Photo: W. Scott Koenig.

I'm rarely in town without a guiding hand. Our friends here provide a grassroots "tourism board", introducing us to new restaurants, galleries and events. By the way, if you want to know about the food here, ask any Tijuanense. They are passionate about their cuisine and ready to give you the scoop on everything from street tacos to their favorite five star restaurants. What's the best way to get to know TJ? Make a friend here.

In September, I took my family to the Tijuana Chile en Nogada Festival, where I was a judge in the cooking competition. As I performed my culinary duties, our son delighted in handing out flyers for some of the restaurants with an amigo's young boy. We kept an eye open for him at all times, as we do everywhere with our active little dude, but there's no extra worry exerted just because we're in TJ (or anywhere in Mexico, for that matter).

Until recently, I typically parked in one of the lots on the US side and walked across the border, grabbing a taxi on the other side to get around the city. I don't use Uber in TJ yet, as cab fares are still pretty low and I'm not necessarily a "disruption" kind of guy. And unlike the oft-solemn Uber driver, Tijuana cabbies are usually boisterous and full of great stories. Cabs at the border have set rates to popular destinations. When around town, ask the fare before getting in a cab. It's always an interesting and unquestionably safe ride.

As in most Mexican cities, traffic is fluid in Tijuana and rules can be fairly loose on the road. Add to this my horrible sense of direction and you've got a recipe for potential rush hour disaster. But since I upgraded my phone service and now have unlimited high-speed data in Mexico, Siri has helped take the edge off with step-by-step navigation. Now I focus on my driving and leave the rest to her (though she doesn't re-route around construction zones, which can be numerous in the city).

Tijuana's cultural center, CECUT, is host to a number of cultural events.

Once we're where we need to be, secure parking is plentiful in the centro and other commercially zoned neighborhoods. Just look for signs marked "E" or Estacionamiento. We just grab a ticket from the attendee and always return with confidence that our vehicle hasn't been messed with. All major shopping malls and plazas here have secure parking and security guards that make US lots pale by comparison.

We also roam the Zona Río, Agua Caliente and Chapultepec neighborhoods as well as Playas de Tijuana in search of food and adventure. These areas are safe to visit and offer a variety of dining and shopping opportunities. Are there neighborhoods in Tijuana to avoid? I'm sure there are, as in any city, but I couldn't tell you because I don't visit them. Unless we're with locals, we stick to the main areas and we're fine.

I'm getting too old to get into too much trouble, so I don't visit La Sexta, the bar district off Revolución, or TJ's infamous red light district the Zona Norte often. But if you do visit Zona Norte, travel in groups, keep your head on straight, don't buy drugs if offered and don't flash cash or wear expensive jewelry. The few times I've been in the area, I've been with friends from TJ who know the scene and I have never felt threatened.

So is it safe to visit Tijuana? Based on my experience there, absolutely. If you have an interest in Mexican culture, the arts, great food, affordable dental work or just hanging out with fun and proud locals, it's a "can't miss" destination in our region. And if you're unsure about making the initial trek yourself, contact me at scott@agringoinmexico.com. I'm happy to recommend a local tour company that can make it happen based on your itinerary and TJ wish list.

For more information on food in Tijuana, visit my list of recommendations at FoodieHub.

For more information on what to do in Tijuana, visit the Tijuana section of A Gringo In Mexico.

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