My Seven Years in Tijuana: A Guide to Understanding This Changing City

“The only thing that is constant is change.”
— Heraclitus

And Tijuana has been nothing but constant change. I have witnessed it firsthand for the last seven years that I have been obsessed with this city (two years visiting, five years living). Places that used to be brothels are now breweries, buildings with broken windows that used to be drug dens are being transformed into modern offices or housing, the abandoned police headquarters on Eighth Street was turned into a park, and empty lots became food and art collectives.

“I said it nine years ago [through a Facebook post], the people of Tijuana are going to make downtown alive again,” says Genaro Valladolid, a real estate broker with Bustamante Realty Group. “This whole movement, the multi-million dollar projects that we are seeing, in my point of view, was born in Dandy del Sur in 2008.”

Situated on Sixth Street, Dandy del Sur is one of the oldest cantinas in Tijuana. Dandy’s is famous for having a great jukebox, being a chill local drinking hole, hosting Anthony Bourdain back when he filmed his show ‘No Reservations,’ and having a six-toed cat named Dandiela that roams the bar and lets some enlightened patrons pet her.

“That’s when a lot of creative class in Tijuana started hanging out there,” continues Genaro. “They adopted it [Dandy’s]. Some of the members of Nortec crew. Some writers like Rafa Saavedra. They started to create a scene. And then they would keep going out to La Estrella, Chips, Cuatro Amigos, and all those bars.”

Genaro was born in Tijuana and was raised as a border crosser, going to school and working in San Diego while mostly living south of the border. Despite being a fervent promoter of downtown with his hashtag #ElCentroEsLaOnda, the 47-year old lives with his wife and three kids in Colonia Chapultepec.

Genaro was laid off during the recession around 2010, after 20 years working mostly in banks and brokerages in downtown San Diego. Since then he has been in the real estate business, specializing in downtown Tijuana. Genaro smiles broadly as he excitedly tells me everything that has been brewing in downtown for the past few years and how he helped shape the city.

“In 2009, La Mezcalera opened with Sergio Gonzalez. That was the first new project in downtown Tijuana that brought locals in.”

Across the street from Dandy’s is the mezcal room known as La Mezcalera, with a hidden disco in the back called La Mi-Ja, and another door that leads you to yet another bar with swings, a small stage, and a pink limousine that was converted into a table. Calle Sexta (Sixth Street) went from being irrelevant to becoming one of the epicenters of Tijuana’s nightlife. Bars that used to have little to no activity started, and continue until now, to be full every weekend until dawn.

(La Mezcalera and the pink limousine also appeared in the No Reservations’ Baja episode and continues to be a staple of downtown’s nightlife.)

“In April 2010, La Corriente Cevicheria Nais opened. That was one of the first new fancier restaurants. The first people that started going to that restaurant were the hipster crew, the alternative. It eventually started to get more legit. The hipster crew brought their mainstream friends. Then bankers, office workers, and then moms and dads and grandparents.”

Just a few steps away from the aforementioned bars, this popular seafood restaurant has a counter for how many red snapper tostadas they have served. The first time I visited in 2010, the counter was at 8,000. That number now is over 220,000, they have expanded to several locations, and also tripled their price.

“Late 2010, around October, Plascencia family took over Caesar’s. The previous owners, were being evicted. A close friends of the Plascencias’ went by and saw all the stuff outside, called them and said let’s try to do something in there. Around that same time, Pasaje Rodriguez also had a change for what they were looking for in their space. And instead of renting to typical curious shops and dentists and things like that. They focus on the art side. Galleries. Boutiques. Things of that nature. They started renting around $100.”

Caesar’s Restaurant and Pasaje Rodríguez on Avenida Revolución have grown to become downtown Tijuana’s standard stops. Caesar’s for being the location where caesar salad was invented with waiters that prepare the original recipe at your table. Pasaje Rodríguez as the innovative arts hallway with galleries, record store, bookstores, breweries, cafes, and restaurants.

“All this together brought about, what I consider, the party scene in downtown Tijuana. On the culinary scene, aside from Caesars and La Corriente, newer restaurants have come up like La Justina, or the falafel and shawarma place that just opened across the street, named Zula. Or Yoshi Ramen across the street. On the craft beer side, you have Norte, Funes, Santuario, Teorema, Azteca, and more. There’s a new brewery opening up in Pasaje Gómez called Casamentera. There’s a new one opening under Santuario. I’m working with Border Psycho, Insurgente and Agua Mala, who are looking for spaces here in downtown.”

The craft beer scene continues to grow rapidly in Baja, yet the biggest players in the industry have not ventured into downtown Tijuana but remain in Plaza Fiesta (Beer Plaza link). Genaro, an avid craft beer drinker, plans to help in changing that.

“Cosmopolitan Group, who also built this project, they are building Distrito Revolución,” I interviewed Genaro inside the renovated ‘Sara’ building, now also called Eazy Workspace, in the corner of Fourth Street and Avenida Revolución.

Construction underway for the future tallest building on Avenida Revolución, Distrito Revolución
Construction underway for the future tallest building on Avenida Revolución, Distrito Revolución

“What I do a lot with developers, with business owners, is I’ll give them a downtown tour, kind of what you do, but obviously focused in what they are looking for. I found out later, that after my tour, Isaac [Guakil] told his dad: downtown is ripe for investment. Let’s do stuff.”

Owned by David Saul Guakil, Cosmopolitan Group is real estate company with 15 years in the business. In November 2014 they inaugurated a black tower in Tijuana’s business district (Zona Río) named Torre Cosmopolitan and are investing more in downtown Tijuana. The nine story building was a 200-million pesos (around $11-million USD) investment and received a Platinum certification by the U.S. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), which makes it the most environmental friendly building in the city.

“This floor [Sara’s building] previously was a warehouse. It was a clothing store downstairs. And the floor above us was nothing. They didn’t even have a way to access it. They [Cosmopolitan Group] rent the whole building and they sublet. They decided on redeveloping the whole property to create this co-working space. Eventually the top floor is going to be a restaurant bar. A little terrace similar to Cine Tonalá.”

The lobby of the office space is decorated with pop art, modern furniture, a foosball table, and granite countertops with modern appliances, including a beer keg that Genaro says is for free for anyone that rents the workspace. Cine Tonalá, the multipurpose movie theater with rooftop bar/restaurant, opened its doors last fall and has been packed every weekend since (link).

“[Distrito Revolución] is the first condo project for sale in the history of downtown Tijuana.” Distrito Revolución is an upcoming 16 story building at the end of Avenida Revolución, which would make it the tallest building in downtown.

“The first three floors are going to be parking lots, the rest are going to be 69 condo units fully furnished that are for sale. We started selling in mid-February and already sold 65 percent. The same guys, Cosmopolitan Group, bought an old 65 apartment building on Niños Heroes between 7th and 8th to be renovated. The project is going to be called Eazy Living. Interesting fact, part of Cheech’s Born in East LA part of it was filmed there.”

Across the street from the upcoming Distrito Revolución there’s a building called Revolución 1764, a modern seven story building with 20 condos that opened in the beginning of the year and are fully rented. A couple blocks away on Tenth Street is Brik 10, what used to be drug dens got remodeled in the summer of 2015 into trendy office spaces with a hipster coffee shop on the front named Das Cortez. Séptima y Constitución, fancy apartments situated in that corner, used to be empty offices until they got remodeled in 2012. Now they charge double or triple the average of other apartments in the area (averaging at $650 a month). Genaro helped broker those deals.

“That project [Séptima y Constitución] proved that they were people willing to pay higher rents to live in downtown. It was only 12 apartments, we are 2 million people here in Tijuana, and 3 million people in San Diego. So you have 5 million people to fill 12 apartments. It was not going to be tough. It was finished in September of 2013 by October it was fully rented.”

The increase of rent prices in San Diego has made Americans look south of the border for affordable housing. Genaro took me to this friend Hector’s penthouse apartment in Revolución 1764 who pays $900 a month. The modern two bedroom apartment has concrete floors, large windows, exposed brick, high ceilings, and a great view from the balcony of Tijuana’s most famous avenue.

“If you move down here you are going to save over $1,000 a month in rent. And if you get a haircut it’s going to cost you $5 instead of $25, if you go to the movies it’s going to cost $2 or $3 instead of $12.”

As Tijuana continues to improve, the number of Americans moving down is noticeable. My first years living in Tijuana I would get excited if I spotted an American and rapidly tried to befriend a fellow countryman.

The border, which is also in constant change, handles more traffic each day. The vehicle borderline to enter Tijuana, which used to be practically non-existent, the norm now is to have to wait more than 30-minutes during rush hour.

“[Downtown] Tijuana is how downtown San Diego was in the 80s pretty much, but more advanced. It’s when the trolley started. Here we have the SITT (new rapid bus system link), with all its issues, there’s always been that idea, but at least it started. We are at the very beginning of this new development, and we saw it over there. What could happened in the future. There’s a bunch of new projects coming around, we are seeing all this newer money coming in. And people coming and seeing that there is a very interesting future for downtown Tijuana”

The outside world has taken notice of the city’s prosperity. There are countless examples of different media from all over the place praising the so called “new” Tijuana. Most read in a similar fashion, carry the same narrative, highlight the same places, and have almost identical headlines. Even the New York Times named Tijuana the #8 place to visit this year.

‘What was once a violent town with nothing to offer but drugs, prostitutes, and anarchy, is now a thriving and blossoming metropolis with cultural events, high end cuisine, craft beer, and a lively nightlife.’ Copy and paste that paragraph. That Tijuana is a burgeoning city and not at constant battlefield for narcos keeps shocking the world.

I am guilty of it as well. My first article with the Reader was advocating a city that was still new for me, highlighting the very own Calle Sexta. I ignored it’s complex past, present, and future, that seems to be an endless cycle.

A decade ago, roles were reversed, the only headlines coming out of Tijuana were about narco-violence, beheadings, murders, and chaos. Downtown was seedy and dangerous, definitely not the place to be for locals or tourists. Decades before that in the 80s and 90s, Avenida Revolución was nothing but curios shops and brothels. Curios shops are fading away and only a few remain, but brothels and the violence are not going away so easily.

This is not the first article or the last to praise the direction that Tijuana is headed. But it is not all fine and dandy in the borderlife.

2017 has been disastrous with over 900 murders in half the year. The new administration that came on board at the beginning of this year has been plagued with controversies. There are plenty of unresolved problems like garbage pick-up, unlit street lights, increase in traffic, and insecurity. In the beginning of the year, a cabinet member of the administration was accused of money laundering and is detained in San Diego. Most recently, the city mayor has been accused of embezzlement.

Despite all its tourist attractions and renovations, brothels are still the main reason many foreigners visit the city. The most popular of the brothels has been expanding constantly and is currently building a second hotel.

To address the elephant room, is Tijuana dangerous?

Short answer, yes. Except now there is a plethora of things to do, restaurants to try, craft beers to sip, a wild nightlife to enjoy, and much more.

“Some of the developers are concerned about it,” Genaro says he is not the right person to ask about the subject, but I insisted. “Sadly, in Tijuana you are accustomed to that [violence]. It is a concern, but I’m extremely positive. Many people that live here and grew up here, it doesn’t really scare them. During the toughest times 2006 to 2010, I never once stopped doing what I would be doing normally. But it is a concern, the developers are concerned about it. So far, I can assure you, it has not stop investments.”

“I do believe the insecurity is getting worse,” coincidentally, when Genaro said this, police sirens started blasting outside. “I can tell you for a fact that people that live in Septima y Constitución, that lived there for about 3 ½ years, there’s only been one major security incident. Some person went in, we don’t know how, went into the building, and broke into an apartment. I haven’t heard any issues with Revolución 1764 from the people that have been living there in 6 months. But you talk to a lot of businesses, a little torta place, or taco place, or a little store. From them I do hear that they get hold up. You do hear a lot of that.”

As for me, in all of my seven years in Tijuana, I’ve never been robbed, mugged, or been in dangerous situations, despite venturing into the seediest parts of downtown. However, no such luck can be said for all my friends. My good friend David got stabbed back in 2015 (link), but that seemed to be an isolated accident. However, this year, there has been a heavy increase of personal acquaintances that have reported stolen cars, break-ins, robberies, muggings, and witnessing gun violence.

For each horror story, there are thousands of pleasant stories. Despite all, I like to leave with a positive note. What best way to end but with a quote from Bourdain’s Baja episode from No Reservations in 2012.

“We forget, most of us don’t even know, about this amazing microclimate just south of San Diego. Another Napa right beneath our noses. Ok, Mexico is a country with some big problems, but they are our neighbor. If you think about it our relationship with Mexico, however reluctant, is in many was a lot closer, and a lot more intimate, and romantic than we have even with Canada. And I don’t know if the determination of a few young chefs and musicians who decided to make the most of a bad situation will in the end save the world. I don’t know if incredible ingredients and an exciting emerging culinary scene will turn things around for Baja, but if there’s any justice in the world, it should be.”


  • Facebook

  • SanDiegoRed

  • New

  • Best

    Recent News more