Taking the Family to Tijuana -- Nuts or Not?
May 29, 2010 1:47 AM   Subscribe

Visiting Mexico from San Diego -- safe or not for a family?

I am asking on behalf of a friend. She and her family (including a 4 year old, a 9 year old, and a 14 year old, as well as her husband) are visiting San Diego for a family vacation next week. They are interested in crossing the border into Mexico by car, but (in my opinion) correctly very cautious about doing so. (I note tourism to Tijuana has fallen sharply in the last year due to the level of drug-related violence, for example.)

Is there any responsibly safe way for them to cross the border, assuming they have passports and their rental car agreement permits it? My gut tells me it's not a good idea, but am I wrong? I have never crossed the border there, but especially considering the kids (and the fact that they have never been anywhere in Mexico and don't speak Spanish, and come from a small, rural Alaskan community, so don't have city-slicker street smarts or instincts), what are your thoughts? Is there a reasonably safe day trip that makes any sense in this situation?
posted by fourcheesemac to Travel & Transportation around San Diego, CA (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It depends on where they're going. If they're sticking to the touristy Av Revolucion area then they'll be fine. The main tourist drag is a shell of its former self. I get down there about once a week and I'm still blown away by the lack of tourist. There's still burros with zebra stripes for photos, curio shops, bars and farmcias. A lot of Asian tour companies will spend the day in TJ as well. Sadly, there's also boarded up storefronts because Americans are too afraid to cross. It is still a great cultural experience.*

There are equally more dangerous neighborhoods in San Diego. As in San Diego, if they're going to find trouble, it will be from pickpockets/muggers/car breakins/ etc. The cartel violence has declined significantly recently but in reality that wasn't targeting tourists anyway. Unless your friends go looking for trouble, they're probably not going to encounter any.

As in any situation they shouldn't walk around with flashy jewelry, cameras, or flash a lot of cash. Although you paint your friends as country folk, I would hope they exercise some common sense in urban areas. Most of the touristy facing people they'll meet speak English and the dollar is widely accepted. The only reason to buy pesos is to get a few dollars' worth to keep as souvenirs.

Driving isn't a good idea though. Not out of safety issues (except driving itself on the convoluted roads when you don't have the home field advantage like the locals and taxistas do). Also, if they pick the wrong time to come back to the US, they'll spend a lot of time en la lĂ­nea waiting to cross.

If I were them, I'd park the car at San Ysidro right at the light at the Avenida de la Plaza exit (the one with the flashing light that says LAST USA EXIT from the 5 of 805 freeways. From that lot they can catch the red bus that can drop them off right downtown. They can catch the bus from downtown to get back to the border. Buses have a special lane and can skip the crowds both in the car lanes and the pedestrian lanes. It is much cheeper and easier to do this route than finding a car rental that will allow you to take into Mexico, navigating the spaghetti bowl of the carretera to get downtown and then parking, etc. And did I mention that line can be bad getting back into the US?

*Tijuana isn't super representative of the "real Mexico" and for small town folks, might be too overwhelming. If they're looking to see something more authentic and smaller scale and probably more car and kid friendly, they might look to taking the car to Tecate, Mexico (they can park on the California side and walk over). With the exception of the enormous brewery, the town is small and more like other small Mexican towns in the interior. They have a nice park near the boarder (with wifi!) and many cafes and people selling stuff. It is about an hour from downtown. You just take the hwy 94 eastbound.
posted by birdherder at 2:40 AM on May 29, 2010 [5 favorites]

San Diego has a trolley to the border (San Ysidro) and from there it is easy to walk across.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 5:12 AM on May 29, 2010

IMO Tijuana was made for Sailors and Frat Boys. When I went a few years ago there was nothing family friendly about it. I really don't recommend it for a family at all.

My husband and I went with out kids on a tourist bus from San Diego. My husband speaks fluent Spanish, and I thought it would be fun for him since he'd never been out of the country. The bus driver recommended that we stay in the tourist area for our safety. It was awful. Every other business was a bar or strip club (literally) and the guys outside were trying to get my husband to go in and watch a show. When he explained that he was here with his wife (pointing to me) they just told him to bring me along. The donkeys painted like zebras were really sad looking. The shopping (the reason I wanted to go) was not good, I'm guessing it's worse now.

When I left I felt horrible. I was sad at how people had to live and what they had to do for work just to take care of their families. If your friends are trying to teach their kids something then maybe it'll work, but IMO they shouldn't go expecting to have a good time.
posted by TooFewShoes at 8:03 AM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

We live in San Diego. Mr. 26.2 is Latino. We have beater pick-up truck that we use only for trips to Lowes and Mexico. He's fully fluent in Spanish and I can get by in the language. We don't cross the border any more.

Your friends certainly do not want to cross the border in a rental car. Even with the Sentri pass, it can take a while to cross the border in a vehicle. If they insist on going to TJ, then take the light rail. The 4 year old might enjoy riding the train.

The touristy areas of TJ are awful and certainly not wonderful for children. The local spots aren't really safe for turistas now. That's a shame, because there are some wonderful restaurants and stores on the Mexico side, but it isn't worth the stress.
posted by 26.2 at 8:48 AM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would physically stop this family from going to Tijuana with children. Seriously.

Tijuana is not Mexico. It's fucking Blade Runner.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:13 AM on May 29, 2010

Look at this way ... the 9-year-old is going to see elderly Native American women begging for coins. Around her will be 9-year-old children selling Chiclets. They'll be 9, but they'll be the size of the 4-year-old because of poor nutrition and smoking. There will be nothing anyone can do to save these people.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:16 AM on May 29, 2010

(CPB, these folks are Native, actually.)

Everyone, thanks. The idea really was just for them to cross the border, and all of this pretty much confirms what I thought was the case. I'll talk them out of it. Seems to me there's enough "Mexico" in SD already anyway.
posted by fourcheesemac at 9:23 AM on May 29, 2010

Tijuana is a border-town, a unique place in the world and hardly representative of anything - certainly not Mexico.

That said, it is not really unsafe for tourists, just that its dirty and impoverished and what little tourist infrastructure there is/was is pretty rundown. Add to that, that if you take a car, there can be an enormous wait to cross the border again from Mexico to the U.S. There is a lot of traffic of people going to buy cheap crap, visit relatives etc.

My family goes to Tijuana all the time but mostly to visit friends and family. Actually they were there just last week - for a wedding that was so much fun that people didn't start leaving until 3 a.m. The good thing, they said, is that there was no line at the border crossing coming back.

It is perfectly possible to have an amazing time not only eating Tijuana street food (Mmmm... toasted cheese tacos), skipping Tijuana and driving down the scenic coastal road and heading to Ensenada for fresh seafood.

So, no, I wouldn't physically stop anyone from going. That's hyperbole. But I do think, that unless they do some planning and go in with their eyes open, they are unlikely to get much out of it.
posted by vacapinta at 10:18 AM on May 29, 2010

As a San Diegan, I'd recommend passing up TJ and heading down to Rosarito or Ensenada if they're going to be driving. It's not that I feel unsafe in the tourist areas of Tijuana, they're just kinda boring if you're not going to get pills or looking to go dancing/get drunk.

In all honesty I think the safety thing has been pretty overblown. The vast majority of drug-related murders involve Mexican citizens, and the few that don't have almost always targeted consular officials/their families, businesspeople who work for companies that criminals can extract a ransom from, etc (i.e., they were targeted specifically). A white midwestern family should have little to worry about as long as they practice good global street smarts. birdherder has it right, I'd feel about equal walking safety-wise walking around certain parts of East Village, Barrio Logan, or City Heights at night and Tijuana.
posted by speedgraphic at 10:29 AM on May 29, 2010

I liked Ensenada waaaay better than Tijuana, but still not that much.

Honestly, there is so much to do in and around San Diego that a trip to Mexico is just not worth it.
posted by TooFewShoes at 11:28 AM on May 29, 2010

I live in San Diego and TJ has never been worth the drive to me. Way down into Baja there are interesting things to see, but only if you have over a week, because the peninsula is long and it's alot of driving.
posted by slow graffiti at 1:05 PM on May 29, 2010

As a Mexican, I'd be sad to know Tijuana would be the only exposition to Mexico for this family. It's a shithole (sorry, friends from Tijuana).
posted by clearlydemon at 1:32 PM on May 29, 2010

I agree that Tijuana isn't representative of Mexico, so if that's what they're looking for, Tijuana isn't it. However, as some have said, it's truly a unique place in the world, for good and for bad, and spending a day there (day, not night) can be an utterly eye-opening, fascinating and heartbreaking humanity explosion. Though I haven't been back in a while -- mostly because of the situation in Mexico at large -- I would say walking around TJ at age 18 (during the day) might be the main experience that inspired me to backpack through a score of developing countries and eventually become a travel writer.
posted by changeling at 2:35 PM on May 29, 2010 [1 favorite]

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