The Other Side of Tijuana

June 21, 2024
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AFTER Mexico City, I caught a flight to Tijuana, located right where the US-Mexico border hits the Pacific Ocean. As such, Tijuana is both the westernmost and the northernmost city in Mexico.

Unlike other Mexican cities that have centuries-old cathedrals and forts, and indigenous pyramid structures that are older still, Tijuana was only founded in the 1880s, on what was a ranch before that: a ranch called Rancho Tía Juana (‘Aunt Jane Ranch’), from which the city took its name.

Aunt Jane exists in various local urban legends. But it seems that the names of the ranch and the city both come from tiwan, which means ‘by the sea’ in the language of the local Kumeyaay people, whose ancestral lands straddle the US-Mexico border in this region.

One of the beaches in Tijuana’s westernmost borough, Playas de Tijuana, which means ‘Beaches of Tijuana’. Photo by Cesar Bojorquez, 17 May 2008, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Tijuana now has a population of about two million. Even so, the city was still quite small until after World War II, as you can see from the following photo of its downtown area in the 1940s, during which Tijuana’s population grew from around 20,000 to around 65,000.

A view of downtown Tijuana in the 1940s. Baja California and the West Postcard Collection. MSS 235. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego (fair use). CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

So, most things in Tijuana are relatively new. Here’s the Hotel Nelson, for instance, the first tall building in Tijuana apart from the cathedral. The Hotel Nelson was only completed as recently as 1947 and, even so, is said to contain the oldest bar in town.

(Before that, there were lots of dives catering to Prohibition-era drinkers from across the border, but they have not survived.)

Today, the nearby border divides Tijuana, in a curiously artificial and Berlin Wall-like manner, from the US city of San Diego.

Because it is on the border, the motto of Tijuana’s city council is Aquí empieza la Patria, meaning, ‘here the patria — the fatherland, the nation of Mexico — begins’.

Local civic attractions, again for the most part fairly new, include the following:

The Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT, in its Spanish initials), founded in 1982. The Cultural Center includes a round Imax theatre called La Bola (‘the ball’).

Panorama of the Tijuana Cultural Center, Photo by gabofr, 4 June 2009, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The Parque Morelos, a 52-hectare ecological reserve inaugurated in 1987.

The pedestrian entry of the Parque Morelos. Photo by ‘Chiko electrico’, 20 May 2012, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

El Trompo Interactive Museum, in the Parque Morelos, has many hands-on science exhibits and a 3D cinema. El Trompo (‘the spinning top’) was inaugurated in 2008. The following video is in Spanish, but does not need much translation. The museum’s hashtag is #TijuanaLlenaDeCiencia, meaning ‘Tijuana, full of science’.

And Playas del Rosarito (‘Beaches of Rosarito’): a seaside municipality just to the south of Tijuana. Whereas Tijuana got its start by catering to Prohibition-era drinkers nipping just across the border for a wild night on the town, Rosarito had a reputation, in the same era, for being a bit more classy. Even today, Rosarito is said to be the better destination for a seaside holiday. The attractive coast of this region continues, of course, beyond Rosarito.

Playas de Rosarito (ringed with red dots) in relation to Tijuana and the US-Mexico border. Map data ©2024 Google. North at top.

Tijuana is the capital of the Mexican state of Baja California, which means ‘Lower California’.

The State of Baja California includes the northern half of a long peninsula that is also known, in its entirety, as Baja California. For administrative purposes, the southern half of the peninsula is called Baja California Sur, meaning Lower California South.

Tourist map of the State of Baja California, the northern half of the peninsula of Baja California

The peninsula of Baja California is divided from the rest of Mexico by the Gulf of California, which also has the more romantic name of the Sea of Cortes.

The Sea of Cortes (light blue) between Baja California and the rest of Mexico. Image transferred by Maksim, 25 March 2006, CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed via Wikimedia Commons. North toward the top.

Or of Cortez, as its name is spelt in the title of two famous books by the American writer John Steinbeck, Sea of Cortez and The Log from the Sea of Cortez — memoirs of a marine-biology expedition he went on in the 1940s, not just about the collection of specimens but really about life, ecology, and everything.

Unfortunately, Tijuana is a very violent place even by the standards of the rest of Mexico, and travellers are advised to stick purely to tourist areas. Around the time I was there, two Australians and a US citizen were killed by criminals on a Baja California beach nearby. This made the news worldwide, but of course, far more Mexicans have been murdered, or simply gone missing.

Tijuana was definitely an interesting place to be. I stayed at the Paris Hotel and Hostel, downtown.

At about 3 am, I came across people planning to cross the border illegally. You would think it would be impossible because everything is so patrolled, but every day, about 1,000 people make it across the border illegally in the Tijuana area, from the coast to the mountains.

A guy told me that he was crossing the border after paying $250 to a smuggler. He said he was a qualified manager of a construction site and had lived in London.

And I met this Russian man who was getting refugee status and had no food, and they were making him work twelve hours a day.

There were a lot of broke people in Tijuana, waiting for visas of various kind: a bit like the film Casablanca, but less glamorous.

Many are also fleeing the violence and relative overpopulation in Mexico and Central America: all the stresses and strains caused by Mexico’s population growth from around 20 million in 1940 to nearly 130 million today, along with similar levels of population growth in Central America.

The streets were surprisingly low-rise for such a big city: a fact which no doubt reflects the city’s fairly recent origins and growth. Tijuana actually felt a bit like my old hometown of Hastings, New Zealand, which is about the same size as 1940s Tijuana.

Tijuana street scene

This could definitely be Hastings, NZ

As always in Mexico, the food markets were marvellous and colourful, though not cheap now, probably because of US tourists’ purchasing power. Here are some photos of the mouthwatering displays.

The sign in the next photo says ‘Please don’t touch the chilis, thanks!’

And more chilis, and other delicious ingredients!

The food includes mole, the national sauce of Mexico. Mole always contains chili peppers and quite often cocoa or chocolate as well, which balances out the heat of chili peppers, and then on top of that, well, just about anything.

Many moles contain as many as thirty ingredients and there are many regional variations. As you can see from the photo just above, mole is usually quite thick as well.

The word mole comes from mōlli, which is Nahuatl for sauce. The -mole in guacamole has the same origin: guacamole means ‘avocado sauce’ in Nahuatl. The indigenous pre-Columbian cultures invented guacamole, though nobody knows how far back the chili-and-chocolate-based mole goes.

Souvenirs on Sale

As always in Mexico, there are lots of beautiful churches as well, though of course more modern than the old Spanish ones elsewhere. Even the city cathedral, the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, was only completed in the 1970s.

Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

A wider view of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

Inside the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe

A graffitied column and a plaque just outside the cathedral celebrate the construction of the Plaza Bicentenario in 2010. It is not as flash as the column in Mexico City that celebrates the original centenary of the Cry of Dolores, erected at a time when the population of Mexico City was only around 500,000 or about a quarter of the present population of Tijuana.

The bicentenary column

I think this tells us something about how the appetite for public magnificence has declined, or perhaps the simple artificiality of Tijuana.

I also saw a plaque with some images of people who had disappeared, some of the more than 100,000 missing Mexicans, who have probably been murdered but simply not found.

In 2019, a book about Tijuana came out called City of Omens, by a Canadian researcher named Dan Werb. The publisher’s blurb contains the following passage about the violence, much of which is quite recent:

Despite its reputation as a carnival of vice, Tijuana was, until recently, no more or less violent than neighboring San Diego, its sister city across the border wall. But then something changed. Over the past ten years, Mexico’s third-largest city became one of the world’s most dangerous. . . .

A graphic in a 2024  Forbes magazine article, ‘Is Organized Crime Activity Threatening Tijuana’s Nearshoring Boom?’, shows how the Tijuana murder rate exploded after 2015, from about 750 murders a year (bad enough!) to around 2,500.

So, there is a very sinister social breakdown going on. This was something I would notice on the other side when I went through to the USA, even if the violence there is not yet up to Mexican standards. The level of homelessness, on the other hand, is far worse in the USA than in Mexico, where the people look after each other a bit more.

I think the low-rise quality of Tijuana speaks volumes about a legacy of economic underdevelopment, of the legacy of an economy revolving around short-stay tourism in a party town and selling souvenirs; though having said that, as the Forbes magazine article points out, there is a lot of industry on the outskirts these days. This is Tijuana’s so-called nearshoring boom, by which American firms locate manufacturing facilities in the Tijuana area to take advantage of lower wages, cheaper land, and so on.

In the short run, nearshoring could be viewed as exploitation, but in the long run, it has the potential to build up the economy in a similar fashion to way places like South Korea and Taiwan, which also used to be very underdeveloped, acquired manufacturing industries. But the city will only continue to develop if its crime rates do not increase to the point that all the people who might bring money to Tijuana are scared away.

I saw an ad for security guards, whose job it is to fend off the criminals. The guards clearly aren’t very well paid, at 4,000 pesos a week net, when you factor in that there are 17 Mexican pesos, written as $ or $ MXN in Mexico, to the US dollar, and that the mole in the shop was costing around 200 pesos a kilogram. The temptation to take a few bribes from the criminals to look the other way must be very high.

I wanted to take the Greyhound Bus across the border to Los Angeles, and from there to Las Vegas. But my plans for this were a bit sketchy and didn’t work out. First, I went looking for the Greyhound bus stop only to find that it was about 7 km from the central area. And then, after a lot of toing and froing, I found out that I had to go through immigration and catch the bus on the other side!

(For further information, there are several local tourism websites, such as Visit Tijuana.)

Next: Las Vegas.


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