Baja is back

Hip and delicious. There’s no reason not to get in your car and go.

In a December 2011 Vanity Fair article, writer Dana Vachon described Chula Vista as “a sputtering neon error of beauty academies and pawnshops, recently terrorized by a homicidal Tijuana drug gang skilled at dissolving bodies in chemicals.” He also referred to the year 1989 as a time before “Mexicans were festooning highways with one another’s severed heads.” When the article came out, Chula Vistans and their mayor responded with vehement demands that Vanity Fair writers check their facts (there is only one beauty academy, damn it) and come visit this beloved seven-miles-from-the-border town before taking their stories to print.

The same month the article was published, my husband and I bought a house in Chula Vista, and so I understood the embarrassment over the description. At the same time, factual or not, the writer had aptly summarized the images that presented themselves to me whenever I considered a day-trip across the border. While I hardly felt terrorized in Chula Vista, I was clear on the fact that I would not be going to Mexico anytime soon.

And then, this past Easter weekend, less than a year and a half later, I was hit with the realization that half of everyone I know was either currently gallivanting around Mexico or had just returned. Yes, I’d seen articles in the New York Times about the burgeoning art scene in Tijuana, and in the Wall Street Journal and Condé Nast Traveler about the wine country of Valle de Guadalupe. But somehow, as hip and delicious as all that sounded, I’d never relinquished my fear. Here it was, Semana Santa (holy week), and I was home in Eastlake wondering when Mexico had stopped being a scary place to visit and whether I was the last person still hung up on beheadings, while everyone else was living it up in Baja.

According to Baja California’s secretary of tourism, Juan Tintos Funcke, the area has “seen more tourists, particularly Americans, visiting Baja California in the past two years, especially over the holidays. For example, from Thursday through Sunday of Easter week, 354,000 people traveled within Baja California, the largest influx of tourists we’ve seen since 2008.”

Funcke also shared the results of a 2012 survey on travelers’ perceptions conducted among 600 Southern Californians (in San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, Imperial, Orange, and Los Angeles counties). Respondents who perceive Baja to be unsafe decreased by 16 percent from a 2011 survey. Respondents who would not visit Baja because of “danger, crime, and drugs” decreased by 44 percent.

On the other hand, of the 177 people who took the March 31 “Has Fear of Crime Kept You from Visiting Mexico?” poll on the Reader website, 96 answered, “Yes. It’s way too dangerous to visit Mexico right now.” Only 16 answered, “No! Mexico is safe. Don’t believe the hype!” The other 65 chose option C: “Depends where you go in Mexico. Some places are safe; some aren’t.”

A single commenter, who goes by the handle “MsSheree,” wrote: “As an adult I used to travel to Puerto Nuevo outside Rosarito Beach frequently (six to seven times per year) for lobster and have stayed at Rosarito Beach Hotel a few times, but when all the killings started a few years ago we stopped going.”

Local blogger Kristin Díaz de Sandi details sexy culinary experiences all over Baja.

Local blogger Kristin Díaz de Sandi details sexy culinary experiences all over Baja.

The real danger is crossing the street

On a Friday afternoon in April, I take my first trip south of the border since my brother’s 2007 wedding. I’m inspired by local blogger Kristin Díaz de Sandi, whose “Life and Food” blog details sexy culinary experiences all over Baja. She goes three to five times a week, often with her two-year-old son. I’m interested in seeking out some of the restaurants she features, and although her supper club, Club Tengo Hambre, offers two group excursions (one for Tijuana street food, and one farther south, in Valle de Guadalupe), I’m not much into group tours. I figure one day I’ll venture out for a restaurant-hop of her picks, but for this first time I opt instead for a visit to the pasajes of downtown Tijuana, with gallery owners Josué Castro and Andrew Sheiner.

At the end of his day as a second-grade teacher at Central Elementary School in Imperial Beach, North Park resident Sheiner meets me at the H Street trolley stop in Chula Vista to chaperone me across the border. He and Hillcrest resident and artist Castro opened what Castro calls a “laboratory for experiments” in Tijuana in 2012. Located in Pasaje Gómez on Avenida Revolución, La Tentación is an experimental gallery dedicated to the photographic arts. Their tagline reads, “Lead us into temptation. Deliver us from our borders.”

At the trolley station, Sheiner hands me a bottle of water and guides me over the trolley tracks to the southbound side. Having traveled all over the world, sometimes alone, before settling down in San Diego, I’m a little embarrassed that I feel the need for a chaperone, but I’m grateful to have one, in part for myself, and in part to ease my husband’s anxiety about my visit to Tijuana. As a Department of Defense civilian employee, my husband sits through frequent travel-advisory briefings. Although Baja has been removed from the “mandatory” Do Not Travel list for employees, it remains on the “recommended” Do Not Travel list. Therefore, my husband is really nervous, and not at all into the idea of me crossing the border. He’s instructed me to text him the moment I meet up with Sheiner and the moment I return to the U.S. side. Were it not for Sheiner, he’d have been much less okay with this.

It’s 4:00 p.m., and the trolley cars are crowded. We ride standing up and hanging on for 20 minutes or so, until we deboard with everyone else at the San Ysidro station. We follow the crowd past the McDonald’s, up an incline, through a large revolving gate, and into Mexico. From there, it’s a five-minute (and $5) cab ride to the gallery, where Castro awaits.

“You can pay $1 or 10 pesos to share a ride with four other people to the downtown area, or just pay the $5 to get your own cab,” Sheiner says. “If you go to other parts of the city, though, you can’t do the share deal.”

Comments

What was the point of this article, SD Reader? It's old news, all of this, including the sensationalism. It would appear that this story was written by someone who doesn't read the news. How about a story on how the San Diego craft beer scene is really taking off?

Chad Deal will be submitting that story soon, stay tuned. I was incredibly impressed.

...or how about a story of the craft beers in Baja, which is also 'really taking off.' There are actually competing beer festivals in Tijuana!

Was being facetious. Just pointing out the SD Reader's inability to use Google.

Thanks for your attempt to enlighten us about the greatness of Baja. With that said, any article about Tijuana that begins with references to “dissolving bodies” and “severed heads” is not helpful, rather, it is the problem. Why is it necessary to make these references PERIOD? It is completely unnecessary and it overshadows everything good about the current “revolution” in Northern Baja (food, art, wine, beer, etc.). Kristin knows her stuff, so I am confident that you were exposed to a lot of great things during your trip south of the border. I just wish you didn’t ruin your story in the first few paragraphs. Everybody knows Tijuana’s “past” and it’s not worth reiterating over and over before getting in the good stuff. It’s like eating in a 5-Star restaurant and writing a review that starts by mentioning a health code violation 10 years ago……NOBODY CARES. Thanks for the effort regardless.

I love that you actually came to Baja and then wrote this story. I have read so many articles from people that have never been here. Your title is perfect! I see more and more people coming back To Rosartio Beach only to return back to California and book there next trip back to Baja. My husband being the surfer, our phone is ringing again from other surfers coming down for a surf weekend! I am American have raised my kids here in Baja and choose to stay in Baja even when I could have returned to the US, I too have a home in East Lake, I would never leave if we had Whole foods, trader Joe and Nordstroms in Rosarito!! Yes I am one of those Americans who spend way to much money a cross in San Diego for the American delights!! Thanks again for the honest article about Baja!! PS we have some great restaurants in Rosarito!

There are many of us who have worked over the last 5 or 6 years to help bring people back to Baja. In honest conversations with each other, the decision was made that we cannot deny the things that have happened in the past in our area. That would be dishonest and we are not trying to present a "cover-up". It is the reason that the negativism is still present in the writings.

Today we have a much healthier, safer and happier Baja to promote and we are all proud of the hard work many folks have done so we can say this. Watch the videos, read the articles, talk to friends who have ventured over, come to concerts, art galleries, wineries. We welcome you and provide you with information to keep you safe and happy!

Keep up the good work! People are returning! I live in Baja and have for the last 18 years. We are very glad to see the hotels returning to full occupancy, our beaches being enjoyed, the restaurants thriving and the horses being ridden!

Thanks Reader and Elizabeth Salaam and Thanks Baja Joe!

Yikiyaki has the right approach- accept what has happened in the past and move forward. Unfortunately (and likely after this article was authored) the US Dept of State just put out a travel warning for Tijuana and kidnappings are on the rise again. This cannot be disputed. I think it is necessary to keep promoting Baja, but we'll never get away from the truth and the reality. Denial did not work in the past, and they won't work in the future. You have to find a type of tourist who can enjoy the good parts of TJ's music and foodie scene- while filtering out the bad parts. You need tourists who don't care if there is lawlessness around them- as long as they don't see it and it doesn't affect their trip. That is the challenge. So far Mexican tourists are picking up the slack in Rosarito and although people are posting about a lot of gringos returning- I don't see it yet.

We really need a good look at who is getting kidnapped, killed, head sawed off, etc. Where were they, when, doing what?

I have a VERY strong feeling that, if any American tourists have been victims of crime, it's because they were in the wrong part of town at the wrong time, looking for things they shouldn't be looking for; or doing something fairly dumb like camping all by themselves at a remote beach. If you go to Mexico looking for drugs, hookers, etc. you can't act surprised when you find trouble.

Have any tourists been grabbed from a resort, a winery, a museum, a downtown cafe, etc? I'll bet no.

Good observation. You would win your bet! In all of the sensationalized cases, victims may have been 'American citizens' but were also Mexican-American and/or with strong ties to Mexico. The more typical Southern California tourist comes and enjoys their visit.

Well "jnojr", I think that's the whole point. Does it matter from a tourist-economy perspective who the crime is against? Do people care if the crime rate is high so long as they aren't an intended victim and the violence is far away? Some will, some won't. The security situation has been fluid the past eight years and Tijuaneros have moved on to create better tourist-worthy food and music attractions and that is to be commended. But the US Dept. of State travel warning for TJ issued last week is based on the current risks. At a minimum- people who ignore that should deploy good "situational awareness" skills. My US friends who won't visit have kids and tell me they aren't afraid of something bad happening to them in TJ or Rosarito on a day trip; but they are afraid if something does go wrong, there is no one they can trust to help them.

I am happy to read an honest piece without the usual BS I see in the press when it comes to Northern Baja.

I've been taking the family down for years now and have NEVER been in any danger. Yes, I was unjustly stopped by a cop once, (speeding?), but I paid my fine on the spot, and moved on. No, I didn't get a receipt :) But that is one time over about 20 years.

My wife, kids and I have always found the locals to be super-friendly and warm, and have never felt that we were in any danger. We look around the shops in Rosarito & Puerto Nuevo, eat some lobster and buy some crap, before heading back to our rental in Las Gaviotas.

No-one I know has ever been attached or been in any danger when south of the border, and I wish people would stop saying it's dangerous down there. Still, when I tell people we're going to Mex for the weekend, they get all wide-eyed and say "please - be careful". Really?!

This article did nothing for Baja, it was a waste of paper and my time reading it. Im surprised Kristen allowed her name and picture to be used in it. As a person interested in travel, food, music and arts if I didn't already know Baja I'm pretty sure this article would have thinking twice before crossing the border. Every city all across the United States has problem areas. I find it weird that in the past 20 years of me traveling to Baja with my family I've never encountered danger. By the way I'm 30 years old so almost my whole life. Or in the past 2 years of me traveling solo to cook all over Baja I haven't been threatened, or my last 24 day trip to Baja from Tijuana to Cabo visiting over 27 cities, towns and fishing villages on both the pacific side and sea of cortez earlier this month I felt Zero amount of fear nor danger even in the most remote places. Some said it before keep your nose clean and you'll be fine, same goes in the states or traveling anywhere abroad. Reader maybe should should focus a bit more on your whole experience than pointing out what everybody already knows. If you think you were doing Baja a favor, good try, but sorry I think you missed a few steps.

For those of us who have lived in Baja during the media hype over the past 6 years or so, it is nice to see anything in print portraying the lifestyle south of the border in a balanced way. Sure there have been 'food' articles, because to be honest, Baja has some wonderful places to dine, Valle de Guadalupe is a true Mexican version of Napa valley, and our beach venues offer some of the best sunsets on the west coast.

Of course, this great lifestyle is available at a fraction of the cost just a few miles to the north. I've chatted with visitors to Baja from around the world who are... well, more 'worldly' than many Americans, and they don't pay attention to US media. Mexicans and Mexican Americans are used to the sensational style of the Mexican media... so they don't pay attention either.

Everyone is entitled to experience their own taste and style... but the fear about visiting Baja is simply unfounded. If you are not used to being in a foreign country, there will be differences, because... it is different here. But that's not bad! If you can't handle the differences, there is always Disneyland, which is a controlled environment. Many also like the 'controlled environments' of Mexico as well... luxury resorts where you parachute in and spend your time within the environs of the resort.

This article is for those who are interested in a experiencing something of Mexico, and able to do so in a easy drive from somewhere in the US southwest. More and more everyday are deciding it is also a good place to consider a second home or retirement home because their dollars go farther. We're having fun... and happy that 'Baja is back!'

I have lived in Baja in the Punta Banda area South of Ensenada for over 36 years. I am 80 years old and I have never feared living here. On the contrary living relaxed, getting to know the Mexican people, their culture etc has been a marvelous experience. There is a pleasant surprise every day, with finding new restaurants, social activities and just enjoying "The Baja Feeling".. Baja is Back but as far as I am concerned she never left.

Pardon my skepticism, but I'd think twice (or more) before heading to Baja for gourmet dining. The sanitation problems and lack of refrigeration make it very hard for even those in Baja who want to keep the food prep sanitary to avoid spreading intestinal disease. As far as safety goes, the average, everyday tourist had little to fear as far as major kidnapping and death. The fear should have been for the same old crap that went on in Baja for decades, meaning the strong-arm robberies, the cop shakedowns (paying a fine for an imaginary traffic offense to the cop directly), the crazy driving that caused horrible traffic crashes, and the lack of medical care if you found yourself needing it, All of those things were part of the dark side of travel to Mexico that made it seem so exotic for many tourists, and were also excused as "local color." If TJ is ever going to get back on the map, that old stuff has to be stopped for good, and it has to do a better job than ever before with cleanliness, safety, and honesty. Is that really the case? Despite all the talk, I doubt it, and as long as I doubt it, will refrain.

Mil gracias to Elizabeth Salaam and the Reader! We appreciate the depth of research, quality writing, and the lack of sensationalism rarely seen in articles about Baja. Well done!

You are all welcome Thursday and Friday nights of this month. We have...

Two photography shows are currently on view through August: "Insomnia" by Josue Castro of San Diego and "No Lucha, No Victory" by Eden Rodriguez of Calgary

You may also sample our hand made nano-brews: Los Marranos Chocolate Milk Stout, American Style Wheat with Orange Peel and Rose Hips, and British Brown Ale.

Hope to see some SD Reader Readers!

Andrew Sheiner La Tentación & Nano-Brewery Los Marranos 100 Pasaje Gomez, Tijuana Enter pasaje next to La Especial Cafe on Revolución, cross street 3ra

Log in to comment

Skip Ad

SD Reader Newsletters

Join our newsletter list and enter to win $25 at Broken Yolk Cafe!

Each subscription means another chance to win!

Close