An afternoon of neon lights and ’80s pop, washed down with a pitcher of draft beer at the roller rink...a night of charalitos con chile, flying chairs, fake blood, and a screaming crowd that competes to see who can shout the most creative insult at the lucha libre arena...an evening of rides, lotería, spray-painted sculptures, fried plantains, and grilled corn...a sunny day of swirling slides, spicy micheladas and tortas cubanas next to a pool with artificial waves and no lifeguard on duty...a morning at the mercado-sobre-ruedas (swap meet) surrounded by secondhand everything along with a fruit stand and aromas of carnitas, pit-baked lamb, vanilla gorditas, fried fish, shrimp soup, witchcraft herbs, and imitation perfume... a sweaty ride in a packed calafia while the bus driver’s favorite music plays loudly in your ear.
For tijuanenses, these experiences were just another part of living in their city until Turista Libre showed up and turned them into day tours. According to their website, Turista Libre is a “series of atypical international day tours in Tijuana, Mexico, a caravan that trounces around the city in search of the overlooked and underrated.” By design, these tours are for people looking to go a little farther afield than the typical Tijuana tourist traps.
Turista Libre is the brainchild of Derrik Chinn, a gringo who’d been living in Tijuana for a couple of years. He worked in San Diego and crossed the border daily. He enjoyed Tijuana’s diversity, its kitsch, its contradictions, and he wanted to share them, but whenever he mentioned to friends and coworkers that he lived there, the common reply was: “Why do you live there? You’re risking your life.” Chinn felt these opinions were influenced by the media and he decided to try and change them.
With the increase of violence since 2008, tourists had abandoned Tijuana. By 2009, at least 90 percent of tourism-related businesses had closed their doors. Soon Avenida Revolución had become a ghost town, and all the while the national and international media unwittingly became public relations agents for the various cartels.
During the most intense media storm over the dangers of Tijuana, Chinn decided to mount a counterattack; he wanted to show his view of the city, so he started to write a blog on his adventures in Tijuana. Suddenly his readers (who were mostly his friends) wanted to discover Chinn’s new world. So he invited a bunch of these friends to take a tour with him and go a little deeper inside the city, far from the curio shops, bars, and pharmacies of Avenida Revolución. The tour was an instant success, and soon his friends were inviting other friends. And just like that, Turista Libre was born.
Tijuana: The Easiest Way to Start a Sentence
There are topics left unsaid in discussions about Tijuana, and discrimination is definitely one of them. Since the 1980s, migration from Mexico’s interior and from the southern reaches of the country increased dramatically, and it hasn’t stopped since then. Long-established Tijuana citizens tried to protect themselves against this phenomenon, and newcomers were gradually segregated into their own parts of the city: the far eastern reaches beyond Otay Mesa, especially. One day, though, there were so many of these new arrivals that the old Tijuana families had become isolated within their own circles. Invisible borders were born throughout the city, borders that only come down at a handful of cultural events — such as a soccer game or the nightclubs on Calle Sexta. (I wanted to include a two-hour wait at the border, but, no, the international border is a whole other beast.)
Tijuana has been dragging her black legend behind her since the times of Prohibition in the 1920s, when the city was replete with gringos looking to gamble, get laid, and generally live it up in exotic Mexico. The black legend is Tijuana’s curse and the source of her charm. It’s also a burden that gets heavier over time. Every now and then, there is new group of concerned citizens and politicians who decide that it’s time to change the city’s image. They design campaigns and create slogans. A group decides that they want to avoid graffiti, so they hire artists to create murals on bridges. Another group prints posters of famous Tijuana singers, chefs, writers, musicians, actors, and places them at the airport. Another group hires an ex–beauty queen and has her say nice things about the city on TV commercials. These groups want to show off the region’s success and wealth. There is a lot of energy expended to attempt to change the outlook of the city’s residents and to alter the way outsiders see us, whether gringos or mexicanos from other parts of the republic. But, from where I sit, these appear to be empty efforts. The only thing they prove is that these groups have a collective inferiority complex.
Turista Libre takes the city for what it is, with all its contradictions and contrasts. They cross all its invisible borders, its generation gaps, and its class boundaries. At the same time, there is an uncertain awkwardness in these tours...although I might be particularly susceptible to this feeling since I am in the unique position of being the local observing how the foreigners observe the locals. When looking at these tours in a superficial fashion, one might think that they are a fun and safe way to see the most intimate and unexpected corners of a city. But there certainly are questions raised by the way it’s done. And the answers tell us a lot about two cultures that share a region but are still quite divided and couldn’t be further away from one another.
In general, a tour seems like the perfect insulation for a lazy traveler; it’s ideal for those who are willing to pay for others to make their decisions. The only thing more artificial than a tour is a cruise. One could say it’s impossible to get to know a place by traveling this way; on the other hand, a tour is comfortable, safe, and scheduled. The Turista Libre tours are not traditional at all, but although they are absolutely alternative, conceptual, and themed, they are, in the end, also tours. The tourists are picked up at the border in a calafia and are taken off the beaten path. I went on a couple of tours in order to experience what happens on them: I went to a concert that was held at the college where I work, and I went to a Xolos soccer game. What I can say about these experiences is that everyone seems to be having a great time. Some of the tourists have this expression of discovery when confronted with certain things — food, in particular. They seem to enjoy all that surrounds them. The locals look curious and sometimes ask questions: what are they doing here? A tour? Really? Why?
It’s impossible to camouflage a crowd of gringos at the mercadito. On Turista Libre’s website, one of the huge swap meets in Tijuana is described like this: “On Sundays the hilltop streets of Tijuana’s Colonia Francisco Villa are filled with an open-air swap meet so massive, it makes Kobey’s at the San Diego Sports Arena look like a 7-Eleven. It’s blocks and blocks of vendors selling food, clothes, produce, parakeets, puppies and — most important — mountains of the most random secondhand loot, everything from bottle openers attached to wooden papayas to pirated DVDs of Mexican classics.”
When I read this, the thing I could not get out of my head is that the majority of the stuff sold at Tijuana swap meets was bought at garage and estate sales in San Diego and Los Angeles. To me, this becomes a fascinating paradox. It’s like looking through a telescope and finding yourself looking at yourself.
It’s difficult to write about a tour through the insides of Tijuana. As a local it sort of feels like an unknown person is going through your laundry. There is a saying in México: la ropa sucia se lava en casa; it roughly translates into, “You should only do your laundry at home,” meaning no stranger should know your secrets. Turista Libre unveils Tijuana’s secrets and this somehow feels like someone just turned your family photos into exotic postcards.
In the end, are there any rules when traveling through a city? Must one always get lost or have maps or memorize a travel book? Whenever I’m traveling, I’m impractical. I like to use public transportation, eat what the locals eat, and go to local festivities. I like to do exactly what Turista Libre does in Tijuana, but there is a difference. They stay in a group, rent a public bus that is used exclusively for them during the day tour; this limits their contact with the culture, the interaction with the landscape and the people. But it’s a way to show another Tijuana, one that is different from the tourism campaigns and the constant reports in the media that sow fear on both sides of the border. Turista Libre is breaking down the common cultural perceptions of a poor, disorganized, lawless city. For that, I’m thankful and hopeful it might help some of the many shuttered businesses reopen one day. But I also hope that all these liberated tourists come back to Tijuana sometime — not on a guided tour, but just to wander around and experience their own adventures in a city they might come to love as much as I do.