Baja is back for visitors

Reader writer gets a reassuring tour of Tijuana.

"I’ve never seen a bullet shot, I’ve never seen a gun pulled, or anything down [in Baja]. It really is a perception, and it’s just wrong.”
  • "I’ve never seen a bullet shot, I’ve never seen a gun pulled, or anything down [in Baja]. It really is a perception, and it’s just wrong.”
  • Penny Diz

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.

Local blogger Kristin Díaz de Sandi goes to Baja three to five times a week, often with her two-year-old son.

Local blogger Kristin Díaz de Sandi goes to Baja three to five times a week, often with her two-year-old son.

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.

A view of Pasaje Rodriguez y Pasaje Gomez.

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.

Andrew Sheiner and Josué Castro.“Pasajes were very popular in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s in Tijuana. After 9/11, they just closed the doors and the curtains for almost 11 years."

Andrew Sheiner and Josué Castro.“Pasajes were very popular in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s in Tijuana. After 9/11, they just closed the doors and the curtains for almost 11 years."

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.

Derrik Chinn of Turista Libre: "While 2008 was the bloodiest year in the city’s history, the crime rate has plummeted."

Derrik Chinn of Turista Libre: "While 2008 was the bloodiest year in the city’s history, the crime rate has plummeted."

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.”

Javier Plascencia's family owns nine restaurants in Baja and Southern California, including Romesco in Bonita.

Javier Plascencia's family owns nine restaurants in Baja and Southern California, including Romesco in Bonita.

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.”

And in case I want to come alone next time, he instructs me to tell the cab driver, “Third and Madero” or “Revolución and Third.”

I’ve heard and read about these pasajes, but even photographs haven’t prepared me for the sensation of having traveled by Star Trek transporter. One minute we’re in downtown Tijuana, among the cart vendors, drugstores, taco stands, and people everywhere. Then we turn down an alley between buildings and suddenly we’re in this in-between place, not outside anymore, but not completely inside either. The roofs of these alleyways are covered with translucent yellow and green corrugated plastic, so the weather doesn’t come through but light does. The walkways are lined with 250-square-foot storefronts, art galleries and vintage shops, blackbox theaters, cafés, and dentist offices.

At this time of day, Pasaje Gómez is quiet, with only a few storefronts open. In the evening, more of the metal gates will rise, Sheiner says, and the pasaje will liven up. Many of the business owners have day-jobs.

Castro steps out of La Tentación and greets us as we approach. He is as olive-skinned as the red-headed Sheiner is fair. After we embrace, he throws an arm around Sheiner’s shoulders.

“We’re the odd couple,” Castro says. “A Jewish pelo rojo and a Mexican Jew. It’s interesting for a lot of people. We have a lot of fun.”

The two laugh and then Castro launches into his explanation of how they ended up here.

“A friend of mine invited me to this place — a pasaje,” he says. “Pasajes are like little malls that were very popular in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. They were very crowded. There were a lot of them in Tijuana, especially in La Revolución — Revolución Street. After 9/11, the economy was brought down and a lot of these pasajes were closed and abandoned. They just closed the doors and the curtains for almost 11 years, until we started opening them again. So now it’s like a little art district.”

Castro says the recent renewed interest in Baja “started with the Valle de Guadalupe and their wine attracting the attention of Americans. There have been many Baja food and wine articles.”

Sheiner adds, “We said, ‘If they’re talking about food and wine, why don’t we start talking about art?’”

When they first opened the gallery, with the encouragement of the Museum of Photographic Arts’ Debra Klotchko, they started with a 250-square-foot space. Within a couple of months they’d expanded to three spaces, where they now hold workshops as well as exhibitions. The storefront is painted bright white with lime-green columns. Out front, in the middle of the pasaje, they’ve added white, plastic modern-looking lounge chairs.

“What we’ve got is very inexpensive rates and rents,” Castro says, explaining that the rent for a space in a pasaje ranges between $200 and $600 per month.

“We’re growing really fast,” Sheiner adds.

According to a September 2012 New York Times article, Pasaje Gómez is the most successful of the new pasajes, having rented out 60 spaces in its first year and a half. And yet, Castro says, the perception of danger , which he attributes to the Mexican media, still keeps potential foreign visitors away.

“Sometimes [the media] don’t even think about what they’re doing,” he says. “They’re working against us. They want to sell their newspapers. They always put something bad on the front page. So it makes it really bad-looking for everybody, but it’s not that dangerous.”

Castro and Sheiner offer themselves as chaperones to gallery guests as often as they can. This afternoon, they walk me around Pasaje Gómez, Plaza Revolución, and across the street to Pasaje Rodríguez, introducing me to friends and café owners, pausing so that I can take pictures of arched doorways and painted corrugated gates. I’m gushy with enthusiasm, oohing and ahhing around every corner. I can’t help it. Not only has my travel bug been awakened, but it has also occurred to me that this place is only 30 minutes away from my house. I’m hoping the photos will entice my husband to come back with me.

“It has taken us a lot of effort, getting Americans down here,” Castro says. He tells me how surprised he was when, in early April, two female artists, both in their 70s and both due to exhibit at La Tentación mid-month, crossed the border to visit the gallery.

“It was a surprise to me that that they were not afraid,” he says. “[The perception of danger] is one of our first things we have against us in bringing people from the United States, especially [people over] a certain age. I’m 57, but, you know, people that are older than 40 are more afraid. Most of the people that go from the United States to our openings and exhibitions are very young.”

Sheiner came to Baja for the first time with Castro, who is a former Tijuana resident, six or seven years ago. They would spend the day, go out to eat, see art, or maybe take a trip farther south to one of the wineries.

“Andrew is most adventurous,” Castro says. “Now he knows all the good taquerías, the good vendors. He shows me things I don’t know.”

Sheiner laughs. “The zeal of the convert,” he says.

Like my husband, Sheiner’s wife was nervous about his trips across the border. But eventually, she was able to let go of her fear.

“She said, ‘If you’re with Castro, I trust you,’” Sheiner says. “After coming so many times, she became comfortable, too.”

Okay, I say, but what if she came on her own? Does he trust that she’d be safe?

“As long as she looks both ways crossing the street,” he jokes. “That’s the real danger.”

You asked for an authentic experience

The aforementioned perception study on travel to Baja from Southern California revealed three particular pain points: 11 percent of respondents do not have a passport (a decrease of 3 percent from the 2011 survey); 43 percent of respondents are not satisfied with the border wait, with San Diegans being the least satisfied, and; women still perceive Baja as less secure than men do.

In the case of my husband, I think the opposite is true, at least as far as perceptions about the safety of Baja go. So, in order to minimize his anxieties on my next visit to Tijuana, I take my friend S with me. We meet up with Derrik Chinn, founder of Turista Libre, who speeds us around town in a black Jetta, playing techno music on his iPod.

Normally, he’d have driven us around in the minivan he uses for private custom tours, but today calls for a more casual vibe. We start with Sapphire Gin drinks, Mexican craft beer, and mushroom-and-octopus tacos at Erizo Baja Fish House in the neighborhood of La Recta, which Chinn describes as “the La Jolla of Tijuana.”

Erizo is one of four kitchens in Tijuana run by chef Javier Plascencia, whose family owns nine restaurants in Baja and Southern California, including Romesco in Bonita. It’s also one of the stops on a “Javier Plascencia progressive meal through Tijuana” that Chinn has in the works for early August. The natural-wood tabletops, the brushed-nickel chair legs, and the gray-with-flashes-of-turquoise color scheme call to mind some of San Diego’s newer, hipper restaurants.

Chinn, a 31-year-old Ohio native who has lived in Tijuana just shy of six years, switches easily back and forth between speaking English with us and speaking a comfortable Spanish with our waiter.

While we all politely allow the last piece of tuna sashimi to sit on the plate between us, Chinn explains his take on the residual fear of Tijuana.

“I’m still not really sure if it’s specifically an American thing, a First World thing, or just plain human nature, but I’ve found that too often we personalize the information that we consume via mass media,” he says. “The truth is, that while 2008 was the bloodiest year in the city’s history, the crime rate has plummeted over the past couple years.”

For a few minutes he philosophizes about “reasonable fear and paranoia” in the modern world. He also says that while some of the Southern California locals who join his “rad Tijuana tours” (to lucha libre matches, markets, beer fests, and so on) do admit some fear in making the trip across the border on their own, the majority are more concerned about logistics.

“All that said,” he continues, “I cannot, nor do I ever, promise people that they’ll be completely out of harm’s way while in Tijuana. Just as I can’t or won’t while they’re walking down their own street. To assume such a responsibility would be ridiculous.”

Even if he can’t promise I won’t break my ankle or get hit by a car, traveling through the city with Chinn, I feel like we are in good hands. He points out landmarks and talks history as we drive to Playas, where the border fence runs into the Pacific Ocean.

When another driver tells him that the Jetta has a flat tire, Chinn shouts, “Gracias, güey!” out his window, joking with us that living in Tijuana has, out of necessity, given him a newfound ability to take life as it comes.

A few minutes later, his car up on a jack, he smiles, shrugs his shoulders at me, and says, “You wanted an authentic experience.”

Bye-bye to the $10 all-you-can-drink bar

Like Castro, Chinn blames the lingering fear of Mexico on stories in the media.

“In the case of Tijuana, it’s tales of headless bodies dangling over freeways,” he says. “Shootouts in the streets, corpses dissolved in vats of acid, and other acts of narco warfare — horrific nightmares, but horrific nightmares that really sell papers.”

Secretary of Baja tourism Funcke says that his office has made it a priority to combat the perception these stories create.

“We decided in 2010 to invest in more public relations, marketing, and promotional activities in America, because it was a very important priority to share our side of the story and be accurately represented in the U.S. media. Additionally, American celebrities who visited Baja California, like Anthony Bourdain, Robert Redford, Rick Bayless, Sylvester Stallone, Andrew Zimmern, and more, helped us share all of the amazing experiences we have to offer — such as gastronomy, wine, adventure, and so much more — which was a big step in changing the perception of our state [and] reinvigorating tourism.”

There are still those who will likely not change their minds anytime soon. In a conversation I had with a friend of a friend, 33-year-old Valley Center resident Eric Navarre, I learned that there are still people who are vehemently against traveling to Baja.

“I’m adamant that people should not go down there,” Navarre tells me one afternoon over the phone. “It’s the drugs, it’s the violence, and in the last five years, it’s the abductions and the ransoms.”

Navarre grew up in Valley Center. He’s been to Mexico four times in his life, including his honeymoon cruise five years ago.

“At that time, it was the only honeymoon vacation we could afford,” he says.

Before that, the last time Navarre had been to Baja was at age 17, when he’d gone with his older brother.

“We went to the different clubs, and it was just debauchery. It was just, ‘Let’s get everybody drunk and let’s take their money and then let’s put them back on the streets.’ I didn’t have a bad time there. I didn’t go to jail or anything. But I’m very fearful of going down there. You hear about the abductions, about the ransoms. Most of the cops don’t even have guns, but the criminals do, so there’s no protection for you down there.”

On May 28, 2012, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations aired an episode about Baja. It opens with a montage of audio and visual fear-inducing footage, newspaper headlines, and do-not-travel warnings to Americans interspliced with images of Bourdain walking across the border. Then, for the next 40 minutes of gastronomic adventure, Bourdain introduces viewers to restaurant owners, party promoters, musicians, and foodies. All reveal a more appealing side of Tijuana and the rest of Baja than has been portrayed in mass media, maybe ever.

The expressive and mustachioed Tony T, whom Bourdain describes during the episode as a “law-school graduate turned night-life promoter” both confirms Navarre’s experiences and refutes their current validity. “What Tijuana is starting to realize is that the old concept of tourism here — a ten-dollar all-you-can-drink nasty bar full of Marines — is not going to fly anymore. It’s in the beginning phases of reinventing itself.”

When I ask Navarre if this makes him at all curious, he sticks to his guns.

“There probably are great places down there. But you have to get through the federales, you have to get through the police force down there, and they’re just as corrupt.”

The plan to bring the gringos back to Baja isn’t working fast enough

It’s this kind of attitude that gets the goat of a guy who calls himself Baja Joe. His real name is Greg Reddick, and he has undertaken “a one-man crusade to return tourism to Baja.” The 56-year-old former sales manager has created a website, a series of press releases, public-service announcements for the radio (for The Walrus 105.7, KPRI FM 102.1, The Mighty 1090 AM, and ESPN 1700 AM), and website banners, all aimed at convincing gringos that Baja is safe for tourists.

His campaign documents include a list of potential visitors’ “objections” (they think it’s unsafe, that there are long border waits, and corrupt federales) along with his counter-arguments (Baja is safe, the SENTRI pass makes the border crossing quick and easy, and the tourist police are helpful and bilingual).

“It’s a real pet peeve of mine that people don’t understand some of these things,” Reddick tells me over the phone. “In the last five years, I’ve spent three to five days a week building my [vacation] home. I’m driving a convertible car up and down the road five days a week, as late as midnight, one o’clock [in the morning], and as early as six in the morning, from Ensenada to Tijuana, and I’ve never had one issue.”

He tells a story of the neighborhood where he lives in San Diego.

“I had a helicopter flying over my house in Clairemont a couple of months ago, with a loudspeaker going, ‘A bank was just robbed on Clairemont Mesa and so-and-so. If you see a yellow car or whatever, report to the police.’ I mean, you see this kind of thing here every single day. And I’ve never seen a bullet shot, I’ve never seen a gun pulled, or anything down [in Baja]. It really is a perception, and it’s just wrong.”

Reddick, too, believes that the false perception of the area as less than safe is media-driven. He believes that Funcke and the tourism board haven’t made the right decisions in the campaign to bring Americans back to Baja.

“What they’ve done — their plan to bring Americans back is not working as fast as it should. It’s been four years since there’s been really any crime of major consequences. Anthony Bourdain did go down and do a story, and that was nice. They’ve [the Office of Tourism] done some nice work. But if you don’t reach the masses and promote Baja as it is, as a fishing mecca with a great wine area and hotels right on the water, the perceptions of Americans is that it’s like the O.K. Corral.”

Most recently, in his mission to “be a big cog in the wheel that brings the masses back to Baja,” Reddick printed 6500 business cards that he intends to pass out at front desks, bars, restaurants, and other locations along the Baja coastline. The cards are a combination advertisement (for his website, BajasBackNow.com) and handy numbers for tourists to dial for emergencies, mechanical needs, border crossing, or general information.

“Why there [in Baja] is because the people that are going down now will take those cards back, they’ll put it in their wallet, and when they get back they can spread the news that Baja’s back again. They’ll have a website to share and go, ‘Hey, dude, I was just down surfing at K-55 [Puerta del Mar], check this website out and share some of the information on why it’s safe. Let’s make a trip down there in the next month.’ I’m going to [leave] some in Pacific Beach, as well.”

It takes a few tries for me to get a clear answer on what, beyond feel-good feelings, Reddick gets out of his campaign. His go-to response is that it’s a personal passion and that he’s doing it “on behalf of the bars and restaurants and businesses down there.” Eventually, however, he explains that these businesses are paying to be on his website.

“It’s not enough to pay all my bills, trust me,” he says. “Hopefully, down the road, we’ll do more with the incoming secretary of tourism.”

Regardless of who pays him and how much, Reddick’s message is clear: “There’s no reason not to get in your car and go to Baja for the weekend.”

This isn’t so bad; in fact, it’s kind of awesome

While Reddick’s information cards may be enough to get some people over their fears and false perceptions, there are others of us who require a chaperone before venturing out on our own. After all the fear-mongering that takes place at his job, my husband is one of the latter. But he couldn’t very well let me go by myself when the Office of the Baja California Secretary of Tourism came knocking with an opportunity to spend a weekend in Ensenada — especially when the trip came with a hotel shuttle to and from San Ysidro.

After an exasperating half hour of driving back and forth on East San Ysidro Boulevard, trying to follow the signs to a weekend parking lot, and then an equally annoying Friday-evening border wait, we finally hit the open road with our vivacious shuttle driver, Francisco Moyado. On the 100-kilometer drive from Tijuana to Ensenada, my husband sat forward on his van seat and reminisced about the days, pre-9/11, when he’d spent time in Baja; he’d once even considered living in Playas. He kept his eyes peeled for the La Fonda Hotel, where we stayed in 2007 during my brother’s wedding weekend, and for the El Sauzal taco stand where I took the first picture ever of him with my two brothers. After a while, he grew comfortable with Francisco, pointing at billboards with sexily clad ladies, and joking about dropping me off at the hotel so the two of them could head out for a gentlemen’s evening.

That night, he was nearly giddy over our room at Hotel Coral & Marina, and also over his margaritas and filet mignon at the hotel’s restaurant downstairs. He then spent the rest of the weekend comparing the costs of these luxuries to what we would have paid in San Diego.

“How much is our room? Two hundred dollars? With that view and all that space, we’d have to pay $600 a night, easy. Don’t you think?...That meal was only $60? We each had two drinks, an appetizer, dessert, and I had filet mignon. At home, we would have easily paid $100… How much was the shuttle? It was $225 each way, right? That’s not bad. If we came with three other couples, that would be $56.25 per couple.”

On Saturday, Francisco drove us to the Monte Xanic winery. On Sunday, he took us down to El Mercado Negro in Ensenada, where we hopped on a boat and took a ride out to the Open Ocean Aquarium to swim with the bluefin tuna. And although he is not a wine guy, and although the boat ride resulted in both of us upchucking over the side of the vessel, I do believe my husband is Baja’s newest convert.

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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.

I prefer remote camping in Baja and find the most secluded spots I can find. If I see tourists or motor-homes, I am disappointed and I'll move on and find some fish camp or ejido. If I feel I need to huddle-up or caravan with a bunch of black-socked camera-laden 'fraidy-cats for safety, why go at all? It is as safe in Mexico as it is anywhere in the US and it is up to the traveler to know better than put yourself in a position of being a victim. Try walking through any major city in the US drunk and waving cash like you are king of the world. As far as the sensationalists and alarmists go, I prefer they, and their ilk, stay the hell out of Baja. there are millions of Americans living in Mexico.... how often has anyone actually heard of an American ex-pat, fisherman or tourist getting attacked or beheaded? The crime rates, especially violent crime and murder, in New Orleans, DC, Baltimore, Watts, Brooklyn, Detroit and many more cities north of the border are far, far worse than Mexico.

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.

lmao...I have received better medical care in Mexico by far over our bullshit feed the lawyers and insurance agents system in the US, Cleaner food..a little lime goes a long way...what, are you posing that a whole country cannot provide a "clean" meal? Ignorant! Mexico is a dining mecca. Grafting cops? in over 40 years of travel in Mex, it only happened once in the '80s when I was acting a fool in TJ...20 bucks.Try actually knowing what you are talking about.

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

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