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.
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.
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.”
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.