The gringos are back! And in large quantities!
…but please stop going to every single tourist trap in downtown Tijuana.
The American paranoia seems to be coming to an end. San Diegans are starting to lose fear of the world outside the U.S., and some are adventuring to Tijuana. Though most are still scared of a city like T.J. (a city spoiled with a horrible reputation, admittedly), some have disregarded the notion that they will die here and venture through the streets.
Well... it's usually just one street.
Most gringos only visit Avenida Revolución, the main strip of the downtown area. Created to cater to tourists, the avenue is filled with curio shops selling cheap trinkets. Many bars and restaurants here are similar to the Mexican-American bars in San Diego. Bars that sell you Corona with lime and tacos with lettuce and cheese on the inside. But this is not the same Tijuana that gringos loved years back.
Every time I see an American group walking by “Revu,” I want to yell at them, “HEY American friend! Welcome to Tijuana, I'll show you around.”
But people visiting TJ don't tend to trust a stranger who randomly yells at them – even if that stranger is a young, white American who's lived all over the USA. Instead, they listen to the waiters standing around the avenue inviting them inside for cheap beer and free tequila.
The free tequila, of course, is from a $3 dollar bottle, and they still water that down. The cheap beers many times are expired or not even that cheap after all. Many tourist traps offer two for one beers, though you're really paying more than regular price in other bars.
Please: avoid any bar or store that yells to you from across the street to come on in for cheap tequila. This is not what Tijuana is about anymore. It's how it started, but it's slowly disappearing.
If you want to stroll comfortably in a place catered to gringos, visit Ensenada, which has turned into the new Tijuana. The small-town feel is still there, and inside the bars on the main strip you'll find more Americans.
TJ is gradually becoming a metropolis with its own image. Little by little the tourist traps are starting to disappear from downtown and move closer to the border. Locals have taken over after American tourists stopped visiting post-9/11. Most prominently in 6th street – where the bars are filled with locals from both side of the border.
These bars don't need to have someone standing outside yelling at people to go in; if you see one that does, it's not a bar you want to enter. Some 6th street bars bring original drinks and themes to the table, others continue the trend of selling cheap beer and closing within a year or two when the novelty of being a new bar dies out.
Mous Tache Bar at the end of 6th has live shows with bands from all over the world. On its third year, this young bar has evolved into a must-go place. From the outside it looks tiny, with all-grey metal doors and a lonely mustache decorating the upper-right corner. But when you get to the open back room you discover the magic of the place. (And for $3, you can get a liter of Negra Modelo.)
Chips Bar is the place to be once most bars close at 2 a.m. Before the magic hour it is a lonely bar with only town drunkards in it. Anarchy rules this place that was originally a hang-out for mechanics; now it's an eclectic paradise for artists and musicians. Bands that have finished their show at other venues congregate at Chips for the afterparty that lasts until 5 a.m. Anything can happen in this place – bar fights are not a rare occasion, people pass out in the corner every weekend. It is not a place where you leave your personal belongings unattended.
Want to get to know more of Tijuana? Walk along another street that's not Revolución. Simply walk parallel to it, either Constitucion or Madero, and you're in a different world already. It's still as safe as walking in Revu, but you won't get people asking you to go into their shops every couple of feet. You'll be walking among locals in the hustle and bustle of downtown daily life.
With more than two million people living in this city, it's silly to think that there's not much more to Tijuana than “Revu” and downtown. Besides the wonders downtown has to offer, there's still a monstrous city that extends for miles and miles. Downtown is where most locals go for the nightlife, which usually starts after midnight.
If you're brave enough to stay in TJ after sundown, you'll see a complete different face of the city at night. Thousands of people are out on the streets bar-hopping and having fun – locals and the very few Americans who understand how the city works.
It truly saddens me when people come visit Tijuana, fall for a tourist trap, have a Corona with lime, take their picture with a zebra/donkey, buy a few cheap trinkets for souvenirs and head back home. TJ has much more to offer, and if you wander into a bar filled with locals, most of the people here speak perfect English and are very excited to show you what the city has to offer. So stop being afraid of everything and have yourself a little Tijuana Adventure. After all, life's about stepping out of your comfort zone and discovering new places. Take a chance in TJ, and you have my promise that you won't regret it.
Just be smart, don't get too drunk, mingle with the locals, have fun, be safe and enjoy the magnificent blossoming metropolis TJ is becoming.