Rick Steves, It’s Time For a Tijuana-Off!

Speaker's Corner: The travel guru recently suggested that the Mexican border city is a hellhole. Tijuana-defender Jim Benning invites him to go mano a mano, travel writer-style, south of the border.

06.12.07 | 6:09 PM ET

Tijuana lucha libre Mexican wrestlerPhoto by Jim Benning

Yes, Rick Steves. I’m calling you out. I’m with you that the tiny Austrian village of Hallstatt is lovely, and that Ireland’s sleepy Dingle Peninsula is a fine place for a bike ride. I’ve even been known to wash my socks in a hotel sink. But when it comes to Tijuana, I’m afraid we part ways.

You know what I’m talking about. In a recent story headlined, The new Tangier is no Tijuana, you wrote, “I’ve always called Tangier the Tijuana of Africa.” You then noted that Tangier was “a neglected hellhole for a generation.” I get it. I can do the math. Tijuana, in your well-traveled estimation, is a hellhole.

Well, I have news for you. Tijuana can be a hellhole, but like Tangier, Tijuana is changing, and it can also be a pretty great place to explore.

So I have a proposal. Just as faux TV pundit Stephen Colbert invited Sean Penn to a ridiculous but entertaining Metaphor-Off after one of Penn’s widely publicized, metaphor-strewn anti-Bush rants, I’m inviting you south of the border with me to go mano a mano in a no-holds-barred Tijuana-Off. Or at least to enjoy some tasty carnitas. The point is, I want to show you the other side of Tijuana. I want to show you, in language any headline writer can understand, that the new Tijuana is not the old Tijuana; that Tijuana should not be a synonym for seedy Third World urban nightmare.

I know what you’re thinking: Tijuana? Not seedy?

Hear me out. I used to be like you.

No, I didn’t travel all over Europe as a guidebook-writing, PBS-show-hosting rock star with admiring “Rickniks” throwing their fanny sacks at me.

I mean that I, too, once looked down my nose at Tijuana, regarding it, as many Americans and even many mainland Mexicans do, as a hellhole.

In fact, in a story about Bali for National Geographic Adventure, I once referred to Kuta Beach as “Bali’s noisy answer to Tijuana.”

(Hold your comments, Kuta Beach fans. Otherwise this is going to get very confusing.)

But then I moved to San Diego and really began exploring Tijuana. I discovered that there’s more to the city than Avenida RevoluciĆ³n and its tawdry bars, strip shows and drunk Americans. There’s also more to it than the city’s inane but very cute mascot.

What, exactly, have I discovered about Tijuana? The place is changing for the better. That’s what you’ll discover in our Tijuana-Off.

I know you love India, so you don’t require every place you like to be scrubbed Geneva-clean. Like much of India, Tijuana can be a bit rough around the edges. And yes, it has more than its share of crime and violence. We’ll tread carefully.

I make the invitation to you as a fan. As you may know, I once interviewed your very thoughtful son. When I spent six months backpacking through Europe more than a decade ago, you were with me, via your fine books, every step of the way. You nudged me to take a stroll through Gimmelwald in the Swiss Alps and to try a rijstafel dinner in Amsterdam. More recently, you hiked alongside me (and dozens of other Americans carrying your books) in the Cinque Terre. You even lingered with me in some of Europe’s best—as you once put it—“linger-longer squares.”

See? We’ve lingered together, sort of. So let’s linger in the new Tijuana, for reals.

I know you might be traipsing around Europe now, but you’re going to have to pass through San Diego eventually for one of your many PBS pledge drive appearances. After you’ve helped the local station raise a truckload of cash, drop me a line. We’ll visit Tijuana. We’ll dine. We’ll tour. We might even take in a little lucha libre wrestling. It’ll be a full-on Tijuana-Off!

Then we’ll see what you think of your old Tangier-Tijuana comparison. You might even have a new story to write: “The new Tijuana is not the old Tangier.”


7 Comments for Rick Steves, It’s Time For a Tijuana-Off!

Kelsey 06.13.07 | 12:01 PM ET

Jim, like the tights, cape, and mask.  Although, I’m not sure white is your color.

Rick is going down!

Noelia 06.13.07 | 2:05 PM ET

Hi there, enjoyed the article on Lucha Libre and hope Steves takes you up on the challenge. (Personally I prefer to bypass Tijuana/Rosario and head straight to Ensenada.)
I wrote a piece on the local (and I mean VERY local) lucha libre action a few months ago, if you’d like to check it out: http://www.sitebits.com/2007/viva_lucha_libre.html

Thanks for your wonderful site!

Jim Benning 06.14.07 | 4:10 PM ET

Thanks, Kelsey. I kinda like the tights, too. Just don’t tell anyone.

Glad you enjoyed it, Noelia. I’ll check out your story. And I, too, like Ensenada. It’s muy tranquilo—much quieter than Tijuana.

Jim Benning 06.14.07 | 4:18 PM ET

Just got a thoughtful response from Rick Steves via e-mail. Alas, I don’t think he’s taking me up on my invitation, but he is prepared to seek out a new metaphor, which is good enough for me.

(!Si se puede!)

Steves writes:

Dear Jim and all citizens of Tijuana,

Yes, I said “Tangier is no Tijuana.” And yes, that was an insult to Tijuana. Last time I saw Tijuana…it was the pits. But I must admit that I haven’t been to Tijuana in a long time and if you say it’s enjoyed the same improvements that Tangier has, I believe you.

Actually, I refer to Tijuana not as the town but as a generic concept…a corrupt and ramshackle south-of-the-border-ville.

Tangier has sweat shops providing relatively solid employment and bringing investment from over the border. Women in colorful robes create a human traffic jam as they fill huge warehouses each morning to labor away making cheap and generic clothing for big European department stores for $8 a day. I suppose Tijuana has benefited from a similar trickle-down from its rich neighbor to the north.

Anyway, as globalization pulls South-of-the-border-villes out of their squalor and hard work by self-respecting local citizens give these former embarrassments pride, I’ll need to find a new metaphor.

Happy travels-even to Tijuana,

Rick Steves

woooosh 06.14.07 | 8:38 PM ET

Yup, it’s a hell hole alright. It’s not Mexico- which is full of wonderful places and people, but the “Tijuaneros” who make TJ the armpit it is. Even the US Custom Officers at the San Ysidro crossing will tell you that the “Tijuaneros” are different from other border cities they work- much more aggressive. Just try to merge over one lane when yours closes at the border and you’ll see what I mean.  Mexico is a great place for expats like me to live, but hold your nose and drive through TJ as quick as you can. Thanks god the mexican army has taken over! JMHO of course.

TambourineMan 06.15.07 | 1:57 PM ET

Steves-groupies are called Rickniks? Are you serious?

urban trendy wear 03.11.08 | 12:34 AM ET

are you kidding me? you follow Rick Steves? hahaha…

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