What Does a Travel Warning Look Like in Tijuana?

Travel Blog  •  Jim Benning  •  04.20.10 | 1:19 PM ET

Avenida Revolucion in Tijuana. (Photo by Jim Benning)

Something like this, snapped with my camera phone over the weekend.

I went there for lunch and took a stroll down Revolution Avenue, the main tourist thoroughfare lined with bars and curio shops. A few years ago, the street would have been hopping with gringos out for an afternoon of margarita drinking, taco downing and sombrero buying. Not these days, and especially after the latest travel warning issued earlier this month.

A number of shops and restaurants were closed. The sidewalks, at least on some blocks, were nearly empty.

I’ve been going down to Tijuana for years. The drug-related violence has been taking a toll on the tourism business for a long time. But this was, by far, the emptiest I’d ever seen Revolution Avenue. Strangest of all, I didn’t see another gringo on the street during my visit. I was less than a mile from the U.S. border but in some ways felt as though I could have been in central Mexico.

One shopkeeper told me he sees more European visitors than American these days. (Now that I think about it, I saw more German travelers than American when I visited the southern Mexican state of Chiapas several years ago.)

Revolution Avenue wasn’t entirely empty. There were people out having drinks and lunch in bars and restaurants, and some of them appeared to be having a good time. They just weren’t white Americans.

This street designed to appeal to gringos is now, it appears, catering almost exclusively to Mexicans.

17 Comments for What Does a Travel Warning Look Like in Tijuana?

TambourineMan 04.20.10 | 2:55 PM ET

It’s getting worse. I was in TJ on a weekday about a year ago and saw maybe ten American gringos and a few Europeans walking La Revo. But not one single whitey on a weekend? Wow. Muy triste.

Dan 04.20.10 | 3:32 PM ET

Isn’t the violence in TJ centered in the eastern part of the city? I thought the main tourist districts were largely untouched. Oddly, New Orleans is really busy with American tourists and the murder rate is at least as bad. (Actually, I just read one article that said N.O. has the 3rd highest murder rate in the world, with Tijuana in 4th place). It’s really too bad how misinformation scares people off and ruins people’s livelihoods. New Orleans is fine for tourists, and probably TJ too.

The Real Tijuana 04.21.10 | 1:03 PM ET

Local gringos still come to Tijuana on the weekends. The photo for this entry was taken at 4:57 last Sunday which, even during our most heavily touristed years, is a time when they have all gone home to roost. And, yes, 2010 is not one of our most touristed years. Thanks to the police corruption of the previous municipal administration and to official misinformation about travel documentation, tourism hasn’t been this bad since 1936–39. La Revu is a shadow of what it once was and is presently uncertain as to whether it needs to ride out the storm or to reinvent itself. We ran an item about that recently, http://realtijuana.blogspot.com/2009/12/rescuing-la-revu.html  We will be running an item soon about the passport hoax.

As to Dan’s question, yes, there was some violence reported in the eastern part of the city a couple years ago when the last administration was forced out of power; one incident even occurred within a few miles of downtown. Dead bodies continue to left in the less-populated parts of the city to the east and the south. But Tijuana is now a huge city (latest estimate, 3,800,000 inhabitants) and these violent deaths are all connected to Prohibition II, not tourism. So, as Dan says, innocent bystanders are safer in Tijuana than they are in New Orleans – or Detroit or Columbine High School.

Honestly, there are two dangers that a tourist faces here: rogue cops and pushy salesmen. Bad cops are on the decline because we’ve been firing them as soon as they are denounced. The pushy salesmen are on the rise because they have been sent to us daily from California’s prisons for the last fifteen years. Both will back down if only you would stand up to them. The state of Baja California maintains a free hotline for such a purpose – dial 086 from any public telephone, day or night, for bilingual assistance.

Jim Benning 04.21.10 | 1:25 PM ET

Great comments.

It is time to bring Avenida Revolucion into the 21st century if it’s going to thrive in the future: Ditch the zonkeys—those poor donkeys aren’t having any fun on those street corners, anyway—and bring in new restaurants and shops catering to more sophisticated visitors.

Bill 04.21.10 | 3:02 PM ET

I visited an orphanage in Tijuana once a week for over a year.  I have only missed one weekend this year.  I usually stay for 2 or 3 days.  I have never had an unpleasant experience.  I have never felt unsafe or uncomfortable.  I have never seen any indication of the violence that makes headlines and inspires the travel warnings.
I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, only that Tijuana is not the battle zone you would imagine from the headlines and travel warnings.  The media rarely reports good news.
I give my friends the same advice I would give them for visiting London, Paris,  Rome, or New York:  You are safer with a group.  Avoid dark, lonely places.  Don’t display expensive jewelry or lots of cash.  Keep your passport in an inside pocket.  It is as attractive to thieves as as jewelry or cash.  If you are going for a short visit near the border, don’t take your car.  Traffic is is different and can be confusing, and parking can be difficult.  Remember all of these things make good sense in London, Paris,  Rome, or New York.  One difference, taxis are much cheaper in Tijuana.

The Real Tijuana 04.21.10 | 5:24 PM ET

Please, Mr B, our zebra is the symbol of Tijuana. We can no longer ditch it than we can stop speaking Spanish. It dates back to about 1941, when one of our arrieros visited the San Diego Zoo and noticed how much better its zebras appeared on his Polaroid black-and-whites than did his greyish donkey. 

Tourists were being photographed on top of ordinary donkeys since the beginning of the twentieth century. The zonkey, on the other hand, is a completely different animal, a true genetic cross between a zebra and a donkey. We’d rather paint ours.

Polaroid stopped manufacturing its black-and-white material a year or two ago and that forced our arrieros to join the twenty-first century (as you say) in spite of the fact that they are extremely proud of their tradition. You can now find several donkeys on La Revu whose stripes have fallen off them – after all, how can the arrieros offer you the traditional photo when your own cell phone gives you something better and cheaper? Yes, these arrieros will tell you, take the donkey’s picture, but also leave us a pourboire, after all the donkey must eat.

We really don’t want to ditch the donkeys even though their days appear to be numbered. They have been our trademark for more than two generations.. O tempora, o mores.

We used to have several high-quality shops on Revolución but all have closed except Hand Art and the Emporium,
because the others relied exclusively on walk-in business. The best of all was Tolán, gone now for at least five years. As to shops that appeal to more sophisticated visitors, then, what might you suggest? This is not a rhetorical question. Quality has always been a chicken-or-egg issue: whenever an economy contracts, high quality is always the first to go and last to return.

You can eat well on La Revu at La Placita. You can eat better, however, in the Distrito Gastrómico, the restaurant district. That area is currently undergoing urban renewal and will emerge reborn very soon. Stay tuned.

Fortunately, in a city as large as Tijuana, there are quality shops that rely almost entirely on local customers and which can serve to anchor the growth of a more sophisticated tourism. Our own blog, The Real Tijuana, was created to promote such a renaissance (“no more drunken children!” insisted one of our members). Thus your input will be valued. You are invited to send it directly to our Reader Service e-mail, if you wish.

The alternative would be for Baja California to legalize drugs like marijuana and thus convert Prohibition II into Prohibition I (during which Tijuana raised enough money to fund the Mexican Revolution) … hmm … maybe not such a bad idea considering that no one on either side of the border wishes to learn from history.

Jim Benning 04.21.10 | 6:39 PM ET

I appreciate your passion and love for the zonkeys and their history in Tijuana, but they really have to go. It’s time for Tijuana to evolve, and they symbolize, in my mind, a Tijuana that is best left to the past—the days when most Americans thought Tijuana and Mexico offered little more of value than cheap tequila and hookers. Really, they don’t bring dignity to La Revu or Tijuana. They’re cartoonish and embarrassing. They were a bad idea then, and they’re a bad idea now. Just because they’ve been there a long time doesn’t make them a good idea.

Tijuana should be a thriving border city with a unique energy and spirit and culture that can only exist on the Alto California-Baja California border. Think Nortec Collective—a wildly creative, modern-yet-traditional fusion of sounds and influences. That spirit could be a model for what La Revu could become.

I’d like to see cafes with ambience and readings and music; more clubs featuring live trova and cutting-edge border rock and electronica, in addition to great mariachi; great Mexican food and fusion cooking: Bring in a Sushi Itto, the Mexican sushi chain; boutiques selling inventive contemporary Mexican art and border art and not just Diego Rivera prints and Frida Kahlo knock-offs.

Take all of the tired panchos and sombreros and cheesy T-shirts and assemble them in one giant tourist supermarket and then, with all the leftover space, help develop and attract genuinely creative and interesting businesses catering to a sophisticated, bi-national, bi-cultural crowd.

Of course, all this would require serious investment and a total overhaul of La Revu. That’s not likely to happen now, in this economy, with a drug war raging. But perhaps the groundwork can be put into place now so that if and when a little more peace and prosperity come, changes can be made.

I love Tijuana. I want it to prosper. La Revu has attracted a lot of idiot Americans over the years just looking to get loaded, because that’s what the street offered. A new and improved Revolution with genuinely more interesting businesses and culture would attract a whole new crowd—the same kind of Americans who travel to Oaxaca and Mexico City and Michoacan and San Miguel de Allende.

It could help to usher in a new era in border life. I would love to see that.

The Real Tijuana 04.21.10 | 11:54 PM ET

Our zebras are not zonkeys. Zonkeys are a different – and very real – animal. Our zebras might be cartoonish but we’re very fond of them, and, unlike Reagan and Bush, they aren’t really embarrassing nor have they provoked any wars.

What you’ve asked for already exists. Some of it has made into into our blog already, so please visit it before lodging any more complaints, and start with our very first entry. There are even academics who study the “unique energy and spirit and culture that can only exist on the Alta California–Baja California border”. The Nortec Collective *is* from Tijuana (in fact, Bostich and Fussible just played at the old Jai-Alai Palace last week). You can’t walk a block without tripping over some trova. Avenida Sexta is thick with ultracool bars. You can get poetry readings throughout the city. Sushi-Itto has been in the Zona Río for years.

All the Diego Rivera prints, Frida Kahlo knock-offs, ponchos (properly called “sarapes”), sombreros revolucionarios, and cheesy t-shirts exist because you lot keep buying them. You all used to buy portraits of Elvis on cheap velvet but now not so much, so now it’s not so easy to find an Elvis on velvet. ¿Me explico bien?

Please understand that all markets respond to its buyers. When you begin to buy more intelligently, more culturally, Tijuana will be happy to offer the merchandise you are looking for. In fact, such an infrastructure already exists because it is already serving a local demand. That is one reason why our group started The Real Tijuana – to explain in English that which already exists in Spanish. It is (forgive my frankness) you who needs to become more bicultural and binational. We did that two centuries ago, ’mano.

Jim Benning 04.22.10 | 11:31 AM ET

Re: “It is (forgive my frankness) you who needs to become more bicultural and binational,” I couldn’t agree more. And that’s really why I’d like to see La Revu offer something to Americans beyond just tequila and sarapes—La Revu is Tijuana’s best chance to help make that happen. If it’s only about supply and demand, little will change, I suspect.

I think we probably agree on more things than we disagree. Perhaps we can hash this out over lunch at La Cantina de los Remedios one of these days—I love that place and enjoyed your recent post on it.

I love what you’re doing with The Real Tijuana. (I tried to post a comment there a couple of days ago; it still isn’t up on the site.) Keep up the good work!

Dan 04.23.10 | 12:34 PM ET

While the Zonkey/Donkey subject may be interesting, their presence (or not) has little to do with tourists in Tijuana now. TJ can and probably should try to offer a more authentic experience, but in the short run, tourists are simply afraid to be there. They’ve left because of perceived crime in a part of town where it’s really not a big deal.

How do the federal, state, local and tourism authorities deal with that issue and start bringing people back into the city? The most important response, of course, would be to get the drug violence problem under control—both in Baja California and across the country. Wouldn’t it be nice if Americans would help out by losing their appetite for hard drugs, and the US would legalize pot…

Jim Benning 04.23.10 | 1:20 PM ET

Good points, Dan.

Unfortunately, not only will Americans not lose their appetite for hard drugs anytime soon, but they also won’t be willing to restrict gun ownership—and it’s American guns that are fueling Mexico’s drug war. Obama won’t touch the issue with a 10-foot pole.

TambourineMan 04.23.10 | 1:21 PM ET

“The Real Tijuana” is correct when he says what Senor Benning has asked for already exists. However, when it comes to the typical American tourist (not intrepid gringo hipsters and foodies), ultracool Avenida Sexta bars, the Zona Rio and the Distrito Gastromico might as well be on Mars. Jim is right. It’s all about La Revo.

Call me crazy, but I think the drug war and absence of idiot gringo tourists could potentially be the best thing that ever happened to cheesy/gaudy old La Revo. Now is the time for Tijuana locals to take back La Revo and transform it into a REAL thriving cultural scene. Yes, ditch the zebra zonkeys. Lose the crappy souvenirs. Remove the sarape and cheesy t-shirt supply-and-demand factor from the equation entirely. Gringos aren’t visiting/buying anyway, so take a chance. There’s plenty of time. Even if the drug war ends tomorrow, it’s still going to take a few years for frightened Americanos to return. And when they do, they’ll be going to one place, and one place only: the new and improved LaRevo.

TambourineMan 04.23.10 | 1:36 PM ET

Yes, Obama needs to grow some cojones. When it comes to gun issues, he has been a real pendejo. NRA nuts aren’t gonna vote for him anyway.

As for legalizing pot, that won’t help. I don’t know one stoner who still buys/smokes Mexican weed. Most of the quality bud is grown right here in los Estados Unidos. What needs to be legalized is the hard stuff: meth, coke and heroin. Drug war: over.

The Real Tijuana 04.24.10 | 1:55 AM ET

For Dan: The three levels of government (SecTur, SecTurE, and COTUCO) don’t really care about Revu, which been going downhill ever since Prohibition I was repealed. The average total expenditure per visitor is now less than fifty dollars and repeat customers are maybe one percent of the traffic. All three levels of government refer to this as “two-bit tourism”. The feds don’t really have any plans for us, SecTurE (state) is developing biotech manufacturing (maquiladoras as tourism!), medical tourism, and enhanced retirement opportunities. COTUCO ... sigh ... well, they might be working on a big new convention center down near Rosarito. The only people who want to see the two-bit tourists return are the shopkeepers on Revu and they don’t have much clout these days.

For Mr TambourineMan: It’s unlikely that Revu will make any radical change. Its absentee landlords date back to 1889 and they are nicknamed “dinosaurs” (as in “adapt, hell, it’s all in your imagination”). They don’t need to lower their rents just because they have twenty percent occupancy. Calle Sexta and the Jai-Alai Palace are within La Revu’s borders but the bulk of our cultural awakening is taking place in other parts of the city for a variety of sound economic and social reasons. If your typical gringo tourists aren’t willing to grow some balls, they’re just going to miss out on all of this. To pervert a phrase from the Last Poets, this revolution isn’t going to be on Revolución.

The pedestrian corridor between the border and Sanborns was never, ever intended to give the tourist a “real thriving cultural scene”. It’s always been like the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. Only more fake and more tawdry. One of the biggest problems that our restaurant association has with Revu, in fact, is that locals won’t go there because (¡guácala!) it’s the gringos’ street.

Things just don’t change overnight in Mexico. The cement block we build our houses with – you’d be surprised how closely it resembles the tezontle that Cuauhtémoc used to build his.

TambourineMan 04.26.10 | 1:39 PM ET

“If your typical gringo tourists aren’t willing to grow some balls”

This is exactly what I’m saying. They’re not.

Dan 04.27.10 | 8:44 AM ET

I don’t mind being called a gringo, but when it’s used in such a negative way, Tambourine Man, it comes across as…. well, not very nice (I’ll leave it at that). You may want to tone down the rhetoric.

With that said…

Most people don’t have a great geographic knowledge of specific cities. For example, how much do you specifically know about the various safe or unsafe neighborhoods in New Orleans? We hear things are bad in Tijuana, thanks to somewhat unspecific State Dept. warnings, and we stay away. And the tourists wouldn’t be wrong. In real numbers, the city as a whole is one of the most dangerous in the Americas, even if that’s not the case in a specific tourist area. You can’t blame tourists for wanting to spend their weekend in a safer place. Even though I’m not real worried in Tijuana (but I know the city), I’d probably rather head down a little further toward Ensenada. Mmmm, fish tacos!

TambourineMan 04.27.10 | 4:11 PM ET

“You may want to tone down the rhetoric.”

Aye aye, Captain Sensitive.

“I’d probably rather head down a little further toward Ensenada”

Don’t overlook Tecate. Mellow border town. Friendly people. Great tacos.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.