Meagan Drillinger
Meagan Drillinger

Tijuana is a destination you’ve certainly heard of but not necessarily one you might be selling.

Over the years Tijuana has gotten a notorious reputation as a seedy place where teenage boys from the U.S. celebrated rites of passage and depravity beckoned at every turn. And while that may have very well been the case as recently as eight years ago, one operator in the region insists that the TJ of today is decidedly different.

“The culture of body shots and wet t-shirt contests that made Tijuana a paradise for frat boys and the military has gone the way of the dodo, thanks to several factors, namely lengthy post-Sept. 11 border waits and a couple years of heightened violence in 2007 and 2008. That essentially emptied the city of tourists, leaving locals with the task of making something of the place for themselves,” says Derrik Chinn, owner of Turista Libre (www.turistalibre.com), a tour operator in Tijuana and northern Baja California. “As a result, eight years later, tourists are returning to savor the booming food, beer, wine, art and music scenes, and we’re now home to a champion pro soccer team, as well, who won the national title in 2012.”

According to Chinn, one of the biggest misconceptions Americans have of Tijuana is that the city accurately reflects all of Mexico and that all of Mexico is just like Tijuana.

“Tijuana, being so geographically isolated front the rest of the country but glued to the edge of the U.S., in its short history has become one of the most unique [urban areas] in the world,” he says. “As the fourth-largest city and fastest growing in Mexico — after Mexico City, Guadalajara and Monterrey — with a population that floats somewhere between 2.5 million and 3 million approximately, it is also bigger than most foreigners would think. And as the largest border city by far, it acts as a migration magnet for people from all over the country.”

Chinn is a former journalist who has been living in Tijuana since 2009. He leads treks and private tours of Tijuana and the surrounding region, specializing in museums, markets, concerts, sporting events, parks, breweries, wineries, gastronomic gems, architectural highlights and other cultural hotspots.

He says Tijuana has plenty to offer foodies and beer aficionados as well as oenophiles, as the city is not too far from Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe wine region. “It might come as somewhat of a surprise, but Tijuana is a foodie’s paradise,” Chinn says. “It is home to the internationally renowned Culinary Art School, whose roster of students comes from some dozen or so countries, and it is also the birthplace of the Caesar salad, where it is still prepared tableside at Restaurant Caesar on Avenida Revolucion as it was back in the 1920s.”


Tijuana is also home to a booming beer scene, a scene that is a bit more refined than it was when college kids slugged Coronas in a daze on the beach. “Baja California is home to more than 80 craft breweries, about half of which are located in Tijuana,” says Chinn. “About an hour away is Valle de Guadalupe, Mexico’s principal wine region, with some 100 wineries.”

On the way to Valle Guadaloupe are Ensenada and lesser-known towns like Popotla and Puerto Nuevo. These are known for some of the best mariscos (seafood) in Mexico. “With the highest per capita population of Chinese immigrants in the country, Baja California is also known for its Chinese food,” Chinn said.

The hotel product in Tijuana is strong for U.S. travelers, with many major U.S. chains in operation, including Hyatt, Marriott and Holiday Inn. There are national chains, as well, like City Express, Camino Real and Lucerna.

Besides the sleaze factor, safety has also been a real concern for tourists traveling to Tijuana in recent years, as the city became synonymous with Mexico’s raging drug violence. But Chinn insists the public has been misled by reports in the media.

“The greatest dangers for any civilian, tourist or resident are on par with those of any major city anywhere in the world, but it’s not what most people imagine when they read the news,” he said, adding a few words to the wise. “The rule of thumb is, unless you're out looking for trouble, trouble most likely won’t find you. The greatest danger is being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as it is in all major cities around the world.

“Make an effort to be a traveler, not a tourist, by adapting to the city rather than expecting it to adapt to you. Don’t do anything you wouldn’t do back home. Know that any travel warning issued by the state department is intended first and foremost for its employees, not necessarily civilians. And unless you’re at the beach, wear pants, please. You’ll stick out a lot less.”

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