Cheryl Howard Went to Tijuana!!??
Yep! I sure did. It was quite the adventure too.
Dodgy and Shady Tour Companies
I had booked a one day excursion from Los Angeles to Tijuana before I even left for California. Within 24 hours, the tour company I booked with emailed me advising the tour was canceled as they did not have enough people participating to warrant the trip. I thought, “no problem” and booked with a different company.
On the day of the tour (very early in the morning), I received a call from the first company (the one who canceled) telling me the tour was canceled to the dangers of gang and drug violence in Mexico. Quite a different story! If this was true why did they advertise the excursion on their web site?
The man on the phone went on to ask me why I never called to confirm the tour in the first place and if I would be interested in booking another tour with them. I was not impressed, told them I had already canceled, was not interested in the other tour, and demanded a refund. He tried to give me a hard time but I continued to pressure him until he assured me I would receive a full refund. (The refund has since been posted to my credit card.)
I called the other tour company and they assured me the tour was still scheduled to go ahead and said there was nothing to worry about regarding gang and drug violence.
Wasting Time At A Bus Depot
Around 8:15 AM, a bus picked me up at the hotel and we continued along picking others up. The driver said hello, assured me I was on the right bus, but mentioned nothing of what was to happen.
We stopped at a couple of hotels and had to wait 15 minutes at one for the people to come on the bus! I was getting a little annoyed as I had no idea what to expect and was left to wonder – were all these people going to Tijuana and how many more people did we need to pick up? I asked a lady next to me if she was doing the same tour and she laughed and explained that she and her daughters were doing a Hollywood Mansion one.
Turns out that the bus takes you to a main depot where you buy your tickets and board another bus. This exercise was another huge waste of time. We arrived at the depot and went through the process. By the time we boarded our bus heading to Tijuana, it was close to 10 AM.
When purchasing the ticket, the woman at the sales desk assured me 32 people were headed to Tijuana. This was a blatant lie.
The Long Drive to Tijuana
After getting on the bus, the driver explained that we would be making several stops that day to Lego Land, the San Diego Zoo, some type of Sea World like place, and finally Tijuana. The people who were headed to Tijuana had to spend the majority of their day traveling on a bus and had less time at their destination than anyone else. As it was the day after July 4, it was a holiday and the roads and tourist attractions were packed with people and traffic. It took forever to drop people off at each of their destinations.
Recommended reading: This post from Like Riding a Bicycle, Hitching in Mexico.
Crossing the Border Alone?!
Stopping at the American side of the border, the driver parked the bus, pointed us to the border, instructed us to walk across, advised us to stay on one main street, and said he would meet us at 4:30 PM. This left us precisely 3.5 hours to tour Tijuana.
I had thought it was a guided tour with some time on your own to do some shopping. There was only 3 of us headed into Tijuana including myself and an older Australian couple. Thankfully, they allowed me to tag along with them and I didn’t half to go about it alone.
Despite being irritated with the tour company and a little scared, I was still excited to explore Mexico for the first time and have an adventure.
To get across the border to Mexico, you walk through two revolving metal doors. That’s it! You’re in. There is no need to show a passport or speak with a border guard. There was a few camouflaged dressed men sporting machine guns though.
We walked across and immediately you are transported into a different world. One that is very poor, sparse, and very “wild” as compared to any city in Canada or the US.
We were immediately hustled by the locals for everything you can imagine. One cabbie wanted to give us a ride, so he lied to us and told us we were going the wrong way. We ignored him and continued along our walk despite his pleas. Almost every store owner would walk out into the street trying to get you to come in and buy something.
There were pharmacies everywhere selling cheap prescription drugs that require no prescription. Boys can buy all the Viagra they desire! There were also a lot of dental offices offering low prices to perform various procedures. Both the cheap drugs and dental work are appealing to Americans without a lot of money and appropriate health care coverage.
On almost every corner, there were donkeys painted with black stripes to resemble zebras, elaborately dressed and tied to a cart. I went to snap a picture and was immediately threatened. No picture without a payment. The price is lowered if you let them use your camera. Needless to say, I didn’t snap a picture. Poor donkeys!
The Australian couple and I were hungry, so we went to a local restaurant and had a lovely lunch. I had a couple of beef tacos, ordered a margarita and got an extra one for free! Both the food and drink were good and I didn’t get sick, which was something I feared.
I parted ways with the couple to go shopping on my own for a little while and promised to meet them at the rendezvous point. I think they were scared to see me go off, but I was only alone for an hour or so.
The hustling continued. I was asked to marry one guy, another asked if I wanted a part-time Mexican boyfriend, several told I was beautiful like a movie star … all said just to get me into their stores.
I stopped by a few. Bought a ring in one, a small Mayan or Aztec piece of artwork in another. I went into a third one simply because the guy tried so hard. He wanted me to buy a Coach or Fendi bag for a “very low price”. I checked them out and they were actually decent fakes. I didn’t buy one of course.
Took some pictures of the street life. Lots of places to gamble, watch strippers – one sign advertised how they will “line up for you”, sex shops, prostitutes, hotels advertising hourly rates of $10 US, kids trying to sell you gum “chiclets”. Bars were offering free beer and tequila take home samples.
There was a lack of nice architecture in the city – saw one one nice building and the notorious arch. I’ve visited poor cities before – Lima, Quito, Cusco but I had never witnessed so much desperation. I found it sad to see the businesses that were flourishing were drug, sex, and gambling related and usually taken advantage of by Americans.
Returning to America on Independence Day
I finished early, returned to the meeting point, and found the couple there waiting. The bus driver found the 3 of us there waiting at 4 PM (30 minutes early), but we were all done with Tijuana.
We decided to head back and see if we could beat the crowds at the border. Turns out there were hundreds, maybe thousands, of people lined up at the border. The bus driver told us he had never seen anything like it and advised we may be waiting 4-5 hours.
He was awesome though – he knew the scene well. He found out that if each paid $5, we could board a bus, which would take us across the border, and drop us off at US customs. It was anticipated that it would only take an hour. We all agreed to do this. We jumped on the bus and it was soon filled to the max. They even sold spots for people to stand in the aisles. The expected one hour wait time was actually 2.5 hours. The bus made me feel claustrophobic and I wanted to scream and run off. It only moved a few feet every little while and the crowd would cheer each time.
I watched out the window, seeing a group of Japanese tourists repeatedly try to bud ahead of others in line, each time being sent back by an angry border guard. Saw several people get arrested. Pretty intense stuff!
Finally, we got across and were ushered into customs. The wait for this line was about 15 minutes, so not bad. The border guard asked me why I cam to Tijuana and where I had been staying in the US. When I came into the US, they never stamped my passport but my boarding pass instead so I never had any proof as to when I entered the US. He gave me a hard time about it, but another border guard came over and said “she’s Canadian, let her in.”
We jumped back on the bus and headed back to pick up the others at their various destinations and back to LA. These people had been waiting for a long time – but the driver had warned them we may be late earlier in the day. No one had to wait more than 90 minutes longer than their promised pick-up time.
One man took this waiting time rather personally and he began to yell very loudly, swear, and get right in the bus driver’s face. When the bus driver tried to speak, the man would only yell more, so he became very quiet and let the man and his wife board. His wife, hadn’t said a word through the whole thing. A bunch of us were ready to yell at the guy and some of the men were ready to throw him off. He had yelled at the driver in front of a bunch if kids too and had been so rude and abusive. The driver did not deserve that either – he had been nothing but helpful and friendly.
I was so angry! He had been able to wait with food, bathroom facilities, a comfortable bench, and in a safe place. What did he have to complain about? He had no idea what happened to us in Mexico and what we had done to come back as quickly as we could.
I heard from others later that his wife had lectured him very sternly and the man had apologized to the driver in a very heartfelt way. Glad to hear he had humbled himself that way.
We finally got back to LA, where some of us had to board yet another bus to go back to our hotels. I was one of them! I was never so happy to see my hotel though. What a day!
Conclusion? I am annoyed with the tourist company for making us spend so much time driving around as it was a huge waste of time and I am unhappy they do not make the itinerary more clear. I am glad I went. It was fun and interesting! I plan to see more beautiful parts of Mexico some day.