Though it's just a few miles away as the seagull flies, Tijuana remains a city of mystery to most San Diegans. Where do they find those striped donkeys? Monkey Show-fact or fiction? What the hell happened last night, and where did I get this hat?
Many a gringo can attest that the city's greatest preternatural power is it s ability to turn every last peso in one's pocket to lint. This in spite of signs everywhere advertising four tacos for a dollar, 99-cent beers and all manner of earthly delights at better-than-believable prices.
There are two great truths oft overlooked by visitors to TJ. The first is you really can have a great time shopping, eating, drinking and engaging in all manner of merriment for pennies on the dollar you'd pay stateside for a similar experience. Another is that TJ is a beautiful, cosmopolitan city with as much to offer the discerning day-tripper as it does the debauched.
All it takes is a little planning and a sense of adventure tempered with self-control. That velvet painting of the devil relieving himself may indeed look quaint above the mantle at the frat house, but understand that for the same price, you could treat the whole rugby team to an afternoon in a world-class museum. Read on for tips on how to stretch that American dollar to the max and come home with more than a hangover, nine packs of chicle and a burning sensation in the most unpleasant of places.
In order to maximize your food dollars and gastronomical adventuring in TJ, toss every horror story you've ever heard out the window and hit the stands and storefronts. Shearing slabs of meat off the side of some animal slow-roasting on a spit might be different than they do it at El Torito, but damn if it ain't tasty. Not too mention cheap and a far more valid cultural experience than hitting up the imported fast-food outlets lining Revolución.
Those with a less adventurous palette can hit up a hot dog and hamburger stand, and many TJ veterans (myself included) swear by Baja-style hot dogs. Wrapped in bacon, grilled and smothered con todos (ketchup, mustard, mayo, salsa and grilled vegetables if you're lucky), they can't be beat at a buck-a-piece.
For more fancy fare, hit up Caeser's on the strip, birthplace and namesake of the ubiquitous salad. Each serving is hand-prepared, from scratch, at the table. Couple with a few mixed drinks (the margaritas rank miles above the watered-down, premixed, two-for-ones at the discoteqas) for a fabulous meal that should run around $10 a head.
Avenida Revolución may have been a blast in your younger days, but face facts-you ain't a freshman at State anymore. Formerly acceptable behaviors like doing body shots off of bleached-blonde nymphets might have been a hoot back in the day, but now it's just creepy.
But turning 21 doesn't mean your wild nights in TJ have to end, and the city has much more to offer than bad club music, college nights and "sexy ladies contests." Leave the strip to the kiddies and hit up Plaza Fiesta, where you'll find all manner of bars and clubs. Entertainment options run from Revolución-style decadence to TJ's premiere punk-rock venue and higher-end establishments where the sociales come to wet their whistles. There's at least one place there to find $3 32-ounce Tecates, and you know you're on the right track when locals outnumber marines on leave and aspiring Girls Gone Wild stars by a healthy margin.
With gas and admission prices, a family trip to Los Angeles to visit King Tut today costs roughly as much as six days and seven nights in Hawaii. But culture needn't be the exclusive property of the privileged, as evidenced at the Centro Cultural Tijuana. The Centro houses an Omnimax theater, alternating art exhibits, a library and bookstore, film screenings, workshops and more. Most impressive is El Museo de las Californias, an ultra-modern museum containing exhibits on prehistoric Mexico, the Spanish Conquest, Chinese culture in the Mexicali Valley, Tijuana's glitzy early 20th-century history and many other areas of interest. Many of the Centro's exhibits are free (particularly the wonderful art installments) and museum admission is a steal at around $2. Most major exhibits are in English and Spanish and most staff members are eager to lend a helpful hand translating.
Want a rich cultural experience for damned-near free? Still hung up on the language barrier? Grab a cup of joe in the museum's cafe and enjoy the truly international language-chess. Jaque mate.
If high-falutin' cultural outings ain't quite your bag, check out the Museo de Cerca de Tijuana (Tijuana Wax Museum) for some more lowbrow entertainment. Admission to the wax museum-one of a handful in all of Latin America-is less than $2. The usual gang-Sly Stallone, Gandhi, Rita Hayworth-is here, but the museum also offers a crash course in Mexican history, pop culture and folklore. Americans jaded by characters like Freddy Kreuger can still recoil in horror at the visage of La Llorona, and notice how similar Montezuma looks to classic Anglo depictions of Christ, the Emperor seen here presiding over an Aztec human sacrifice.
If your tastes are still more cavalier, Hipodromo Caliente offers the rare (for residents of our neck of the country) opportunity to bet on greyhounds. Betting is pari-mutuel à la American establishments, so you can fare as well or poorly as you're likely to in the States. Watching the dogs run, if you never have before, is well worth the price of a $2 bet. The track also has a free zoo (of sorts), the stars of which are a bevy of bears that seem locked in perpetual combat. The track also offers another glimpse at TJ's gilded age-the original track (destroyed by fire in 1971) was one of the world's premier spots for thoroughbred horse racing.
Tijuana's bus service is undergoing some growing pains as it attempts to modernize, but buses are available to most points of interest for casual tourists. An arguably better option is the Taxis de Rutas-route cabs that follow set itineraries and can get you most anywhere in the city for 65 cents. They generally arrive faster than buses and get travelers closer to their destinations in a shorter amount of time. They can also provide quite an interesting ride-many times you'll find yourself the solo tourista in a cab packed full of locals on their way to school, work and life.
Cabs more akin to those in America-transport to a specific location-are classified as Taxis Especiales. They can be a rip-off or a bargain depending on driver and destination, but some money-saving tips are bartering and establishing a relationship with the driver-perhaps offering a set fee to carry you everywhere you want to go over the course of a day. Typical one-off rides are $5 and well worth the cost for a real E-Ticket Ride through the streets of TJ-not recommended for pregnant women or those with heart conditions.
Bikes are also available for rent all over TJ, and walking is always an option. Keep in mind that bike lanes are basically non-existent and pedestrians may or may not have the right of way. Walking is safer than many believe it is in Tijuana, but always exercise the caution and common sense you would in any major metropolitan city.