Most tourists who pass through the turnstiles on the Mexico-U.S. border in Tijuana make a beeline for the gaudy Avenida Revolución -- that is, if they're willing to make the trip at all. Tijuana isn't exactly a dream destination for all travelers, but it's a wonderland for anyone with an appreciation for raw, odd, and often hilarious pieces of art and culture.
Art in Unexpected Places
Most visitors don't realize that by turning right and heading back toward the iconic border wall, they can bypass some of the cheap souvenirs and obnoxious pharmaceutical hawkers. Instead they'll encounter one of North America's most compelling art spaces: the house-turned-international-art-center dubbed La Casa de Túnel. The center's name (Tunnel House) is a nod to the illicit underground passageway that once ran from the house, underneath the border patrol station, and up to a parking lot on the American side. Shaped like a hulking, white boat, the building's terrace offers a spectacular view of one of the world's busiest border crossings.
Still fewer will stray beyond the immediate border zone to the suburban neighborhood of Tijuana architect, Armando Muñoz Garcia, who built a 55-foot, 18-ton concrete statue of a naked woman, known as La Mona, in order to commemorate the city's 100th anniversary in 1989. The city thought it was a monstrosity so Muñoz put La Mona in his front yard instead and now uses it as part of his workspace.
If you're looking for a concierge to Tijuana's hidden and quirky charms, there's nobody better than Derrik Chinn, a Midwesterner by birth who lives in Tijuana and commutes to San Diego where he works as an entertainment reporter for the San Diego Union Tribune.
"So many people are so turned off by misconceptions," says Chinn, who is in his late 20s. "The danger isn't to be downplayed, but still this is a very large city with deep cultural roots."
Chinn -- who counts access to rose petal ice cream, eyeball tacos, and paying $200 (!) a month in rent among the perks of Tijuana living -- organizes regular "Turista Libre" trips that are designed to give Americans and their Tijuanense counterparts an alternative image of the enigmatic Technicolor border town.
"I've heard such ugly things out of the mouths of complete strangers when they find out where I live and how much I love it," he says. "I tell them it's a bigger city than San Diego, so there has to be something worthwhile to discover."
Safety in Tijuana
There is, of course, real danger in Tijuana. According to Department of State statistics, there were a reported 600 homicides in the city, which has a population that ranged anywhere from 2.5-3 million in 2009. Much of the drug violence that has plagued Mexico is concentrated near the border. Before you travel, it's wise to check the status of any travel warnings from the U.S. Department of State.
However, travel to any metropolis comes with its own risks. The Los Angeles Times reports 742 homicides for Los Angeles (pop. 4 million) for 2009. Naturally, a sense of insecurity is heightened when you're unfamiliar with your surroundings and/or have a command of the language.
With this in mind, Chinn began organizing off-the-wall adventures after spending 2½ years making converts out of friends who came to visit him. "I realized that if people weren't so afraid that they would really have a much more positive view," he says.
On one trip, Chinn and his companions rented out a Calafia, or small bus, equipped with a killer sound system and black light in order to pay a visit to Muñoz and La Mona. Another "Turista Libre" jaunt featured a double-decker bus tour of local graffiti-adorned billboards. All trips include a trip to a bar and a local restaurant. So far the excursions have drawn participants from San Diego and Tijuana.
"I think it's really important to get them away from downtown; just one block away the street is full of life and vendors," Chinn says. One of his favorite aspects of "Turista Libre" is witnessing the interactions between strangers from two different cultures. "Often they share nothing in common other than a genuine interest to know the true Tijuana."
Derrik Chinn's Ideal One-Hour Tijuana Marathon
To eat: Fruit salad covered in cottage cheese and smothered with miel at La Manzana in La Cacho, or huaraches in the market downtown.
To drink: A copita of mezcal, then a quick dance to obscure Ace of Base cumbia cover below the flashing Simons at La Mezcalera.
To play: A photo below the giant Mexican flag that's the size of a football field. A five-minute shopping spree for TJ-made threads at the HAHA Store. Coffee to go from Statzione by the Hippodrome, then off to wave "hey," to La Mona, the 55-foot naked lady statue hidden in a valley below the airport. Of course this would all be to the tune of blaring Nortec. The one clichÃ© we'd allow ourselves is a photo atop a burro rayado, those donkeys painted up to look like zebras. And yes, definitely to Playas, to the surreal spot where the border fence trails into the waves.
If You Go
La Casa de Túnel (Calle Chapo Márquez 133 Colonia Federal, Tijuana; tel. 52 664/682-9570)
Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Mexico Forum.
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