During November 2009, super curious to experience how Mexico, a country I love, had been doing since my last visit a year earlier, I decided to visit the sole resort towns in the much maligned border zone, Ensenada, a popular cruise ship stop, and Rosarito Beach, a spring break destination, as well as the border town of Tijuana.
That decision turned into one of the most interesting and fun travel days I have ever experienced.
Of course before following in my footsteps, you will want review the safety information and links below.
Obtaining Mexican insurance and driving across in your own vehicle present no legal problems, but I did not have mine on this trip. And, as you can imagine, although it can be done, most rental companies do not allow their cars across the border.
As one alternative, I could have taken the San Diego trolley to the border and then used frequent bus services to access downtown Tijuana and beyond, but opted for the easy way an escorted coach tour instead.
Gray Line San Diego offers three tours to Mexico:
* Tijuana only,
* Tijuana plus Rosarito Beach, or (my choice) these plus
* Ensenada, which takes some 12 to 13 1/2 hours depending on your pick up point.
Most travelers opt to tour Tijuana only, a real shame. Go for the Ensenada tour, which also includes Rosarito Beach and Tijuana.
With a pick up point in La Jolla farthest from the downtown San Diego waterfront Gray Line office, the bus came for me at 7:00 a.m., with drop off at 8:30 p.m.
With this tour, Mexico began not at the border but when Abel Rojas, the incredibly friendly and good-humored shuttle driver, pulled up in La Jolla, and did not end until I was dropped off that evening.
Abel actually lives in Tijuana for the affordability of family homes compared to the horrific prices in San Diego. That means leaving home at around 4:00 a.m. to beat the border crossing crowds and not getting back until very late evening.
Early rising did not impact Abel’s enthusiasm and desire to make the ride as comfortable and interesting as possible, including an offer to grab a coffee along the way, when he found that I had not had breakfast.
Until other people joined us, we enjoyed an in-depth conversation about Mexico vis-à-vis the U.S. I was very disappointed to find that Abel was merely the shuttle driver for this trip, and was assigned to another tour later that morning.
My disappointment at Abel Rojas’ departure ended quickly when Brandy Blackburn bounded onto our bus at the last shuttle stop, in order to steer Ensenada and Rosarito passengers to her bus.
Born in Colorado, but now living in Tijuana with her family, Brandy is quite remarkable. She is simply the best guide I have ever experienced.
“I don’t do Gray Line’s tour to Ensenada; I do mine,” she warned.
Believe me, you will love it.
Brandy prepared us well for the seriousness of the crossing into Mexico at Tijuana. Heavily armed Mexican troops greet you at the border. Not a fun bunch. These people are on the front lines of the drug war, at much risk to themselves and even their families.
While U.S. concerns about the Mexican border are well known, Mexico has its own, for example, how easily weapons can be obtained in the U.S. in order to try and smuggle these into Mexico for the drug cartels. Mexico also battles to stop illegally gained wealth from the U.S. from passing into Mexico to fuel even more criminal activity.
The border situation has deteriorated since the increase in crystal meth manufacturing in places like Tijuana and since the diversion of crack and cocaine traveling to the U.S. from Columbia by small boats and planes to land routes via Mexico. When mixed with the huge volume of legitimate goods that cross the border each day, traffickers reduce their risk.
This is a very complicated subject. The United States demands that Mexico stop drug traffic, while Mexico asks the U.S. to do far more to control consumption.
Yet, actions can have unintended consequences. When various American states cracked down on the sale of crystal meth ingredients, manufacturing moved in mass to Mexico, which has been able to produce a purer and more addictive product in higher volume to import into the U.S.
Interestingly, Mexican officials and solders are simply not used to women bus drivers such as Brandy. In fact, some have never seen one.
This is not a country like India, Pakistan, or the UK that has had a female head of government. Of course, neither has the U.S., in spite of the steps America has taken toward equality.
From experience, Bandy has adopted a very macho and businesslike stance when dealing with the guards. She never allows herself to be placed in an inferior position.
Perhaps not surprisingly this smoothed our way through each armed checkpoint, the border one plus six more combo toll booths/checkpoints by the time we made it back to the border. At one stop, perhaps sensing trouble, Brandy spoke only in her unaccented American English, instead of the seemingly perfect Mexican Spanish she used elsewhere.
At this first crossing, with no checks of passengers or of the cargo hold, we were waved through within several minutes, as we were at every stop within Mexico.
Nevertheless, I found the experience of crossing the border at Tijuana a far cry from when I last crossed by strolling across a stress free bridge over the Rio Grande to dine in Piedras Negras a few years ago.
Within a few minutes, we were driving on a divided express highway along the actual border on the Mexican side. This was quite fascinating.
You have the true border with the remains of earlier boundary markers, an arid vacant space on the U.S. side that I dubbed “no person land,” and then that humongous new wall that seems impossible to cross, but is not.
All along, there were small groups of men sitting in the American “no person zone” and on the hillsides to the south starring at that fence.
The same limited access divided toll highway travels along the coast from the outskirts of Tijuana to Ensenada. This offers fine views of the coast.
Because this is a toll road, a lot of traffic stays on parallel two-lane roads that are free. This helps smooth the trip. Moreover, toll highways are considered safer in Mexico.
Although beaches in Mexico are public and the government has set aside a few coastal parks, overdevelopment mars much of this shoreline, with seemingly endless fine homes and condos adjoining the ocean.
Happily, the toll highway sits above much of the construction, which preserves many of the views.
We reached the Rosarito Beach Hotel on the main street of Rosarito, a popular spring break destination, for our first sightseeing stop. This hotel, one of the nicest in town, fronts a rather nice long beach.
As with Southern California beaches, the water remains quite cool all year, and you really need the warmth of a hot day to enjoy swimming, which we did not have in mid November.
Those of us going to Ensenada had 90 minutes either to hang at the hotel and enjoy the beach and hotel pool or to explore the town.
If you take the tour only as far as Rosarito, not recommended in my opinion unless you can enjoy the beach on a warm day, you will have six hours in Rosarito.
That Rosarito is laid back (at least outside of spring break) is an understatement, but there are quite a few shops and restaurants near the Rosarito Beach Hotel to liven things up a bit, as well as Mexican branches of Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Applebee’s, and the like further up the main street, in case you are already homesick.
Based on my informal survey of sidewalk demographics, this has become quite a retirement area for Americans.
Speaking of sidewalks, Rosarito has meticulously engineered many intersections for wheelchair ease, but some sections between intersections maintained by merchants are incredibly rough, with changes in elevation that approach six inches. Watch your step when walking in this town!
Just south of Rosarito, we stopped overlooking extensive Baja Studios, the former Fox Studios Baja.
Baja Studios was closed to tours, but from our viewpoint above it, we could clearly see the studio layout, including the infamous tank used for filming the drowning scenes in Titanic.
James Cameron, Titanic’s director, certainly did not have to overexert himself coaching his actors to look miserable in that water. You really feel the cold after a short time.
Other films shot here include Pearl Harbor, Deep Blue Sea, Master & Commander: The Far Side of the World, Ghost of the Abyss (again with James Cameron), In Dreams, and Weight of the Water, as well as the Tremors television show and various others.
Ready for filming, a tall ship used in Masters & Commander sits docked near the Titanic tank.
Just south of Baja Studios, Brandy showed us the exclusive condos and homes that house movie production staffs and actors, including the one in whose penthouse Leonardo DiCaprio stayed. His view was pleasant indeed.
My mouth watered as Brandy drove past—drove past!–the village of Puerto Nuevo, with seemingly every building devoted to a lobster restaurant. Lobster boats dock nearby.
A full lobster dinner by the sea with a drink adds up to around $15.
Brandy, #fail. (Just kidding. I realize that it was a bit early for lunch, especially per Mexican custom, and that the cuisine in these restaurants might not have been appropriate for some tour members.)
Curiously, Ensenada fronts a harbor, not a grand beach or a grand beach with a harbor, unlike other oceanfront resorts in Mexico.
If it had a rail connection, Ensenada would be one of the great ports on the Pacific coast. Nevertheless, it’s a busy port, and an extremely progressive and attractive city that is fun to visit.
In contrast to the slightly (or more) gone to seed appearance of so many American and Mexican cities, Ensenada shines.
Sidewalks in good repair sparkle, you do not notice trash, and the most modern plaza I have ever seen directly adjoins the downtown, with free wireless reception.
Overlooking all this flies a huge Mexican flag. I am surprised that they did not haul that thing over for World Cup 2010.
In spite of its clean and orderly nature, Ensenada does not seem dull in any way. I really enjoyed it.
Above: Golden headed statues of three Mexican heros in Plaza Civica, Ensenada’s main plaza. These honor Benito Juarez (one of my favorite persons), Miguel Hidalgo and Venustiano Carranza.
Overwhelmingly, Ensenada must be the Viagra capital of the world.
Pharmacies—and, you’ve never seen so many pharmacies in such a small area—blanket the downtown. Invariably, these display large signs advertising Viagra or Super Viagra, as well as often ones promoting “best prices here” for other sexual enhancement drugs, along with price lists for regular prescription medicines.
This is obviously where many Americans head to save on pharmaceutical costs.
Included in the tour cost comes a complete lunch at a rather good Mexican restaurant with excellent service.
Along with salad and dessert and, if you wish, a margarita, choices include Mexican-style chicken, cubed steak, and two fish dishes plus a vegetarian meal by request. Mexicans do not eat snack or home-style foods like tacos and burritos when they go out to “better” restaurants. Best not to ask for these at a formal place with “class.”
I liked that tour members could dine at a restaurant “approved” by Gray Line that gives comfort to those worried about dining in Mexico, but did not like that the food was significantly less spiced than normal even for this type of Mexican cooking. Apparently, no one wants to disturb Americans who are perceived as wanting blander food.
After our meal, we were free to wander around on our own. Most shopped; I explored.
Because Gray Line deliberately parks at the tallest building in town, you’ll find it easy to make your way back after exploring on your own.
From the plaza, just up the street from the restaurant, I walked across to an adjacent park that overlooks the waterfront. This is a pleasant place to people watch and to enjoy the view. There’s also a very clean public washroom that you can use during your explorations.
From the waterfront park a boardwalk takes you along the harbor.
I continued north along the harbor beyond the boardwalk to the commercial section, with an eye on another tall ship in the distance. Its shipyard was securely fenced off from the public, but I could get an excellent view from across the street.
This shipyard seemingly had every conceivable small ship (usually very old) that could be used for film production. For some crazy reason, I wanted to start my collection with a large old tugboat.
Sadly, my tour departed too early in November to see the many gray whales that teem along this coast in winter (peaking in February). Nor did we have time to venture out of Ensenada to nearby attractions, such as to “La Bufadora,” a blowhole that spouts seawater 70 feet into the air.
Winter and especially early spring would be excellent times to visit this area for the whales and for the green countryside that comes with winter rains.
Except for the periodic checkpoints, the drive back up was quite relaxing, with the views of the ocean even better as dusk approached.
In this direction police and troops were apparently looking more for drugs than guns. The checkpoints were more serious in nature, with armed troops at one lining both sides of the roadway.
After a short tour of Tijuana, we parked on Avenida Revolucion, the main drag.
Again, nearly everyone shopped as I walked around. Leather and silver items plus discounted alcohol were most popular with our group.
Although infamous for the raunchiness of some of its entertainment venues, the mood on Avenida Revolucion was upbeat, with people of all ages enjoying a warm and pleasant evening. The street did not have the seediness that one expects from its reputation. As in Ensenada and Rosarito, the streets and sidewalks in this area were very clean, with no homelessness or panhandlers visible.
In fact, with all the families around, life in downtown Tijuana seemed quite normal.
However, way more so than in Ensenada, lounge and shop barkers approach you and try to entice you in. However, smile, quickly look away, and continue walking without pausing. It helps immensely not to walk too close to doorways.
Returning to the bus, I found Brandy enjoying a visit with part of her family, including her mother, a daughter, and several grandchildren. They spend time with her at this stop.
Knowing the long hours that she works away from home, this was heart-warming to see.
Also at this stop, on hopped a singer with a guitar that soon had the group—tired as we were—enthusiastically and loudly (and rather professionally, I might add) singing cliché but fun Mexican standards, and we were not even drunk. Seriously.
Until our mariachi, as we called him, left us at the border, this was a joyous way to end our time in Mexico, and I thank Brandy. Both Abel and Brandy imparted the spirit of Mexico just as if we were honored guests in the country.
Just prior to crossing, Brandy let a Mexican pastry vendor she knew sell to us and that helped alleviate the rather long time we waited for clearance to go into the U.S. customs and immigration office.
This is the world’s busiest border crossing, with some 50 million people crossing north each year. Many of these are people like Abel and Brandy, who sleep in Mexico, but work in the U.S.
Regarding the pastries, I should mention that Brandy did not spend the day steering us into various shops for commissions, a habit of some guides that has so irritated me at times in the past.
Crossing back into the United States by coach was considerably more complicated than entering Mexico.
Even the buses lined up differently. With so many, there had to be a space left between some, so that the U.S. Border Patrol agents could tell that no one was sneaking past on foot.
Brandy clearly spelled out what we needed to know in order to have a smooth process, as she could not to accompany us into the immigration office and then to a new location of our bus that we hadn’t seen. In this situation, we watched out for each other, making sure everyone cleared customs before leaving the office and finding the bus.
In spite of the crowds, the customs and immigration officers remained pleasant and professional.
Since the “troubles” started–the H1N1 flu outbreak in Mexico, the ongoing drug war publicity, and the U.S. economic downturn–Gray Line has lost half of its customers to Mexico. Our tour had 18. Some days none show up.
Gray Line operates a tour with as little as one reservation, not wanting to cancel on anyone, but because of the licensing arrangements, it has to use big buses into Mexico, not an economical situation.
This decline in passengers impacts not only Gray Line but also the people in Mexico who depend on tourism, such as the people who work at the restaurant we visited, and even the incomes of tour guides from tips, a sad situation.
Nearly our entire group consisted of very up-for-it Australians, Canadians, New Zealanders, as well as several other internationals, including a very fun honeymoon couple from Cornwall with whom I enjoyed lunch.
I am proud of the several older American couples who joined this tour. They had fun!
In general, Americans tend to be very risk-adverse when it comes to travel.
I am not advocating that anyone take crazy chances, but too many forget the dangers of merely staying home in a country with one of the world’s highest crime rates. As mentioned below, Tijuana in the heart of the drug war zone back in 2008 had a lower murder rate than the popular tourist city of New Orleans–and that rate has most probably gone remarkably down.
Some also tend to forget that much of the fresh food Americans enjoy, such as salad greens, comes from Mexico. In Mexico, as in other countries, it’s not so much what you eat but where you eat that determines your well being.
I found the comfort level on this tour very high. That means people were happy and relaxed throughout. Except for several joking remarks about the length of time it took to re-enter the States, I never heard a complaint.
You must have a valid passport or approved alternative document to take this trip. Merely having a driver’s license does not work. If appropriate for your nationality, you must have a visa valid for reentry into the United States.
Baja is very used to tourists and nearly everyone speaks some English, often excellent English.
Public washrooms have attendants and all that I used were quite clean. Gray Line buses used in Mexico also have facilities.
There is no need to exchange money. Dollars are accepted everywhere. You’ll need some small change for washroom attendants. Fifty cents seems customary. If you give a dollar bill, you may get pesos back, which you can use at your next stop.
Men should not carry wallets or passports in back pockets. Women should not carry significant money or passports in handbags easily grabbed.
Except for those optional sidewalks in Rosarito, walking is easy throughout the tour. You are remarkably free to determine how much walking you want to do. Just one vista point (not at Baja Studios) has many steps, which you do not have to climb.
Of course, traveling to a Mexican border area is not a decision made lightly. During 2010, even Mexico’s secretary of tourism warned travelers not to visit Ciudad Juárez and Matamoras, both on the Texas border.
In fact, while updating this post, I heard,
“What we are talking about here is an all out war in Mexico, just yards from the U.S. border . . . We have had in the last 3 or 4 years 28,000 confirmed murders carried out by the cartels. That’s one every hour of every day . . .”
–T.J. Bonner, President, National Border Patrol Council (the AFL-CIO union of the Border Patrol), speaking on “Geraldo at Large,” November 13, 2010
Without official approval, even U.S. Marines are banned from visiting Tijuana. As USA Today said, “Baghdad si, Tijuana no.”
Before traveling to Mexico, read the current U.S. State Department travel warning dated February 8, 2012. Read the entire warning and use the linked Mexico map.
Nevertheless, the U.S. has its own crime problems.
Moreover, drug cartels in Mexico have not targeted foreign tourists, although a few foreign tourists have been injured in crossfire between cartels and between cartels and security forces. In New Orleans, a city I love, tourists are targets, and should not visit its historic cemeteries alone.
During November 2010, Gloria Guevara Manzo, Mexico’s Secretary of Tourism, emphasized the incredible strides the Mexican government has made in eliminating violent crime in Tijuana during the year before and the year after my visit.
Nevertheless, the crime situation may now be changing for the worse. Moreover, in February, 2012, the U.S. State Department estimated a 20 per 100,000 murder rate in Tijuana as of August, 2011, with some of these taking place in areas frequented by U.S. travelers. This compares only slightly favorably to an estimated 23.8 per 100,000 in Washington, DC, as of 2009.
Will I recommend this tour and this part of Mexico to others? Absolutely. Will I recommend Ciudad Juárez? No.
Brandy was awesome but so were all six people I dealt with at Gray Line San Diego, a company that has much to teach about travel industry hiring and tour operation and planning.
As usual, I paid my way. Gray Line had no idea that I was writing about it.
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