Everyone we met on the road in California said some variation of the same thing: be afriad of Tijuana. Apparently they felt it was their civic duty to cast a cloud of dread over the next stage of our journey. Well, they succeeded, in part. I felt a thrill running through me from the moment I woke up on our last day in the USA. It was not unlike the feeling you get once the roller coaster’s safety bar locks and the train jerks forward onto the track. The feeling mounted as we neared the border.
Jim, our warm showers host, gave us a much appreciated early morning tour of downtown San Diego, then escorted us all of the 30 miles or so to the edge of the “First World.” We said our goodbyes, pushed our bikes through a turnstile and bam! We were in Mexico. No questions, no searches, no hassles. No English, no French. Bright colors, loud noises, street food smells, chaotic traffic.
Our first task was to find an ATM to withdraw some pesos and pay for our tourist cards. (Visitors only need tourist cards if they intend to travel farther than 50 kilometers or so from the border. The card lets you travel freely within Mexico for up to six months, and you can’t leave the country without one.) The closest cash machines were broken, so we had to ride downtown to get some money.
In other cities we’ve ridden in, the space between cars in gridlock belongs to us. You flow through the cracks wide enough for a bike, adjusting your course as you go. Apparently we’re not in Kansas anymore. Those spaces now belong to people selling throw rugs, hot snacks, t-shirts, chocolate bars, handicrafts and knick-knacks; they file between the numerous lanes of barely-crawling traffic, making quick transactions between accelerations, skirting and dodging like shepherds moving through their herds. It adds a new variable for the intrepid urban cyclist. The vendors seemed to complement our bike messenger skills and sidestepped out of our way effortlessly as we wove a path to “Centro Tijuana” and back to the border.
After getting the proper stamps and documents, we hit Mexico 1 D toward Ensenada. The 1 D is the toll road; Mexico 1 is the free road. The toll road has a great shoulder, smooth pavement, and is closed to cyclists; the free road has no shoulder, is falling apart, and is open to cyclists. Apparently it’s difficult to get cyclists to pay the fee, as they can get on and off the road more easily than cars can between toll booths. Banning bikes wholesale is the current solution.
So yes, we got kicked off at the first checkpoint. As the official was explaining how to get back downtown and onto the free road, a guy with a big pickup truck whistled us over. He gave us a lift about 6 miles or so to Rosarito, where the free road and the toll road meet. From where we were, we almost certainly would have gotten lost by going back downtown. I invite anyone who wishes to appreciate the anxiety we felt to look at a the image below of Tijuana’s labyrinthine streets.
Tijuanan stories of drug war violence and gang shootings during recent years have reached mythical status in the American media and have obviously taken hold of the popular imagination. People we’ve talked to on this side of the Mexican border admit the area can be a bit sketchy, but say stories are blown way out of proportion.
A note on the free road: it’s not that bad. Motorists seem pretty accommodating. There’s usually enough room for us. There are coconut drinks and tacos for sale about every ½ mile. There’s music blasting out of radios in the tiendas, or shops. The speed limit is 80 km/h (50 miles) or lower. At a bicycle’s speed, there’s a lot of local texture to absorb, unlike the toll road, which resembles any American highway.
Thanks for reading – check back in a couple of days for a Pedaling South Mexican Christmas Greeting!