Tijuana, Mexico is a city engulfed by stereotypes and misconceptions. Whether it is because of biased media coverage or simple ignorance, the city is most likely to be thought of as synonymous with mayhem and drugs, political corruption or disorganized inefficiency.
Apparently, a whole generation of individuals have been raised with the idea that Tijuana is a city to be feared. Where once Hollywood celebrities flocked to enjoy the music scene, legal gambling, beaches or alcohol (in prohibition era U.S.A), now people fear drug cartels and what seems on American news channels and Department of State warnings like a never ending barrage of violence and crime.
I mention all of this, even though I know many are tired of hearing these stereotypes repeated again and again, because of a recent conversation. Amongst a group of well traveled individuals, the conversation turned to Tijuana and whether or not it is safe to visit.
Had that been the only question or comment, I would have happily gone into my spiel on all the amazing cultural and family friendly activities that the city has to offer. Unfortunately, I came into the conversation about ten minutes after it had started. Those ten minutes, however, had been filled with talk of dangers and seedy areas and situations in Tijuana. All of those commenting spoke of downtown, revolution street, and other areas within a couple of blocks of old downtown Tijuana. No one mentioned another part of town, neighborhood, area, or option. It was as though Tijuana was made up of a four to eight block area. That’s it.
The sad truth is that most people who do visit Tijuana only see a few blocks of the city. These same few blocks happen to be in the area of town that caters to tourists of a certain persuasion. On weekend evenings, it is American college kids who come to enjoy the lower drinking age. On weekdays, it is tourists with a few hours to enjoy the city- but a fear or a lack of know -how of walking further than the first few blocks. In essence, most of the people who do visit Tijuana really only visit a few blocks of the city.
Tijuana is huge. In the past 20 years it has experienced a population growth that is staggering. The city has grown left and right, west and east, up the hills and down into the canyons. It is so much more than the first quarter mile after you cross the border by foot.
I got to thinking today that most people see the news and see Tijuana as a police car, a siren, and a crime scene. Maybe they see a rich drug lord being taken away in handcuffs. If foreigners do see another side of Tijuana, it’s fair to say that what they see are the pleas for donations by charitable organizations. Therefore, the sights are poor children begging on the streets or elderly people selling trinkets. This segment of society shown on TV is found living in homemade huts, with dirt floors and scarce food supplies. The last real possibility of a glimpse into the Tijuana foreigners typically see is probably the romanticized version of a market or craft stand.
Of course, all of these images are rooted in some level of truth. There is crime in Tijuana- just like in every other city around the world, yours included. And yes, there are drug lords in Tijuana too. I am willing to bet that someone in your city sells illegal drugs as well. There is poverty in Tijuana, there are children who must go out into the world and earn money in order for their families to eat. And, yes, some of these less fortunate citizens do live in homes with dirt floors. To deny any of this would be to try to hide an inconvenient truth. But this is only part of the whole picture.
Beyond the social problems that plague any city, Tijuana is also a blossoming and loved city.
One need only to go out into town, into the center of real Tijuana, to realize that life is bursting with possibilities in this “border town”. People, young and old, working hard to make their dreams come true. And, more to the point of this article, people whose lives look nothing like what your TV or newspaper has told you.
Here, in pictures, is part of the real Tijuana I know.
It is not all cardboard homes or adobe houses. This house sits on a typical Colonia Hipodromo street.
Mexicans are very friendly people, but we also love our privacy. We don’t typically do “white picket fences”. What you will find are walls surrounding homes for both privacy and security.
Think all people in Tijuana are poor? This is ONE house. The owners are local business entrepreneurs and what you see in this picture is the peach colored home and green colored tennis courts and indoor pool.
Just another backyard in Tijuana.
There are few cookie cutter neighborhoods in Tijuana. Most residential areas have a wide variety of home styles. It is easy to take a drive around town and find modern homes next to Mediterranean style homes next to Contemporary homes next to Ranchers.
View of a neighborhood street in Tijuana. Lest you think everyone hides behind their privacy walls, here you can see that even people with a garage have no problem parking their cars on the street.
And yes, of course, not everyone lives in a large home. Here you can see a colorful apartment complex on top of a hill in Tijuana.
Parties and Social Life
Tijuanenses (people of Tijuana) are very social and like to spend time out with friends. You will seldom find a good empty restaurant in town and most people (who can afford it) go out to eat several times a week.
A birthday party is a special occasion and Tijuanenses go all out for their parties. There are many rental halls and spaces available around town for people to rent and host their parties- from grassy ones with play equipment for small children to large wedding-like venues for teenage birthday parties or other special occasions.
People in the city like to dress up. You won’t find too many people walking around in flip flops. Here you can see boys dressed in their best for this Quinceanera party.
Local establishments also host birthday parties- like just in any other city around the world.
Food/ Restaurants/ Markets:
I once had someone ask me if they should bring their own bottled water when visiting Tijuana. The answer is no, you should not. Not because you are going to drink the tap water, that’s not recommended. But because there are plenty of supermarkets and convenience stores and other places where you will be able to get your water fix. Quite frankly, you have access to pretty much everything you are used to if you come from an American town. But why would you want to buy what you are used to when you can try authentic Mexican products?
These are real tacos. The next time you go to a Mexican Restaurant anywhere in the world and they serve you “tacos” that don’t look like this, know that they are not real tacos.
A small Mexican candy shop. Mexican candy is more salt based than sugar based which causes some confusion for visitors. But go and pick something you can’t distinguish, chances are it will be amazing. Different, but amazing.
Enjoying lobster at Puerto Nuevo. Because Mexicans do eat more than just rice and beans and tortillas and tacos. Though, to be fair, we do eat our lobster with a nice side of rice, beans and tortillas!
Comercial Mexicana is one of the many supermarkets in Tijuana. Looks like pretty much every other supermarket you’ve ever seen huh? Yeah, that’s my point. Tijuana is not that different.
La panaderia, the bakery section, at the supermarket. Not all Mexican markets are outdoors, traditional ones. Some are just boring, typical supermarkets.
Pizza at Oh Zone! A local fun for all type entertainment complex.
Of course, just like we have some small mom and pop candy stores, we also have this Mega Candy store! Imagine your huge local supermarket- but for candy! We love Tijuana.
Breakfast at a local restaurant.
Lunch at an Argentinian restaurant in downtown Tijuana. Yes, Revolution Street has more than trinkets and bars.
Another Mexican candy store. So many options…
Taste testing the candy
Stores also sell more traditional Mexican candy like these. Milk based, sweet, often with some type of nut involved, these candies are delicious and always a hit.
Mexico is a predominantly Roman Catholic country and as such you will find plenty of churches as you explore Tijuana. With Sunday mass, baptism, reconciliation, weddings, funerals, and many more reasons to attend church, people in Tijuana get to experience the mass and visit several different churches throughout their lives.
Just like houses, churches in Tijuana vary greatly in architectural style and inside decorations. Of course there are some things that will always be the same, this is a church after all. But it’s amazing to experience the different personalities in each church and congregation.
Iglesia Del Espiritu Santo in the Aguas Calientes neighborhood
Cristo Rey at the Los Alamos neighborhood
La Catedral de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe in the downtown neighborhood of Tijuana.
Entertainment/ Fun/ Beach:
Tijuanenses are a culture loving bunch. The CECUT is often host to symphonies and musical talent that everyone can enjoy for free!
An empty beach in December. Still beautiful and plenty of fun to play in for the kids.
The Caliente complex once housed a horse and dog racetrack. Today it is a casino with a bar and restaurant inside and plays host to several child friendly events throughout the year.
Oh Zone! is a family entertainment complex with just about everything a kid could ask for: bowling, roller skating, rock climbing, arcade, sky jamboree, snack bar, and monthly special events. There is really no reason why kids would NOT love Tijuana.
Roller skating at Tijuana’s Oh Zone! Even with a first time learner we never had an issue with the bigger kids or adults.
Watching the koi fish in the pond inside Galerias Hipodromo, Tijuana’s newest mall complex.
Kids just being kids.
At an art opening, the reception was very welcoming to the kids and they even got to talk to the artist!
Learning art appreciation at the CECUT- free on Sundays!
While some people have expressed a fear of visiting Tijuana, I found myself giving my daughter more and more space to grown and just be. With a family friendly vibe, she walked further and further away from me until I could barely see her with the zoom lens.
In Tijuana I found a place where children can just be children.
Think Tijuana is boring and has nothing to do but bars? Come winter, Parque Morelos brings out the ice skating rink!
Ice skating in Tijuana
A musical event at Tijuana’s CECUT. No one here is thinking about selling drugs, or stealing your wallet, or girls gone wild weekends. This is Tijuana- regular families going about their lives, learning, enjoying, living in peace.
A free holiday show at Galerias Hipodromo.
Kids enjoying their rides at Mini City (think KidZania).
Learning about wind and flight at El Trompo, an interactive science museum in Tijuana.
We found plenty of classical books available, in both Spanish and English, at the CECUT. Some of these have been adapted for early readers or just for kids in general. Awesome book resource!
If you look closely you will see two little girls running around in this picture. I would, personally, never dream of letting my child do this in the U.S.A. But, in Tijuana, this was a typical afternoon. For five months we did not have one bad experience. And neither did any of the other families we encountered or befriended.
Silly kids just enjoying an evening out in Tijuana. Once the sun sets and it gets dark… nothing changes. People and families still walk around the streets, go out and live their daily lives, and have fun.
One of the malls in Tijuana, decorated for Christmas fun. Santa was around and so was a snow machine that turned the Galerias Hipodromo courtyard into a wintery wonderland.
Walking around the Pasaje Rodriguez in downtown Tijuana. Culture, art, cafés. Safe, educational, family and child friendly.
Another free exposition at the Tijuana Cultural Center.
Playing at the Oh Zone! arcade.
This isn’t just a kids beauty salon, it’s also a yummy restaurant called Princess Tea Party. This is every little girls dream come true!
Playing a card game at McDonalds. Did you know they offer a backstage tour at the Tijuana McDonalds across the street from the CECUT?
The cultural programs and opportunities in Tijuana are endless. There is something to do almost every day of the week!
Playing at El Trompo, the interactive science museum in Tijuana. With four floors and several rooms of exhibits and hands-on labs, this science museum is an amazing educational tool in the city.
A visit to the Aquarium in Tijuana.
Children play together in the park. Even if your child walks into the park knowing no one, children will walk up and start to play with each other.
Enjoying the children’s reading room at the Tijuana Cultural Center.
Screen time? There are too many trees to climb in the park to bother with screens.
Child friendly beaches around Tijuana.
Children in a 4th grade classroom: with access to more technology than the U.S. school district we come from
A local pre-k to 12th grade school
Children during an expo for their handmade Christmas nativity scenes. In this school there are children from several different continents attending. But the school is not the exception, the price range and demographics are the same as other area private schools.
Order and routines are established and the learning is above grade level. The typical 4th grader in Mexico is completing math work that the typical 5th grader is doing in the U.S.A.
Off to school in the morning. Notice the manicured front yards, the clean and paved roads. I point them out because most people I talk to do not believe this is what Tijuana looks like. But it is.
The school yard at Colegio Reina Isabel in Tijuana, Mexico.
A classroom the day before classes start.
Bilingual and, sometimes, even American trained, dentists and doctors in Tijuana are capable and excellent medical professionals. We have full medical insurance in the U.S.A. and I still fly to Tijuana to go to the doctor and the dentist. Clearly that kind of dedication is just my own particularities because I love the doctors I found in Tijuana, but my point is that there is excellent healthcare in Tijuana.
Las Torres is a big mall, office, and hotel complex that can be seen from far and wide in Tijuana.
The government of the U.S.A. presented this statue of Abraham Lincoln to the people of Tijuana. It now stands in a roundabout in the city.
Just another day in a Tijuana neighborhood.
The arch of Tijuana as seen from Revolution Street. Touristy, yes. Fun and worth a walk? I think so.
Playing outside at night, happy and safe.
A view of the Caliente complex from the top floor of Galerias Hipodromo Mall.
82 pictures to show you what part of the real Tijuana looks like! This is obviously not comprehensive, there are still parts of town you have not seen, many actually, but all of this is beyond the limits of downtown Tijuana. This is where life unfolds for the city residents- not in the stereotypical city built in someone’s imagination.
If this all seemed boring and “typical” I’ve done what I set out to do: show you that Tijuana is just another city (albeit one with amazing cultural opportunities). Nothing to fear here.
So please, come and visit Tijuana. Put fear aside and come find out why so many of its young people refuse to leave, why they build homes and lives in this vibrant community, and how the world is missing out on getting to know the real Tijuana.
And if you want to follow along with our own adventures, in Tijuana and around the world, “like” us on our Facebook page Border Free Adventures. We love to share insider tips, videos, fun stories, and personal recommendations!