Looking for a fun and culturally stimulating way of spending a day outside of the States when exploring the west coast? Just head to San Diego and then keep on heading south.
On a recent trip to San Diego to meet up with friends there, and other friends who were visiting from Michigan, we decided to take a walk to Tijuana, Mexico on a mission to get some vanilla extract. Locally known as “TJ”, Tijuana is a great place to escape the American SoCal culture and submerge yourself in the colorful, scent-ual, flavorful, vibrant, urban energy of border-town, Mexico.
The main street, Avenida Revolución was a lot cleaner, more polished, and more “Americanized” than I had remembered, but the smaller intersecting streets still had that charm and uniqueness that reminded me that I was no longer in the United States.
We started the day driving about 30 minutes to the U.S./Mexico border in San Diego, parked the car for the day (I left Gypsy Rose at my friend’s place for practical reasons although you could park your RV near the border) and then proceeded to walk a few blocks to the border crossing with our passports and sunscreen. The new pedestrian border crossing facility in Tijuana, the San Ysidro Port of Entry is very pleasant, modern and easy to navigate. At the time we had arrived, there were no lines and we breezed through customs without any wait at all. I believe it was a weekday at around 10 am.
This was my second time in TJ. The first was probably 15 years ago, so my recollection of the place was slightly fuzzy in my memory. The city seemed to have changed quite a bit since that first visit. The main street, Avenida Revolución was a lot cleaner, more polished, and more “Americanized” than I had remembered, but the smaller intersecting streets still had that charm and uniqueness that reminded me that I was no longer in the United States.
And those painted, striped donkeys, known as “zonkeys” (live donkeys painted up like zebras) that are staged on the street corners with a wooden set and props like sombreros and ponchos for tourists to dress up in, as they get their photos taken in black and white, vintage-style fashion, were still there too. We even succumbed to the lure and had our photos taken for old times sake. The kitschy-ness of it all and the fun that it provoked was entertaining. But with the fun aside, if you love animals like I do, it’s hard not to think that those adorable zonkeys aren’t having as good a time as you are.
Next on our agenda was a recommendation from my friends who live in San Diego. It was a must-do on their list – a meal at Caesars, the home of the original Caesar salad! This meal did not disappoint one bit. Every dish we had was tasty and beautifully presented and the table-side Caesar salad is indeed an original and unique culinary experience. The famous Caesar Cardini dressing is made from scratch right in front of you and the salad tossed up in a big wooden bowl. The atmosphere is old-world and lovely and the service is excellent. If you make the trip to Tijuana, I highly recommend a meal at this famous restaurant which is located right in the heart of the main strip. And once you convert your currency not only is the food good but so is the value.
Next stop for us was Mercado M. Hildago, a vibrant marketplace with mom-and-pop vendors selling everything from fresh produce and molé to toys and clothing. We hopped in a cab for a short 10-minute drive. At the market, there are all kinds of uncommon, yet common items like seeds, baked goods, preserved fruits, painted eggs, various types of horchata, puzzles, wind-up toys, piñatas, freshly-made cheese, fancy dresses, cookware, baskets, leather purses, basically a plethora of interesting edible and non-edible “stuff”. There are also a number of eateries in the complex to satisfy your taste buds or quench your thirst with a cold drink or beer. We came here specifically seeking out vanilla extract and our mission was accomplished but the sensory of sights, sounds, and scents was one to write home about. I was amazed by the beautiful colors of both the organic items for sale and the ones that were man-made – the bright colors really wake up your eyeballs and heighten your visual perception. There seemed to be so much life at the market and so much to be curious about. I loved wandering around and taking it all in. After a couple of hours there, we hopped back in a cab to get to the border. By this time it was about 5 pm.
On our ride back the cab driver took us to the border crossing, but for some reason, it didn’t look anything like the one that we came through. Well, that’s because it wasn’t. It was actually the older one that is still in use and the one where all vehicles must travel through. The line up of vehicles went on as far as we could see and the line for pedestrians, like us, was so long that the signs posted said that it would take us hours to reach the border agents if we stood in line. As a result of us looking frustrated and puzzled we were approached by two men who offered us a quicker way over the border, but indeed there was a cost to this and was it safe? None of us were fluent in Spanish, so we were kind of gathering through gestures that they were communicating what we thought they were. After some thought and consideration we agreed. They told us to follow them and we did. We walk for about 5 minutes, turned a few corners and then right there in front of us was the border building that we entered Tijuana through. At this point of entry, there was a much, much shorter line and no vehicles for customs to process. After about 30 minutes waiting in line, we were back in San Diego with some Mexican vanilla extract and a new story to tell about our one-day adventure in TJ.
So if you’re looking for some adventure and a change of environment for a day, head on down to Tijuana, Mexico and have a Caesar salad, sit on a zonkey, cross back into the U.S. through the new port of entry, not the old, and have a bowl of Viagra soup.
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