Baja California, Mexico: Should You Go?

By Gary Singh

Colossal Olmec head at the Tijuana Cultural Center in Baja California, Mexico. photos by Gary Singh.
Colossal Olmec head at the Tijuana Cultural Center. photos by Gary Singh.

I probably didn’t need five mayors to tell me that Baja California presented no threat to American tourists since it was obviously a safe place to haunt, but that’s exactly what transpired during a rainy weekend south of the border.

Since scribes of a more sensationalistic ilk have recast drug cartel violence as if it regularly explodes on street corners everywhere, many tourists have simply stopped visiting Baja. As a result, the five mayors felt compelled to make their cases over the course of a few days.

A Few Dangerous Neighborhoods

Sure, Tijuana includes a few dangerous neighborhoods, just like any city of two million people. And like anywhere, if one goes looking for trouble, it usually appears. If one rolls with the troublemakers, then, well, guess what happens?

Drug cartels are indeed at war with each other, providing the roots of the violence, but for a casual tourist who descends upon Tijuana, Rosarito, Ensenada, Mexicali or Tecate, the mayors unanimously claim you have nothing to worry about.

Tijuana City Hall World Tour

As we snaked our way through Tijuana (TJ) in a police-escorted tour bus en route to Mayor Number One, our guide regaled us with history. TJ began with 300 people and these days it grows about three blocks a day. Up until the 1970s, people didn’t even use Pesos here; it felt like a separate place from the rest of Mexico. It felt more connected to the US.

During the prohibition era, big casinos drew thousands across the border. So much money exchanged hands that one could almost “sweep American dollars” off the sidewalks. That phrase even became part of the vernacular.

Colossal Paella in San Felipe, Mexico. photos by Gary Singh.
Colossal Paella in San Felipe, Mexico. photos by Gary Singh.

At City Hall, Mayor Carlos Bustamante, in office since last fall, said the local police are collaborating with the army, the state authorities, and the federal authorities to help curb the drug cartels that tend to inhabit the border regions.

Local citizens are now more confident to call 066 when problems arise in their neighborhoods.

Chief of Police Gustavo Huerta said they are trying to root out the corrupt officers, the ones who extort money from tourists. During the last three years, they’ve canned fifty percent of the police force.

Even the citizens, he said, are noticing a substantial improvement in security. Even citizens.

As with the mayor, Mr. Huerta stressed that the violence is primarily from the cartels going after each other. Tourists, he said, shouldn’t feel unsafe at all. At that moment, a 4.9 earthquake hit and we all had to evacuate City Hall and spill into the street.

Art and Superstition in Baja

TJ itself contains much more than meets the eye. Occupying three buildings, The Tijuana Cultural Center (CECUT), continuously evolves as one of the major icons in the city’s landscape. Founded 28 years ago, CECUT is the only cultural institution owned by the government outside Mexico City.

Without exaggeration, thousands of events take place all year long, from art exhibitions, gallery shows, operas, lectures, performances, rallies, conferences, business meetings, trade shows, and open-air gatherings of all sorts. As our tour guide explained, Tijuana is much more than tourists, bars, and tacos.

Since 1992, CECUT has also housed the Orchestra of Baja California, and, since 1994, the Hispanic American Center for Guitar. The IMAX theater building resembles a giant beige ostrich egg and stands out from any vantage point. Outside in the gardens, one finds indigenous sculptures amongst the pathways.

Of course, the main tourist spots in Tijuana still plod along, with trinket shops everywhere. Since one can get Viagra over the counter here, signs exist on almost every corner in the tourist areas.

Street vendor's wares in Tijuana.
Street vendor’s wares in Tijuana.

Superstition reigns free and one doesn’t have to look very far for occult supplies, candles, ointments, elixirs, voodoo dolls, medicinal concoctions, and the likes thereof. I scoped out dead snakes, waxes, oils, and incense everywhere. It was gorgeous.

Every block seemed to offer esoteric blood purifiers, prostate remedies, and nerve fortifiers, even if it was from an old guy in a broken chair on the sidewalk. In Tijuana, this stuff is just as common as fruits and vegetables.

Playas de Rosarito y Ensenada

The further one goes away from Tijuana, the more retired Americans one finds. Known for its plethora of furniture stores, Rosarito just became a city in 1995. Before that, it was technically part of Tijuana.

After Cancun, it is the most popular city for retirees. Americans comprise fourteen percent of the population and own twenty percent of the restaurants.

Rosarito is quite a place to scope out handcrafted goods. One finds home furnishings for one-fifth the price of their equivalents in San Diego. But since tourism is unjustifiably down, business is somewhat slow these days.

One can tell from the unfinished condos existing near many of the beaches along the highway. Again, violence among rival cartels has led to plummeting tourism numbers despite the area being rather safe and sound for casual travelers.

Tijuana Cultural Center. photo by Gary Singh.
Tijuana Cultural Center. photo by Gary Singh.

Mayors Number Two and Three — in Rosarito and Ensenada respectively — both informed us that Baja, across the board, has now become a textbook example of how to root out corrupt police officers.

Every six months, cops are given psychological tests. There’s even the Tourist Police, the Policia Turistica, bilingual units just for visitors. According to the mayors, they receive special bonuses.

Baja Has the Best Chinese Food in Mexico

In Rosarito, eight percent of the population is Chinese, most of whom are direct descendants of original immigrants who came to work on the railroad toward the end of the nineteenth century. Some of the best Chinese food in Mexico is found in this area. Immigration is so commonplace that one can now fly direct from Tijuana to Beijing.

Somewhere just off that same highway, one finds Puerto Nuevo, the legendary fishing village where lobster is king. Right on the ocean, Restaurante Villa Ortega can accommodate hundreds of folks throughout its tri-level establishment. I have never consumed tastier lobster burritos than I did at Villa Ortega.

Sandy San Felipe in Baja

On the other side of the Baja Peninsula, right on the Sea of Cortez, sits the remote desert community of San Felipe. Fulltime retired Americans comprise almost one-quarter of the population of 30,000. Luxury real estate and timeshares abound.

Technically, San Felipe isn’t even its own city, as the community is officially part of the Mexicali municipality, but the area has grown into a paradise for those who’ve left the US behind for good.

In San Felipe, you can drive buggies around without proper plates and no one will say anything. There’s a big ATV presence and offroad racing is common.

We arrived right as an annual Paella Festival in Baja was winding down at the El Cortez Hotel. Several different paella vendors set up shop and cooked their own version of the Spanish classic. The hotel’s own chefs threw together what was easily the best batch of them all.

The requisite Mexican band in Tijuana.
The requisite Mexican band in Tijuana.

Everyone seemed to be partying as if they had nothing else to do. Retired Americans with beer bellies proceed to get hammered while the PA system cranked Bob Seger and Sammy Hagar.

I freeloaded enough Paella for three people and even walked out with a bottle of Chipotle Sea Salt. San Felipe still functions as a fishing village, providing some of the best sea salt I’ve ever consumed.

The classic rock atrocities finally gave way to a native Mariachi ensemble, performing on a stage, on the beach. It seemed like a textbook version of what retirement should be.

All one had to do was just sit around and kill time on the sand. Perfect. I spotted one guy in a shirt that said, “I’m retired. Leave me alone.” So I did.

Totally Tecate

After Mayor Number Four (Mexicali) gave us the exact same spiel about how his town is safe for tourists, we drove into Tecate, home of Corredor Historico CAREM, A.C., an intriguing non-profit organization preserving the cultural and historical heritage of Baja.

On a dark rainy evening, we found Mayor Number Five, who presented a more informal scenario than the other mayors.

We gathered inside around a table with the final mayor and listened to details on CAREM’s efforts. The institution stages exhibits, projects, audio-visual presentations and partner with several entities, everyone from San Diego State University to the Baja Secretary of Tourism and the National Institute of Anthropology and History.

The facilities include the Cachuma Regional Research Library.

Taste of Baja California Tour

CAREM also just launched a four-day & three-night Taste of Baja California Tour, a guided, lectured sojourn into the beer, wine and cultural delights of the immediate surroundings. After the press conference, we stood around and consumed some exquisite adobada tacos–spicy and greasy, just like they should be, and powerful in their simplicity.

In fact, Baja offers quite a few exploits, perhaps unknown to those who just venture down for the Spring Break hysteria. One finds culinary routes, wine routes, missionary routes, hunting tours, eco- and agritours and cycle races organized entirely by American communities. If one only familiarizes one’s self with only the beaches and resorts, one will lose out in the end.

After the World Tour of the Five Mayors of Baja California del Norte, I am a much more learned and safe hombre. I would not hesitate to go back.

Tijuana Cultural Center

Grand Hotel Tijuana

Las Rosas Hotel & Spa

San Felipe


Corredor Historico CAREM, A.C.

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