Famous last words. For months we’ve been seeing foodie/traveler shows head south to explore Tijuana’s blossoming gourmet scene. People as famous as Anthony Bourdain and as unknown as the fat Mexican-American guy from on our local PBS channel head south of the border to eat and drink some of the best food this side of the Mississippi. Since I am no longer tracking every single calorie that touches my tongue and generally enjoying life again, we decide to check it out for ourselves.
The border is just a short drive from our house, so we did some research and found that instead of walking across the Tijuana-San Diego border, for just 10$ round trip you can take a lovely air-conditioned shuttle bus which leaves every hour on the hour. The article I read said this was the easiest, most comfortable and fastest way into downtown to explore the food and culture of Avenida Revolución, TJ’s main drag. I should’ve known better after reading the very few totally mixed Yelp reviews. Some suggested just as this article did, that it was in fact fast and easy and convenient, while others described a royal shit show with van and bus transfers, no A/C and no hourly pick ups, etc. We figured it was a 50/50 shot so we hauled ass to make it to the parking lot before the hour only to find out that the bus would be arriving 25 minutes later. At 10:20am we hopped on a large air-conditioned shuttle and we’re on our way. We can see Mexico, it is literally on the other side of the road separated by a fence. Our 3.5 year old yells, “This is the best day EVER!!!!” as we do another U-turn in a strip mall parking lot so that we are finally heading in the direction of the border crossing. After a 5-minute drive we stop at another parking lot to pick up more passengers and their luggage, followed by another 5 minute drive, some more U-turns, and more passengers and luggage. At this point an American man on the bus yells aloud, “Good luck! I’m walking!” and promptly gets off to walk across the border rather than ride to another parking lot, all while still in America.
Finally we get into border traffic and are in the all too familiar crazy lanes heading to TJ… yeah! This is really happening! But then we stop again, this time at the customs building on the Mexico side. Everybody is instructed to get off the bus and head inside with all their luggage as well. We are dropped off and asked to fill out Tourist Visa forms, something we’ve never done when we drive ourselves into Mexico to stay in condos near the beach. After standing in line for some time and our children and fellow passengers being terrified and intimidated by the black German Shepard in a kennel barking at us, we finally get our visas stamped for our lunch. It is now 11:00 am and the kids nap-time is quickly approaching. A little over an hour after we started and we finally meet back up with the rest of our shuttle about 6 blocks from where we started our day. All of them look and sound just as confused as we are which is not a reassuring sign. Two Mexican-American women who were crossing just to shop for the day also chose to walk from here and take a cab rather than get back on this chicken bus. The kids were really enjoying it though as they love buses and we felt like finally, we might just be getting somewhere now. After a short drive toward town our bus pulled over again and we, the only remaining Americans, were asked to get off and board a van across the street. Once on the van I tried to ask our driver where we would be picked up later and at what time, it’s times like this where my high school level Spanish recall really comes in handy as our driver knew little “Inglés”. We are dropped off near the south end of the Revu where a man who spoke fluent English greeted us and confirmed the departure times of the vans heading back to the American side parking lot. Total time from parking lot to drop off: 1 hr 30 minutes. Total distance from parking lot to drop off: 2.4 miles. If you are embarking on an adventure in Mexico with two small children in tow, this is the only way for it to start.
We set off on foot checking out restaurant fronts and shops mostly to find a lot of the same shit that is for sale at the border; Mexican embroidered camisas, magnets, straw sombreros, purses, jewelry, blankets and the like. We Yelped a few restaurants and hoofed it back and forth only to find that all the top rated places were closed on Sundays. Many of the places look like what you’d find here in San Diego in our hipster neighborhoods, lots of reclaimed wood and galvanized metal décor, but we came for Mexican food not gourmet pizza and craft beer. After finding all our top picks closed we came back around to the Mexican restaurant and bar we first passed. The waiter asked if we wanted to dine upstairs and after confirming it was covered seating we ventured inside. What we thought was just a small restaurant ended up being one of the largest, most dangerous looking nightclubs we’ve ever entered sober. There were so many rooms and extensions of rooms, stairs that were so-not-to code and sticky dance floors covered with beer bottle caps, making for the perfect souvenir for the kids. The tables upstairs against the railing overlooking the Avenida were barstool height, perfect for suicide watch for our young children 3.5 and 22 months. We ordered some ceviche to share and a few Micheladas and a quesadilla for the kiddos. We worked hard to finish our giant, cold red beers and mediocre room-temp shrimp ceviche while restraining our toddler from hurling himself over the railing to his sure death below. The kids enjoyed the dance floor and Vivi declared that the club’s bathroom was, “The most beautiful bathroom I’ve ever seen, Mama!” We paid a whopping 38$ US for ceviche, a quesadilla with rice and beans, a Michelada, Bloody Mary and 2 Pacificos which were supposedly “2 for 1”. After literally peeling the kids up off the dance floor we headed out back on the street to shop. But first, we practiced our Spanish ordering ice cream. I am still not totally sure what I ordered but I believe it was a Mexican version of Rocky Road.
On the street there was more of the same, little shops selling the usual stuff and guys out front begging you to come inside to purchase something “nice for the kids”. There was live music on one corner and a busy market across the street. We did a little window shopping and didn’t even bother haggling over a cheap Peppa Pig purse for Vivi, her treat for behaving so well. By now nap-time was fully upon us but our shuttle bus was not departing for another hour so we loaded a sleepy Leo and a happy, sugar-fed Vivi into a cab to take us back to the pedestrian border crossing. We agreed on a fare and 4 dangerous minutes later we were walking across a long covered bridge with several hundred other people. The left lane was for “Publico en General” and the right side reserved for “Ready Lane” users. I looked at the border wait time app which reported a 40-50 minute wait for pedestrians, but having used the app before when coming back by car I knew this number was not realistic. The people in the right lane continued to file past us while the kids played “I-Spy” pointing out the garbage below in the Tijuana River bed. I spy a shopping cart, I spy a used needle, I spy a beer can… and so on. After an hour into our wait we saw the nice ladies from our shuttle bus, one of them gestures for me to come over to them in the fast lane. She reports that she thinks that she and her friend and us as well should all be in the “Ready Lane” because we are American Passport holders. I scurry back through several hundred people to Kai and the kids and fill him in. I then ask the only nearby white people if they know this to be true. The two gentlemen inform me that only Passport CARD holders can use the faster of the two lanes. We stay put and hope the nice ladies make it and aren’t forced back into the slow lane. We play more I-Spy and I tell the stories of Moana and Beauty and the Beast and sing every lullaby I know. I’ve given each kid three suckers at this point as well just to keep them quiet, I’m amazed that they are still awake let alone talking normally and not crying. We finally get inside the building and are about 20 feet from the customs agents’ desks when Vivi starts to lose it. Leo was squirming to get down out of the Ergo carrier and Vivi was dying to get in it. My back was aching from what was now an almost two hour wait on foot while holding either 25 or 32 pounds of child. Vivi wanted on my back, dad’s back wouldn’t do of course as dad’s _______ is never as good as mom’s. Fill in the blank with whatever, poor dad is never as good as mom even though mom would LOVE for him to be. And then the tears start, and the wailing, meanwhile Leo is flirting with young girls behind us in line and running under the rope barrier toward the agents with rifles. I offer Vivi a time out or a chance to get it together but it looks like I’m about to lose this battle. We’re soooooo cloooooose!!! I grab both kids and we step up to the agent to get checked back in to America. The guy looks at us with a confused smirk and says, “What the hell are you guys doing in this lane? Don’t you know you should’ve been in the Ready Lane (aka the fast lane)? I bet you guys want to come down here more often but you don’t because of the wait right? Well you guys didn’t wait in the right line, it’s a lot more fun when you’re not waiting right?” Geeeeez…Ok we get it. Noted for next time… if there ever is a next time.
Later that night when home we got online and still to this day cannot find a single bit of evidence that a Passport alone makes you eligible for the Ready Lane, in fact it said just as those gentlemen suggested, that you must have the Passport Card and that electronically chipped passports were not sufficient. Seriously could they make it any more fucking confusing? All we wanted to do was go have lunch!!!