In a December 2011 Vanity Fair article, writer Dana Vachon described Chula Vista as “a sputtering neon error of beauty academies and pawnshops, recently terrorized by a homicidal Tijuana drug gang skilled at dissolving bodies in chemicals.” He also referred to the year 1989 as a time before “Mexicans were festooning highways with one another’s severed heads.” When the article came out, Chula Vistans and their mayor responded with vehement demands that Vanity Fair writers check their facts (there is only one beauty academy, damn it) and come visit this beloved seven-miles-from-the-border town before taking their stories to print.
The same month the article was published, my husband and I bought a house in Chula Vista, and so I understood the embarrassment over the description. At the same time, factual or not, the writer had aptly summarized the images that presented themselves to me whenever I considered a day-trip across the border. While I hardly felt terrorized in Chula Vista, I was clear on the fact that I would not be going to Mexico anytime soon.
And then, this past Easter weekend, less than a year and a half later, I was hit with the realization that half of everyone I know was either currently gallivanting around Mexico or had just returned. Yes, I’d seen articles in the New York Times about the burgeoning art scene in Tijuana, and in the Wall Street Journal and Condé Nast Traveler about the wine country of Valle de Guadalupe. But somehow, as hip and delicious as all that sounded, I’d never relinquished my fear. Here it was, Semana Santa (holy week), and I was home in Eastlake wondering when Mexico had stopped being a scary place to visit and whether I was the last person still hung up on beheadings, while everyone else was living it up in Baja.
According to Baja California’s secretary of tourism, Juan Tintos Funcke, the area has “seen more tourists, particularly Americans, visiting Baja California in the past two years, especially over the holidays. For example, from Thursday through Sunday of Easter week, 354,000 people traveled within Baja California, the largest influx of tourists we’ve seen since 2008.”
Funcke also shared the results of a 2012 survey on travelers’ perceptions conducted among 600 Southern Californians (in San Bernardino, Riverside, San Diego, Imperial, Orange, and Los Angeles counties). Respondents who perceive Baja to be unsafe decreased by 16 percent from a 2011 survey. Respondents who would not visit Baja because of “danger, crime, and drugs” decreased by 44 percent.
On the other hand, of the 177 people who took the March 31 “Has Fear of Crime Kept You from Visiting Mexico?” poll on the Reader website, 96 answered, “Yes. It’s way too dangerous to visit Mexico right now.” Only 16 answered, “No! Mexico is safe. Don’t believe the hype!” The other 65 chose option C: “Depends where you go in Mexico. Some places are safe; some aren’t.”
A single commenter, who goes by the handle “MsSheree,” wrote: “As an adult I used to travel to Puerto Nuevo outside Rosarito Beach frequently (six to seven times per year) for lobster and have stayed at Rosarito Beach Hotel a few times, but when all the killings started a few years ago we stopped going.”
The real danger is crossing the street
On a Friday afternoon in April, I take my first trip south of the border since my brother’s 2007 wedding. I’m inspired by local blogger Kristin Díaz de Sandi, whose “Life and Food” blog details sexy culinary experiences all over Baja. She goes three to five times a week, often with her two-year-old son. I’m interested in seeking out some of the restaurants she features, and although her supper club, Club Tengo Hambre, offers two group excursions (one for Tijuana street food, and one farther south, in Valle de Guadalupe), I’m not much into group tours. I figure one day I’ll venture out for a restaurant-hop of her picks, but for this first time I opt instead for a visit to the pasajes of downtown Tijuana, with gallery owners Josué Castro and Andrew Sheiner.
At the end of his day as a second-grade teacher at Central Elementary School in Imperial Beach, North Park resident Sheiner meets me at the H Street trolley stop in Chula Vista to chaperone me across the border. He and Hillcrest resident and artist Castro opened what Castro calls a “laboratory for experiments” in Tijuana in 2012. Located in Pasaje Gómez on Avenida Revolución, La Tentación is an experimental gallery dedicated to the photographic arts. Their tagline reads, “Lead us into temptation. Deliver us from our borders.”
At the trolley station, Sheiner hands me a bottle of water and guides me over the trolley tracks to the southbound side. Having traveled all over the world, sometimes alone, before settling down in San Diego, I’m a little embarrassed that I feel the need for a chaperone, but I’m grateful to have one, in part for myself, and in part to ease my husband’s anxiety about my visit to Tijuana. As a Department of Defense civilian employee, my husband sits through frequent travel-advisory briefings. Although Baja has been removed from the “mandatory” Do Not Travel list for employees, it remains on the “recommended” Do Not Travel list. Therefore, my husband is really nervous, and not at all into the idea of me crossing the border. He’s instructed me to text him the moment I meet up with Sheiner and the moment I return to the U.S. side. Were it not for Sheiner, he’d have been much less okay with this.
It’s 4:00 p.m., and the trolley cars are crowded. We ride standing up and hanging on for 20 minutes or so, until we deboard with everyone else at the San Ysidro station. We follow the crowd past the McDonald’s, up an incline, through a large revolving gate, and into Mexico. From there, it’s a five-minute (and $5) cab ride to the gallery, where Castro awaits.
“You can pay $1 or 10 pesos to share a ride with four other people to the downtown area, or just pay the $5 to get your own cab,” Sheiner says. “If you go to other parts of the city, though, you can’t do the share deal.”