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In the case of my husband, I think the opposite is true, at least as far as perceptions about the safety of Baja go. So, in order to minimize his anxieties on my next visit to Tijuana, I take my friend S with me. We meet up with Derrik Chinn, founder of Turista Libre, who speeds us around town in a black Jetta, playing techno music on his iPod.

Derrik Chinn of Turista Libre leads “rad Tijuana tours” to events such as lucha libre matches, beer fests, and roller-skate cumbia dancing.

Normally, he’d have driven us around in the minivan he uses for private custom tours, but today calls for a more casual vibe. We start with Sapphire Gin drinks, Mexican craft beer, and mushroom-and-octopus tacos at Erizo Baja Fish House in the neighborhood of La Recta, which Chinn describes as “the La Jolla of Tijuana.”

Erizo is one of four kitchens in Tijuana run by chef Javier Plascencia, whose family owns nine restaurants in Baja and Southern California, including Romesco in Bonita. It’s also one of the stops on a “Javier Plascencia progressive meal through Tijuana” that Chinn has in the works for early August. The natural-wood tabletops, the brushed-nickel chair legs, and the gray-with-flashes-of-turquoise color scheme call to mind some of San Diego’s newer, hipper restaurants.

Chinn, a 31-year-old Ohio native who has lived in Tijuana just shy of six years, switches easily back and forth between speaking English with us and speaking a comfortable Spanish with our waiter.

While we all politely allow the last piece of tuna sashimi to sit on the plate between us, Chinn explains his take on the residual fear of Tijuana.

“I’m still not really sure if it’s specifically an American thing, a First World thing, or just plain human nature, but I’ve found that too often we personalize the information that we consume via mass media,” he says. “The truth is, that while 2008 was the bloodiest year in the city’s history, the crime rate has plummeted over the past couple years.”

For a few minutes he philosophizes about “reasonable fear and paranoia” in the modern world. He also says that while some of the Southern California locals who join his “rad Tijuana tours” (to lucha libre matches, markets, beer fests, and so on) do admit some fear in making the trip across the border on their own, the majority are more concerned about logistics.

“All that said,” he continues, “I cannot, nor do I ever, promise people that they’ll be completely out of harm’s way while in Tijuana. Just as I can’t or won’t while they’re walking down their own street. To assume such a responsibility would be ridiculous.”

Even if he can’t promise I won’t break my ankle or get hit by a car, traveling through the city with Chinn, I feel like we are in good hands. He points out landmarks and talks history as we drive to Playas, where the border fence runs into the Pacific Ocean.

Javier Plascencia, a Baja chef, will lead a Turista Libre progressive meal through Tijuana restaurants in August.

When another driver tells him that the Jetta has a flat tire, Chinn shouts, “Gracias, güey!” out his window, joking with us that living in Tijuana has, out of necessity, given him a newfound ability to take life as it comes.

A few minutes later, his car up on a jack, he smiles, shrugs his shoulders at me, and says, “You wanted an authentic experience.”

Bye-bye to the $10 all-you-can-drink bar

Like Castro, Chinn blames the lingering fear of Mexico on stories in the media.

“In the case of Tijuana, it’s tales of headless bodies dangling over freeways,” he says. “Shootouts in the streets, corpses dissolved in vats of acid, and other acts of narco warfare — horrific nightmares, but horrific nightmares that really sell papers.”

Secretary of Baja tourism Funcke says that his office has made it a priority to combat the perception these stories create.

“We decided in 2010 to invest in more public relations, marketing, and promotional activities in America, because it was a very important priority to share our side of the story and be accurately represented in the U.S. media. Additionally, American celebrities who visited Baja California, like Anthony Bourdain, Robert Redford, Rick Bayless, Sylvester Stallone, Andrew Zimmern, and more, helped us share all of the amazing experiences we have to offer — such as gastronomy, wine, adventure, and so much more — which was a big step in changing the perception of our state [and] reinvigorating tourism.”

There are still those who will likely not change their minds anytime soon. In a conversation I had with a friend of a friend, 33-year-old Valley Center resident Eric Navarre, I learned that there are still people who are vehemently against traveling to Baja.

“I’m adamant that people should not go down there,” Navarre tells me one afternoon over the phone. “It’s the drugs, it’s the violence, and in the last five years, it’s the abductions and the ransoms.”

Navarre grew up in Valley Center. He’s been to Mexico four times in his life, including his honeymoon cruise five years ago.

“At that time, it was the only honeymoon vacation we could afford,” he says.

Before that, the last time Navarre had been to Baja was at age 17, when he’d gone with his older brother.

“We went to the different clubs, and it was just debauchery. It was just, ‘Let’s get everybody drunk and let’s take their money and then let’s put them back on the streets.’ I didn’t have a bad time there. I didn’t go to jail or anything. But I’m very fearful of going down there. You hear about the abductions, about the ransoms. Most of the cops don’t even have guns, but the criminals do, so there’s no protection for you down there.”

On May 28, 2012, Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations aired an episode about Baja. It opens with a montage of audio and visual fear-inducing footage, newspaper headlines, and do-not-travel warnings to Americans interspliced with images of Bourdain walking across the border. Then, for the next 40 minutes of gastronomic adventure, Bourdain introduces viewers to restaurant owners, party promoters, musicians, and foodies. All reveal a more appealing side of Tijuana and the rest of Baja than has been portrayed in mass media, maybe ever.

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Comments

BillEsparza July 25, 2013 @ 2:23 a.m.

What was the point of this article, SD Reader? It's old news, all of this, including the sensationalism. It would appear that this story was written by someone who doesn't read the news. How about a story on how the San Diego craft beer scene is really taking off?

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David Dodd July 26, 2013 @ 11:16 a.m.

Chad Deal will be submitting that story soon, stay tuned. I was incredibly impressed.

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Ken July 26, 2013 @ 11:20 a.m.

...or how about a story of the craft beers in Baja, which is also 'really taking off.' There are actually competing beer festivals in Tijuana!

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BillEsparza July 29, 2013 @ 5:27 p.m.

Was being facetious. Just pointing out the SD Reader's inability to use Google.

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CSWLTD July 25, 2013 @ 9:31 a.m.

Thanks for your attempt to enlighten us about the greatness of Baja. With that said, any article about Tijuana that begins with references to “dissolving bodies” and “severed heads” is not helpful, rather, it is the problem. Why is it necessary to make these references PERIOD? It is completely unnecessary and it overshadows everything good about the current “revolution” in Northern Baja (food, art, wine, beer, etc.). Kristin knows her stuff, so I am confident that you were exposed to a lot of great things during your trip south of the border. I just wish you didn’t ruin your story in the first few paragraphs. Everybody knows Tijuana’s “past” and it’s not worth reiterating over and over before getting in the good stuff. It’s like eating in a 5-Star restaurant and writing a review that starts by mentioning a health code violation 10 years ago……NOBODY CARES. Thanks for the effort regardless.

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kathy2 July 25, 2013 @ 11:04 a.m.

I love that you actually came to Baja and then wrote this story. I have read so many articles from people that have never been here. Your title is perfect! I see more and more people coming back To Rosartio Beach only to return back to California and book there next trip back to Baja. My husband being the surfer, our phone is ringing again from other surfers coming down for a surf weekend! I am American have raised my kids here in Baja and choose to stay in Baja even when I could have returned to the US, I too have a home in East Lake, I would never leave if we had Whole foods, trader Joe and Nordstroms in Rosarito!! Yes I am one of those Americans who spend way to much money a cross in San Diego for the American delights!! Thanks again for the honest article about Baja!! PS we have some great restaurants in Rosarito!

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yikiyaki July 25, 2013 @ 11:11 a.m.

There are many of us who have worked over the last 5 or 6 years to help bring people back to Baja. In honest conversations with each other, the decision was made that we cannot deny the things that have happened in the past in our area. That would be dishonest and we are not trying to present a "cover-up". It is the reason that the negativism is still present in the writings.

Today we have a much healthier, safer and happier Baja to promote and we are all proud of the hard work many folks have done so we can say this. Watch the videos, read the articles, talk to friends who have ventured over, come to concerts, art galleries, wineries. We welcome you and provide you with information to keep you safe and happy!

Keep up the good work! People are returning! I live in Baja and have for the last 18 years. We are very glad to see the hotels returning to full occupancy, our beaches being enjoyed, the restaurants thriving and the horses being ridden!

Thanks Reader and Elizabeth Salaam and Thanks Baja Joe!

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woooosh July 25, 2013 @ 11:38 a.m.

Yikiyaki has the right approach- accept what has happened in the past and move forward. Unfortunately (and likely after this article was authored) the US Dept of State just put out a travel warning for Tijuana and kidnappings are on the rise again. This cannot be disputed. I think it is necessary to keep promoting Baja, but we'll never get away from the truth and the reality. Denial did not work in the past, and they won't work in the future. You have to find a type of tourist who can enjoy the good parts of TJ's music and foodie scene- while filtering out the bad parts. You need tourists who don't care if there is lawlessness around them- as long as they don't see it and it doesn't affect their trip. That is the challenge. So far Mexican tourists are picking up the slack in Rosarito and although people are posting about a lot of gringos returning- I don't see it yet.

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jnojr July 25, 2013 @ 12:40 p.m.

We really need a good look at who is getting kidnapped, killed, head sawed off, etc. Where were they, when, doing what?

I have a VERY strong feeling that, if any American tourists have been victims of crime, it's because they were in the wrong part of town at the wrong time, looking for things they shouldn't be looking for; or doing something fairly dumb like camping all by themselves at a remote beach. If you go to Mexico looking for drugs, hookers, etc. you can't act surprised when you find trouble.

Have any tourists been grabbed from a resort, a winery, a museum, a downtown cafe, etc? I'll bet no.

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Ken July 26, 2013 @ 11:29 a.m.

Good observation. You would win your bet! In all of the sensationalized cases, victims may have been 'American citizens' but were also Mexican-American and/or with strong ties to Mexico. The more typical Southern California tourist comes and enjoys their visit.

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woooosh July 25, 2013 @ 2:07 p.m.

Well "jnojr", I think that's the whole point. Does it matter from a tourist-economy perspective who the crime is against? Do people care if the crime rate is high so long as they aren't an intended victim and the violence is far away? Some will, some won't. The security situation has been fluid the past eight years and Tijuaneros have moved on to create better tourist-worthy food and music attractions and that is to be commended. But the US Dept. of State travel warning for TJ issued last week is based on the current risks. At a minimum- people who ignore that should deploy good "situational awareness" skills. My US friends who won't visit have kids and tell me they aren't afraid of something bad happening to them in TJ or Rosarito on a day trip; but they are afraid if something does go wrong, there is no one they can trust to help them.

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MsAg July 25, 2013 @ 5:39 p.m.

I am happy to read an honest piece without the usual BS I see in the press when it comes to Northern Baja.

I've been taking the family down for years now and have NEVER been in any danger. Yes, I was unjustly stopped by a cop once, (speeding?), but I paid my fine on the spot, and moved on. No, I didn't get a receipt :) But that is one time over about 20 years.

My wife, kids and I have always found the locals to be super-friendly and warm, and have never felt that we were in any danger. We look around the shops in Rosarito & Puerto Nuevo, eat some lobster and buy some crap, before heading back to our rental in Las Gaviotas.

No-one I know has ever been attached or been in any danger when south of the border, and I wish people would stop saying it's dangerous down there. Still, when I tell people we're going to Mex for the weekend, they get all wide-eyed and say "please - be careful". Really?!

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chefchadwhite July 26, 2013 @ 6:52 a.m.

This article did nothing for Baja, it was a waste of paper and my time reading it. Im surprised Kristen allowed her name and picture to be used in it. As a person interested in travel, food, music and arts if I didn't already know Baja I'm pretty sure this article would have thinking twice before crossing the border. Every city all across the United States has problem areas. I find it weird that in the past 20 years of me traveling to Baja with my family I've never encountered danger. By the way I'm 30 years old so almost my whole life. Or in the past 2 years of me traveling solo to cook all over Baja I haven't been threatened, or my last 24 day trip to Baja from Tijuana to Cabo visiting over 27 cities, towns and fishing villages on both the pacific side and sea of cortez earlier this month I felt Zero amount of fear nor danger even in the most remote places. Some said it before keep your nose clean and you'll be fine, same goes in the states or traveling anywhere abroad. Reader maybe should should focus a bit more on your whole experience than pointing out what everybody already knows. If you think you were doing Baja a favor, good try, but sorry I think you missed a few steps.

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Ken July 26, 2013 @ 11:13 a.m.

For those of us who have lived in Baja during the media hype over the past 6 years or so, it is nice to see anything in print portraying the lifestyle south of the border in a balanced way. Sure there have been 'food' articles, because to be honest, Baja has some wonderful places to dine, Valle de Guadalupe is a true Mexican version of Napa valley, and our beach venues offer some of the best sunsets on the west coast.

Of course, this great lifestyle is available at a fraction of the cost just a few miles to the north. I've chatted with visitors to Baja from around the world who are... well, more 'worldly' than many Americans, and they don't pay attention to US media. Mexicans and Mexican Americans are used to the sensational style of the Mexican media... so they don't pay attention either.

Everyone is entitled to experience their own taste and style... but the fear about visiting Baja is simply unfounded. If you are not used to being in a foreign country, there will be differences, because... it is different here. But that's not bad! If you can't handle the differences, there is always Disneyland, which is a controlled environment. Many also like the 'controlled environments' of Mexico as well... luxury resorts where you parachute in and spend your time within the environs of the resort.

This article is for those who are interested in a experiencing something of Mexico, and able to do so in a easy drive from somewhere in the US southwest. More and more everyday are deciding it is also a good place to consider a second home or retirement home because their dollars go farther. We're having fun... and happy that 'Baja is back!'

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tillief July 26, 2013 @ 4:06 p.m.

I have lived in Baja in the Punta Banda area South of Ensenada for over 36 years. I am 80 years old and I have never feared living here. On the contrary living relaxed, getting to know the Mexican people, their culture etc has been a marvelous experience. There is a pleasant surprise every day, with finding new restaurants, social activities and just enjoying "The Baja Feeling".. Baja is Back but as far as I am concerned she never left.

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Visduh July 30, 2013 @ 4:26 p.m.

Pardon my skepticism, but I'd think twice (or more) before heading to Baja for gourmet dining. The sanitation problems and lack of refrigeration make it very hard for even those in Baja who want to keep the food prep sanitary to avoid spreading intestinal disease. As far as safety goes, the average, everyday tourist had little to fear as far as major kidnapping and death. The fear should have been for the same old crap that went on in Baja for decades, meaning the strong-arm robberies, the cop shakedowns (paying a fine for an imaginary traffic offense to the cop directly), the crazy driving that caused horrible traffic crashes, and the lack of medical care if you found yourself needing it, All of those things were part of the dark side of travel to Mexico that made it seem so exotic for many tourists, and were also excused as "local color." If TJ is ever going to get back on the map, that old stuff has to be stopped for good, and it has to do a better job than ever before with cleanliness, safety, and honesty. Is that really the case? Despite all the talk, I doubt it, and as long as I doubt it, will refrain.

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latentacion Aug. 3, 2013 @ 11:38 a.m.

Mil gracias to Elizabeth Salaam and the Reader! We appreciate the depth of research, quality writing, and the lack of sensationalism rarely seen in articles about Baja. Well done!

You are all welcome Thursday and Friday nights of this month. We have...

Two photography shows are currently on view through August: "Insomnia" by Josue Castro of San Diego and "No Lucha, No Victory" by Eden Rodriguez of Calgary

You may also sample our hand made nano-brews: Los Marranos Chocolate Milk Stout, American Style Wheat with Orange Peel and Rose Hips, and British Brown Ale.

Hope to see some SD Reader Readers!

Andrew Sheiner La Tentación & Nano-Brewery Los Marranos 100 Pasaje Gomez, Tijuana Enter pasaje next to La Especial Cafe on Revolución, cross street 3ra

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