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.
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.
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.