Justin Powell 1 p.m., Dec. 13
The gritty streets of Zona Norte provide clear boundaries when you enter and exit, you don't need street names. Prostitutes stand in dimly lit doorways and outside of bars, lining the sidewalks while whispering to potential customers strolling past. Many are young and many are pretty, leggy, and skimpy both in terms of weight and clothing. They wear far too much makeup and smell as though perfume is applied a pint at a time. This is their domain, and the taco carts are also crowded and the music pours loudly out of every cantina.
People in the streets yell back and forth while taxis jockey for fares, and the police are everywhere. If you need a cop in Tijuana, go to Zona Norte and stand anywhere for a moment and one or more will ride by. I'm walking Elaine up to Calle Segunda to take a bus to the border and go to work. It's Tuesday morning. It's a quarter 'till six. It won't stop until the sun comes up.
In the day time, this could be any other sketchy neighborhood except for the hookers, who are constantly adorning the sidewalks. At night - or rather, in the early morning - there is none of this nonsense anywhere else in Tijuana. The Zona Norte is here for a reason: to contain the debauchery. Although, there is a dynamic here that seems rational once you get past the Las Vegas-like hours for all of it to wind itself up and back down. This makes sense on a level that you eventually come to terms with.
The bars are the first thing that don't compare to the rest of the city. Elsewhere, they open no earlier than ten in the morning and close at three the next morning. In Zona Norte, some never close. Technically, that's not lawful. But in Zona Norte, they figure out a way to get around that. The cantinas pay a fine, which isn't offered to anyone else outwards of this area. Whenever the rest of Tijuana was offered 24/7 cantinas (which has happened a few times in the past two decades), it was taken away a year or two later.
Perhaps it was too difficult to contain everything outside of La Zona. Good luck finding a hooker on the street anywhere but here. Go to a bar somewhere else, and certainly there's a chance of finding some girl who, in negotiated trade, will suggest a hotel. In Zona Norte it's out in the open, and no where else. And regardless of what you read elsewhere, prostitution is not legal in Mexico. But in the Zona Norte, they contain it, make the girls get cards and pass medical exams.
I have no idea how safe that makes prostitutes (themselves nor propositioning them), but at least the city (and apparently the medical industry) makes money from it. This is what happens when your tax infrastructure is so weak. You make money from booze and hookers instead of factories and other businesses. But here, it works. Here, it's tolerated. Zona Norte is the tolerance zone.
The room here is immaculate. What we paid in one week to stay over the border in San Diego, we enjoy for a month in Zona Norte. Here, while it's tile rather than carpeting, there are two beds, a gas stove, a refrigerator, a closet, a nice shower, and it's plenty large. And it's quiet, all of the noise is restricted to the street, security keeps the riffraff out. The free toilet paper and soaps that we never use are just a bonus.
The view of the old sign from the venerable and long-defunct Molino Rojo is precious. For anyone having not read Laura Hillenbrand's "Seabiscut", the Molino Rojo was - at one time in the early history of Tijuana - reportedly the largest and most accommodating whorehouse imaginable. From the original racetrack in Tijuana - which was on the North side of the Tijuana River back in the 1920's - exercise riders would see the large sign from the backstretch and dream their dreams. That sign has been moved to a location that is on top of a garage across the street from this room for reasons I don't know and don't much care about knowing other than it still exists.
Some investigative reporter I am.
I don't recommend Zona Norte for the squeamish. I recommend this place for the fearless. And between all of the wonderful nonsense, if you find the right hotel, you'll still get a good night's sleep. Or, you can stay up all night and drink to your heart's content if you prefer to choose that path.