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The Sentri pass, crossing at Otay, the annoying seagulls

In Tijuana, you ride the rollercoaster and then you wait.

Imagine an open market mixed with a circus amid slowly moving traffic.
Imagine an open market mixed with a circus amid slowly moving traffic.

In Tijuana, you ride the rollercoaster that is the city and then you wait in line to leave. The journey out of one of the most chaotic cities in the world culminates in an equally chaotic funnel of migrants, border crossers, and adventure seekers. There is always something happening in la pinche línea. If you’ve never experienced it, imagine an open market mixed with a circus amid slowly moving traffic. Businesses and people are similar in both the San Ysidro and Otay garitas, or ports of entry: sellers offering a variety of burritos, Clamatos (seafood cocktails), ice cream (diablitos being the most popular), tiger blankets, zarapes (ponchos), flags, unofficial NFL gear and other sports clothing, churros... There are curious crafts, from the Grogu-shaped coin bank to the giant figures of Jesus or the saints, to pictures showing Scarface’s Tony Montana hanging out with El Chapo and Escobar in a room crowded with poker chips, cigars, and other nonsense. Everywhere, people are hustling. There are beggars with no limbs, while the more able-bodied collect garbage or clean cars. You can hear rappers rhyming for a coin and live norteño bandas mixing with the noise of honking horns. You can watch jugglers, breakdancers, and mimes like the interpreter “Ferdusol,” Tijuana’s own Michael Jackson, moonwalking between cars. You may even see Shrek going from car to car with his stuffed Donkey. As for me, my car’s windshield wipers are busted, so when the vendors selling wipers notice me, they descend like hawks.

THE SEAGULLS

I have been crossing the border from Tijuana into the United States at San Ysidro since 2012, but I used to cross mostly as a pedestrian. When you’re a pedestrian, you get to the queue and you wait. The wait can be painfully long, and sometimes people cut the line. But it’s still not as bad as crossing by car. When you’re a pedestrian, you don’t have to worry about the gaviotas — the seagulls. “They call them gaviotas because they swoop in front of you like seagulls, without care,” says Luis López, who regularly crosses the border by car. “I cross daily early in the day through San Ysidro. I either go through the regular or the Ready Lane, depending on what line seems faster. Sometimes, I’ll even go to Otay,” nine miles away. “Not letting gaviotas cut in front is a struggle. People throw their cars into traffic, not caring if they crash into you. In a way, you have to team up with both the driver in front of you and the one behind you to not let the gaviotas in.” Sometimes, the gaviotas pay drug addicts to stand or lay down in front of other cars so that they can cut the line.

I cross a couple of times a week, and I try to work my schedule so I travel when the border is not as busy. But it’s always a gamble, one I tend to avoid taking on Sundays or long weekends.

I saw the gaviotas in action the first time I used the Ready Lane at San Ysidro, back in 2019. A beat-up old Chevy with an old man behind the wheel cut in front of a newish Mazda CX-3. The middle-aged woman driving the Mazda wasn’t having it. She jumped out of her car and stationed herself outside the Chevy’s driver side window. “Señor ¡¿Por que me chocó?! ¡Bajesé del carro que ahorita nos vamos arreglar! Ahí está la patrulla y ahorita vemos como le hacemos.” The man sank guiltily into his seat, his eyes cast down in shame. The woman was not moved. She tapped the window of the Chevy and kept right on yelling. Back in the Mazda, the passenger took the wheel and kept the car moving forward as the woman made sure the Chevy stayed put. As the line kept moving and I rolled away, I saw the traffic police approaching the scene in my rear view mirror.

On June 2 of this year, I had another gaviota moment, one I helped to go viral. This time, the fancier car did the offending: a black Mercedes Benz cut the line right in front of a traffic cop by the Hospital General — and right next to me. The cop, who was on foot, motioned to the driver to get out of the line and into another lane. The driver did not comply, and instead challenged the cop to a fight in the middle of the street. The woman in the Mercedes passenger seat recorded the scene with her phone. So did I. The line moved forward. The driver got back in his car, almost ran over the traffic cop, and resumed waiting in line. The cop called for back-up and caught up with the driver, again motioning for him to pull over or get out of the line. Then suddenly, the driver grabbed the cop, hit the gas, and ran into the car in front of him, dragging the cop with him. The cop and driver fought, and this time, the woman passenger got out of the car and started smacking the cop as well. The line moved forward and I missed the end of the altercation, but reports from Tijuana news sources used the video I posted on social media. They said that the driver and passenger left the scene of the crime with no repercussions.

Businesses and people are similar in both the San Ysidro and Otay ports of entry: sellers offering a variety of burritos, Clamatos (seafood cocktails), ice cream, tiger blankets, zarapes (ponchos), flags, unofficial NFL gear and other sports clothing, churros...

Gaviotas are the most stressful part of my crossing experience. I still haven’t crashed or bumped into another car, though it feels like I come close to it every time. I have had all sorts of experiences in the line — from peeing in a bottle after waiting for over four hours, to making it to work three hours early because the line just wasn’t there for some reason. Wild things tend to occur, things that can shut down the border for anywhere from few minutes to more than an hour: car crashes, attempts to smuggle drugs or people, bomb threats or other dangers. Sometimes, it’s just that the Border Patrol is understaffed. I cross a couple of times a week, and I try to work my schedule so I travel when the border is not as busy. But it’s always a gamble, one I tend to avoid taking on Sundays or long weekends.

THE GROUP

There are two border crossing sites in Tijuana: Otay and San Ysidro. They are both divided into three sections: regular, for everyone with or without documents; Ready Lane, for those who have a passport with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip in it; SENTRI (or Global Entry) for members of the government’s Trusted Traveler GOES system (the best way). San Ysidro also has a Medical Lane for people who have been issued special medical passes. It’s a special lane that cuts the regular lane, and it often gets abused, as the passes can be sold to almost anyone for around $11. I’ve never used the medical lane. They switch its location from time to time; the most recent location is all the way on the left side of the regular San Ysidro crossing.

When I cross, I usually take a short video of the moment I arrive at the border line and upload it to the Facebook group Como Esta La Linea. It is the largest group devoted to informing members on the current situation on the Tijuana border at San Ysidro and Otay, and it is oftentimes the best source for the most recent information in either garita. I update with comments on how fast I am advancing. It gives me something to do while I wait. Luis Lopez is also a member; every time he crosses, he posts his wait time with a screen capture of a timer from his iPhone.

The group’s Facebook page is constantly inundated with posts. Some share memes; some ask about the border; several just comment with a “.” so they can keep track of the status updates; some do Live Facebook feeds of their wait times. A few break the rules of the group and try to advertise their services or businesses — in which case, they get a warning. If they ignore that, they are banned from the group. If you have lost your visa, ID, or passport near the border or in the trolley, there is a good chance that someone will post a picture of your documents (with some of the information blacked out) on the page.

When you’re a pedestrian, you get to the queue and you wait. The wait can be painfully long, and sometimes people cut the line. But it’s still not as bad as crossing by car.

Everyone has their own way of posting information into the group, some more popular than others. One of the most popular posts is by a woman who dubs herself Reporte Biker. She usually posts a selfie, a video, several pictures, or a combination of these, and informs the group about all the lanes in San Ysidro. As she weaves through traffic with her motorcycle, the Reporte Biker sees more than those who sit in their cars and wait. Riding a motorcycle is the fastest and best way to cross the border if you’re trying to avoid waiting in line, even better than having SENTRI or Global Entry.

If you don’t use Facebook or are not a member of the group, there are many other ways to check the border status, though they are not as reliable. There is the CBP border wait application for your phone (and other non-official apps). Some radio stations announce the border wait times either every 30 minutes or every hour. You can also dial 7007000 on your phone to hear an automated voice tell you the number of cars per lane after a short advertisement. I find that one of the most reliable ways is to check Google Maps, check the traffic marker, and see how far back the traffic is backed up (the red line indicates congestion). If the line is as far as Hospital General, I expect the wait to be between an hour to an hour and a half.

THE SIGNS

The border line changes constantly. The Ready Lane through the Vía Rápida had its lanes switched early in 2022. Before 2022, the right two lanes on Vía Rápida went straight to the Ready Lane port of entry, while the left lane took you to a bridge that connects to the road for Playas de Tijuana. Gaviotas used this left lane to cut to the middle lane, while the right lane usually had traffic cops. Now, the two left lanes take you to the port of entry, while the right lane takes you to Playas de Tijuana, crisscrossing with the help of traffic police before Deja Vu, a strip club shaped like a Mayan pyramid. Speaking of the pyramid, there are several landmarks along the Ready Lane to give you an idea of how long the wait time will be. Hasta los tubos amarillos, meaning “all the way to the yellow posts,” means that you are in luck and the border wait will be a breeze (less than 10 minutes). Puente Las Ballenas, the bridge with the painted whales, means that you have 20 minutes or more to go. Pasando el Deja Vu or al principio del puente a Playas means the line is near the strip club; this could mean 45 minutes to an hour. Then there are several landmarks that could be from 1-2 hours: the Nissan Dealership; or Palacio Blanco, which translates to the white palace that is City Hall; Hospital General, or Parque de las XVeras, the park that is not a park, where girls turning 15 take pictures with their chaperones. If the reports say the cars are past the Motel Premiere, a famous sex motel in the city, the wait is going to be around two hours. If it’s past the neighborhood named La Veinte de Noviembre, it could be more than three hours. Many times, local traffic intermingles with the border line, so that it looks longer than it is. If the line is behind where the two freeways merge, you might as well plan to spend the night in Tijuana, or cancel any work appointments you have. It’s not only a very long wait, but it also means that gaviotas will be extra aggressive, and the whole border will become an insufferable mess.

Puente Las Ballenas, the bridge with the painted whales, means that you have 20 minutes or more to go.

OTAY

Sometimes, the Facebook group informs us it’s faster to use the regular lane instead of the Ready Lane. People that have SENTRI complain and call it “LENTRI” (as in slow). SENTRI and Global Entry users also have their own Facebook group to share updates. Other times, the group says it is faster to go through Otay. Though it’s nine miles further from downtown Tijuana, I’ve gone to Otay a handful of times. Every time, I have gotten a bit lost when trying to find the Ready Lane. To enter the Otay Ready Lane, you have to follow old rusty signs that are almost illegible, drive on the Tecate-Tijuana highway next to the border wall, then take a right on Boulevard de las Bellas Artes, and another left on Boulevard Garita de Otay. There is a barricade separating the Ready Lane from the regular lane, which is on the east side of the same boulevard.

The landmarks in Otay are different. Bajando el puente, meaning “at the bottom of the bridge,” refers to the last vehicle bridge before the Otay border. That’s around a 20-minute wait. El Monumento Raro refers to an odd 45-foot monument just a few yards before the bridge — expect a 30-minute wait. (The real name of the structure is ¡Nosotros Aquí!, or “Us Here,” and it represents the dynamism of the Otay region. It was built by visual artist Oscar Ortega in 2010. The metal plate with the text explains that the statue was stolen in 2021.) One hundred yards before the structure, there’s el alto, which refers to the stop sign at the intersection of the Boulevard Garita de Otay and Avenida Alejandro Von Humboldt; it indicates the one-hour mark. This is where gaviotas tend to cut in at Otay. Por el hospital is the section before the stop sign, next to a children’s hospital. Por la frutería refers to a corner that used to host a fruit store at the intersection of Boulevard las Bellas Artes and Avenida José Manuel Salvatierra — expect an hour and a half. Por el Negro Durazo is by the famous seafood restaurant — around two hours. Before los campos de beísbol means more than two hours, and get ready for it to be a mess.

Even when I’m not in Tijuana or planning to cross the border, I check Como Esta La Línea, just out of curiosity. If it’s busy, I sigh out of relief that I’m not there. If it’s empty, I wish it was a day that I had to cross to work. The border seems to be always on the news. For border crossers, it’s a lifestyle. But as I finish writing this, I am aware that I have to cross the border tomorrow, and the stress from what might happen is already getting at me. The Facebook group is reporting that the lines are slow in both Otay and San Ysidro because of a bomb threat earlier in the day. That should be cleared by tomorrow when I have to go to la pinche línea, but I never know what awaits.

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Imagine an open market mixed with a circus amid slowly moving traffic.
Imagine an open market mixed with a circus amid slowly moving traffic.

In Tijuana, you ride the rollercoaster that is the city and then you wait in line to leave. The journey out of one of the most chaotic cities in the world culminates in an equally chaotic funnel of migrants, border crossers, and adventure seekers. There is always something happening in la pinche línea. If you’ve never experienced it, imagine an open market mixed with a circus amid slowly moving traffic. Businesses and people are similar in both the San Ysidro and Otay garitas, or ports of entry: sellers offering a variety of burritos, Clamatos (seafood cocktails), ice cream (diablitos being the most popular), tiger blankets, zarapes (ponchos), flags, unofficial NFL gear and other sports clothing, churros... There are curious crafts, from the Grogu-shaped coin bank to the giant figures of Jesus or the saints, to pictures showing Scarface’s Tony Montana hanging out with El Chapo and Escobar in a room crowded with poker chips, cigars, and other nonsense. Everywhere, people are hustling. There are beggars with no limbs, while the more able-bodied collect garbage or clean cars. You can hear rappers rhyming for a coin and live norteño bandas mixing with the noise of honking horns. You can watch jugglers, breakdancers, and mimes like the interpreter “Ferdusol,” Tijuana’s own Michael Jackson, moonwalking between cars. You may even see Shrek going from car to car with his stuffed Donkey. As for me, my car’s windshield wipers are busted, so when the vendors selling wipers notice me, they descend like hawks.

THE SEAGULLS

I have been crossing the border from Tijuana into the United States at San Ysidro since 2012, but I used to cross mostly as a pedestrian. When you’re a pedestrian, you get to the queue and you wait. The wait can be painfully long, and sometimes people cut the line. But it’s still not as bad as crossing by car. When you’re a pedestrian, you don’t have to worry about the gaviotas — the seagulls. “They call them gaviotas because they swoop in front of you like seagulls, without care,” says Luis López, who regularly crosses the border by car. “I cross daily early in the day through San Ysidro. I either go through the regular or the Ready Lane, depending on what line seems faster. Sometimes, I’ll even go to Otay,” nine miles away. “Not letting gaviotas cut in front is a struggle. People throw their cars into traffic, not caring if they crash into you. In a way, you have to team up with both the driver in front of you and the one behind you to not let the gaviotas in.” Sometimes, the gaviotas pay drug addicts to stand or lay down in front of other cars so that they can cut the line.

I cross a couple of times a week, and I try to work my schedule so I travel when the border is not as busy. But it’s always a gamble, one I tend to avoid taking on Sundays or long weekends.

I saw the gaviotas in action the first time I used the Ready Lane at San Ysidro, back in 2019. A beat-up old Chevy with an old man behind the wheel cut in front of a newish Mazda CX-3. The middle-aged woman driving the Mazda wasn’t having it. She jumped out of her car and stationed herself outside the Chevy’s driver side window. “Señor ¡¿Por que me chocó?! ¡Bajesé del carro que ahorita nos vamos arreglar! Ahí está la patrulla y ahorita vemos como le hacemos.” The man sank guiltily into his seat, his eyes cast down in shame. The woman was not moved. She tapped the window of the Chevy and kept right on yelling. Back in the Mazda, the passenger took the wheel and kept the car moving forward as the woman made sure the Chevy stayed put. As the line kept moving and I rolled away, I saw the traffic police approaching the scene in my rear view mirror.

On June 2 of this year, I had another gaviota moment, one I helped to go viral. This time, the fancier car did the offending: a black Mercedes Benz cut the line right in front of a traffic cop by the Hospital General — and right next to me. The cop, who was on foot, motioned to the driver to get out of the line and into another lane. The driver did not comply, and instead challenged the cop to a fight in the middle of the street. The woman in the Mercedes passenger seat recorded the scene with her phone. So did I. The line moved forward. The driver got back in his car, almost ran over the traffic cop, and resumed waiting in line. The cop called for back-up and caught up with the driver, again motioning for him to pull over or get out of the line. Then suddenly, the driver grabbed the cop, hit the gas, and ran into the car in front of him, dragging the cop with him. The cop and driver fought, and this time, the woman passenger got out of the car and started smacking the cop as well. The line moved forward and I missed the end of the altercation, but reports from Tijuana news sources used the video I posted on social media. They said that the driver and passenger left the scene of the crime with no repercussions.

Businesses and people are similar in both the San Ysidro and Otay ports of entry: sellers offering a variety of burritos, Clamatos (seafood cocktails), ice cream, tiger blankets, zarapes (ponchos), flags, unofficial NFL gear and other sports clothing, churros...

Gaviotas are the most stressful part of my crossing experience. I still haven’t crashed or bumped into another car, though it feels like I come close to it every time. I have had all sorts of experiences in the line — from peeing in a bottle after waiting for over four hours, to making it to work three hours early because the line just wasn’t there for some reason. Wild things tend to occur, things that can shut down the border for anywhere from few minutes to more than an hour: car crashes, attempts to smuggle drugs or people, bomb threats or other dangers. Sometimes, it’s just that the Border Patrol is understaffed. I cross a couple of times a week, and I try to work my schedule so I travel when the border is not as busy. But it’s always a gamble, one I tend to avoid taking on Sundays or long weekends.

THE GROUP

There are two border crossing sites in Tijuana: Otay and San Ysidro. They are both divided into three sections: regular, for everyone with or without documents; Ready Lane, for those who have a passport with a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) chip in it; SENTRI (or Global Entry) for members of the government’s Trusted Traveler GOES system (the best way). San Ysidro also has a Medical Lane for people who have been issued special medical passes. It’s a special lane that cuts the regular lane, and it often gets abused, as the passes can be sold to almost anyone for around $11. I’ve never used the medical lane. They switch its location from time to time; the most recent location is all the way on the left side of the regular San Ysidro crossing.

When I cross, I usually take a short video of the moment I arrive at the border line and upload it to the Facebook group Como Esta La Linea. It is the largest group devoted to informing members on the current situation on the Tijuana border at San Ysidro and Otay, and it is oftentimes the best source for the most recent information in either garita. I update with comments on how fast I am advancing. It gives me something to do while I wait. Luis Lopez is also a member; every time he crosses, he posts his wait time with a screen capture of a timer from his iPhone.

The group’s Facebook page is constantly inundated with posts. Some share memes; some ask about the border; several just comment with a “.” so they can keep track of the status updates; some do Live Facebook feeds of their wait times. A few break the rules of the group and try to advertise their services or businesses — in which case, they get a warning. If they ignore that, they are banned from the group. If you have lost your visa, ID, or passport near the border or in the trolley, there is a good chance that someone will post a picture of your documents (with some of the information blacked out) on the page.

When you’re a pedestrian, you get to the queue and you wait. The wait can be painfully long, and sometimes people cut the line. But it’s still not as bad as crossing by car.

Everyone has their own way of posting information into the group, some more popular than others. One of the most popular posts is by a woman who dubs herself Reporte Biker. She usually posts a selfie, a video, several pictures, or a combination of these, and informs the group about all the lanes in San Ysidro. As she weaves through traffic with her motorcycle, the Reporte Biker sees more than those who sit in their cars and wait. Riding a motorcycle is the fastest and best way to cross the border if you’re trying to avoid waiting in line, even better than having SENTRI or Global Entry.

If you don’t use Facebook or are not a member of the group, there are many other ways to check the border status, though they are not as reliable. There is the CBP border wait application for your phone (and other non-official apps). Some radio stations announce the border wait times either every 30 minutes or every hour. You can also dial 7007000 on your phone to hear an automated voice tell you the number of cars per lane after a short advertisement. I find that one of the most reliable ways is to check Google Maps, check the traffic marker, and see how far back the traffic is backed up (the red line indicates congestion). If the line is as far as Hospital General, I expect the wait to be between an hour to an hour and a half.

THE SIGNS

The border line changes constantly. The Ready Lane through the Vía Rápida had its lanes switched early in 2022. Before 2022, the right two lanes on Vía Rápida went straight to the Ready Lane port of entry, while the left lane took you to a bridge that connects to the road for Playas de Tijuana. Gaviotas used this left lane to cut to the middle lane, while the right lane usually had traffic cops. Now, the two left lanes take you to the port of entry, while the right lane takes you to Playas de Tijuana, crisscrossing with the help of traffic police before Deja Vu, a strip club shaped like a Mayan pyramid. Speaking of the pyramid, there are several landmarks along the Ready Lane to give you an idea of how long the wait time will be. Hasta los tubos amarillos, meaning “all the way to the yellow posts,” means that you are in luck and the border wait will be a breeze (less than 10 minutes). Puente Las Ballenas, the bridge with the painted whales, means that you have 20 minutes or more to go. Pasando el Deja Vu or al principio del puente a Playas means the line is near the strip club; this could mean 45 minutes to an hour. Then there are several landmarks that could be from 1-2 hours: the Nissan Dealership; or Palacio Blanco, which translates to the white palace that is City Hall; Hospital General, or Parque de las XVeras, the park that is not a park, where girls turning 15 take pictures with their chaperones. If the reports say the cars are past the Motel Premiere, a famous sex motel in the city, the wait is going to be around two hours. If it’s past the neighborhood named La Veinte de Noviembre, it could be more than three hours. Many times, local traffic intermingles with the border line, so that it looks longer than it is. If the line is behind where the two freeways merge, you might as well plan to spend the night in Tijuana, or cancel any work appointments you have. It’s not only a very long wait, but it also means that gaviotas will be extra aggressive, and the whole border will become an insufferable mess.

Puente Las Ballenas, the bridge with the painted whales, means that you have 20 minutes or more to go.

OTAY

Sometimes, the Facebook group informs us it’s faster to use the regular lane instead of the Ready Lane. People that have SENTRI complain and call it “LENTRI” (as in slow). SENTRI and Global Entry users also have their own Facebook group to share updates. Other times, the group says it is faster to go through Otay. Though it’s nine miles further from downtown Tijuana, I’ve gone to Otay a handful of times. Every time, I have gotten a bit lost when trying to find the Ready Lane. To enter the Otay Ready Lane, you have to follow old rusty signs that are almost illegible, drive on the Tecate-Tijuana highway next to the border wall, then take a right on Boulevard de las Bellas Artes, and another left on Boulevard Garita de Otay. There is a barricade separating the Ready Lane from the regular lane, which is on the east side of the same boulevard.

The landmarks in Otay are different. Bajando el puente, meaning “at the bottom of the bridge,” refers to the last vehicle bridge before the Otay border. That’s around a 20-minute wait. El Monumento Raro refers to an odd 45-foot monument just a few yards before the bridge — expect a 30-minute wait. (The real name of the structure is ¡Nosotros Aquí!, or “Us Here,” and it represents the dynamism of the Otay region. It was built by visual artist Oscar Ortega in 2010. The metal plate with the text explains that the statue was stolen in 2021.) One hundred yards before the structure, there’s el alto, which refers to the stop sign at the intersection of the Boulevard Garita de Otay and Avenida Alejandro Von Humboldt; it indicates the one-hour mark. This is where gaviotas tend to cut in at Otay. Por el hospital is the section before the stop sign, next to a children’s hospital. Por la frutería refers to a corner that used to host a fruit store at the intersection of Boulevard las Bellas Artes and Avenida José Manuel Salvatierra — expect an hour and a half. Por el Negro Durazo is by the famous seafood restaurant — around two hours. Before los campos de beísbol means more than two hours, and get ready for it to be a mess.

Even when I’m not in Tijuana or planning to cross the border, I check Como Esta La Línea, just out of curiosity. If it’s busy, I sigh out of relief that I’m not there. If it’s empty, I wish it was a day that I had to cross to work. The border seems to be always on the news. For border crossers, it’s a lifestyle. But as I finish writing this, I am aware that I have to cross the border tomorrow, and the stress from what might happen is already getting at me. The Facebook group is reporting that the lines are slow in both Otay and San Ysidro because of a bomb threat earlier in the day. That should be cleared by tomorrow when I have to go to la pinche línea, but I never know what awaits.

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