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Tijuana's high-rises soar – and so do the rents

The narco fires of August 12-14 taken in stride

Tijuana’s skyline has drastically changed since I first moved in ten years ago.
Tijuana’s skyline has drastically changed since I first moved in ten years ago.

I moved into my first apartment in Tijuana in March of 2012. It was a nice one-bedroom place on the top floor of a three-story building in Colonia Cacho. It came unfurnished, except for a refrigerator and a stove. The kitchen window opened onto the space behind Las Ahumaderas, a taco alley made famous by a visit from Anthony Bourdain. If I left that window open, the apartment smelled like grilled meat and spices. My rent was $350 a month plus utilities. It included a parking spot.

Like many people who come here from San Diego, I moved to Tijuana for cheaper rent — except I did it 10 years ago. Before the move, I was paying $550 a month for a single room in a house in Rancho Peñasquitos with some strange roommates. After half a year of living there, they decided they weren’t going to renew the lease and were moving out. I scrambled to find a place in San Diego. The best I could do was a semi-converted garage near SDSU for $600 a month. To use the bathroom, I would have to go into the house, which was occupied by three college students.

My older brother had recently married a Tijuana local. Back in 2009, he had been living in Pacific Beach, until one night, he crossed the border for a double date and fell in love. Soon after, he moved to Colonia Independencia. He and his wife still live together in the same place. It was through them that I found my first Tijuana apartment: my cuñada’s (sister-in-law) friend’s mom owned the building. Even though I was in a nice part of town and I’m fluent in Spanish, Tijuana still terrified me. One consolation: her friend Leonso lived on the first floor, and ever since we met, Leonso has always spoken English to me. He commuted daily on a motorcycle to San Diego to work in a call center.

I was in Colonia Gabilondo, also known as “La Cacho,” which I call uptown Tijuana. There isn’t a proper Colonia Cacho — the region is composed of several neighborhoods, mainly Madero and its surroundings. Back then, there weren’t many breweries, trendy coffee shops, or fancy restaurants. There wasn’t much of anything. A block away sat “El Viejo Toreo” — an empty lot where the bullfighting ring used to be. Now, there are recently built towers on the spot: a Hotel City Express Plus and what will be known as Plaza Toreo. The closest bar was called “El Camichin.” It was an unkempt dive bar in which there had been shootings. Now, it’s gone, and La Cacho has a plethora of bars and restaurants. Back then, there was nothing in front of my old apartment. Now, there’s a popular craft beer pub named Public House (like that, in English). Next to it, the restaurant Kool 52, featuring modern Mexican cuisine and mixology, decorated with art by Tijuana locals.

Though The Landmark has been bought up mostly by investors, Emmanuel says none of the apartments will turn into AirBnbs, something many residential buildings suffer.

Really, everything that surrounded that apartment in La Cacho has changed, except for Las Ahumaderas, the taco alley. There are so many places to eat and drink in La Cacho that it would take me another article entirely to mention the top 20. And of course, prices — not only for rent, but also for food and other goods — have risen along with the neighborhood.

And it’s not only La Cacho that has grown in both height and expense. “Remember when La Cacho was cheap?” asks Brenda Flores, one of my first Tijuana friends. “Years ago, I could find a nice place for myself for around $200. But even before the pandemic, prices were already doubling, I couldn’t find anything good for under $400. During the pandemic, they were already triple or more. Now, it’s hard to find anything under $800 in La Zona Dorada. It’s really hard to find a good deal. Took me a long time to find a place, especially a place that accepts me with my pets.” Brenda recently moved to a house in Colonia La Postal, a neighborhood nestled in the hills between Zona Río and Otay. She lives in a recently built home with three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms. She splits the $850 rent with two housemates. Also her cat and dog, as well as a number of rescue dogs she puts up for adoption.

THE LANDMARK

Back in 2017, when the vertical boom began in Tijuana, one area got denominated the “Zona Dorada” (Golden Zone) — so called because it was desirable for investors. It ran from the border to the hills of Chapultepec. But the Golden Zone has since extended to include Playas de Tijuana, some parts of Otay, further areas of Zona Río, and really, almost anywhere in Tijuana. Old buildings tend to burn down “accidentally,” and months later, new construction begins. Dozens of buildings have already been built, many more are under construction, and more are proposed seemingly every other week. Towers seem to materialize in a matter of months. As a result, Tijuana’s skyline has changed drastically since I first moved in ten years ago. The current tallest towers are New City Medical Plaza at 430 feet and Sayan Campestre at 407 feet, both built in 2019. A handful of others of around the same size are being constructed and more have been proposed. Some buildings have trendy English names like Adamant, Life, or Icon (by Cosmopolitan), City Center, Skyline, or The Landmark.

“There are more than fifty buildings approved and being built in the city. Traffic is one of the biggest issues in the city, that’s why we are building a road through here,” Emmanuel says as he shows me the models of the proposed buildings.

“Around 80% of the apartments are sold to investors; others are for locals that want to own a piece of the city and pass it on to their children or grandkids,” says Emmanuel Ramos, sales manager of The Landmark. “There are more than fifty buildings approved and being built in the city. Traffic is one of the biggest issues in the city, that’s why we are building a road through here,” Emmanuel says as he shows me the models of the proposed buildings. “This is Phase 1: the mall, restaurants, entertainment, and the first set of apartments. It should be finished by early 2023. It was designed by the same architects that designed The Grove in LA: Elkus Manfredi Architects. Two more towers will be built in the future reaching 105 meters in height, some of the tallest in the city. The Landmark offers something different, with plusvalía.” Emmanuel likes to use that word, meaning “capital gains.” The Landmark is located in what used to be Pinturas Calette, a popular Tijuana home improvement store from the 1950s that closed down due to a flood in 1993 and a fire in 1994. In 2009, the last wall of the building was torn down.

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As we are talking, Emmanuel gets interrupted by a phone call. He answers in English, and I overhear him talking about property taxes. “Who was that?” I inquired. “It was an investor, I think he is from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but he came through California. He already bought two apartments, and we were discussing the possibility of a third. He has multiple properties in Playas de Tijuana and rents them out to Americans, or whoever pays the price. He is looking to do something similar. If I would take a guess, rentals here will go around $1400-$1800 for the smallest unit.” Though The Landmark has been bought up mostly by investors, Emmanuel says none of the apartments will turn into AirBnbs, something many residential buildings suffer. He gives me a brochure with the different layouts of the apartments, but without the prices. Then he shows me a complicated Excel form and tells me the price is roughly around $3900-$4500 per square meter. The smallest apartment offered is 74 square meters, while the largest penthouse is 260 square meters.

THE REMOTE WORK BOOM

“I paid around a million and a half in pesos for my place,” says Karlha Ochoa, a writer and publicist from Tijuana. That comes out to roughly around $75,000 USD. “I bought early in 2017; the foundations were barely even built. It’s worth way more now. I noticed its plusvalía when Torre 2 had their cheapest apartments at what I pay for my mid-range one.” Karlha invited me to be on her podcast La Romántica Idea. She records the show in her two-bedroom, two bathroom apartment (around 75 square meters) on the 4th floor (out of 7) of Kyo Altalia Torre 1 — one of the newer residential towers. Torre 2 is next door, and Torre 3 is currently being built. As soon as I entered her place, I was wowed. The tower sits on top of the hill of Avenida Televisión in “La Juárez,” and her balcony offers a breathtaking view of San Diego, the border wall, and northern Tijuana, interrupted only by a television antenna.

Karlha tells me a little more about her apartment complex before we start recording. “The gym is all right, the common space has outdoor grilling and a movie projector, but the view is blocked by the penthouse. The amenities are not as luxurious as they are at other places. They definitely cut some corners — some parts seem to be made of flimsy material. Once, I flooded my downstairs neighbor by accident. I was going to mop the kitchen, and left a bucket while I was filling it with water. I forgot about it and came back to a flooded kitchen. The water seeped into my downstairs neighbor’s light fixtures. A lot of the apartments are AirBnbs. Some neighbors complain, but neighbors come and go. I see them all the time, people in the parking lot with big bags, ready to live in Tijuana and work from home.” Rents in Tijuana were already going up before the pandemic. But when covid hit and work from home became standard, it became a no-brainer to move down here, and the rents responded. People from all over the U.S. moved here, and to other popular destinations in Mexico — especially Mexico City, where there are mixed feelings toward ex-pats. But for most San Diegans or Angelenos, the easiest option was to move just south of the border. Especially for Mexican-Americans.

“I paid around a million and a half in pesos for my place,” says Karlha Ochoa, a writer and publicist from Tijuana. That comes out to roughly around $75,000 USD. “I bought early in 2017; the foundations were barely even built. It’s worth way more now.”

“Where can I find a cheap and safe apartment near the border? Anything around $800 USD.” Something similar is posted just about every day on /r/Tijuana, the city’s subreddit forum. During the pandemic, the subreddit’s user base in Tijuana grew from less than 10,000 to over 100,000. Many of the new members had a similar story: people working from home, fed up with high rent in California, looking south of the border. Many of them with Mexican roots. Ismael is one of them. He works from home in what he tells me is “education technology,” but he doesn’t go deeper into it. He is also a helping hand on Reddit. Whenever there is a question about the city, the border wait, memes, or anything related to coffee, he is one of the first to post a comment with helpful information. “I started coming to Tijuana in the early ‘90s with my parents,” he says, “but returned as an adult when I turned 27. I must admit, at first I was coming here for… uh… you know.”

“Zona Norte adventures, huh?” I ask.

Ismael nods. “Yes. But soon after, I started looking for specialty coffee shops and started exploring the city. Paramo in Colonia Cacho was the first one to wow me. B-Haus is the nicest to work from. My favorites are Ermitaño and Perimetro.” His username on Reddit has the word “Yirgacheffe,” an area in Ethiopia known for its coffee beans. The coffee scene in Tijuana has grown exponentially in the last couple of years.

Now 32 years old, Ismael was born and raised in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Besides a brief stint living in a frat house while in college, he lived his whole life with his parents, who come from central Mexico, but met and married in Tijuana. They migrated to the LA area in the late ‘80s. “It made sense to move while working from home,” he recalls. “I was turning 30 and sick of living with my parents and I needed my own space. Not only that, but my family owns a house in Playas that was unoccupied. So you know, free rent! I finally took the plunge in October 2020. My little brother just moved in with me a couple of months ago; he also works from home. And my primo also lives with me, but he is not American.”

Ismael considers himself an ex-pat, but he has more advantages than the usual Tijuana outsider. He speaks Spanish well, though not quite well enough to pass as a local. He is still baffled by cultural shifts like the lack of recycling, the treatment of dogs (chained up or on rooftops), and people never being on time. Oh, and the drug wars.

DARK FRIDAY

“I felt like I did when 9/11 happened,” says Ismael, looking back on the cartel’s shutdown of the city on the weekend of August 12-14. “I was shaken and had the general sense of insecurity. I had no idea what was going to happen next.”

I’ve talked to a lot of people in Tijuana about that Friday. Most seemed to have gotten scared on Friday, when the cartels announced the shutdown, but then forgot about the crisis over the weekend. It’s a violent city. People get used to it.

“It made sense to move while working from home,” Ismael recalls. “I was turning 30 and sick of living with my parents and I needed my own space. Not only that, but my family owns a house in Playas that was unoccupied. So you know, free rent! I finally took the plunge in October 2020.”

Tijuana’s Dark Friday. This is how I lived it: it was a slow week. I did not do much. Early in the morning, I went to therapy. I hadn’t seen my therapist in months. She had a family member pass away and got busy with that. I don’t really need to go to therapy that often anymore. I’m doing alright. I avoided work. I avoided people. I spent some time with my girlfriend. I drank beer and shitposted as if it was my job to shitpost — part of my attempt to live as a content creator. For lunch, I wanted Korean food. I went to my nearby Korean place, only to find out that it had gotten popular and that they no longer sell extra kimchi on the side. I got my usual bulgogi and asked for extra kimchi. They barely gave me any.

It was early, but I wanted a beer. I drank two or three beers at Mamut Brewery in Pasaje Rodríguez and walked home. At exactly 7 pm, I noticed — and posted a story about — a fire happening on Calle Segunda (checking my Instagram archives confirms the time). At 7:04 pm, I posted another video as I got closer. One of my neighbors was outside looking at the fire; there were other onlookers as well. It was a few blocks away, and it was in the middle of Second Street coming down from Playas. Zooming in with my phone, I could see it was a vehicle that was on fire. I thought it was an accident, didn’t make much of it, and went home. I thought about flying my drone to check the scene from the sky, but decided against it because I was tired and drowsy from early drinking. My newsfeed started to show that what I saw was a taxi that was set ablaze. And it wasn’t the only one in the city. Several other vehicles had been set on fire by supposed narcos around town.

After scrolling for a few minutes, I felt tired and took a nap. When I woke up at around 9:30 pm, Tijuana had turned into hell… or at least it looked that way on social media. Traffic, terrorism, vehicles on fire, narco threats, and a general sense of insecurity. But outside my window. It didn’t seem like much. There were not that many people in the street. The ones walking around seemed to do so nonchalantly. But the later it got, the quieter it got. That makes sense in many places in the world, but not in downtown Tijuana. Here, the later it gets, the louder it tends to get. Especially on a Friday.

It was quiet.

Everyone went home.

Some were left stranded. Public transit was a mess. Uber and other online transit services were non-existent. Taxis were scarce. If you were lucky to hail one, it was overpriced: triple the usual gringo cost.

Usually, the city is a cagadero on the weekends. That’s why I rarely go outside. There were a lot of music shows, events, and festivals scheduled to be happening that weekend. All abruptly canceled. I was planning to go to a couple of shows — San Pedro el Cortez and perhaps Sincretismo — but decided against it because I knew the city was going to be a shitshow. But I wasn’t expecting this type of shitshow. Everything got canceled — except Baja Beach Fest in Rosarito. That event kept going and going. It felt like it was still going the Monday after. There was supposed to be another weekend of it, and it seemed like it would be even better than the first. I didn’t know or like most of the line-up or the music, but the festival looked like a fucking blast. The stage, the place, and the whole festival looked very well organized. The sound seems good and they nailed many other great details. Not to mention babes in bikinis. Maybe social media lied to me, but my old ass wanted to go to that festival. It looked fun. Pricey, but maybe worth it.

Baja Beach Fest went on like nothing was happening. While parts of Tijuana were acting like it was the end of the world… the rest of Baja was enjoying its regular life. Yes, I am aware that other vehicles were burnt in the other cities in Baja. But you know, burning cars in other cities are not as shocking as burning cars in Tijuana. Other cities don’t make headlines in international news. Mexicali died down fast. Fires and heat in the desert, don’t even bother going outside. Ensenada is usually calm and conservative. Though fewer vehicles were burnt in Ensenada, everything shut down, and it was taken in a graver way than Tijuana. Rosarito? Like nothing was happening.

Karlha’s balcony offers a breathtaking view of San Diego, the border wall, and northern Tijuana, interrupted only by a television antenna.

The U.S. media seemed to love it. They have an appetite for disaster. Oh, and if it involves Tijuana… the news salivates. Look at that juicy disaster content; vehicles burnt like in the Middle East. Only now it has that nice ringtone that news media likes to sound: TIJUANA!

Tijuana is on fire!

Tijuana is always on fire.

My friend Selene, the bartender at Nelson, called me all panicky, asking if she could crash at my place. She was with Benito, a regular at the bar. She said people were running in a crazy frenzy and she was scared. There was no public transit to her neighborhood. I told them of course they could, but to please bring beer if possible. (I had only one.) I saw people posting that they were willing to give refuge to people stranded from the lack of public transit. I did the same. My story got shared, but no one hit me up for help. After a few minutes, Selene still had not shown up. I messaged her to see what was up. She had walked home. Her neighborhood was not that far from downtown, or that far from my own apartment. I talked to Benito. He said Selene had been overreacting and that he calmed her down. They simply walked home.

Selene said she wasn’t overreacting: “La raza no agarra el pedo. I don’t think people understand truly how dangerous this city is.” She saw people with bulletproof vests and guns at a hot dog stand near Taquería Guanajuato enjoying some TJ dogs, and other malandros speeding in suspicious vehicles. Still, a lot of people stranded simply walked home. Or stayed with friends nearby. The university supposedly opened the doors of the gym for students to spend the night, but I never saw a follow-up. More acts of goodwill spread through social media, but also fake news and scare tactics.

Dylan, the other moderator of the Tijuana subreddit, called me in a panic because he couldn’t get home. He was scared. He had gone to the Xolos game, and after the game, there was no public transit to get him home. It was around 11 pm. He told me he would give me 500 pesos to drive him home, but I couldn’t. My car is officially in lockdown at the parking lot at 10 pm. Plus I had been drinking. The city was in chaos and the last thing I wanted was to get stopped by the police for having bad breath. A few minutes later, he texted me that he found a very expensive taxi to take him home. Another Korean-American friend was in the same situation. He also ended up finding an expensive taxi and went back to the border. On the way to the border, he picked up other stranded people. After scrolling through posts and stories reporting that everyone was safe, scared, and at home… I played video games and went to sleep.

Saturday morning after the Dark Friday: it was quiet. Not eerily quiet. More like Christmas quiet. There were people on the street, but at a reduced capacity. Not your usual Saturday. I went for breakfast birria tacos. Many businesses were open as if it was a regular Saturday. Some others were closed. The hipster coffee shop near me was closed. The street taco vendors weren’t. Not sure if businesses closed out of fear or to enjoy the day off. There weren’t many customers outside.

There was nothing noteworthy on the news. There was nothing going on. There was a lot on social media. Somewhat similar to covid, people were quick to take sides. The ones scared of what could happen, begging for people to stay home or calling them stupid for going outside. Others, without fear, went about their lives like usual. I was one of them. Later, the news reported that 40% of the businesses closed that weekend. I can’t say if that’s accurate. A lot of businesses closed from the lack of business. The tourist scare was going to have an impact. Maybe it already had.

Tijuana!

Boo!

Scary!

The city decapitates dozens per week, but it’s not in the touristy area, so don’t worry!

Tijuana!

Boo!

A handful of vehicles were set on fire, but no deaths were reported. Chaos ensued, and everyone worried about the safety of the city. And again. U.S. media got a boner for dangerous Tijuana. There was a video on the Union-Tribune website: “Wedding in Tijuana despite the violence.” Yes. Because it was just another day in Tijuana. What happened on Friday didn’t target churches or civilians. Many weddings were canceled. But I wouldn’t have canceled my wedding.

Did you hear? “The army is coming to Tijuana. 400 more soldiers.” Shit. I’ve seen them EVERY DAY for the past couple of years. In armored vehicles that resemble tanks. Every day they drive in front of my apartment. But no. The news monster needs to be fed. And Tijuana is its favorite snack. It wants to see that powerful picture of soldiers arriving at the airport.

Sunday. More of the same. More of the regular old Tijuana. I went out for beers with a friend. It seemed like a Sunday. Not a summer Sunday, but a winter Sunday. We tried a new sushi fusion place called Yumeko and had beers at Mamut, Madueño, and Norte. Most breweries and restaurants were open, but they were set to close at 10 pm instead of the usual 1 am. Besides that, it was a regular Sunday. The news reported that narcos were apprehended and sent to Mexico City. They weren’t identified. The government rarely catches any. And after Friday, they finally did. It was reported that the criminals that burnt down the vehicles were paid 3000 pesos for their efforts. Roughly $150 USD (what I charge for a standard photo shoot).

The PSN news network depicted narco messages saying that they would attack Tijuana again, it was later debunked as fake. Fearmongering. Tijuana is constantly on fire. Perhaps the event would slow the city down. Perhaps it would slow down tourism. Perhaps it would slow down the ex-pats from moving here. But probably not. The city will continue growing incessantly, despite the violence and a host of other issues.

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Tijuana’s skyline has drastically changed since I first moved in ten years ago.
Tijuana’s skyline has drastically changed since I first moved in ten years ago.

I moved into my first apartment in Tijuana in March of 2012. It was a nice one-bedroom place on the top floor of a three-story building in Colonia Cacho. It came unfurnished, except for a refrigerator and a stove. The kitchen window opened onto the space behind Las Ahumaderas, a taco alley made famous by a visit from Anthony Bourdain. If I left that window open, the apartment smelled like grilled meat and spices. My rent was $350 a month plus utilities. It included a parking spot.

Like many people who come here from San Diego, I moved to Tijuana for cheaper rent — except I did it 10 years ago. Before the move, I was paying $550 a month for a single room in a house in Rancho Peñasquitos with some strange roommates. After half a year of living there, they decided they weren’t going to renew the lease and were moving out. I scrambled to find a place in San Diego. The best I could do was a semi-converted garage near SDSU for $600 a month. To use the bathroom, I would have to go into the house, which was occupied by three college students.

My older brother had recently married a Tijuana local. Back in 2009, he had been living in Pacific Beach, until one night, he crossed the border for a double date and fell in love. Soon after, he moved to Colonia Independencia. He and his wife still live together in the same place. It was through them that I found my first Tijuana apartment: my cuñada’s (sister-in-law) friend’s mom owned the building. Even though I was in a nice part of town and I’m fluent in Spanish, Tijuana still terrified me. One consolation: her friend Leonso lived on the first floor, and ever since we met, Leonso has always spoken English to me. He commuted daily on a motorcycle to San Diego to work in a call center.

I was in Colonia Gabilondo, also known as “La Cacho,” which I call uptown Tijuana. There isn’t a proper Colonia Cacho — the region is composed of several neighborhoods, mainly Madero and its surroundings. Back then, there weren’t many breweries, trendy coffee shops, or fancy restaurants. There wasn’t much of anything. A block away sat “El Viejo Toreo” — an empty lot where the bullfighting ring used to be. Now, there are recently built towers on the spot: a Hotel City Express Plus and what will be known as Plaza Toreo. The closest bar was called “El Camichin.” It was an unkempt dive bar in which there had been shootings. Now, it’s gone, and La Cacho has a plethora of bars and restaurants. Back then, there was nothing in front of my old apartment. Now, there’s a popular craft beer pub named Public House (like that, in English). Next to it, the restaurant Kool 52, featuring modern Mexican cuisine and mixology, decorated with art by Tijuana locals.

Though The Landmark has been bought up mostly by investors, Emmanuel says none of the apartments will turn into AirBnbs, something many residential buildings suffer.

Really, everything that surrounded that apartment in La Cacho has changed, except for Las Ahumaderas, the taco alley. There are so many places to eat and drink in La Cacho that it would take me another article entirely to mention the top 20. And of course, prices — not only for rent, but also for food and other goods — have risen along with the neighborhood.

And it’s not only La Cacho that has grown in both height and expense. “Remember when La Cacho was cheap?” asks Brenda Flores, one of my first Tijuana friends. “Years ago, I could find a nice place for myself for around $200. But even before the pandemic, prices were already doubling, I couldn’t find anything good for under $400. During the pandemic, they were already triple or more. Now, it’s hard to find anything under $800 in La Zona Dorada. It’s really hard to find a good deal. Took me a long time to find a place, especially a place that accepts me with my pets.” Brenda recently moved to a house in Colonia La Postal, a neighborhood nestled in the hills between Zona Río and Otay. She lives in a recently built home with three bedrooms and two and a half bathrooms. She splits the $850 rent with two housemates. Also her cat and dog, as well as a number of rescue dogs she puts up for adoption.

THE LANDMARK

Back in 2017, when the vertical boom began in Tijuana, one area got denominated the “Zona Dorada” (Golden Zone) — so called because it was desirable for investors. It ran from the border to the hills of Chapultepec. But the Golden Zone has since extended to include Playas de Tijuana, some parts of Otay, further areas of Zona Río, and really, almost anywhere in Tijuana. Old buildings tend to burn down “accidentally,” and months later, new construction begins. Dozens of buildings have already been built, many more are under construction, and more are proposed seemingly every other week. Towers seem to materialize in a matter of months. As a result, Tijuana’s skyline has changed drastically since I first moved in ten years ago. The current tallest towers are New City Medical Plaza at 430 feet and Sayan Campestre at 407 feet, both built in 2019. A handful of others of around the same size are being constructed and more have been proposed. Some buildings have trendy English names like Adamant, Life, or Icon (by Cosmopolitan), City Center, Skyline, or The Landmark.

“There are more than fifty buildings approved and being built in the city. Traffic is one of the biggest issues in the city, that’s why we are building a road through here,” Emmanuel says as he shows me the models of the proposed buildings.

“Around 80% of the apartments are sold to investors; others are for locals that want to own a piece of the city and pass it on to their children or grandkids,” says Emmanuel Ramos, sales manager of The Landmark. “There are more than fifty buildings approved and being built in the city. Traffic is one of the biggest issues in the city, that’s why we are building a road through here,” Emmanuel says as he shows me the models of the proposed buildings. “This is Phase 1: the mall, restaurants, entertainment, and the first set of apartments. It should be finished by early 2023. It was designed by the same architects that designed The Grove in LA: Elkus Manfredi Architects. Two more towers will be built in the future reaching 105 meters in height, some of the tallest in the city. The Landmark offers something different, with plusvalía.” Emmanuel likes to use that word, meaning “capital gains.” The Landmark is located in what used to be Pinturas Calette, a popular Tijuana home improvement store from the 1950s that closed down due to a flood in 1993 and a fire in 1994. In 2009, the last wall of the building was torn down.

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Sponsored

As we are talking, Emmanuel gets interrupted by a phone call. He answers in English, and I overhear him talking about property taxes. “Who was that?” I inquired. “It was an investor, I think he is from somewhere in Eastern Europe, but he came through California. He already bought two apartments, and we were discussing the possibility of a third. He has multiple properties in Playas de Tijuana and rents them out to Americans, or whoever pays the price. He is looking to do something similar. If I would take a guess, rentals here will go around $1400-$1800 for the smallest unit.” Though The Landmark has been bought up mostly by investors, Emmanuel says none of the apartments will turn into AirBnbs, something many residential buildings suffer. He gives me a brochure with the different layouts of the apartments, but without the prices. Then he shows me a complicated Excel form and tells me the price is roughly around $3900-$4500 per square meter. The smallest apartment offered is 74 square meters, while the largest penthouse is 260 square meters.

THE REMOTE WORK BOOM

“I paid around a million and a half in pesos for my place,” says Karlha Ochoa, a writer and publicist from Tijuana. That comes out to roughly around $75,000 USD. “I bought early in 2017; the foundations were barely even built. It’s worth way more now. I noticed its plusvalía when Torre 2 had their cheapest apartments at what I pay for my mid-range one.” Karlha invited me to be on her podcast La Romántica Idea. She records the show in her two-bedroom, two bathroom apartment (around 75 square meters) on the 4th floor (out of 7) of Kyo Altalia Torre 1 — one of the newer residential towers. Torre 2 is next door, and Torre 3 is currently being built. As soon as I entered her place, I was wowed. The tower sits on top of the hill of Avenida Televisión in “La Juárez,” and her balcony offers a breathtaking view of San Diego, the border wall, and northern Tijuana, interrupted only by a television antenna.

Karlha tells me a little more about her apartment complex before we start recording. “The gym is all right, the common space has outdoor grilling and a movie projector, but the view is blocked by the penthouse. The amenities are not as luxurious as they are at other places. They definitely cut some corners — some parts seem to be made of flimsy material. Once, I flooded my downstairs neighbor by accident. I was going to mop the kitchen, and left a bucket while I was filling it with water. I forgot about it and came back to a flooded kitchen. The water seeped into my downstairs neighbor’s light fixtures. A lot of the apartments are AirBnbs. Some neighbors complain, but neighbors come and go. I see them all the time, people in the parking lot with big bags, ready to live in Tijuana and work from home.” Rents in Tijuana were already going up before the pandemic. But when covid hit and work from home became standard, it became a no-brainer to move down here, and the rents responded. People from all over the U.S. moved here, and to other popular destinations in Mexico — especially Mexico City, where there are mixed feelings toward ex-pats. But for most San Diegans or Angelenos, the easiest option was to move just south of the border. Especially for Mexican-Americans.

“I paid around a million and a half in pesos for my place,” says Karlha Ochoa, a writer and publicist from Tijuana. That comes out to roughly around $75,000 USD. “I bought early in 2017; the foundations were barely even built. It’s worth way more now.”

“Where can I find a cheap and safe apartment near the border? Anything around $800 USD.” Something similar is posted just about every day on /r/Tijuana, the city’s subreddit forum. During the pandemic, the subreddit’s user base in Tijuana grew from less than 10,000 to over 100,000. Many of the new members had a similar story: people working from home, fed up with high rent in California, looking south of the border. Many of them with Mexican roots. Ismael is one of them. He works from home in what he tells me is “education technology,” but he doesn’t go deeper into it. He is also a helping hand on Reddit. Whenever there is a question about the city, the border wait, memes, or anything related to coffee, he is one of the first to post a comment with helpful information. “I started coming to Tijuana in the early ‘90s with my parents,” he says, “but returned as an adult when I turned 27. I must admit, at first I was coming here for… uh… you know.”

“Zona Norte adventures, huh?” I ask.

Ismael nods. “Yes. But soon after, I started looking for specialty coffee shops and started exploring the city. Paramo in Colonia Cacho was the first one to wow me. B-Haus is the nicest to work from. My favorites are Ermitaño and Perimetro.” His username on Reddit has the word “Yirgacheffe,” an area in Ethiopia known for its coffee beans. The coffee scene in Tijuana has grown exponentially in the last couple of years.

Now 32 years old, Ismael was born and raised in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. Besides a brief stint living in a frat house while in college, he lived his whole life with his parents, who come from central Mexico, but met and married in Tijuana. They migrated to the LA area in the late ‘80s. “It made sense to move while working from home,” he recalls. “I was turning 30 and sick of living with my parents and I needed my own space. Not only that, but my family owns a house in Playas that was unoccupied. So you know, free rent! I finally took the plunge in October 2020. My little brother just moved in with me a couple of months ago; he also works from home. And my primo also lives with me, but he is not American.”

Ismael considers himself an ex-pat, but he has more advantages than the usual Tijuana outsider. He speaks Spanish well, though not quite well enough to pass as a local. He is still baffled by cultural shifts like the lack of recycling, the treatment of dogs (chained up or on rooftops), and people never being on time. Oh, and the drug wars.

DARK FRIDAY

“I felt like I did when 9/11 happened,” says Ismael, looking back on the cartel’s shutdown of the city on the weekend of August 12-14. “I was shaken and had the general sense of insecurity. I had no idea what was going to happen next.”

I’ve talked to a lot of people in Tijuana about that Friday. Most seemed to have gotten scared on Friday, when the cartels announced the shutdown, but then forgot about the crisis over the weekend. It’s a violent city. People get used to it.

“It made sense to move while working from home,” Ismael recalls. “I was turning 30 and sick of living with my parents and I needed my own space. Not only that, but my family owns a house in Playas that was unoccupied. So you know, free rent! I finally took the plunge in October 2020.”

Tijuana’s Dark Friday. This is how I lived it: it was a slow week. I did not do much. Early in the morning, I went to therapy. I hadn’t seen my therapist in months. She had a family member pass away and got busy with that. I don’t really need to go to therapy that often anymore. I’m doing alright. I avoided work. I avoided people. I spent some time with my girlfriend. I drank beer and shitposted as if it was my job to shitpost — part of my attempt to live as a content creator. For lunch, I wanted Korean food. I went to my nearby Korean place, only to find out that it had gotten popular and that they no longer sell extra kimchi on the side. I got my usual bulgogi and asked for extra kimchi. They barely gave me any.

It was early, but I wanted a beer. I drank two or three beers at Mamut Brewery in Pasaje Rodríguez and walked home. At exactly 7 pm, I noticed — and posted a story about — a fire happening on Calle Segunda (checking my Instagram archives confirms the time). At 7:04 pm, I posted another video as I got closer. One of my neighbors was outside looking at the fire; there were other onlookers as well. It was a few blocks away, and it was in the middle of Second Street coming down from Playas. Zooming in with my phone, I could see it was a vehicle that was on fire. I thought it was an accident, didn’t make much of it, and went home. I thought about flying my drone to check the scene from the sky, but decided against it because I was tired and drowsy from early drinking. My newsfeed started to show that what I saw was a taxi that was set ablaze. And it wasn’t the only one in the city. Several other vehicles had been set on fire by supposed narcos around town.

After scrolling for a few minutes, I felt tired and took a nap. When I woke up at around 9:30 pm, Tijuana had turned into hell… or at least it looked that way on social media. Traffic, terrorism, vehicles on fire, narco threats, and a general sense of insecurity. But outside my window. It didn’t seem like much. There were not that many people in the street. The ones walking around seemed to do so nonchalantly. But the later it got, the quieter it got. That makes sense in many places in the world, but not in downtown Tijuana. Here, the later it gets, the louder it tends to get. Especially on a Friday.

It was quiet.

Everyone went home.

Some were left stranded. Public transit was a mess. Uber and other online transit services were non-existent. Taxis were scarce. If you were lucky to hail one, it was overpriced: triple the usual gringo cost.

Usually, the city is a cagadero on the weekends. That’s why I rarely go outside. There were a lot of music shows, events, and festivals scheduled to be happening that weekend. All abruptly canceled. I was planning to go to a couple of shows — San Pedro el Cortez and perhaps Sincretismo — but decided against it because I knew the city was going to be a shitshow. But I wasn’t expecting this type of shitshow. Everything got canceled — except Baja Beach Fest in Rosarito. That event kept going and going. It felt like it was still going the Monday after. There was supposed to be another weekend of it, and it seemed like it would be even better than the first. I didn’t know or like most of the line-up or the music, but the festival looked like a fucking blast. The stage, the place, and the whole festival looked very well organized. The sound seems good and they nailed many other great details. Not to mention babes in bikinis. Maybe social media lied to me, but my old ass wanted to go to that festival. It looked fun. Pricey, but maybe worth it.

Baja Beach Fest went on like nothing was happening. While parts of Tijuana were acting like it was the end of the world… the rest of Baja was enjoying its regular life. Yes, I am aware that other vehicles were burnt in the other cities in Baja. But you know, burning cars in other cities are not as shocking as burning cars in Tijuana. Other cities don’t make headlines in international news. Mexicali died down fast. Fires and heat in the desert, don’t even bother going outside. Ensenada is usually calm and conservative. Though fewer vehicles were burnt in Ensenada, everything shut down, and it was taken in a graver way than Tijuana. Rosarito? Like nothing was happening.

Karlha’s balcony offers a breathtaking view of San Diego, the border wall, and northern Tijuana, interrupted only by a television antenna.

The U.S. media seemed to love it. They have an appetite for disaster. Oh, and if it involves Tijuana… the news salivates. Look at that juicy disaster content; vehicles burnt like in the Middle East. Only now it has that nice ringtone that news media likes to sound: TIJUANA!

Tijuana is on fire!

Tijuana is always on fire.

My friend Selene, the bartender at Nelson, called me all panicky, asking if she could crash at my place. She was with Benito, a regular at the bar. She said people were running in a crazy frenzy and she was scared. There was no public transit to her neighborhood. I told them of course they could, but to please bring beer if possible. (I had only one.) I saw people posting that they were willing to give refuge to people stranded from the lack of public transit. I did the same. My story got shared, but no one hit me up for help. After a few minutes, Selene still had not shown up. I messaged her to see what was up. She had walked home. Her neighborhood was not that far from downtown, or that far from my own apartment. I talked to Benito. He said Selene had been overreacting and that he calmed her down. They simply walked home.

Selene said she wasn’t overreacting: “La raza no agarra el pedo. I don’t think people understand truly how dangerous this city is.” She saw people with bulletproof vests and guns at a hot dog stand near Taquería Guanajuato enjoying some TJ dogs, and other malandros speeding in suspicious vehicles. Still, a lot of people stranded simply walked home. Or stayed with friends nearby. The university supposedly opened the doors of the gym for students to spend the night, but I never saw a follow-up. More acts of goodwill spread through social media, but also fake news and scare tactics.

Dylan, the other moderator of the Tijuana subreddit, called me in a panic because he couldn’t get home. He was scared. He had gone to the Xolos game, and after the game, there was no public transit to get him home. It was around 11 pm. He told me he would give me 500 pesos to drive him home, but I couldn’t. My car is officially in lockdown at the parking lot at 10 pm. Plus I had been drinking. The city was in chaos and the last thing I wanted was to get stopped by the police for having bad breath. A few minutes later, he texted me that he found a very expensive taxi to take him home. Another Korean-American friend was in the same situation. He also ended up finding an expensive taxi and went back to the border. On the way to the border, he picked up other stranded people. After scrolling through posts and stories reporting that everyone was safe, scared, and at home… I played video games and went to sleep.

Saturday morning after the Dark Friday: it was quiet. Not eerily quiet. More like Christmas quiet. There were people on the street, but at a reduced capacity. Not your usual Saturday. I went for breakfast birria tacos. Many businesses were open as if it was a regular Saturday. Some others were closed. The hipster coffee shop near me was closed. The street taco vendors weren’t. Not sure if businesses closed out of fear or to enjoy the day off. There weren’t many customers outside.

There was nothing noteworthy on the news. There was nothing going on. There was a lot on social media. Somewhat similar to covid, people were quick to take sides. The ones scared of what could happen, begging for people to stay home or calling them stupid for going outside. Others, without fear, went about their lives like usual. I was one of them. Later, the news reported that 40% of the businesses closed that weekend. I can’t say if that’s accurate. A lot of businesses closed from the lack of business. The tourist scare was going to have an impact. Maybe it already had.

Tijuana!

Boo!

Scary!

The city decapitates dozens per week, but it’s not in the touristy area, so don’t worry!

Tijuana!

Boo!

A handful of vehicles were set on fire, but no deaths were reported. Chaos ensued, and everyone worried about the safety of the city. And again. U.S. media got a boner for dangerous Tijuana. There was a video on the Union-Tribune website: “Wedding in Tijuana despite the violence.” Yes. Because it was just another day in Tijuana. What happened on Friday didn’t target churches or civilians. Many weddings were canceled. But I wouldn’t have canceled my wedding.

Did you hear? “The army is coming to Tijuana. 400 more soldiers.” Shit. I’ve seen them EVERY DAY for the past couple of years. In armored vehicles that resemble tanks. Every day they drive in front of my apartment. But no. The news monster needs to be fed. And Tijuana is its favorite snack. It wants to see that powerful picture of soldiers arriving at the airport.

Sunday. More of the same. More of the regular old Tijuana. I went out for beers with a friend. It seemed like a Sunday. Not a summer Sunday, but a winter Sunday. We tried a new sushi fusion place called Yumeko and had beers at Mamut, Madueño, and Norte. Most breweries and restaurants were open, but they were set to close at 10 pm instead of the usual 1 am. Besides that, it was a regular Sunday. The news reported that narcos were apprehended and sent to Mexico City. They weren’t identified. The government rarely catches any. And after Friday, they finally did. It was reported that the criminals that burnt down the vehicles were paid 3000 pesos for their efforts. Roughly $150 USD (what I charge for a standard photo shoot).

The PSN news network depicted narco messages saying that they would attack Tijuana again, it was later debunked as fake. Fearmongering. Tijuana is constantly on fire. Perhaps the event would slow the city down. Perhaps it would slow down tourism. Perhaps it would slow down the ex-pats from moving here. But probably not. The city will continue growing incessantly, despite the violence and a host of other issues.

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