the cultural chameleon guide to: tijuana

Tijuana is widely known for its period of drug gang violence a couple years back, but this border city has been quietly rebuilding its shops and busy streets, while foreigners shy away because of mainstream headlines. There has actually been a surge of third-wave coffee roasters and craft breweries, as mixed-used spaces geared for eating or drinking with friends. The city has unique gastronomical adventures for the adventurers who seek them.

I visited my foreign exchange friend Sarai, a Tijuana native, for a long holiday weekend and we managed to pack in so many activities in a short span of time. Truthfully, if she ever chose to do something outside of oncology, she’d be an incredibly successful tour guide. She was such a beautiful hostess, and aside from showing me literally the best taco joint in the city, she reminded me of the pride that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans have of their country. It’s something I desperately needed when all I read in the news lately has been painting us as either villains or victims.

Little coffee and pizza shops dot the walk alongside the beach that leads to the Tijuana-U.S. border. The divide, painted and repainted with murals, stands as a bleak reminder of our current political situation. It’s something Sarai and I know very well; her having lived in Tijuana for her entire life and I having spent my summers and winters of my formative years in between Juarez and El Paso.

These border towns have recently reentered the spotlight since the Trump administration has attacked Central American migration. There is an existing border wall in Tijuana and yes, it does extend into the water. It’s a strange sight, only because it makes you wonder how we divide ourselves in seemingly absurd ways.


Sarai told me that the Mexican government is just at a loss with the migration crisis as the U.S. People in Tijuana have always existed simultaneously between Tijuana and San Diego; many are U.S. born, many travel to San Diego for work. It a tough situation for them too- a situation that Americans seem to forget, or choose to ignore. Nevertheless, the struggle to keep humanity at heart plagues both countries during a desperate time.

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Overall, Tijuana was a much-needed exploration. There’s great food to be devoured and many hidden alleys to be discovered. I’ll be coming back to visit Sarai again, and next time I’ll hit up the wineries surrounding the city, in Valle de Guadalupe.


Getting There

From Los Angeles, the trip down to Baja California is simple. I took an Amtrak Pacific Surfliner train from Union Station downtown that rides along the coast until the very last stop, Santa Fe Depot. It takes the scenic route so you can enjoy the sunset over the beach in spacious seats.

One crosses the street for the tram on the blue line heading towards San Ysidro. Walking the border is much faster and I recommend it, especially if you’re traveling light. The only thing to remember is that at night, the trams run about 20-25 minutes apart, instead of their usual 15-minute intervals.


Good Eats

Telefonica Gastro Park

Blvd. Agua Caliente 8924, Zonaeste

22000 Tijuana


Options, options, options. This food truck ‘park’ is perfect for when you and your friends have absolutely no idea what to eat. You know, when one friend needs a vegetarian meal and the other one wants a beer, and honestly you’d be happy with just a good cheeseburger, but no one’s picking a place and now you need. to. eat!

Telefonica is perfect for brunch, lunch, or dinner, it’s great for cocktails and beers, this place has it all. To note, I had a Korean taco and Sarai had a big bowl of ramen.


La Casa de Tlayuda

Avenida Revolución 1106 Zona Centro

This was my first time eating Oaxacan food! Think of tlayudas as Mexican ‘pizza’- a big, toasted tortilla, with refried beans, lettuce, shredded meat, and fresh Oaxaca cheese. Oaxaca is in central Mexico and has a vastly different cuisine than the northern food I’m used to. If you check this place out, it’s the perfect time to experiment. Try their tlayudas- plus, their cocktails are amazing!






Treat Yourself

Verde Amor

Centro, Avenida Revolución 712-44

This cute boutique hides away in the shops on Avenida Revolución, but you can’t miss it. Their fragrant-smelling natural soaps come in different varieties. I bought the caléndula soap, which is marigolds- good for acne and dry skin. There is Playa Papaya, an anti-dandruff soap for men, Anti-Aging argan and oatmeal, and tea tree oil and charcoal Detox.





My favorite finds at Verde Amor were the accessories, particularly the funky earrings I feel I don’t see at other large chain stores. I had to stop myself from buying so many hair clips, sunglasses, and earrings! There are also clothes and greeting cards with Mexican slang and pop culture references, which are great gifts for your friends back home.






Cinema + Cocktails + Culture

Cine Tonalá

Avenida Revolución 1303,

Zona Centro Tijuana, Baja California 

If you’ve ever wondered what a movie theater slash restaurant slash bar looks like, look no further than Cine Tonalá. This 3-story building houses a movie theater and small bar on its bottom floor, seating on the second level, and finally a full restaurant and bar and its rooftop. The movie theater plays indie films and releases that only come out in select theaters.

As former exchangers in Brazil, we were absolutely ecstatic to find caipirinhas, a classic Brazilian cocktail, on their bar menu.



“La Plaza”

Calle Paseo de los Héroes 10001, Zona Urbana Rio Tijuana 22010

Tijuana, Baja California Mexico

La Plaza is a block of different bars and nightclubs, all in one spot. This is where you go when you want a good night out- and like Telefonica, there’s plenty of variety so you can walk to the next bar once you’ve exhausted that scene. And exhausted you will get, because the party doesn’t stop at 2 a.m. We got back around 4 a.m. both nights. Us Mexicans know how to keep a party going!

Just remember to wear shoes you’re not afraid to get a little dirty. I wore my suede lilac heels and stepped in lots of pavement cracks and got stepped on many a dancefloor.

So if you’ve got 4 days to fall in love with a city that surprises you, then visit Tijuana-