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Border Crossing :: San Diego, California to Tijuana, Mexico

“A donde van (Where are you going)?” the border guard asked.

“Baja,” we reply in unison.

“Y lo que más aparte del perro (And what else besides the dog)?”  He nodded toward Domino.

“Si… que?”  I say.  My Spanish was embarrassingly rusty.  “Did he ask about Domino?”  I said to Nick.  “Oh, you mean what else do we have besides the dog?”

Shaking his head and laughing, he waved us through with a smile.  I closed my door and we drove off.  Those two minutes were the extent  of our border crossing from San Diego, California, to Tijuana, Mexico, at the San Ysidro border crossing.

When we began our trip in North Carolina, our plan was to wake up early in the morning and cross through Tijuana as quickly as possible.  News reports of shootings and kidnappings related to the drug war in Tijuana painted a picture of an ominous and desperate city.

But our time in California introduced us to surfers and travelers who travel to Baja several times a year.  Their stories were quite different from the news stories, and although they did not vacation in Tijuana or meander the streets late at night, driving through Tijuana, they advised, was perfectly fine, and there was no need to get up early in the morning.

So on the morning of our departure, we packed up, did our last-minute double-checking, and even went to get our windows tinted.  I had our passports, vehicle registration, and Domino’s International Health Certificate in hand, along with an accordion folder, labeled and organized, containing copies of our Mexican auto insurance, additional vet documents, copies of our licenses and passports, and vaccination cards.

But the two minute border crossing did not even require our passports.  It entailed only two simple questions that required an answer to just one of them. We drove through the massive concrete gate labeled MEXICO.  “So we’re in Tijuana now?” I asked.  “I guess so,” Nick replied.  We were a little bit confused.

Tijuana looks similar to a Californian town, except the clues of its poverty make it evident you are in Mexico.  Many of the buildings are made of concrete and are run down, traffic becomes a bit more unruly, there are people walking along the busy highways, and of course, Spanish signs and billboards pepper the city.  Within a few minutes we were driving along the border fence that parallels Mex 1-D, peering over to San Diego.

Within 10 minutes after driving through the city’s center, the highway runs along the ocean.  Tall, colorful hotels and charming beach houses line the shore – prime real estate for the beautiful Tijuanan coast.

My expectations of Tijuana were not met – I admit that I only took a 20 minute drive through the city, but it is portrayed in the media as brutal and dangerous.  Tijuana may be brutal in high-risk neighborhoods, just as there are dicey neighborhoods in New York, and involvement in drugs or drug enforcement in Tijuana is extremely dangerous.  But Tijuana is one of Mexico’s largest urban areas, housing people who own businesses, have families, and even commute to the United States everyday to work.  It’s main tourist shopping street, Avenida Revolucion, which spans 10 blocks, is lined with stalls touting souvenirs and crafts – a shopping area many tourists visit, in addition to various duty-free shops.

It is disappointing to see that the media’s portrayal of Tijuana is based on sensationalism and inciting fear.  By no means is it surprising, it is merely disappointing. I hope this trip debunks the many fears and stereotypes that I have about the interesting and varied countries south of our border.

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D R I V I N G   T I P S
If you plan to drive Mex 1-D down Baja, follow the signs labeled “Zona Touristica.”  Following Mex 1-D can be a bit confusing, but if you pay close attention to these signs and shoulder your way into the appropriate lanes, you should be fine.  This route bypasses most of the traffic from Tijuana’s center.  Expect to drive through 3 toll booths, two of which are $2.00 and one that is $2.20.  You can pay in dollars, so there is no need to use pesos.  We drove south of Ensenada to camp, which was recommended to get out of the cities to a safe or secluded spot.

Once out of the city’s center, you will encounter many roads that do not allow passing.  If you are driving behind a slow truck, they usually turn on their left-hand signal to alert you when it is safe to pass them.  But make sure to see if it is passable for yourself as well!

Make sure to always have plenty of gas, but if you need to fill up, there are usually vendors selling gasoline on the side of the road.  Prices are a bit higher than the commercial Pemex stations, but it may be worth it to refuel.

D O C U M E N T A T I O N   &  I M M I G R A T I O N
Although our passports were not stamped at the San Ysidro border crossing, they will be checked when we ferry across to mainland Mexico.  We are choosing to ferry from La Paz to Topolobampo.  You can also ferry from La Paz to Mazatlan, or from Santa Rosalia to Guaymas.  Visit www.bajaferries.com and www.ferrysantarosalia.com for more information.

When you ferry into mainland Mexico, you will need:
– Your passport
– Mexican auto insurance
– Vehicle registration
– FM-T Visa (Tourist Card)
– If you have a dog, an International Health Certificate (and I advise documentation that demonstrates your pet is up to date on his/her rabies vaccinations).
– Your ferry ticket (it is advised you buy a ticket at the ticket office as soon as possible – your vehicle must be weighed before you board).

You are expected to buy a FM-T Visa (also called a Tourist Card) if you stay in Mexico for over three days.  Stop by an immigration office to buy this document.  Nick and I mistakenly skipped the immigration offices at the Tijuanan border, which would have allowed us to easily purchase a tourist card (they cost about $20 a person).  For more information about obtaining a Tourist Card, click HERE.

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