The beautiful city of San Diego, California is located only a few miles north of the Mexico border. In fact, I was driving on Interstate 5 and noticed highway signs that read “Mexico exit is coming up.” My plan was to drive to the end of the US border, park my car at San Ysidro and walk over to Mexico. It is much faster and convenient to go this way especially if you are doing a day trip. There is a pedestrian bridge that one can take into Tijuana, the first town, an important financial and industrial center of Mexico, and the largest city on the Baja California Peninsula. After arrival, buses and taxis are available that take you into the center of town which is bustling with shops and restaurants.
Unfortunately, the exit on I-5 that I was suppose to take had no sign stating that “this is where you need to get off to park your car if you are going to Mexico” so, I accidently drove into the border.
I thought there must be a place to park at the border crossing, or at least I can turn around somewhere. But no, an unmanned check post said “Welcome to Mexico!” and there I was. Nobody checked for identification or stamped my passport but I’m sure there were cameras all around.
The moment I crossed international borders, my GPS went out of service and cell phone switched to roaming. I didn’t bother to print any maps of Tijuana beforehand since I wasn’t planning to arrive there by car. I had not notified my car rental company that I was going to take it to Mexico. Neither did I have a phone number to call in case of an emergency.
Here I was in Tijuana, supposedly one of the most dangerous places in North America. People later warned me that its famous for kidnappings, gangs and drugs.
There were well maintained highways and people seemed to be following some laws. Exit names were nicely labelled, although very confusing and inconsistent. I wasn’t sure where I was suppose to go even though I wanted to see the city. So I just kept on driving wherever the roads took me, which in this case was to Rosarito, Baja California, Mexico.
Rosarito, located only 30 minutes south of Tijuana, seemed like a quiet beach town with lots of newly developed homes. There were margarita and taco shacks dotted all along the ocean which was waiting to alive once the sun went down. A few tacky souvenir shops sold shot-glasses, sombreros and t-shirts. It didn’t take very long to drive through the stretch of the main street, which was also heavily guarded by Mexican police.
I stopped at a gas station to pick up a map, only to realize I didn’t have any Mexican Pesos. The lady at the cash register accepted my US Dollars but returned the change back in Pesos. There was no prior understanding of the prevailing currency exchange rate as I got the “take it or leave it” look from her.
Thankfully, I was able to find my way back into the city (mostly through trial and error) and see the main attractions of Tijuana. By this time, I gained enough confidence to park my car and step out. I visited Tijuana Cultural Center, Avenida Revolucion, Amigos del Artes, churches, food markets, shops and plazas. Downtown area was overwhelming with lots of cars, pedestrians, street hawkers and everyone trying to sell me something. It didn’t feel unsafe, although someone who is not use to traveling in third world countries may perceive otherwise. In any case, Tijuana was not the sort of place I would like to spend more than a couple of hours at.
After paying the parking attendant with the rest of the Pesos I had, I made my way back north towards USA. The 6-lans drive-through immigration was perhaps the most chaotic border patrol I have ever seen. Separate lines for US citizens, permanent residents and visitors were non existent. There were no signs for wait times, documentation or anything whatsoever. The lanes kept shrinking, so we had to merge every few minutes. Then there were street hawkers who set up shop in the middle of the highway, making it a marketplace. It was easy to do so since we were virtually in a “parking lot” situation for many hours.
The Mexican vendors walked around selling everything from souvenirs, furnishings, cold drinks, fast food to puppies and medicines. There were men wearing t-shirts identifying themselves as “pharmacy” who sold antibiotics without prescriptions, ladies taking orders for fresh tacos and burritos, handicapped citizens begging for money, young men washing cars without permission hoping for tips, and kids running around collecting anything American tourists would give them. It was a grave sight while I waited 2.5 hours in line to cross the border.
Once I reached the immigration counter, the office asked me what I went to Mexico for, and I explained the whole situation of “driving there by accident.” He didn’t seem amused, as if this happens all the time. Truly, next time I will be careful not to blink while driving, or end up in Tijuana. The officer looked at my passport, inspected my car, asked a few questions and allowed me to re-enter California.