Tijuana has a population of around 1.3 million people according to the last census and this figure expands to more than 1.7 million if its surrounding suburbs are included. The city has grown from a small border town with a salacious reputation during the Prohibition Era in the United States into a large, modern city with a sizeable middle class and ever expanding housing estates. Tijuana's proximity to the United States, along with Rosarito, has made the two adjacent cities a very popular tourist destination, especially for day-trippers from San Diego.
Tijuana is by far the largest urban metropolis of Northwestern Mexico, and is also its westernmost city. Tijuana and its US neighbor San Diego form the largest metropolitan area on the US-Mexican Border with a combined population of 5 million people. The two cities enjoy substantial social, economic, and cultural interactions.
Tijuana's environment is shaped by the agreeable climate of the Pacific Ocean and is adjacent to one of the the wealthiest and most populated sections of the United States with which Mexico shares a border. It has a sizeable middle class and is home to numerous manufacturers taking advantage of NAFTA. Despite (or perhaps because of) declines in tourism due to violence associated with the drug trade during 2008-2011, the social, cultural, and musical culture of the city have continued to develop, allowing the city to attract artists from all over North and Central America. Tijuana is home to every class, from the working class to the wealthy, from junkies to businessmen. Tijuana is particularly notable for the influence of fashion and trends introduced by Chicanos of the United States, including the development of a localized Spanglish. Tijuana is a major transit point for undocumented immigration into the United States, as well as a common destination for any illegal Mexican immigrants deported from the West Coast of the United States. As such, some areas are swollen with poor people with no roots in the city, who inhabit illegal, albeit tolerated, shanty towns. In sharp contrast to these shanty towns lie housing estates for the upwardly mobile, from maquiladora families, university students, to high class businessmen, reflecting Tijuana's status as one of the wealthiest cities in Mexico.
Tijuana has a growing cosmopolitan character, although lacking the scale and diversity seen in Mexico City. The city is home to many people who have migrated from within Mexico, along with native Mexican Indians, Asian residents (predominantly Chinese diaspora families, and Korean and Japanese factory managers), as well as many US citizens (predominantly Mexican-Americans including "cholos" and ex-cholos, with a sprinkle of retired American folk, though Rosarito is attracting more retirees in the past decade, cheaper life seekers, and Americans escaping law enforcement) and South Americans from Argentina and Uruguay, among others.
Frequent English-speaking visitors to Tijuana use the term "gringo-friendly" for a shop, bar, or restaurant in which a non-Spanish speaking customer will be at ease. A place is gringo-friendly if the staff is accustomed to dealing with American tourists, if they speak English and have English-language menus. Places that are not gringo-friendly may require use of Spanish, and patience. Just because a place is not gringo-friendly does not imply that the people there will not be friendly or that tourists will not be welcome.
While the Mexican peso is the legal currency, US dollars are widely used and accepted, even by locals. Tijuana observes daylight saving time (DST) the same way as the USA does. Money changers on the US side may offer better rates when buying pesos and worse rates when selling pesos.
Spanish is the dominant language in Tijuana, as it is in much of Mexico. However, English is spoken by almost everybody in the city's tourist hot spots (such as Avenida Revolución), as well as by taxi drivers and the Americans who live in the city. Having someone with you who can speak Spanish will be helpful when going away from Avenida Revolución.
Tijuana has a mild climate due to its closeness to the Pacific Ocean, with low humidity and pleasant temperatures year-round.
Due to its Pacific coastal location, the climate is very moderate for most of the year, with average temperatures during the daytime ranging from 20°C (68ºF) in January, to 30°C (86°F) in August. The rainy season is short and tame, with yearly averages close to only 254mm (10 in) of rainfall, and encompasses late winter to early spring.
Most tourists enter Tijuana through the border crossing at San Ysidro, which is reportedly the busiest border crossing in the world. The crossing can be made by car, bus, or on foot.
Every visitor who plans to return to the United States must have a passport. A passport card will work too for US citizens.
From the Tijuana International Airport (From Mexico)
Tijuana-General Abelardo L. Rodtríguez International Airport (IATA: TIJ) is served by the major airlines, Aeromexico, Aeromexico Connect, Aereo Calafia, Interjet, Volaris, and VivaAerobus. Carriers such as Viva Aerobus, Volaris and Interjet offer low-cost products similar to U.S.-style low cost carriers. Previously international services were very limited until 2007, when Aeroméxico begin services to East Asia adding Tijuana as a stop on its Mexico City-Tijuana-Tokyo (Narita) flagship route. In 2008, this route was augmented by a Mexico City–Tijuana–Shanghai (Pudong) flight. The flights serve as routes not only as flights between four of the world's most populous cities, but also as the link for the significant East Asian-Mexican community in the northwestern areas of Mexico.
The airport is located parallel to the USA-Mexico border line, 10km (6 miles) east of downtown Tijuana and the San Ysidro International Border Crossing, and one mile (1.6km) west of Otay International Border Crossing. The airport is used as a transit point for travelers wishing to visit San Diego and L.A. as well.
To get from the Airport to your destination you have several options:
There's also an airport bus station in the lot east of the terminal building, just outside the arrivals exit. The same bus companies such as Greyhound/Cruceros-USA, InterCalifornias, ABC, Grupo Etrella Blanca, etc., mentioned under the By Bus header (below) also serve the airport. From here passengers can get a bus to San Diego, Los Angeles, Bakersfield, Mexicali, Ensenada, Guyamas, Tecate, Rasarito, and other places on both sides of the border. U.S. bound buses cross into the U.S. at San Ysidro/'La Linea Internacional' to the next stop at E San Ysidro Blvd (behind McDonald's, just north of the American border inspection station). The buses have a dedicated lane in the long line of vehicles waiting to cross which allows them to bypasses the traffic congestion waiting at the American border inspection station and drops passengers off into the building for inspection. See By Bus below for links and list of bus companies serving Tijuana from Mexico and the U.S.
From San Diego Airport
San Diego International Airport (IATA: SAN) is 15 miles north of the international border and can be used as a transit point for travellers wishing to visit Tijuana. You can take public transportation from the San Diego airport all the way to downtown Tijuana and it will only cost you USD10. Go outside the airport and take the airport express bus, which is route 992. Buy a USD5 day pass from the bus driver, which will also cover the trolley. Take this bus to the first stop on Broadway. From here, you should see the American Plaza Trolley station. Walk over to the west side, and you will catch the Blue Line to San Ysidro. The day pass you bought from the bus driver will work on the train, which could help you to catch a train that's just arriving at the American Plaza Trolley station. The San Ysidro exit is the last stop on the Blue Line. Everyone will get off the train. Follow everyone to the left towards the McDonalds building and go past the building to the parking lot behind it, before turning right onto a narrow sidewalk and up a hill to a ramp that leads to the border gate. Go through a one-way gate, which leads down into the Mexican immigration and customs office. There are the more expensive yellow taxis driven by taxi drivers in yellow shirts. The fare for these taxis is USD5 to revolution avenue. Sometimes a taxi driver will ask you to pay USD6, but you can always get these taxis for $5 or even $3.
If you've been to Tijuana a few times before, then go to the right after the first one-way gate. This will take you to a small market and here you can catch the lower-priced taxis which are usually orange and white and called either "Taxi Libre" or "Taxi Economico." These cost USD3 to get downtown and the prices are all listed on various boards. The taxis (in sedans or mini-vans) of various colour combinations are operated on a fixed route like buses.
If it's during the day then you could walk to downtown. Follow the signs that say to Centro. You'll walk across a long bridge, and generally head toward the Revolution Arch.
By train and trolley
The Blue Line trolley runs from American Plaza in downtown San Diego to the start of the pedestrian border crossing at San Ysidro, from about 5 am until midnight.
American Plaza is across the street from the Santa Fe Depot railway station for "Coaster" commuter trains and Amtrak. Instead of negotiating heavy urban traffic and a spaghetti bowl of streets and freeways, visitors can take advantage of free parking at suburban commuter stations and relatively low fares on the Coaster line. In October 2013 a new policy went into effect that Amtrak's Surfliner trains will honor Coaster fares and stop at some of the same stations. This is an improvement in scheduling since the last Coaster train north left at 7pm and midday trains were somewhat infrequent.
While in the San Diego area, take I-5 or I-805 to south. Either park at the border and continue on foot or drive into Mexico. Driving from the US to Mexico often requires no stopping, but inspections driving south have become more frequent as authorities attempt to stop firearms trafficking into Mexico, resulting in long wait times during periods of heavy traffic. See this YouTube video on the recent revisions to the southbound crossing. However, driving from Mexico to the United States will result in a long wait, even more so during evening rush hour or on holiday weekends.
If you are driving to Mexico, obtaining Mexican insurance with legal defense coverage is highly recommended, and can be bought immediately before crossing the border, or even online before your trip.
When coming into the US, the Otay Mesa and Tecate border crossings, also nearby, may sometimes be less congested. To get to the Otay crossing can be a little scary (not good for Gringos at night) and the border agents here don't seem as pleasant as the ones at the San Ysidro crossing.
If the pedestrian line returning to the US is long, it may be faster (in some cases) to take advantage of the numerous van and bus lines that cross the border. You will undoubtedly encounter agents for these services when approaching the pedestrian line back to the US, who will ask for USD5-10 per person to let you board the vehicles which are already in line. Generally, the closer the vehicle is to the front of the line, the more they will charge.
In general, crossing from the US to Mexico does not take very long for American nationals: expect around 20-30 minutes. To return or to cross from Mexico to the US, however, expect around 2-6 hours. On foot, there's a huge queue of people waiting and you'll be approached by all manner of salespeople and vendors. Beggars and musicians line the queue, as well.
If you arrive at the main bus terminal, it will cost between USD12-20 to take a taxi to the border but you can take a local city bus for about 10 pesos. Walk out the front entrance and turn left; at the end of the sidewalk by the food stand, you'll see where the buses collect to the left. You want the Blue & White bus line: they come pretty frequently and you just get on, get settled, and pay the driver after he's taken off (he'll make change if you need it). It takes about 25 minutes with all the starting and stopping for passengers. Note that locals call it "la linea" ("the line") instead of the literal translation of "border" ("la frontera").
Once you've crossed, there's a San Diego trolley station immediately in front of you. The blue trolley will take you downtown or to the airport. It cost US$2.25 for a one-way pass (as of January 2014).
If you are driving and stay at a fancy hotel or eat at a fancy restaurant, ask them for a "Fast Pass". If you find the fast pass lane you will save a lot of time (driving) .
The Fast Pass has worked well. Businesses in Tijuana buy them to give to their customers. Mostly used for medical tourists, hence it mostly functions as a medical line. Make sure and take a taxi to figure out the driving route first. Tell him you want to see and learn the route to the fast pass gate. Get the drive down before you attempt it yourself. There is only one Fast-Pass entry and it's on a one way street. It is always wonderful to legally "cut the line" at the border. With the border upgrades at San Ysidro, traffic patterns continue to change on the Mexican side of the border. It is not uncommon for the "fast pass" to only allow access to the Ready Lanes or the SENTRI lane.
You can also use the Ready-Lanes. These are entered from the right side of the Port of Entry and are used for those returnees that have an RFID enabled entry card (US Passport Card, newer Permenant Resident cards, Border Crosser cards, SENTRI cards, and enhanced driver's licenses).
Many people drive to the border, park on the US side, and walk across. There are many lots available for this, which charge USD4-10 a day. While there are many taxis waiting to take you to Avenida Revolucion, it's only about a fifteen minute walk; follow the other tourists.
The San Ysidro border crossing is being upgraded therefore the pedestrian route may change quickly. If you've crossed before, read about the crossing elsewhere, or have mapped your route on Google Maps, you will find the reality quite different. Basically, look for the McDonald's at the end of the Trolley Line (at left if facing south) go to the side street between two buildings (McDonalds on one side & Mercado Internacional on the other) towards a parallel street (E San Ysidro Blvd which is also the bus station too) in the back. Make a right towards the walkway behind the Mercado building and go up the hill, which goes by the historic customs/train station to the gate. The walkway continues down into the Mexican border inspection station. See this YouTube video as the author made the walk over from behind McDonald's/Mercado Internacional into Mexico.
The main bus station is 9km SE of el Centro (old downtown) at Calzada Lazaro Cardenas 15751, Fracc. Chapultepec Alamar, Delegacion Mesa de Otay which is just south of the airport (8.5km from the airport terminal). The main bus station can be reached by bus from Calle 3 or by taxi from the city centre and has direct coaches to most major cities in Mexico. The following bus companies operate buses to/from the central bus station and the airport. (Note: The 800 toll free numbers are for calling from within Mexico unless stated otherwise. Other numbers are regular or local numbers. From outside Mexico you will have to call the regular numbers):
There's also another (smaller) 'Terminal de Autobuses por la Linea' (or 'Terminal Zona Viva') near the main border crossing w/ San Ysidro addressed at Via de la Juventud Ote 8800, Plaza Viva, Zona Centro 22000. However the main entrance is facing Av Frontera between Av de la Amistad and Via de la Juventud southwest of the big roundabout at Av Frontera and Av de la Amistad. The below are additional bus companies serving the 'Terminal Zona Viva'. There's a line of local buses in front of the station (going to various parts of the city), across the street, along Frontera and a taxi stand for the cheaper white & orange 'Libre' taxis along Frontera towards Via de la Juventud (right turn if coming out from the station)
A number of smaller companies have their own terminals in downtown (Zona Centro) and/or at the intersection of Ing. Juan Ojeda Robles & Carretera Tijuana-Tecate (Hwy 2) in Col. Gpe. Victoria in the SE part of town. They are:
U.S. bound buses cross into the U.S. at the main border crossing at San Ysidro/'La Linea Internacional'. The buses have a dedicated lane which allows them to bypass the long lines to cross into the U.S. Passengers are dropped off into the customs building for inspection once the bus gets next to the building. Upon clearing U.S. immigration & customs, passengers are picked up at the San Ysidro bus station on E San Ysidro Blvd (behind McDonald's & Mercado Internacional to the right after getting out of the inspection station) for the onward trip north. If the passenger only paid to get to San Ysidro there is a trolley  going up to downtown San Diego via Chula Vista and National City ($5); local bus routes #906/907 for travel within the immediate area between here and the Iris St Trolley Station (connection to other routes); and taxis at the plaza just outside the immigration/customs inspection station. From the Otay de Mesa crossing SDMTS #905 goes from the American side of the border over to Iris St. Trolley station.
If going further south of from border there are immigration checkpoints 30-50km along the southbound roads. Be sure to have all documents ready or take the time to get the required FMM card when crossing the border going south.
Cabs are abundant throughout the city. If you are walking into Tijuana via the San Ysidro border crossing, you will be immediately confronted with a massive array of yellow cabs waiting to take you into downtown. This group of cab drivers are conveniently located, but be sure to negotiate a price before jumping into a cab. You should pay no more than $3 in normal traffic to get from the border to the downtown area.
Throughout the city, cab drivers stand on the sidewalks and solicit customers. It is almost impossible to avoid them, so finding a cab should never be a problem. Solid yellow cabs do not have meters, so agree with your driver in advance what the cost will be. 'Taxi Libre', white with orange stripe, cabs have meters and are cheaper than yellow cabs, though you might have to remind the driver to use the meter.
Be aware that when taking a Yellow Cab to a specific location, the drivers may tell you that the restaurant or bar you asked for is closed, and conveniently offer an alternative. This is almost always untrue, and the taxi driver is attempting to divert you to a business where he will receive a commission for delivering passengers. The driver may alternately tell you that "company rules" say that all rides to a given area can only take passengers to certain businesses, to achieve the same result. Taxi Libre drivers do not engage in this practice, as they are independent contractors, and do not have the commission structure that Yellow Cabs do.
Other cabs of different color combinations are actually routed colectivos running on a fixed route like a bus
Tijuana is on the ocean, but is not known for its beaches, for boating, or as a seaside resort, mostly because its strip of ocean is foggy all year round, very similar to San Francisco in weather. However, it is in cabbing distance of Rosarito - the trip will cost $20, while Mexicoach will bus you there for around $10. Ensenada is further down the coast but easily accessible by car or bus.
Tijuana has many souvenir and trinket shops near the border and on Revolucion, there is not much in the way of discounted items in comparison with US. Silver and leather products are allegedly cheaper than in the US. Many of the items sold in the souvenir shops are actually purchased in the San Diegan swap meets and brought into Mexico and resold to tourists.
Apart from the abundant, over-priced tourist traps, local cuisine ranges from world-class restaurants to locals-only eateries and street vendors selling tacos. Travellers' diarrhea is a risk anywhere, but will probably not be a concern. Some streetside taco stalls do not wash their dishes and vegetables. In many sit down restaurants, musicians will wander in and play for tip. A good price for a song is $1 USD per musician per song, but most musicians will try to charge $2 USD per musician per song. For example, if there are five musicians in a band then a good price is $5 USD.
If cuisine is an important factor in your visit to Mexico, be sure to check out the more locals filled taco shops, where you will be able to enjoy the best carne asada tacos in the world and for better price. Also delicious are Churros made by street vendors, and the "hot dog" imitations sold as well. Be sure to avoid vendors that are not being patronized by locals.
However, American establishments such as McDonald's, Burger King, KFC, and Carl's Jr. (As Carl's Jr., not Hardee's) are in many parts of the city. However there are some local chains, such as Cafe Sanborns, that prove to be more popular and interesting than the American ones.
There are many other great restaurants in the city, ranging from Mexican to Asian food. The city is also full of sushi bars, something that has caught on in recent years. Another favourite is Chinese food, and thanks to a large Chinese population in Baja, the locals tend to say that it's the best Chinese food in México or the region.
Beers, margaritas and tequila are available at numerous establishments starting at 10 to 15 pesos. Tourist places typically charge up to $5 per beer.
Migrant houses offer free or very cheap accommodation for anyone regarded as a migrant. Some are said to also accept backpackers.
Although travel guides and taxi drivers insist that there is no cheap accommodation to be had in Tijuana, there is if you know where to look. Most of Tijuanas budget haunts are located in 2nd and 3rd Street, while the more outlying ones are probably less safe and certainly more difficult to reach. A number of them in Centro also rent by the hour too.
Tijuana has a reputation for crime, though reputations do not reflect real conditions. Opportunism in the form of cons or misrepresentations can be found anywhere in the city, but from 2007-2011, drug violence had erupted and then waned in Tijuana due to intense crackdown by the Mexican government and Mexican drug cartels turning on each other. However, joint action between the government and the police severely weakened the Tijuana cartel, and now all that's left is the remnants of an uncontrolled group of renegades. The vast east side of Tijuana is particularly dangerous and prone to drug violence, though this also varies on exact neighborhood, there are many gated and planned communities which are isolated from it. Zona Norte can also be very dangerous if you are walking alone. Much of Tijuana's drug violence happens in these two parts of the city. Most of the drug violence is not targeted at tourists, but rather at competing drug cartels as well as Mexican police. However, it may be possible for tourists to get caught in the middle, so like anywhere it is best to stay alert, though as of 2012 there is little a casual tourist will see in the way of drug violence unless one specifically seeks it out. Most tourist sections (for the most part) are generally safe, such as heavily patrolled Avenida Revolucion, Playas de Tijuana, Zona Rio, and Tijuana's red light district in Zona Norte. As with any large city, use common-sense and street smarts when walking the street; especially in the red light district of the "Zona Norte" (North Zone), as streets get more isolated they become more prone to opportunists. Due to mexican drug violence, you still want to pay extra attention in any place with illegal housing and/or vice.
It is advisable to be very careful of buying anything that would alert suspicion from Mexican police, this would include any type of prescription medicine (with potential for abuse, or perhaps low overdose/extreme side effects), pornography, and weapons. The police are generally protective of tourists and the business they bring, but will not hesitate to act on their suspicions if they do stop you, so the less they have to go on the better. Laws differ from those in the USA.
Park in well marked parking lots with security guards. Police enforce the laws on foreigners who commit crimes such as pedophilia or buying illegal drugs, including pharmaceuticals without prescription. Corruption still exists among the Tijuana Police Department as it does in many Mexican cities (the Mexican Federal Police on the other hand is trustworthy), so beware. But this is usually done when you are alone after a night on the town, are slightly intoxicated, and your actions make you a potential victim. When speaking to an officer, stay calm and respectful. Typically, if you have done nothing wrong, stand your ground and they will eventually let you go. You can insist on seeing a judge, and explain what happened. If you do this, most likely the officer will try and save face, and give you a warning and send you on your way. Never offend or belittle the officer or the country of Mexico, as agitating the officer will never work.
For traffic infractions, you are entitled to a written ticket, and you can pay the fine by mail. In any case, these made-up charges are usually only a small fine, most likely less than the bribe you would offer; you do not go to jail. Remember that you are not immune from Mexican laws, if an officer pulls you over for speeding because you were speeding, it's not corruption. Illegal drugs and drunk driving are taken seriously in Mexico, as they are elsewhere.
Tijuana offers several Bus routes into Mexico. Updated Tijuana Bus routes are available online at. From Tijuana you can easily go to Rosarito, Puerto Nuevo, Ensenada, or further south to Guerrero Negro, which is a very popular destination for whale watching. It is a 12 hour bus ride to Guerrero Negro but well worth it. Other bus routes locations include La Paz, San Juan del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas at the tip of Baja.
Taxis from Ave. Revolucion to the Central Camionera cost about 60 pesos, or less by bus.
Tijuana -> Guerrero Negro: $945 Tijuana -> Mexicali $250 (3 hours) Tijuana -> Tecate $55 Tijuana -> Mexico City $1600+ (depends on class, 36 hours) Tijuana -> Hermosillo $600 (12 hours)