Monthly Archives: October 2008

Day of the Dead this weekend in Tijuana and beyond

Mexico’s Day of the Dead is sometimes compared to Halloween, but that’s not really a good comparison. It’s more like a Mother’s Day or Father’s Day with all the trappings of a celebration – except the honored guests aren’t physically here.

That doesn’t stop Mexicans and other Latin American residents from bringing the party to their dead relatives and friends. Families spend the afternoons at the cemeteries with food,  drink and musicians to honor the departed. Nov. 1 is reserved for children who have died, and Nov. 2 is for the adults.

In many other cultures death is a closeted subject, not talked about unless there is an immediate reason to confront it. But I find this open recognition of death a far more healthy and positive affirmation of life.  To get a feel for what it’s like, visitors could swing by a local Tijuana cemetery (just ask a cab driver to take you to one near the city’s downtown) or visit any of these Tijuana Day of the Dead events.

The Casa de la Cultura de Tijuana (not to be confused with the CECUT building)  will host traditional events and dance performances from the evening of (Friday) Oct. 31 to (Saturday) Nov. 1. For more  information (in Spanish) go here .

Avenida Revolucion will also be hosting live music and other events Sunday afternoon, Nov. 2, between 3rd and 5th Streets, according to El Sol de Tijuana.

Tangentially, the visiting Mummies of Guanajuato are still on display at the old Jai Alai building on Avenida Revolucion. For more information, go here.

Photo: Taken near Mulege, Baja California. Large numbers of roadside crosses are another manifestation of Mexico’s public affirmations of death.

Tijuana neighbors


The capture of a major suspected drug trafficker at a Tijuana house this weekend got me thinking about the place I called home for almost two years: The apartment complex is in a peaceful neighborhood just a few minutes from Tijuana’s Avenida Revolucion, but as you can see it’s surrounded by walls

I ended up at here because I  wanted to feel safe. If you write enough stories about the drug cartels, people come out of the woodwork with unclear motives. Besides, I also needed a place to park both my personal car and the company car (belonging to The San Diego Union-Tribune). Most places I looked at had parking space for just one car, but this one gave me two spaces that were tucked out of the sight of car thieves. So I ended up paying about $680 a month for a unit in this four-storied condo complex, which had a light-filled atrium and a daytime security guard/handyman called Raul.  There was constant turnover in this complex,  and a fair number of expensive vehicles, but most everyone who lived here kept to themselves and I was left to imagine the untold stories behind these quiet walls. 

Homes in Tijuana’s nicest neighborhoods homes are typically protected with fortress-like walls to keep out burglars and car thieves. The irony is that sometimes the true criminals are living inside these same protective enclaves. This past weekend, Mexican authorities detained Eduardo Arellano-Felix, who comes from a drug trafficking family that once dominated Tijuana but whose members are rapidly moving into shabbier quarters at Mexican and U.S. prisons. Looking more like a soccer dad than one of the Drug Enforcement Agency’s Most Wanted, Arellano was found in a house in one of Tijuana’s nicer neighborhoods, with his young daughter, according to The San Diego Union-Tribune.

In addition to this Union-Tribune story about his detention,  you can read this story in The Los Angeles Times and listen to this report by KPBS-San Diego.

Photos: My own former Tijuana home: From outside the walls (top) and from inside looking to the adjacent home’s backyard (below)

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A slice of Cuba in Tijuana


Two years ago the city of Tijuana announced a “sister city” relationship with Cuba’s capital in addition to the one they have had for years with nearby San Diego. I was working as a border reporter at the time, and my research led me to a Cuban restaurant that had been started by a Cuban chef and his Mexican wife. It was the only one, as far as I could tell, in this entire city of more than 1.5 million people.

I’m happy to report that Sabor y Son is still open, and doing brisk business. During a recent weekend, I snacked on a Cuban-style combo plate as the place filled up with other diners eating in the small but cozy space that looks out into the street. The restaurant, which has been designed to make you feel like you are in a palapa or thatched hut,  has become a sort of informal meeting place for other Cubans. In deference to local tastes, the owners make sure to provide their mostly Mexican clientele with an ample supply of chiles (which aren’t part of traditional Cuban food).

An estimated 200 to 400 Cubans live in Tijuana, where they find the culture and language more familiar than life in el Norte. There’s been some recent news reports that more Cubans are crossing into the United States through Mexico, particularly in Texas. Conversely, Cuba is a popular destination for many Mexicans (who are known to pack jars of chiles for their personal consumption). Tijuana has regular flights to the island.

Mexicans sometimes feel caught in the middle of the chilled relationship between communist Cuba and the United States. Mexican border states in particular are economically linked to their northern neighbor, for better or worse. At the same time, many Mexicans privately respect Cuba for standing up to the United States. You can read the original story I wrote about the Havana-Tijuana sister city relationship here.  

Directions: The restaurant is not in the main dining section of Tijuana.  If you are going by car from Avenida Revolucion, you would go to the end of Revo where it curves left and becomes Blvd. Agua Caliente. Continue through Agua Caliente (as it becomes Blvd. Diaz Ordaz)  about 10-15 minutes, passing the large hotel towers on your right. Look for the Geo municipal auditorium on your right. You will turn left at that intersection onto Blvd. Las Americas. Pass the railroad tracks and continue about two blocks. Look for the Cuban flag logo on your right. Restaurant is open 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday at #218 Blvd. Las Americas. 

Photos: (top) Cuban chef Pedro Valdes Montero fries up some plantains.

(bottom) Guests dine on traditional Cuban food at Sabor y Son.


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Tijuana-San Diego in different time zones Oct. 26-Nov. 2

It’s time again for regular border crossers – and tourists – to navigate two time zones when the Mexico switches to  from Daylight Saving Time this Sunday (Oct. 26). The United States won’t follow suit until Nov. 2. This causes all kinds of problems and surprises for people who go back and forth. The United States and Mexico used to be in synch until last year when the United States opted for a new schedule.  This time around San Diego will be one hour ahead of Tijuana for one week, acording to a short but informative article in The San Diego Union-Tribune.

For some interesting stories of how asynchronous time has disrupted life along the border, read this Union-Tribune story from 2007. 

Photo of billboard at San Ysidro border lanes. I’m not sure what an egg has to do with yoga, but I’m sure a lot of people waiting in line here can only dream of being in a state of tranquility.

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Tijuana border fence meet-ups ending


There’s been a lot of media attention lately about the fate of the border fence meeting area along Friendship Park, which lies just across from Tijuana. This is a section of the fence that has traditionally served as a gathering point for people on both sides of the border as an alternative to crossing the border either legally or illegally. On weekends, in particular, you’ll find families sharing meals, conversation and kisses with just the slightest of barriers between them of mesh wire and corroded fence parts along this northwestern-most edge of the U.S.-Mexico border. The area has been the site of cross-border yoga and a human cannonball stunt (see video).

That may all soon become a thing of the past. Construction is supposed to start next month on a new phase of fence construction that will essentially eliminate the get-togethers along this section of the border.

The San Diego Union-Tribune reported the story last month.

The Washington Post and The New York Times have also both published articles on this development.

YouTube video of cross-border human cannonball stunt courtesy of cfabela1981

Rick Steves goes to Tijuana

For those of you who have been feeling a little wary about visiting Tijuana these days, consider this: Rick Steves just went there.

Steves is a perennial traveller with his own television show and travel book series. He has traipsed all around Europe, but he admits in this Oct. 9 blog posting that this was his first visit to Tijuana. And he came here when many tourists appear to be avoiding the city due to concern over a prolonged wave of drug-trafficking violence.

He apparently didn’t time his travels this way, but Rick Steves in Tijuana is probably one of the best things to happen to tourism officials here lately. (Another boost came from Mickey Mouse, who was in town this month for some park-related promotion). Steves’ visit also appears to be inspired in part by an attempt to amend a statement he made last year – equating old Tangier as the Tijuana of Africa – that some took as an unfair dig of Tijuana. Read this friendly challenge lobbed by World Hum co-editor Jim Benning.

During his short stay, Steves  observes the busy border scene and walks down Avenida Revolucion. He takes a city bus tour  and he joins mass at the downtown cathedral. Then he repents his former bad thoughts of Tijuana over a bag of churros.

In a follow-up posting, Steves muses about the drug-related violence, finds “no tension” as a traveller during his visit, and considers decriminalizing marijuana.

I’m not sure Mickey Mouse would agree with Steves’ drug policy, but if these two American icons can visit Tijuana safely then that’s probably an encouraging sign for the rest of us.


Photo of Rick Steves from Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons License by author Andrew Bossi.

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Mexico wants your worst red tape story

Sometimes people use bribes to cut through what they see as unnecessary red tape south of the border. The Mexican government acknowledges this is a problem, and as part of a campaign to improve government efficiency they are holding a contest to identify the most useless bureaucratic process. 

My own experiences with Mexican bureaucracy came from working as a reporter in Tijuana for The San Diego Union-Tribune.  As such, I signed up for a  foreign journalist FM3 visa that had to be renewed each year. I probably would have been fine without one, to be honest, but it didn’t hurt to have an FM3 when visiting military bases and proving my identity to skeptics. 

So each year there was the usual angst of getting together certified paperwork, thumb-sized photos, and figuring out how to pay for the renewal (one time I was told to put the money into a special bank account, the next year I was told that was absolutely not the way to do it). The system wasn’t really set up to handle correspondents outside of Mexico City so my request got handed off to various agencies. Sometimes it was the Mexican Consulate in San Diego, and other times it was immigration or press agencies in Mexico.

The last year I did this, I was told to send my visa to Mexico City where it lingered for more than a month until I called to ask what was going on. I was then told I had to submit the visa through Tijuana immigration and THEY would send it to the corresponding official in Mexico City. 

That was the year my visa did more travelling than I did with two round-trip flights to Mexico City (and it took almost six months to get my itinerant visa back). I never considered using a bribe, but I certainly could understand the frustration some people here must feel. For more background on attempts to combat corruption and bribery in Mexico you can read this dated but still relevant story by The Washington Post. For a story in English about “The most useless bureaucratic process” contest,  go here.

Photo of my FM3 with certain details blurred

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What to do in Tijuana this weekend (Oct. 18-19)

YouTube video explains where tequila comes from, courtesy of  zerodreamer. His website is Rocky Point Tequila, about the Sonora-based Tequila Factory.


Tijuana’s got a couple of interesting things going on this weekend along the popular tourist strip of Avenida Revolucion. Within walking distance of the border, this is in a part of the city that’s historically managed to avoid drug-related violence.

Mexican mummies: This may seem like a cruel joke considering the number of dumped bodies being found around Tijuana lately, but it’s for real. These are on loan from a mummy museum in the state of Guanajuato that I  visited about ten years ago. You can learn more about the history of the adult and baby mummies here.

In Tijuana, the exhibit is being held at the old Jai Alai building on Avenica Revolucion and it’s from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., according to Entrance fee is under $5 per person. It lasts through Nov. 12.

A tequila a day…: With bad news on both sides of the border (plunging stock markets aren’t fun, either), a shot of tequila might be in order. The Tijuana Tequila Festival will take place between 7th and 8th streets on Avenda Revolucion with more than 100 different tequilas to taste. It lasts from around 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. and tickets cost  $6. The eight-day  festival started Oct. 12 and ends this Sunday night.

Five Star Tours provides transportation to the event from San Diego. Learn more here.

Note: The U.S. Embassy has emitted one of their periodic travel alerts for tourists to be careful when traveling along the Mexican border region due to stepped-up violence from feuding drug groups. My own personal advice is avoid cavorting with drug traffickers and stay out of the way of speeding car caravans.

* Travelers are recommended to double-check event listings because venues can change or be cancelled.

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New site follows Mexico/border business trends

As the economy degenerates in the United States, many Mexicans and cross-border investors are watching warily.

It wasn’t long ago that Mexicans were stuffing cash inside shoeboxes and mattresses in wide distrust of their own banking system. In 1982, the Mexican government (temporarily) nationalized banks.  In 1994, Mexicans saw much of their savings depleted after  a string of bank failures and peso devaluations.

On one hand, Mexicans are used to erratic interest rates and peso values,  but recent years of stability seemed to indicate the worst was over and a segment of the population has become increasingly reliant on credit to buy homes, cars and other costly goods. 

Regardless of Mexico’s own personal credit card debt, the country is  inextricably linked to the United States. A downturn in demand for goods manufactured in Mexico is bound to create some pain, especially along factory-filled border states such as Baja California. Reports also already show a decline of money being sent back to Mexico (remittances) from immigrants in the United States.

I’m not an economist, nor an expert in border business issues, but former San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Diane Lindquist has written about this stuff for years. Lindquist started a web site recently called with a running news feed of business-related news and her own reporting on Baja California development projects, such as the Punta Colonet and liquefied natural gas terminals. You can access it from my blogroll list, or you can check it out here.

*Disclosure: Diane is a former colleague of mine from the Union-Tribune. We both took a voluntary buyout in December, 2007.

Screen shot of

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Tijuana to get a bike path


Every Sunday in Bogota, Colombia, the city’s main roads are cleared of cars so that residents can bike around downtown without fear of becoming roadkill.  I had the chance to join the bike carnival a few years ago during a vacation, and I returned to Tijuana thinking about the possiblities here.

Tijuana has some similar challenges – potholes, fickle drivers and tight spaces – which means its rare to encounter a bicyclist on the roads. One time, though, I was pleasantly surprise to see a group of perhaps 50 bicyclists zoom through a major intersection as I iddled at a red light. One of them had a shirt that said “Ciclopista Tijuana.” After an Internet search (see video above), I discovered this was part of an earnest movement in Tijuana to create more spaces for urban bikers.

The “Ciclopista Tijuana” group has learned that pedaling in large groups is the best way to ensure safety on the roads and make a public statement (Their Yahoo! groups page lists 111 members).  Now it appears their persistent and visible campaign has gotten some results. Tijuana-based Frontera reports that the city is beginning construction of a one-mile bike path overlooking the city’s canal. Unlike Bogota’s solution, it appears be geared more towards bike race training but it could be a pedal in the right direction. 

Note: Mexico City started a program like Colombia’s last year that reserves 20 miles of the city’s historic downtown streets for bicycles on Sundays. Los Angeles Times reporter Ken Ellingwood writes about it here.


YouTube video taken Aug. 3 of the Ciclopista Tijuana group by AdictusTJ

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