plaza santa cecilia

EYE CATCHING..Colourful flags in Plaza Santa Cecilia (Image: Getty)

A battalion of giant steel slats, accompanied by no-man’s-land, barbed wire, further fencing, and US Border Patrol guards. But the battalion is made to look small as it marches ramrod into the vast Pacific, only to be quickly swallowed by the waves. A metaphor, of sorts. This wall isn’t anything to do with Donald Trump. It was the very first section of fencing that already spans about a third of the 1,954 mile Mexico-United States border. 

Construction began under Bill Clinton back in 1993, was continued by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and is still being worked on. 

A lot of it is now rusted and weather beaten. But the Tijuana side has been transformed by the colourful Parque de la Amistad, with the fence daubed in murals and graffiti offering poignant messages of friendship and hope. 

Built in 1971, the park spans both sides of the border. 

Families separated by migration could at first come to meet under the watchful eye of the US Border Patrol. But now they can only touch by fingertips through the fence for a few hours at weekends. 

The wave-swept beach arcs up to San Diego city sitting pretty on the horizon. There’s little going on until then, whereas on the Mexican side it’s the opposite. 

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The Mexican-side of the border has been transformed into a colourful and lively space (Image: Chris Granet)

Aside from the border and murals, it’s a regular city beach where locals hang out and have fun. Friends and families stroll the boardwalk, sunbathe, swim and surf.

Mariachis strum and sing with gusto. It’s especially nice in the evening, when the sun sets into the ocean and all is painted gold. 

San Diego was where I’d come from. Breaking for the border is a popular bolt-on for visitors to California’s southernmost city. A day trip suffices for many but Tijuana is interesting, fun and cheap, with plenty to keep you occupied for a couple of days or more. 

It’s only about 15 miles and 20 minutes by car from Downtown San Diego, if the traffic’s good. But being the busiest land-border crossing in the world, it can then take anything up to a few hours to drive over to Tijuana. 

Crossing by foot is far quicker. You can leave your vehicle in a car park on the US side, but it’s much easier to take a trolley (tram) from Downtown. They run frequently from just outside Santa Fe train station and leave you within metres of Mexico in about 45 minutes. 

When disembarking at the San Ysidro terminus, just follow the crowds to the nearby revolving metal gates to get to the foot crossing. There’s no U.S. exit control, only Mexican entry. Most Western nationals don’t need visas and are permitted to stay for 180 days. 

When I crossed, the queue for foreigners was small and quick, and the immigration officer surprisingly very friendly and chirpy. The exit leaves you at a random roadside.

It’s not far to walk into town, but the roads are confusing and busy, so don’t bother. All places of interest are just a cheap and quick cab or Uber ride away. 

The first thing I noticed was how Tijuana presses hard against the border, like a face against a window. Whereas on the other side, America keeps itself at arm’s length. 

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Families remain separated by the wall, Chris Granet, pictured, found (Image: Chris Granet)

Tijuana comes in stark contrast to pretty and prosperous San Diego. But as it’s one of the fastest growing cities in Mexico, it’s larger and far more energetic than its laidback US sister city. There was so much to take in, it felt like my senses had suddenly been amplified. 

Zona Centro is where the majority of souvenir shops, bars and restaurants are situated, clustered around Avenida Revolución. But it wasn’t as touristic as I’d imagined. I thought being next to the US it’d be party central, like Cancun with its hordes of raucous American tourists, yet it was relatively quiet on that front. 

Some of the first things I noticed were the multitude of pharmacies,  clinics, and dentists with big garish signs in English, catering for the many American visitors who cross over to beat the eye-watering prices of healthcare back home. 

From Av. Revolución, it’s a short ride to the large and colourful Mercado Hidalgo. The sprawling traditional market is great for stocking up on local produce. Stacks of chillies and spices, cacti and coconuts, tropical fruit and veg. The concentrated flavours of Mexico. 

Nearer still is the Mercado Artesanía, with its masses of Mexican handicrafts. You’ll happily get lost in the maze of stores stuffed with beautiful pottery, paintings, and textiles. 

Food is everywhere. I couldn’t go for a few hours without tucking into a tasty taco or two. But some of the best I’ve ever tried were at the Telefónica Gastro Park. There, you find trendy food trucks Tijuana-style, fusing Mexican with world foods. The raw tuna tostada I had left me dribbling for more. 

Tijuana is infamous for its seedy nightlife, but along Avenida Revolución you get regular bars and clubs. My fave was the cool Las Pulgas, a big, busy and very cheap club that’s part of the Tijuana establishment. With its several halls of Latin music, often live, it’s *the* place in town to swing your stuff with folk of all ages. 

It’s not wise to stray too far from the tourist areas without a guide. 

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Colourful sombreros are among the souvenirs for sale at the traditional market (Image: Gale Beery)

Being Latin America’s largest gateway to the US means there are the well-known problems of drug and people smuggling. It’ll take more than a wall to stop that. But a day or two in Tijuana will give you a truer taste of Mexico than staying a week in a beach resort further south. 

Crossing back, I thought it’d be difficult. You have to use the old pedestrian crossing to get to the trolley station, alongside 25 clogged lanes of traffic (and two last-chance pharmacies). But I was on the other side of the wall in minutes. 

It took time to readjust being back in the genteel north, especially as parts of San Diego were flooded from a rainstorm that’d completely missed Tijuana. 

In more ways than one, it seemed, it’d been sunnier down south. 

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