Cheap travel advisory: Stay away from Tijuana!

I'm a bit of a contrarian traveler. I've been to Cape Cod in December, Washington D.C. in August and Poland in January. I like going to out of the way places at times when only the most dedicated travelers would bother to visit. Even more, I've always wanted to visit a place at the exact perfect time in history.

I should probably explain myself. I believe that there are times when particular places perfectly demonstrate a certain attitude or event. They become forever linked in our minds with that era. Think Philadelphia in 1776, New York in 1976, Berlin in 1961, or Prague in 1989. These places were the epicenters of huge historical forces, physical representations of major political struggles. I imagined that Tijuana in 2008 might be such a place.

Once a sleepy little town in the northern end of the Baja peninsula, Tijuana experienced its first major bout of growth during Prohibition, when it became a handy spot for wealthy Californians to travel for alcohol. Over the years, it's retained its reputation as a party town, even as its become a haven for rich Yanquís looking for deals on bangles, bracelets, piñatas and other consumer goods. With the rising costs of prescription pharmaceuticals and medical procedures, Tijuana has also become a handy source for cheap drugs and dental work. Of course, it's also a major way-station for illegal immigrants seeking to travel to the United States. Perhaps this final group is the reason that, according to some estimates, Tijuana's population hovers near the two million mark.
I thought that the city might be able to give me an interesting perspective on the U.S. immigration problem. After all, many of the 2 million people cooling their heels in Tijuana are waiting for the opportunity to join America's underclass, washing dishes, mowing lawns, building houses, and working in fields. I discovered, however, that Tijuana had a lot more to teach me about basic economics.

Tijuana is, by and large, dependent on the tourist trade for its income. Visitors from San Diego regularly drive across the border or take the San Diego trolley to San Ysidro and cross on foot. Often they just come for the afternoon, to eat some fresh seafood, pick up a few trinkets, buy their medications, and maybe see a bullfight.

(And, yes, I know that there are other reasons that Americans go to Tijuana, but I'm not going to go there. I'd prefer to think that the Mexican Girl Scout uniform is composed of hot pants and tube tops, thank you very much.)

In the current economy, however, tourists just aren't pouring into Tijuana like they used to. Walking down the main drag, I saw huge concrete pavilions that were built to hold hundreds of vendors. They were sparsely filled. Moreover, as I wandered through the arcades and plazas, beset by guys with dangling silver necklaces, I noticed that I was often the only gringo in sight. This meant that, if I so much as glanced at a trinket, I would find myself harassed until I was out of eyesight: "Señor! Ten dollars! Five! For you, $2.99! Hey, buddy!" I felt like Tippi Hedren in Hitchcock's The Birds, tiptoeing around and avoiding eye contact to keep from setting off the vendors.

The pharmacists were almost as bad. Interspersed around the souvenir vendors, there were gangs of men in white coats. As soon as they saw me, I would get hit with medical questions and shotgun diagnoses: "Hey, buddy, are you sick? You want something to make you feel better? You got a cold? Flu? I'll fix you right up!" I always thought that I looked fairly healthy, but from the sounds of the pharmacists, I look like hell.

Part of me wondered if I'd just underestimated the misery that Tijuana is famous for. However, as I sat down to eat at a "real" Aztec restaurant, I managed to have a long conversation with Carlos, the combination maitre d' and waiter. Carlos moved, along with his five kids and five grandchildren, from Puerto Vallarta, in the hopes of cashing in on a more lucrative tourist trade. As he told me, however, the tourists seem to have dried up. In fact, at 1:00 on a Sunday, I was the only customer that he'd had all day. This, he assured me, was a recent development; up until a few months ago, the place was very busy on weekends. He also pointed out that his costs were going up. According to him, gas is almost $4 a gallon and eggs are sometimes as much as $3 a dozen. He mentioned that he'd had to change his menu to account for the high prices.

I also learned a lot about the inflated dollar. The plate of ceviche that I had at Carlos' restaurant was, far and away, the best that I've ever had. However, the price was not that much less than I'd pay in my neighborhood in the Bronx. As I looked at other restaurants in the area, I realized that they were all charging only slightly less than U.S. prices, a far cry from the "incredible bargains" that my travel guides had led me to expect. The same was true of the liquor stores, which had amazing selections of tequila at almost the exact same prices as back home.

I experienced a similar problem when I decided to bring back some silver bracelets for my wife and daughter. As I mentioned in a previous post, I am an inveterate haggler. When I first strode into town, however, I pretty much got my ass handed to me. Breaking down the transaction later, I noted several techniques that the vendor had used to make me pay vastly inflated prices. When I went to the next vendor, I spent about twenty minutes working him down. Finally, amid cries that I was taking food from his mouth and making it impossible for him to hit his "price point," we agreed upon a price. The third vendor offered me bracelets for "a dollar." When I selected two, she told me that the total was $16, as they were "eight dollar" apiece. Faced with the choices of paying too much, being made to feel like a monster, and dealing with silly little games, I threw in the towel. Although I've haggled all over the world, I've never dealt with such desperate techniques.

As miserable as Tijuana haggling was, it taught me something: I realized that, with tourism on the decline and the dollar's value dropping on an almost daily basis, these people were no longer able to play by the rules. They simply couldn't afford to let a sale go by, and they had to squeeze every penny possible out of every transaction. They knew that I wouldn't be back, and they know that they weren't giving me any reason to return. This wasn't a friendly little transaction that I would discuss with all the folks back home; it was survival, pure and simple.

Ultimately, Tijuana showed me a few things about immigration and taught me a couple of lessons about the high price of prescription drugs and medical care. I learned a little bit more about luchador wrestlers and gained a fairly good understanding of how beef jerky feels when it's cooking. However, the real lesson that I walked away with was a much better understanding of the incredible impact of an inflated dollar.
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