Rick Steves Talks Up Tijuana

In a recent syndicated column, European travel guru Rick Steves explains why Tijuana is a worthy travel destination. He admits that, at first, he was down on the border city because of its reputation, but had never visited until recently.

So what did the author and travel show host with the unlikely voice (“he sounds like my Grandmother” a friend once told me) think of life on the other side of the wire? Well, it is definitely not Tuscany: “Bars that feel like saloons come with cheap prostitutes wearing down their stiletto heels at the doors.”

But Steves notes that things were not as raw as he expected: “With this thriving economy comes a thriving culture: music, arts, and an impressive cultural center. The city, while architecturally dilapidated, is extremely clean. The streets were free of litter.” It seems that, despite the recent cartel shootouts, the local government seems to be delivering on its promise to spiff up Tijuana. Sure, the city has gained economically from rubbing against the US, but it is still on the outside looking over the fence. As Steves point out though, there is far more than cheap prescriptions and free flowing agave-based alcohol to this border town.

Mexican Border Cities Becoming More Dangerous

The US State Department has added the border town of Nogales to its growing list of Mexican cities that are becoming more dangerous because of violence. Drug cartels have been clashing in an attempt to gain control of lucrative smuggling routes. Daylight firefights have taken place in major border cities like Juarez and Tijuana.

More than 1,000 people have been killed as a result of the fighting this year in Juarez alone.

Cartels have also clashed with the Mexican police and army. These shootouts resemble war combat more than they do gang shootings. Both sides are armed with automatic weapons, and cartels are deploying grenades and rocket launchers. Some of these battles have taken place near popular shopping areas, putting the general public in the line of fire. Thus far, the State Department warning has not stemmed the flow at the Nogales border crossing. According to customs officials, there are more than 40,000 per day crossing into Nogales from Arizona. That’s about average for this time of year. Perhaps people just don’t take the warnings seriously. Meanwhile, Mexican officials are trying to get the cartel problem under control by deploying army units to the area.

No Wrong Turns: Off-road Race in the Baja

Take a bunch of hardcore off-road racers, support teams, mechanics, motorbikes, ATVs, a host of other racing vehicles and throw them all into the Baja desert…what do you get? You get the Baja 1000.

Last week we ran into a guy at a local bar who competes in this race. He gave us a quick run-down of what it includes: the race begins in Ensenada, though it has started in Tijuana and Mexicali, and ends in La Paz or Cabo San Lucas. There are tons of different vehicle categories from four wheelers, which range from Baja Bugs (VW Bugs on steroids) and mini trucks, to motorcycles, which can vary from 125cc to 250cc or more. The guy who we chatted with swears by his customized bike and, after competing twelve times as well as sustaining numerous injuries (he wanted to show us all of his battle-wounds which we politely declined), didn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

The Baja 1000 began in 1967. Initially the race was 849 miles (the 1000 is a bit misleading as the course tends to vary yearly) and the winning team finished the race in less than 28 hours. These days teams are finishing under 26 hours, an astounding time to me since it took us about 3.5 days to get from Tijuana to La Paz and we were on the main road. These guys drive all day and night in attempt to win the race. The course consists of rocks, dry lake-beds, mountain passes, paved roads and a lot of desert scenery. Mechanical problems and flipped vehicles only reinforce the fact that this is a brutal course and it’s because of this that only half of the teams are actually able to finish the race.

Competitors usually enter as a team where they take turns riding so it is more like a relay race. Team members often carry a toolkit that can be used in case of a breakdown. They ride to a designated stop and then switch drivers after 6 hours (about 300km) of racing. There are some who attempt this race solo but they are few and far between.

According to our Baja 1000 source, competing in the race isn’t cheap. The racing vehicles cost a fair bit, tack on the add-ons and time spent customizing them and the price just keeps on rising. Fuel, pit teams and extra gear add to the overall cost. Geez, not only does it cost a lot of money, there is a fifty percent chance of not finishing…I had to ask why they keep competing, our rider guy (about eight beers later) just replied, “It’s just awesome man!” Well said.

For more information on the Baja 1000 click here and here.

No Wrong Turns” chronicles Kelsey and her husband’s road trip — in real time — from Canada to the southern tip of South America in their trusty red VW Golf named Marlin.

Joey, have you ever been to a Turkish prison?

There are worse things that can happen when traveling, I’m sure, than getting arrested and thrown in a foreign prison, but I can’t think of anything right now. This is such a regular occurrence that studies have been done and cities have been ranked. Here are the top 10 foreign cities for Americans to get arrested, along with the number taken into custody:

  1. Tijuana: 520
  2. Guadalajara: 416
  3. Nuevo Laredo: 359
  4. London: 274
  5. Mexico City: 208
  6. Toronto: 183
  7. Nassau, Bahamas: 108
  8. Merida, Mexico: 99
  9. Nogales, Mexico: 96
  10. Hong Kong: 90

It’s no surprise that 6 of the 10 cities are in Mexico. What with the close proximity to the U.S. and it being a prime drinking spot for underage revelers, I’m surprised the numbers aren’t higher. So tell me, have you ever been thrown in jail in a foreign country? [via World Hum]

Mexico and borders: No longer a speedy crossing

When I lived in Albuquerque, New Mexico, heading to Juarez, Mexico for the day was a fun day outing. I didn’t do it often, but at least twice a year we’d walk across the border at El Paso, Texas, have lunch, shop for presents at the market, buy a bottle of Kahlúa and Jose Cuervo and head home. Going across the border was a snap–quick. There was nothing to it. I found the same thing when I went to Tijuana for the day from Los Angeles.

According to this New York Times article, those days are over. It’s taking up to three hours to get back into the United States, even for American citizens. The borders are stopping people more to ask for identification papers in an aim to be ready for January when traveling by car across the borders requires a passport.

As you can imagine this is causing a tourist dollar damper. If you can’t hop over the border and back in an easy trip, there’s no such thing as an easy day outing. Eventually, the system should smooth out, but it’s going to take awhileas in a couple years. The people who are probably going to come out ahead with the slow down are the vendors who sell items from car to car. Thanks to All the Colors who took this picture at the Juarez border crossing and posted it on Flickr.