We already were a little buzzed, having downed a ceremonial shot of tequila on the bus after walking across the border and then a few beers at our first tour stop before dining at a gourmet food-truck park, where more cerveza was quaffed. Some of us were so inebriated by this point as to boldly try out our long-forgotten high school Spanish, with typically comical results endured by the gracious locals.
Now we were back on our custom white coach – OK, really a converted 1960s-era school bus chartered for the day by the Tijuana-based Turista Libre – and headed to … oh, I don’t know, another craft beer joint, I figured. By this time, the 30 or so passengers grooving to a cumbia electrónica tune blasting from the radio and letting loose spontaneous whoops and hollers were ready to follow gone-native guide Derrik Chinn and his engaging smile wherever he might lead, bullhorn in hand to keep us herded.
A few blocks down, the noisy brakes jerked the bus to a stop amid a cacophony of blaring horns, near the corner of Avenida Constitucion and Third Street, the beating heart of downtown. There we were disgorged in front of a discount shoe store and yet another farmicia selling prescription meds over the counter. Here, however, we veered way off the standard touristic path, into an alleyway called Pasaje Rodriguez.
It teemed with hipster artists, hirsute hipsters pretending to be artists, and truly funky musicians such as “El Muerto” – think Kiss’ Gene Simmons mixed with a dissolute Barry Manilow; don’t laugh, he has 3,992 Facebook me gustas – pounding on keyboards. It overflowed with trendy artisan coffee-slash-bookstores-slash-art galleries, a fixie bike shop and a storefront selling vinyl records from before the merchant was even born. It was nothing less than resplendent, with its narrow walls adorned with swirling technicolor murals of local scenes and the tile floors from 1924 buffed to a sheen.
Had we suddenly been transported to San Francisco’s uber-trendy Mission District? I mean, I know I had had a few, but this didn’t seem at all like Tijuana anymore.
Or, at least, a U.S. tourist’s outmoded perception of “TJ.” Not a sombrero in sight, nary a single kitschy yesero (those plaster statues of Jesus, Elvis and Justin Bieber) on display.
As we made our serpentine way through the alleyway, to which locals have even attached the hipster sobriquet “PaRo,” up a set of creaky stairs and into the sleek wood-and-steel decorated Mamut brewery, its interior back-lit only to accentuate the artwork and spacious patio overlooking the rush of taxis careening down Third Street, Chinn beamed.
“There are alleys like this all over the city,” he said. “It used to be touristy, selling plastic stuff. But after 9/11 and when the drug war was going on, those places all closed up. This is what replaced it. This is what I like to show people.”
Chinn, in his early 30s and a refugee from the San Diego Union-Tribune, put down his bullhorn and picked up a plastic cup of brown ale, the first in the marathon tastings at four establishments in Tijuana’s burgeoning craft beer scene.
Just because he’s in charge of two busloads of U.S. tourists who have paid $45 for a six-hour beer odyssey doesn’t mean he can’t imbibe a little himself. After all, his nascent cordones de zapatos operation has blossomed into a thriving business, as the sellout crowd on this day attested.
Kind of like Tijuana itself. But rather than exploiting this border city of 1.6 million, Chinn is playing a part in luring back tourists who stayed away in droves after the narcotraficante killings between rival cartels reached critical mass around 2010, and later because the wait times to cross back into the U.S. stretched to an irritating four hours on busy weekends.
His Turista Libre trips range from wine-country excursions, to art walks, to a silly evening at a disco roller rink, to an edifying history of the city’s monuments, to a summer trip to a huge water park, to the over-the-top theater that is Lucha Libre, Mexico’s version of pro wrestling. Make no mistake, it’s a money-making proposition for Chinn, who still does freelance writing for U.S. publications and also teaches English at a Tijuana middle school. But it’s a labor if not solely of love but at least of cross-border understanding for him, too.
“This is something I started when I was living here about two years,” Chinn announced through the bullhorn after retrieving us from the San Ysidro border crossing and walking us over to the Mexico side. “I’m originally from Ohio, and I did it (moved to Tijuana) despite all the horrible things people said about Tijuana. I was frustrated because my friends wouldn’t come visit me. I wanted them to see the city like a local. Instead of going to the clubs where they dump tequila down your throat – which is fun, but there’s more to this city than that, right? – we started doing loosely organized day trips, kind of like what we’re doing today. Five years later, it grew to this.”
Chinn’s timing was fortuitous. He relocated to Tijuana in 2008 as the city’s tourist-based economy bottomed out. To pull itself out of recession, the city had to wean itself from the once-easy-pickings of the U.S. tourist economy.
So former trinket shops and bars turned into art galleries, hand-crafted boutiques, bistros and, yes, craft breweries aimed at, shockingly, actual Tijuanans. And, said Alan Castorena, owner of the just-opened Bresca brew pub, once merchants stopped catering to tourists, they found that tourists started trickling back in. Perhaps it’s partly a see-how-the-locals-eat-and-drink thing, but entrepreneurs such as Castorena welcome any business.
“The economy going bad forced us to change,” he said. “It’s now based on local people. A lot of new businesses started, not just (craft breweries). City Hall became interested in supporting new (startups) and making sure we could survive. And maybe in the last couple of years, Americans started coming back again.”
Castorena smiled broadly. There’s no outward anti-U.S. sentiment in Tijuana. Nearly all restaurants, bars, retail stores gladly accept dollars as well as pesos, converting the exchange rate rapidly on hand calculators, and giving change in U.S. currency. The difference now is Tijuana has broken its utter dependency on its northern neighbors. Tourists may be back, but they’re back on Tijuana’s terms. Granted, the new “La Sexta” strip of clubs and restaurants on Sixth Street borrows some from San Diego’s long-standing craft-beer hegemony and the creeping hipsterism bleeding down from San Francisco and Los Angeles, but it retains a distinct Baja flavor.
“Tourists used to come down and not care about the context of it all in Tijuana,” Chinn said. “When that dried up, the locals, I think, for the first time in their history, began to enjoy their city for what it really is. And then the tourists came back, but maybe a different kind of tourist. It’s not just the frat boys or Marines looking for a good time. We get the type of tourist that really wants to explore the culture and aren’t afraid of exploring.”
The fear factor was always kind of overplayed, Chinn believes. Until about 2010, most of the news that came out of Tijuana centered around the turf battle between the Felix family drug cartel and crime boss Teodoro Garcia Simental, with graphic descriptions of beheadings and people falling victim to “El Pozolero” (The Soupmaker) who tossed corpses into vats of lye. Brutal incidents overshadowed, perhaps justifiably, the “good” news of a new upscale restaurant opening in the fashionable Zona Rio neighborhood or the nightlife on bustling La Sexta.
The former mayor of Tijuana, Jorge Ramos, expressed his frustration to U.S. reporters in 2010, saying, “In the United States, they celebrate every death that is announced in Tijuana. They celebrate it so that the money stays there.”
Ramos’ comments illustrated the frustration many Tijuanans felt at the time. They had made strides in remaking their city, yet tourist figures continued to lag. Only in the past year or two has Juan Jose Quezada, owner of Mamut brewery seen a healthy return of tourism. The thing is, though, his brew pub, which began in an office tucked away on an upper level of Pasaje Rodriguez, then garnered a storefront and grew to be the alley’s biggest tenant, can do just fine without Americans.
“Saturdays, we are mostly tourists,” Ramos said. “But come, like, on a Thursday and any other night of the week, and we (have) primarily local customers. It’s like that in most places. (Local) people come for the art and, I guess, our beer, too. We just like to have anyone come in. Doesn’t matter. There’s a big competition in Tijuana now among breweries. Tourists welcome.”
These days, Chinn said, it doesn’t take much coaxing to lure U.S. tourists, primarily San Diegans, down south. Most of his tours – he offers about three a month, on weekends – sell out. Chinn says his clientele are more open-minded than the stereotypical weekender in a car. He once used the phrase “urban anthropologists” to describe his customers, but has amended that. They are, simply, just people out for a fun time who won’t let nameless fear deter them.
“That’s the thing about Tijuana,” said Turista Libre veteran Greg Byard, a San Diegan originally from the Sacramento area. “If you don’t know much about it, it can be a little scary. But if you can get into the little pockets like this, it’s a very comfortable feeling.”
His girlfriend, Camille Greene, sloughed off safety concerns: “We’ve been to soccer games and Toros (minor league baseball) games. I feel safe. I came here with my friend the first time, and I’ve felt pretty safe after that. Obviously, there are things you don’t do here, especially as a woman.”
Others on the tour admitted concerns about safety, which is why exploring as part of a group was attractive. Interestingly, one Turista Libre customer who was a little wary was Adrian Ramirez, who lives in the San Diego County town of Vista but is originally from Veracruz, Mexico. “You read about the drug violence, yeah, but this seems OK,” he said, then breaking into a smile. “I’m from Mexico, right? So it’s kind of weird being on a tour in your own country.”
San Diegan John Noel said he and his wife don’t worry about safety issues, although they did think twice about going through U.S. customs at weekend’s end. “The only thing I’d say is, don’t get too far off the beaten path.”
Keeping folks on the path was Chinn’s job, verging on cat-herding degree of difficulty, as the evening wore on and the effects of repeated craft beer tastings, plus three cases of Tecate that someone smuggled aboard from a convenience store across Avenida Constitucion from “PaRo,” took hold.
By the day’s last stop, after sunset but well before the Tijuana nightlife really kicked in, my bus mates had shed any safety anxieties and had left many of their inhibitions behind several craft breweries ago. On the ride across town to the brewery Insurgente (slogan: “!Toma Artesanal!”) in the Zona Rio financial district, the woman in the seat in front of me was singing along, full-throated, to “Dancing Queen,” her boyfriend slagging on the cheesy Abba song on the radio, but then unleashing a mighty trill of his own when a song by the Nortec Collective came on.
At Insurgente, owners Ivan and Damien Morales took Chinn’s bullhorn and, standing in front of stainless steel vats, explained how the brothers moved from brewing in their mom’s kitchen, to her garage, and then to her patio, and in a mere six months opened a real business in one of the city’s best neighborhoods. The Turista Libre crowd applauded, dutifully, but kept an eye peeled on the counter where the pouring would soon commence. One person actually paying attention was KP Charpentier, a San Diegan who has an intense interest in what he calls the craft beer “movement” and wanted to test the carbonated waters in Tijuana.
“But I don’t know the ins and outs of beer here,” he said. “I wouldn’t know where to go on my own. So it’s good having someone like Derrik show us around.”
One woman took her appreciation of Chinn’s leadership to another level, grasping his tattooed biceps and saying, “You know, Derrik, you are sooooo good at what you do. You’re like a teacher. I’m a teacher, and I should know. I’m, like, now officially buzzed, so …”
Chinn beamed but kept focus on his final task of the night – delivering the busload of tipsy tourists back to the border. This would involve a nice, brisk five-minute walk, which would surely help some clear their heads. (Many on the tour wisely took the San Diego Trolley to the border station at San Ysidro, so they’d have another 45 minutes or so to reclaim a measure of sobriety.) That final bus ride was a tad lighter, though, since some tourists felt so comfortable – they certainly were feeling no pain – in Tijuana that they informed Chinn they would venture out, via taxi, for more exploring on their own.
“We do have a monument tour,” he barked into the bullhorn. “It’s fun and crazy. We climb onto Montezuma and take photos of each other. You’ll like it.”
To which, from the back of the bus, came a piercing, R-rolling trill of affirmation and the distinctive “psst” of another Tecate can being opened.
Contact The Bee’s Sam McManis at (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter, @SamMcManis.
Turista Libre leads U.S. tourists on group outings to various aspects of life and culture in Tijuana and other Baja California locales.
▪ Saturday: Tijuana Salsa and Tapas Night, $75
▪ Feb. 22: Mexicali Chinatown Trek, $95