Tijuana: Not On My List?

Thus far, all of my entries have been about places that I've been to, or that I want to travel to. I haven't really had a lot of "misadventures" that would make me say, "Never go to this place." A typical misadventure for me involves getting a little lost, but finding my way again after meeting new, wonderful people, and discovering new, wonderful places. Then again, I am a bit of a cautious traveler.

This story is not mine to tell. This is my husband's story, which I have entitled "Tijuana: Not On My List?" OR, conversely, "The time I nearly became a widow when my husband was nearly murdered in Mexico". I'll need his help to share it with you, as I was not present for this outlandish, outrageous, and at times comical-in-its-danger story.

It all began when my husband flew down to San Diego for a Neuroscience convention (my husband was a neuroscience researcher before he became a Chartered Accountant - he likes to keep busy!) He was with some of his fellow research buddies, one of whom was a tall, skinny Asian man named Chen. This is important to know for later. Halfway through their conference, the boys decided it might be fun to catch the train from San Diego to Tijuana, Mexico for an afternoon, just to say they had been to Mexico and to drink a bit of tequila before boarding the train again and heading back to the city. Everyone agreed, and off they went.

Tijuana on a busy tourist night.

After departing the train in Tijuana, the boys attempted to grab a cab. About 12 cabbies, seeing the only white people in the train station, flocked to the boys to rustle up some business. Apparently Tijuana is not a busy tourist location on a Monday night. At this point, my husband and his friends should have realized that they stuck out like a sore thumb, and perhaps they should have their guards up. But they didn't.

The cab took them to the downtown area, and they visited four to five bars. During this part of the night, they had a great time. While at the bar, a man introduced himself to the boys, claiming he was a local from Tijuana who loved getting to know travelers, and offered to hang out with them, show them local hot spots, and keep them safe. He seemed nice enough, and they agreed. My husband didn't really trust him, but let it go. After all, what harm can come to you when you're with a fairly large group of guys?

The boys did have to attend the conference the next day, and so tried to wind down their evening at a reasonable hour. Their Mexican "guide" offered to help them find a cab so they could get back to the train station. As they were walking down the street, away from the bars, the Mexican police pulled up in a large van. The guide, who had been wearing a backpack the whole evening, was asked to hand over the bag for inspection. The police, one man, one woman, found a machete inside: the boys' eyes widened as they gasped at the size and sharpness of the weapon they'd been so close to all night, unknowingly.
Not the kind of souvenir Joey was looking for!

The police, rather than reassure the boys that they were safe and protected from the man with machete, accused the boys of being "accomplices" to whatever concocted scheme the "guide" had been planning. They were told to get into the back of the van, and that they would be sent to jail until a judge was available to see them and determine their fate. With that, the van doors slammed shut.

The boys found themselves in a van with a few other people who had been arrested that night, people who didn't really enjoy spending their time with some scared white boys. Among them was NOT the man with the machete - the police had set him free. My husband, with a sinking stomach, began to feel as if this whole thing might have been set up purposely.

The boys were driven around for about 15 minutes: the whole time they wondered what might be in store for them. Then the van stopped, and the police hauled open the back doors, addressing the boys specifically.

"How much are you willing to pay to get yourselves out of this situation?" the female cop asked. "I think $2500 would do it."

My husband was willing to pay anything to get out of the stinking van, but luckily, one of the members of his group had a cool head and stated simply, "We don't have any cash on us - certainly not that much."

"Well, we can take you to a bank machine," the female cop slyly suggested.

Before any of the boys could nod their heads in agreement, the cool and collected friend said, "Sorry, we've been in the bars all evening. We've all hit our limits. The bank machine won't give us any more money today."

"Well, then, I suppose you'll be going to jail. The judge might not be available for three to four days. That's all we can do for you." With that, the cops slammed the doors on the boys again, and the van revved its engine. They began to move once more. The boys began to sense that the van was moving aimlessly, turning corners so frequently they wondered if they might not just be driving around the block over and over again.

Joey's police van was not a nice-looking as this one...

After another 15 minutes, the van once more pulled over. The cops returned to the doors, this time demanding a mere $1500. Once more, the boys insisted they had no money, or access to money. The doors were slammed with force, and the van began to drive. After 10 minutes, the offer dropped to $1000, but the boys stuck to their tale. Finally, the police had had enough of the game playing, and outright demanded the money the boys had in their pockets. Between the four of them, they managed to round up $17 US dollars: a ten, a five, and two ones.

"I will never forget the way she looked at that money," my husband told me. "She stared at it like a hungry animal eyes a bone."

With the money in their hands, the cops were satisfied. The boys were ushered from the van, and left alone on the outskirts of the city: they were on the edge of the urban developments and some fields. Relieved to be free and far from a Mexican jail, the boys stopped to heed nature's call (after all, they'd been at the bar only an hour or so before...) As they were completing their business, one of the boys stopped and stage whispered to the others, "What's that, over the hill?" Tired of the drama, the other boys shushed him, but upon their friend's insistence, looked up to the top of the hill just beyond them.

Trapped in a strange city at night with gangs is not my idea of a good time.

Up on the hill, a man was crouched, using hand signals as if he were rounding up a posse of hidden soldiers, signaling them to flank the enemy. All of a sudden, a group of ominous men emerged from around the hill and the edges of the surrounding buildings. The boys took one look at each other, turned, and RAN. My husband was intent on leading his friends down a gravel road, away from the men, but luckily, no one listened to him. Instead they followed the cool-headed boy, who had lied to the police about his bank card. Cool-headed boy led the group for about 10 minutes through a series of empty lots and fields, towards a tall fence with thin railings, spaced apart just enough so the boys couldn't slip through. They had to climb.

The whole time the boys had been running for their lives, my husband locked into self-preservation mode. Selfishly (but practically I think) he was thinking, "Stay ahead of Chen and you'll be fine!" The entire duration of the chase, Chen had been far behind, bringing up the rear, making him the first to be potentially caught by the thugs. But when the boys hit the fence and had to climb, Chen, the thin boy that he is, slid through the bars like a ghost, and ended up in the lead on the other side!

Once over the fence, they were in a more urban area. Across the street, they saw a cab idling without a fare, and the boys ran like crazy for safety. Their pursuers jumped the fence, but didn't edge any closer to the cab.

"Take us to the border, NOW!" the boys shrieked, wild with fear and relief. The cab driver chuckled, nodded, and calmly pulled his gear shift from park to drive. He leaned back into the seat, relaxed, and let his cab roll about one foot before he then very smoothly replaced the gear shift back into park. He turned to the boys.

"Now you are at the border," he winked.

Glad to be safe at the border - think twice next time, Joey!

Too relieved to be embarrassed, the boys thanked the cab driver, who laughed and didn't ask for payment. The boys left the cab, and made it into the border station. Once they cleared customs, they had to walk to the nearest train station on the U.S. side, which was about 2 miles away. By this point, the boys were exhausted, hungry, covered in blood from their various cuts and scratches, and had grubby, torn clothing from climbing the fence. By the time they reached the train station, it was 3 am, so they slept for a bit on the train station benches, and then caught a train ride home with quite the story to tell!

And THAT, my friends, is why Tijuana is not on my bucket list!!

(Of course, I realize this is only one bad experience and that Tijuana may not be ALL bad - but this story was enough to make me wary!)


  1. More truth here then one expects, unbelievable
    All the things they warn you about especially taxi's, cops and a new friend.
    Glad he made it back

    1. I had heard that it can be bad in Mexico, particularly near the border, but I had no idea until my husband came home with this story. I thought he was pulling my leg with this story, but his friends backed him up, and he has ripped and bloodied jeans from climbing the fence to prove it. I want to go to the Crystal Caves in Chihuahua but I've been told that's dangerous too. It makes me sad.

  2. I've been to Tijuana for a day trip that had us back in the US by early evening. We knew well enough to be very cautious, and didn't personally experience anything too crazy except for donkeys painted to look like zebras and horses, and Mexican Elvis impersonators. We had been told which area of the city to stay in and even which side of the street to stay on to stay safe. It was... Interesting to say the least. An experience for sure. I wouldn't ever go back though and certainly would never go outside of daytime hours.
    Your hubby's story sounds *just* like Tijuana to me! Glad everyone is okay though.

    1. I can imagine Tijuana would be a lot of fun if you were there under the right circumstances and played it safe - it has a lot to offer for tourists and for people looking for a quick visit to Mexico. I don't think going bar-hopping (no matter the day of the week) really fits into that, but then again, I'll bet a lot of people have done it without going through what my husband did. All I can say is, I have NO immediate plans to go to Tijuana!!