The last one off the bus is a handsome blond in red short-shorts and a silver lamé jacket. He is our tour guide, Derrik Chinn, a blue-eyed 30-year-old former journalist from Ohio who now makes his living showing groups of curious gringos like us how to experience Tijuana as the Tijuanenses do, with trips to the local water park, a lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) match or, in our case, to the Patines de Plata roller rink, where every Friday is retro night.
Chinn, who calls his business Turista Libre, motions for the entrance and yells, “¡Turistas, vamos!” We follow him inside, where Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” blasts over the stereo system and a disco ball rains its polka-dot shimmer onto the few dozen teenagers circling the rink, some bashfully holding hands in nervous anticipation of the couples’ skate. I give the place a quick scan. No sign of narco henchmen, so I beat a quick path to the skate-rental counter, lace up my size ocho quads and join my bespandexed compatriots out in the rink.
After two laps, I’m already wearing a grin. Why did I wait so long to do this? See, I’m one of those people who has lived in San Diego for years and never given a second thought to Tijuana, even though the Mexican town is only 20 minutes from my apartment. TJ is for tequila-chugging spring breakers and girls gone wild, I thought, and even they stopped going on account of the violence between cops and drug cartels that left hundreds dead at its 2008 peak. In fact, we’re all bucking a State Department travel warning to be here tonight, but at this moment, nobody seems too concerned.
“If anything is going to happen to you in Tijuana, it’s the same thing that’s going to happen to you in Paris or Beijing,” Chinn tells me, pointing out how much the violence has abated. “Tijuana now is like New York in the ’80s. Te tienes que poner trucha. It means you have to be smart about it, be savvy. You have to be a savvy urbanist to enjoy your experience in Tijuana.”
Urbanist is an apt description of the people I’m meeting on tonight’s tour. The woman in the hot-pink leggings is a hip-looking librarian; the velour-tracksuit guy is an architect; the girls in the matching French-cut leotards are industrial designers; and others are photographers, urban farmers, writers and grad students from north of the border. Frat boys riding a Cuervo buzz are conspicuously MIA.
Many in the group aren’t gringos at all but local Tijuanenses curious to rediscover their city through Chinn’s eyes, which makes Turista Libre one of those rare tourism enterprises that manages to subvert the hoary dialectic of local and outsider. Those kinds of divisions seem to dissolve pretty quickly when the roller-rink DJ plays “Thriller.”
When I met Chinn through mutual friends a few years ago, he piqued my interest with stories of a Tijuana very different from the one I’d read about in newspaper reports, which made it sound as though Avenida Revolucion was perpetually littered with the headless bodies of cartel thugs. He told me about a new generation of urban idealists who were remaking the city, entrepreneurs and artists who weren’t out to court the fickle, long-gone tourist dollar but had focused their energies instead on creating a great city for the locals who remained.
“The foreign media knows that stories [about violence] sell papers and drive up page views much quicker than a story about the soccer team going up to the first division or a $9 million renovation of the art museum,” Chinn says. “My thing has never been to hide the perils that exist here, but to show people around them.”
That means exposing visitors to the everyday life of a Tijuana local. “This is a big city: 1.56 million, officially. There are millions of people who are active, who don’t participate in the drug war,” says Chinn. “Their lives have to function on a normal basis, someway, somehow. Something as simple as riding a city bus with a bunch of Tijuanenses shows that there is a semblance of normality going on here.”
After a few hours of skating, the house lights come on, signaling the turistas to turn in our wheels and pack it in. We pile back onto the bus headed for Calle Sexta, a downtown street at the center of the action of this hip new Tijuana. Here, the graffiti-covered corrugated security doors that once guarded abandoned souvenir shops now roll open to reveal an indie record store, a shop selling vintage clothing and handmade sneakers and, seemingly every five steps, another dimly lit watering hole packed with throngs of sweaty locals dancing to a throbbing beat.
As we file out of the bus, La Sexta unfurls before us, buzzing with the frenetic energy of 11 p.m. Through the steam rising from a street-corner hot-dog cart, I can see packs of well-coiffed Mexican 20-somethings crowding the sidewalks and spilling into traffic, girls in high heels gingerly negotiating the cracks in the pavement.
Bathed in neon, we walk wide-eyed — and still in costume — toward our destination, a little hot spot called La Chupiteria, recently opened on the site of an old pharmacy. The soundtrack on the street seems to shift every half-block: ranchera music bursting from the speakers of one nightspot, ’80s electro from the next.
We make our way past the club’s bouncer, and our group soon melts into the press inside the tiny bar. A few people glance quizzically at our outfits, then go back to what they were doing, and what young people are doing in bars in cities all over the world.
Scheduled group tours, which meet just across from the pedestrian border crossing, take place every three weeks or so. Each outing includes a food stop and a bar stop related to the theme of the event. Cost varies but is usually about $15-$30, including transportation to and from the border. Reserve online.
Maya Kroth (@theemaya) is a San Diego-based writer.