Tijuana Cultural Center, crossing to Tijuana

The Tijuana Cultural Center has events, exhibits and performances year round.

Updates to this post are ongoing as border improvements for crossing into Tijuana are underway.
I’ve been in love with Mexico since I was a child. My parents would think nothing of crossing into Tijuana to camp on the beaches outside of town. That was long before it became the Spring Break debauchery capitol, before the recession, before 9/11 and the drug violence turned tourists away. Times have changed and over the past five years, Tijuana has become safer to visit than many American cities. I’ve been walking across the border to dental clinics, taken a bus to Dias de los Muertos celebrations, and crossed for weekend explorations with friends. There’s a renaissance going on and it’s close – a simple walk or drive across the border.

Driving from Mexico into the US from Tijuana:

“It’s actually been safe to go to Baja California for the past five or six years.”
David Stark, USD Political Science Professor and part of the University of San Diego’s 2014 Justice in Mexico Report.
The University of San Diego’s Justice in Mexico report, published annually since 2010, shows that violence has declined for the third year in a row. There are still hot spots of concern far south of the California border where drug cartels persist, but the border near San Diego is safe. Travelers just need to be smart, be prepared and that should be nothing new. If friends say they’re worried about you visiting Mexico ask them: Should tourists stay away from California because there have been riots in Ferguson and Baltimore? Are there neighborhoods and times in your home town where you wouldn’t feel secure?
Tijuana today is safe again for visitors. The rich history, Baja Med and regional cuisines, the color, music and sweet people of Mexico are waiting our return. (Read more about the food scene in Tijuana, Day of the Dead Celebrations and other cultural adventures.)
Dancers on a Saturday morning in Plaza Cecilia.

Dancers on a Saturday morning in Plaza Cecilia.

After 9/11 Americans stayed home. Borders once porous became narrow siphons. For Tijuana and the beach communities there was a huge shift. Vacationing families and hordes of underage teens could no longer simply drive back and forth across the border with only their drivers licenses. Once passports were required and were rigorously checked, traffic at the border slowed and long lines became the new norm. That is improving. Tourists are most welcome.
Tequilla tasting inside the classic Dandy del Sur.

Tequilla tasting inside the classic Dandy del Sur.

Today it’s simpler to get into Tijuana and back. Preparation is key.

Sentri Pass / Ready Lane

With so much culture less than an hours drive from San Diego it makes sense to apply for a Sentri Card for pre-approval and walk or drive quickly across. The Ready Line medical passes are no longer available. (Too many counterfeits, a customs officer told me.)

Which crossing to use: San Ysidro or Otay Mesa?

Getting into Mexico is usually swift. On your return, if San Ysidro wait times are horrendous, it’s simple to take a taxi or drive to Otay Mesa about five miles away. Traffic is usually lighter there for border walkers and drivers. See the App notice below.

Walk across the border into the Tijuana Airport!

The Ped West bridge into the Tijuana Airport is completed. Now anyone with a ticket in hand for flights leaving within 24 hours may purchase a bridge pass and walk into the Tijuana Airport. Flights around Mexico and South America are simpler to access (and often less expensive) than flying from within the U.S. Cross Border Express site often runs discount specials and parking advice.

Inside La Tradicion Restaurant in Tijuana.

Inside La Tradicion Restaurant in Tijuana.

Border crossing options: Walking across the border

Tijuana: Walking across

  • Take the Trolley (Blue Line) to the last U.S. stop at San Ysidro and walk across. Check that the trolley is running late enough on the day you cross to return. Option: Park at the H Street ‘Park and Ride’ lot, take the trolley to the border and if the trolley isn’t running on your return, take a taxi from the border to your car in the lot.
  • Walking in documentation has changed. Carry your passport, even if you have a SENTRI Pass. Your passport will be stamped when you enter Mexico. When crossing back into the US you only need a SENTRI Pass or Passport.
  • How long it takes to walk into the US is in transition. The good news is that lines are being reduced. Much depends on day of the week and what time of day. Wish I could give you a formula but it varies.
  • Ped-West Bridge: At the time of this writing, everyone walking back into the US needs to cross on the new, Ped-West bridge. It’s about a kilometer, so be prepared for the lengthy walk. I’ve seen people overheating and unprepared, plus there is no place to sit and rest.
  • The pedestrian crossing going south, at ‘Puerto Mexico,’ near MacDonald’s at the end of the San Diego Trolley, is open to about 1/3rd of the old capacity (Oct. 2016.) Wait times vary daily. The improved Customs building is air conditioned and pleasant.
  • Don’t carry heavy items and risk overheating. Roller-bags help. There are often gentlemen at the Ped West bridge as well as entry to Mexico side who are happy to shuttle your luggage. Negotiate payment before you hire them.

Otay Mesa:

  • Park near the Otay Mesa crossing and walk across the border to the line of taxis. How long the walk takes changes with upgrades and wait times, walking distances are affected by construction. Improvements are happening quickly. Taxi into town (about 10 minutes) or to the airport (about 5 minutes.)
  • Stroll across the airport bridge. This is a private bridge and requires a fee but it’s a simple walk directly into the airport. You must have an airplane ticket for a flight within 24 hours to use the bridge. Parking lots are accessible on either side of the border.

Driving across or parking at the border – Directions

San Ysidro:

  • Be sure to get Mexican Insurance before you drive across the border. There are insurance stands near the parking lots or you can research online for the best price.
  • San Ysidro, one of the busiest border stations in the world, has new lanes opening going in and out of Mexico, making crossing quicker and more secure. The auto crossing lanes leaving Mexico at San Ysidro are often reduced due to construction, which is slated for completion in 2018.
  • Drive south on freeway 5 or 805 and exit at the last USA exit.
  • Parking: Park at the UAENO lot or Border Station lot, then walk across the new bridge to cross the border. It’s about a 5 – 10 minutes walk to cross. The Border Station Lot has a free pedicab available but you need to call and reserve a seat.
  • Park in one of the lots next to the trolley border crossing (behind the Jack in the Box or another lot in that area.) Prices run from $8 to $15 U.S. a day.
Otay Mesa:
  • Drive south from San Diego on the I-5 or 805 freeways to the 905 highway going east. Follow signs to the border or take the last US exit for parking. Highway 125, north/south, also ends at the border crossing. Once you have Mexican car insurance, drive across the border.
  • Drive across at Otay Mesa and park at the Tijuana Airport (a large, new and secure lot) and walk into the terminal.
  • Parking: Lot prices vary with proximity to the border. There is some street parking. The further lots have shuttles.

Quickest way to get back into the U.S.? Check the App or website.

When you’re heading home from Tijuana or Baja it helps to know what the wait times are for returning to the States. Check this site to find out the best times and days to cross.
There are several Apps that will let you know which crossing is fastest crossing, either San Ysidro or Otay Mesa. They’re available for Android or Apple phones.

Before you travel between the U.S. and any foreign country, visit the United States State Department website. It contains the most up-to-date requirements for documents when traveling abroad.

Every effort is being made to keep this post up to date, but is not guaranteed now that the border improvements are underway. Help me keep it current and comment below on what you’ve experienced. I look forward to hearing from you.
Viva Mexico!
Thanks to the Tijuana Convention and Visitors Bureau for introducing me to more of the city and region. All opinions, as always, are my own.