TIJUANA — The San Ysidro border crossing between San Diego and Tijuana is the world’s busiest point of entry—processing around 300,000 commuters daily. And today, as you return relaxed, refreshed, and reinvigorated from your long weekend in Baja California, it feels like every single one of them is in front of you.
Both pedestrian and vehicle crossing points at San Ysidro–affectionately known in Tijuana as “La Linea“–are in the process of expansion. But at this scale it takes some time and the bi-national effort often lacks effort on one side or the other, producing uneven growth and some awkward moments. In the meantime, we wait. And wait. And wait.
But there’s no reason to stress. Don’t view La Linea as a task, or something to be endured for three, four or even eight hours–like a friend did at the end of a recent three-day weekend. Look at it as an opportunity to explore the rich, smog-laden culture of La Linea and it’s varied entertainments, wares, and enticements.
And remember, SENTRI passes are for people who are hung up on concepts like “valuing their time”, or “enjoying their lives”. Just relax, make sure your gas tank is full, roll up into the ready and regular lanes, and follow A Gringo In Mexico’s 10 Ways to Enjoy your Wait at the San Ysidro Border Crossing to make the most of your time in line. You can thank me later (probably much later).
Me, waiting, and waiting, and waiting…
1. Border Line Cuisine
Tijuana has gained fame as a culinary destination, for good reason. But you won’t find any of those reasons here in La Linea. Instead, you’ll find: usually stale churros fried in vats of animal lard of questionable origin*; Tostilocos, an unholy street “food” combining tortilla chips, chicharron, and Japanese peanuts—topped with enough chamoy and tajin chile powder to make you pucker until your head turns inside out and explodes; and Bionic Burritos—in my opinion the best of the border cuisine. They’re only a buck apiece and smaller than their US counterparts, so you’ll want to stock up for your wait to cover three or possibly four meals for you and your passengers (about 50 Bionic Burritos).
* Heard it from a friend who heard it from an equally questionable source.
2. Take Advantage of the Clean, Friendly Facilities
You’re suddenly regretting that second michelada back in Rosarito. You’ve reached the front of the line and make a frantic dash from the passenger door toward the labyrinth of souvenir shops, praying to a nearby statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe that you’ll find a toilet. There is a clean set of public baños that only cost 25 pesos, which includes a small wad of TP fit for an elf’s derrière. If these stalls are full or closed for maintenance, there are alternatives. True story: A few years ago, sensing my dismay at the CERRADO sign outside of the public toilets, a shop owner guided me into a narrow aisle of his closed, dark tienda. At the end of the aisle was an upended 5-gallon plastic water jug. Smiling, he handed me a funnel…
3. Do a Little Shopping
There are enough Frozen and Little Mermaid piggy banks, piñatas, and bric-a-brac here to make a team of Disney lawyers break out in an anticipatory sweat. The guy lugging the huge Christ on the crucifix statue across eight lanes of traffic is bearing a burden greater than the Lord himself. There’s the ubiquitous image of an Aztec warrior standing watch over a helpless maiden imprinted on a fleece blanket—sold even on 90-degree days. And in keeping with Mexico’s rich, cultural traditions, there’s also a sizable sea foam green Aztec calendar that would work so well in your living room with…absolutely nothing.
4. Donate to Charity
I always give some change to the folks in the white caps and uniforms with the official looking collection cans. I’m not even sure what causes they’re representing*, but the credentials hanging around their necks make them seem legitimate. “Never give money to the kids,” a friend from Tijuana once instructed, “It just goes to someone else.” But I always give the chicle girls a couple of coins, hoping that they keep at least a small percentage from their Illuminati overseers. And I’m more than happy to hand a few pesos to the elderly women who seek alms in exchange for a blessing. You never know. Maybe it will help the line move faster.
* Editor’s note: Mexican chapter of The Salvation Army
5. Enjoy a Street Performance
When it comes to street performance, the border crossing is second only to the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris. Okay, not really, but there are squads of indentured ten-year olds who juggle really fast and catch all five balls flawlessly behind their backs. And if the line is backed up into Zona Rio, there are fire-eaters too. There’s also the slightly barracho old troubadour with an out-of-tune guitar belting out what sounds like “Besame Mucho”. Or is it that Bon Jovi song? His voice is wizened and husky—probably from sucking in all the carbon monoxide.
6. Provide a Service to your Country
Another True Story: As we neared the gates a couple of years back, a US Border and Customs agent approached our Jeep, asking if we wouldn’t mind helping conduct a training session with one of their drug-sniffing canine units. After waiting in La Linea for several hours, I complied, desperately welcoming any form of stimulation in my near-comatose state. The officer placed a baggie filled with a little somethin’ somethin’ inside our tire well. The dog was brought out, promptly found the stash, and was awarded with a Scooby snack. Good deed for the day…done!
7. Catch up on Electronic Media
If you have cross-border data coverage, now’s a good time to catch up on social media, check your email, endlessly curse at your border crossing app, or even watch a movie or two (or three). If you don’t have a mobile plan that works in Mexico, don’t be lulled into a sense of complacency as you near the border and the carrier name on your phone changes from NEXTEL to AT&T. Once you turn your data back on, you’ll inevitably switch back into NEXTEL coverage and be charged several hundred dollars in roaming fees. If you don’t have coverage, you can always…
8. Have a Conversation
Remember these? People used to have them before we all had mobile phones. There was usually some good music playing in the background, maybe some classic rock or seventies R&B. We talked about politics, spirituality, favorite bands, common life experiences, philosophy, and sometimes just told jokes and laughed and laughed. If you’ve run out of time-passing activities, conversation is a fun, hip, and retro option.
9. Support Local Service Providers
If your windshield is covered with a layer of Baja dust, there’s a roaming pack of guys who will spray watered-down Windex on it and sloppily smear the viscous fluid around with a dirty rag—whether you ask them to or not. You’ll want to tip them a few pesos to clean up that mess. There’s also a guy who will move one of the heavy concrete lane blockades out of your way so you can slip into the medical lane in case you missed the not-very-clearly-marked entrance in El Centro. If you’re desperate enough to take the risk, you can even hire a dude to hop in your car and give you really bad directions to “…a faster way out” that’s guaranteed not to be.
10. Experience a Spiritual Awakening
I had a revelation once as I approached the border after a particularly long wait in the glaring August sun. A vendor passed by the side of our car carrying a large bas-relief of Michelangelo’s The Last Supper. In the bas-relief, Jesus and the 12 disciples appeared to morph into characters from The Simpsons—in a copyright-infringed, smog-tinged ecstatic vision. The faces of Homer, Marge, and Apu faded as I approached the customs officer and breathed a sigh of relief, not dissimilar to an entrant’s arrival at the Pearly Gates.
Passports checked and returned, we emerged from the clogged Tijuana passageway, reborn. We gazed in wide wonder at the beatific sight of 12 open lanes of Southern California freeway and endless possibility. The journey, I realized at that moment, is truly the reward.
At least that is what I tell myself. Until the next time…
Your Gringo in Mexico