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Sights and Sounds of the Border City Ring Familiar on Return

September 17, 1989|JOHN HAASE | Haase is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles

TIJUANA, Mexico — How well I recall visiting Tijuana 40 years ago, during my college days.

There was a sense of adventure and mystery as you crossed that long bridge from the U.S.-Mexico border into a town that had a distinct sound and the pungent scent of kerosene lanterns lighting the casitas of its poorer residents.

I strolled down Avenida Revolucion, with its endless shops and stalls stocked with silver, leather goods and colorful blankets.

I recall the hawkers offering watches and bracelets, the donkey carts, the dark bars crowded with sailors--bars that nearly rivaled Quinn's on the waterfront of Papeete for notoriety.

There were the ice cream vendors with their little carts, the little taco stands illuminated by aging oil-burning lanterns, the unpaved side streets with open-air body shops, the one-day upholsterers and the Jai Alai Palace, where one could bet on the fastest sport in the world.

100th Birthday

Tijuana is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year, and so, years later, I have returned to buy hand-woven rugs and some luggage.

Once a sleepy border town, Tijuana has grown to a city of more than 3 million inhabitants. Avenida Revolucion, paved and refurbished, still draws the tourists.

There are the endless shops, the dark bars, the street vendors, the same street hawkers, the houses painted whimsical colors. Signs indicate lawyers who perform 24-hour divorces, and there are the chapels where weddings are performed on the spot.

Gone is the pungent odor of kerosene. Taxi drivers have lost their fascination for the horn, though different kinds of music still echo through the streets.

The Jai Alai Palace opens every evening with the exception of Thursday, and the nearby Agua Caliente Race Track offers thoroughbred horse racing on Saturday and Sundays (post time at noon) and greyhound dog racing every night (except Tuesday).

Tijuana has, indeed, become a city.

On my first visit, the town ended near the terminus of Avenida Revolucion. It was laced with dirt roads and ravines and squatter homes. Now the dusty paths have given way to the Rio Tijuana area, with its wide and paved streets.

The five-star Fiesta Americana Hotel, a 30-floor tower structure, provides 430 rooms and suites, with rates for a double that rival upscale American hotels beginning at $75 U.S. Rooms face either the city or the golf course.

Hundreds of custom homes display boldness and imagination that puts the tracts in Orange County to shame.

Large, well-maintained malls and colonial-style shopping centers house fine galleries, elegant boutiques and restaurants. The shops sell merchandise identical to that seen in Beverly Hills at duty-free prices.

Even stalls on Avenida Revolucion sell perfect copies of designer watches for the price of a battery that powers authentic timepieces. Average price: about $20.

There are other good hotels including the Lucena, with its fine accommodations and gourmet restaurant. There's also the Paraiso Radisson overlooking the golf course, the colonial Hotel El Conquistador and the Palacio Azteca.

Still, it takes more than hotels and restaurants to make a city. Tijuana, the gateway to Baja, is aware of its Spanish-Mexican heritage. It rightfully prides itself on five colleges or universities. There were none 15 years ago.

The city's new $30-million cultural center, designed by Manual Rosen Morrison and Pedro Ramirez Vazquez, is not only an architectural marvel but its museum artfully displays pre-Columbian artifacts and fine examples of colonial crafts, as well as the bold and vibrant work of great contemporary artists. It is not unlike the Guggenheim in New York City.

There is a fine library, a 1,042-seat symphony hall, and a cinema with Omnimax projection that surrounds you with a show called "People of the Sun," which offers a close view of the struggles and triumphs of our neighbors to the south. Tijuana now has fine music, theater, museums and ballet--a far cry from the bullfight rings, which still exist, downtown (El Toreo de Tijuana) and by the sea (Plaza Monumental).

We dined at the historic Hotel Caesar, where the famous salad was created and is still prepared. Dinner at the Coronet, a fine little bistro in town, cost $20 for the most tender bacon-wrapped filet mignons I ever tasted.

The management sends a complimentary liqueur after dinner. Other restaurants: La Lena for steaks, La Espuelas for seafood, Place de la Concorde in the Fiesta Americana Hotel for French cuisine.

Stroll down the Paseo de los Heroes, a tree-lined boulevard graced with more fine statuary than in all of Los Angeles. While Tijuana is only 15 miles south of San Diego by car, a pleasant alternative is to take the Tijuana Trolley to the border from San Diego for $1. Or take Amtrak from Los Angeles, connecting with the Tijuana Trolley in San Diego.

Some tips: Be careful of ice in your drinks; cabs are not expensive, but establish the fare before starting your trip; bartering is expected and part of the fun in the stores of old downtown, although upscale shops and department stores have fixed prices.

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