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Weekend Escape: Mexico

Not Your Typical TJ

Beyond Avenida Revolucion, there's more than bargains

May 04, 1997|KEVIN BAXTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Baxter is a news editor in the feature sections

TIJUANA — Some of the most vivid memories I have of my youth come from my family's annual day trips to Tijuana. Walking the jampacked streets, with their noise and confusion, I remember feeling as though I was wandering through a Turkish bazaar or perhaps the Algerian casbah--although that sense of intrigue was tempered by the extreme poverty so evident as soon as we crossed the border.

Both Tijuana and I have matured since then. With a population of 1.8 million, it has blossomed into Mexico's fourth-largest city and, despite the worst depression in Mexican history, the city's unemployment rate is lower than that of nearby San Diego County.

To find out how, and if, things had changed, I packed my childhood memories alongside a pair of swim trunks and an Elena Garro novella, gathered my wife, Fatima, and 3-year-old son, Marcos, and headed for Mexico.

We decided to leave our car at Union Station and take the train to the border. On Amtrak, it was a leisurely 2-hour, 45-minute ride from downtown Los Angeles to San Diego's Santa Fe depot; from there we hooked up with the San Diego Trolley's Red Line, which dropped us off just a few feet from the international border. Once in Mexico, we let Tijuana's numerous and friendly taxi drivers be our guides.

Our first stop was the Grand Hotel Tijuana, one of the city's growing number of modern luxury hotels. Opened in 1986 as the Hotel Fiesta Americana, the Grand is part of the Plaza Aguacaliente complex of shops, offices and restaurants. The complex's 25-story twin towers overlook the Tijuana Country Club. But we chose it based solely on price--$77 a night--and location: Of Tijuana's top hotels, the Grand is among the farthest from the border. This was to be a foreign adventure, after all, so we wanted to make sure we couldn't see San Diego from our balcony.

The only thing spectacular about our double room was the view. From our 17th-floor window, Tijuana's neat lines revealed themselves, and we could follow the wide boulevards as they rose and fell over the city's many hills. But the beds were comfortable, the minibar well-stocked and the hotel's employees helpful.

As a native of Nicaragua, Fatima speaks Spanish fluently, a skill she's managed to teach me. But in Tijuana, virtually everyone from schoolchildren to day laborers is conversant in English.

*

The next day dawned sunny and cool, perfect weather for a quick tour of the city. I used my early morning run to orient myself and plan our activities. I passed the Caliente race track (home to daily cards of greyhound races), one of Tijuana's two bullrings and a number of interesting restaurants. The city was remarkably clean and much quieter than I expected at 8 on a Saturday morning, so the miles passed quickly. But when I caught sight of the downtown jai alai fronton in the distance, I knew I was getting dangerously close to the noisy, kitsch-filled part of town that I remembered from my youth, so I quickly circled back to the hotel.

Breakfast at the hotel meant a sumptuous buffet featuring everything from cold cereal and yogurt to frijoles and Mexican sweet breads--and Sunday's champagne brunch was even more ample, with house specialties such as crepes prepared at the table. The Grand Hotel's morning spreads--at about $7.50 on Saturdays and $9.25 on Sundays--draw visitors from all over Tijuana; one morning while we were there, Mexican soap opera star Daniela Lujan was among the guests.

After breakfast, we hailed a taxi and headed for Tijuana's elegant Plaza Rio section and one of the city's newer attractions, the Mundo Divertido amusement park, a place that attempts to solve a mystery long pondered by all parents: What would happen if you built a Chuck E. Cheese restaurant inside a Malibu Grand Prix?

With a miniature golf course, roller-coaster, batting cages, a kiddie-sized train, go-carts, a vast array of video games and much, much more, Mundo Divertido (Happy World) could probably keep even the most hyper children occupied all day.

By the time we headed back inside to escape the now-broiling sun and grab a hot dog, families were beginning to fill the noisy indoor picnic area for a birthday party, stringing pinatas of Toy Story characters from pipes and crossbeams. By early afternoon, the park was filling with fathers clipped to beepers and mothers toting cellular phones, so after lunch we hailed another cab for a short trip up Paseo de los Heroes to the 15-year-old Centro Cultural Tijuana, one of northern Mexico's best-kept secrets.

A government-built complex of buildings designed by famed architect Pedro Ramirez Vasquez, CECUT's theaters and exhibition halls play host to variety of cultural groups and events, from the Baja orchestra (anchored by 18 musicians from the former Soviet Union) to dance troupes such as Kiev's Opera Ballet.

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