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Rediscovering Tijuana

The small tour group encountered colorful fiestunderway near Centro Cultural TijuanArt Museum TijuanMexico. |  DAVE HOEKSTRA photos for sun-times

The small tour group encountered a colorful fiesta underway near the Centro Cultural Tijuana Art Museum in Tijuana, Mexico. | DAVE HOEKSTRA photos for the sun-times

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Visit Turista Libre, “Rad Tijuana Tours” at www. Chinn and a small staff conduct day tours of 20 to 40 people twice a month as well as small-group tours for five or six people. We toured on a Saturday, and the border lines exiting Mexico were very long. I asked Chinn where to stay if I wanted to spend a few nights in Tijuana. There’s a Marriott Hotel in Zona Rio ( and a Camino Real (, but he suggested Hotel Caesar’s downtown (the birthplace of the Caesar’s Salad; You must have a valid passport to cross the U.S.-Mexico border.

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Updated: July 6, 2012 9:07AM

TIJUANA, Mexico — Tourism is a bridge.

And not many tourists have recently crossed the border bridge along the Mexico 1 freeway from San Diego, Calif., to Tijuana, Mexico.

The long ago happy sounds of Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass have been drowned out by drug cartel-related gunfire. According to the San Diego Reader, by 2009 at least 90 percent of tourism-related business had shut down. Even the terminally free spirit Dennis Rodman couldn’t handle the heat. In 2007 he played only one game in Tijuana for the Tijuana Dragons of the briefly resurrected American Basketball Association.

None of this, however, has deterred Derrik Chinn, a 30-year-old native of Cincinnati, Ohio. In 2009 Chinn launched “Turista Libre” (Free Tourist) which conducts hip, rip-roaring day tours of Tijuana (pop. 1.6 million).

A couple of Saturdays ago, in a quick four hours, Chinn took me and a few other journalists to the new U.S.-Mexico border wall (“El muro”), the Centro Cultural Tijuana Art Museum (where we ran into a huge fiesta), the Mercado Hidalgo (market) where I held off on purchasing a Justin Bieber pinata, and finally to the historic dive cantina Dandy del Sur.

There I learned about the group Nortec Collective, who wrote a song about Dandy del Sur on their 2006 Grammy-nominated album “Tijuana Sessions 3.” The cantina (est. 1957) has cold bottled beer in a room filled with faded black-and-white photos of Mexican celebrities. Nortec Collective is from Tijuana and is a product of the emerging Tijuana electronic scene. The group mixes dense dance beats with traditional Mexican music. They have named their sound for a fusion of “Norteno” (from the north) and techno. I love their stuff. (On June 29 they open for Ozomatli at the Congress Theatre, 2135 N. Milwaukee.)

The music of Nortec Collective is a metaphor for the increasing synergy between Tijuana and San Diego.

“Tijuana has always dealt with the border more than the rest of Mexico,” Chinn said as we walked along “El muro.”

Chinn said the majority of his clients are San Diegans and people from Los Angeles. In a groundbreaking tourism effort, it was the San Diego Convention & Visitors Bureau that took us to Tijuana to meet Chinn.

“The only thing that ties our clients together is they have an open mind,” Chinn said. “Most unique we’ve had are a couple of Iranian girls. We don’t get the traditional tourist; I like to say they are urban anthropologists. They are the kind of person that would have fun anywhere in the world.”

Chinn is a former staff features writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He wanted to cover more stories in Tijuana; his editors didn’t think that was such a hot idea. So he quit the paper and started Turista Libre. Chinn is also a graduate of Ohio State University. He majored in journalism and Japanese. Chinn moved to San Diego in 2006 and then moved to Tijuana in 2007.

“I had a fascination with living in this country on a daily basis,” he said.

“I wanted to learn to speak Spanish fluently. I was spending more time in Tijuana. It fit better for me, despite what everyone was telling me at the time: ‘This is the worst idea ever.’ ‘You are in so much danger.’ ‘Your kidneys will be sliced out of you.’ And I was even hearing this from colleagues at the newspaper.”

Hey, I hear that every day from my colleagues and I don’t live near Tijuana!

Chinn admitted he moved at a dicey time.

“It was the height of the drug wars,” he said. “[But] I was surprised. I was experiencing the opposite of what people were telling me. Tijuana has calmed down the past couple years. It has given way to this cultural renaissance. The city was on its way out anyway after 9/11 because of the border lines being so long. You needed to have identification. Before 9/11 it was an oral declaration of your citizenship. Then after the drug wars took off, it wasn’t worth the risk to come here.

“For the first time ever locals had to make something for themselves that had nothing to do with catering tourists. That affected the night life scene, the music scene and now the gastronomic scene.”

For example, on June 30 Turista Libre will visit three wineries tucked amid the lush hills between Tecate and Ensenada, which have inspired oenophiles who label the area as Mexico’s Napa Valley. Tickets include transportation from the border, the winery visits and dinner at Ochentos, a gourmet pizzeria with an expansive terrace view at sunset. Space is limited so prepaying $100 per person is a must.

Much more of an impact for me was a walk along the new 20-foot tall border fence and watching it fade away a mile into the ocean.

The stirring graffiti written on the Mexican side of the wall features messages such as “No wall can contain my heart,” and “This wall will not save your economy.” (A wall photo gallery with music is at www.blogs.sun Graffiti is an art form in Tijuana.

“It is surreal in itself,” Chinn said in hushed tones. “ … The old fence isn’t here any more. There still is a monument that was divided. Half of it was in Mexico, half of it was in the U.S.”

Chinn looked down at the stone monument, about the size of Plymouth Rock.

“This is the last of 258 border markers,” he said under blue skies. “They go from here to the Gulf of Mexico. But after (U.S.) Homeland Security,” and he glanced at the steel fence. He continued, “This is new, although it doesn’t look like it. Back in the 1970s this was a bi-national park. (It was dedicated in 1971 by then First Lady Pat Nixon). People who had been separated by the border were having picnics back-to-back on the beach. They couldn’t cross because of immigration status but at least they could touch each other (through the old fence).”

The area was called Friendship Park. Communion was served through the fence in 2008 and 2009.

“Now with these fences, it is impossible to do that,” Chinn said “On the U.S. side you cannot come within 10 feet of the fence. The Border Patrol comes out of nowhere and tells you to move back.”

But an open-minded trip to Tijuana will give you a deeper understanding of what it means to travel.

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