Over the border, down Mexico way
'The Toothbrush", or El Cepillo as he's called in Spanish, adjusts his high-riding black underpants and climbs the corner post of the ring as AC/DC blasts from the stadium speakers. He spreads his arms and leaps on the crumpled wrestler lying on the concrete floor below the ring. Lucha libre (the Mexican term for wrestling) might be entertainment, but as we watch the Toothbrush slam a chair on his opponent's back, I realise it's certainly not faked.
I have crossed the border from San Diego into Tijuana with Turista Libre tours to experience the realities of life on the Mexican frontier in a city that was once, not so long ago, known mainly to the outside world as a place for drugs, murders and donkey shows.
Our guide is expat Derrik Chin, who grew up in Ohio, moved to Tijuana for love, and stayed. As we cross over, the formalities are as low-key as I've seen crossing from one country to another: there is a single-file turnstile and an uninterested guard on the other side, then we're in Mexico.
Our transport for the evening is a recommissioned yellow school bus, and as our group is given activity bags with stickers and figurines, I momentarily think that this could be a socks-and-sandals-style tour. For his next move, though, Derrik hands out mezcal and jelly shots to the passengers and cranks up the music. Through the windows, I see Tijuana for the first time: a farmacia here, an open-air market there, and the twinkling lights of the city above us.
Our first stop is taco restaurant El Franc. It is jammed with locals sitting and standing while the chefs carve meat and dollop avocado onto plates. I hoover down three tacos for only $US4 ($NZ5).
With full bellies, we head to the wrestling and get our third-row seats among the locals. We drink Micheladas (spiced beer) and watch a show that becomes more engaging the later the night gets. By the time Dr Wagner jnr, El Cepillo and El Hijo del Santo arrive, the wrestling is fast and brutal. At one stage, the audience showers the wrestlers with corn cobs and plastic cups after El Cepillo somehow manages to get a '90s-era printer into the ring, which he promptly smashes over his opponent's head.
The next day, Derrik and I leave the bus behind and take his car along the highway that skirts the edge of the border to Playas, where the Tijuana beach butts against the fence that separates Mexico from the US and continues into the water. We walk along the border and read the graffiti on the fence that stretches 50 metres into the choppy Pacific Ocean.
Fine cuisine is one of the prominent motifs of "new" Tijuana, so Derrik takes me to a taqueria on the edge of a main road. Inside Kokopelli, we sit at the retro bar and watch the chefs make imaginative seafood tacos for the crowd. Over glasses of hibiscus flower tea, we make requests as the chefs slice, grate and grill a selection of octopus, tuna ceviche and gourmet prawn tacos.
Our next destination is a little unusual. Derrik takes me to the Puerta Blanca Cemetery, which is next to the border fence. We walk among the tombstones and along the cobbled lanes to a crypt at the back. It is the resting place of Juan Soldado, a man who was framed for the rape and murder of a girl and shot by firing squad in 1938.
Years later, a local lady insisted Soldado was innocent and took a stone from beside his grave and asked for his help crossing the border. She succeeded, eventually returning the stone and declaring the event a miracle. I notice the inscriptions around Soldado's crypt thanking him for his help. He has become the unofficial patron saint of border runners. I see the cobbled lane around the crypt is missing hundreds of stones that have been taken by hopeful locals.
Back in the car, we drive past the red-light district. The streets are full of ladies of the night and visitors who have crossed over to get lost. During the day it's an urban market, and regular people walk and talk as if it is any other street in the city.
Outside Hotel Nelson, we see mariachis for hire and Hotel Caesars, where the Caesar salad was invented.
Next, Derrik drives me through the city to one of the less-reputable districts in the hills. We pull the car over and all of a sudden I'm greeted by a naked lady in the slums. Her name is La Mona and she's 15 metres tall. Local artist Armando Munoz Garcia wanted to give a gift to the city, a statue of La Mona, and when the city wouldn't help him with costs, he decided to build it in his front yard. Armando's house sits behind the statue - his bedroom is inside her chest and his bathroom is, appropriately, somewhere below the belly button.
"You find out all sorts of things living in this city," Derrik says.
Our last stop for the evening is in what seems like an industrial alley. Behind a tin facade is the Baja Craft Beers brewery. It is tapping into the San Diego craft beer boom by providing options over the border. The lights inside are converted beer kegs and the walls are lined with rocks in cages. We watch the soccer- the local team, the Xolos, who recently won the Mexican championship, play - and we sample a local Nocturna black beer and a hoppy Border Psycho.
Just like the pub, Tijuana is inconspicuous, even a little intimidating when it is viewed from the US side, though once you get up close, eat a taco or two and immerse yourself, it's easy to see what has kept Derrik here so long.
FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN BAJA CALIFORNIA
The beach town of Ensenada is 100 kilometres south of Tijuana and it's a great place to see whale migrations, surf or relax. See ensenada.com.
TASTE A DROP
A little more than 100 kilometres from Tijuana is the Valle de Guadalupe wine region. Turista Libre runs regular weekend tours. See turistalibre.com.
Rosarito is only 20 kilometres from Tijuana. There are numerous dining options, a golf course, bars and tours of the region. See rosarito.org.
Only 30 kilometres south of Ensenada, legend has it a whale became stuck in the rocks — the result is the La Bufadora marine geyser that shoots up to 20 metres into the air. Grey whale sightings are common during their migrations. See visitmexico.com.
Tecate is a city 50 kilometres east of Tijuana and it is a great place to enjoy the mountains around La Rumorosa or take a Tecate brewery tour. See discoverbajacalifornia.com.
Delta Airlines has a fare to San Diego for about $1700 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes, see delta.com. From San Diego, take the trolley to the San Ysidro stop, where it is easy to cross into Tijuana.
The Marriott in Tijuana has comfortable rooms with everything you would expect from a five-star hotel. There are numerous restaurants a short taxi ride away. See marriott.com for booking details.
Turista Libre run a variety of lucha libre, wine-tasting and city tours. Derrik will also run private tours if you'd like to tailor a specific itinerary. Tours start from the San Diego side of the border. See turista-libre.blogspot.com for booking and tour details.