Rough Crossing: Five Hours at the Tijuana Border

Border Line.

Border Photography by Jonathan Nimerfroh
Crossing the border from San Diego going into Tijuana you barely slow down. Unfamiliar speed bumps, lumps of dented metal in a line, force you to tap the brakes as a Mexican border agent waves you through with a smile. Crossing in the other direction is another matter entirely.

The line of cars waiting to cross the San Isidro Border Crossing from Tijuana into San Diego is always there.

On Sunday night, as weekenders head home or back to work, it is in full swing. But it’s always there, stretching back into the city for miles sometimes, moving at a crawl. At night the procession of twinkling taillights sets the tone for the eternal street fair that has grown up around the line.

It is its own ecosystem. And from the window of your vehicle, you can buy almost anything.

Most of it comes right to you, thrust through the window by someone who has found a unique way to eke out a living. Food and snack carts line the center median of the road into the US. Peddlers work the line on foot, carrying lawn ornaments, folk art, churros, blinking party spheres, more churros, backpacks full of live puppies, nearly life-size crucifixes, prescription medications, shoes, blankets, rugs, curtains, phone chargers, soccer jerseys, toys, pens, games and more churros.

Around hour two and a half, a beer sounds pretty good.

What you don’t see, you can ask for.

T he guy slingshotting a neon-glowing spinner into the rainy night sky—it achieves freedom from the choking congestion for a moment then boomerangs back toward him into the lineup of cars—tries to sell you one of the plastic contraptions for $4 (three for $10). You ask if he has cerveza. His face lights up. “Seis or a dozen?” he asks, then automatically types into his flip phone and shows you the screen with the numerals “6” and “12” and on it, thrusting it through the window. You ask for seis. He smiles and nods in agreement and then disappears over the barrier on the side of the road and into the city.

He returns about half an hour later with an OXXO bag full of Dos Equis and you pay him $20 for his trouble, not suspecting that all seis bottles would be empty long before you ever get near the border.

Following is what you can get for about $100 (1,900 pesos or so, but US dollars are preferable) from your car window while waiting to cross the border in Tijuana.


Churrumais: $4

Rosary: $5

Mexican Bingo Game (lotería): $4

Doll Pen Toppers: $10

2 Strips of Lollipops: $4

Cerveza + generous tip: $20

Huaraches $30

Light-Up-Spinamajig: $2

“Ancient” Aztec Skull: $23