I returned to Southern California after a 27-year absence in order to add to my collection of ballparks and see the New York Mets play in San Diego and Los Angeles. I visited Los Angeles when I was six years old. This was my first visit to San Diego.
I flew to San Diego by way of Cincinnati. The last leg of the flight passed over desert, including Death Valley. Being a Northeastern boy this is the closest I’ve ever been to a desert. As we approached Lindbergh Field, the plane flew low over the city of San Diego. I caught the swift 992 bus downtown and dropped my bags at my hotel, 500 West.
After grabbing a sandwich, I boarded the Blue Line trolley to the border: Tijuana. I was surprised that the city and the suburbs extended all the way to Mexico. In fact near San Ysidro I saw dense urban settlement on the distant mountains only to realize later that it was Tijuana itself. Both countries are built up to the border with no frontier between them.
Crossing the border is rather humorous as all about are signs that say things like “Left Lane for Mexico,” “U Turn For US,” and “To Mexico and Parking Garage.” I followed that last sign where a long line of pedestrians entered a fugly building of corduroy concrete that straddles the highway crossing the border. I walked up a long twisty ramp, crossed the highway, came down a twisted ramp on the other side, passed through a revolving gate and voila! I was in Mexico. On the southern side of the border I was greeted with a concrete plaza surrounded by concrete buildings that resembled parking structures. These buildings contained shops selling prescription drugs without prescriptions and lots of tourist tchotchkes. More carts staffed by aggressive vendors and cute children lined a ramp up to the bridge crossing the dry Rio Tijuana. At last I made it to the main tourist zone in the Avenida Revolución. Here were more aggressive vendors for me to shake off, Mexican zebras (sad donkeys with stripes painted on them), shady bars and “erotic dance” locales. It was all overwhelming. Even when I walked over to the less tawdry shopping district for the locals, I felt so crowded that I could not even stop to look at my map.
My guidebook recommended visiting the more upscale Zona Río so after getting my bearings I walked over that way by way of a desolate warehouse and auto parts district. At least I was away from the crowds. Avenida Paseo de los Héroes is relatively more elegant than La Revo but it is merely a palm tree lined boulevard of strip malls and office buildings similar to many a suburb in Southern California. Unlike the tourist area, the locals were business people chatting on the sidewalks during lunch break. Tijuana is actually one of the wealthiest cities in Mexico which is all relative based on the decrepitude and poverty I’d seen overall.
I found myself evaluating why had I come to Tijuana in the first place. Basically I wanted the novelty of crossing the border by foot and then wandering around to see what’s here. With that in mind I chilled out a bit. Finding nothing of interest open on Avenida Paseo de los Héroes I decided to return to the La Revo area to visit the cathedral and then return across the border. Having had time to acclimate I found it much more entertaining to wander around on the second visit. I stopped in the busy cathedral — a dark, cool, glistening place on a hot day — and then bought some postcards. Before crossing the Rio Tijuana I stopped at a sidewalk bar and had a bottle of Pacifico beer. I was liking Tijuana a little better. Perhaps if I came with my buddies when I was 19. Of course I didn’t have buddies like that when I was 19.
Crossing the highway on the Mexican side I felt rather smug looking at all the cars backed up at the border crossing (where they had a last chance to buy tchotchkes from vendors on the side of the road). Then I saw the line of pedestrians waiting to get into the United States. For the busiest border crossing in the world the twenty minute wait wasn’t so bad.
I took the trolley back to San Diego, checked into my hotel, and grabbed supper and beer at Karl Strauss Brewing Company (which feels like the Boston Beer Works with different signs). Then I walked to Petco Park. The ballpark is located right in the revitalized downtown area and has nice local touches such as sand-colored walls and palm trees. Most famously the Western Metal Supply Co. building is incorporated into the stadium and from the exterior it looks like just another old building fronting the street. Beyond center field there are bleachers with a beach for kids to play at and even beyond that a grassy knoll where people can watch the game or look at the stars. There’s also a wiffle-ball park where a tired looking Padres employee pitches and dozens of children attempt to field. It’s a very walkable park with open concourses and for the first night I spent a lot of time walking around seeing the game from different angles (and no one stopped me nor made me feel like I shouldn’t be there). You may read about the game itself in my Mets week in review post.
Post-game I walked through the Gaslamp Quarter which seems to be mostly restaurants and hotels with the bars being on the chi-chi side. With nowhere else to wet my whistle I settled on Ghiradelli’s for a chocolate malt.
Day 2 in San Diego began with a trip to the San Diego Zoo. I love zoos and I’ve heard great things about San Diego since I was a kid. The staff tried to sell me the full package which includes the bus tour around the park but I preferred to walk so I purchased the cheaper admission. Inside it seemed at first that many of the roads were dedicated solely to the double-decker safari buses and like Southern California cities, pedestrians were marginalized to a narrow sidewalk. Then I discovered the central part of the zoo where there are paths going up hills, down ravines, and over exhibits on skywalks in a way that was not only great to see the animals but just a wonderful landscaping design overall. Best yet no motor vehicles could get into this part of the zoo at all. I saw many animals I’d never seen before at other zoos such as koalas, pandas, and meerkats and so old favorites like polar bears, gorillas (and boyillas), and big snakes. I really enjoyed this zoo.
Continuing through Balboa Park I was sorely tempted to visit the San Diego Museum of Art and San Diego Model Railroad Museum but I decided I needed to keep my time and money budgeted. I did pay a quick visit to the Botanical Building and the small art collection in the Timken Museum. Then I walked across the western part of the park where planes fly very low en roue to the airport. I continued my walk into Little Italy where I visited the small Our Lady of the Rosary church and admired the paintings on the ceiling. Then I had supper at Filippi’s Pizza Grotto where chianti bottles hang from the rafters. The food was good and the chianti divine.
After working out at the YMCA attached to my hotel, I attended another Mets-Padres game at Petco Park, walked down a different street of the Gaslamp District, and visited the Princess Pub in Little Italy that sadly had no cask-conditioned ales on tap. The next morning I had plans to stroll along the waterfront, exercise the Y, update my blog at the web cafe, and eat breakfast. I fell back to sleep and the maid service awoke me at 9 am so I only had time for the latter eating at the Grand Central Cafe in the hotel. Then I went to the spiff mission style Santa Fe Depot and bought my Amtrak Pacific Surfliner ticket for Los Angeles. The clean, smooth double-decker train hugged the coast for much of the trip and made stops at places like San Juan de Capistrano and Angels Stadium in Anaheim. Had I known this ahead of time (and the Angels were playing at home this week) I would have incorporated those two stops into my itinerary. Good to know for future reference that they are accessible for the car-free traveler.