It's officially called the San Diego Trolley's Blue Line, but to most people it's simply the Tijuana Trolley. And if you want to spend some time in Tijuana, it's a convenient way to get there.
Spiffy red streetcars whisk visitors from Mission Valley and downtown San Diego to the Mexican border at San Ysidro. From the border, it's a short bus or taxi ride to downtown Tijuana.
By riding the trolley to Tijuana, you can avoid parking and parking security hassles -- as well as the temptation to drive across the border without Mexican auto liability insurance.
Taking the trolley also can be an enjoyable bonding experience with children who have never seen one before.
The bright red, quiet, smooth-riding streetcars on the Tijuana Line run every 15 minutes during the day and every seven minutes during rush hour, and make the trip in 42 minutes from the covered American Plaza Station, next to the Amtrak Station. The Blue Line starts from its northern terminus at the Mission San Diego Station (one station farther out than the Qualcomm Stadium Station) and passes Old Town before arriving at the American Plaza Station.
The round-trip fare ranges from $3 to $6 depending on the station at which you board, and tickets must be purchased before boarding the streetcars. Each station has ticket machines.
The San Diego Trolley's other route, the Orange Line, circles downtown San Diego and the Convention Center, then heads east to Lemon Grove, La Mesa, El Cajon and Santee. It connects with the Blue Line at American Plaza and the 12th and Imperial stations.
Park and ride
Out-of-town visitors can find parking in downtown San Diego, Old Town, Qualcomm Stadium (when no events are scheduled there) and the park-and-ride lots at many other stations (weekends are free).
Perhaps the most visible and centrally located station is American Plaza opposite the Spanish-style Santa Fe Depot. Those downtown can also catch the trolleys along C Street.
Visitors arriving in San Diego on one of the Amtrak Surfliner trains from Los Angeles, Ventura or Santa Barbara counties or the commuter trains from Oceanside can easily board the trolleys at the Amtrak Station or nearby American Plaza. Those arriving at San Diego International Airport may take the frequent MTS Airport Flyer (Route 922).
American Plaza is a convenient station, as it is covered and has benches. The Blue and the Orange lines share the station, so be certain to board the proper trolley and in the correct direction.
A convenience store in the middle of the station sells items, including a small but extremely valuable booklet for $3, The Tijuana Handbook. For the first-time visitor to Tijuana, it's a valuable resource, full of dining, shopping and sightseeing recommendations. It lists border regulations, currency exchange and information on what to do if you are arrested in Mexico; it even warns of typical ripoffs.
Try to grab a seat close to the front of the trolley for the best views. Trolley sights include a huge, colorful mural illustrating the San Diego Mexican-American community's contribution to the fishing industry opposite the Barrio Logan station and San Diego's commercial shipyards where the tuna fishing fleet and ferry boats are built and smaller U.S. Navy vessels overhauled and repaired.
The trolley shares its tracks at least in part with the San Diego and Imperial Valley Railroad, which crosses into Tijuana, then on to Tecate and back into the United States in the Imperial Valley. The freight trains operate at night when the trolleys aren't operating.
Just before entering the San Ysidro terminal, the freight tracks veer off to the east and the trolley descends across Interstate 5 and rolls up to the border.
While it is easy to walk across the border, across the Tijuana River and onto Tijuana's main street, Avenida Revolucion, a number of Mexican bus companies offer the ride for $1 each way.
Street into the past
Avenida Revolucion is Tijuana's historic main street. It's a collection of storefronts, restaurants, bars, curio shops and the Fronton, or Jai Alai Palace. For tourists it pretty much extends from First Street in the north to Ninth Street on the south. In the past few years it has been cleaned up. It must be visited to absorb Tijuana's ambience.
Families and first-timers will want a photo. On almost every corner of Revolucion, burros, painted with black zebra stripes, are hitched to colorful carts and wait patiently for tourists to climb aboard, don sombreros and smile for the camera. As one writer commented, "The pictures are never retouched, but the burros must be periodically."
Many of the street's stores and arcades hawk items in leather, papier-mache, cotton dresses and shirts, and relatively inexpensive liquor. Most things are not priced. The buyer must negotiate. However, at the few duty-free stores, including Sanborn's Department Store, Maxim's and Sara's, the prices are fixed.
Give Sanborn's a try first, as it belongs to the chain of the same name, which includes the famous House of Tiles in Mexico City. Sanborn's departments include an extensive book section, a bakery and a clean restaurant.
Caesar's Palace above Le Drug Store tries to re-create the Caesar salad invented at the nearby Caesar Hotel. The salad is offered as part of a buffet, so no longer is it individually prepared before your eyes.
About 10 years ago, the slums along the Tijuana River were razed for a modern retail and cultural complex.
The Tijuana Cultural Center is a modern building at Paso de los Heroes and Avenida Independencia. It displays exhibits from Mexico's three cultures, pre-Colombian, Spanish Colonial and Mexican.
The huge globular Omnimax Theatre with a 180-degree screen is a must. Every day at 2 p.m., El Pueblo del Sol, a cinematic tour of Mexico, is shown in English.
After your two-nation vacation, you pass through U.S. Customs at the border (have proof of U.S. citizenship or residency), walk out the door and hop aboard a trolley for the ride back to San Diego.
The last trolley departs the border at 11:30 p.m. Sunday through Friday and at 1 a.m. Sunday, if you go on a Saturday night.