Tijuana : Searching for Tongue Tacos, Finding Trouble (Sort of)

I had read all of the US State Department warnings about Tijuana, Mexico and felt confident that if we stayed in certain areas and left before dark, we’d be fine.  My wife Kimberly and I like to do things just a little bit different and she had never been to this city. So on a trip to San Diego we thought that spending part of a day in Tijuana would make for an interesting day trip. Little did we know just how ‘interesting’ it would be!

We decided it would be best to leave our rental car in San Ysidro on the American side of the border and walk across to the Mexican side rather than deal with the traffic and challenges of driving in an unfamiliar foreign city.  I’m not even sure that taking the rental car into Mexico was permitted so we decided that a walk across the border was probably the smartest thing to do.  As soon as we exited Mexican customs, we passed soldiers armed with assault rifles, fingers on the triggers.  Ominous perhaps, but even (especially) in America we have heavily armed law enforcement present at border crossings and airports.

I had read about a place in the city called ‘Taco Alley’ that was reputed to have some of the best tacos in Tijuana and we wanted a taste for ourselves.  Anthony Bourdain had visited this collection of taco stands and raved about it and since it was close to lunchtime, we thought “why not?” So I used the navigation feature on my cell phone (first mistake) to help get us through the city to ‘Taco Alley’ without getting us lost or bumbling our way into a bad area.  When walking instead of driving, some cell phones have the navigation feature orient to the north rather than the direction of travel.  It took me an astonishingly long time to realize this and when I did, we were just outside of the Tijuana Brewery (somehow, I always end up at a brewery) and that was for once not my intended destination.  My phone has a feature to re-orient the map to the direction of travel and once I did that, we were able to start heading in the right direction.  So we crossed the street and just as we did a black four door sedan with very dark tinted windows pulled up right alongside of us. A man with an assault rifle jumped out of the front passenger side, just behind us.  The car sped off and we just kept walking, a mixture of part shock and part afraid to look behind us.  When we finally did, the guy with the assault rifle was gone!  Poof, just gone!  We have no idea where he went, if he was a soldier, a police officer, drug cartel, or a hunter (joke) but it rattled us. Maybe this is why we didn’t see any other Americans that day while we wandered all around the outer bounds of ‘touristy’ Tijuana?

3C4F405C-79BB-46BF-A8E7-6F2880C0DBD0
Boulevard Fundadores, where the man with the assault rifle jumped out of his car

Shockingly, after the incident with the gunman, we still made our way to ‘Taco Alley’ and I would say that we admittedly couldn’t be sure what had just happened.  Taco Alley was bustling with lots of lunchtime locals which gave us confidence that we had chosen wisely.  I had heard that something called lengua tacos were the best of the best so I ordered a couple.  My understanding was that a lengua taco was sort of like pot roast, which sounded amazing on a taco.  The meat was taken out of a drawer and quite honestly didn’t look too good but at this point there was no turning back.  They were so good!  It wasn’t until I returned home that I found out that lengua tacos are not pot roast tacos, they are tongue tacos!  I still to this day can’t believe that I ate a tongue taco, albeit unintentionally, but I’d do it again!  I now know that the meat that came out of the drawer was a giant tongue and that’s why it didn’t look like pot roast. Kimberly had the carnitas tacos and is still glad that she didn’t order what I did.

121FFCAC-7257-48FD-A2DF-D24CF058C2BE

B08521C6-BE65-4D67-B7C5-FD17D44172B4
Lots of color in TJ

After lunch, we slowly made our way back towards the tourist part of Tijuana near the border, stopping at restaurants along the way to have a beer or two while sitting outside at every opportunity. By far the best place we found to relax and have a drink was in the Plaza Santa Cecilia near the Tijuana Arch.  The area has a great vibe and has to be the most colorful area in the city.  It was the perfect place to unwind before going back across the border.

0AF8A337-3AD2-420C-9B3B-F4F84B32751B
The Tijuana Arch

Tijuana was definitely a unique experience although I would say that we never felt truly comfortable and safe.  Although the moment when the guy jumped out of the car with the rifle was unnerving, nothing bad actually happened to us while we were in the city and we now have a story to tell for years to come.  Maybe nothing bad happened to us because we were lucky, or maybe it just isn’t as bad as people told us it was. Either way, we left Tijuana unscathed, with stories to tell, and a new appreciation for how to use the navigation app on my phone.

 

 

Advertisements

Custer State Park, South Dakota

Most people who travel to the Black Hills of South Dakota are intending to visit Mount Rushmore and perhaps even the Crazy Horse Monument, while on their way somewhere else (Yellowstone National Park for example).  However, visiting Custer State Park (CSP) with its open prairies, dense forests, and large buffalo herd, can be the perfect complement to the more acclaimed (and crowded) tourist draws in the Black Hills.

Custer State Park is located in the Black Hills of southeastern South Dakota, several hours drive from any big city (like Chicago, Denver, or Kansas City).  While Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse are must sees on any outing in the Black Hills, they are each easily visited in just a couple of hours. If you’re staying in the area for more than one day and want something a little bit off of the main tourist trail, then Custer State Park can be the perfect chance to explore deeper and to get to know the area. For starters, the park is immense, with over 71,000 acres of rolling prairie and forested hills with lots of space to spread out, it is nearly six times larger than Mount Rushmore National Park.  CSP is probably best known for its large herd of roughly 1,500 free roaming buffalo but there are also many other animals that can be seen in the park like antelope, deer, goats, and even a herd of burros.  There are also miles of hiking trails, lodges, campgrounds, and lakes to explore.

The trailhead to South Dakota’s tallest peak, Harney Peak (or Black Elk Peak as it is now known), is located just within the park and the summit can be reached via a moderately difficult seven mile hike. The peak tops out at an elevation of 6,200 feet at the summit, making it the tallest mountain in South Dakota and the tallest in the United States east of the Rockies.  At the top, there is stone fire lookout tower, making it a unique summit to rest and take in the great views of the plains below.  If you know where to look, you can even see the backside of Mount Rushmore from up there.  Elsewhere in the park, there are also many miles of less strenuous hikes if this seven mile hike isn’t for you.

bc1a7b0b-c6a5-4d97-bd2b-f57564782288
Fire Lookout Tower, Harney Peak
f534d1f0-945a-4e48-86a0-369ab3fb75ba
The backside of Mt. Rushmore in the distance, sightseeing helicopters above
bf02fc85-e537-4711-b6e3-4e2f9f550539
One of many hiking trails within the park
712ea5a1-a4c2-442d-a3ca-c5e79f6bc956
Cathedral Spires

The thrill of seeing wild, free roaming buffalo is the closest thing to what it must have been like in the old west that we can experience, and there are so many of them that they often kick up huge dust clouds as they graze. If you’re lucky enough to be around the large herd, you can have the animals that seem as big as your car, completely surround you.  Buffalo are a truly magnificent animal and you can really appreciate that when they’re in close proximity and you can experience that here, without the crowds.  The buffalo photo above was taken on a dirt road with not another person within miles of us and we could literally touch it out of our car windows it was so close (we didn’t touch it by the way).

So if you’re planning a trip to the Black Hills or if you’re just passing through on your way somewhere else, think about staying an extra day and exploring Custer State Park, it’ll probably be the best part of your trip.