By Nadia Ibanez
As a native San Diegan, I’ve always had my hesitancies when it comes to visiting Tijuana. It’s been a known thing that you only visit TJ a) before you turn 21 to booze it up on Revolución, b) with a native Spanish speaker, or c) to grab a snack and supplies when you’re en route to Baja for some surfing and vacationing.
Tijuana has gotten a bad rap for the last few years, from long waits at the border to get back into the U.S., to dangerous street violence and kidnappings. Luckily, Derrik Chinn, the face behind Tijuana day tour group Turista Libre, has made it his goal to spread the good word about all that is delicious, beautiful and exhilarating in TJ.
We first found out about Turista Libre via Instagram and fell in love with the zany photos from previous trips. Chinn boasts more than 30 tours showing off the city’s circuses, amusement parks, roller rinks, lucha libre matches, music festivals, brewery tours and so much more. It’s like all of the events and attractions you’d find in a major metropolitan area, but at half the price and twice the excitement.
We decided to climb aboard the Turista Libre tour bus to Albercas El Vergel, Tijuana’s famed water park. For a mere $30, we were provided with transportation to and from the border to the park, admission into El Vergel, and pre-party libations, including Tecates, water guns, and chili-spiked jello shots for the ride over.
Our large group met near the border entrance, walked across into Mexico and was driven to the park, which was about 15 minutes away. The views during the drive to the park were pretty striking, from hillsides stacked with homes that have seen better days, to street art and historic statues in the middle of roundabouts.
After parking our bus, we finally got an eyeful of the water park in all of her glory. Before the trip, we were warned that El Vergel isn’t like the parks you’d find in the U.S. With more than 30 years under its belt, El Vergel wasn’t afraid to show off some of its rickety slides or quasi-dangerous attractions. Even the stairwells up to the higher waterslides weren’t up to the standard size and height specifications and are a bit of a hazard for those who’ve had a few too many cervezas. Oh, and the ambulance parked in by the front of the entrance didn’t help the cause.
Nonetheless, the waterpark was everything it promised to be. Tons of space to lay around, a lazy river pool to float around in the sun, nearly a dozen terrifying waterslides, pop up food vendors offering everything your taste buds could desire, booze, temporary tattoos, and so much more.
WHAT TO DO
I recommend starting the day by renting out a locker to hold all of your things. With a waterpark of this size, I guarantee you won’t spend much time laying out in one area, so drop off your items so you’re not worrying about them all day. Next, make the rounds and check out all of the slides.
Medusa is one of the shining stars at the park and very much resembles the massive slides you’d see at your local state fair that you scream down while sitting on a burlap bag. The ride can be a bit bumpy but it’s well worth the thrill.
Kamikaze is definitely one of the scariest slides and features a massive, nearly vertical drop that will not only make your stomach jump into your throat, but will also leave you with a nice wedgie on the way down. Kamikaze is definitely built for the thrill seekers and nearly scared the crap out of me.
Twister is another must-see and must-do at El Vergel and is an enclosed slide that spits you out in a spiral motion into a toilet bowl-looking contraption before you fall into a cold pool below. But if you’re looking for a mellow pool to waddle around in, there are tons of options for playing and people watching.
WHAT TO EAT
When it comes to the average American waterpark, food options are pretty limited. You’re either going to order a slice of cardboard-like pizza, a gross hot dog, or a dry burger to soothe your hunger pains. One of the coolest things about El Vergel is that there are BBQ grills nearly everywhere throughout the park. Families upon families were grilling seafood, chicken, steaks and veggies on the grills, making the smells in the air nearly impossible to avoid.
But if you really want to do it up, I suggest taking full advantage of all of the on-site food vendors. Adam and I had one of the best tasting tortas ever at one of the main food stands. The Torta Cubana was filled with carne asada, grilled ham, chorizo sausage, avocado, tomato and onion. We devoured the thing in a mere minute so we apologize for not taking a moment to photograph the food porn. We also tried the TJ hotdog, which was wrapped in bacon and came with all of the fixings.
Other food stands were offering burritos, ceviche, fish tacos, pizza, sweet treats, fresh coconuts and even sushi. Definitely go where your nose takes you and don’t be afraid of something new. Oh, and I highly suggest taking home a bag or two of the freshly made churros. They’re unlike anything you’ve ever had from your local mall or fair.
WHAT TO DRINK
You can’t visit El Vergel without having a few Tecates to celebrate the day. And for only 20 pesos, or about $1.50, you can’t go wrong. Order a few Tecates throughout the day to keep the liquid courage flowing when you’re waiting in line for the slides. Ask the bar maidens for some of their chili, chamoy, Tajin mixture. It’s that gooey red mixture behind the bar and a spoonful of it in your beer pairs perfectly well with an ice cold Mexican beer.
If you’re feeling courageous, order the park’s Clamato con Caguama. You get a huge cup, around 44 ounces or so, filled to the brim with clamato juice, Tecate, chili, a special black syrup that we’re still not sure what it is, diced cucumbers, a chile-spiced rim, and a chili mango garnish – with the option of a couple spoonfulls of diced clams. The savory drink is a bit fishy but will definitely quench your thirst, so take heed.
UNEARTH YOUR PASSPORT AND MAKE THE TRIP
If you’re a newcomer to San Diego, or are a local native like me, I highly suggest looking into one of Chinn’s upcoming trips. Adam and I spent about $20 each that day and had a day full of authentic tortas and tacos, beers, temporary tattoos, churros, all while taking in the sights and smells of Tijuana.
Get a passport and check out TuristaLibre.com to learn more about Chinn and his upcoming trips. We’ll see you there!