TRAVEL: Walk from San Diego to Mexico–what they don’t tell you!

AI drawing of guard waving me into Mexico

Greetings from our Mexican border city, by Jefferson Graham

The brochures and hype hit me: you no longer have to sit in your car at the border crossing for hours to go from California’s San Diego to Mexico. Instead, why not take the trolley or drive to the border town of San Ysidro and just waltz over the pedestrian bridge to Tijuana? 

I was exploring San Diego for the #PhotowalksTV series, so figured I’d give it a try. And the hype was true: I really did get over the bridge, and into Tijuana, just 16 miles from California’s second largest city, San Diego, and home to the busiest border crossing in the United States.

The problem, and here’s where the fine print is totally hidden: you can get in, but can you get back? And if you can, how long will it take? 

Because even on foot, we’re talking hours and hours. 

I wanted to give you my story as a little cautionary tale. Mine has a happy ending, but it could have gone seriously south. Really bad.

AI rendering of man stuck in a Mexican jail cell. This could have been me!

My story begins with an $18 space at a parking lot in San Ysidro, the border town between California and Mexico, or better yet, the last exit on Highway 5 before your car ends up in a long line at the border crossing. 

I parked, and then headed to the bridge. I started taking pictures, until a local told me to stop, saying I could get a $500 fine for doing it so close to the border crossing station. “I’ve seen it happen too many times,” he told me. I checked for signage prohibiting photography, but saw nothing posted. Still, I took the man at his word. For a few minutes, anyway.

Minutes later, I ended up at the America Plaza, where the San Diego trolley deposits riders, and walked into the border crossing processing station, where I was expected to show my ID and passport. However, since this trip was a lark, I didn’t have my passport on me. The official didn’t care–he checked my license and waved me through. 

Unbelievable, right? 

AI drawing of guard waving me into Mexico

So I  walked through the gate into Tijuana, and then it hit me. I had no passport to get home. Would US officials wave me in too? Or had I just done something really, really stupid?

(I hear you all nodding out there!)

I tried to walk back through the gate, but that was not going to happen. It’s a one-way gate. 

I asked one of the many cab drivers looking for fares how to get back in, and he showed me the line up the street. Think Disneyland on a summer day, and then quadruple it. That long.

The line had hundreds of people, stretched for what looked to be hours of wait time. Locals told me the average pedestrian wait time on a weekend day would be 6-8 hours. This they don’t tell you in the travel brochures and websites, so I’m doing it now. 

This bus takes passengers from Tijuana to the border

A hustler asked if I wanted to take his bus instead of waiting on the line, promising me a quicker re-entry via a special bus lane. All I needed was $10. 

But once again, no passport and even worse no cash. I’m all electronic.

The hustler showed me the ATM machine, but I don’t have a pin for my credit card, and there was no way to get one remotely. And I tried!

Venmo? PayPal? No. They wouldn’t take it. 

But finally, I somehow found a bus driver who would accept a credit card, for the $10 ride, thank you, or as they told me, 220 pesos, and I boarded the bus. 

Sailed right through, right? No.  

It actually took two hours before we finally got back to the other side of the US border.

There I stood on another line to be processed. Without my passport.

When it was my turn, to my amazement, the official actually waved me right through. He looked at my license and my California address was good enough for him. Miracles!

And just like that, I waltzed right back into the United States.

With a big, deep, heavy sigh of relief.

So what did I learn: 

–If you go to another country, bring a passport and cash with you. And cash is just as important as the passport! If you have a credit card or debit card without a pin for an ATM, get one before you leave, because the only way you can get one is to have them mail it to your home address.

–You do have the right to take photos, but you could run into potential trouble with authorities. Still, I would have done it, even though I’ve read about officials confiscating your phone. 

–If I was going to visit Tijuana again, and I’d like to, I’d take a tour. I think being in a group would make me feel just a little safer when I pulled out my smartphone for photowalking pix.

By the way, if you go, here are the official rules for entry:


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