After living in Tijuana for about a year, I have gotten to know the city pretty well. Many of my friends have asked me ‘is Tijuana safe?’ In this article, I will answer that question as well as give tips on how to avoid common scams and crime while visiting Tijuana.
I will start off by saying that I have fallen in love with this city. While I have lived here, I have made friends, experienced the culture, and discovered some real hidden gems of restaurants and bars. In this same time, I have also been inside a bar during an armed robbery and pickpocketed on the street. In this article, I will attempt to be as neutral and rational as possible. I will outline all of the scams and crime that exist in Tijuana so you can make an educated decision of your own whether or not it is worth the risk to visit the city.
Table of Contents- Is Tijuana Safe?
- Staying Safe from Violent Crime in Tijuana
- Transportation Safety in Tijuana
- Common Scams in Tijuana
- Tijuana Police
- Food and Drink Safety in Tijuana
- Final Thoughts: Is Tijuana Safe?
Staying Safe from Violent Crime in Tijuana
I’ll start off by talking about many people’s biggest concern when visiting Tijuana, violent crime. Tijuana is a tough city with a statistically high crime rate. You have probably seen shocking stories in the news about gang murders, shootings, kidnappings, assassinations, and beheadings in the city. In fact, last year was the most violent years in Tijuana’s history. According to The San Diego Tribune, there were 1744 homicides in Tijuana in 2017. That record was broken in 2018 with 2502 homicides according to this article from The Guardian. 2019 is looking the same way, unfortunately.
The reason that the murder rate spiked so drastically over the last couple of years is because of a turf war between the Sinaloa cartel and a new gang, the Nueva Generación Jalisco. They are fighting a war over drug trafficking routes through the city and into the United States. Violence has increased because the high-level traffickers have lost control over low-level street dealers.
Of course, the media loves to exaggerate and sensationalize all of this because it makes for exciting news. They make it sound like Tijuana is an active war zone. US travel advisories tell a similar story. They have their own motives.
The reality is that, while all of this crime does happen, it is almost exclusively among a small group of people. These are the cartels who are dealing in drugs and trafficking. Tourists are not targeted. In fact, tourists are their customers.
These homicides that you read about happen in poor and working-class neighborhoods. Not in the tourist zones. Innocents who have been killed are those who have been unlucky enough to be caught in the crossfire in their neighborhoods. In the time I have lived in Tijuana, I have not witnessed any cartel-related activity of any kind though I know it exists.
By sticking to the more touristy parts of the Tijuana like downtown, Zona Rio, and Playas de Tijuana, you can nearly eliminate your chance of encountering any violent cartel-related crime.
Mugging and Robbery in Tijuana
This is one form of violent crime that does, unfortunately, happen in Tijuana. During the day, the risk is low and it’s safe enough to walk around almost anywhere in the city. Touristy areas like downtown and Zona Rio are heavily policed. At night, you should exercise caution. Muggings are pretty rare but happen, even in touristy areas.
How to Reduce the Risk of Mugging in Tijuana
- Don’t wander around too much, particularly after dark- You can easily walk from a safe, touristy area into a sketchy neighborhood in just a few blocks. If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s better to just take a taxi, colectivo, or Uber just to be safe.
- Stick to well-lit areas where other people are walking around- Muggers use the cover of darkness to attack. Chances are if there are a bunch of people around you, you’re safe.
- Avoid wearing jewelry or carrying expensive electronics- This includes cameras, phones, watches, wallets, etc. Anything visible that looks valuable makes you a target.
- Don’t dress or act too flashy- I like to wear jeans and a t-shirt and try to blend in as much as possible.
- Don’t wander around when you’re drunk or intoxicated- It makes you a target. This is how I got pickpocketed. I learned my lesson after that.
Overall, the risk of being mugged in Tijuana is pretty low, especially if you follow the above recommendations. If you are robbed in Tijuana, it’s best to just give the criminal what they ask for. Usually your wallet, phone, or money. If you comply, they will take it and leave you unharmed but a few dollars poorer.
If you try to start a fight, all bets are off. You could easily be badly injured or killed. Tijuana is a violent city where many criminals go unpunished.
Tip: Use a money belt to hide your cash, passport, and valuables- If you do get mugged, this will reduce your loss. Most muggers won’t expect you to be wearing one and won’t look for it. I recommend the Eagle Creek Silk money belt. I’ve used mine for the past 8 years and It’s still holding up well. Check out my full review here.
Many travelers pair a money belt with a decoy wallet stocked with a few dollars and a couple of old credit cards to hand to robbers if they get mugged. The criminals assume this is all you have and leave you with your money belt.
Migrants in Tijuana
Over the past couple of years, thousands of migrants have made their way to Tijuana. Many are still there waiting. Fortunately, most of these people aren’t violent. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of crimes than criminals.
Transportation Safety in Tijuana
In this section, I’ll cover the dangers involved in getting around the city by taxi, Uber, minibus, walking, and driving. Overall, transportation in Tijuana is pretty safe and convenient. Having said that, there are a few scams to look out for and a couple of occasions where you shouldn’t walk. I’ll outline them below.
Getting to Tijuana
Most likely you will arrive in the city from San Diego if you are a tourist. This part of the trip is completely safe. You can drive yourself and park at the border. You can also take the trolley straight to the border for $2.50. For detailed information on how to get to Tijuana, check out my guide: Walking Across the Border to Tijuana.
Taking a Taxi in Tijuana
For most tourists, the first stop after crossing the border is downtown. After you cross the border, the most convenient way to get there is by taking a taxi. Tijuana taxis are safe and the drivers are usually pretty friendly but there are two ways they will try to scam you.
- They may try to overcharge you- The going rate is $5-$6 from the border to downtown. I recommend you take a white ‘taxi libre’ rather than a yellow cab. The city regulates the white taxis and because of this, they are less likely to attempt to rip you off. These cabs are supposed to be metered but often the meter is ‘broken.’ If one taxi driver won’t take you downtown for $5, try another and he probably will. A constant stream of cabs flows past the border pickup area so finding one that wants your fare is easy.
- They will try to take you to a hotel or restaurant where they get a commission- They may lie to you saying that the place you are going is full or closed or give some other excuse and try to take you to a place that they have a prearranged deal with. This is a common scam all over the world. Just tell the driver where you want to go and if they won’t take you, get in another cab or insist that they take you anyway.
A Note About the Safety of Using Uber in Tijuana
Better than taking a taxi is Uber. The app works exactly the same way as back home. You can even set the app so you pay in cash if you’d rather not use your card in a foreign country. Prices are set by Uber so you don’t need to haggle. The service is reliable, professional, and safe.
When taking Uber in Tijuana, I recommend you try to be a bit discreet about it. The reason is that Tijuana taxi drivers really hate Uber for stealing their business. I have heard of Uber drivers being yelled at or threatened. There have been instances where Uber drivers were attacked by taxi drivers in Tijuana. I don’t believe any passengers have been targeted but you never know. Having said this, I have ridden in dozens of Ubers in Tijuana and have never seen or experienced any of this behavior.
For more info, check out my guide: Using Uber in Tijuana
Taking a Colectivo Minibus
Colectivos are shared minibusses that can transport you to and from the border and all around the city. They are a safe, reliable, and cheap mode of public transportation. The buses are operated by the city. Prices and route are fixed and are clearly marked on the windows. They generally charge 5-15 pesos depending on route and time of day (The price of some routes goes up 2 pesos at night).
These buses don’t operate on a set schedule, rather they just leave when they are full. You can find them lined up at stops on busy streets or flag them down if you see one going in your direction. This is the best way to get around the city. All of the operators that I have come across have been professional and I have never been overcharged.
Walking: Is Tijuana Safe to Walk Around?
Tijuana is one of those cities where you can be perfectly safe on one street, walk a few blocks, and end up in a dangerous part of town. Walking is my main form of transportation in Tijuana. I enjoy it. I have walked around most of the city including quite a bit at night. The only problem I have encountered was having my phone pickpocketed. Luckily I got it back. Unfortunately, there are some parts of the city that just aren’t safe to walk.
Staying Safe While Walking To and From the Border
During the day it is perfectly safe to walk to and from the border. I do not, however, recommend making this walk after dark. Just take a taxi, Uber, or colectivo shared minivan.
The walk is safe except for one particular section. In order to walk from the border to downtown, you must cross a walking bridge that goes over the Tijuana River. This is where you are most likely to encounter problems. I have heard stories from several people of muggings and assaults happening on this bridge. The reason that the bridge is so dangerous is because it has dark, winding staircases where muggers can hide. During the day, there is a heavy police presence in the area so it is safe. At night, police don’t patrol the area and most of the bridge cannot be seen from the main road.
If you absolutely must walk at night, do not cross the bridge alone. In fact, don’t cross any bridge over the Tijuana River alone after dark. If you must walk, ask someone else to walk with you. There is safety in numbers. One night I met a local man waiting for someone to cross with. He told me about how the previous week he had been held at knifepoint by a group of guys and robbed of $300. I believed him. This is how I learned this tip. After that night, I will never make this walk alone again after dark.
Walking Around Tijuana Safely
The main areas where you will want to go as a tourist are Downtown and Zona Río. Walking within these areas is relatively safe at all hours of the day and night. The city maintains a heavy police presence here at all times. Remember that pickpocketing and muggings are not common but do happen in these areas. Try to stay in well light areas and don’t wander too far off the main tourist streets.
I do not recommend walking between Downtown and Zona Río at night. I have done it many times and have never been hassled but It’s probably not worth the risk. It’s only about a mile walk but the streets are empty and not well lit at night. It’s best to just take a taxi or colectivo shared minibus.
Driving in Tijuana
I personally don’t drive in Tijuana. The main reason I don’t drive here is because I don’t want to deal with the consequences of getting in an accident or getting pulled over by the police. You don’t know if the cop pulling you over is corrupt and looking for a bribe. Just the hassle of dealing with an insurance company in a foreign country is enough to dissuade me from driving here.
With that being said, many tourists decide to drive to Tijuana. Having your own transportation is the fastest way to get around. Secure paid parking is available all over the city. Traffic is a bit hectic but overall not too crazy.
If you are going to drive in Tijuana I strongly recommend you buy insurance before you cross the border. While it is not checked upon entry, it may save the day if you have an accident while in Mexico. There are numerous locations in San Ysidro where you can buy Mexican auto insurance by the day before you cross the border. You can also buy insurance online before your trip or through your regular insurance provider.
While these insurance policies are legitimate, I have never met anyone who actually had to use one. I don’t know if, in the event of an accident, they would really pay up. I would be afraid they would find a way to get out of it and leave you with the bill. Drive here at your own risk.
For more info, check out my guide: How to Drive to Tijuana. Here, I discuss insurance, parking, driving in Tijuana, border crossings, and more.
Common Scams in Tijuana
Scams aren’t particularly common in Tijuana but there are a few that you may encounter during your trip. As long as you know they exist and how they work, you’re much less likely to fall victim.
- Overcharging: Always ask the price before agreeing to buy a good or service. While it is not common, it is possible that you will be overcharged if you did not agree on the price first. This is most common with scammy taxi drivers who will surprise you with a ridiculous bill if you didn’t negotiate the price first. You also have to be careful of this in some scammy restaurants.
- Charging you for something you didn’t want: Another trick some people will use is that they will simply start providing you a service without asking and expect you to pay them for their time. For example, maybe a mariachi band will approach you in a restaurant and just start paying. After they finish their song, they will expect a tip. If you don’t want to hear their music, just wave them away or say no thanks and they’ll leave. The same thing will happen with people washing your windows when you are driving. Again, just wave them away.
- Pickpocketing: This is another common scam in the city. You can read my story about getting my phone pickpocketed and getting it back again. To avoid this I recommend you don’t carry anything too valuable or important to you. Secure your phone and wallet in pockets with zippers or buttons if possible and try to avoid large crowds. Some of these guys are really good. They can get your watch off your wrist without you feeling a thing. For more tips, check out my guide: How to Avoid Pickpockets While Traveling.
To read my complete list of scams, check out my article: 19 Common Travel Scams, How They Work, and How to Avoid Them. Many of these can be found in Tijuana in one form or another.
Beggars and Homeless in Tijuana
There is poverty and homelessness in Tijuana and occasionally someone will approach to ask for money or try to sell you something. Some of these people are sick or mentally unstable. Try to avoid them as you can never predict how they will behave. For example, I was once walking down the street minding my own business when a crazy woman started yelling, jumped toward me, and punched me right in the stomach. She then continued walking like nothing happened. A passerby made eye contact with me and just shrugged.
Fast Talkers and Hustlers in Tijuana
Another type of person you will likely encounter are people who have been deported from the United States. Many times they had committed crimes and were forced to leave. After they were deported they were dropped off in Tijuana. These are the guys you have to look out for. They are fast talkers who speak perfect English and know how to hustle. They make their living running scams on tourists. These guys actually run some pretty elaborate scams involving multiple people and possibly the police.
Two common scams fast talkers run are:
- First, they will approach you, pretending to be very friendly. They will then offer to walk around with you and show you around the city. Soon they will suggest you go to a restaurant for food or drinks. Of course, you are expected to pay for everything and they will get a commission. Next, they will give you a sob story asking you to buy them medicine or something for their non-existent sick children. They will say anything to part you with your hard earned money. This is not just common in Tijuana but in many cities around the world. For this reason, I rarely talk to people I meet on the streets.
- Sometimes these guys have deals arranged with the police. For example, maybe they sell drugs to a tourist then turn them in. At this point, the police will solicit the tourist for a bribe or threaten them with jail time. If the bribe is paid, the police will pay the scammer a commission for turning you in. To be safe, you should never get too friendly with anyone who approaches you on the street. Also, never buy drugs in Tijuana.
Street Children in Tijuana
While walking around town, you may encounter small children selling gum or small trinkets. They are harmless and are just trying to help their families. If you are in the mood, you can buy a small item from them.
It is up to you if you want to donate money to someone who is homeless or down on their luck, but I personally never give money to anyone when I travel. It is a personal policy of mine.
The Tijuana police are not known for being too helpful to tourists. They will do their best to keep the peace and protect you from violence but in the case of petty theft, you’re pretty much on your own. They have more important things to deal with than a stolen wallet or phone. The police have an incredibly dangerous job in Tijuana and I respect them for it greatly. If you do seek their help to retrieve lost or stolen items, they may ask for you to pay what is basically a bribe for their help. This, of course, depends on the officer.
Corruption is a major problem in the police force. I have friends who have been stopped by the police both in a car and on foot. In both cases, they had been misbehaving. One made an illegal maneuver in his car and one was walking around downtown while excessively drunk. The result was that they were searched and asked for bribes. For this reason, you should never carry drugs or large sums of cash around Tijuana. I have never experienced this myself. As long as you are respectful and not breaking any laws, the police will be helpful and respectful toward you.
The city of Tijuana makes a lot of money from tourism. It is the most visited border city in the world, after all. The last thing the Tijuana police want is to have a tourist dying in their city. Tijuana has enough negative publicity as it is.
Safety in Rosarito and Ensenada
Many tourists chose to skip Tijuana entirely and just drive or take a bus straight through to Rosarito or Ensenada. Rosarito is a pleasant little beach town about 12 miles south of Tijuana. Ensenada is a small coastal city about 70 miles south of Tijuana known for its excellent, fresh seafood. These are quiet and safe cities that you can visit if you want to avoid the big city hassles of Tijuana.
Food and Drink Safety in Tijuana
The final safety point that I would like to talk about doesn’t have to do with people but rather germs and bacteria. While visiting Tijuana, you do have to be a bit more cautious about what you eat and drink because, in general, food hygiene standards are just a bit lower in Mexico than in the US. To avoid getting sick, you should:
- Make sure that foods are hot and cooked all the way through.
- Avoid foods that have been sitting out in the open.
- Avoid unwashed leafy greens. E. coli is a risk.
- Only drink beverages that came from a factory sealed container. While the juices that are sold on the street look nice, they were probably made from tap water. When you’re in a restaurant, ask for filtered water or ‘agua purificado’ in Spanish.
- Avoid ice in your drinks. It was probably made with tap water.
A note about the tap water safety in Tijuana
In the recent past, it was not safe to drink the tap water in Tijuana for fear of ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ or travelers diarrhea. That’s not necessarily the case anymore. Tijuana’s municipal water department treats and chlorinates the water so that it is safe to drink when it leaves their facility. With that being said, I recommend you buy bottled water anyway. I have drunk the tap water on a few occasions and didn’t get sick but it’s best to err on the side of caution just in case. For more info, check out my guide to drinking water in Mexico.
Another safe water option is to buy a water filter. I bought the Sawyer Mini on Amazon. With it, you can filter tap water or water from rivers and streams and save on buying bottled water. It’s also more environmentally friendly because you’re not going through so many plastic bottles. For more info, you can check out my full review of the Sawyer Mini here.
If you do get sick while visiting Tijuana
- Drink lots of water to stay hydrated
- Take some anti-diarrhea medication like Imodium or Pepto-Bismol. You can purchase this at any pharmacy.
- If the food poisoning is really severe, consider taking some antibiotics. To get antibiotics, you may have to visit a clinic. For more information, you can check out my step-by-step guide to visiting a Tijuana clinic. Unfortunately, I had to do this once after eating some bad tacos.
If, after reading all of this, you still feel a bit nervous about visiting Tijuana, you may want to consider purchasing travel insurance to put your mind at ease. Travel insurance can cover you in the event of theft, injury, or medical emergency. When I travel, I have always purchased my travel insurance from World Nomads. For more information and for a free quote, check out my travel insurance page.
Final Thoughts: Is Tijuana Safe?
In general, yes, Tijuana is a safe place for tourists to visit. Don’t miss out on this exciting city just because of its poor reputation. Tijuana isn’t just the dangerous border town that it’s made out to be in the news. It is the 6th largest city in Mexico after all. It is also a city full of friendly people, delicious food, fascinating culture, and great drinking and nightlife. Trendy bars, restaurants, and cafes are popping up all over the city. Tijuana is also the home of the best tacos that I’ve had in Mexico.
All of the scams and dangers I wrote about in this article exist but the likelihood of you running into them is slim. Remember that Tijuana is a dangerous city but the risk can be greatly reduced by knowing what to expect and taking the small precautions outlined in this guide.
Have you experienced any crime or scams in Tijuana? Is Tijuana Safe? Share your story in the comments below. I’d be interested to hear about it.
For more general info on safety, check out my guide: Is Mexico Safe? Avoiding Crime and Scams
More Tijuana Guides from Where The Road Forks
- The Ultimate Guide to Visiting Tijuana
- Moving to Tijuana as an American
- Walking Across the Border to Tijuana
- Inside a Tijuana Bar During an Armed Robbery
- How to Park for Free at the Tijuana Border
- 19 Incredible Things to do in Tijuana