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Is Tijuana Safe? Avoiding Common Scams and Crime

With all of the shocking news reports of violent crime in Tijuana over the past decade, many travelers have gotten the idea that the city is too dangerous to visit. This guide answers the question ‘Is Tijuana Safe?’ It outlines all of the crimes and scams that exist in Tijuana and explains some precautions you can take to avoid them. We’ll cover violent crime, theft, transportation safety, common scams, the police, and food and drink safety. Hopefully, this guide helps you make an educated decision whether or not visiting Tijuana is worth the risk.

After living in Tijuana for over a year, I’ve gotten to know the city pretty well. I’ll start off by saying, I love this city. While living here, I have made friends, experienced the culture, and discovered some real hidden gems of restaurants, bars, and clubs. In this same time, I have also been inside a bar during an armed robbery and pickpocketed on the street. Needless to say, there are risks to visiting Tijuana. Luckily, the risks are manageable if you take some simple precautions.

I’ve also made this video to outline the main points of the article

Is Tijuana Safe? Avoiding Crime and Common Scams

Table of Contents- Is Tijuana Safe?

Monumental Arch in Zona Centro, Tijuana

Staying Safe from Violent Crime in Tijuana

I’ll start off with most visitor’s biggest concern, violent crime. You have probably seen shocking stories in the news about gang murders, shootouts, kidnappings, assassinations, and beheadings in the city. Tijuana is a tough city with a statistically high crime rate.

In fact, for the past two years, Tijuana has been considered the most violent city in the world with 134 murders per 100,000 residents. 2020 is on track to surpass the 2000 homicide mark according to this article. Luckily, that number is down slightly from the past couple of years.

The murder rate spiked drastically in recent years because of a turf war between the Sinaloa Cartel and another newer 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 these violent crimes do happen, they almost exclusively take place among organized criminals or cartel members who are dealing in drugs and trafficking. Tourists are not targeted. These homicides mostly occur in poor and working-class neighborhoods outside of the city center. Not in the tourist zones.

Innocents who have been killed are usually unlucky bystanders who have been caught in the crossfire when a turf war errupts. 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 Tijuana like Zona Centro (downtown), Zona Rio (the business district), and Playas de Tijuana, you can nearly eliminate your chance of encountering any violent cartel-related crime.

Tijuana, Mexico

Mugging and Robbery in Tijuana

Unfortunately, muggings and robberies happen in Tijuana. Even in touristy areas. During the day, the risk of getting mugged is low. It’s safe enough to wander around and explore almost anywhere in the city. The main tourist areas of Zona Centro, Zona Norte, Zona Rio, and Playas de Tijuana are particularly safe because they are heavily policed. If you’re concerned about getting robbed, you should stick to these neighborhoods.

After dark the risk of mugging or robbery increases. It is safe enough to walk around the main tourist streets at night. These include:

  • Avenida Revolución between the Arch and Cale Ignacio Zaragoza in Zona Centro
  • Paseo de los Heroes between Blvd. Independencia and Blvd. Cuauhtémoc Norte in Zona Rio
  • Calle Coahuila between Avenida Niños Héroes and Avenida Constitución in Zona Norte

Muggers and robbers stay away from these streets because they are well lit, crowded, and regularly patrolled by police at all hours of the day. Most of the city’s most popular bars, clubs, restaurants, and attractions are located on these streets as well.

Pretty much all of Zona Centro and Zona Rio are safe enough to walk around at night. The problem is that it is easy to wander into a dangerous area if you don’t know where you’re going. Safety varies greatly by neighborhood in Tijuana. If you stray a couple of blocks too far form a touristy area, you could find yourself in a dangerous neighborhood. To be safe, it’s best to stick to the touristy areas at night unless you’re familiar with the neighborhood.

Muggings are most common after dark on and around bridges over the Tijuana River. Particularly between the border and downtown. Criminals like to prey on people who just crossed the border. These areas also have dark pedestrian walkways that are hidden from the police. The area around the river also tends to attract drug users who can be unpredictable and dangerous. Dark or deserted areas on the edges of downtown and Zona Rio are also risky. It’s best not to wander too far outside of the tourist zones at night.

ATMs are also risky. Criminals can loiter around until you withdraws cash then rob you. This isn’t common but it’s not unheard of. Try to withdraw cash during the day from ATMs that are connected to a bank in a touristy area. These often have cameras and security. Also, stay alert when withdrawing cash. If someone is standing around looking suspicious, find another ATM.

Occasionally, a bar or taxi will get held up and robbed. Sometimes the robbers just steal from the business. Other times, they rob the customers as well. Chances are, they’ll ask for phones and wallets. This is rare but it does happen. If you find yourself in this situation, there isn’t much you can do. Just obey the robbers. I was inside of a bar when it was robbed by two armed gunmen. Luckily, the robbers just stole from the bar.

Zona Rio
Zona Rio, Tijuana

How to Reduce the Risk of Mugging or Robbery in Tijuana

  • Don’t wander around after dark- If you need to travel between neighborhoods at night, travel by road. You can easily walk from a safe, touristy area into a sketchy neighborhood in just a few blocks.
  • Don’t walk from the border to downtown after dark- Take take a taxi, colectivo, or Uber instead. The ride only costs 10 pesos (50 cents) by colectivo. Muggings regularly occur on the pedestrian walkways between the border and downtown.
  • Stick to well-lit areas where other people are walking around- Muggers use the cover of darkness to attack. They also avoid crowded areas. Chances are if there are a bunch of people around you, you’re safe. For example, plazas are generally safe.
  • Avoid carrying valuables- This includes cameras, phones, watches, wallets, etc. Anything visible that looks valuable makes you a target. If you must carry a camera, keep it stashed in a backpack.
  • Don’t dress or act too flashy- Leave your jewelry and fancy clothes at home. I like to wear old jeans and a t-shirt and try to blend in as much as possible.
  • Don’t wander around when drunk or intoxicated- It makes you a target.
  • Walk in a group if possible- There is safety in numbers.

Overall, the risk of being mugged in Tijuana is pretty low. Especially if you follow the above tips and stick to the tourist zones.

If you are robbed in Tijuana, give the criminal what they ask for. Usually, they want your wallet, phone, or money. If you comply, they will take it and leave you unharmed but a few dollars poorer. Never follow a robber or try to chase them down to recover your stolen items.

If you don’t obey or you try to fight, all bets are off. You could easily be badly injured or killed. You don’t know if the robber has a weapon or a friend nearby. Tijuana is a violent city where many criminals go unpunished. 

For more general tips, check out my guide: How to Avoid Getting Robbed While Traveling.

Tijuana Arch on Avenida Revolucion

Pickpocketing and Petty Theft in Tijuana

Pickpocketing is a fairly common crime in Tijuana. Pickpockets mostly operate in the crowded touristy areas of Zona Centro and Zona Norte. Particularly on Avenida Revolucion, Calle Coahuila, Calle Primera, and around the Monumental Arch. Pickpockets in Tijuana work at all times of day but the risk is probably higher in the evenings. As a tourist, you are a target. Pickpockets know that tourists are likely to carry cash, cameras, expensive phones, etc.

In Tijuana, street prostitutes often work as pickpockets. They approach you, distract you by touching you or grabbing at you, then steal your phone, wallet, watch, or whatever they can get their hands on. Another trick pickpockets use in Tijuana is to wait outside of bars and target those who are clearly intoxicated. Drunk people make easy targets. If anyone approaches you on the street, try not to let them touch you. Just tell them ‘no gracias’ and keep walking.

Petty theft is a risk as well. If you give criminals the opportunity to steal from you, they probably will. Snatch and run crimes aren’t common but can happen. To reduce the risk, never leave your camera or phone sitting out on the table while dining. Never sit your backpack or purse down on the ground. Always keep your valuables secured in your pockets or strapped to your body.

To avoid pickpockets in Tijuana, you should:

  • Only carry what you need when out and about in Tijuana- Leave your passport, excess cash, cards, and phone in your hotel room safe. Leave jewelry at home. Just carry enough cash for the day.
  • Wear secure clothing with zippered or buttoned pockets- These make it much more difficult for pickpockets to steal your belongings. You can buy clothing with hidden pockets specially designed for travel
  • Don’t use your back pocket- This is the easiest place for pickpockets to access. If you must carry your phone and wallet in your pockets, use your side pockets. These are a bit harder to access.
  • Put your hands in your pockets while walking through a crowded area- If you’re holding onto your valuables, pickpockets can’t take them.
  • Don’t walk around intoxicated- Pickpockets target drunk people.
  • Carry your backpack on the front of your body- This way, you can keep an eye on it.

For more tips, check out my guide: How to Avoid Pickpockets While Traveling.

My phone was pickpocketed in Tijuana. Shortly after exiting a bar late at night, a prostitute approached me on Calle Primera. She put her hand on my chest and began offering me her services. I told her no thanks and started walking away. After walking a few feet, I felt my pocket out of instinct and noticed my phone was missing. She had snatched it while distracting me. I imagine she watched me exit the bar and targeted me because I had been drinking. I turned around and confronted her. After some negotiation, I was able to get my phone back. To find out how, read the whole story here.

Tip: Use a money belt to hide your cash, passport, and valuables from muggers and pickpockets- If you do get mugged or pickpocketed, this will reduce your loss. Most muggers won’t expect you to be wearing one and won’t look for it. It is very difficult for a pickpocket to access a money belt.

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.

Transportation Safety in Tijuana

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. In this section, I’ll cover the dangers involved in getting around the city by taxi, Uber, minibus, walking, and driving.

the U.S. Mexico Border
US-Mexico Border

Getting to Tijuana

Most visitors cross the border either on foot or in a car from California. This part of the trip is completely safe. The Mexican immigration officials are professional. They will not try to scam you or solicit a bribe when you enter the country.

Many visitors choose to drive to San Ysidro and park at the border on the US side, then walk across. Secure border parking is available to keep your vehicle safe while you’re away. You can also take the trolley straight to the border from downtown San Diego 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

After you cross the border, the most convenient way to get to your destination is by taxi. Tijuana taxis are safe and the drivers are usually pretty friendly. Having said that, there are a couple of ways the driver may try to scam you.

  1. The taxi driver may try to overcharge you- The going rate for a ride from the border to downtown is $5-$6. From the border to Zona Rio should cost $6-$7. From the border to Playas de Tijuana should cost around $10-$12. If a driver tries to charge more than this, you’re being ripped off. I recommend you take a white ‘taxi libre’ rather than a yellow cab. Insist that the driver uses the meter. This way, you won’t get ripped off. The yellow cabs should be avoided because they are more expensive and don’t have meters. If the driver won’t use the meter, always negotiate the rate before you get in the cab. If you can’t get a fair price, just wait for another cab. There are taxis all over Tijuana. Chances are, you’ll see another pass by within seconds.
  2. The taxi driver may try to take you to a hotel or restaurant where they get a commission- They may lie to you saying that your destination full or closed or give some other excuse. They will then suggest an alternative. In this case, the driver has a prearranged deal with another hotel or restaurant where they receive a commission. Usually, these places are more expensive. They may also try to run other scams once you arrive. Just insist that the driver takes you where you want to go. If they won’t take you, get in another cab.
  3. Taking the scenic route- If a driver thinks you don’t know the city, they may take a long route to rack up a bigger fare. To avoid this, look at the map on your phone.
The Tijuana River
The Tijuana River

Using Uber in Tijuana

Uber is probably the safest and most convenient way to get around in Tijuana. 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 do 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 Taxi de Ruta (Colectivo Minibus)

Taxis de ruta or colectivos are shared minibusses that operate on fixed routes through the city as well as to and from the border. You can hop on or off anywhere along the route. This is Tijuana’s public transportation system and the most common way for locals to get around.

Colectivos offer a safe, reliable, and cheap mode of transportation around Tijuana. Prices and routes are fixed. The price is usually 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). The ride from the border to downtown costs 10 pesos. When riding a colectivo, try to have small bills or exact change. Most drivers can’t break large bills.

These minibusses don’t operate on a set schedule. They just leave when they are full. You can find them lined up at stops throughout the city. On busy streets, you can flag them down if you see one going in your direction. When you’re ready to get off say ‘pare aquí, por favor’ (stop here, please).

All of the colectivo drivers that I have come across have been professional. I have never been overcharged or ripped off. While riding a collective, you should secure all of your belongings. There is a risk of getting pickpocketed in a packed minibus. I have heard of one instance where a Tijuana colectivo was held up by robbers. They stole the phones and wallets of the passengers and driver. This is extraordinarily rare.

Zona Rio, Tijuana

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. A neighborhood that is safe during the day can become a dangerous place to walk at night.

During the day, it is safe to walk around all of the touristy areas including Zona Centro (downtown), Zona Río, Zona Norte, and Playas de Tijuana. It is also safe to walk to and from the border and between downtown and Zona Río. The city maintains a heavy police presence in these areas. There may be some pickpockets and scammers wandering about but they’re easy to avoid if you take some basic precautions.

You can safely walk outside of the tourist zones during the day as well. The business areas along busy main streets are safe. When it comes to residential areas, some neighborhoods are safer than others. Most neighborhoods are safe enough to walk through during the day. It’s probably best to avoid wanding through working-class neighborhoods if you don’t know where you’re going.

After dark, Tijuana becomes a bit more dangerous. Most violent crimes and robberies happen during this time. Scammers and pickpockets are also more active at night. For this reason, many tourists do not feel safe walking around Tijuana at night. Instead, they stay indoors, taking a taxi or Uber between their hotel and restaurants, clubs, and bars. If you’re not familiar with Tijuana, it’s probably best to avoid walking around at night.

Having said this, much of Tijuana is safe to walk around at night. Police regularly patrol all of the touristy areas. This makes them fairly safe. These tourist areas include:

  • Zona Centro- You can walk on Avenida Revolución from the Arch to the south about 6-8 blocks. You can also walk a couple of blocks East and West of Avenida Revolución. This is the most touristy part of Tijuana. Here, you’ll find the largest concentration of bars, restaurants, and clubs. Stick to well-lit areas and avoid walking down dark or deserted alleys. Use common sense.
  • Zona Rio- Paseo de los Heroes around Plaza Rio and Plaza Fiesta is safe to walk around at night. You can also walk a few blocks to the Southeast down Paseo de los Heroes. Try to stay in well-lit areas.
  • Zona Norte- It’s safe to walk on Calle Coahuila and Callejon Coajuila between Avenida Constitución and Avenida Niños Héroes. This is a seedy area. It’s the red light district. You will probably encounter some fast talkers and scammers here but it’s safe enough to walk around if you’re careful.

I do not recommend walking between Downtown and Zona Río at night. I have done this 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 dark. You can walk between downtown and Zona Norte at night.

When walking around Tijuana at night, try to stay in well light areas and don’t wander too far off the main tourist streets. Also take some precaution to avoid getting robbed or pickpocketed. Don’t carry valuables or wear flashy clothing, etc.

If you’re in doubt as to whether or not somewhere is safe to walk, just flag down a taxi or colectivo or order an Uber. It’s better to spend a few bucks for a ride than to lose your wallet or phone to a criminal.

A Note About Staying Walking To and From the Border

During the day it is safe enough to walk between the border and downtown Tijuana. I do not, however, recommend making this walk after dark. Just spend the 10 pesos on a collective or take a taxi or Uber.

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 criminals. I have heard stories from several people who have been mugged and assaulted on this bridge.

This particular bridge is dangerous is because it has a dark, winding staircases where muggers can hide. Tourists with money and valuables are also likely to cross here. 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. 

Bridge over Tijuana River
The bridge over Tijuana River

If you absolutely must walk from the border to downtown 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 an older 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. Now he never crosses alone. This is how I learned this tip. After that night, I will never make this walk alone again after dark.

Staying Safe While Driving in Tijuana

Most visitors don’t like driving in Tijuana. Instead, they park on the U.S. side of the border and walk across. Tijuana is easy to get around without a vehicle. The main tourist areas are walkable and public transportation is affordable and convenient.

With that being said, some visitors enjoy the freedom of having their own transportation. Driving is the fastest and most convenient way to get around. It also allows you to easily explore the entire region on your own time. Of course, there are some risks involved.

Probably the biggest risk of driving in Tijuana is getting pulled over by a corrupt police officer. Tijuana police are known to pull vehicles over to solicit bribes from the driver. Unfortunately, this is fairly common. You may be more likely to get pulled over while driving a vehicle with a U.S. license plate.

After pulling you over, the officer may accuse you of committing a crime. For example, they may tell you that you made an illegal maneuver or accuse you of driving drunk. They may search you and your vehicle as well.

At this point, they may imply that you can pay and leave. They won’t ask for money directly. Usually, 500 pesos is enough to satisfy them. Some police will try to take all of the cash you have on you. Some will simply ask you to hand over your wallet and take what they feel is fair.

If you refuse to pay, the officer could ask you to come to the police station to pay the fine. Sometimes the cop will just let you go. Sometimes you can talk your way out of whatever it is that they stopped you for. For more info, check out my complete guide to police corruption in Tijuana.

Another potential risk of driving in Tijuana is getting in an auto accident. Many people drive over the speed limit and don’t obey the rules of the road. Road conditions and signage can be poor as well. Minor fender benders are common in Tijuana.

On top of that, many drivers don’t have insurance. Accidents are often settled on the spot in cash. This could be difficult if you don’t speak Spanish. If the other driver is at fault and can’t pay, you may be out of luck. If you’re at fault and the police are involved, you fall victim to corruption. It is also possible that the other driver tries to take advantage of you because you’re not a local.

If you are going to drive in Tijuana, you should buy temporary auto insurance before you cross the border. This way, you’ll be covered if you get in an accident. 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.

For more info, check out my guide: How to Drive to Tijuana. Here, I discuss temporary vehicle insurance, parking, driving in Tijuana, the border crossings, and more. 

Common Scams in Tijuana

Scams aren’t widespread 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. A few of the most common scams to look out for in Tijuana include:

  • Overcharging: People may try to overcharge. Because you are a foreigner, they assume you don’t know the price. To avoid overcharging, always ask the price before agreeing to buy anything. This is particularly important when taking a taxi. Dishonest taxi drivers 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.
  • Wrong change- People may try to shortchange you because they know you’re not used to using pesos. Always take the time to count your change when you buy something. This scam is common at restaurants and shops.
  • Police asking for bribes- A corrupt police officer pulls you over, accuses you of committing a crime, then demands that you pay a fine.

To read my complete list of scams, check out my article: 19 Common Travel Scams, How They Work, and How to Avoid Them. You can find many of these in Tijuana in one form or another.

Con Men and Hustlers in Tijuana

While walking around Tijuana, you will likely be approached by a fast-talking hustler or con man. These are usually guys who used to live in the United States but were deported for committing crimes. After getting deported they were dropped off in Tijuana. These guys speak perfect English and make their living running scams on tourists. They run some pretty elaborate scams involving accomplices and possibly a corrupt police officer. Con men are most common in Zona Norte and Zona Centro.

The scams begin with a man approaching you acting like they’re your best friend. They will ask you about your trip and ask if you need help with anything. After chatting for a bit, they may start telling you a sob story. They might tell you that they need to buy medicine or that they were recently deported and need help. They will tell you anything to part you with your hard-earned money. It’s all lies.

Sometimes these guys have deals arranged with the police where they work as a kind of informant. For example, they may offer to sell you illegal drugs. After you buy from them, they will turn you in to the police. At this point, the police stop you and force you to pay a big fine or threaten you with jail time. After paying the bribe, the police pay the scammer a cut 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.

Beggars and Homeless in Tijuana

Unfortunately, there is poverty and homelessness in Tijuana. Occasionally someone will approach to ask for money. 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 woman started yelling, jumped toward me, and punched me right in the stomach. She then continued walking as if nothing happened. I hadn’t even made eye contact with her. These days, I cross the street if I see someone that looks dangerous or sketchy.

Street Children in Tijuana

While walking around town, you may encounter small children selling gum or trinkets. They are harmless. Usually, these kids’ parents force them to work. I recommend you don’t buy anything from them because it encourages their families to continue forcing their small children to work.

Migrants in Tijuana

Over the past couple of years, thousands of migrants have made their way to Tijuana. Some are still there waiting. Fortunately, most of these people aren’t violent or dangerous. In fact, they are more likely to be victims of crimes than criminals. Having said that, it’s best not to hang around these camps if you see them. These areas attract crime.

Tijuana Police Corruption

police officers

Police corruption is a problem in Tijuana. It is not uncommon for Tijuana police to stop tourists and ask for a bribe or mordida in Spanish. They could stop you while you’re driving or on foot. Sometimes police set up roadblocks or perform random searches on a street corner.

After stopping you, the officer may tell you that you committed a serious crime and that you need to pay a fine. They may tell you that you made an illegal turn or parked illegally. In some cases, they may accuse you of drunk driving or carrying illegal drugs. The officer might threaten you with jail time or tell you that they will impound your vehicle.

At that point, the officer will imply that you can settle the matter there and then by paying a fine. Sometimes they ask for $100. Sometimes they want to take all of the cash you have on you. In some cases, they may ask that you hand over your wallet. It depends on the officer. For this reason, it’s best to carry as little cash as possible while driving or walking around in Tijuana.

What to Do If you Get Stopped by a Corrupt Police Officer in Tijuana

When talking to the police in Tijuana, speak as respectfully as you can, be patient, and play dumb. Pretend you don’t speak any Spanish and you don’t understand what they want. Also, try to stall as much as you can. Ask for directions. Sometimes the officer will become bored or frustrated with you and send you on your way. Sometimes you may be able to talk your way out of it. Never show any aggression, frustration, or anger. Never act like you’re in a hurry.

While talking to the officer, try to take note of their badge number and name on their badge. Also, note the number of their vehicle. You may need this information later.

If the officer is insisting that you pay them, there are a number of different ways to handle the situation. Everyone has a different philosophy on handling police corruption. You can:

  • Insist that the officer gives you a paper ticket and takes you to the police station to pay the fine- This is probably the safest and least expensive option. If you go to the station, you know that the fine you’re paying is legitimate. You will pay your fine and receive a receipt for it at the station. In some cases, you may speak to a judge who will determine your fine. If you’re lucky, they’ll reduce the fine. In some cases, the officer will just let you go instead of going through the hassle of taking you to the station.
  • Negotiate and pay the bribe- This is the easiest and fastest solution. Officerscommohly ask for $100 but you can often negotiate down to 500-1000 pesos ($25-$50). Once you come to an agreement, you can pay and go. The problem is that the officer may call their corrupt friends and let them know that you pay bribes. You might get pulled over again just down the road. Paying a bribe also supports a corrupt system. If a police officer gets money out of one tourist, they’ll pull over more tourists and ask for bribes. Paying should be your last resort.
  • Call to report the corrupt officer – The best number to call is the Sindicatura Del Gobierno Municipal. This is a local government official that handles legal issues. Their number in Tijuana is 664-973-7273. You could also call Tijuana tourist assistance. Their number is 078. The problem is that calling to report the officer could anger them. You’re also basically threatening the officer if you do this. Keep that in mind. The officer may let you go if they see that you’re calling the sindicatura. Again, this could be risky.
Police officers in Tijuana

Of course, not every cop in Tijuana is corrupt and looking for a bribe. Police corruption in Tijuana isn’t as bad as it used to be. Most police officers are honest and just doing their job.

An officer could pull you over for committing a legitimate traffic infraction. If you did commit a crime, you should expect to pay a fine. The best way to go about paying is to go to the station with the officer. If you pay the officer directly, the money will go into his pocket.

Tip: Some travelers recommend you write the words “Sindicatura Del Gobierno Municipal” along with their phone number on a piece of paper and tape it to the back of your driver’s license or on your dashboard in a visible place. This way, the officer sees that you know who to call if they try anything illegal. The hope is that the officer will let you go rather than risk getting in trouble. Some travelers have reported success with this method. Be warned that this could anger the officer and land you in a worse position. It depends on the mood of the officer who pulled you over. You can read more about this in this thread on Baja Nomad.

How to Avoid Getting Stopped by the Police in Tijuana

The best way to avoid getting pulled over is to obey all laws. You are less likely to get pulled over if you follow all of the rules of the road. You can also reduce your likelihood of getting pulled over by driving a vehicle with Mexican license plates. This isn’t an option for most tourists.

If you’re on foot, never walk around intoxicated. Corrupt police regularly stop drunk tourists shake them down for bribes. Also, avoid making eye contact with the police when you walk by them. They could stop you and hassle you for no reason.

Also, never carry anything illegal on your person. An officer could stop you and search you at any time. If they find something, you could end up with a big fine or jail time.

For more info, check out my guide to police corruption in Tijuana.

What if You Need Help?

The Tijuana police are not known for being too helpful to tourists. They do their best to keep the peace and protect tourists from violent crime. After all, Tijuana makes a lot of money from tourism. Tijuana police don’t want tourists getting injured or killed. The city already has a bad enough reputation.

In the case of petty theft or a robbery, you’re pretty much on your own. The police probably won’t help you retrieve a stolen wallet or phone. It’s almost impossible to get these things back if they’re stolen. The police don’t have the manpower. If you do seek the help of the police, don’t be surprised if they ask you to pay. If the police recover your stolen stuff, you might have to pay to get it back.

The police in Tijuana have an incredibly dangerous job. I respect them for doing it. I certainly wouldn’t want to work as a Tijuana police officer.

CECUT Cultural Center of Tijuana
CECUT Cultural Center of Tijuana

Safety in Rosarito, Ensenada, and Tecate

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. Some travelers visit Tecate, which is a small pueblo located 35 miles east of Tijuana on the border.

These are quiet and safe cities that you can visit if you want to avoid the big city hassles of Tijuana. These cities have lower rates of crime and fewer scams to deal with. You’ll still want to exercise caution while you’re out and about.

Food and Drink Safety in Tijuana

A street taco stand in Mexico

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. In general, food hygiene standards are just a bit lower in Tijuana than in the US.

To reduce your chance of getting travelers’ diarrhea, you should:

  • Make sure that foods are hot and cooked all the way through- Undercooked foods can carry bacteria that can cause an upset stomach or diarrhea.
  • Avoid foods that have been sitting out in the open- When food sits out, bacteria can grow and multiply. Insects can also land on it and introduce contamination.
  • Avoid unwashed fruits and vegetables- E. coli is a risk if your food wasn’t properly cleaned.

Drinking water safety in Tijuana

To avoid ‘Montezuma’s Revenge’ or travelers’ diarrhea, you should not drink tap water in Tijuana. The city’s municipal water department treats the water so that it is safe to drink when it leaves their facility. The problem is that the water can get contaminated with heavy metals and bacteria as it passes through old pipes on its way to your tap.

To be safe, you should only drink bottled water or purified water in Tijuana. You can buy bottled water at any supermarket, pharmacy, convenience store, restaurant, and food stand. Before taking a drink, be sure to check that the seal on the cap hasn’t been broken.

Most hotels offer a water dispenser in the lobby where you can refill your water bottle with purified water. The water comes from 20-liter jugs (called garrafones). This water is perfectly safe to drink. It is the same as bottled water. You can also buy your own 20-liter jug and refill it or swap it out. This is a good option if you’re living in Tijana.

Another safe water option is to buy a water filter. I use the Sawyer Mini (#ad). With it, you can filter tap water and save on buying bottled water. The filter removes bacteria, debris, and contaminants that are greater than .1 micron. This is an environmentally friendly option 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.

I have drunk Tijuana 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.

A note about using tap water in Tijuana

For the most part, you can use Tijuana tap water as you would normally. The only thing to avoid is drinking it. A few common questions and answers include:

  • Is it safe to drink beverages with ice in Tijuana?- Yes, the ice is made in a factory or ice machine from purified water. If you’re concerned, look at the ice to verify that it was factory-made or ask your waiter if it was made from purified water.
  • Is it safe to brush my teeth with tap water in Tijuana?- Yes, just try not to swallow too much water to be safe.
  • Can I drink juices?- Yes, you can safely drink the juices that you see for sale on food stands. The water used in making the juice is purified. If you’re worried about this, you can also ask the vendor if the water in the juice was purified.
  • Can I make tea and coffee with tap water in Tijuana?- Yes, as you boil the water first.
  • Can I cook with tap water in Tijuana?- Yes, as long as you boil the water first.
  • Is ti safe to use tap water to wash fruits and veggies?- Yes, just make sure you dry them completely before you eat them.

If you do get sick while visiting Tijuana

If you spend enough time in Tijuana, chances are you’ll eat or drink something that was contaminated and get a case of traveler’s diarrhea. Whem this happens, you should:

  • Drink lots of clean water- You need to stay hydrated. If you feel like you’re getting dehydrated, you can add some rehydration salts to your water. You can buy these at a pharmacy.
  • Take some anti-diarrhea medication- Visit a pharmacy and buy some Imodium or Pepto-Bismol.
  • 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.

Hotel/Hostel Safety in Tijuana

If you’re planning to stay in Tijuana overnight, you’ll want to make sure you book yourself a room in a safe and trusted hotel or hostel. It is not unheard of for a hotel staff member to enter your room while you’re away and steal money or valuables. I have heard stories of hotel safes being emptied as well.

A dishonest hotel may try to add bogus charges to your bill when you check out. For example, they may claim you took something out of the minibar and try to charge you for it.

Before checking into a hotel or hostel in Tijuana, read some reviews. If you see any warnings about theft or scams, find another hotel. Also, never let a taxi driver take you to a hotel that they suggest. They are only taking you there because they get a kickback.

Travel Insurance

If, after reading this guide, you still feel a bit nervous about visiting Tijuana, you may want to consider purchasing travel insurance for your trip. Travel insurance can cover you in the event of theft, injury, or medical emergency.

When I travel, I have purchased my travel insurance from World Nomads. For more information and for a free quote, check out my travel insurance page.

A few more Tijuana safety tips

  • Never buy or use illegal drugs in Tijuana- If the police catch you you’ll end up with a big fine and possibly jail time. If someone offers to sell you drugs, just say no thanks and walk away. They could be in cahoots with the police. It’s not worth the risk.
  • Stick to the touristy neighborhoods- Zona Centro, Zona Rio, and Playas de Tijuana are the safest neighborhoods in the city.
  • Don’t talk to anyone you meet on the street in Tijuana- Chances are, they are a scammer or are just trying to sell you something. If someone approaches you, just excuse yourself and keep walking.
  • Avoid deserted and poorly lit areas- Try to stick to populated areas where there are plenty of people and businesses around. You’re less likely to experience crime in these areas.
  • Don’t be overly paranoid about safety- If you’re constantly worried about crime, you won’t have any fun. Take all of the necessary safety precautions outlined in this guide and enjoy your trip.

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? Share your story in the comments below!

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

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ALEX THOMPSON

Friday 22nd of October 2021

Great article! It helps us a log to explore Tijuana. I along with my friends had already booked a return flight from Tijuana with Volaris however we wanted to stay there for a couple more days. So, I dialed the Volaris Reservation Number to speak to a representative. He comprehensively told me about how to cancel a Volaris flight? with ease, we are completely satisfied with their response.

Matt

Sunday 6th of September 2020

This will be a comment (and some advice) on the entire Tijuana portion of the blog, as a whole. I'm currently living here temporarily, and it's funny how we can have very different experiences:

The people of Tijuana are indeed friendly and welcoming providing you're paying them for something. They don't find the whole hipster living in TJ thing to be cute, and will very quickly and abruptly let you know when you've worn out your welcome. When someone is too friendly and speaks perfect English, you're being set up for a scam. TJ is a hotspot for the deported, and there’s a reason they’re no longer in the US.

The manners here end with ”buenas tardes, ” and customer service isn't a ”thing.” Need to return something to a store? Fat chance.

Expect insanely long lines everywhere, and during COVID-19, don’t expect service in many stores: this seems to be a work-avoidance excuse that’s pretty much applicable to every foreigner.

Don’t over-tip: while it’s true that many Americans make in an hour what the average Mexican worker makes in a day, you’re only encouraging the stray cat syndrome that will inevitably develop if you do this repeatedly. If you engage in the somewhat “legal” activities in TJ that typically take place at night, use extreme caution to not leave valuables out or disclose any personal information to the “service provider.” If they ask how long you’re staying, you’re leaving tomorrow no matter what the true story is. Saying otherwise will get you stalked at your hotel or apartment. You don’t want this to happen, just take my word on this one.

STREET DRUGS ARE NOT LEGAL IN MEXICO- NOT EVEN WEED- this seems to be a gross misconception for many Americans, and you’re putting your life at risk by getting involved with anyone involved in the drug trade, even low-level street dealers.

YOU CANNOT BRING BACK NON-PHYSICIAN PRESCRIBED MEDICATIONS- unless you want to go through a living hell courtesy of the wannabe cops at the US Border patrol, don’t do this.

The police:

Perhaps the most corrupt police force in the world, (and I’ve traveled near and far),the TJ police force isn’t here to protect you. You will be stopped for walking down the street without any regard for probable cause, simply because you’re an easy target for them to rob. To date, I’ve had a credit card stolen and used for over $100 and about the same amount stolen in cash over a couple of instances. I repeat, the TJ police are not your buddies, they’re the enemy. If someone else robs you, they couldn’t care less about helping you. Walking alone in many parts of centro or anywhere around the arch is a 90+% chance that you’ll be stopped. The same goes for anywhere near the border, which should completely be avoided at night. The police rarely ever speak English, so the people reporting that must have incredibly good luck. I speak Spanish in the Caribbean dialect, which is apparently too difficult for them to understand. ???? “Mande guey?” Cashiers are notorious for doing this, but often locals will jump in and tell the cashier to just do their job.

Many stores have stopped accepting US money since COVID-19, so sharpen up on your math skills, because you’ll need to do fast conversions in your head. Using the dollar isn’t a good idea, as you’ll almost always be quoted a far higher amount. Nothing in TJ is over $50, unless you’re renting, buying a car, or getting some type of medical procedure. Electronics purchases in Mexico should be avoided.

The street children are often victims of human trafficking, and not actually the children of the adults that accompany them. I disagree with the advice to give them food or anything else, as you’re just supporting these practices. I’d go into more depth, but just know this is a rather disgusting thing to support.

I could go on for hours, but I’ll leave with a:

tl; dr: Unless hanging out with angry poor people and getting robbed and scammed in a filthy cesspool of a city is something that sounds appealing to you, AVOID TJ and just live in an affordable part of the US. Tijuana is in no way, shape, or form, an “alternative” to the high cost of living in San Diego.

andy

Wednesday 22nd of September 2021

@Matt, really appreciate your truthfullness of what tj is really all about,one big hustle by the cops,the street people

wheretheroadforks

Thursday 10th of September 2020

Great comment! Thanks for taking the time to write this out. There are some excellent tips here. Particularly about police corruption and tipping.

It does seem like we have had pretty different experiences though. Sounds like you’ve had some bad luck or maybe I’ve just had good luck. In my time living in TJ, I have walked all over at all hours of the day and night and have never been stopped or hassled by the police. I do agree that they are incredibly corrupt and should be avoided. I have heard plenty of horror stores about people getting ripped off by corrupt officers.

When I’m out walking, I’m more worried about getting mugged. There are plenty of scammers and beggars around but they are pretty easy to avoid.

As far as the people go, I don’t find them particularly unfriendly or angry. Cashiers, restaurant workers, drivers, etc are usually friendly enough. I’m not much of a people person though. I have a few friends I go out with but otherwise keep to myself. When I need to make a big purchase, I just cross the border or buy online so I don't have to deal with scams, poor return policies, or poor customer service.

I still feel that Tijuana is an excellent alternative to living in San Diego. There are thousands of people who cross the border for work daily who enjoy the lifestyle as well. It’s not for everybody but it works well for some. I find it to be a pretty exciting city. I would rather spend my time in San Diego and Tijuana than a boring low cost of living part of the US.

notme

Tuesday 4th of August 2020

I haven't been to TJ for quite a while but I have made many trips over the last 60 years & have only had a couple unpleasant experiences. I used to walk in but it is a bit harder with the changes they made quite a few years ago. It is better now to park in the US or take the light rail to the border. Then get a bus on the US side to downtown (Last time I went it cost one Dollar). Repeat on the return trip. One advantage on the return trip is you avoid the LOOOONG pedestrian line.

wheretheroadforks

Wednesday 5th of August 2020

I don't believe the bus can take you across the border these days. As far as I know, you have to travel to the border, cross on foot, then catch another bus, taxi, Uber, etc.

Vylinda

Wednesday 1st of April 2020

Hi, Thank you for this very informative article. I’m not sure you will know the answer to my question but thought I would try. Would it be safe to have surgery at the TJ hospital? They send a driver to San Diego and drive you over the border. Prices are so much cheaper but not sure it’s worth the risk. After reading your article I would love to visit just for the delicious taco’s. Thanks again.

wheretheroadforks

Friday 3rd of April 2020

Hi there, the trip to Tijuana is safe. Having a driver pick you up in San Diego removes pretty much all of the hassles and dangers of crossing the border. As far as the surgery goes, I don't really know. From what I've seen and heard, the hospitals in Tijuana are great. Lots of Americans cross the border for healthcare. It's a big industry in Tijuana. Having said that, Tijuana is kind of a 'get what you pay for' kind of place. Some doctors are better than others. If you've done your research and trust the doctor, it's probably pretty safe. I know the savings can be significant. Hope this helps!

Daniel Sanchez

Tuesday 3rd of March 2020

Hi, I really enjoy your website. My wife and I have been considering retiring/living in Tijuana. We currently live in Temecula and I commute to San Diego for work. My wife is Mexican by birth but is now a U.S. citizen. She speaks Spanish fluently which will help. Our main concern is that we have heard that if you live in Mexico and leave your house for an extended period (like 2 weeks for vacation) that you could come home to all your stuff stolen from your place. Have you heard of this happening? Is there an American expat community (or even friendly Mexican neighbors) that watches over each other for stuff like this? We would like to move to Tijuana but we also like to travel frequently. Thanks for all the info!

wheretheroadforks

Tuesday 3rd of March 2020

Hi there, I have never heard of anything like that happening but I guess it's possible. I think the risk is pretty low. Particularly if you take a few precautions before you leave on vacation. There are apartment buildings and gated neighborhoods in Tijuana with 24-hour security. That would probably be your safest option. If you want to live in a regular house, the best you could do is find one that is surrounded with a wall and bars over the windows to keep the bad guys out. Maybe set a light on a timer to go on at night so it looks like somebody is home. You could also hire a house sitter to come by and check on things or even live in the house while you're away. There are websites that can put you into contact with house sitters. If you become friends with your neighbors, you could ask them to keep an eye on things for you while you're gone. If you have anything that is highly valuable like jewelry, for example, you could keep it in a safe deposit box or storage locker in the US. Hope this helps.

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