Where the border crossing is easy


SAN YSIDRO, Calif. -- Border crossings usually aren't simple.

They often come after long trips, involve slow-moving lines and are capped off by the questions of immigration officials.

But in San Diego, getting to Mexico is as easy as commuting to work. The San Diego Trolley makes a beeline for the U.S.-Mexico border every 10 minutes during rush hour.

To reach Tijuana, passengers ride the air-conditioned cars to the end of the line at San Ysidro. When they step off the commuter train, they're in the midst of a bustling border scene. But there's no reason to stop here.

Tijuana, once a notorious sin city, has cleaned up its act. Although there's still bawdy entertainment to be found in the Zona Norte, the city also boasts a cultural center, museums and sporting attractions. It's a safe family trip, and a change of pace from San Diego's orderly attractions, such as Sea World and the zoo.

Shoppers will find their choice of quality crafts, tacky souvenirs and plenty of restaurants. They can don sombreros and pose for a picture with a burro or wager on U.S. athletic events from the city's many betting parlors. Some people make the trip to pick up prescription medicine at a fraction of the U.S. cost. The practice is legal as long as the drugs are for personal use and are otherwise legal to possess.

The trip from downtown San Diego takes about 45 minutes. Service continues until 1 a.m. every day but Saturday, when it runs all night. At $3.50 or less for a round trip, it's certainly cheaper than renting a car or taking one of the Tijuana package tours offered at hotels. Driving to the border also involves the expense of buying Mexican auto insurance or paying up to $7 to park at a private lot.

Upon arriving at San Ysidro, trolley riders have the same options as those who drive and park. They can cross the border on foot and take a 20-minute walk to downtown Tijuana, or make the same trip by cab for about $5.

Even easier is boarding one of several shuttles from the U.S. side of the border, which will take you to Tijuana's main shopping street, Avenida Revolucion, for $1.

Either way, it's unlikely you'll be stopped by Mexican immigration officers. Your only encounter with officialdom will be on the way back into the United States.

A Tijuana trip can start at any of the many San Diego Trolley stops, which include several around downtown and the convention center, where the Republican Party will open its national convention tomorrow.

Trolley tickets can be bought at machines, which will calculate your fare, make change and all but show you to your seat. As with Dallas' new DART line, the trolley uses the honor system, so there are no turnstiles. But hold onto your ticket. Transit officers check regularly for freeloaders and issue citations; fines begin at $65.

The train to Tijuana will be marked "San Ysidro." The trip isn't especially scenic, but the cars are clean and graffiti-free.

The most striking site along the line is probably the trolley station at America Plaza, a transit hub attached to San Diego's tallest office building and adjacent to the downtown branch of the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Trolleys stop under a soaring glass-and-steel canopy that looks something like a postmodern rendition of a Victorian train station.

A beautiful old station provides a counterpoint across the street. rTC The Spanish colonial-style Santa Fe Depot still serves as an Amtrak station. The cream-colored building, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, has a vaulted ceiling, oak benches and an interior decorated with colored tiles.

Built in 1915 for visitors to the Panama-California Exposition, the station hints of a past when train travel was luxurious.

But rest assured, it wasn't as easy crossing the border.

Pub Date: 8/11/96

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