Tijuana, Tacos, and Medical Tourism: Part Two

While we had a great time on our Great Californian Roadtrip (trademarked I’m pretty sure) if you’ve read Part One of this story, you’re probably ready for me to get to the important part: what was Tijuana like? What was the dentist like? Is it really worth going to Mexico for dental work? Are we slipping more and more into a dystopian future where Americans have to resort to medical tourism to get quality and affordable healthcare? Short answers: great, great, yes, and probably. But the real treasure was the friends we made along the way…or something like that.

After leaving LA, we decided to head straight to Tijuana since it was Sunday and we wanted time to settle in and get a good night’s rest. We still didn’t have a hotel or Airbnb picked out, but I was glancing at several along the way. We honestly didn’t have much of anything picked out at this point, except for a dentist appointment on Monday that we ended up cancelling and rescheduling with a different dentist anyway. I’m often a more neurotic planner, but this time I felt content to grab our passports, a few credit cards, and call it a day.

It seemed that Mexico had a similar laissez faire attitude about the trip. When we got to the border at the San Ysidro crossing, there was a little bit of traffic while we corralled into the appropriate lanes, but it didn’t take more than five minutes to get through. And those five minutes ended up being the longest part of the process – once we got to a turnstile, we paused to allow a camera to flash a picture of our vehicle. A green light quickly came on, and we continued driving through.

The border between America and Mexico
From the American side

And that was it! It was so quick and easy it was almost disorienting – are we really in Mexico now? But the new street signs, billboards, and driving styles confirmed it to be true. We saw a Costco and decided to make it our first stop – mostly to collect our bearings, but also just to see the changes between ours.

Entering Tijuana, Mexico by car
You are now in Mexico!

The Costco was largely similar with the changes that you’d expect – signs in Spanish. There were some slightly different offerings though, including a creamy tres leches cake that we were able to sample, and fresh mini donuts being made in the bakery, which I spent too long watching. I was also interested to find out that people approached me with Spanish. I know a fair amount of Spanish, and I was happy to have the opportunity to practice, but sometimes I don’t get the chance. Especially in places where English is also commonly spoken, some people seem that they’d rather communicate in my native language rather than suffer through my Spanish ­čśë So I was excited to have people presume competence. I did wonder if it was because, as a brown-haired, brown-eyed person, I’m at least passable as potentially Hispanic. But I noticed that people also attempted to engage Spencer in Spanish, and he’s as g├╝ero as it gets.

After resisting the Costco food court, we headed to our hotel. We had found a few places on HotelTonight, and we scoped them out a little bit in person before deciding. We ended up going with Hotel Lucerna, a five-star hotel that we were able to snag for ~100 a night. Expensive for Tijuana standards, but crazy cheap for a comparable place in the US.

Spencer and Devon on the room balcony at Hotel Lucerna
From our balcony at Hotel Lucerna

It’s a good thing to note at this point that there are a ton of different paths you can take on a trip to Tijuana. If you don’t speak a lick of Spanish and just want to take advantage of the cheap medical care, it’s totally possible to rent a nice hotel staffed by English-speaking people and only leave it to go to the dentist. And Tijuana will be happy to have you for it! There is more catering for this kind of guest than Americans may realize.

But, if you’re even a little bit interested in adventure or learning about a different culture, Tijuana rewards intrepid travelers in droves. There is so much delicious food and so many interesting things to see. And I know sometimes Americans worry about safety in Mexico, but anecdotally, Spencer and I never felt like we were in danger. There is the violence to be had in Tijuana, to be sure. But it’s not really directed at tourists – which is better than I can say for some of the Bay Area ?

We got a delicious dinner full of mariscos down the street at Villa Marina Restaurante – aguachiles, spicy shrimp, and more – and settled into our room for the evening.

Spicy shrimp and fish dish at Villa Marina Restaurante
Spicy shrimp and fish at Villa Marina Restaurante

Spencer and I had originally gotten a personal recommendation of a dentist from a friend – but they ended up being a little hard to get a hold of, so on Monday morning we canceled that appointment and searched for another. We’d looked up and requested some advice from people who had done this sort of thing before, and the consensus was: pick a nice looking dentist in a nice area of town. Simple enough. We researched a few and ended up going with I Love my Dentist. The phone number they listed had a California area code and was answered by someone who spoke perfect English. We made an appointment for Spencer’s procedures and scheduled a cleaning/check-up for me as well.

Chilaquiles verdes at La Espadana
Chilaquiles verdes in a sun-drenched room at La Espada├▒a

With the whole day ahead of us, we split our time on some very important things. One, we got some chilaquiles at La Espada├▒a, which we had been craving since leaving Louisville, Kentucky. It may sound like a weird place to develop a love for a regional Mexican food, but Paco Garcia at Con Huevos still makes better chilaquiles than I’ve eaten in the Bay Area.

Two, we spent some time at the pool. The first week of April in Tijuana isn’t blazing hot, but it’s the perfect temperature for lounging on a patio chair and jumping in every so often.

View of the pool at Hotel Lucerna and legs
Legs or hot dogs?

Three, we spent some time on the roof. On the same property of Hotel Lucerna is the K Tower, their newest building that’s adults only. We had debated staying at this part of the property instead, but decided to save the money and just visit the rooftop. So we went to Sushi en la Azotea and enjoyed sangria, Tijuana beer, and a salmon tiradito dish – which is similar to carpaccio.

Finally, we headed in the direction of the dentist – which happened to be on Avenida Revoluci├│n, the most famous street in Tijuana. If you have a picture in your head of what Tijuana looks like, this is probably closer to it. It’s loud, covered in bars and restaurants, a little seedy, and incredibly fun. Just walking up and down the street you will be beckoned to enter each store you encounter to check out the shopkeeper’s wares – leather belts, Baja hoodies, cheap Viagra.

It’s a fact that seems like a lie Spencer might try to convince you of, but the Caesar salad really was invented in Tijuana, and we decided that we’d be remiss to try the original. So we walked Av. Revolucion until we found the aptly-named Caesar’s, which looked as though it hadn’t changed since the Prohibition Era. All over the city, really, we found fun references to this period of time. Though Tijuana obviously didn’t have the same prohibition law as the US, its proximity to the border meant that it became a haven for thirsty tequila aficionados.

Our salad was a tableside affair, and was just as delicious as I’d hoped. We enjoyed it alongside some hongos rellenos – stuffed mushrooms – and booked it to the dentist.

The bright interior of I Love my Dentist in Tijuana, Mexico
Interior of la dentista

Our dentist was located on the interior of a mini-mall style building which had a gated entry. Inside it was clean, bright, and pleasant. The office itself was stocked with coffee and bottled water, and we were checked in by more friendly English speakers. It’s very clear that these places are really doing everything they can to cater to Americans and make sure they feel comfortable.

We filled out a bit of background info and then Spencer was quickly called back. My appointment was a bit later so I enjoyed using the free WiFi and leafing through food brochures.

Interior of I Love my Dentist in Tijuana, Mexico with coffee station and cold water
Coffee station and cold bottled water at the dentist

When I did get called back for my cleaning, my dentist was kind, professional, and again, spoke great English. I could hear that Spencer was having a similar experience in a room a few feet over. My check-up was thorough and efficient and the dentist was able to explain everything to me and answer any questions.

Spencer finished up shortly after my check-up. His procedure (a very impacted wisdom tooth) was much more serious than mine, but he was still up and walking around right afterwards. His dentist gave him his restrictions (no milk, cheese, fried or spicy foods, or too much sunshine for the next few days, which is heartbreaking to hear in Tijuana) and wrote him a prescription for some painkillers and an antibiotic. They also gave us a medical pass, which allows you to take a route that is sometimes quicker to cross the border.

We settled up by Paypal as this was an option without fees. My cleaning actually was free due to a promotion that the office was offering, and Spencer’s complicated extraction was less than half the price we would’ve paid in the US – and when we’re talking about a procedure that generally costs over $1000, that’s significant.

Spencer was fading fast, so after we left the office we quickly filled his prescription (there are a myriad of places to do this on Av. Revolucion) and got the world’s cheapest Uber (we paid an average of $3 for each ride) back to the hotel. We had a quiet night full of ordering the most bland room service for Spencer to tolerate and doing an accidental re-watch of season one of Game of Thrones, this time with Spanish captions.

Room service food from Hotel Lucerna - gelatin, steamed veggies and fish, soup, and a smoothie
The quintessential wisdom tooth recovery foods

We had only booked two nights at our initial hotel since we weren’t sure how Spencer would be feeling, but in the morning he decided he was feeling well enough to spend another night in Tijuana. We looked around at some other options, including moving to the slightly fancier K Tower next door, but eventually settled on this high-rise Airbnb located in a slightly different part of town that was near the sports stadium. Again, we paid a little under $100 a night for beautiful lodgings with an infinity pool, swanky common room, and great view of Tijuana.

Tijuana, Mexico city view
View of the city from our Airbnb – pictured are a mall and the stadium

The rest of our trip was spent exploring the city, enjoying food, and practicing conversational Spanish with people. Spencer’s recovery was actually really good, and he reported that it was a better experience than the other impacted wisdom tooth he’d had taken out in America. He was still in pain, but the Ibuprofen was generally enough to have him be comfortable enough to walk around.

We only spent another day in Tijuana, but we got to enjoy so much more food and drink – fancy sausages, grilled pitas, and siphon coffee at Telefonica Gastro Park, thoughtful small plates that draw inspiration from two Californias (Baja and the American one) at Oryx Capital, egg white cocktails at the speakeasy-themed N├│rtico, more chilaquiles and healthy juices at Alma Verde, and the most delicious birria street taco at a stand near Costco on our way out.

Stands on the route back to America in Tijuana
Lots of food and other goods are sold on the route to the border

It was sadly time to go. We packed up our stuff and headed for the border, which was definitely a more interesting crossing on our way out. There was slightly more traffic, which could have to do with the fact that it was a weekday and many people commute between Tijuana and California for work. Regardless, we probably spent 15 minutes in traffic that was dotted by stands selling all manner of frozen treats, tacos, and random kitsch. There was actually a human staffing the crossing, who took a quick look at our passports, asked us where we were headed, and glanced in our trunk. Again, a very quick process.

As soon as we left, I missed it. We drove through San Diego on our way back just because I hadn’t really seen it, but I couldn’t gather the energy for it. It was too boring, too expensive, too clean. I considered turning around and going back to Tijuana.

And while we didn’t do that this trip, I know we will definitely be there in the future. Spencer and I still have some more dental work we’d like to get done at some point, and knowing we only live an 8 hour drive away from the most delicious tacos may be too tempting on these upcoming weekends. So it was definitely more of an hasta luego than an adi├│s.

Overall, I definitely recommend the experience and I think a wide variety of people could find enjoyment in Tijuana. If you want to live large, rent luxury hotels and eat fancy food, you will definitely do well there. If you want to get some dental or medical work done more affordably, that option is there for you. If you want to immerse yourself in the local culture and have all the tacos y tortas y tequila that you can, it’s more than doable on less than $40 a day – lodging and all. I really do sincerely believe that there is something for everyone.

Telefonica Gastro Park billboard that says "Food Has No Walls" with a caricature of Donald Trump

If you go:

  • Paying for things is pretty easy in Tijuana. Most places will take cards, with Visa and Mastercard being the most accepted. Bring a few cards with no foreign transaction fees, make sure to set your travel notice, and you should be golden.
  • Want to get street food? (Yes!) Bring some cash – but American dollars often work as well as pesos. I got some cash out of an American ATM before crossing and had no issues. You can also ask for your change in pesos. I recommend this over trying to exchange cash – just keep an eye on the math.
  • Sources vary, but bottled water is still probably best. Don’t worry too much though, because all restaurants are required to use filtered water for cooking and washing produce. Spencer and I did not experience any gastrointestinal upset and we ate at a variety of places.
  • Have basic safety skills – stay in well-lit areas with other people around, keep an eye on your surroundings, etc. Most violence in Tijuana is not aimed at tourists, but it always helps to take basic precautions. Also, be prepared for some areas to be a little dirtier than some places in America – but if you’re familiar with any big city, it shouldn’t be anything too surprising.
  • You have a few options to cross the border – with your car, by foot, or by shuttle. By car tends to take the longest, but we didn’t find it so bad. That said, Uber is very cheap and safe, so it is totally possible to cross on foot and just use rideshares to get around.
  • It’s easier to get in and out without your passport, but may not be totally necessary. I’ve heard of people crossing back and forth with just driver’s licenses or birth certificates. The US is not allowed to deny citizens entry back into America, it just may take a little longer if you don’t have the standard documents.
  • Walking and driving is a little more aggressive – people will cede right of way, but as both a passenger and a driver you have to be willing to take it. Taxis also will do quick honk at you as you’re walking as an offer to pick you up – ignore them.
  • Knowing some Spanish is helpful and will open up more doors for you, but you don’t necessarily need it. But I do always recommend learning some basic words and phrases before going to a country that speaks a different language than you – it’s both polite and useful.

What do you think? Would you get dental work done in Tijuana? Or do you just want to check out the food and culture? Do you have any questions? I’d be happy to help guide you!

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