Tijuana's Zona Norte is adjacent to the tourist zone in the Zona Centro, to the north, and just south of the border. This zone is primarily residential and also includes the local red light district. Prostitution is legal in this zone and very visible.
A police station in the middle of the red light district and the presence of numerous police on foot make the area reasonably safe, though if you wander into one of the many secluded pedestrian alleys you might never wander out again. Acting touristy in this zone will attract predators.
From San Diego, cross the San Ysidro border, and walk toward the arch: The arch is located at Revolucion and First Street, officially known as Calle Artículo 123. Keep walking west toward Constitucion, and you will find yourself in the Zona Norte. Stay very alert to anyone following you on this route as many muggings occur on First Street.
Turn right (north) on Constitucion, and the next street (not the alley to your left) will be Calle Coahuila, where most of the major attractions of the neighborhood can be found. The alley is Callejon Coahuila and is where most of the street prostitutes are. They are referred to locally as Paraditas. The vast majority of the paraditas are recent arrivals from the southeastern states of Puebla and Veracruz, with a few from Cuba and California. Many are single mothers who used to be factory workers.
Alternately, take a taxi, which is especially recommended if you are unfamiliar with the area or are traveling after dark.
The primary purpose of most visits to the Zona Norte involves prostitution. The two primary establishments for this are:
- Adelita Bar - On the south side of Calle Coahuila between the streets Constitucion and Niños Heroes.
- Hong Kong Bar - On the south side of Calle Coahuila, several doors west of Adelita Bar. Newly remodeled, and probably closest in style to an "American style" strip club in the Zona Norte.
Both clubs have a significant number of "available" women working there who are available for companionship and conversation if you purchase them a drink -- at approximately twice the price of a normal drink, and for which they receive a commission from the bar. It is generally not difficult to find English-speaking ladies and waiters at these clubs.
Other bars of note include:
- Tropical Bar, Las Chavelas on Calle Coahuila.
- La Valentina, La Carrata on Callejon Coahuila.
- Malquerida at the corner of Constitucion and Callejon Coahuila. Malquerida has a live band playing rock music four nights a week. It is best experienced in the wee hours of 2:30am - 7am.
- Play Boy, half a block south of Coahuila on Constitucion.
These bars all also have "drink companions" (known as ficheras in Spanish) available, but they are much less likely to speak English than those at the major bars in this neighborhood. Some waiters may not speak much English beyond what they need to take drink orders.
Many of the bars also have a dance floor available (often the stage, when no exotic dance show is in progress) where the women will dance with customers for a small tip.
Be cautious and aware while in the Zona Norte, much as you would in a not-so-nice area of any major city. Zona Norte is full of people who will take advantage of tourists who appear to be unfamiliar with the area. Often (but not always), Mexicans who speak good English in this area may be criminals or other undesireables who have been deported from the United States.
In particular, police in Zona Norte will target tourists and accuse them of crimes in order to extort "fines" from them. Some say you should be polite but firm in insisting that they take you to see a judge, which is the only legal way they can take you to jail. Others say that it is easier to just pay the "fine" and not waste time negotiating with the police. The decision as to whether to politely refuse or simply pay the "fine" must be made individually based on each person's comfort level.
Be careful when speaking to people in the Zona Norte, as police may accuse you of attempting to buy drugs if you are seen talking with known drug dealers, even if you simply told the person you are not interested in buying any.
Zona Norte is generally not a location for shopping other than food, drink, drugs and "companionship". One exception is Saturdays, when there is a street market stretching four blocks on Avenida Mutualismo between Avenida Articulo 123 and Avenida Internacional. This street market has stalls selling all manner of foods, household goods, CDs, movies, tools, clothing, and more.
DO NOT try to buy drugs in the Zona Norte. It is an area well known for street drug sales and the local police know most of the dealers. You WILL be busted if you attempt to buy drugs here. Keep in mind that drug offenses are Federal offenses in Mexico and are punished by very lengthy prison sentences. There is no bail for drug offenses, so you will go to prison while awaiting trial, which usually takes one to three years!
Dining in Zona Norte is not generally considered high class. There are numerous small eateries along Calle Coahuila, and food carts which will serve street tacos and similar food on Calle Coahuila at the corners of Constitucion and Niños Heroes. Be cautious when eating from the food carts; however, a reasonable rule of thumb is that a cart that is busy, especially with native consumers, is generally more safe. Locals know where the good food is.
Alternatively, walk a couple of blocks south from Coahuila along Constitucion, and you'll find a street market flanked by a large selection of restaurants, including McDonald's.
- 1 La Perla, Callejón Coahuila 7986 (Corner of Calle Coahuila and Niños Heroes), ☏ . Mainly seafood, with live music some nights. .
- 2 Sonoras Grill, Callejón Coahuila 8070 (Across the street from Adelita Bar), ☏ . Grilled meats in various forms, including tacos, torta sandwiches, quesadillas, and traditional steaks. Most meals include salad bar.
There is no shortage of places to drink in the Zona Norte. Most bars have drink specials (two-for-one is typical) until the evening hours, to generate more business.
- Bar Majestic, east end of Callejon Coahulia is a bar without working girls and has a great jukebox.
There are many very cheap hotels in the Zona Norte, with rooms for US$15-25 a night not unheard of, though these places are as seedy as you would expect. Do not assume anything left in your room will be there when you return. Bringing your own bedsheets is probably a wise move.
- Cascadas, Cjon Coahuila 258 (entrances both on Calle Coahuila and Callejon Coahuila (the alley behind), both near the corner with Avenida Niños Heroes). The major hotel in the centre of the Zona Norte, it has rooms that are relatively safe and clean, and many of the women who work in the Zona Norte rent rooms here by the week or by the month.
- Rizo de Oro, Coahuila 1804 (entrance on Calle Coahuila next to the Tropical bar), ☏ . Similar to Cascadas but a bit cheaper.
- Hotel Hacienda de Santiago, Calle Coahuila #8168 (at the corner of Calle Coahuila and Avenida Revolucion), ☏ . Rooms are 1980s "Holiday Inn" quality and quite comfortable for the area, no heat or a/c in rooms. US$30-40.
- Plaza de Oro Hotel, Benito Juarez 1650 (Revolucion Avenue, 1 block below the Arch), ☏ . Safe and clean US$34/night.
- 1 Hotel Acapulco, Calle Aguacaliente 1923 (manzana 003) (South side of Coahuila between Ave Revolucion and Ave Constitucion). Can sleep (if possible with all the noise from Ave Coahuila) or play cards with the desk clerk (US$10 a hand). US$15-20.
Petty crimes such as muggings and pickpocketing can happen in Zona Norte, even during the day, so it is best if you are with someone else. And while drug violence is often not targeted at tourists, it is still better to be alert. You may unknowingly walk into the cross-fire of rival drug cartels, but this is less likely in Zona Norte than in other, seedier parts of town. Because of significant police presence, Zona Norte can actually be a safer part of town than others, with respect to violent crime, as long as you stay on the major thoroughfares and avoid the alleyways north of Calle Coahuila.
At night, however, tourists are highly discouraged from venturing off of Calle Coahuila and the Coahuila Alley to other parts of the neighborhood. Much of this area is very deserted at night, and you can be an easy target for criminals or police corruption.
One good rule of thumb is, if you are a man, to try to avoid direct eye contact with a local tough guy or young man. By "letting" him stare you down by averting your gaze you are less likely to bring about some macho confrontation, especially if the other fellow is drunk. If you are there to have fun, focus on the fun, and avoid proving your manhood to some local.
Always carry some ID with you (such as a driver's license) because the police will ask you for it if they stop and search you.
Stay in the well-populated areas between Coahuila and Articulo 123, generally between Ninos Heroes and Constitucion; wandering in other areas of Zona Norte will cause you unwanted attention by local rateros and policia.