Bevis's Travels

Tecate Mexico

During my 1999 trip to California it had occurred to me that next time I could possibly go through into Mexico for a while. It would have to be on foot, because rental cars cannot be taken into Mexico. The place most people go through is Tihuana, which is a coastal tourist resort, but I heard that there were massive queues to get back into the USA, and also it is probably not very typical of Mexico. It seemed better to try somewhere more inland, and Tecate, about 40 miles from the coast came to mind.

In 2005 I was driving to Los Angeles from Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon via Lake Havasu, Yuma and San Diego, which would take me along the Mexican border. By then we had had 9/11, and entry to the USA had become more difficult, so I thought there might be complications in going through into Mexico, or at any rate, in coming back.

From my night stop in Yuma I took Interstate 8, the freeway running westwards parallel to the border, and after a few miles was surprised to see an area of Sahara type sand dunes, which are unusual in the American desert. These are the Algodones Dunes, the largest area of dunes of that type in the USA.. After about 15 miles I branched off on to highway 98, a single carriageway road much closer to the border, running through agricultural land around Mexicali and then the Yuha Desert until it rejoins the freeway. Shortly afterwards the road climbs steeply into the mountains for several miles, with telephones and supplies of radiator water every half mile, so presumably this route has a reputation for causing vehicles to break down.

After some distance I branched off to the left again onto highway 94, which runs to within about 50 yards of the border in places. There is an ongoing problem with Mexicans trying to obtain illegal entry into the USA by crossing the desert or mountains, and a considerable number die of thirst or exposure in the process. The border just consists of a fence, and the road is heavily patrolled by Border Control officers in white 4x4s. On the Mexican side of the fence are blue flags every so often, marking the position of water containers.

The mountains in this area are very barren and hostile, some appearing to be just enormous heaps of large boulders which would be almost impossible to cross. In a place called Compo I stopped at a café for a snack. It was run by two blokes named Bill and Don or something like that, and I asked them if it was possible to go through into Tecate, which was a few miles down the road. They said there should be no problem, so I took the turn off to Tecate, and the road climbed steeply with bare rocks on either side until it opened out into an area with some warehouse-type buildings around. Ahead was a gantry over the road with a fancy sign and the word MEXICO in big brightly coloured letters. It looked more like the entrance to a fairground than a country. By now it had been raining hard for some time, and there was mud and water all around.

There were three car parks, all of which looked like breakers' yards, one of them being two inches deep in mud all over. I parked the car at the side of the road where there was 20min. waiting and went to scout around. In front of the gateway to Mexico was a Border Control Officer sitting in a jeep, watching to make sure that no Mexicans came out through the 'in' gate. The 'out' gate was in a different place about 200 yards away. I asked the officer if he thought I would have any problem in going into Mexico and he said I wouldn't have as long as I had a passport.

After another look at the car parks I chose what appeared to be the best one and was relieved to find a very pleasant young lady in the Portacabin, so it seemed likely that the wheels might still be on the car when I got back.

The pedestrian entrance into Mexico was through a large turnstile, on the other side of which was a man in uniform with a machine gun. The turnstile clanged behind me and he directed me into an office. I decided to follow his orders, and went into the office, which was like something out of a film. There were two corpulent men with black moustaches sitting at desks. I held out my passport and said I would like to go into Tecate.   One of them said "Why? What you want?"       "I just want to see what it is like".      "Why? Where you go? What you do?"   "I just want to look round Tecate"    "Just Tecate?"   "Yes".    "All right".   That was it. I was in Mexico.

Tecate is an extraordinary place. If you look at Google maps you will see that the northern boundary of the town runs along the top of the mountains in a dead straight line which is the US/Mexico border, with almost nothing on the Californian side. Within a few yards you go from a bleak mountain top in California into the back streets of a Mexican town of 50,000 people, and it was very Mexican, somehow more so than I had expected.

 Not surprisingly, it was a downhill walk from the border to the town centre. The street led to the main square, which had a small circular pavilion surrounded with trees. There were few people about because it was still raining fairly hard. On the way I had crossed a number of busy streets with battered cars and beaten-up buses like old American school buses, belching out black smoke, a contrast from California a few miles away. The buildings in the square were quite tidy, but elsewhere there was quite a bit of graffiti and virtually nothing of architectural note. The smartest building was the ubiquitous McDonalds, which I managed to resist and went into another café for a cup of coffee. Fortunately they were happy to accept payment in dollars, because I had no Mexican money.

 It was mid-afternoon on a weekday, but there were bars everywhere occupied by men with black moustaches, which are de rigueur in that part of the world. With blue eyes and no moustache I felt like a very obvious gringo, the only one in town as far as I could see, and even if I had had time to grow a moustache it wouldn't be black. At one point four policemen went past in a VW Golf, and one of them glared at me in a manner to suggest that he would very much like to clap me behind bars if he could think of a reason.

 There were shops and business premises providing various services, but they were not the sort of places you could wander into and look around, especially with no knowledge of Spanish. In a lane off one of the main streets I found some stalls where people were sheltering under cover trying to sell cheap clothing and bric-a-brac to passers by, of which I seemed to be the only one, and I passed by.

 Tecate is probably best known elsewhere as a brand of beer, and the brewery is undoubtedly the largest business in the town. The fact that there were so many men in the bars was an indication that there is a high level of unemployment, which is why Mexicans are so desperate to get into the States. The area is also noted for corruption and large-scale drug dealing, and not long after my visit four policemen were found a few miles away with their heads cut off (I didn't do it).

 After a couple of hours in the rain I made my way to the US immigration office, which was in a street parallel to the one where I had come in. Totally contrary to everything I had heard, there was no queue and the two officers were sitting there with nothing to do. They examined my passport and waved me through. As I walked into the USA I had that same feeling of guilt that I got in the 1960s when returning to the West from East Berlin or Hungary - it had been so easy for me to do something that the people I was leaving behind were risking their lives to do.