Whether you end up loving it or hating it, Northwestern Baja makes a vivid first impression.
As a dynamic border zone between Mexico and the United States, the region encompassing Tijuana , Rosarito , and Tecate  has a complex, multicultural identity shaped by rapid economic growth, immigration, and the harsh reality of sharing a border with a much wealthier country.
The change in scenery as you cross from Alta to Baja California is shocking and depressing. The lush green lawns and newly paved streets of San Diego become dusty roads and shantytowns on the outskirts of Tijuana, with signs of industrial pollution all around. Downtown Tijuana has modern skyscrapers, glitzy shopping malls, and wealthy residential neighborhoods, but you have to walk or drive through the less attractive parts of the city to get to them.
As the gateway to Baja California, Tijuana marked its 121st birthday in July 2010. But the event was not the celebration it might have been a few years ago. This one-of-a-kind city once lured hundreds of thousands of visitors a day to cross the border and spend their dollars.
They came to shop, eat, and party. Some went home that day, others stayed the weekend, and a few simply passed through on their way to coastal attractions farther south. Caesar salad, Tecate beer, Nortec music, and trendsetting nightclubs all were part of the experience.
In recent years, headlines of gruesome narco-crimes have scared all but the hardiest gringos away; European and Mexican visitors have taken over the cafés and bars along Avenida Revolución. And the city is struggling to cope with the dramatic loss in tourist revenue.
Good things sometimes come out of adversity, however, and downtown Tijuana appears to be experiencing the beginnings of a transformation. Creative types are taking over empty buildings and turning them into new shops and eateries that cater to local residents. The result is a low-key and authentic community, as opposed to the hyped-up tourist scene that once prevailed.
Less than 80 kilometers east of the metropolis of Tijuana, laid-back Tecate is the oldest border town in Baja and maintains the feel of an authentic Mexican community, although it is growing at an alarming rate as people from southern Mexico move north to work in the surrounding factories.
South along the coast, beachside Rosarito has long been a favored getaway for San Diego and Los Angeles residents—especially surfers—except in March and April, when spring breakers from across the western United States come to town.
As Mexico’s drug war rages on, the news of murders, kidnappings, and military interventions continues to deter many would-be travelers from visiting the border region. Faced with extremely low demand, many outfitters have had to change or cancel longstanding trips to the region. Even as the global economy begins to recover, it’s a cycle that’s going to be difficult to reverse.
But for every traveler who has decided Northern Baja is too risky, there are others who are following through on their plans. And most of them are getting through the border region trouble-free. The violence is real, and it’s scary, but it’s not the whole story.