I had wanted to explore this specific point on the southwestern border of the United States ever since I saw a brief video about surfers from both Mexico and the U.S. gathering there and joining one another out among the waves.
On a late-August Thursday, I drove down from Dana Point, California, to Border Field State Park, the southernmost part of San Diego, California, without knowing for sure whether I could proceed to the border because the park was listed as closed. I had read that you could hike in, however, and once I arrived, signs confirmed that the park was closed to vehicles but welcomed walkers. Google Maps estimated a 30-minute walk to the International Friendship Park, an area within the larger park, situated right near where the border fence marched into the ocean.
I set off under a fairly cloudless sky and a hot California sun, the scent of sagebrush in the air. Wildflowers intermittently lined the dirt road as I walked. A helicopter hung low in the sky nearby, though, and occasionally tall poles bore lights and surveillance cameras, reminding me that I wasn’t ambling through a typical U.S. state park.
I met the border before I met the ocean, as the road angled toward it, the fence looming ahead for some time before I reached it. The fence followed what looked like a relatively affluent Tijuana neighborhood, providing an arresting contrast to the stark, arid park I was walking through. Immediately before the imposing border fence, I found a separate fenced-off area marked as government property. There was a paved road running along the border. Then our towering fence. Then there was a gap, a true no-man’s land between countries. Then there was Mexico’s fence. It wouldn’t be easy for anyone to make their way through that thicket of barriers.
As I continued toward the sea, signs on the U.S. side warned would-be swimmers to stay out of the water due to sewage from the Tijuana side. Signs also warned that there were no lifeguards. There were rip currents. Deep holes. There were snakes. Rattlesnakes. Dogs were not allowed.
I arrived at the beach to see a trio of people on horseback approaching the border fence from a distance. I walked toward them, and we exchanged greetings as our paths crossed. Then I was completely alone. I could see no one on the United States side in any direction. As I approached the fence, however, I could see people through the fence’s massive poles. They peppered the beach on the Mexican side. I stood back to examine the fence.
It was an astonishing thing to see this fence lumber down the hills through so many miles of arid countryside, forging a line of division like a rusty knife only to suddenly disappear into the sea a short distance away from where I was standing. The fence wasn’t out there in the water. I could swim out and around it in moments with ease. It looked shallow enough that a person might even be able to walk out there and wade across the border.
I watched the waves crest. Let the water lap at my dusty shoes. I watched the birds wheel back and forth over the border with no regard for our human borders at all. Then I approached the fence. I was so close then, I could see people clearly through it.
“Hola!” I said to a couple of young guys.
“Hola!” they responded. We laughed. It was odd.
We were in different countries. I was on a desolate beach. They were on a lively suburban one.
Soon after, I was talking to another young guy on the other side. His English was perfect; he was an American. He said he lived in New York, too, and San Diego. He was a singer visiting Mexico, as I hoped to later that same day. I stood there talking to him and asked if I could take his photo.
“Sure,” he said, “though he’d probably like to interview you, too.” He pointed to an older man who raised an iPhone to video me.
And so I stood at the fence talking with a couple of representatives from Border Angels, a nonprofit organization “that advocates for human rights, humane immigration reform, and social justice with a special focus on issues related to the U.S.-Mexican border.” They also ventured into the desert to place water and supplies along migrant trails. They explained to me how best to get to that same point on the beach on the Mexican side and suggested I walk across the border at the new PedWest entry point a few miles away. We were interrupted when a voice behind me told me I needed to move away from the fence. A Border Patrol agent in a white Chevy Tahoe had driven up on the sand behind me from out of sight. I hadn’t even heard him. He told me I was standing on government property and that I had to move anywhere north of the fenced-off space.
As the photos show, those government property signs and the smaller fence didn’t extend down to the beach, so it was easy to infer it would be OK to wander there. There was only one section of wall left there dividing nations, falling off into the sea — beckoning me to proceed. In fact, the trio on horseback had done just that moments before. I’m guessing Border Patrol generally ignores people crossing at that point unless they linger. In my case, I stood as close as you can get to talk directly to people through the fence, so from the agent’s perspective, arguably, we could have been passing anything between us.
I somewhat stupidly asked the agent if I could take his photo. He said no. No surprise there. I was standing on government ground, after all. It had been worth an ask anyway. He drove off but parked a short distance away, presumably so he could monitor my activity.
I took a few more photos of his parked vehicle, the fence, the beach, and the ocean beyond. I raised a hand to the group I had spoken with on the other side of the fence. We silently waved to one another.
Eventually, I left the beach and walked up the hill to the increasingly dilapidated facilities adjacent to the International Friendship Park. On Saturdays and Sundays between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., a little miracle appears there. Ten people at time can enter a small fenced-off area that exists between the two countries. Visitors from Mexico and the United States can mingle there briefly without visas before returning to their own sides.
Nothing can exchange hands between people, and no photos can be taken. Still, I would have loved to have seen that.
Despite the park’s stunning locale and the native beauty surrounding it, some of the facilities closest to the border were in disrepair and appeared to have been degrading for some time. I walked through the area with its crumbling concrete tables and benches, overgrown with weeds, taking a few photos as I went. The metaphors for the disintegrating relationship with our southern neighbors sprung to mind all too easily. There was a proposal to develop a larger park there that would allow residents from both countries to mingle and enjoy a common stretch of beach. So far as I could tell, this proposal has had little or no traction.
I sat for a moment in the shade. Then I turned and stared back toward the waves and that stunning point where the border fence faltered into the Pacific Ocean. It was hard to pull myself away, but only half of my little adventure was complete.
I hiked back to my car. Then I drove almost six miles to the new PedWest facility so I could walk across the border into Mexico.
I was surprised how quickly and easily I was able to walk into Mexico. Open for just over two years, the PedWest entry was clean and modern. It was even attractive. Before crossing the border, I simply had to complete a short form. My bag was scanned, but I was not. Upon returning, I just showed my passport and answered a single question: “What are you returning with?” There were no other questions and little or no line. I’m sure that part of the experience varies according to when you cross, but late on a Thursday afternoon, I walked right up to the customs officer and was granted entry within moments back into the United States.
In a way, it was encouraging to see this new, relatively efficient way to traverse between our two countries on foot, enabling our citizens to intermingle so easily. Of course, a passport was required and people entering the United States as Mexican citizens probably have a longer wait even with a passport. I’m not sure.
While people are meant to keep a strict distance from the border fence on the United States side, on the Tijuana side, there was no such restriction.
Outside, after a brief walk around the immediate area, I caught a cab on the street, asking the driver how much it’d cost to take me to the Malecon de Playas de Tijuana. He said $25. I told him I knew I could get an Uber for $5, and we eventually settled on $15. I was fine with that, considering it to be the safest, easiest, and quickest way for me to get there.
We drove through the city but quickly set upon Via Internacional and then Mexico’s Federal Highway 1D, which both run right along the border. We whipped along the highway, the fence snaking along beside us. I took a few quick snaps out the window.
The fence along the way was decorated with colorful murals and political commentary. The U.S. border fence beyond stood bare — functional and clinical. Mexico’s, by contrast, was alive.
Upon arriving, I ate a late lunch overlooking both the sea and the border. Carnitas, yellow rice, and fries. Tortillas. A couple of roasted jalapeños. A cheap beer. A lady sat solo at the table beside me, gazing out across the ocean. We spotted a whale surfacing out in the waves, we think. Then I ventured out into the heat and walked straight down Avenida del Pacifico to meet the border again.
If the U.S. side of the border fence bore a stark, low monochromatic beauty, the vivid, lively colorful Tijuana side stunned by comparison. Not nearly as remote as its U.S. counterpart, the Mexican side of the border featured a commercial area with restaurants and shops and a populated beach with sunbathers and people playing in the waves — perhaps despite warnings from a Mexican environmental agency about sewage-contaminated water in the past. The giant Monumental Plaza de Toros loomed over the area as did the elegant white lighthouse, or El Faro, next door.
The signs at the beach’s perimeter read differently, too: No fires, pick up your dog’s crap, no glass containers, no cars on the beach, throw away your trash. That was it. No sewage warnings.
At first, I walked along the Mexican fence and through the neat little park with its sculptures. Art and murals covered the fence there. They paid tribute to Mexican veterans. They were not too friendly toward Donald Trump and his immigration policies.
On the beach, I photographed the remaining stretch of fence between our countries again. And then I surveyed the beach’s many inhabitants: bathers, groups of chatting people, men with instruments strolling the beach and playing songs for tips, lovers both gay and straight. I stopped to photograph some happy, playful young men who posed eagerly, pantomiming boxing. One of them followed me on Instagram. I later sent him all the photos I took of him and his friends.
While people are meant to keep a strict distance from the border fence on the United States side, on the Tijuana side, there was no such restriction. You could walk straight up to the fence. You could hang out there. You could talk through it. You could shake a fellow human being’s hand.
I stopped at the fence for moment. At some point, I was probably a foot away from where I’d stood in the U.S. earlier. I could see the Border Patrol vehicle stationed on the other side, but the agent had no jurisdiction over me on the Mexico part of the beach. The people I’d seen there earlier were gone, of course, but on the closest corner to the beach, I did spot the offices for the Border Angels and a man working outside the building.
I strolled a ways down the beach, aware of the bright, white sun striking my skin. Then I took to the street above the beach again. I bought a Mexican Coke. I found a T-shirt shop and bought a couple of Tijuana T-shirts (one bearing a decorated Mexican bus, the other a Día de Muerto/Storm Trooper mashup), a shot glass, and a mug. Touristy stuff.
Then I walked back down Avenida del Pacifico, taking a few street photos until I found a cab at the taxi stand. The driver asked for $15.
Reaching the border station neighborhood again, I felt a familiar tug inside me, a feeling I have often had while traveling. I could easily cross back into the United States, but I wasn’t ready to leave. Instead, I wandered the immediate neighborhood. I stumbled across the office for a small organization devoted to publicizing the plight of U.S. military veterans who have been deported from the United States. I spoke with a couple of the vets there. I’ll write about them soon.
I found the Mexican fence again soon enough, where it appeared suddenly, like a theatrical backdrop, immediately behind quiet suburban homes. I photographed its murals again, the street art nearby, and a local dog. I dropped into a tidy little coffee shop and enjoyed a cold brew and purchased a glass with “Great Coffee” printed on it in thick black script.
Finally, I dawdled back toward the crossing station. Though hot, dusty, tired, and hungry, I was still reluctant to leave. I reached the towering white border crossing facility again, Puerto Fronterizo El Chaparral, where our countries’ citizens were intermingling on the sidewalks.
Soon after, I was walking back through the long corridor between our two countries, through the passport station, through the glass doors, and back into the hands of America.