Is Tijuana safe? You asked so we answered. Cue this JTG guide to the sprawling Mexican-US border city. Home to a whopping 2.1 million people when you count the greater metro area, the town is hailed as the Gateway to Mexico for its location on the cusp of southern California and the sun-kissed region of the Baja California.
Thousands upon thousands of people pass through the place every day. In fact, it’s one of the busiest border crossings on planet Earth, counting 50 million travelers every year. Some come en route to the beaches of Cabo further south. Others are just on the hunt for Mexican wares and spicy food. And then there are the people starting epic cross-Mexican adventures on the legendary Pan-American Highway, which begins right here.
Whatever your reason for putting Tijuana on your itinerary, this guide to how safe it is really should be essential reading. The city is pretty infamous as one of the most dangerous in the Americas, it has some startling crime stats, and there are a few things that every traveler should know before they hop over from the beaches of SoCal. Let’s begin…
Is Tijuana safe? A general overview
Let’s not beat around the bush – Tijuana isn’t the safest city on the planet. In fact, it’s often listed among the most dangerous. The stats paint a pretty brutal picture: A 2021 murder rate of 138 per 100,000 of the population (officially the worst in the world); increasing homicide rates year on year since 2020; over 300 incidents of armed robberies per month; in excess of 7,000 car thefts per annum. We could go on and on.
Accordingly, travel stat aggregator Numbeo rates Tijuana as “very high” for overall levels of crime. Risks of being mugged or robbed, of being a victim of violent crime, of witnessing drug-related crimes, and of having things stolen are all rated as “high”. Basically, it’s not a great picture whatever way you look at it.
However, it’s important to balance things out. Tijuana is the busiest urban border crossing in the world. 50 million people come and go every 365 days. That’s a huge number, and most trips go smoothly and without any hitch. On top of that, studies show that most of the violent crimes in Tijuana are centered on certain neighborhoods and areas, and the vast majority of victims are cartel members, not tourists.
Cartel violence in Tijuana
Drugs are the number one cause of crime in Tijuana. That’s hardly a secret. Anyone who’s ever seen Netflix’s Narcos should know that this city is a flashpoint for trafficking routes between Mexico and South America and the US to the north. Said routes are highly prized for the revenue that they can bring in, leading to long running and bloody contests to secure them.
Things really kicked off between 1990 and 2010, when Tijuana rose to become one of the most violent cities on the globe. That dubious honor has never really gone away (it was rated the same as recently in 2021!) but the nature of the violence does seem to have changed.
While once most of the homicides were down to ferocious turf wars between rival cartels looking to gain control of the cocaine routes, now it’s more due to smaller neighborhood gangs fighting over specific parts of Tijuana itself. That means the drug violence has become much easier for the casual traveler to avoid, since it mainly occurs outside of the main center and away from the mainstay attractions.
That said, there’s been a noticeable uptick in violence on the streets here in recent years. That’s led lots of experts to speculate that it’s because of a revival in cartel-on-cartel violence between the Sinaloa clan and the Nueva Generacion Jalisco group, and the worry is that this could see a return to the sort of city-wide violence witnessed in past eras.
Scams and petty crime in Tijuana
By far the biggest risk for travelers in Tijuana is petty crime, including classic travel scams. The most common of these in this Mexican city is overcharging. It’s a regular trick of taxi drivers, who can up the cost of even short trips to astronomical levels.
As a guide, you should pay around $5-7 for a taxi from the border to the Centro or Zona Rio areas (the parts where most travelers stay). Generally speaking, the white taxis are better regulated. Always agree a price before you get in or insist that the driver uses the meter.
There are a number of other scams that explicitly target tourists in Tijuana:
- Giving the wrong change – If you buy a taco for 100 MXN and hand over 500 MXN note, it’s basic math that you get 400 back. It’s not always that simple in Tijuana, where some shopkeepers and restauranters will try to skim a bit off in the process. Just check your change and all should be well.
- Someone asking for help in the street – One way that potential scammers try to endear themselves to travelers is by approaching them in the street to ask for help or directions. If this happens, just ignore them and move on. We know that sounds impolite, but it’s better to risk being rude than to have your pockets picked or worse!
- Police corruption – This is an historic problem in Tijuana. Mainly a problem for people driving across from the US, the most common incidence is when a traffic cop pulls you over and asks for a “payment”.
Is Tijuana, Mexico, safe for solo female travelers?
Solo female travelers have to deal with all the usual risks in Tijuana and a few more on top.
Yep, there’s a heightened risk of being victim of violent crime and sex-related crime when you go it alone as a lady in these parts. That’s the same pretty much anywhere on the planet, but, given the high levels of crime generally in this particular border city, it’s certainly something worth considering when you decide to cross into Tijuana.
The best thing you can do is to ditch the plan to go solo altogether. Try to buddy up with another traveler so that you can keep each other company as you explore. If you do decide to travel on your own as a female, always stick to the most touristy areas of the town (the Zona Centro), never stray into the red-light district (the Zona Norte), and never go out after dark.
Tips for staying safe in Tijuana
Given that Tijuana isn’t the safest city on the globe, it’s always a good idea to keep your wits about you and get to grips with a few top ways to stay out of trouble. We’ve listed seven of our best pointers below…
- Don’t go out at night – It’s as simple as that. Stats show that most of the violent crimes and homicides in Tijuana take place after the sun has set. A day trip in from California is okay, so long as you’re back over in the US by evening. Same goes if you’re staying in Tijuana – just be sure to be back at the hotel before it’s dark out.
- Steer clear of the most dangerous areas – This is super important. Some parts of Tijuana are simply not for tourists. Do not even be tempted to stray to them. The main places to avoid are generally the eastern districts of Sanchez Taboada and Camino Verde, along with neighboring parts of the city. You should also take special precautions in the red-light district of Zona Norte.
- Travel in a group – One of the best ways that you can reduce risk, not just in Tijuana but pretty much anywhere, is to travel as part of a group. Potential thieves, muggers, and scammers are always put off by numbers, whereas solo travelers don’t have anywhere to turn to for support if things do happen to go south (no pun intended!).
- Don’t carry too much cash or flash any valuables – Strutting into Centro Tijuana with a Rolex watch on one arm and a $2,000 Gucci handbag on the other is like making yourself an advert to the city’s robbers. This isn’t Geneva. The more subtle and casual you can make your appearance, the better.
- Check reviews for hotels before you book – The internet has worked wonders when it comes to vetting out bad or scammy hotels. We use Booking.com because it’s super popular and hotels there are well reviewed, sometimes by thousands of other travelers.
- Never accept offers of drugs – Tijuana is steeped in drugs. In fact, some experts believe the main cause of violence here is warring street gangs vying for control of selling spots. Avoid this scene entirely. If you’re asked, a polite but stern no and move on is the best you can do.
- Always settle on a price beforehand – Sadly, being a traveler – especially a Gringo! – in Tijuana is an invite for some scammers to try to overcharge. The best way around this is to always agree a price before you buy something (taxi services, most notably) and to make sure prices are listed clearly on menus etc.
Is Tijuana safe? A conclusion
Is Tijuana safe? Let’s cut to the chase: This border town hasn’t been rated as the most violent city on the planet in 2021 for nada. Nope, there are clear and persistent dangers here that all travelers face when they cross the border.
However, the good news is that most of that happens in certain neighborhoods, most of which are far away from the tourist zone, and are generally limited to the cartels, rarely spilling over to effect travelers.
There are some key things you can do to reduce your risk of getting caught up in the dangers of Tijuana, too. You can travel as part of a group, only stay in the well-visited parts of the city, choose accredited hotels, and avoid going out at night.