Tijuana's largest Dia de Muertos altar in Mercado Hidlago

Tijuana’s largest Day of the Dead altar in Mercado Hidlago

In Mexico remembering loved ones during Dia de Muertos, the Day of the Dead, is mixed with reverence and ritual. Sugar skulls, flowers, washing gravestones, and family meals are a few traditional aspects. I witnessed and learned, when the Turiste Libre group walked me into Tijuana, although it felt a bit like going to a party where you don’t know the host.

Derrik Chinn, founder of Turiste Libre, Day of the Dead, Tijuana

Derrik Chinn, founder of Turiste Libre, greeting us at the border.

Crossing the border

The founder of Turiste Libre, American born, Derrik Chinn, made everyone feel welcome from the moment we met in the Otay Mesa border plaza, just south of San Diego. He has been polishing the Tijuana tours for years.

The plaza was a maelstrom of action. People of all ilk bustled in and out of the money exchange kiosks and little stores, carrying bags, suitcases, and boxes. Customs officers and border police strolled into the government buildings and sauntered through the plaza at the end of their shifts.

Even with recent upgrades the walk through the revolving border gate hasn’t changed much over the years. Once on the other side, passports are checked and it’s an easy exit into Mexico. Uniformed taxi drivers waited for business at the first street but Derrik guided our group to a pair of decorated, white buses commandeered for the day.

Turiste Libre bus in Tijuana

Turiste Libre bus in Tijuana

Dia de Muertos face painting inside the Turiste Libre Bus

Dia de Muertos face painting inside the Turiste Libre Bus

Tequila shots offered on the Turiste Libre Bus.

Tequila shots offered on the Turiste Libre Bus.

Our itinerary was announced and we were offered fortifying Tequila shots before rumbling off into the Tijuana neighborhoods, far from the tourist ruckus along Avenue Revolucion.

Family gathers inside the Puerta Blanca Cemetery, Tijuana

Family gathers inside the Puerta Blanca Cemetery.

Puerta Blanca Cemetery

In Tijuana the annual Día de Muertos calls for a visit to Puerta Blanca, the oldest cemetery. It’s also the resting place of the unofficial, folk saint, Juan Soldado. His story is controversial but his memory is revered.

Juan Soldaldo altar, Tijuana

Juan Soldado altar, Tijuana

Puerta Blanca Cemetery, Tijuana

Puerta Blanca Cemetery, Tijuana

Grave washers, Tijuana

Grave washers, Tijuana

Relatives lounged at family grave sites. Teenagers scrambled between stones, earning a few pesos for washing away the dust from the past year. Too soon we headed out to the street and off to an adventure of another sort entirely.

Entrance to Mercado Hidalgo

Entering Mercado Hidalgo

Into the Mercado

Mercado Hidalgo is Tijuana’s oldest, open-air market and home of the largest Dia de Muertos altar in town. The bus slipped into the central parking lot of the dizzying marketplace. We had over an hour to wander, shop, sample and watch the Aztec dancers.

Inside Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Crowds inside Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Shopping in Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Shopping in Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Aztec Dancers inside Mercado Hidalgo

Aztec Dancers at the central altar

Ave Maria Chapel, Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Chapel of Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana

Inside the Hidalgo Mercado, Tijuana

Inside the Hidalgo Mercado, Tijuana

Tasting fried crickets in Mercado Hidalgo

I had to do it! Tasty, fried crickets in Mercado Hidalgo.

Lunch at El Taller

Shopping stirs the appetite and our last stop was El Taller, a Baja Med Cocina, for a communal meal of Mole Pizza and ‘mucha cerveza.’ The building was originally a screen-printing bodega but its cavernous space has been transformed into a comfortable, dining mecca. The pies, a far cry from the Italian based Mozzarella cheese and oregano style, were served on stands. The thin crust pizzas were piled with meat and a thick, spicy Mole that can only come from hours of tender cooking.

El Taller meal, Tijuana

El Taller meal, Tijuana

New friends were made during our full day of sight-seeing, story-telling, eating and drinking. If only I could say that crossing back into the U.S. was as quick and easy as entering Mexico, but that’s not the case. Too often it means standing in long lines before clearing customs. Lucky for me, I had applied for a SENTRI pass months earlier and the potential ordeal became a leisurely stroll back into the U.S.

Read more border and safety tips in my post about crossing into Mexico.

I’m so grateful to the Mexican people who let us gringos crash their party and it’s wonderful to see more visitors from around the world participate in Tijuana’s Day of the Dead.

If you go:

  • Find out more about Turiste Libre Tours
  • El Taller Baja Med – Much more on the menu than pizza!
  • Listen to my interview with Derrik Chinn on the Gathering Road Podcast
  • To get to Puerta Blanca, walk west out of downtown on First Street. The cemetery is in front of the Z Gas compound and closes at 4 p.m.

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