Last Thursday, my family and I traveled to San Diego for my stepson’s graduation from the Marines. It was a crazy, weekend-long trip, but we were happy to all be together for such an important and proud moment in our family’s life.

Since Santiago’s padrino and his family moved to that beautiful city last year, we were lucky enough to be able to stay with them. And, because they are Mexican and are used to crossing the border between San Diego and Tijuana on a regular basis, we figured this would be as good a time as any to accompany them. While I took Vanessa to Mexico City when she was 2 years old, our visit to Tijuana on Saturday was Santiago’s first time in Mexico.

At age 3, I know he didn’t really understand what was going on. But, at age 6, Vanessa surely did and she seemed to enjoy every minute of the day we spent there. From the fact that Spanish was spoken and displayed everywhere to the flavors, smells (good and bad) and sounds of Tijuana, Vanessa was enthralled.

I could write a whole lot about it, but I rather let the photos tell the story:

My daughter tasted tacos de barbacoa for the first time ever and immediately fell in love with the taste of borrego, so she proceeded to eat four of them!

We went to both Sanborns and Ghandi where I spent a small fortune getting the kids books in Spanish, including the Trabalenguas one you see in the photo to the left. I love trabalenguas! I also got some really pretty gold earrings for Vanessa and the board game ¿Adivina Quién? (Guess Who?), which I’ve been trying to get forever with no luck!

Our friends know I love anything that has chile and chamoy, so after having lunch, they took us to a place called El Enchiloso where I got the most delicious red apple wrapped in pasta de tamarindo con chile and accompanied with cacahuates japoneses, chaca-chaca, limes and chamoy. Just writing about it makes my mouth water!

Right next door to El Enchiloso, there was a small cafe where they served delicious crepas de cajeta. Vanessa and Santiago wasted no time making friends with Isabela, the daughter of one of the employees. She happened to be in first grade, just like Vanessa, and they played pirates as well as las escondidillas. I loved that my children feel so comfortable speaking Spanish that they’ve absolutely no problems making friends in a Spanish-speaking country.

Right before we were about to get in line to cross the border and go back to San Diego, I remembered I hadn’t had a chance to stock up on the Mexican candy I love and so my comadre was nice enough to stop at a dulcería inside the Mercado Hidalgo so I could get my fill. Both Vanessa and Santiago were fascinated by the size and the colors of the piñatas — and so was I!

And then, we had to make the dreaded line back into the United States. We left Tijuana around 7 p.m. and even though we had a medical pass, it still took us almost two hours to get back. My husband was not too thrilled, but Vanessa and I had a blast taking it all in. It’s not the first time I do it, but it’s the first time I do it with my kids. I wish I’d been able to take some video, but it was dark and I wasn’t really prepared.

If you’ve never crossed the Tijuana-San Diego border, all I can say is that it’s an experience like no other. While you wait, you can get anything from freshly-made hot churros — like the ones Vanessa is devouring in the picture above — to any antibiotic your heart desires (without prescription, of course!). And while a vendor peddles a 3-foot crucifix with his right hand, he also wants you to buy the huge Hello Kitty decorative doll he’s holding in his left hand. The smells, the sounds, the people, the colors, all of it was enough to keep Vanessa (Santiago slept through most of our wait) entertained during our long wait back to San Diego.

I know a lot of people are scared of going to Tijuana — and with good reason. I’ve either been very lucky and/or smart enough to go with people who know their way around this border city, which has been plagued by violence for way too long. It might not be the prettiest place in Mexico, but I’m glad my kids got to experience it.

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