MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. There was a time when spring break in Southern California often meant just one thing, T.J., Tijuana. Its bar-lined streets packed with students pounding shots, taking drunken photos on donkeys painted like zebras. You get the picture. By the mid-90s, cartel violence made that scene largely a thing of the past.
Today, Tijuana is safer and American tourists are starting to come back, as NPR's Shereen Marisol Meraji found out.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: More than a dozen Americans met up in front of a Mickey D's in San Ysidro, Calif., to follow an Ohio native, now Tijuana transplant, Derrik Chinn, across the border into Mexico. I'm from California and I'd never done this before. My mom's always talking about how dangerous it is.
DERRIK CHINN: Today is your first time? Awesome. This is going to be so great. I'm so happy that today, this will be your experience.
MERAJI: The group, most from San Diego, ranging from boomers to millennials were armed with cameras and smartphones. And our fearless guide, Derrik - what are you holding?
CHINN: I'm carrying 48 beers, 48 cold beers.
MERAJI: Carrying two plastic bags filled with Tecates, he leads us into TJ on foot and we breeze by the long line of people waiting to cross into the U.S. That's it? Nobody is going to pat us down?
CHINN: No passport check, no nothing
MERAJI: Once in Mexico, we climb aboard what looks like an old school bus parked by another McDonald's.
CHINN: We start off - we're going to start off some playas, out on the beach. But before we hit the road, who would like a beer or a tequila.
MERAJI: It's barely noon and we're drinking cheap beer, sipping tequila and dancing in our seats to cumbia en route to the beach. But this isn't your typical Tijuana party bus. Derrik, our guide, moved here seven years ago to learn Spanish and fell in love with the city at a time when Americans were too scared to visit.
So he started organizing little trips to entice his friends to come. He took them to the best taco stands, Mexican wrestling matches, concerts, things locals do. Friends of friends started showing up, and then complete strangers. And, after Derrik lost his job as a reporter in San Diego, he turned the hobby into a business and called it Turista Libre, free tourist.
CHINN: This is Gloria. (Unintelligible) better known as Glow (unintelligible), OK?
MERAJI: On this outing, we checked out street art with two Mexican painters, Gloria Muriel or Glow and Alonso Delgadillo, a.k.a. El Norteno. They have murals all over the city. Their art competes for space with graffiti and ads for Viagra on buildings downtown or precariously constructed on hillsides and beach fronts.
CHINN: OK, folks. Here we are at our first stop. This is Norteno's beach and he's going to talk a little bit about it and I'm going to translate as best as I can.
MERAJI: We're all standing on the boardwalk in Playas de Tijuana, the Pacific Ocean at our backs, staring up at a larger-than-life piece on a three-story apartment building. It's a man with a sombrero and a moustache, his young son perched atop his shoulders ready to splash into the water below.
ALONSO DELGADILLO: (Speaking foreign language)
MERAJI: Norteño said real life in Tijuana inspires his art, not drug violence and prostitution, but a father and son spending the day at the beach, a gardener taking pride in his plants. Glow's the other artist. Her signature is a woman's face, big expressive eyes, flowing hair, soft, ethereal and she says the people who live or work inside the buildings are grateful.
Like one woman whose home she painted alongside Norteno.
GLORIA MURIEL: She didn't even know so we got all day, painting, painting, painting and then we finished. She came in and she was like, oh, like crying, right?
MERAJI: Glow says she told her she should charge tourists who want to take pictures of the mural.
MURIEL: Make some money. Make some money 'cause they need it. They needed the money.
MERAJI: We crisscrossed the city for hours checking out their street art, chatting and laughing, with a stop for marlin and shrimp tacos. Another pit stop for IPAs from a local nanobrewery called and dinner at a restaurant recently voted the best in Tijuana and San Diego where we enjoyed wine from a Baja vineyard.
CHINN: OK. Everyone, thank you so much for coming today. Thank you.
MERAJI: This is definitely not the Tijuana my mom warned me about. Shereen Marisol Meraji, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.