Updated March 9, 2017. El Vergel is now Partially open so we are re-running our post. Why? Because it’s still fun to watch Ed slip and fly like a pro (not really, he is the model for the wrong way). Even if you’re not planning to go to a Mexican waterpark you don’t want to miss that video. Heck, even play it with the sound on and listen for the audible groan as he launches into the air. You’ll be glad you did. And if you do make it to El Vergel, it just might be the best 150 peso ($10) of fun you’ll ever have…
Last week, we compared rocks to roller coasters and concluded that there is more to adventure than adrenaline. This week, we went across the border to experience a waterpark in Mexico. We found an adventure complete with team building, culture, personal responsibility and, oh yes, adrenaline.
Turista Libre Tours
We love Turista Libre and its founder, Derrik Chinn. He puts on a fabulous tour that is free from all the obvious cliches of tours. His Tijuana Waterpark Tour is no exception. You could see the crew gathering in the San Ysidro plaza. They were all caucasian twenty-somethings, but what really set them apart was that they were carrying towels. We compared notes and expectations and instantly bonded.
When the waiver / sign up form circulated, my suspicions were confirmed. Jenn and I were ten years older than anybody else here. This was our third tour and each one had a different feel. The Lucha Libre Tour and Tijuana Waterpark tour had this young, hip crowd. We were about the median age for the Taco Tour. I wouldn’t let age hold you back. If it sounds fun – do it.
Guns Out, Fun’s Out
We crossed the border on foot and walked up to the waiting busses. Inside were water guns, jello shots, beer and a great soundtrack to start the day. Soon the bus was rocking with a full fledge, front seat vs back seat water fight. Before we knew it, we were at El Vergel – Tijuana’s premier water park. If you believe the website, it’s Southern California’s biggest and most exciting water park. I don’t know about the size, but the excitement is there to be found.
Before we entered the park, Derrik gave us the safety speech. It went something like – these slides are old and re-assembled here (something about Ikea furniture never being the same after a move) so use your best judgment with safety and drinking. Then Mexican laws will not allow you to sue so really be responsible for yourself. Then he closed with be safe and have fun. With that, we were set free in Tijuana’s water world.
El Vergel Overview
There were many decent water slides and some downright scary ones. Our first two rides were The Medusa and the Crazy Roller. The Medusa is a modified burlap bag ride that now has water added. As a result, you get going fast enough to catch air on the first hump. The Crazy Roller was straight out of the TV show Wipeout. It’s that rolling wheel you see people try and cross. They didn’t have the extra cushions to bounce of off but the water was only like 2’ deep so landings were still tricky.
Two rides in, two minor injuries. We watched people swing of the Tarzan swing and fly over their friends in the pool. There were numerous stories of people needing stitches after getting banged up in tube slides. Like most urban legends they are caveated with “my friend saw somebody” or “I heard this happened”. I found the slides fun but Jenn banged her head on her first run. Jenn really likes going with a tube between her and the plastic. There was one ride like this at the park but no tubes were available so Jenn didn’t ride much. She still enjoyed the scene and her day. (pro tip, go early to rent a tube)
Slip and Fly
Slip and cry. Fly and Die. I heard them all that day. After two minor injuries on the first two rides, my buddy, Tyler, and I decided we should do the big attraction before we got too hurt. Smart right? The lines all throughout the park were minimal. We never waited more than 10 minutes for anything. That means I was on top of the Slip and Fly before my half life of fear kicked in. Good thing too, because it was terrifying.
The ride operator spoke good enough English to explain you want to lean back when you launch into the air so you land nicely. Turns out I suck at that. I kept trying but it wasn’t pretty. I could hear the crowd’s audible groans as I was sailing through the air. At the top of the slide, I was thinking about form. As I was hitting the water, I was only thinking one thing. I need to start swimming, no matter what, so the lifeguard will not jump in after me. To my credit – four rides and no rescues.
The Right Way
The Wrong Way
The Mexican Waterpark Scene
El Vergel was built in 1964 by a Tijuana native, Lucio Salazar Gonzalez to be a place for families to gather. It is the same way today. You could bring your own food and grill there or eat some really fantastic, local street food. The Cubano Tortas with carne asada, chorizo, ham, and eggs are some of the best in the city. You can’t bring in your own beer but it’s available for under 1.50 a can as well as yummy and generous pina colada, fresh coconuts and frappes. There was a DJ spinning with a decent sound system and a festive atmosphere all around.
The American theme parks business model seems to bring people in once a year and extract as much money as possible from them. El Vergel was true to its roots as a family gathering place. They wanted local families to come all throughout the summer and just hang out. Its pricing structure and vibe definitely supported that. We enjoyed hanging out with our new friends from the tour between rides, eating tortas, sharing beers and life stories in Senor Gonzalez’s park.
The Original Caesar Salad
We asked Derrik for a dinner recommendation in TJ and he recommended Caesar’s which was just around the corner. During prohibition, TJ was a hopping place as Californians flocked south to enjoy their liquor. Many restaurants and attractions sprung up along Avenida Revolution to capitalize on this market.
Perhaps the most renowned was opened by Caesar Cardini, who was Italian as his name implies. He is credited with creating the salad that bears his name and his namesake restaurant continues in Tijuana to this day. (Click HERE for their version of the original Caesar’s salad recipe) They offer some more European style dishes alongside upscale Mexican cuisine. Besides, one could argue that a salad born in Mexico is Mexican Food. We certainly claim frankfurters (hot dogs) as American Food despite the name (and a very similar sausage) coming from a town in Germany.
Before our trip, we had an opportunity to share gelato with some visitors to San Diego. They were surprised that we were willing to cross the border to Mexico, especially Tijuana. Isn’t Tijuana pretty sketchy? Is it even safe they asked? We talked up Turista Libre and the general movement towards gentrification in Tijuana. We said it was growing while keeping its authentic south of the border vibe. We pondered this conversation again after we left our tour and walked to dinner at night, alone, without the comfort and security of our group and leader. From our sidewalk table at Caesars, we watched locals heading out to enjoy their Saturday night, teens dangling out of limos while celebrating their Quinceaneras, and children peddling their bikes along the sidewalks. We knew then that the best part of the day was exploring a foreign land.
As soon as we crossed that border, things were different. It is in these differences that you can really find yourself. We got to see a section of Mexico that was really made for Mexicans. If you Google Mexican Waterparks, you’ll see big dollar offerings along the Mexican Riveria that were built for Americans. They look cool but seem to lack authenticity. Tijuana is what it is. It’s a relatively affluent, metropolis where people live, work and play. If you get a chance to go to Tijuana, remember that it isn’t as synthesized as many mainstream vacation destinations. You’ll see a real city and real people enjoying life. Isn’t that the difference between being a traveler or simply a tourist?