The San Diego Trolley first carried passengers in 1981. Now more than 83,000 people a day ride it to work, school and home--and sometimes to an art museum, historic sites and a nature center, as we planned to do.
We stashed our bags in our sixth-floor room. From a window, we saw red trolley cars rolling. But it was Friday night, the end of a busy week, and all we wanted was a good night's dreams.
The next morning, we found the Civic Center station at C Street and 3Third Avenue, about two blocks from the hotel. Instructions on a vending machine told us how to buy tickets. Round-trip fares range from $2 to $5, but we snapped up two-day, unlimited-ride Day Tripper passes for $8 each.
With two lines running trolleys every 15 minutes, the system is easy to navigate; the Blue Line goes from Mission San Diego de Alcalá to the Mexico border, and the Orange Line from downtown to Santee. Our weekend would be Blue Line all the way.
First stop: Bayfront/E Street. Destination: the Chula Vista Nature Center. The center runs a free shuttle from the station to the weathered wood building rising from Sweetwater Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
The center stands on Gunpowder Point, once home to the largest kelp processing plant in Southern California. Kelp, shipped into San Diego Bay by barge, supplied two key ingredients for making explosive powder during World War I, the factory's heyday.
NLittleothing remains of the vast network of bridges, pipes and tanks. The area's animals and plants are slowly reclaiming their old ground, as the center shows.
Just inside the door, a purple aquarium filled with pulsating parachutes--moon jellies jellyfish--welcomes visitors with a hint of visual treats to come.
Some exhibits bring visitors close to the action. "Look at this!" Marc said, nearly bumping his head in a short, cave-like hole beneath a fish tank. The view up revealed the underside of a bat ray, from a snail's perspective.
Visitors can get even closer outdoors. A bird observation platform provides a panorama of the marsh--snowy egrets, hummingbirds, waving grasses--all the way to the bay. The marsh is home to about 215 bird species. Exhibits resembling batting cages house burrowing owls and dappled brown marsh birds called clapper rails.
The best exam room is the petting pool, a cement pond of leopard sharks and bat rays. Sharks the size of cocker spaniels and rays about as big as house cats cruise through the water as eager fingers reach down to touch them. Here's a firsthand report: Rays feel slick; sharks, like sandpaper.
The shuttle delivered us back to the trolley station for a 15-minute ride to the San Ysidro station at East Beyer and East San Ysidro boulevards, steps from the U.S-Mexico border.
Tijuana has acquired kiosks with street maps since our last visit, making it much easier to navigate. It has lost none of its mixture of tacky doodads for sale, prescription medicine dispensaries, dozens of dentists and sincere glimpses of heritage.
Does anyone really buy these glass flowers, ceramic monkeys on miniature surfboards, lucha libre-style wrestling masks and capes, black-velvet paintings of '85 Buick Regals? We wound our way among the vendors and crossed over the Tijuana River to a street that seems made for American walkers and gawkers, Avenida Revolución.
Carlos Santana's "Supernatural" blasted from storefronts. Small boys, their fingers dancing over accordion keys, shouted out ballads. Sad-eyed girls sold chewing gum for a quarter. And everywhere waiters fished for passersby.
We succumbed, following one of the fishermen upstairs to a restaurant, Señor Maguey. From our table on the balcony, we watched people schooling up and down the sidewalks.
My sampler plate--taquito, quesadilla, tostada and chimichanga--was unremarkable, but Marc's "pollo Mex bowl" was to die for. An oversize lava bowl held a chicken stew with mild red chile sauce. The bowl was garnished with sliced avocado, two droopy rectangles of soft cheese, several slices of cactus, a whole green onion and a radish rose, with fresh, hot tortillas on the side.
We waddled back across the bridge to Viva Tijuana Plaza. While Marc bargained for a blanket, I checked out drummers and dancers in the middle of the square . The dancers' costumes glittered in the golden afternoon, and the pheasant feathers in their headdresses fluttered. The dance steps, they said, were Aztec.