28 June 2011

Turista Libre Tijuana Waterpark | ¡El Vergel!


Waterslides that should probably require helmets. Wandering tambora bands. Ribs on the grill. 44 oz. beers rimmed with chile and chamoy. A Tarzan rope. Chacalones. Cholos. Chulas. Nacas. Doñas calientes. Lifeguards smoking poolside. Everyone says Disney World is the happiest place on Earth. But they’re wrong. Meet El Vergel, Baja California’s largest waterpark.

My life in Tijuana hit the three-year mark before I even knew the city was home to something as monumental as Baja California's largest waterpark. And I completely understand why. It's nearly impossible to find, hidden at the end of what appears to be the last dirt road down which you'll ever travel. Old tires and piles of sun-bleached trash scatter the path leading up to the park's entrance, parallel to the murky aguas negras of the Tijuana River. Even if you consider yourself the world's most worldly gringo, you can't help but wonder what you're getting yourself into.

Had you asked around town before heading down that dirt path, chances are you wouldn't have even made it this far. Though it's been in operation since 1964, El Vergel doesn't exactly boast a hygienic reputation among the majority of Tijuanenses. Horror stories of dirty diapers and tiburones (sharks, a more decent way of referring to turds) bobbing in the lazy river are common, and even the most pro-Tijuana locals consider a trip to El Vergel on par with snorkeling in the sewer. The mere mention of its name usually results in upturned noses and a communal "ew." That said, most would-be haters haven't been since they were 10.

Once upon a time the place was apparently disgusting, and who knows, maybe even deserved to be compared to sewer snorkeling. And that more than obviously explains why most people haven't been since they were 10. But at some point in the late '90s, the owners apparently took the hint: swim or sink. They cleaned up the place and nearly doubled its size, making way for some 10 slides, a wave pool and a separate children's area, and scattered the grounds with grills and picnic tables for BYO barbecues.

Nevertheless, raunchy raps die hard, making El Vergel -- now soaked in chlorine and tiburon-free -- an underground sanctuary for waterpark aficionados from both sides of the border.

Chastised by Tijuana's upper and middle classes, over the years El Vergel grew into a haven of fun for new arrivals from southern Mexico, and the park's scenery mirrors this. Carts selling churros, tacos and corn on the cob line the pavement. Tambora music from multiple mobile acts usually pierces the air on weekends, making for an echoing mess of clarinets and brass. Heavily tattooed cholos bounce in the wave pool with their wives and kids. Middle-aged women in leopard-print neon swimsuits and matching cowgirl hats lounge invitingly beneath palapas. The average shade of skin leans toward the moreno end of the mestizo spectrum, and the intensity of Mexico's obedience to its self-imposed regime of classism is more than obvious. If it weren't for the occasional pocho parent screaming something like "No corras tan fast, mijo! Te vas a fall down!" you'd think you were in some far corner of Sinaloa or Michoacan. El Vergel is La Estrella, at the pool.


White, black, brown, gringo, paisa, fresa, naco, Benz, Buick, whatever. At El Vergel, none of this seems to matter. Everyone's too high on pure adrenaline, and maybe taken aback at how something as simple as a waterslide can blast open the serotonin dam, to even think twice about a sight as out of place as a horde of some 30 Vergel virgins (us), most from north of the border.


Once through the gates and past the Our Lady of Guadalupe boulder, lockers were rented, temporary tattoos applied, beers bought and anticipation was no longer aguantable, it was on to the slides. At El Vergel, they come as a vital lesson to the average foreign visitor to Mexico. One's safety, even in environments such as waterparks where the gringo custom of million-dollar lawsuits usually ensures that an establishment keeps everything up to code, is never to be assumed. Faded plastic monstrosities with chipped paint jobs, most look as though they were purchased secondhand after having been retired for whatever reason from parks somewhere north of the border.

"Ride at your own risk" is the unspoken law at El Vergel, but the tradeoff of the heightened chance of peril is the added freedom to do so in ways never conceivable in the U.S., namely headfirst either on your back or stomach.

The trick to enjoying and more important surviving El Vergel is to first watch and learn from the regulars. You take faith in the notion of "When in Rome," acting all the while upon the following golden rule of thumb: Could I, under any circumstances outside those whose possibility could only be caused by an extreme but unlikely act of God, plummet to my death?

A quick immersion in this concept comes on the Medusa, a nine-lane, double-slope slide that's common to any state fair. At the fair, however, it usually involves burlap sacks, not swimsuits. Only 30 feet tall, the Medusa looks innocent enough. But after clearing the first hill, first-timers often launch into the air, land hard on their backs (and in the same lane only if they're lucky) and spend the rest of the ride spread-eagle with their asses pointed at the sky. Seasoned riders know to stick to the center lanes, sit up and slightly grasp the edges; doing so usually makes for a safe landing.


Coiling around the Medusa are four tube slides (although only two are in use), and while gaining enough speed that you curve so far onto the side that you actually flip over and exit on your stomach is very much a possibility, you ride assured knowing that falling out of the slide is not. Because it's close to the entrance the Medusa is usually the first slide of the day, and even though it's probably the only attraction at El Vergel that could possibly send you to the hospital, it sets the tone for proceeding with caution.

Next up was the Twister, a giant yellow funnel that the turistas collectively dubbed "The Toilet Bowl." Here the idea is to throw yourself down the tube as hard as you can, because again, falling out of a giant funnel is not possible. Headfirst, down you go.


Two flights up from the Twister is the Kamikaze. At 62 feet, it's El Vergel's tallest. It switches from full- to half-pipe just after the drop, which looks to be closer to 90 degrees than 45. The force lifts you a few inches off the slide, and depending on your weight it's a second or two until gravity pulls you back to the fiberglass. Feetfirst, for sure. The drag burns. Back down by the Toilet Bowl are the Kamikaze's mini-me doppelgangers, twin slides of the same design but smaller. Feetfirst or headfirst, either is fun.


Next door is the Avalanche, a wide, rolling 40-foot slide that requires renting an innertube for 50 pesos, but it's yours to use for the day in the wave pool and lazy river. The lifeguard launches you with a complimentary spin, whether you ask for it or not.


Last but not least on the tobogan roll call is El Latigo (The Whip), a 30-foot figure-eight tube slide that, according to the park's website, was the first to be built at El Vergel. Note: built, not reassembled.


For the most part El Vergel may require you to at least entertain the idea of an inner daredevil, but it does include a few options that don't require huevotes. Like the Rodillo Loco (The Crazy Roller), a padded 20-foot rolling tube hoisted seven feet above a pool in between two towers. The idea is to lurch your way from one end to the other or shake off whoever's on the other end a la American Gladiator.


And the Tarzan rope. Up a flight of stairs on the edge of a 7-foot pool, the name says it all, the goal being to swing out as far and as high as possible before letting go. This allows for maximum airtime to at least attempt to look like a twirling badass before bellyflopping like a total jackass. It's perhaps the most essential perk of El Vergel, insomuch that the place is undeniably waterpark in body but a swimming hole in spirit.


And so that's how it went down, lap after lap for hours, stopping for nothing but more beer and a quick bacon-wrapped hotdog or torta especial (lomo, ham, cheese, beans and a fried egg on a huge roll) until we could go no more and one by one wound up on the lone patch of sun-soaked concrete, staring at each other in a waterlogged daze until there was only one thing left to do. Ice cream. Tepoznieves. Some 120 flavors including cheese, tequila, lettuce and jamaica, Mexico's "ice cream of the gods."


1 comment:

Jason said...

Locker keys should go into a zipped pocket. The lanyard coil is fun to wear on your wrist, but it's easy to lose. They will charge you 60 pesos to cut the lock.

Also, if you're there with a group and sharing the preservadores, make a mental note of the numbers printed on them. A kid ran up behind me and said "that's my tube, that belongs to me," and they can smell the doubt if you need to think about it.

Large, bacon-wrapped hot dogs are available for 20 pesos and there's none of that silly "wait an hour after eating" nonsense.

I had a great time and I'm looking forward to going back.