[I originally published this article on MexiData.info in December 2009. Earlier today, I received an email from an expat reader who lives near Cabo San Lucas, and he urgently asked me to update and repost this article. His wife works in tourism promotion for Baja California Sur, and he feels terrible that Mexico is losing so many potential tourists due to misconceptions about the security situation in Mexico. So in light of his request, I've decided to update my article and re-post it here on my blog.]
Thanks to the bloody drug battles being waged on a daily basis in so many Mexican cities and towns, the country has acquired a terrible reputation as a travel destination in the last few years. While some areas in Mexico definitely need to be avoided by tourists, there are several areas where this reputation is completely undeserved.
But before we get into the discussion of specific areas in Mexico and their relative safety, it’s important to understand why certain areas are so dangerous, and the factors that need to be taken into account when contemplating travel to Mexico.
As most people know, Mexico is in the middle of a drug war. The unprecedented bloodshed is a result of turf battles between drug cartels, as well as rivalries within cartels. The turf in question is usually one of two places: a highly valued drug trafficking corridor into the United States, also known as a plaza, and cities or towns where drugs are brought into Mexico from outside the country.
Control of these key locations is crucial for the success of a cartel’s business operation. In order to maintain control of these locations, cartels are willing to conduct assassinations of public officials, commit mass murders and dismemberment, and kidnap and torture those who wrong them.
Some of the most notorious plazas at the moment include Ciudad Juárez in Chihuahua state, Acapulco in Guerrero state, Monterrey in Nuevo León state, and Reynosa and Matamoros in Tamaulipas state.
The U.S. State Department has made clear in recurring travel alerts that non-essential travel by American citizens to certain areas should be deferred. More specifically: “Recent violent attacks and persistent security concerns have prompted the U.S. Embassy to urge U.S. citizens to defer unnecessary travel to Michoacán and Tamaulipas, to parts of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Durango, and Coahuila, and to advise U.S. citizens residing or traveling in those areas to exercise extreme caution.”
Unfortunately, when Americans and other foreigners hear about all these travel warnings — and are unfamiliar with the nuances of the security situation in Mexico — they sometimes tend to get the impression that all of Mexico is a war zone. This is certainly not the case, as there are numerous places in Mexico that have been untouched by the drug war.
Mexico is well known as an affordable travel destination and for its all-inclusive beach resorts. Fortunately, the majority of these tourist locales remain safe for American and other foreign travelers. In fact, Baja California Sur — the home of the famous Cabo San Lucas and the other Los Cabos — is one of the safest places in Mexico, as it isn’t considered a strategic location for any of the drug cartels. Part of the safety factor is that many of the resorts in the Cabos are all-inclusive, meaning that guests never have the leave the resort grounds for food or entertainment.
Other popular tourist destinations include Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, and Cozumel. These places have occasionally appeared in the news as sites of drug-related violent incidents. However, it’s very important to note that these violent incidents occurred several miles away from tourist areas and resorts, and in no way affected the safety of tourists staying at those resorts. News reports don’t usually provide that helpful context. Other places like Playa del Carmen and the rest of the Riviera Maya are just as safe as Los Cabos.
In addition to the more well-known tourist destinations, there are dozens of other places in Mexico that cater to visitors who enjoy beaches, Mayan and Aztec ruins, and eco-tours. While too numerous to name individually, most of these sites remain beautiful — and safe — places to enjoy.
The most important thing any potential business visitor or tourist to Mexico can do is arm him or herself with good information about specific destinations. The U.S. State Department travel site for Mexico (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/cis/cis_970.html) is a great place to start. Also make sure to read the most up-to-date travel alerts and travel warnings (http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_4755.html) for all the specifics on areas to avoid. One should never hesitate to contact a U.S. Consulate in Mexico if questions about the safety of a particular location arise.
Members of the military should be extremely diligent when planning any travel to Mexico, as certain locations have been officially declared off-limits by the Department of Defense, and others require command approval prior to travel.
Above all, travelers to Mexico and any other unfamiliar foreign travel destination need to exercise common sense. Try to blend in. Don’t wear things that scream “I’m American!” or “I’m an easy target!” Don’t wear flashy jewelry. Try to learn a few useful words in Spanish. While you’re not likely to be targeted in Mexico by the mere fact that you’re a tourist, you can still become the victim of common crime by not exercising common sense.
The violence in Mexico is not likely to escape our minds — or our headlines — any time soon. But that doesn’t mean that Mexico is no longer a viable option for rest and relaxation at an affordable price. It sounds almost corny, but it can’t be said enough that you need to know before you go. Arm yourself with good information about your destination, and enjoy the great things that Mexico still has to offer.