Is It Safe to Travel in Mexico?

Whether it's learning Spanish in Cuernavaca, discovering underwater life at a beach in Cabo or sampling the vineyards in the Guadalupe Valley, I’ve never felt unsafe while traveling in Mexico. I’m not sure if it’s because I grew up spending summers at a family home in Baja or it’s just naïveté, but one thing is for certain: millions of Americans travel safely to the country each year. Many neighborhoods even have lower crime rates than American cities and are far removed from the headline-making violence.

Overall crime is actually down in Mexico from the late ’90s, but tourism has dropped 20 percent. Tourism officials have invested $30 million in advertising initiatives to get the word out that tourists are safe in the country. “Visitors have the right to be well informed. Many of the affected areas are very far from the destinations tourists visit,” Alfonso Sumano, the regional director for the Mexico Tourism Board for the Americas, told the New York Times.

Just as in America, not all the neighborhoods in Mexico are recommended for tourists, but if you do make the trek across the border, heed the advice of the U.S. State Department in what locations you visit. Much of the country’s narcotics-related violence that has been highlighted in the media has occurred in the northern border region of Mexico. For example, Ciudad Juarez in the state of Chihuahua has seen three times as many people murdered since 2006 as any other city in Mexico. The Houston Chronicle referred to it as “the most murderous city in the world.” In fact, more than 50 percent of U.S. citizens who were killed in Mexico in 2009 were killed near the border of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, according to the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs. Other areas the department recommends avoiding include Monterrey, where violence has occurred at many schools; Michoacan, which is home to one of Mexico’s most dangerous drug-trafficking organizations, “La Familia,” and Durango, where drug violence has recently increased.

Not all popular beach resorts have escaped the violence. Acapulco has been affected by narcotics-related crime: six people were killed and five wounded during daylight on a main boulevard of the tourist zone. The U.S. Bureau also recommends that tourists avoid isolated roads, including the connection through Ciudad Altamirano to the beach resorts of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo. 
Mazatlan has also seen a recent increase in violent crime, with more murders in the first quarter of 2010 than in all of 2009.

However, just as in America where no state (or neighborhood) is alike, Mexico, which is about three times the size of Texas, is made up of 31 states and among those states levels of safety can be very different. The drug violence that gained traction after President Felipe Calderon launched his crackdown on cartels seems to remain in specific areas and not in popular destinations like Cabo, Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.

The upside of the negative publicity Mexico has gotten is that the country is now one of the best values for travelers. Resorts and airlines are slashing prices to lure tourists to the area again and Virgin America and Volaris airlines now offer discounted direct flights. In an interview with the New York Times, Giorgio Brignone, the owner of the luxe Costa Careyes resort south of Puerto Vallarta, put the travel quandary into perspective. “People don’t realize that there are many regions and areas in the country that are not affected by the violence and drug wars. It’s like saying I will not go to Dallas or New York, because there are problems or riots in Los Angeles.”

If You Go

As Mexico recently celebrated its bicentennial, the country is awash in architectural restorations, literary events and festivals, but below are rich experiences that should be on every visitor's itinerary.

Chileno Beach Most beaches in Cabo aren’t safe for swimming, but just west of the Hotel Cabo San Lucas, Chileno Beach offers some of the best snorkeling in the area—clear water, a natural reef and ample fish. Plus, showers and toilets open to the public.

Chichén Itzá The biggest danger might be the mammoth bugs dropping from the palapa roof at Mayaland hotel, heatstroke or a twisted ankle when you're touring this Mayan site. Sure, hordes of tourists descend on the area each year but the temples and pyramids constructed by sophisticated civilizations of the past set along the Yucatán backdrop shouldn’t be missed. After visiting the Temple of the Jaguars and the Pyramid of Kukulkan, stop at the Sacred Cenote. The ancient limestone sinkhole accesses an underwater river and was the main source of water for the Mayans. The trip is about three hours from Cancun and public transportation is readily available.

Tail of the Whale Punta Mita’s famous Punta Mita Club de Golf’s Pacifico golf course has already been named number one in the world by Conde Nast Traveler magazine, but for guests of the area’s St. Regis or Four Seasons, tee times are still available. The real draw is hole 3B, which is one of the only natural island greens in the world. Shaped like a whale’s tail, the green is set 199 yards off the coast. At high tide you’ll ride in an amphibious golf cart to reach it.

Whale Watching The Pacific gray whales migrate thousands of miles every year from the icy waters of Alaska’s Bering Sea to the Baja Peninsula. December to February is one of the best times to see Baja’s gray whales play in Magdalena Bay and in the protected lagoons of Ojo de Libre and San Ignacio. For the best vantage point, charter a boat and follow the spouts.

Travel Tips

Unfortunately, the fact is there is violence around the world. Take precautions and make intelligent travel choices.

• As in any large city, avoid certain non-populated areas at night.
• Avoid walking alone or driving alone at night.
• Be aware of what taxicabs you hire. American employees of the U.S. Embassy are actually prohibited from hailing taxis on the street in Mexico City because of the dangers. Use taxis associated with the organized taxi stands known as sitios that are common throughout Mexico.
• Leave your itinerary with a friend or family member who is not traveling with you.
• Check with your cellular provider before leaving home to confirm that your cell phone is capable of roaming on GSM or 3G international networks.
• Use toll roads whenever possible.
• Even cheap costume jewelry that looks expensive should not be worn in public.
• Monitor the State Department’s website, which posts current travel warnings. Up-to-date information on security can also be obtained by calling 888.407.4747 or from Mexico at 001.202.501.4444.
• Register with the appropriate U.S. embassy or consulate on the State Department’s travel registration website.