Mexico has just finished its bloodiest year on record.
2017 saw 29,000 homicides. And, although it's too early to say, things aren't looking much better for 2018. The US State Department has updated its Mexico travel warning this year, slapping 5 states with its highest "do not travel" risk designation. These five states (Tamaulipas, Colima, Sinaloa, Michoacan and Guerrero) are now categorized as a level 4 risk, the same as Afghanistan and Syria.
Needless to say, this has spooked a lot of tourists.
So, how safe it is to head down south this year? Are the warnings legitimate, or completely overblown?
As with most things, the truth is somewhere in between.
In this post, I'm going to try and break it down.
If you want to travel Mexico, but aren't sure if it's a safe destination, this post is for you.
What does the warning mean?
Essentially, the US State Department did an analysis and deemed certain parts of Mexico more dangerous than in previous years.
That's the gist of it.
The new designation is mostly due to increased cartel violence in the five aforementioned states. For similar reasons, 11 other Mexican States were handed a level 3 warning ("reconsider travel to these regions").
Although this all sounds pretty dire, it's important to remember that Mexico has 31 states, many of which are entirely safe to visit (even according to the state department!). In fact, the country as a whole has a level 2 risk ("use increased caution"), which is the same as Britain, France and Italy.
It's important to make a distinction between the entire country and specific states within the country. While there are no doubt certain places here you'd be better off not visiting, you will be perfectly safe soaking up the sun in destinations like Puerto Vallarta, Tulum or Cabo San Lucas.
What about those 5 states?
Let's talk a bit about the specific states that have been labelled as dangerous as war zones.
Say, for whatever reason, you have to travel to Tamaulipas, Colima, Sinaloa, Michoacan or Guerrero.
Can you expect to come back alive?
I'm happy to say that yes, yes you can. And you probably will.
Tourists are still soaking up the sun and enjoying the good life in cities like Mazatlan (Sinaloa), Manzanillo (Colima) Acapulco (Guerrero) and Morelia (Michoacan). If you fly directly into any of these cities and don't stray to the outskirts or travel outside of them by highways at night, you're not likely to get yourself into any trouble.
The only state out of the five I'd suggest avoiding entirely is Tamaulipas. From everything I've heard, things truly are that bad there at the moment.
Even within these dangerous states, there are pockets of tranquility. It's not as though entire states, border to border, are in a perpetual state of chaos. While I do agree with the State Department's assessment to avoid these states if you can, even if you do find yourself in one of them there are ways to stay safe.
What dangers should you watch out for in Mexico?
Alright, so what are some of the dangerous things you should keep an eye out for here.
Well, the biggest dangers you're likely to face in your Mexico travels are sunburns, crazy drivers and dishonest street vendors.
Oh! And food poisoning.
OK, OK, yes, it's a developing country and crime does occur, but it's more opportunistic crime as opposed to violent. Keep your belongings close to you on bus rides and public transit, watch your wallet and leave the fancy jewellery at home and you'll be in good shape.
The fact of the matter is that narcos don't target tourists for killings and kidnappings. In fact, many will tend to avoid messing with tourists at all because they know the government is likely to come down hard on any cartel that does. As tragic as the growing violence in Mexico is, as a tourist, your chances of being effected by it are very slim. Don't buy drugs, don't walk alone in unfamiliar or dark areas at night, know the good zones from the bad ones. You know, all the cliches.
***Learning the language helps a lot. If you're able to communicate, you'll be able to diffuse situations, ask directions or charm your way out of paying a bribe. I fully recommend trying this program if you'd like to improve your Spanish.
My Personal Experience
Now, for something a bit different. Statistics and advisories are one thing, but what it is actually like on the ground?
I reckon I've spent a total of about three years of my life in Mexico. I've lived in the big, bad capital and travelled to about half of the states in the country.
What's it been like?
Aside from having an iPod stolen when I went for a swim in Cancun, I haven't really had any issues with theft or safety in this country. And, admittedly, I've done some pretty dumb stuff like walking home alone drunk in the middle of the night, picking up questionable women and attending a few bars and house parties in less savoury areas. Even in more dangerous states like Durango and Sinaloa, I never really felt at risk in any serious manner.
That being said, others haven't been so lucky.
I have two female friends that were robbed in Mexico City. One in Centro, and one in the more affluent area of Polanco. I also met a guy who told me he was drugged and robbed at a bar (he was a bit of a donkey, though). My roommate knew a girl that was raped by a guy who broke into her house (yikes).
So yes, bad things can and do happen here. But I wouldn't say it's the norm (perhaps for locals in some unfortunate areas, but certainly not the norm for tourists and travellers). Like I said, in 3 years around various parts of the country, I haven't been much of a victim of crime nor (random) violence.
The chances of it happening to you on a week or two vacation is slim to none.
If you want a bit more information about safety in Mexico (specifically, Mexico City), here are some perspectives.
Should you Travel Mexico?
If you want to squeeze in a little Mexico travel action in 2018, yes, you absolutely should do it! Don't let scary warnings dissuade you...but don't disregard them, either. If you do your research on your destination, take the necessary precautions to stay safe and go with friends or family members I'm willing to bet you'll have a lovely time.
If I've piqued your interest, here are some of my more popular articles about Mexico:
See you down south!