Is Mexico Safe? From Someone Who’s Been

Is Mexico Safe

Ask most people “Is Mexico Safe to visit?” and you’ll probably get a very quick and conclusive response: “No.  Mexico’s not safe.”

Of course, most people proffering these opinions have never visited Mexico. Their opinions have been formed from stories on the news. Stories their second cousin’s, cousin’s friend heard from someone he once went to school with…in Hong Kong. But still, the confidence in their advice is unfettered. Don’t go to Mexico. You’ll get kidnapped, robbed, murdered or caught in the cross-fire of the drug wars. Ergo, nothing good can ever come from a trip to Mexico.

Sigh.

As someone who has spent almost a year in Mexico across three trips and having visited 11 out of Mexico’s 31 states, I thought you might want to hear the answer to the question Is Mexico Safe? from someone who has actually been.

In this post, I will first look at some of the main fears people have about visiting Mexico and compare those fears to recent (2013-2014) crime statistics in the country (note, I’ve updated the post since 2014!).

I then share my personal experiences in Mexico – how safe I felt and how that compares to the Government travel advice (UK and USA) for each of the states I’ve visited.

I’m not going to serve you anything sugar-coated. If murder rates are high, I’ll tell you (hint: they are). If there were risks in certain place, I’ll tell you (hint: there were). In fact, I explain the worst thing that happened in each place while I was there.

Mexico has some very shady parts and crime is definitely a significant issue in some states. However, it’s absolutely possible to have an amazing, low-risk trip to the country.

The trick is knowing where to go…and where not to. And I’m hoping by the end of this two-part article, you’ll have a much better answer to the question…

Is Mexico Safe?

Update: I have returned to Mexico every few years since first writing this post and although I haven’t had time to fully update the crime stats, my suggested way of approaching safety in Mexico stands. I would however add one safety suggestion – while you’re busy stressing over whether Mexico is safe, you might be overlooking other risks. On my last trip, I got dengue fever in Playa del Carmen (you can read about that here). I’m not trying to give you another worry. I’m just suggesting that there are sneaky potential killers out there that aren’t the ones you expect, looking at you Señor Mosquito.

Mexico safety: Where Size Does Matters

Is Mexico Safe
That’s the Copper Canyon railway line you can see curving through this image. Mexico IS HUGE!

Let’s start with some demographics.

Mexico is HUGE.

Ok, that’s not very statistical, so how about this: Mexico sprawls across 761,600 square miles (that’s 1.973 million square kilometres).

If that still doesn’t mean much to you, Mexico is:

  • the 14th biggest country in the world;
  • bigger than Alaska;
  • nearly three times the size of Texas; and
  • 15 times – yes 15 times – bigger than my home country of England.

(See Wikipedia and Map Fight for details).

 And it’s not just the enormity of the land mass, Mexico is packing some people:

  • Mexico has a population of 119,713,203 million;
  • that’s more than 3 times the population of the USA’s most populated state, California, and more than twice the population of England; and
  • Mexico is the 11th most populated country in the world.

(See Wikipedia here and here).

I’ll stop with the size comparisons but I’m sure I’ve made my point – Mexico is HUGE.

But why am I so obsessed with Mexico’s size?

Simple: because when it comes to crime statistics, size matters. A lot of diversity, including levels of safety for tourists can (and does) exist in such a large space, and it’s not reasonable to write off an entire country (or strike it off your travel map) just because some bad stuff happens in some areas sometimes.

Don’t believe me? Even the US government doesn’t advise against ALL travel to Mexico.

“The U.S. Department of State warns U.S. citizens about the risk of traveling to certain places in Mexico due to threats to safety and security posed by organized criminal groups in the country… For information on security conditions in specific regions of Mexico, which can vary, travelers should reference the state-by-state assessments.”

Is Mexico Safe? The answer: it’s a state-by-state matter

Is Mexico Safe

As the US Government said, in order to answer the question is Mexico safe? you need to drill drown and answer the question on a more local or state-by-state-basis.

A word on state lines

Of course trouble doesn’t simply stop and start at the state lines so if one state comes with a warning and a neighbouring state doesn’t, use your discretion and dig deeper to fully understand the safety of the specific city, town, streets and even highways you’ll visit on your trip.

Don’t know one state from another? Here’s a handy map:

is Mexico safe

Map from: MapsOpenSource.

You’ll see from the map that Mexico is made up of 31 states, and the reality is that each state represents a different level of risk for tourist with a range from “very-very-low” to “hell-no-don’t-go” – as much as I love Mexico, there are certainly a bunch of states that even this adventure traveller wouldn’t go to right now.

Still not sure where your holiday destination is located? Here’s a broad overview of some of the main tourist destinations in Mexico and the states they sit in:

  • Baja California: Tijuana
  • Baja Sur: Cabo San Lucas, San Juan de Cabo, La Paz
  • Campeche: Campeche
  • Chiapas: San Cristobal, Palenque
  • Chihuahua and Sinaloa: Copper Canyon
  • Guanajuato: Guanajuato
  • Guerrero: Acapulco
  • Jalisco: Guadalajara, Tequila
  • Mexico: Mexico City, Teotihuacan
  • Puebla: Puebla
  • Oaxaca: Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido
  • Quintana Roo: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Tulum, Isla Holbox, Akumal
  • Yucatan: Merida

Where have I been in Mexico?

Below, I share full details of my experience in each of the states that I’ve visited in Mexico. Out of the list above, I’ve been to all of the tourist-popular states listed apart from Campeche, Pueblo, Guanajuato and Guerrero.

Common tourist concerns when visiting Mexico

Is Mexico Safe
“Shoplifting? Me? No. I didn’t do it.” A shifty looking Buzz in Mexico City.

Kidnap, robbery, murder and the drug-wars are the topics that come up time and again when I ask people their concerns about visiting Mexico. Even within Colombia, I’ve met a significant number of travellers who have expressed fears of travelling to Mexico.

With those worries in mind, let’s look at the real risk of each of these things happening to your average tourist in Mexico.

A word on other crimes

Robbery, kidnapping, drug wars and murder are not the only risks in Mexico. Like all countries around the world, sexual assault, pickpocketing and scams also present risks for travellers. However, these risks aren’t especially more prevalent in Mexico than elsewhere so it’s a case of packing your usual street smarts.

Crime in Mexico: An overview

Is Mexico Safe
Accidental injury looks more likely here.

A great starting point for putting Mexican crime in context is the website How safe is Mexico?

There you will see that:

  • Mexico is safer than many locations within the USA;
  • the Yucatan Peninsula is as safe as rural USA; and
  • Mexico is safer than many other popular vacation/holiday destinations in the Caribbean.

Further, OSAC (the United States Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security), which has produced this very up to date (2014) report on crime in Mexico, says:

Millions of Americans safely live, work, and take vacations in Mexico every year. Security conditions vary significantly throughout the country, and for that reason the Department of State has gone to great lengths to craft and update regionally specific guidance for American citizens in Mexico. Crime varies widely in Mexico depending upon location.”

And the US Bureau of Consular Affairs says:

Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year for study, tourism, and business, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day.  The Mexican government dedicates substantial resources to protect visitors to major tourist destinations, and there is no evidence that organized criminal groups have targeted U.S. visitors or residents based on their nationality.”

And, “Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime that are reported in the border region or in areas along major trafficking routes.”

However, as reassuring as all of that might be, it’s impossible to avoid the fact that crime levels are high and, as the UK Foreign Office succinctly puts it:

Most victims are Mexicans, many of them believed to be involved in criminal activity, but the security situation also poses risks for foreigners.

So, let’s look a bit closer at those main worries that foreigners have…

Am I going to get murdered in Mexico?

Murder seems to be a real concern for tourists in Mexico and it’s no surprise given the flood of media coverage every time a body turns up.

But what’s the likelihood that you, as a tourist, are going to get murdered in Mexico?

To try and figure this out, I looked at two pieces of information – Mexico’s latest homicide/murder rates and the list that features the “Murder Capitals” of the world i.e. the cities with the highest number of homicides (per 100,000 people).

Leading with the not so great news, Mexico features 9 times on the list: Top 50 cities by murder rate.

Equally depressing, there were 16,736 “intentional” murders in Mexico in 2013 (not including negligent homicide/manslaughter). (Based on data from January to November 2013).

But WAIT – before you strike a line through Mexico, let’s look at that data in a bit more detail.

Mexico’s Murder Capitals

The 9 Mexican cities in order of highest murder rate, are:

  • Acapulco
  • Culiacán
  • Torreón
  • Chihuahua
  • Ciudad Victoria
  • Nuevo Laredo
  • Ciudad Juárez
  • Tijuana

Now, let’s compare that to the states I listed above – the states where most tourists are likely to go:

  • Baja California: Tijuana
  • Baja Sur: Cabo San Lucas, San Juan de Cabo, La Paz
  • Campeche: Campeche
  • Chiapas: San Cristobal, Palenque
  • Chihuahua and Sinaloa: Copper Canyon
  • Guanajuato: Guanajuato
  • Guerrero: Acapulco
  • Jalisco: Guadalajara and the town of Tequila
  • Mexico: Mexico City and Teotihucan
  • Puebla: Puebla
  • Oaxaca: Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido
  • Quintana Roo: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Tulum, Isla Holbox, Akumal
  • Yucatan: Merida
Is Mexico Safe
Baja Sur – the safest place in Mexico according to the stats.

With the exceptions of Acapulco (for its beaches), Chihuahua (for starting the Copper Canyon route) and Tijuana (for cheap thrills from the USA), the list of dangerous cities and the list of tourist spots are pretty different i.e. the places where the highest numbers of murders are taking place are not the places where most tourists go on holiday/vacation.

As I explain in Part 2, I’ve visited two of the “dangerous” cities (Chihuahua and Tijuana) and by following local advice and sticking to the tourist spots, I had trouble-free visits.

However, if you crawl with fear at the idea of visiting any place on a Top 50 cities by murder rate, the answer is very simple – don’t go to those places. Mexico is big enough and beautiful enough that you can easily find another corner of the country that resents a much lower risk for tourists.

What are those lower risk places?

Baja California Sur (home of Los Cabos), Campeche and the Yucatan are Mexico’s three states with the lowest homicide rate in the country. Meanwhile, Quintana Roo (for Cancun and Playa del Carmen) comes in as eight safest.

Mexico’s Homicide Rate

As for the homicide rate, 16,736 intentional murders is way higher than most people would like to read about. Hell, it’s way higher than I’d like to read about.

However, it’s not all bad new once you start to add a bit of context to the number.

First, the homicide rate has decreased by 16% compared to the same period the year before.

Second, the homicide statistics don’t differentiate between drug-cartel related homicides and indiscriminate killings – it’s estimated that nearly 11,000 murders were attributed to drugs violence in 2013, which would makes up nearly 70% of the intentional murders in Mexico.

Finally:

“The number of U.S. citizens reported to the Department of State as murdered in Mexico was 71 in 2012 and 81 in 2013.” (US Bureau of Consular Affairs). 

Although that number has increased from 2012 to 2013, it represents a minuscule percentage of the Mexican homicide rate, and will undoubtedly include American citizens who were involved in criminal activities.

What can I do to avoid getting murdered in Mexico?

Although initial data is scary, when you dig deeper, it becomes clearer that tourists are not direct targets in Mexico and the majority of murders are drug related. With that in mind, how do you reduce your risk of danger as a tourist in Mexico?

  • try to restrict your visit to the safer states;
  • if you visit a less safe state (and even in safer states), stick to the tourist areas;
  • stay alert during you entire time in Mexico – ask for local safety advice and keep up to date on the news;
  • make sure you have extensive travel insurance – the kind that will get you out of danger if you need it; and
  • don’t go wandering into trouble – if you’re trying to buy drugs or wandering off into local territory with new-found Mexican friends, you’re putting yourself into the danger zone.

Am I going to get kidnapped and robbed in Mexico?

Is Mexico Safe
If you have wealth, try not to flaunt it.

I’ve heard a few anecdotal stories of people being kidnapped in Mexico and it’s true that kidnapping and, more specifically, express-kidnapping is a real issue in the country.

What is express kidnapping? It’s where your friendly criminals “borrow” you for 24 to 48 hours while they systematically visit ATMs with your bankcard to empty as much money as they can out of your account.

Crime stats don’t paint a pleasant picture when it comes to kidnapping in Mexico:

But, it’s only when we start to fill in the details a bit more that the picture brightens for tourists.

First, let’s look at the states with the highest kidnap rates. They are:

  • Guerrero
  • Michoacán
  • Mexico City
  • Tamaulipas
  • Morelos

With the exception of Mexico City and Guerrero for Acapulco (more on these places in a minute), these are once again states that most tourists are unlikely to visit.

Not only that, let’s put that large kidnapping rate into some sort of context.

Remember at the beginning of this article where I droned on tirelessly about the size of Mexico, and where I mentioned that there are over 119 million people living in Mexico…well, comparing that population with the estimated kidnap rate (105,682), the risk of kidnap in Mexico is actually less than 0.1%.

Further, when you look at the risk to non-locals, the number of kidnappings gets dramatically smaller:

Nearly 70 kidnappings of U.S. citizens were reported to the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Mexico between January and June of 2014.” (the US Bureau of Consular Affairs)

Although the US Bureau of Consular Affairs doesn’t break those numbers down by expats, business or tourists, this piece of guidance from the Bureau sheds some further light:

“Of particular safety concern are casinos, sportsbooks, or other gambling establishments and adult entertainment establishments.  U.S. government personnel are specifically prohibited from patronizing these establishments in the states of Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes, San Luis Potosi, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas.”

In short, the kidnap risk seems to be concentrated in locations and involve activities that your average tourist won’t come into contact with.

Perhaps the best news of all if you want to reduce your kidnap risk – looking poor is your best defence. As OSAC says:

“Armed robberies, “express” kidnappings, car thefts, carjackings, credit card fraud, and various forms of residential and street crime are daily concerns. The low rate of convictions of criminals contributes to the high crime rate. Criminals select victims based on an appearance of prosperity, vulnerability, or a lack of awareness. Displays of wealth are magnets for thieves in Mexico City. Wearing expensive jewelry, watches, and displays of large amounts of cash draw unwanted attention. Jewelry and expensive watches and cellular phones can be sold easily in vast illegal markets. Although Mexico employs strict gun-control laws, criminals are usually armed with handguns (or knives) when carrying out street crime.”

Tips for taking street taxis in Mexico

Is Mexico Safe
The beautiful Bellas Artes museum in Mexico.

I said I’d come back to the subject of kidnappings in Mexico City. So, here we are…

I’ve travelled through Mexico city a handful of times and each time (after my first time, when I was pretty cautious), I felt very safe…until it came to the street taxi.

One of the safest ways to travel in most cities around the world is by hailing a cab. But sadly that’s not the case in Mexico City. Commonly involved in gang crime and a significant means of procuring victims for express-kidnappings, the best advice I could offer for anyone visiting Mexico is to steer clear of the street taxis in Mexico City.

As OSAC says:

One simple way to lessen one’s chances of becoming a victim of street crime in Mexico City is to avoid the use of “Libre” taxi cabs. Due to the danger involved in utilizing “Libre” taxis, and the increased difficulty in determining the difference between the different types of taxis, the best practice is to avoid hailing taxis in the street entirely. Instead, call, or have the merchant you are visiting call a radio dispatched “Sitio” taxi.”

What about car jacking and highway robberies in Mexico?

Is Mexico Safe
The colours of the water – just one reason tourists will always feel drawn to Mexico.

Highway robbery may sound like something out of a western movie but for motorists in Mexico it’s a real risks.

As the US Bureau of Consular Affairs says:

“Carjacking and highway robbery are serious problems in many parts of the border region… There are indications that criminals target newer and larger vehicles, especially dark-colored SUVs.  However, even drivers of old sedans and buses coming from the United States have been targeted.”

The advice:

“To reduce risk when traveling by road, we strongly urge you to travel between cities throughout Mexico only during daylight hours, to avoid isolated roads, and to use toll roads.”

Reducing your robbery and kidnap risk in Mexico

Kidnapping, although a concern for many, doesn’t appear to present a significant risk (statistically) for tourists travelling to the main travel destinations. Still, to keep the risk low:

  • lend your Rolex to your friend at home while you travel to Mexico. I suspect one of the major reasons I’ve not run into trouble in Mexico is because I (intentionally) don’t look like I’m worth robbing!
  • don’t take the street taxis in Mexico City. I’ve already written about the problem of street taxis in my article My 20 Worst Travel Stories together with advice for dealing with taxis in Mexico;
  • avoid the states/activities that represent the highest kidnap risks;
  • a particularly good tip from the UK Foreign office: “Be discreet about discussing your financial or business affairs in places where you may be overheard by others.”;
  • consider discussing your travel plans with your bank and insurance company if you’re concerned or likely to engage in risky (kidnap-appealing) business in Mexico; and
  • if the worst happens – express kidnapping or car jacking – co-operate. There’s no need to contribute to Mexico’s murder stats!

Am I going to get caught in the cross-fire of the drug cartels?

Is Mexico Safe

Mexico is in an unfortunate position. As the last drug handover point between Latin America and the USA (around 90% of the USA’s cocaine comes via Mexico), and with an industry that is estimated to be worth almost $50 billion, it’s no great surprise that the USA-Mexico border areas are volatile and risky areas to visit.

There are a bunch of active drug cartels in Mexico (you can read about them here) and in 2013 it was estimated that nearly 11,000 people were killed due to Mexican drug warfare.

However, the good news is that you, as a tourist, are not the target.

“To date, criminal groups have not shown a pattern of targeting innocent civilians for political purposes or espousing political motivation for their actions.” (OSAC)

And, the drug wars are largely restricted to a small handful of states. Here’s a handy map highlighting where the main mafia cartels are at work (shown in red):

is mexico safe

 Source: Wikipedia.

The location-specific nature of Mexico’s drug war is highlighted by the UK Foreign Office:

“Drug-related violence in Mexico has increased over recent years. The violence is concentrated in specific areas, and some regions are almost completely spared. Make sure you research your destination thoroughly.” and

“Drug-related violence is a particular problem in the northern states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Durango, and also in Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán and Nayarit. Armed clashes between security forces and drug groups can occur at any time without warning. You should exercise extreme caution outside of tourist areas in all of these states.”

Although this list of states is longer than the states highlighted on the map, the locations are still, largely, places where tourists don’t tend to go (with the exception of Chihuahua and Sinaloa (for the start and end of Copper Canyon), Tijuana and Guadalajara.

Reducing your risk of getting caught in cartel cross-fire

For the reasons above, I’m pretty confident saying that, unless you’re mucking around in cartel territory, the chance of you as a tourist getting caught up in the cross-fire of the drug wars is pretty low. Still, to keep your risk low:

  • don’t visit the states of the cartel strongholds;
  • if you do visit, like I did when I went to Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Tijuana, stick to the tourist spots, minimise the length of time you spend there and adhere to the local safety advice;
  • don’t go looking for trouble i.e. don’t go making deals with the local drug kingpin just for the sake of some cheap(er than you’d get outside of Mexico) thrills.

Is Mexico Safe? My experience, state-by-state

In this, section I will share my personal experiences in Mexico – how safe I felt and how that compares to the Government travel advice (UK and USA) for each of the states I’ve visited.

Where I’ve been in Mexico

Is Mexico Safe

After nearly a year in the country (across three trips) I have visited 11 of Mexico’s 31 states including a the vast majority of the areas that tourists tend to visit, or want to visit, in Mexico.

I’ve stayed on the Caribbean coast including at the beach towns of Playa del Carmen and Cancun, I’ve visited colonial cities like Oaxaca, I’ve hit up surf towns like Puerto Escondido, I’ve taken the train through Copper Canyon, which includes starting and ending your trip in two of the main cartel states, and during each of my trips I’ve visited Mexico City.

Specifically, I’ve been to:

  • Baja California: Tijuana
  • Baja Sur: Cabo San Lucas, San Juan de Cabo, La Paz (road trip from San Diego to Cabo)
  • Chiapas: San Cristobal, Palenque
  • Chihuahua: Chihuahua City and Copper Canyon
  • Colima: Colima City and Manzanillo beach
  • Jalisco: Guadalajara, Tequila
  • Mexico: Mexico City, Teotihuacan
  • Sinaloa: Los Mochis and Copper Canyon
  • Oaxaca: Oaxaca, Puerto Escondido
  • Quintana Roo: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Cozumel, Tulum, Isla Holbox, Akumal
  • Yucatán: Mérida

I’m not going to serve you anything sugar coated. If I felt like there were risks, I’ll tell you – in fact, for each place I’m going to explain the worst thing that happened while I was there.

Why look at current international travel advice from TWO countries?

Being from the UK, it’s standard practice for me to check the UK Government travel advice before I take a trip to a potentially unsafe destination. And I do that every time I visit Mexico. However, I also look at what the US Government has to say.

Why?

Well, two reasons. First, the USA, being that bit closer and more heavily invested in the safety related to it’s bordering country, tends to give more detailed advice about Mexico i.e. on a state by state basis compared to the UK.

Second, it’s not uncommon for two countries to have slight differences in opinion/attitudes towards risk when a situation is unfolding in a country. Events in Egypt were a good example – the UK and German Governments have had different views on holiday travel to Egypt in recent years, so it pays to look at the advice from more than one source. If both Governments give a “hell-no-don’t-go” safety assessment, I’m much more likely to follow that advice. If the advice differs, I’ll dig deeper.

If you want to triple and quadruple check if Mexico is safe, here is the Government travel advice from each of Australia and Canada. 

Is Mexico Safe - Creel

In alphabetical order, here are the states I’ve been to in Mexico, the specific destinations I visited and my experience while I was there.

A word on individual experiences

In every country around the world it’s possible for two people to have different experiences in exactly the same place. So, while I may have had a safe visit to many places in Mexico (and in some places I ran into some less than safe moments), ultimately, everyone’s experience can differ and there is no escaping the phenomenon of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

UK Gov Travel advice on drug-related violence and tourist resorts

Instead of listing this advice under each state, I’ll list it just once here. The UK Government offers the following advice on the topic of drug-related violence:

“Drug-related violence is a particular problem in the northern states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Tamaulipas, Sinaloa and Durango, and also in Guerrero, Jalisco, Michoacán and Nayarit. Armed clashes between security forces and drug groups can occur at any time without warning. You should exercise extreme caution outside of tourist areas in all of these states.”

And on a more positive note:

The Mexican government makes efforts to protect major tourist destinations like Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Cozumel, Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta and these areas have not seen the levels of drug-related violence and crime experienced elsewhere”

State: Baja California Norte

Is Mexico Safe

Where I went: Tijuana & and road trip from San Diego to Baja Sur

Travel advice:

UK: no travel warnings are given for Tijuana and, interestingly, drug-related violence is not noted as a particular problem in this state. 

USA: In 2013, homicide rates in Tijuana and Rosarito increased 48 percent and 67 percent compared to the previous year, according to the Baja State Secretariat for Public Security, and both cities experienced further increases in homicide rates during the first half of 2014.  While most of these homicides appeared to be targeted criminal organization assassinations, turf battles between criminal groups have resulted in violent crime in areas frequented by U.S. citizens.  Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured, have occurred during daylight hours.

How was it:

I crossed into Tijuana packing my biggest (mental) bag of street smarts and was taken entirely by surprise. The nightlife was tame, the streets felt incredibly safe and the locals I met were utterly helpful with local craft-brew and restaurant suggestions. I absolutely got the impression that the locals were glad to see some tourists.

Worst thing that happened:

I did get a bit of hassle from street vendors during the day – nothing a polite “no, gracias” didn’t solve. Also, a shifty bait and switch incident occurred in one bar where the drinks that were “included” in the cover charge rapidly changed from a free spirit and mixer to a free small beer when I got inside the bar.

Travel tips:

  • Stick to Zona Centro and Avenida Revolucion, the main tourist area.
  • Cross the border during the middle of the day.
  • Make sure you pick had a safe hotel in the tourist area.
  • If found wikitravel with it’s overview of the different zones helpful when planning my trip to Tijuana

I stayed at Aqua Rio Hotel (around $25 a night) and would highly recommend it. The place was very close to the nightlife, could be booked online and felt very secure (many hotels in Tijuana run a “by the hour” rental service and others are known for robbing their guests). I happened to meet the manager while I was there and he seemed nice and, importantly, legit and trustworthy!

Update: since writing this post, I’ve returned to TJ and spent much more time there. You can read my guide to what to do and how to get there from San Diego here. 

State: Baja California Sur

Is Mexico Safe

Where I went: La Paz, Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo

Travel advice:

UK: The Mexican Government makes efforts to protect tourist destinations like this one and this area has not seen the levels of drug-related violence and crime experienced elsewhere.

USA: Cabo San Lucas and La Paz are major cities/travel destinations in the state of Southern Baja California – No advisory is in effect.

How was it:

As the safest state in Mexico, I wasn’t expecting much by way of trouble in Baja Sur and I’m pleased to say that my experience was entirely trouble-free.

La Paz is largely a family holiday/vacation destination for Mexicans. At night the beachfront (malecón) was filled with families strolling and couples rollerblading. I felt completely safe walking along the beachfront alone every night after dinner and overall La Paz turned out to be one of my favourite places in all of Mexico – I went for 3 days and stayed for more than a week.

Cabos San Lucas was so Americanized (they accept dollars and have a whole bunch of US food chains there), I had cause to wonder if I’d somehow inadvertently crossed the border. The only risks were self-imposed – sun stroke and hangovers.

Worst thing that happened:

My travel budget was the only thing that was hurt during my stay in Los Cabos (La Paz was much more affordable).

Travel tips:

  • If you’re on a budget, limit your time in Los Cabos.

Update: since writing this post, I’ve taken a top to toe drive down Baja California. You can read about that trip here. I went with a friend from North America who was nervous about the trip, based on horror stories he’d been fed by family and friends. Outcome: one of the best trips we’d taken. 

State: Chiapas

Is Mexico Safe

Where I went: San Cristóbal and Palenque

Travel advice:

UK: Outbursts of politically-motivated violence also occur from time to time in certain parts of the country, particularly in the southern states of Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

USA: No advisory is in effect.

How was it: 

I didn’t see a single Zapatista rebel while I was in San Cristobal and I wasn’t surprised given the uprising was 20 years ago and most of the activity these days, such that it exists, seems to be concentrated in the indigenous villages outside of the centre. As such, I felt safe the entire time in San Cristóbal, including walking around the historic centre alone at night. Sure, there might be the teeniest chance that another rebellion will kick-off while you’re there, but you’re not the subject of the battle.

I didn’t get out much while I was in Palenque because I was sick with what I suspected was malaria, so I can’t comment too much. However, I did feel safe during my short period of wellness. Downtown Palenque is pretty ugly but apart from the car fumes, it seemed safe enough.

There are concerns about hijacked buses, particularly at night in a lot of areas of Mexico, including in Chiapas but there are a lot of road-blocks and military checks to counteract the risk.

Worst thing that happened:

Watching a six-year-old boy (who’d been sent out to sell handicrafts) watching the Lion King at 11pm through the window of an electrical store. Youth isn’t something the local children get to enjoy for too long in San Cristóbal.

Travel tips:

  • If you’re worried about highway robbery, take day buses or if you’re covering a long distance, it’s often as cost-effective to fly.
  • Be alert in San Critóbal and steer clear of any protests.
  • Don’t photograph indigenous people without their permission (which you’re unlikely to get – I asked many times and was refused without exception).

State: Chihuahua

Is Mexico Safe

Where I went: Chihuahua City and Copper Canyon (Creel, Divisadero)

Travel advice:

UK: Drug related violence is a particular problem in this state.

USA: Exercise caution in traveling to the business and shopping districts in the northeast section of Ciudad Juarez and its major industrial parks, and the central downtown section and major industrial parks in Chihuahua City.  U.S. citizens should defer non-essential travel to other areas of these cities and anywhere else in the state of Chihuahua and travel during daylight hours between cities.

Crime and violence remain serious problems throughout the state of Chihuahua, particularly in the southern portion of the state and in the Sierra Mountains, including Copper Canyon.  U.S. citizens do not, however, appear to be targeted based on their nationality.

How was it:

I was in Chihuahua to catch the Copper Canyon train but instead of breezing through, I took a few days to explore the city. There were not many tourists in Chihuahua – I didn’t see a single other gringo during my stay – and that seemed to make the locals all the more welcoming rather than suspicious, which flew in the face of my expectations.

People in Chihuahua went out of their way to help me with directions and food ordering (picking the right burrito is very important). I didn’t explore much late at night because I was being cautious of the travel advice but I walked around during the day with my camera and iPhone out without any concern.

On the Copper Canyon route, I chose two very safe places to stay – Divisadero and Creel. I avoided the places where there are some safety warnings (due to drug gangs) e.g. Batopilas. Creel felt incredibly safe and Divisadero is little more than a train stop with a hotel with a view so not many people were around.

Worst thing that happened:

It felt like the taxi drivers were the biggest criminals in Chihuahua and I got severely ripped off with every single taxi I took. The drivers point-blank will not negotiate and they’re brutal in their pricing.

Travel tips:

  • Stay in a centrally located hotel in Chihuahua.
  • Stick to the historic centre and limit your sightseeing to daytime hours.
  • If you’re really worried about Chihuahua, limit your stay to one night and leave for the Copper Canyon the next day (get your hotel to arrange a taxi to the train station for you).
  • If you’d rather skip an overnight stay in Chihuahua altogether, fly in and then take a bus and start your Copper Canyon trip in Creel.

In Chihuahua I stayed at Ibis. Quality Inn and Hotel Plaza are a bit more expensive but have even better locations in the very centre.

You can read about my trip on the Copper Canyon here (what to see in Copper Canyon) and here (how to plan your trip)

A word on Ciudad Juarez

Located within the state of Chihuahua, here’s the advice from each of the UK and USA on Ciudad Juarez:

UK: The FCO no longer advise against all but essential travel to Ciudad Juarez. You should, however, take care, travel during daylight, inform relatives or friends of your travel plans and use reputable hotels only.

USA: Although homicide rates in Ciudad Juarez have decreased markedly from a peak several years ago, the city still has one of the highest homicide rates in Mexico.

I was seriously contemplating crossing into the USA via Ciudad Juarez and was reasonably comfortable with my decision to go there. However, my route after the Copper Canyon naturally spat me out closer to the Baja Peninsula. If/when I do make it to Ciudad Juareze, I’ll update this article.

State: Colima

Is Mexico Safe

Where I went: Colima City and Manzanillo beach

Travel advice:

UK: No travel warning given. 

USA: Defer non-essential travel to the areas of the state of Colima that border the state of Michoacán, including the city of Tecoman.  The security situation along the Michoacán border continues to be the most unstable in the state, with gun battles occurring between rival criminal groups and with Mexican authorities.  Intercity travel at night is not recommended.

How was it:

I had no problems in either Colima or Manzanillo. However, I was the only gringo for miles around and I was with a local, so it’s hard to give an objective view. That said, there wasn’t a huge amount of tourist attractions in Colima – the city has a nice centre and a cute park with a lake but otherwise operates on a functional grid system that reminded me a lot of Phoenix.

The beaches were nice but were too harsh for swimming – so you’re average traveller is unlikely to want or need to visit the beaches in this state.

The worst thing that happened:

My flip-flops got swept away by a pretty fierce wave at the beach. Gutted.

Travel tips:

  • You’ll probably want to a local friend or decent Spanish to get by in this state.
  • Beware of the strong waves and currents in this area.

State: Jalisco

Is Mexico Safe

Where I went: Guadalajara and a trip to Tequila

Travel advice:

UK: Drug related violence is a particular problem in this state.

USA: Defer non-essential travel to areas of the state that border the states of Michoacán and Zacatecas.  The security situation along the Michoacán and Zacatecas borders continues to be unstable and gun battles between criminal groups and authorities occur.  Concerns include roadblocks placed by individuals posing as police or military personnel and recent gun battles between rival criminal organizations involving automatic weapons.  You should exercise caution in rural areas and when using secondary highways, particularly along the northern border of the state.  Except for the areas of the state that border Michoacán, there is no advisory in effect for daytime travel within major population centers or major highways in the state of Jalisco.  Intercity travel at night is not recommended.  There is no recommendation against travel to Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta.  There is also no recommendation against travel on principal highways in Jalisco between Guadalajara including the portions that cross into the southern portions of the state of Nayarit

How was it:

I went to Guadalajara for a weekend and stayed for weeks. I wandered aimlessly around the city and got lost plenty of times and I explored the nightlife. However, I had my wits about me a few times as certain areas were dense with people (and ripe for pick-pocketing) and a few streets had groups of guys handing around on them – probably innocuous, but my instincts always made me turn and walk the other way. Also, I always went out with travel friends and I’m not sure I’d stray too far alone at night.

I took a day tour to the town of Tequila and had no concerns or issues (other than the obvious hangover the following day)

Worst thing that happened:

Ok, brace yourself – a few bad things happened (to other people) while I was there.

A guy in my hostel got drugged in a club and woke up in the back of a taxi without most of his clothes. On the plus side (?!) they did deliver him back to his hostel without injury and he later found his wallet tossed outside – minus his money but complete with everything else.

And…there was…errr…a bit of an armed robbery at my hostel while I was there. Ok, calm down (mum). I wasn’t even aware of it until the next day. The hostel was having “tequila” night. Meanwhile, someone forgot to properly close the door. In walked an armed guy. He demanded money. The staff gave it to him. He left. Nobody was any the wiser.

Travel tips:

  • Watch your drink if you’re out at night.
  • Make sure you explore the nightlife with friends and you watch each others’ backs.
  • Take out little by way of money, valuables and bank cards.
  • Stay in a place that has good security and always make sure the door to your accommodation is closed behind you.

You can read about my time here in: How to drink Tequila like a Mexican.

State: Mexico City

Is Mexico Safe
The scariest thing in Mexico City was probably Frida Kahlo’s death mask…shudder.

Where I went: I’ve visited most of the main areas that tourists will want to visit – the historic centre, Chapultapec, Coyoacán, Condesa and Roma, and Tiotihucan

Frommers has a good guide to the various areas in Mexico City.

Travel advice:

UK: Passengers have been robbed and assaulted by unlicensed taxi drivers including in Mexico City. In Mexico City, use the better regulated ‘sitio’ taxis from authorised cab ranks. At airports, use only authorised pre-paid airport taxi services.

Women travelling on their own should be particularly alert when travelling on public transport. There have been incidents of rape on urban buses (‘micros’) on routes in the south of Mexico City. Most attacks have occurred early in the morning or late at night. Several serious sexual offences have also occurred in tourist areas outside of Mexico City. Take care even in areas close to hotels, and especially after dark.

USA: No advisory is in effect for Mexico City or nearby Puebla.

For the greater metropolitan state of Mexico City: Defer non-essential travel to the municipalities of Coacalco, Ecatepec, Nezahualcoyotl, La Paz, Valle del Chalco, Solidaridad, Chalco, and Ixtapaluca, which are eastern portions of the greater Mexico City metropolitan area, located just to the east of the Federal District of Mexico and Benito Juarez airport, unless traveling directly through the areas on major thoroughfares.  These areas have seen high rates of crime and insecurity.  You should also defer non-essential travel on any roads between Santa Marta in the southeast portion of the state and Huitzilac in the state of Morelos, including the Lagunas de Zempoala National Park and surrounding areas.

How was it:

The first time I visited Mexico City I was like a rabbit in the headlights, in complete fear that something bad would happen – after all, so may people had told me that I’d be raped, robbed and shot (and not necessarily in that order) if I visited Mexico’s capital. However, after several visits to the city, I can honestly say that DF (as it’s know to the locals) is one of my favourite places in Mexico.

Sure, you shouldn’t take yourself down a dark, quiet street on your own late at night, I’m generally cautious with my camera when I’m there (as I am in all big cities) and the street taxis should be absolutely avoided (more on that here), but I have taken myself for dinner alone late at night in the historic centre and strolled home happily.

Worst thing that happened:

I sat in blind panic for an entire 20 minutes in a street taxi coming home from a bar one night. Although the driver didn’t do anything bad (apart from over charge me), it was a pretty nerve-wracking ride and not one I will repeat soon.

Travel tips:

  • Avoid the street taxis in Mexico City – take the Sitio radio taxis instead.
  • Usual street smarts apply.

State: Oaxaca

Is Mexico Safe
The nightlife in Puerto Escondido is fun – just be careful.

Where I went: Oaxaca City and Puerto Escondido

Travel advice:

UK: Outbursts of politically-motivated violence also occur from time to time in certain parts of the country, particularly in the southern states of Chiapas, Guerrero and Oaxaca.

USA: No advisory is in effect.

How was it:

I was relatively new to Mexico when I visited Oaxaca and my hostel was a 10-minute walk down a fairly quiet street to the historic centre. For those reasons, I spent a large amount of time feeling nervous in Oaxaca. In hindsight, it was completely due to my anxiety and nothing to do with anything that happened during my visit.

I was also pretty nervous turning up in Puerto Escondido. Despite visiting three years after my first trip to Mexico and being much more confident as a traveller, a travel blogger friend had been robbed at gun point on the beach just a few months earlier. As a result, I nearly passed Puerto Escondido by.

However, after taking advice about where to go and where not to, I ended up having an amazing stay in Puerto Escondido – it was another place I went for three days and ended up staying for weeks, and, overall, I felt safe…enough…

The worst thing that happened:

Obviously, there’s the story of my travel blogger friend who got held up at gunpoint (you can read about that here).

A travel friend had her drink spiked in Puerto Escondido and a local guy was about to take her home (his home, not hers) when we spotted her.

Another travel friend got robbed coming back from the local shop after dark, also in Puerto Escondido, but out in a residential district.

And another travel friends ran into some more unusual trouble – he had a reaction that caused his mouth and throat to swell up when he tried the deep-fried grasshoppers that are so popular in Oaxaca.

Travel tips:

  • If you’ve not reached a stage of travel confidence, I’d recommend choosing a place to stay right in the heart of the historic centre of Oaxaca.
  • In Puerto Escondido avoid going to The Point early in the morning or late at night.
  • Be super careful with your drink and make sure you go out with friends who can keep an eye on you.
  • Have some anti-histamines on you if you plan to dine on grasshopper…and perhaps know where the nearest hospital is! 

State: Quintana Roo

Is Mexico Safe
Even with a storm coming (it as hurricane season), Isla Mujeres looks stunning.

Where I went: Cancun, Playa del Carmen, Isla Mujeres, Tulum, Cozumel, Isla Holbox, Akumal

Travel advice:

UK: “The Mexican Government makes efforts to protect tourist destinations like this one and this area has not seen the levels of drug-related violence and crime experienced elsewhere.

USA: No advisory is in effect.

How was it: 

I don’t have the slightest hesitation recommending Quintana Roo as a safe travel destination in Mexico. In fact, I’ve been to less safe places in Europe and the USA.

The worst thing that happened:

I slipped down the steps of a hot tub in Cancun and badly bruised myself (you can see the picture and read about that here).

Travel tips:

  •  If you’re going in a hot-tub with steps, remember, wood and water don’t mix!

State: Sinaloa

Is Mexico Safe
Los Mochis – not the prettiest place I’ve been in Mexico.

Where I went: Los Mochis

Travel advice:

UK: Drug related violence is a particular problem in this state.

USA: Defer non-essential travel to the state of Sinaloa except the city of Mazatlan, where you should exercise caution, particularly late at night and in the early morning.  One of Mexico’s most powerful criminal organizations is based in the state of Sinaloa, and violent crime rates remain high in many parts of the state.  Travel off the toll roads in remote areas of Sinaloa is especially dangerous and should be avoided.  We recommend that any travel in Mazatlan be limited to Zona Dorada and the historic town center, as well as direct routes to/from these locations and the airport.

How was it:

Sinaloa is one of the “drug cartel” states and I freaked myself out with paranoia while I was in Los Mochis (you can read about that here). I was there because Los Mochis was the last stop on the Copper Canyon route and I stayed in the city two nights to catch up on work after several days with intermittent wi-fi.

Even though I wound myself up into a state of twitchiness, nothing bad actually happened and the people I met were actually really nice and helpful. But reading about the infamous month where 142 people were killed in August 2011 did little to settle my imagination or my nerves.

That said, the town holds very little for tourists. Apart from a main square, which is twee, this is another functional town that’s best skipped or given no more than a night’s stay.

Worst thing that happened:

(Apart from freaking myself out) I realised that they have their own heat scale in Sinaloa and even with my fierce chilli tolerance, I sniffed, hiccupped and spluttered my way through my spicy chicken with spicy sauce and did, for at least 3 minutes, contemplate the possibility that I might die.

Oh, and the taxi drivers are as criminal here as in Chihuahua. After negotiating a $40MXN ride in a shared taxi, the driver later changed the price to $50MXN and swore blind I’d misunderstood him. I know my numbers in Spanish and he only decided to up the price when I handed over a $50MXN note.

Travel tips:

  • If you’re concerned, minimise your stay in the city. Two nights felt like way too much, even with a busy work schedule to catch up on.
  • Limit your exploration to the main centre.
  • Stay in a well-located hotel.
  • Plan the end of your Copper Canyon trip – arriving after 11pm into Los Mochis you won’t be able to catch the ferry to the Baja Peninsula but you might be able to catch a bus out of town.
  • Take the right money/change for your taxis and write the numbers down on a piece of paper before you get in to avoid post-trip inflation.
  • If you want to avoid Los Mochis altogether, end your Copper Canyon trip in El Fuerte.

I stayed at Hotel Fenix. It felt very safe, was across the road from an OXXO (Mexican version of 7-Eleven), had a restaurant attached and came with a 2pm check-out (handy if you’re taking the night ferry to La Paz).

State: Yucatán

Is Mexico Safe

Where I went: Mérida 

Travel advice:

UK: No advisory is in effect.

USA: No advisory is in effect.

How was it:

Mérida is a hard-working town and there’s nothing particularly sparkly about it…until you start to chat to the locals, eat the food and take in the live music in the square each night. I felt safe wielding my camera and walking alone at night around the main square. I didn’t and wouldn’t head to the market area alone after dark…but there’d be no reason to unless you’re looking for trouble.

Worst thing that happened:

I got lost around the market area during the day and was paranoid I was going to a) be pickpocketed and b) never find my way back. Neither happened.

Travel tips:

  • Stick to the historic centre at night.

So, that’s my state by state analysis of safety in Mexico. 

Fear is uniquely individual and I accept that the above stats may put a good number of you off visiting Mexico (even within the context of Mexico’s size and given that much of the trouble is concentrated in states you’re unlikely to visit).

If that’s the case, fair enough. The point of leisure travel is to enjoy yourself and if you’re not going to be able to relax through fear of something bad happening, then you’re better off going somewhere else (Spain, Italy and Hawaii are good, safe alternative). At least you’ve done some research before making an informed decision.

However, the reality is that tourism numbers are high in Mexico (11.8 million visitors arrived by air in 2013), those numbers are growing (up 9% compared to 2012) and, most importantly, the majority of tourist – myself included – visit Mexico without experiencing any trouble.

Travel insurance for Mexico

The last time I used my travel insurance was in Mexico but it was for dengue fever. The most important point was that I had insurance as I racked up over $2,000 in costs (changing a cruise plan is not cheap). If you are planning to go to Mexico (or anywhere outside your home country), I highly recommend travel insurance.

Get a quote from World Nomads here

Not sure whether you need travel insurance? Check out my related posts:

10 Times You’ll Realise the Importance of Travel Insurance

 What Does Travel Insurance Cover (and What is Excluded)?

A small disclaimer: Crime in Mexico is a complicated subject with a lot of data from myriad sources. I’m no expert on the topic. I’ve pulled together this article based on the best information and most reliable sources I’ve been able to find. My aim is to inform people about Mexico. If you have conflicting or more relevant information that I have missed, please send it to me and I’ll happily update this article. 

My other Mexico Blog Posts

20 Fun Things To Do In Tijuana Mexico

11 Best Things To Do in La Paz Mexico

Your Ultimate Baja California Road Trip Itinerary

Swimming with Sea Lions in Mexico – Isla Espiritu Santo Tour

Guide to Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico

How To Go Wine Tasting in Ensenada

Taking the Baja Ferry from Topolobampo to La Paz in Mexico

Visiting Tijuana from San Diego – The Ultimate Guide

Things To Do In The Copper Canyon – Where To Visit

The Copper Canyon Travel Guide: Planning Your Trip

Best Things to Do in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

How to Drink Tequila Like a Mexican

Quick and Easy Guacamole Recipe: From Mexico

Blog posts and packing lists for planning your trip

The Only Packing List You’ll Ever Need (with printable checklist)

15 Long Haul Flight Essentials: What to Take Onboard

Travel Insurance: Don’t get Screwed by the Small Print

101 Tips for Cheap Flights

Have you been to Mexico? Did you have a safe trip? Do you have any additional concerns about travelling to Mexico? Let me know in the comments below. 

Related Blog Posts About Mexico

Best Things to Do in Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico

Visiting Tijuana from San Diego – The Ultimate Guide

Guide to Swimming with Whale Sharks in Mexico

How to Drink Tequila Like A Mexican

Luxury in Los Cabos without Visiting a Resort

Planning an Affordable Copper Canyon Itinerary

The Copper Canyon Travel Guide – Planning Your Trip

Quick and Easy Guacamole Recipe from Mexico

10 thoughts on “Is Mexico Safe? From Someone Who’s Been”

  1. For over 25 years, I’ve run a huge fishing/diving/tour operation in La Paz and I’ve lived in La Paz the entire time and also own a large restaurant on the Malecon and we also own our own shuttle company. For fishing, we probably bring 500-1000 clients a year to La Paz.I’m also a writer and editor with over 1000 published articles. I have to say your article is probably the best I have ever read and you did an incredible job. We have over 60 employees, but ultimately, my wife and are a mom-and-pop operation. We answer all the phones and e-mails ourselves and every winter for almost 3 decades we do all the hunting and fishing expos in our booth all over the United States. We have to answer the very questions you bring up and answered so articulately.

    I have to say, in all our years and with so many thousands of clients, we have (Gracias a Dios), never had an issue with crime or injury to any of our clients and we’re into the 3rd generation of returning clients. Any issues we have had were largely “self-induced” injuries largely from too much alcohol or bad judgement (hangovers…de-hydration…dumb accidents) or the weather (sunburn…heatstroke).

    Thanks for the great job and super information. I’m going to save it! God bless and safe travels. If you’re ever back to La Paz, we would love to meet you. Come have a meal at our restaurant!

    Saludos y gracias!
    Jonathan Roldan
    Tailhunter Sportfishing

    Reply
    • Hi Jonathan, thanks for taking the time to stop by and comment. It sounds like you have built up a wonderful business in a beautiful part of the world (I LOVE La Paz). And thanks for also sharing your experience with issues in Mexico – that’s been my experience too. Alcohol and the sun have caused far more problems than any Mexicans ever have. I would love to stop by and say hello next time I’m back in La Paz. Say hello to the next sunset from me 🙂

      Reply
  2. I’ve been to Mexico seven times in the last year and I’m fixing to leave in two more weeks from now to go back to Mexico city I have been through Sonora and Mexico City and never have had any problems I absolutely love the culture and the beauty of that country

    Reply
  3. things do change..I was in Torreon , Mexico in July 2015..seemed peaceful and calm

    but I did read that 2 to 3 years prior it had been a hotbed of drug violence between warring gangs..the police force apparently quite corrupt..the mayor ending up firing the entire police force except for one person, and bring the military into town for a period to enforce law & order until a new police force could be formed..
    the violence level was WAY down & it was a fairly calm place in 2015

    Maybe similar to changes in Medellin Colombia in the Pablo Escobar era vs. later ?

    Reply
    • Thanks for the info, Kevin. Yes, you’re absolutely right that things can change and it’s fascinating to hear your first hand experience.

      Reply
  4. Due to increased drug cartel activity, Baja California Sur is NOT the safest place to visit anymore esp. in the La Paz area. So one needs to read current info before leaving as it changes sometimes month to month in Mexico.

    Reply
    • Mary, do you have any statistics or reports from online you could send me about La Paz and when things changed. I was there just last year and everything was fine. I know things can change quickly. Have things altered so much in the last 6 months?

      Reply
  5. Mexico is a great tourist destination for people who love adventures and traveling. When it comes to safety, you need to practice safety measures like being extra careful while traveling on their thoroughfares.

    Reply

Leave a Comment