By Ann Johnson / Aoltravel.com
Drug-related violence in cities south of the United States-Mexico border has caused the U.S. State Department to issue a travel warning for Mexico — but did you know most of Mexico is as safe as ever? Our government is actually advising against visiting very specific places where drug cartels are warring over the billions of dollars made yearly trading illegal substances into the United States, and the efforts by the Mexican government to put an end to the drug traffic. Unfortunately, after hearing “warning” and “Mexico,” many Americans perceive the advisory for the country as a whole, which it definitely is not.
There are, of course, caveats about travel in Mexico, just as there are for visits to any foreign city or resort area, but many of these fall under the realm of common sense: Don’t stray from the well-known tourist areas, stay alert and don’t drink too much, avoid walking alone at night, only take public transportation or drive on the highways during daylight, don’t deck yourself out in expensive jewelry and avoid large crowds and demonstrations. Before traveling to Mexico, make sure your cell phone works on GSM or 3G international networks, and memorize the Mexican version of our 911, which is 066.
“The news media prefer to report horrible events rather than address the reality; Mexico is, in general, a very safe country — with the notable and news-making exception of Juarez and other border towns — and has far less violent crime than any large U.S. city,” says Barbara Erickson, one of more than a million Americans who lives safely in Mexico.
According to Erickson, a San Miguel de Allende resident, “one would have a greater chance of being hit by lightning than being shot or kidnapped by a drug load’s gang.”
Another plus to our relations with those living south of the border is American companies successfully conduct business in Mexico. “I have clients traveling to Mexico regularly to film and to do photo productions and we have never had any problems,” says Clare Beresford of World Locations in Hollywood, a company that scouts locations for movies, commercials and photo shoots.” World Locations has sent people to Mexico City, Merida, Zihuatenejo, Manzanillo, Puerto Vallarta and Careyes, among many destinations.
Tourism from North America is a significant part of Mexico’s economy. In 2008, foreign visitors (22.6 million of them, 80 percent of whom were from the U.S.) spent $13.3 billion in Mexico, making up 13.8 percent of the country’s GDP.
But in 2009, Mexican tourism was hammered by the U.S. recession and the swine flu epidemic. Cruise ships briefly canceled trips to the country, and many restaurants and archaeological sites were briefly closed. The revenue from foreign tourism dropped 15 percent to 11.3 billion. This year, tourism is expected to rebound. But 2010 could be another bad year if fear keeps U.S. citizens away.
We’ve drawn up a list of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations and rated them one to five, one being the highest cause for concern, and five being the safest.
THE RIVIERA MAYA, COZUMEL AND CANCUN
Cancun is one of Mexico’s most popular beach resorts, which average around four million American visitors per year. Last year a retired Mexican general investigating corruption was assassinated by drug traffickers, but that’s been an isolated event. Over-consumption of alcohol by younger tourists is a problem, and there have been rapes. But on the whole, Cancun is extremely safe. “The leading cause of foreign tourist deaths in Cancun is heart attacks, car accidents and accidental drowning,” says Canadian writer Marlo-Renay Heresco, a Cancun resident who blogs about her life in Mexico on her website, atravelartist.com. “The key to success when traveling or living abroad is exercising common sense.” The Riviera Maya (the Yucatan coast stretching south from Cancun) has little to fear beyond sunburn. The island of Cozumel off the Riviera Maya is a popular, very safe destination for cruise ships, where problems are the occasional purse-snatching or picked pocket.
Although many people visit Chichen Itza on day-trips from Cancun, Merida is the gateway to comprehensive exploration of Uxmal and other significant Mayan ruins scattered across the state of Yucatan. Merida is a quiet, charming city, and the main ruins have well-organized tours and visitor’s centers, as well as guards. In addition to hotels in Merida, the Yucatan has a number of colonial-era haciendas that have been converted into small resorts. Mayan villagers are welcoming. Here again, it’s not a good idea to drive on unlighted roads at night, but central Merida’s busy colonial-era streets are safe to stroll at night. “Mexico is a large country… deciding not to travel “to Mexico” because of violence is like saying you won’t go to New York because of a murder in Denver,” says Merida resident Ellen Fields. “Yes, there are places in Mexico where violence is on the rise. Where I live, Merida on the Yucatan Peninsula, and the nearby Mayan Riviera, has not seen this violence and is a very safe place to visit or to live.”
Place Fear Factor
Riviera Maya, Cancun and Cozumel 5
Merida and Mayan Ruins in Yucatán 5
Los Cabos 5
Puerto Vallarta 5
Ixtapa – Zihuatanejo 5
San Miguel de Allende 5
Mexico City 4.7
Border Cities 1
The Most Dangerous Places In Mexico
Despite the increase in drug-related violence, a closer look at Mexico shows that the country is actually safer than what headlines suggest. As a whole, Mexico’s murder rate is surprisingly low: 12 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants. When compared to Washington, D.C.’s 31 people per 100,000 inhabitants and New Orleans 64, the numbers aren’t cause for concern if you know where to avoid.
According to the State Department’s warning, these are the places you should take extra caution: Ciudad Juarez, Gomez Palacio, Durango, Torreon, Chihuahua, Sinaloa and Northern Baja California, Tijuana, Nogales, Nuevo Laredo, Matamoros, Monterrey.