Official warnings and news reports often paint a nerve-wracking picture of Mexico, but just how dangerous is the country? Stephen Keeling, co-author of the Rough Guide to Mexico, offers his first hand thoughts on some of the most supposedly dicey areas.
Sipping margaritas on Puerto Vallarta's languid beach, pelicans gliding off shore and kids playing in the sand, it's hard to imagine Mexico at war. But I'm here updating the latest Rough Guide to Mexico, and it's my job to get to the truth. Reluctantly, I ask my companion – who works at the Marriott Resort – to talk about the nation's troubles. "Ah", she says, "you mean the media war on Mexico? Yes, that has been very tough."
As one of the world’s great civilizations and most beautiful nations, Mexico has always attracted hordes of tourists, from backpackers to cruise ship passengers. Yet since 2008 the tourist industry has been hammered, with Brits and Americans especially put off by a series of government travel warnings and the gruesome crimes committed by Mexican drug gangs.
Terrifying as cartels like Los Zetas and their turf wars are, how much of this crime really affects tourists? The short answer is: very little. News reports often confuse things further by blaming a small number of muggings and robberies (which can happen anywhere) with gang warfare. I’ve spent the last two months travelling in Mexico, and here’s a brief report of some of the most ‘dangerous’ places I visited.
What they say:
The UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office: "Public shootouts during daylight hours in shopping centres...as well as large firefights have occurred in Tijuana."
The US Department of State, Bureau of Consular Affairs: "Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured, have occurred during daylight hours throughout the city."
Baghdad on a bad day? Not quite. The two parts of Tijuana where tourists actually spend time – Avenida Revolución and Zona Río – are swarming with police and army patrols, not to mention school groups and Mexican families. I walked between the US border and La Revo several times and saw dozing store owners, boys fishing in the Tijuana River and tourists sipping Tecate, but zero gangsters. La Revo has started to attract American day-trippers and even some Japanese backpackers again. The chances of actually being caught in a firefight are surely very remote.
What they say:
FCO: "There continues to be a high level of drug-related murders and violent acts in Acapulco."
CA: "In Acapulco, defer non-essential travel to areas further than two blocks inland of …the popular beach areas."
Acapulco wants your business. Taxi drivers, bus drivers, cocktail makers, boat captains, water taxi pilots, waitresses, raspados sellers and just about every other local I met were friendly, tried to speak English and were exceptionally kind. Acapulco was badly affected by some nasty incidents last year, but when I arrived the streets were literally heaving with troops and federal police, and tourism was booming. I travelled around in local taxis and buses during the day, and I doubt much is going to happen when families with small kids are out in force. The biggest danger I think you’ll face on a bus is ear damage – Acapulco drivers seem to believe their buses are mobile nightclubs.
What they say:
FCO: "There were 1,815 drug-related killings in Sinaloa in 2010."
CA: "You should defer non-essential travel to the state of Sinaloa."
Los Mochis – terminus of the Copper Canyon railway – has always been a dull city, but I'm not sure it's especially dangerous. I walked all over the centre, ate in local restaurants, and took buses up and down the coastal highway into Sonora. I didn't see any foreign tourists, it's true, and the streets were very quiet after dark, but I didn't feel threatened here. If you visit anywhere in Sinaloa right now you will stand out as a foreigner so if that freaks you out, don't go.
What they say:
CA: "In the last year, the city of Mazatlán has experienced a level of violence not seen before... and incidents are occurring more frequently in tourist areas."
If every taxi driver can point out the house 'owned' by Mexico's most wanted drug trafficker (Joaquín Guzmán Loera aka El Chapo), it seems unlikely he'll actually be there. An incident reported by Canadian media was horrific but extremely rare and nothing to do with drug gangs. To be honest, the resort areas in Mazatlán are actually fairly shabby – time spent in the centro histórico is far more rewarding, with new museums, cafes and bars, and streets being given handsome makeovers every year. Locals stroll, jog and doze on the malecón, while surfers dodge little more than fat pelicans offshore.
What they say:
CA: "The level of violence and insecurity in Monterrey has increased, illustrated by an attack on a popular local casino that resulted in 52 deaths."
How sad: the once happening Barrio Antiguo area of bars and clubs in Monterrey has virtually closed down, thanks to drug violence. When I visited it was safe during the day, but dead at night. That said, life goes on; Monterrey is a huge city, full of museums, businesses and students – stay in the main areas during the day, and you will be safe.
It's also worth noting that much of Mexico is considered totally safe: Los Cabos and Cancún/the-yucatan for example, or the Bajío cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel Allende. Conversely, cities along the border such as Ciudad Juárez and Nuevo Laredo should be definitely avoided - but who wants to go there anyway?
Views are the author's only and travellers should always check the latest travel advice before heading off. The FCO and CA and other local governments do monitor the situation and offer updated advice.