Is Mexico Safe?… Horror Stories & Uneasy Rumors… Personal Safety and Comfort… Women alone…
Mexico is a very foreign country. On a scale of “foreignness” from 1 to 10, I rate Tacoma as a 1 (very familiar), Canada a 2, Texas a 3 and Mexico a solid 10. In spite of its proximity to the US and a long common border, Mexico often seems as different to us as Ecuador or China.
“Like Mexico, there are not two,” is a popular expression of pride in the country’s unique personality. In other words, Mexico is not the United States, but a distinct and different country, with its own language, foods and customs. This can be overwhelming at times, especially for the person who expects Mexico to be some kind of predictable theme-park filled with mariachi music and tequila sunrises.
- Will I be safe in Mexico? After giving a Mexico travel seminar and slide show in Seattle, I was approached by an excited, silver-haired grandmother who pressed my hand and exclaimed, “Oh, thank you! I’m so relieved! My husband’s friends swore that if we went to Mexico we wouldn’t have a chance!” She recounted a chilling list of horror stories, premeditated crimes and bandit antics that her well-meaning friends claimed await anyone foolish enough to step south of the border.
“It sounded just too awful to be true!” she concluded. “But then again, I wanted to hear your opinion before we bought tickets to Acapulco.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry.
Even such anxious queries as “Can I avoid diarrhea?” (yes, see Health) and “Where’s your favorite beach?” (a closely guarded secret) take a back seat to the question, “Is Mexico safe?” Having lived and traveled in Mexico for most of the past 20 years, we answer this question with an emphatic yes!
- OK, if Mexico is safe, why are some people so nervous? In a word, bad news not only travels fast but it dies very slowly. We still hear nervous questions about well-publicized crimes and natural disasters that took place many years ago.
Mexicans and foreign residents often complain that in the eyes of the American and international press, “the only news about Mexico is bad news.” Drug wars, bus wrecks, floods and hurricanes make good headlines and attention grabbing sound bites. This sensational form of news coverage contributes to the mistaken impression that Mexico (or the world beyond our own borders) is a riskier place than home.
“As a matter of cold fact, there are more bandits in a city like Los Angeles in one night than in the entire Republic of Mexico in a year. But being more picturesque, every bandit in Mexico becomes an alluring drama to the Yankee newspapers.”
Old Mother Mexico by Harry Carr (1931)
Keep in mind that several million tourists visit Mexico every year, including students, families, tour groups, singles, retirees and honeymooners. Of these millions of annual visitors only the tiniest fraction have problems during their stay. As I said, however, Mexico is definitely different. A certain amount of nervousness is natural. Once you get used to that difference, you’ll relax and be able to laugh off your old fears.
“I was lying on the beach near Zihuatanejo, getting a suntan, when all of a sudden a bunch of soldiers with machine guns went by. What was it, a revolution?’’
No, it wasn’t a revolution or war maneuvers; it was Mexico’s way of telling tourists to relax! Military patrols on beaches are part of Mexico’s Immediate Action Program For Tourism Promotion. This ambitious plan includes measures to improve Mexico’s safety, to spruce up the country’s image and to expand tourism facilities and services.
Eighteen-year-old marines toting machine guns on public beaches and army units posted on major tourist highways are part of this reassurance program, as are increased numbers of uniformed cops and “Green Angel” highway patrols. More than a thousand Green Angel trucks offer tourists everything from on?the?spot car repairs and gasoline to medical assistance and directions.
In our experience, tourists lead a charmed life in Mexico. In fact, statistics show that you are more likely to be the victim of violent crime while in the United States than in Mexico.
If you’re like me and find cold comfort in statistics, consider what Lorena and I have heard expressed by hundreds of Mexico travelers, from backpackers and budget vagabonds to stockbrokers, secretaries, college professors, retirees, students and snowbirds escaping northern winters. Among those who spend more than a couple of weeks in Mexico or who make repeat visits, the consensus is virtually unanimous: Mexico actually feels safer than the US. (As several parents pointed out, children play freely in public parks and walk city streets without close supervision.)
Although Mexico is safe, it is by no means perfectly safe. Some tourists are the victims of crimes (committed both by Mexicans and other tourists). Others have problems that are best described as “self-inflicted.” Of these, drinking, drugging and reckless driving top the list. I’ll never forget the drunken American woman shouting across the hotel lobby, “I’ve got $2,000 and two days to blow it!” For a moment, I was tempted to “help” her out myself.
Unfortunately, scenes like this aren’t that uncommon, especially in resorts. When it comes to trouble, tequila takes a far higher toll than the busiest bandido. I consider it a testimony to Mexico’s safety that so few tourists infected with “fiesta fever’’ actually land in hot water.
- Solo and first-time travelers are especially vulnerable to strained nerves. The normal stresses and minor anxieties associated with travel are often heightened by not being able to talk things out with a friend or family member. Bottling up our fears and frustrations can lead to a malady I call Traveler’s Paranoia. Symptoms include a morbid fascination with airline timetables and uncontrollable fantasies of being stranded in the middle of Mexico City without your traveler’s checks.
- Women traveling alone may be the object of unwanted attention from men Follow the example of Mexican women: sit with other women on buses and trains; don’t respond to men’s comments and overtures; look for other women or tourist companions for trips to ruins, beaches and other out-of-the-way places.
Use cabs late at night rather than walking. Unfortunately, men often assume that women on lonely streets and deserted beaches are searching for companionship. Carry a key chain whistle and, if you’re bothered by someone, give your whistle a mighty blast. Mexican cops use whistles to signal each other and to scare off troublemakers.
Until you feel comfortable in Mexico, don’t be embarrassed to pamper yourself a little. Travelers on a tight budget should be especially careful not to subject themselves to more of Mexico than they can comfortably handle. As a rule of thumb, the cheaper a hotel room is, the more “interesting” it will be. When your sense of humor about the situation has worn as thin as the sheets, it’s time for a temporary upgrade in accommodations, at least until you get your feet back on the ground.