Let’s Talk About Safety in Mexico

When I saw the CNN article my heart sank. “American Adventurer Missing in Mexico,” the headline blared. I had never heard of Harry Devers before, but it looks like he was a kindred spirit; exploring Latin America via motorcycle and writing about his experience. He’s been missing since January 25, last seen in a war-torn part of Mexico.

My heart sank for Harry, I really hope they find him unharmed. It also sank becaues I knew what was coming next: the never ending debate about whether Mexico is safe for tourists.

The comments confirmed what I feared (someday I will learn to stop reading cnn comments). I skipped over the massive, seriously inane debate about whether the US should invade Mexico, and all of the comments deriding the guy for quitting his job to travel. Still, nearly every other comment was about how dangerous Mexico is, how insane it is to travel there, how stupid this guy must have been.

It wasn’t just the idiots over at CNN though. Actual travel bloggers in one of my facebook groups echoed the same sentiments like they were truths. I shut the computer and looked out the window. Down on the street a handful of kids were playing with a hose, splashing each other and shrieking. A dog frolicked happily in the dry riverbed below them. Our landloard, Zach, was blasting a Beatles song from his smoothie street shop.

It didn’t seem incredibly dangerous outside. So, while I’ve been avoiding the topic because honestly, it seems like common sense to me, I guess it’s time. Let’s talk about whether or not it’s safe to travel to Mexico.

Let’s Talk Statistics

I’m not an expert, so I am going to quote liberally from my favorite article on the safety of traveling to Mexico by Robert Reid. After agreeing that yes, the murder rate in Mexico is three times that of the United States, he points out that the more pertinent stat is the amount of murders perpetrated against tourists.

According to FBI crime statistics, 4.8 Americans per 100,000 were murdered in the US in 2010. The US State Department reports that 120 Americans of the 5.7 million who visited Mexico last year were murdered, which is a rate of 2.1 of 100,000 visitors. Regardless of whether they were or weren’t connected to drug trafficking, which is often not clear, it’s less than half the US national rate.

Unfortunately the United States is not the bastion of safety certain people sometimes tell themselves it is. People are shot here on a near constant basis for absolutely no reason whatsoever. In just the past year or two there have been well publicized incidents of people being senselessly murdered while at the movies, in school, at work or watching the Boston Marathon.

In the end, the safety of Mexico is highly dependent on where you go, just like in Colombia, Brazil and yes, the United States. As Reid points out:

New Orleans, host city of next year’s Super Bowl, broke its own tourism record last year with 8 million visitors. Yet the Big Easy has ten times the US homicide rate, close to triple Mexico’s national rate.

Crimes against tourists are highly reported and emphasized by US press, so it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that the world is a scary place. Reality is of course more nuanced.

Let’s Talk Experience

So now that we’ve seen the real statistical danger of being a tourist in Mexico, let me tell you about my everyday reality, as someone who has spent the last four and a half months living here.

Mike and I live in a peaceful surf town on the west coast of Mexico called Sayulita. It’s small, but popular with both international and Mexican tourists. In the past month the most discussed criminal activity has been how to deal with bars that play their music too loud. It’s not perfect, there is the occasional break-in etc., but I am pretty sure this small town in Mexico is the safest community I have ever lived in.

The Mexico I see everyday is incredibly warm, not just in temperature but in terms of the fun, happy and welcoming people I get to meet every day. Mexicans have to be some of the most friendliest people in the world. Our day to day life is colored with impromptu parades, town sponsored baseball games and the occasional town concert.

In the evenings people of all ages congregate in the plaza. Groups of teenage boys huddle together drinking giant bottles of Coke while younger kids play tag or skateboard. We have no fear walking home at night here, no concerns over being mugged or even pickpocketed. Imposing police trucks patrol the streets in the evening but the only time I’ve ever seen the officers in action was to preside over a fender bender. 

Compare this to when we lived in Buenos Aires, when we were constantly on guard against pickpockets, crooked cabbies and counterfeit money. Where one of Mike’s relatives was literally taken hostage while buying pet food during our stay. I liked Buenos Aires but there was a level of tension there that I don’t feel here.

How come hardly anyone ever asks me whether it’s safe to travel to Argentina?

Let’s Talk About Evaluating Risks

I spent quite awhile looking through Harry Dever’s instagram feed as I wrote this. His pictures are amazing and his adventures are numerous. Over the past few weeks it looks like he passed through Mexico City and Guanajuato, both places I hope to visit soon. His last picture is a colorful sunset in Morelia, Mihoacan, and that is where the two of us diverge.

Mihoacan is not an area I would travel to in it’s current state. Drug cartel activity in the area is out of control, so much so that authorities are deputizing vigilantes in hopes of bringing some order to the area. The US State Department warns against travel to Mihoacan, and current news articles seem to reinforce that idea.

I’m not judging Dever’s choices because I think everyone needs to evaluate the safety risks they are willing to take. Still, Dever’s disappearance in Mihoacan is not a comment on the safety of Mexico as a whole, it’s a comment on the safety of traveling in that particular state. Simply reading about this on scary incident doesn’t give you enough information to make a balanced decision.

The bottom line is that Mexico is an enormous country. Writing off Mexico because of a murder in Mihoacan is like writing off the United States because of the crime rate in New Orleans. The areas of Mexico you are most likely to travel to as a tourist are safe. Literally millions of people, more than twenty million last year, visited without incident.

So come to Mexico! Or don’t. More tacos for me. Just don’t let fear override your decision making skills.

Do you think Mexico is safe for travelers?

About The Author

76 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Safety in Mexico”

  1. Thank you, this is exactly the information I was looking for. I’ve been dying to see Morelia for about 8 or 9 years, and wondered if it was safe. I know that border areas are dangerous, but knew there are many places outside the border areas. Sometimes I think travel warnings use an overabundance of caution, or generalize risk that is localized. At the same time, I know there are travelers out there who trivialize risk, and tell others not to worry when they should be worried. You definitely made it clear you aren’t overly-nervous about Mexico, but your statement that you wouldn’t go to Mihoacan made it clear you’re not foolhardy, either, and convinced me I really just need to shelve the Morelia trip.

  2. My last visit to Mexico was to Uruapan. I felt fine and safe in the city, even if my host disagreed with me on that point. With the whole safety issue, it is how and where you travel. In general your going to be ok in larger cities. Traveling from City to City can get a bit dicey. In general the west side of Mexico is more dangerous that the East. If your in a tourist city and stay within the tourist area your going to be just fine, it is probably safer in those areas than Washington DC or Vegas.

    My best advise is if traveling outside of a metropolitan area, ask the locals. They know, they will tell you.

  3. Great article. I was raised in the US (from birth to the age of 20) but born in Mexico. After high school I decided to go back to Mexico. I lived there for almost 7 years. I had the time of my life. Everything is slower and people are great. I got a job offer in Canada so I am currently living in Canada but I cant wait to go back home to Mexico next year.
    Don’t get me wrong. Mexico is a very dangerous place if your not careful. As long as you stay in big cities or close to expats you should be pretty good. But like ever city in ever place on earth, sometimes bad things just happen.

  4. There are far more dangerous places to travel in the world–Michoacan has many wonderful things to see, including Monarch butterfly sanctuaries, historic centers like Patzcuaro and Morelia. I traveled from Guanajuato to Morelia to Patzcuaro to Zihuatanejo–alone. I’m a 62 year old female. The worst thing that happened to me was hookworm from the beach in Guerrero State. Now, that’s what I want to warn folks about–wear your beach shoes in undeveloped, poor beach towns! People in Michoacan were wonderful–and they need our tourist dollars!

  5. Having lived in Mexico and traveled all over the country for the past eight years, let me suggest that we do here exactly what people do in the States: We learn where the hot spots are and we avoid them. Simple as that.

  6. People are afraid to get out of bed in the morning, do nothing but sit in the house all day have no clue what this world is all about. But these same people have nothing better to do than “gossip” and spread bad news without knowing any facts. Narrow minded idoits! I am a white redheaded male born and raised in Calif. and now living in the dreaded area of Mazatlan with my US wife. We have lived here for the past ten years. Yes those idoits are right its so very dangerous here, im scared to death! So please dont travel or move here as i like the peace and quiet that this country offers. We have traveled thru a lot of this country in the past 25 or more years and have always been accepted and have learned that the mexican people go out of the way to help when lost or whatever. Never have we felt threatned, and I have been traveling here since i was a hell raising kid just looking for trouble, never found any.
    So you chickenshits stay where you are,never seeing the more beautiful things life has to offer.

    Rusty Davis

  7. Mexico is as safe or not as anywhere else. You must exercise precaution in all travel. You’d choice of where you go, the roads you travel, your activities and thebtimd of day you travel all impact your safety. We haveord freedom to do many of these choices in the US and find less risk. But depending on where you go there is no greater risk. I bought s house in Queretaro, QRO- considered the 2nd safest state in MX. Plenty of control by a well run police force and s mayor and governor who go not want the issues as in other places. I feel very safe here at night I’m the downtown but it is s city and do I still exercise caution. We had flown for a few years to cut down our risks big that didn’t stop us from traveling to MX. We are back to driving and there us more protection on the highways as they have stepped up the security at the border . Nonetheless we drive here during the busiest season when more people travel by car from Dec to April. We do as we have been told by the MX embassy – travel only during the day and stay on the tollways. Stop only in places where there is police protection and lots of people. In just 4 years I’ve wirmessed literally no travelers by car to thousands returning. This is encouraging as the economy dies need it and people need to feel safe to travel yo visit their homes and family. We also travel by car to Ixtspa passing through Michoacan where a lot of the violence has erupted. Again we follow the same rules and have found plenty of security. So is MX safe? Yes- just as safe as anywhere else– just use common sense and remember you are in s foreign country– so be respectful , follow the rules, use caution in your travel just like anywhere else. If you accidentally get off the beaten path trust there are good people everywhere who will help– there are also bad people just like everywhere. This however is not the time to get off thd beaten path unless you are with people who are educated in the area. Travel to MX by plane to the tourist areas has always been safe–I would not judge MX by the crime. You judge any country by the political climate and what they are doing or Not doing to stop it. MX has had some issues with this but it doesn’t stop me from traveling here. I adjust my plans as needed so GO to MX and have a great time and make great memories.

  8. I don’t know how to operate this website from mobile, so I apologize if I reply this to a comment that has nothing to do with the actual comment.
    My parents went to Michoacan, Mexico for Christmas of 2013 (at this time I was terrified of them going because of what had been going that I saw in the News) and they told me that everything was really relaxed and peaceful. Wanna know the worst part, they went by driving in their new(ish) car (not trying to show off), and they told me everything was absolutely fine. Yea there was “stuff” going on, but just like here in the U.S and everywhere, you go to Atlanta, Ga (i’m from Atlanta) and you know the good parts of Atlanta and the bad parts of Atlanta. They told me the media exaggerated the situation dramatically. They were able to go back and forth to Morelia and have posadas among other things. Just saying. I plan on going this year, Christmas 2015, not sure though

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