Safety in Mexico: Is Mexico safe?
If you are planning to travel to Mexico, this is probably the first question you’re asking.
If you’re wondering if it’s as scary as how the media portrays, it’s not. If you’re wondering if it’s as safe as most YouTube videos and Facebook groups say, well it’s not either.
I lived in Guadalajara. If you’ve watched Narcos: Mexico you’ll know the importance this city had in the Mexican drug world. It’s listed as a Level 3 in the U.S. State Department Travel Advisory scale. Granted, all of Mexico is listed as a Level 2, there are only 4 levels in the whole scale. Five states in Mexico managed to rank at a Level 4, the highest level. But you’re not planning on visiting those anyway. Plus, most of these dangers are due to drugs, so don’t get involved and you’re fine right?
But then the question is,
You’ll hear varying stories the more you ask around. Most Mexicans told us, Mexico is very safe, it’s no unsafer than the US. Even in expat groups around Facebook, people will quickly shut out a conversation about danger and lead you to believe it’s all hype. Look I get it, the media tries to scare us, the state department has to be uber safe in their recommendations, but still, should you accept that as is?
I don’t want to scare any one, but it can get scary. There is a real degree of danger present in the country. I lived in Mexico for 4 months. 3 of those months were in Guadalajara, the state capital of Jalisco. We visited most corners of Guadalajara as well as Jalisco. The other month was traveling around the beautiful country, including to two of the states listed as a Level 4. Mexico is a very beautiful country with a lot to see. There are beautiful beaches, mountains, desert, city life, pueblo life, you name it, you can probably find it. It doesn’t get extremely cold but there are mountains that do get covered in snow, such as in Toluca. I came to this country as I go to most, to visit these areas, learn about the culture, practice my Spanish, and to see if what is said about the country is real. I wanted to experience it for myself.
So, is it to the level that the US State Department and media try to make it out to be, no. Are there areas that are extremely dangerous and you shouldn’t go, yes. I had traveled to Mexico four times before. Mostly to the touristy areas, such as Cancun and Riviera Maya, and once to Tijuana. If you stay around the tourist areas, you’ll be fine and shouldn’t have to worry about any of this. Mexico essentially puts Cancun and the surrounding areas on a pedestal so they are just as safe as any other beach destination in the world. Exercise normal precautions, don’t get involved with drugs, and just be smart.
This article is about the rest of the country
Spoiler Alert: There is danger in Mexico. This is what we encountered
Safety in Guadalajara
The second week my girlfriend and I were living in Guadalajara (GDL) we went to Tlaquepaque. This is a real artsy city/neighborhood in the GDL metropolitan area that is known for its art, bars, boutiques, and mariachi performances. Definitely worth a visit.
But on the way there we got off a couple bus stops earlier and decided to walk. Sure enough we passed a building that was taped off by police. A journalist told us this was a drive-by but no one else got hurt, however, they still haven’t caught the suspect nor the victim. Both cars were running, empty, and the VW had blood visible in the back seat. Even though we were safe we were reminded that safety is a real concern and you could just be at the wrong place at the wrong time. This was in broad daylight, around 4pm, and two blocks away from a university.
Other than that incident there are sketchy areas such as near the Walmart and police station in Chapultepec where you shouldn’t walk around at night. Weird that I mention being unsafe near a police station right? I’ll explain why you can’t trust any cops in Mexico down below. If you are east of Parque Morales at night, such as the numerous bus stops there, I would suggest to exercise caution walking at night or just don’t.
The 5 states listed as a Level 4 in the US State Departments Travel Advisory are Colima, Guerrero, Michoacán, Sinaloa, and Tamaulipas. That puts them in the same level as Afgahanistan, Central African Republic, Iraq, Iran, Lybia, Mali, Somalia, Syria, North Korea, South Sudan, and Yemen. Crazy right?? Thus, those areas should not be visited just on a whim. We did visit two of those states, Michoacán and Colima but we did our research, asked around, tried to be smart, and just hoped for the best.
Safety in Michoacán
For Día de los Muertos we wanted to go to Michoacan. What perfect time to go! No really, Michoacan is considered to have one of the best celebrations thus it would be packed and is a holiday that Mexicans celebrate religiously. We figured it would be one of the safest times to go.
And it was. We loved Morelia and at no point did we feel unsafe during the Día de los Muertos celebrations. We drove around a lot of Michoacán but you could notice it is a poor state. A couple of days later, upon entering the town of Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro that’s when we got our first sense of “ok this might be real”.
To enter the town you have to pass through the town gates. As we pulled up to this town gate we found guys in masks holding AK-47s and automatic rifles. One guy had a bucket as if he was asking for money. These guys did not have any uniform but instead were in jeans and face masks. They were on both sides of this gate and there were more guys in a shack just two meters away. Pretty much your worst nightmare. We didn’t know what to do, we couldn’t turn back so do we just pay these guys or try to speed off, or, or…. We had no idea.
A run-in with the… Cartel?
The car in front of us didn’t pay and as we approached they didn’t stop us so we just continued. We later learned that these guys were part of the town’s paramilitary in attempts to keep the cartels out. This town had been over taken by cartels and only 6 months ago did they kill all the cartel members in the town and are now trying to keep them out by guarding the town gates. That was when we were reminded this is not the movies. This is real. The town is also pretty sketchy and we didn’t feel comfortable there but it was a group of 5 of us that night just trying to get a place to sleep for our volcano hike the next morning.
As we were leaving Michoacán the next night we found a tractor trailer stopped on the side of the road. The driver was trying to wave us down with his cellphone flashlight. It was pitch black outside except for this truck and this guy. Two things to remember when driving in Mexico are 1, don’t drive at night and 2, don’t stop for anyone. Unfortunately we had to drive at night that night but you could be sure that we sped off and didn’t stop for anyone. (The truck was stopped less than 2km away from the next town in an area that had cell service. In retrospect it was even creepier than we remembered).
Safety in Colima
We went to the beach town of Manzanillo for a weekend. The tourist area of Manzanillo is somewhat considered safe but after spending a weekend there I would say don’t bother. It’s a sketchy little port city with no good beaches with a bunch of weird casinos scattered about. It’s where the locals go for the weekend and there really wasn’t anything to write home about.
Safety in Mexico City
I loved Mexico City! It’s such a vibrant city with so much to see and do. Just as any other big city it has its crime but it’s mostly in the suburbs outside the city center. From the center of the city if you take a bus 20 minutes out then you’ll notice the atmosphere changes and there are areas you probably shouldn’t be in.
Coming from a big city this didn’t bother me as in every big city there are areas you shouldn’t go if you want to avoid trouble. Mexico City felt no unsafer than New York City, and even being significantly more populated than NYC it never felt so. If you are planning on visiting Ciudad de Mexico I would say definitely do it! Of course keep your head on your shoulders, don’t walk around at night by yourself, research a bit about what you’re trying to visit, but definitely see this city!
Safety in Chiapas
All I wanted to do was visit Chiapas. Known as one of the most beautiful areas of the country, this was the main state I wanted to visit. Unfortunately my time in that area of the country was really short. We had rented a car and were going from Oaxaca to Tuxtla Gutiérrez in Chiapas. This was considered a fairly safe route, especially since AMLO had recently been inaugurated as the new president. However, an hour away from Tuxtla there was a roadblock. Unfortunately I don’t have any pictures as I didn’t want to take any and possibly start any trouble.
Imagine a two lane highway, one in each direction, blocked off by a bus and other vehicles including tractor trailers and having a protest within that area. There was about a 3km stretch of buses and trucks that had been sitting in that road block for a really long time. We asked one of the truck drivers at the front and he said he had been there since 7am, 10 hours ago! There were many guys on motorcycles offering to take us through some back roads/off-road to get around that pueblo for 50MXN pesos. We declined and instead went to ask a civil protection officer about 5 km back for some input.
The 3 day long roadblock
We asked, how can they block a highway that is used by so many trucks to get across. Isn’t this illegal, can’t the police do anything about it? His answer was yes it is illegal but the police won’t do anything about it. Here the police don’t have much power and it is mostly “law of the land”. There aren’t many police around here and the few that are won’t do anything about something like this.
We asked about the motorcycles showing around the back roads, and he quickly said DON’T. Don’t trust them, and don’t risk going with them. Many of them love to rob people halfway in and there’s no way to get help. Didn’t take much convincing me to skip that.
So instead he told us to go wait at a gas station about 3km back and when the road block let up that he would come get us. There were many trucks and vehicles stopped there so we stayed there with most of everyone else who couldn’t get through. A couple hours later he comes back to us to tell us they aren’t going to reopen this road for the next 3 days.
Because of our tight time restraints and unable to go back down and around to another highway we spent that night trying to find flights to just skip Chiapas. My heart was broken as I wouldn’t be able to see this beautiful state but it would have only been the beginning as the road from San Cristobal de las Casas to Palenque was the road I was really stressing about. Anyways, I trusted my gut and had to swallow my pride and skip it.
Trusting the police: DON’T
Unfortunately, Mexico is very corrupt. The level of corruption is from the high government all the way down to the cop walking the street. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you need help, it’s unfortunate that you can’t trust the police to help you. There are many stories where the police will either ask you for money before they start helping you or turn it around and try to blame you for something, just so they could later extort you for money. You need to weigh whether the situation you’re in is better to involve the cops or should you just take the loss and not involve them.
Out of the 4 months I was there I only interacted with them three times, once to get this photo at the Independence Day parade in CDMX, once to ask a question at shopping mall just to see how they would act, and unfortunately once as we were leaving a Lucha Libre fight. We were with two other friends, we had all been drinking that night but fortunately one friend had stopped hours earlier. The Two cops on motorcycles saw a car filled with 4 fairly young passengers and decided to pull us over. Sure enough they knew we had been out, they knew me and my girlfriend were foreigners and they kept on interrogating us and searching all our belongings.
Luckily we had done nothing wrong or had anything of contraband on us but they still wouldn’t let any of us leave. One passer-by had yelled at the cops that there was a fight breaking out a block away and told them to go do their jobs. Shortly after they did leave but it was only afterwards that I found out the driver had taken care of the situation with a 1000 peso bribe. I asked why he did that as none of us had done anything illegal or had anything and his response to me was “this is Mexico, this is how things work. They will keep on asking you questions all night until they find something to lock you up. Just pay them and they go away.” I asked why did he pay so much and he said he didn’t have smaller change. Try to avoid them whenever possible (and also carry some 200 peso notes).
Should you visit it?
If you’re planning on visiting Mexico I would definitely suggest you do it! There is so much to see and experience here that it would be a shame to skip out on this whole country for some of the negativity it offers. The culture, the food, the people, and the history it has to offer is amazing. But be aware that danger does exist and you can do a great deal to avoid most of it. Hopefully this article has prepared you for some of things that do exist in Mexico and how to be aware of them and avoid them yourself.
Quick tips on exercising Safety in Mexico
- Avoid dangerous states. Not only those 5 on the U.S. State Department list but there are a couple others I would avoid currently including most of the northern areas including Durango and Juarez, as well as Chiapas and Acapulco. Dangerous areas are always changing so do your due diligence and research a bit before you plan to go to an area.
- Don’t get involved with drugs and know the risks.
- Don’t walk alone, especially females.
- Always carry some pocket/bribe money. Back in the States and in Australia I almost never carried cash. It’s also goes against most advice I usually give about don’t carry any more cash than you really need. But here in Mexico I made sure to always have some extra dinero on me even if I wasn’t planning on buying anything just to pay off the cops. This is mostly if I was driving but even when I wasn’t I would always have some money on me. The consequences if you didn’t have money were not worth possibly losing that money if it got lost or robbed.
- Learn Spanish and use it. Use this trip to practice on your Spanish and use it! People will be more open to you, willing to help you, willing to haggle with you, and even not be willing to scam you so much if they know you can understand/speak to them.
I wrote a whole post on tips to being safe in Mexico. Be sure to read: 11 tips on how to travel Mexico safely