As a frequent traveler to Mexico, I’m often asked about the safety issues due to the amount of violence and dramatic imagery shown in U.S. news.
The truth is that anywhere you travel, anything can happen. But being educated about where the risks lie in your travels should quell any apprehension about visiting Mexico and experiencing the country’s world-class cuisine, rich culture and majestic nature.
Of Mexico’s 31 states and one federal district, 14 have no travel warnings, according to the U.S. State Department, and seven have travel warnings for specific areas. The department recommends deferring “nonessential travel” to the remaining 11 due to drug-gang violence.
With most violence occurring in areas near the U.S. border and in the southwestern states of Guerrero and Michoacan, there is still plenty of safe territory to explore.
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Almost all of the major tourism destinations — Los Cabos, Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende, Oaxaca, Huatulco, Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Tulum, Merida, Chichen Itza and others — are in states with no travel warnings.
And many Americans don’t seem deterred anyway. The 2012 Travel Trends Survey among Travel Leaders agents showed four Mexican destinations in the Top 20 most popular for Americans traveling outside the country. The destinations were Cancún at No. 2, Playa del Carmen at No. 3, Cabo San Lucas/ Los Cabos at No. 11 and Puerto Vallarta at No. 15. (Puerto Vallarta is in a state with a partial travel warning.)
Based on interviews with American expats and Mexicans, here are some tips for a worry-free, safe trip to Mexico.
—Travel documents: Leave a copy of your passport with a relative or friend in the U.S. while traveling to Mexico, as well as the phone number and address for the local U.S. consulate. If your documents are lost or stolen, you’ll need to contact the consulate.
—Cash, debit and credit cards: Call your bank and credit card companies before a trip to Mexico to let them know you will be traveling there; otherwise they may block transactions. For debit and credit cards, you can ask to set a daily spending or withdrawal limit as well as request that they contact you via telephone about any suspicious charges. ATM kidnappings are not uncommon in some urban areas, so having a daily withdrawal limit could help you get out of a jam without losing too much cash. ATMs are best avoided unless inside a bank. Have all of your card numbers and the customer service numbers written down in a secure place in case you need to report lost or stolen cards to have them deactivated quickly.
America may run on plastic, but this is not always the case depending on where you will be in Mexico. It’s safest to always carry some cash on you for times when you won’t be able to use a credit card, and you should exchange your currency before you go. Not only will you typically get a poor exchange rate by changing money at an airport currency exchange, but you’re also alerting others that you’re a foreigner. Mexican airports do not all follow the same security standards of U.S. airports, and currency exchange desks or kiosks sometimes are outside secure areas.
—Attire: Nothing screams “foreigner” more than a pair of shorts and flip-flops. Unless you’re vacationing at the beach or hanging out at a resort, wear pants and sensible shoes so you don’t stick out. Don’t carry your camera around your neck. Also, avoid wearing or traveling with expensive-looking jewelry or watches that can make you easily identifiable as a tourist — and a target.
—Tech gadgets and cellphones: Don’t walk around with your face buried in your smartphone. The best place for it is in your pocket or in an interior secure pocket of a purse or other bag that is not a backpack. Don’t flash your iPad unless you want to be mugged for it.
Wireless data also can be very expensive in Mexico, but you should have it in case of emergency if you can; contact your wireless provider so you’re clear on the cost, whether you need an international data or calling plan, and anything else you might need to know about using your cellphone while traveling.
—Transportation: In Mexico, it’s important to hail a taxi only at a designated sitio because those taxis are registered and designated safe. Typically, the registered taxis are maroon and gold Nissan Tsurus and also can be called via radio dispatch. These taxis are slightly more expensive than the green libre taxis but are much more secure.
—Public transit: Depending on the city you’re visiting, there may be limited public transit options.
Mexico City has efficient and inexpensive public transit, but you need to know where you’re going. Smartphone apps can help (Metro Mexico DF and Via Mx Free are free; the more elaborate MiRoute is 99 cents, all at the Apple store), but you’re better off writing down your routes on a piece of paper so as not to draw attention to your gadgets.
As with any major city’s public transit system, you’ll find plenty of pickpockets. There are multiple kinds of public buses as well; the red metrobus is more of an express, and the green peseros are local routes with frequent stops. It’s not uncommon for women to be groped or sexually harassed, so use good judgment about what you’re wearing (i.e. pants instead of a skirt). In the capital, there are women-only buses (identifiable by their pink placards) and train cars at peak hours.
—Driving: Traffic laws can be lax in many areas of Mexico; drive rental vehicles with caution, and be ready to be a defensive driver. Beware, because traffic signals are not always obeyed. Limit driving to daylight as a safety precaution. Hint: After dark, assume you can’t trust anybody.