I was pretty bummed when I heard that Harry Devert, an American riding a motorcycle to South America, disappeared while on his way to Zihuatanejo. Early reports were that he was in the state of Michoacan but now it’s possible he was taken in the state of Guerrero.
I don’t know Harry. And I hadn’t heard about his journey until reports started to emerge about his disappearance. But as a frequent traveler and as someone who has put herself in risky situations on occasion, I can relate to his story. I understand people with a wandering spirit and a longing for adventure.
And there’s the fact that I took a similar solo motorcycle journey through Central America in 1997.
His disappearance could have been me.
Despite my ride through the country and my countless trips to Cabo, Puerto Vallarta and even Mexico City, I still don’t feel that I know Mexico well. What I do know is that it’s frequently in the headlines with reports of drug and gang-related violence. These sorts of headlines generally don’t give me pause because I know it’s extremely rare that foreigners are targeted and that these incidences usually happen in areas that are known hotspots.
Is Mexico Safe?
As someone who isn’t tapped into Mexico very well, I started wondering what areas are safe for travelers? And would I do my motorcycle trip again given the country’s current state?
When I posted something on my Facebook page about Harry’s disappearance, several people reached out to let me know the area where he was traveling is considered a dangerous region but much of Mexico is safe and that this incident should not put one off on traveling to Mexico.
Tim Leffel of Perceptive Travel and Luxury Latin America currently lives in Mexico with his wife and daughter. He’s a guy who knows Mexico well so I asked him a few questions about where one would start if thinking about traveling there.
“Remember when reading warnings or sensationalist news stories that they are usually news because they’re rare. Few American travelers die in Mexico and half the time when they do it’s from doing something dumb like jumping off a hotel balcony into a pool. The cartels do not target tourists and it’s very rare that a tourist gets involved.” Tim adds, “Also, this is a huge country and just as Dallas isn’t Detroit and Nantucket isn’t New Orleans, the crime rate varies exponentially from trouble spots to calm spots.”
This advice makes great sense to me and it’s no different than what I tell people about traveling to India or Bangkok – which have both been in the headlines recently due to their own issues.
When I asked Tim about how the first time visitor to Mexico (or even a repeat visitor like me) would know where to find up to date information, he pointed me to the U.S. State Department website. He notes that they’ve gotten much better about breaking down the information even by parts of the state noting, “Mazatlan is fine, for instance, but the capital of that state is not.”
As I read through this website myself, I found it really difficult to parse out which areas the State Department suggested were completely off limits, which ones we are cautioned about visiting and which ones are actually safe. So I started to color in a map. Red being an area where only essential travel is recommended and yellow being travel with caution. Here’s the very crude map I ended up with:
There’s a lot of red and yellow, isn’t there?
In all fairness, the majority of tourist destinations are still safe: the Yucatan, Puerto Vallarta, Oaxaca and Cabo to name just a few. But as Tim pointed out, you might be safe in a place like Mazatlan, but don’t venture away from the safe zone. The same can be said of PV where you’re OK in the town itself, but you probably don’t want to take a bus to more remote areas– something I did during nearly all of my visits there over the past 20 years.
As for those big red splotches in the north, Tim said, “Most of that red part at the top is desert where nobody lives.” He adds, “You’re fine after the first 50 miles [inside the border] or so and never have anything to worry about between there and the capital.”
I get this, but I’d have to counter that the very resource with detailed info suggests no travel to these entire states.
I actually really love Mexico, the people, the food, and the language. And I’d be a fool to suggest you not travel there as there are plenty of areas where travel is safe.
But back to that question about whether I would do a motorcycle trip through Mexico today? No way. And I’d give serious thought to the type of travel I would do now. Even when I stay in a resort area, I’m busting to get out to see the “real” Mexico. I like to go to small towns, sit in the town square and visit with the people. I go to small markets meant for the locals. And I eat at restaurants where a buck will get me a plateful of rice, beans and tortillas.
Sadly, I don’t feel that sort of Mexico exists for me right now.
On another note – I have been fielding a lot of emails from people lately about their own concerns about traveling to Bangkok where protests have been going on for months. I know Bangkok pretty well and assure these folks that protestors don’t target tourists and the protests are in isolated parts of the city, usually well away from tourist areas.
I know that Bangkok is safe. But how to convey that to someone who isn’t as familiar with the city and the Thai people as I am? Well, all I can do is continue to answer their questions, assuring them with the words above. Just as Tim so kindly did for me about Mexico.
Also, I travel yearly to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. This city is often referred to as the most dangerous city in the world. I don’t feel safe there but can’t avoid it as it’s a jumping off point to far more interesting and safer parts of the country. I don’t go out at night. I never go out without a guide and driver. And my hotel is protected by armed guards and attack dogs. This may sound strange given this post, but I wouldn’t trade my visits to PNG for anything.
The bottom line is that where ever you go, be it Detroit, New York, Seattle, Bangkok or Zihuatanejo, you need to do your homework and know what you’re getting into.
Ultimately, we can talk ourselves out of or into whatever we want. For me, right now, I’m OK with Bangkok, India and Papua New Guinea, but I’ll stick with Hawaii for my warm weather fix .