Is Mexico Safe?

The mean streets of Creel
Chihuahua street crime

The mean streets of Chihuahua

Is Mexico safe?

This is the big question people have before making a trip to Mexico, or for nervous relatives who have a family member taking a trip south of the border. 

With all the violence reported in the media, it would be easy to assume that this massive country – which is bigger than Germany, France, Italy, Spain and Great Brittian combined – is a perilous place to live or travel, but a closer look reveals a more complicated situation. I could recite stats on Mexican murder rates or crime, but that is available all over the internet. Instead, I am going to share my personal observations and experiences from the first two weeks in Mexico.

Is Mexico Safe for Tourists? – My Personal Experience

The U.S. government has travel advisories for only a few states, one of those being Chihuahua. Naturally, we started our trip in Chihuahua.

The Chihuahua city center seemed very safe. Well after dark, we saw women and children walking in the streets, couples canoodling in parks, people working out in gyms, plenty of traffic on the road – all signs of a secure city. At 11pm on our first night, we walked several miles from a restaurant, across the central squares, to our hotel about 1/2 mile south of the Plaza de Armas. We didn’t feel the least bit concerned, as we saw other pedestrians out and about.

We saw only a moderate amount of security around buildings. In southern Africa and Central America, for example, almost every fence is topped with a skein of razor wire, barbed wire, and electrical wire,  just waiting to entangle and electrocute any would be intruders. In addition, most windows are secured by iron bars and decorated with an ADT security sticker. Many office buildings and apartments even have an armed guard out front. This is a sign of a truly dangerous place.

Although we did see some razor wire and some bars on windows, overall it wasn’t the norm in the center, and we saw very few security guards.

We then spent four days in Creel in the Sierra Madre – a region known for its marijuana and poppy production and narcotrafficking routes. We explored the area by riding mountain bikes in the countryside and hiking in a national park. Many places I’ve been, this would have been a certain way to get mugged. We saw families enjoying the countryside and everything felt very safe, although it is wise to stick to the beaten path in the area.

The mean streets of Creel

The mean streets of Creel

In Creel, I spoke to a local who said that there are no small gangs in Chihuahua. You don’t so much have to worry about street crime because the gangs are focused on the big money business of drug trafficking. He said it is strange, because the people of the area are very friendly and peaceful, but are juxtaposed with gangs that can unleash extreme violence.

During our week in one of Mexico’s most dangerous states, we felt very safe and had a great experience.

We next visited El Fuerte, a colonial town in the state of Sinaloa. You may know of Sinaloa because the infamous cartel boss and one of the world’s most wanted men, Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, is head of the Sinaloa cartel crime syndicate.

El Fuerte is one of the most relaxed, tranquil and peaceful places I’ve ever been. After dark, we saw kids playing in the park, couples strolling around, lone women in the streets, people enjoying sidewalk cafes. They all seemed totally unconcerned with street crime, and we saw minimal security around. El Fuerte is no doubt very safe for tourists.

Next, we went La Paz, a city of 250,000 people on the Baja Peninsula. La Paz, meaning peace in Spanish, lives up to its name. The malecon, or seaside walkway, is busy with kids, skateboarders, joggers, families, and tourists at night. We drove our rental car around the less touristy places in town and around the countryside and everything seemed very safe and secure.

We met an American in La Paz who was very surprised to hear that we traveled through Chihuahua and Sinaloa. “I bet you kept your head down through Sinaloa,” he said. He went on to say that he had a Mexican co-worker who said a white person should never visit Chihuahua. My three traveling companions and I were stunned into silence. We never felt the least bit of danger or concern on the mainland.

The mean streets of La Fuerte

The mean streets of El Fuerte

Signs that things aren’t quite right

However, we have seen things that drive home the point that this area isn’t totally secure and Mexico is at war with the cartels. We have seen camouflaged pick-up trucks with army soldiers in the back, all armed with machine guns, cruising the streets of Creel and La Paz, and we’ve encountered state police roadblocks with cops armed to the teeth.

While riding our bikes in Creel, we came up to a house with three cop cars and five men outside with big machine guns. They motioned for us to go the other way. We obliged.

The Copper Canyon train had a very friendly man, with a very big gun, on board for security. The ferry from the mainland to Baja included some intense security. Drug dogs sniffed all our bags and guards waved a metal detector wand over our bodies. The security was more strict than boarding an airplane in the USA.

And of course, the big item in the news right now is the manhunt for “El Chapo” and the recent shootout in Sinaloa, which took place about 275 miles south of El Fuerte.

I think the lesson, from what we have seen, is clear: if you travel during the day, are careful where you go at night and use basic caution, Mexico is quite safe. If you want to become a drug mule or buy marijuana for export, Mexico can be fatal.

Having said all that, clearly one of the most dangerous things in this country is riding in a car. In fact, the national homicide rate of 12 per 100,000, is identical to the death by car accident rate. Trust me, I am far more likely do die in a car with one of these loco drivers than at the hands of a narcotraficante or street mugger.

La Paz malecon danger

The mean streets of La Paz


Have you been to Mexico?

Did you feel safe? 

Mom, does this make you feel any better about us being here?


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24 Comments on “Is Mexico Safe?

  1. Great post, common sense travel. I think you are right, there are definitely more dangerous places to travel. It is easy to pick on a country you’ve never visited than to admit there are places in NYC (or Boston, Miami, LA) I wouldn’t be caught dead in after dark!

    • Very true. Every country has dangerous places, but it doesn’t make the country as a whole a dangerous place. We have been in Mexico City for five days now and the center is extremely safe. It doesn’t hurt that there is an enormous police presence here, making it look like the country is at war! But it does mean that you can walk around without any fear.

  2. Common sense is critical when travelling to any destination. It seems for some, they forget to bring it when they are on holiday.

  3. This is an excellent post, Jeff – entertaining as ever but you also get straight to the point. I love how you and Kristi found something so different to the Chihuahua and Sinaloa that the U.S. government and mainstream media usually portray.

    Let’s face it, our parents are always going to be worried about us when we travel. Bama and I were in Kuala Lumpur for a short stopover about a month ago, and apparently there was a bomb threat at one of the street markets. My dad sent me a concerned text message asking if we were staying in the city (we were not), and asking us to avoid crowded places. He had the same advice when we arrived in Myanmar (because of the upcoming elections) and I had to tell him that it was impossible – even the small town by Inle Lake was packed because of a three-day temple festival. Go figure…

    • When governments or parents advise us to avoid crowds it is always easier said than done! Although you could be in the wrong place at the wrong time, rarely are tourists the targets of attacks or problems. As far as street crime goes, Myanmar and Malaysia have to be two of the safest places on Earth from what I understand.

  4. Good post Jeff. We never felt unsafe in Mexico, and have just booked a return trip. Leaving Jan 7 we’re going to “settle” in San Miguel de Allende for 5 months. It will be nice to stay put for a few months.
    Alison

    • The areas you visited in Mexico are some of the poorest, but away from the drug trade which is the source of most of the violence. San Miguel should be a great place to stop for a while. There are tons of cool places to explore in that area too.

  5. Jeff I love the final question. Moms just never stop worrying. It sounds to me like your travel advice for Mexico fits for travel in a lot of the world. Be smart and all is well. Yes we have been to Mexico five times and headed back at Xmas. No problems but I agree use good common travel sense.

  6. Great stuff again here, Jeff. Good advice. I have traveled extensively in Mexico years ago, but even then, it was wise not to travel at night. But then, it was the police you had to be careful of, and/or rather, ex-police gone rogue, or seedy and greedy. I took a bus once from Juarez to Puerto Vallarta and took my cat along. I had to put him on a leash when we stopped so he could walk and pee. Best travel partner ever!

    • I have heard it said that it is better to be robbed by the ladrones than the police. I think it is getting better, but there is still corruption. We are in Mexico City and there are police everywhere! It looks like martial law almost.

      I can only imagine that a cat on the bus drew a lot of attention. Our dream is to get a cat to take along with us on our travels!

      • Cats are good travelers. My cat had kittens, so I knew the kitten from day one, and bonded from the start. He would come when I whistled! I’d let him outside at night in Puerto Vallarta, and he’d be on the doorstep in the morning. I made his food—rice and fish mixture.

      • Okay, we will get a kitten and train him right. 11 years ago I asked my mom to watch my cat for the summer and he still lives there. A 5 minute car ride to the vet traumatizes him so he is not a traveler sadly.

  7. Thanks for this post. It’s nice to hear from someone who’s been there. My husband is pretty nervous about Mexico, even though intellectually he knows different. But I guess it’s one thing to know something and another to experience it for yourself. When I travelled to Peru I was warned that it was a country “not for the faint of heart” yet I found my experience as a solo female traveller to be very different. I think it’s always wise to be aware and use good travel sense, no matter where you are. I once had cloth grocery bags stolen out of our cart, in Williams lake, BC. A small dozy little town. We weren’t expecting that! I thank you also, for pointing out some of the signs that told you, things weren’t quiet right. It’s good to hear a balanced, honest view.

    • Thank you for the thoughtful comments. Since I’ve written this, I’ve been in Mexico City for 6 days and the city center here is incredibly safe. Outside of Jerusalem, I’ve never seen so much security, which I think speaks to the threat of violence, but they have done a great job making it secure. Last night, we went to the Plaza Girabaldi to watch the mariachis. This area used to be rough, but they have really cleaned it up and even have free wifi in the area. I think Mexico is taking the right measures to fix it!

  8. Jeff, it sounds like you’ve had the same experience as us – families out and about and a great experience. We didn’t see the camo jeeps with the gunmen until we got to Morelia. The first sighting was pretty disarming, but then we realized it was “normal” in that city. Love the last question! What did she say? 🙂 ~Terri

    • Terri, we’ve been in Mexico City the last six days and it has been more of the same. There is intense security in the central area, so I imagine if you live in the barrio it is different, but for tourists Mexico City is among the safest places I’ve been.

      I haven’t heard a response from mom yet. She is either bored with my blog or in denial that we are here!

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