IN 2008, WHEN I told a good friend of mine, whose mother is Mexican, that I was planning a five-week stay in Mexico City, his response was something along the lines of a sardonic, “Good luck.”
This attitude wasn’t based on any firsthand experience — to my knowledge, he’d never spent time in the DF, and it’d been years since he’d been in-country. But I’m sure his knee-jerk parade-raining is what I would’ve gotten from the majority of the US population, who for years have grown accustomed to the media narrative of “Mexico, land of kidnappings and cartels.”
Things have worsened since then. The Calderon administration’s proactive war on drugs has resulted in a steady escalation of violence over the last few years. Out of this have come stories of mass graves and sledgehammer executions, massacres and human trafficking, families torn apart.
These are tragedies. They deserve attention, action, and justice.
Unfortunately, only the first seems easy to come by — especially in US media, who latch onto the sensationalism of these events while passing over stories that aren’t explicitly about the violence, like the peace caravan that marched on Ciudad Juarez in June.
But here’s the fact that I feel is most relevant — for travelers — and most often ignored: Mexico is big. It’s the 11th most populous country in the world, with 112 million citizens. It’s roughly the size of the American Midwest.
Given that, is it fair to regard the country as one homogenous war zone? Should travelers be advised to avoid the country as a whole? To me, that’s like telling someone not to visit Mt. Rushmore because Detroit has a problem with violent crime.
From official figures, it’s clear that the communities most affected by drug-war violence since 2006 are all contained within four northern states: Sonora, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas.
The same goes for risk to US citizens. From the surprisingly nuanced travel warning released by the State Department in April:
You should be especially aware of safety and security concerns when visiting the northern border states of Northern Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas. Much of the country’s narcotics-related violence has occurred in the border region. More than a third of all U.S. citizens killed in Mexico in 2010 whose deaths were reported to the U.S. government were killed in the border cities of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.
That number — “U.S. citizens killed in Mexico in 2010 whose deaths were reported to the U.S. government” — was 111. In comparison, there were 435 murders in Chicago in 2010, “the city’s lowest total in almost half a century” according to the Chicago Tribune.
As impassioned expat Mexico Mike puts it, “With about three million Americans tourists a year and about one million living in Mexico, the murder rate for Americans is around one per 100,000 or so — about one-sixth the murder rate in the USA.”
My point with this piece isn’t to downplay Mexico’s narco-violence, or trivialize the deaths of thousands of innocent people. My point is that we’re doing the country and its citizens a disservice by withholding our tourism dollars simply because we’ve been scared off by the nightly news.
Below is a list of 9 incredible destinations with the lowest levels of drug violence in the country, where you won’t have to worry about how to identify a narcotrafficker.
1. Riviera Maya
Pretty much anywhere on the Yucatan is good to go, security-wise, including this 100km stretch of coast extending from around Playa del Carmen in the north to the beachside Maya ruins of Tulum in the south.
Basically, you can think of the Riviera Maya as one step further toward the mellow from Cancun. The all-inclusive resort still dominates, and it’s probably a good idea to have a handle on when Spring Break is, but you won’t find the same levels of craziness — in development or depravity.
I went snorkeling in Half Moon Bay and the Yal-Ku lagoon and it was fantastic. The water was nice and warm and such a vibrant turquoise color — not unlike the beaches in southern Thailand or central Vietnam.
Also, X-Plor is a great park for ziplining (2 circuits! 13 lines!) and really family friendly. It’s not for the hard-core, obviously, but if you feel like ziplining for over a half an hour and then floating around on your back in an underground river, this is the place to do it.
I also like that the park limits the number of visitors each day so no one’s forced to endure overcrowding or Splash Mountain-like lines.
A modest handwritten sign marked “Calavera” (Spanish for “skull”) points the way. From the intersection of Highway 307 and the Coba Road, drive 1.8km inland (northwest) to reach the Temple of Doom, a quiet cenote in the jungle just beyond Tulum.
The path to Calavera is rocky, so wear shoes. Watch out for iguanas. Take the 10-foot plunge into the sinkhole from the cenote’s jagged edge, or use the rope swing or ladder. Beneath the surface, cave-divers and snorkelers can explore Calavera’s extensive submerged cave system.
The Riviera Maya makes a good base for inland day trips to Maya ruins, with the very well-traveled Chichen Itza being a favorite of the Page family. The smaller (in reputation) site of Coba is just up Highway 109 from Tulum.
Easiest access to the region is via Cancun’s international airport.
2. Mexico City
Mexico’s capital of 21 million is the second largest municipality in the world — and growing exponentially, as many living in other parts of the country see Mexico City as a safe haven from drug violence.
There are numbers to back this up. According to The Economist, “Of the 34,612 [documented] murders related to organised crime that the government counted between 2007 and 2010, just 1.9% took place in Mexico City.” And that’s in a city with almost 20% of the country’s population.
MatadorU faculty member and Matador managing editor Julie Schwietert Collazo has some recommendations for anyone hitting the DF:
Having lived for two years in Mexico City (2007-2009), it’s tough to whittle down my “what to dos” to just a handful of recommendations; the city is both big enough and interesting enough to keep any art-loving, food-loving, city-loving traveler busy for… well, years.
But if forced to pick three “ultimate” experiences, I’d say roll up your pennies and spring for the tasting menu at Pujol, where traditional Mexican food is given a modern, often molecular, interpretation and the service is as choreographed, professional, and seemingly effortless as a ballet.
Offset the cost of the meal by saving on activities; go to the Zocalo to see the daily flag raising or lowering (6AM/6PM, respectively), a major military production full of pomp and circumstance, and check out contemporary art at one of the city’s many galleries (you can take in several in a single afternoon if you visit Colonia Roma’s Plaza Rio de Janeiro, which is bordered by Galeria OMR and El 52.
Concerning security, Julie advises travelers “to take the same kinds of common sense precautions you’d take in any other big city. Don’t wear flashy jewelry, don’t count money in public, and don’t make your iPhone/iPad/iPod or other electronics conspicuous if you’re on public transit. Friends and tourism officials recommend taking “sitios” taxis (radio taxis that must be called rather than hailed directly on the street), though I’ve never had a single problem hailing a street cab.”
Just a half hour up-coast from Bahia de Banderas and its tourist hub Puerto Vallarta, Sayulita is a little surf town that’s gotten a lot bigger over the past decade. (Apparently, “the secret is out” among the wheeled-luggage set.)
Actually, you gain an hour on the drive up from Vallarta’s airport, as clocks roll back when you cross into Sayulita’s state of Nayarit. Bonus beach time.
This is a great place for surf rookies, as the main beach break is pretty mellow (though there are a handful of local pros tearing it up). There are multiple surf camps operating in Sayulita, and plenty of shops in town to pick up gear.
Matador senior editor David Miller passed through about eight years ago:
I never really got waves in Sayulita, but at the time it was more just about setting up our first solid camp on the “mainland” after crossing over from Baja. It seemed like a long stretch from the ferry (La Paz) and then the bus ride down from Los Mochis.
Once we finally rolled in and set up in the main “camping” I remember thinking how friendly and safe the town felt. There were all these elementary school age kids cruising around everywhere in what seemed like a freer / more unsupervised way than I could imagine kids in the US having. The plaza was like a mass public makeout session for the town’s adolescents. I remember feeling something like jealousy I couldn’t have grown up there.
DM continues, “Reportedly there is an English-speaking doctor and pharmacist now in Sayulita, and the crime rate is overall among the lowest in Mexico, with the only common “crimes” being underage drinking and marijuana usage.”
Note: Sayulita is almost as talked up for its taco stands as it is for its waves.
These ancient Maya ruins are located in northeast Chiapas, about two hours by bus from the nearest airport at Villahermosa. Campeche is five hours away, and it takes six to get to Palenque from San Cristobal de las Casas or Flores, Guatemala.
The main structures of this 2,000-year-old city have been excavated from the encroaching jungle, with estimates suggesting at least 90% of the full site remains covered in vegetation. But size is not the reason Palenque is so celebrated — it possesses some of the highest quality architecture and carvings of any Maya site, including hieroglyphic inscriptions that detail the history of the city.
The town of Palenque is about four miles from the ruins and has typical tourist amenities. Between the two sits the little jungle village of El Pachan, which is popular with backpackers — though Ekua of Girl, Unstoppable was less than thrilled with the setup.
Shaun and Erica of Over Yonderlust recently visited Palenque and noted that,
On the way to the ruins the colectivos will likely stop at the Parque Nacional where they will try to sell you wristbands to allow you access to it. While I’m sure it is a lovely place to visit, you do not need to buy these wristbands to go to the ruins.
They also mentioned that Palenque “during the summer is hotter than two rats making love in a wool sock. It is advisable to stay far, far away during April and May as they are the hottest months.”
Entry to the site is $51 pesos, and guides are available though not required.
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Hal Amen is a managing editor at Matador. His personal travel blog is WayWorded.
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