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Matador’s travel suggestions for those concerned about the ongoing violence in Mexico.

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.

…that’s like telling someone not to visit Mt. Rushmore because Detroit has a problem with violent crime.

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.

According to Matador superhero Juliane Huang, Akumal is worth a stop:

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.

The cenote is a regional geologic feature that’s popular with visitors. Matadorian Jessie Rau found one here:

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.”

Photo: waywuwei

3. Sayulita

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.

4. Palenque

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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About The Author

Hal Amen

Hal Amen is a managing editor at Matador. His personal travel blog is WayWorded.

  • Jessica

    I love articles like this!!  I keep trying to tell people Mexico isn’t a place you should be any more concerned about visiting than places in the US.  Now I can’t wait to go back, better starting checking airfare!

  • Eliseo Zarate

    Great article! I have been waiting for some insight on this topic. I’ll be going to Mexico soon. Keep the insightful reads coming. 

  • Trans-Americas Journey

    Where to start….during 18 months and more than 24,000 miles through all but three states in Mexico (two of them border states) as part of our ongoing Trans-Americas Journey road trip we felt many things–wonder, awe, humility, excitement. But we never felt fear or danger or even uneasiness. Some Mexico highlights from our blog:

    How to Have a Mexican Road Trip:

    Top 10 Reasons to Go to Mexico:

    Real Rodeos:

    The Museums of Mexico City:

    The Annual Million Monarch Migration:

    Taco Taste Test:

    Heck, just go and see for yourself.

  • Arthuro TM

    I already went to SMA and Puebla and I didn’t visit any of those places you mention but I still recommend to visit them, by the way I’m Mexican and all that this men mentioned is right and even we know that the best place for vacations is the south of mexico

    And thanks for considering us as the place to go!! we love lechos! lol! just kidding we love tourist

  • Carlo Alcos

    Sweet Hal…how important is this. When I went to Mexico (Oaxaca) last year I flew from Seattle. There was an American lady in the elevator who was under the impression that Americans weren’t even allowed to go there.

    Side note…I recommend a stop in Zipolite in Oaxaca as well, if you’re on the coast.

  • Candice

    I’ve only spent time in the Yucatan but I freaking love Mexico. The food, the people, the coastline, the ruins. This post makes me want to go back and do EVERYTHING.

  • Ekua

    I feel funny when I tell people about how awesome I think Mexico is because most people think it’s crazy talk. Especially when I say that Mexico City is one of my favorite places in the world. I think part of the problem for Mexico City is that a lot of stories report from there, but the crime didn’t necessarily happen there. For example, when I recently read a story about the casino fire in Monterrey, it wasn’t until a couple paragraphs in that it became clear that the fire happened in Monterrey and not in Mexico City. I think a lot of people don’t see past the “Mexico City” part at the top of the article, so the DF is ingrained in a lot of people’s heads as a place where all the stuff goes down.

    While the drug war violence is real and very serious, I think it’s important for people to remember that as you said, Mexico is a big country. Not going to Oaxaca because of the drug war is the equivalent of not going to San Francisco because of an escalation of violence in Chicago.

  • Mel

    I’m mexican and I just loved your article, all those places are amazing and there are much more to include in this list…  It is funny that most of the people think of Mexico as this only city full of violence when its not.  Best places to travel is the south, I’m from the north and unfortunatly north cities are influenced by our closeness to the US so if you want to know the real Mexico.. central and south is where you should go.

    Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, Tabasco, Yucatan, Quintana Roo & Campeche..  are worth the travel!

  • Jasmine Stephenson

    I’m in Oaxaca now and have been in Mexico the past month, traveling through the Yucatan, Chiapas, and now here. It has felt super safe to me. For me as a solo female traveler, todo bien :)

  • Worthington

    I had a wonderful time in Veracruz (the city..not the resorts) and in Xalapa the summer after the flu scare in 2009.  I was amazed that there were no English-speaking tourists (from US or Europe) but many Mexican families having lovely vacations.

  • Drlauracarmine

    I go to Playa del Carmen, the heart of the Maya Riviera, often and I can attest to everything you say.  It’s simply a great vacation spot.  Thanks for the great article.

  • Deb Kelly

    Great article! I’m thrilled to see that the Riviera Maya is #1 on your list. 

    We travel to Playa del Carmen in the Riviera Maya quite frequently…we’re going again next month and we were there this past April.  That should tell you how much we think of this area since we’re going two times in a 6 month period.

    We love it there.  We always feel safe and we’ve not once encountered any trouble.
    The Mayan people are warm and kind and very appreciative of the tourists who visit their beloved Mexico.  The beaches are the most beautiful of anywhere else we’ve visited in the Caribbean and Bermuda.  The weather is perfect and of course the tequila isn’t bad either.  ;)

    To people who say they’re “afraid to travel to Mexico”….well I tell them it’s their loss.
    One should be cautious  wherever they’re traveling…the US included.

  • KarinMarijke

    So much truth in that article Hal. Well, I don’t know about the destinations since I’ve never been to Mexico (but is on my list) but your reasoning why statistic on criminality are no reason (in itself) to visit a country like Mexico. i would say this goes for a large part of Latin America.

  • KJ

    I was in Mexico Aug. 20 to Sept. 5 2011 (just before you published this), one week with my boyfriend and one week on my own. We were all over the Yucatan Peninsula - Tulum and Isla Holbox, and then Playa and Cozumel on my own. It was perfectly wonderful, safe, easy, fun, beautiful. Even the week I was on my own, and I don’t speak any Spanish. We hung out with some friends of ours (French/Dutch/American hybrids) who live near Akumal as well and they are thrilled to be living there. We’ll go back again and again and will recommend it to anyone who asks. Let’s hope it stays that way! I will add too that the Mexican govt is clearly investing in keeping things as safe as possible there. There was a heavy “tourist police” presence.

  • Linda Ackley

    I must say this. My lovely gardener brother was killed last month when the cartels went at it..he and his wife drove into town when the two began firing at one another..they were caught in the middle. We wanted to go but…

  • Anonymous

    I go to TJ often, the furthest I get is Encinata, Most of my friends think mexico is dirty and dangerous. Never had any problem. Am looking forward to take a trip deep into mexico. Anyone interested to go to Asia let me know, guarantee a trip of a life time. I went back 1st time in over 25yrs. can’t wait to go back…

  • Dale Damron

    Hal, the time in Sayulita is central, the same as in Puerto Vallarta. It changed from Mountain time to Central (the same as Puerto Vallarta) back in 2010.

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