Tourists are flocking to this sun-soaked country – but is it safe?
Some countries are always safe, or green, on the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) travel website. Those that feature orange (leisure travel not recommended), or are painted entirely red (all travel not recommended), vary with the times – one decade’s “axis of evil” nation is another’s edgy adventure-travel destination.
Mexico has always fallen somewhere in between. Drug-related crime and violence have been features of everyday life in certain regions for a long time – with places like Sinaloa state and Ciudad Juárez synonymous, in the unsubtle gaze of foreign media, with gruesome killings and lawlessness.
Even allowing for this, the FCDO map for Mexico has rarely looked so concerning. It resembles – appropriately enough – military camouflage, with numerous swathes of orange abutting a dwindling number of green zones. The small print on its website now features no fewer than 27 bullet points outlining exactly where tourists should and should not go.
Among the orange areas is the state of Zacatecas, which I find both surprising and dispiriting. One of my first trips to Mexico, in 2006, was to write about the so-called “Silver Cities” – former mining towns that grew rich in colonial times through precious metals.
I loved that journey. I was blown away by beguiling architecture, delicious food, welcoming people and cactus-strewn landscapes. There was no sense of risk. Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt had just been there, filming The Mexican. Real de Catorce was like a peyote-induced dream. In San Miguel de Allende I found traces of Beat writers. Of the region’s eponymous capital, I wrote that it was “the only ‘Silver City’ that actually feels like a city – big, bold and full of smart shops and restaurants. It was here that the first seam of silver in the Americas was discovered.”
Today, the FCDO advises against all travel to Zacatecas, “except Zacatecas City accessed by air”. My visit as a Mexico virgin had been a road trip. As were a lot of subsequent ones – to Baja California, Chiapas, Tabasco and Yucatán. Mexico is a land of huge skies and long, empty highways; it was made for driving holidays.
So, what are we to make of the current advice? Is it time to forgo Mexican holidays till the good times return – if they ever do? Is the patchwork of secure and not-so-secure regions and towns too complicated to make a visit practicable and, more importantly, enjoyable?
It’s worth bearing in mind that Mexico was one of the only countries that remained open to tourists during the darkest days of the pandemic. It’s a nation of copers and optimists. Also, Mexico is a major destination by any measure. It had 45 million international visitors in 2019, and 32 million last year – more than five times the number received by the UK. Tourism accounted for 13.1 per cent of the country’s total GDP – the largest share among G20 countries. It depends on the travel trade; it makes a serious effort to keep travellers safe and happy.
No one denies that Mexico has a crime problem. A US Congressional Research Service Report estimates between 125,000 and 150,000 organised crime-related homicides took place between 2006 and 2018. Drug trafficking, mainly to the US, is worth as much as $29 billion (£25 billion) – making it an attractive “business” sector in a developing country for those on the margins and in the criminal underworld.
Many of those who fall victim to the violence are drug lords, gang members and local politicians. Most shootings are pre-planned. The heinous killings of women and other innocent victims are, tragically, also carefully targeted. Their deaths are symbolic, intended to send a message to rival gangs or to the police. Foreign visitors have been killed recently – two Canadians, one of whom was sought by Interpol, in the resort of Playa del Carmen in January, and two tourists in Tulum in February, caught in crossfire – but such incidents are rare. Over 500,000 British nationals visit Mexico every year and “most visits are trouble-free”, according to the FCDO.
A closer look at the FCDO map reveals that the main areas to be avoided are Chihuahua, which is mainly desert; the northeast border with Texas, which has always been dodgy; and the cartel hotspot of Sinaloa. The most obvious losses from a visitor point of view are Michoacán and Guerrero – as the Monarch Butterfly Reserve is in the former and Acapulco is in the latter. Bear in mind, too, that nowhere in Mexico is marked red – unlike Venezuela – and the FCDO tempers its warnings when providing more detailed information. “If possible, travel by air if you are visiting a major tourist destination in Guerrero,” doesn’t sound like an alarm bell.
Most tour firms – and even independent travellers – tend to go to Mexico’s “green” areas. Danny Callaghan, CEO of the Latin American Travel Association (https://www.lata.travel), said: “Like many parts of the world, we do see issues with organised crime and gang-related violence in parts of Mexico, but I don’t think it will have a huge impact on tourism to the country.
“The issues are not targeted towards tourists, so unless a tourist ignores local advice, or is very unlucky, there is no reason for them to be in any greater danger than they face wandering around some parts of London. Go with a reputable tour operator and they will make sure you have quality local guides, so tourists can just have a great holiday in this amazing part of the world.”
Mexico’s legendary rail journey, the Copper Canyon, is not off-limits. Nor are the nicest parts of Baja California. All of Yucatán, including the Mayan sites, is still shaded green, as are Oaxaca and Chiapas. Mexico City – the most exciting and dynamic metropolis south of New York – is fully open and, with the usual big-city caveats, safe.
And, if you fancy repeating my first, transformative experience of Mexico (I’d go back tomorrow), then plan a route through San Miguel, San Luis Potosí, Real de Catorce and the city of Guanajuato. These contain enough churches, plazas, cobbled streets and treasure-filled mining museums for anyone – and the only colour you need to think about is silver.
The FCDO’s Mexican no-go zones, in full
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advises against all but essential travel to:
The state of Chihuahua except:
The city of Chihuahua
The border crossing in Ciudad Juárez (accessed by federal toll road 45)
Federal toll road 45D connecting the cities of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez
The Copper Canyon rail route to/from Chihuahua and towns immediately on this route including Creel
The road from Creel via San Juanito to San Pedro
State highway 16 from San Pedro to Chihuahua
The state of Sinaloa except:
The cities of Los Mochis and Mazatlán
Road 32 that runs between El Fuerte and Los Mochis
The 15D federal toll road that runs the length of the state
The Copper Canyon rail route to/from Los Mochis/El Fuerte and the towns immediately on this route
The state of Zacatecas except:
Zacatecas City accessed by air
The state of Tamaulipas except:
The border crossing at Nuevo Laredo accessed by federal toll road 85D from Monterrey
The state of Colima except:
The city of Manzanillo reached by sea or air via the Manzanillo-Costalegre International Airport
The state of Guerrero except:
The city of Acapulco accessed by the 95D federal toll road
The town of Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa accessed by air
The town of Taxco accessed by the 95D and 200D federal toll roads
The state of Michoacán except:
The city of Morelia accessed by federal toll roads 15D, 126 and 43
The town of Pátzcuaro accessed by federal toll roads 14D and 15 from Morelia.
The 15D toll road
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) also advises against all but essential travel to the following areas within these states:
In the state of Baja California:
the city of Tijuana in except
Airside transit through Tijuana airport
The Cross Border Xpress bridge from the airport linking terminals across the Mexican-US border.
The federal toll road 1D and Via Rápida through Tijuana to the border
the city of Tecate in Baja California (including roads between Tijuana and Tecate)
(Note: FCDO does not advise against all travel or all but essential travel to any part of the state of Baja California Sur.)
In the state of Guanajuato:
the areas south west of the road 45D
In the state of Jalisco:
the areas south and southwest of Lake Chapala to the border with the state of Colima
the northern municpalities of Hostotipaquillo, San Martin de Bolaños, Chimaltitán, Bolaños, Totatiche, Colotlán, Santa Maria de los Ángeles, Huejúcar, Villa Guerrero, Mezquitic and Huequilla el Alto