When people talk about Mexico, they usually speak in colors. Vibrant hues extend from the ground beneath your feet, up the walls lacquered in reds and oranges and greens, to the very food on your plate. From the tallest cathedral in Mexico City to the smallest side street, there is not a corner of the country that doesn’t possess some element of dazzle.
At the same time, plenty of those same corners might not be considered the most advisable to venture towards. At this moment, the US State Department’s Mexico Travel Advisory has issued some form of high warning for 16 of Mexico’s 32 states – 5 states are listed as “Level 4: Do Not Travel” and 11 listed as “Level 3: Reconsider Travel.” The country as a whole is considered as Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution. This would be because unfortunately, crime and violence are slightly heightened no matter where you go in Mexico, and it is always important to be on guard and have your best travel reflexes ready at all times.
Certain states are considered generally much safer for tourists, and these as a result see the highest levels of tourism – states such as Quintana Roo (which houses Cancun), Yucatan, and Baja California. While the initial reaction may be to say “well, I don’t want to go where everyone else is going,” we might encourage you to ignore that reaction. The more touristic areas are safer for a reason and will have more resources available to you if you need help.
We’ve also compiled a list of some of the best travel advice out there, both for Mexico and in general. Though it is impossible to guarantee one’s safety 100% (and that counts for anywhere in the world), following the guidelines below will seriously reduce your risk of theft, harm, etc.
How to stay safe in Mexico:
- Vigilance, vigilance, vigilance. It’s the most thrown-around term out there in the world of theft prevention. Pickpockets live for the moment you’re too distracted to know where your phone is. Keep aware of your surroundings, keep your bag close and slung around the front of your body, keep nothing in your back pockets, and bring only as much money as you need when you go out.
- Don’t use ATMs in isolated places, or at night. You’re vulnerable to mugging.
- Don’t go out at night alone. Just in general. After dark is when crime thrives, and you will be asking for trouble. In particular, do not go to the beach at night, alone or with people. It’s a hotbed for muggings.
- Buddy system. Especially if you’re traveling alone, find a group to walk around with as much as possible to avoid being isolated. Being by yourself, especially in remote areas, is the perfect way to get mugged.
- Don’t do drugs! We know, we’re not trying to parent you. But by purchasing drugs in Mexico, you contribute to a violent system which has wreaked havoc on the country’s reputation and infrastructure. It’s both unsafe and disrespectful. Don’t do it.
- Purchase travel insurance. It’s not necessarily instinctual, especially if you happen to be from the States, but travel insurance will keep you financially protected from medical expenses, theft, and cancellations. Be sure to read the terms of your prospective plan carefully before purchase so that you know you’re covered from your biggest concerns.
- Do the research. If you’re like me when you travel and you like to go for long walks just to see where you end up, then in a place like Mexico, that could land you in a neighborhood you didn’t know was bad until it’s too late. For each new destination, look up which neighborhoods are safe and unsafe, and either carry a paper map or download an offline map to your phone so that you can track your own location even without internet. In addition, make sure you know and have saved all necessary emergency phone numbers and contacts in advance, and know how you’re going to get from the airport to your hotel.
- Don’t stand out. Traveling is not an arena where your individuality is your greatest asset. You would do best to copy the local streetwear and avoid classic tourist garb like shorts and sandals – this is the best way to trick potential muggers that you’re a bit street savvy, even if you aren’t.
- Don’t be flashy. Is your phone out of your pocket? Great, thieves know you have a phone they can take. Is that a nice watch on your wrist? They’ll know they can take that, too. Keep all valuables hidden when you’re on the street, at all times, and don’t get yourself isolated.
- Don’t drink the water. Sorry, this is just a straight-up no-go. You can’t even have ice cubes in your glass (that’s how a lot of people get stomach bugs, actually). Buy bottled water, bring a water bottle with a built-in filter, bring water purification tablets, etc.
- Be careful with taxis. Illegal taxis are rampant, so don’t just hail a taxi off the street. Call a taxi from a reputable company, use taxis at marked taxi stands, or call an Uber (it’s safe in Mexico).
- Last but not least: Register with your respective government that you are traveling. This will keep you safe in that your government will know that you are traveling and can contact you urgently if there is an emergency, such as social unrest. They can also offer professional evaluations of the crime stats in each region of the country.
Is Cancun safe?
Maybe you saw the phrase “Spring Break” somewhere and it’s conjuring images of white beaches and trashy college students. Or maybe you’re the more sophisticated type looking for an upscale resort and a proper getaway. Either way, Cancun is probably on your list. But does its status as a major tourism destination negate any of the usual dangers?
For starters, everything listed above still applies, even if you’re in an area of Mexico with more foreigners than usual (it still has a decently high homicide rate, when compared with the rest of the country). You need to be on your guard. And in many ways, the presence of more tourism introduces additional challenges.
There is more of a market in Cancun for scammers, and the high numbers of foreigners looking for cheap drugs means the drug market is more bustling in this area, leading to a greater chance of a run-in with drug-related violence.
Many people who come to Cancun are coming for all-inclusive resorts or other such isolated locations, which makes them safer (though not entirely) from the usual dangers. If resort life is your intention, you would do well to hang closeby. In general, we would add these more Cancun-specific pointers to the list:
- Carry a copy of your passport, not the real thing. Police might ask for your passport, but sometimes they will keep it and extort you for money for its return.
- Again, DON’T DO DRUGS. Just don’t be that guy, c’mon. It’s especially unsafe in a market like this.
- Don’t go swimming under the influence. Self-explanatory, but necessary considering the amount of alcohol that circulates in the hotel area.
- The most dangerous areas of Cancun are in the outskirts and more remote areas. Stick to the crowded areas.
- Watch your belongings, even more closely that you normally would, and be wary of anyone walking up to you unprompted – scammers run rampant.
Is it safe to visit Tijuana?
We’re also going to single out this US-adjacent hub for a quick moment, because the question of “is Tijuana safe?” is on a lot of people’s minds recently. It’s recently been labeled “the most dangerous city in the world” due to an alarmingly high homicide rate (though that title gets tossed around frequently). What’s important to remember is that Tijuana is subject to turf wars from the local cartels, and their affiliated groups are subject to most of the violence. The cartels don’t typically mind tourists, after all, tourists are their customers (do you really want to contribute to that industry?).
That said, we would recommend to be more on your guard in a city like Tijuana, and to heavily research the neighborhoods which one should and should not visit. It’s easy to walk two blocks and find yourself having transitioned quickly from a safe area to a…not-so-safe area. The downtown of the city as well as Zona Rio and Playas de Tijuana are considered safe, and they are also heavily policed. It should go without saying at this point: do not walk around at night, especially if you are alone.
There are always ways to make oneself safer. Though the concept of being totally safe exists mainly in one’s head, there are always ways to reduce the risk of theft, scams, and worse. Remain vigilant, do your research, and you should have a lovely time in Mexico!