Should I visit Mexico?

I’m really excited to introduce a our newest columnist, Stuart Gustafson. His weekly feature, “Should I Cross That Line?” dovetails with his area of expertise: international travel. Gustafson spent his career in corporate sales at HP and today is an acclaimed novelist and sought-after public speaker. I can’t wait to see where he takes us next .

It’s the dead of winter. I bet you’re tired of the weather by now, and the prospect of six more weeks of cold. I know I am.

So where’s the easiest place to find a little warmth?

You know where — just hop on a plane and head south, crossing one national border if you’re in the United States and two if you’re in Canada.

But should you go?

Your answer will probably be “No,” or even a resounding “Heck, no!” if you follow the news.

It’s not just the kidnappings. What about the missing students whose story keeps resurfacing over and over again? Isn’t that enough to scare you away?

But those are just isolated incidents, and there’s nothing to worry about, right?

Well, if that’s the case, then why did the U.S. State Department issue this travel warning? That should be enough to convince even the bravest international traveler that it’s not safe to visit Mexico. That’s just the type of scare-tactic headlines that we don’t like on the supermarket tabloids, so why should we accept them from the United States government?

You have to read further in the article to find out exactly where the unsafe places are, but the overall tone of the travel warning is biased against going to Mexico.

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Here is what that travel warning says about the area where I’ve been going each year since 2003:

Baja California (Sur): Cabo San Lucas and La Paz are major cities/travel destinations in the state of Southern Baja California – Exercise caution in the state capital of La Paz. According to the Department of Interior of Mexico, in 2013 Baja California Sur registered its highest homicide rate since 1997. Many of these homicides occurred in La Paz, where there has been an increase in organized crime-related violence.

Most visitors to the southern part of Baja don’t go to La Paz. They are going to Todos Santos, San José del Cabo and Cabo San Lucas. Those areas thrive — actually they survive — on the tourists and expats who have spent, and continue to spend, a lot of money to fish, eat, party, enjoy the sun, party, relax, and maybe even party some more.

“Is it safe?” is a question I’m frequently asked about going to Mexico. My answer is that it’s as safe as any hometown I know of in the U.S. or in Canada.

Are there any problems in either of the two Cabos? Of course, there are. But then, I’d be happy to wager that you can find problems in your town if you’re out at 2 a.m., coming home drunk, and maybe even willing to pick a fight. But that can happen in Boise, Idaho, Peoria, Illinois, Calgary or any other city you can name.

The people I know who visit Mexico aren’t out partying all night long and creating a ruckus on their way back to the hotel, condo, or timeshare. I’ve never had a problem and neither have they. If you act decently and are respectful, then you should be fine.

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I certainly wouldn’t knowingly and willingly go to any part of the world where it’s obvious that I’d be stepping into a killing zone. But I think it’s the people who don’t know the facts who are painting the overall negative picture of Mexico when the problems are confined to a few easily identifiable and concentrated areas.

If you believe the State Department’s warning about La Paz (and indirectly all of Baja California, South), does that mean you wouldn’t visit Washington, D.C., that sees an average of two killings each and every week of the year?

No. You’re smarter than that — at least I hope so.

Would you visit Mexico?

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Stuart Gustafson

Stuart Gustafson is a writer, world traveler and professional speaker. He’s channeled his love of travel into writing travel-based mystery novels.

  • Zod

    The problem isn’t people getting murdered it’s the type of people that are targeted for the crime. In some countries (Mexico) tourists are specifically targeted for crimes. Yes, there are crimes in DC as well, but the vast majority are against locals and very few happen to visitors. As a result, Mexico is more dangerous because the criminals specifically seek out and commit crimes against visitors…especially American visitors!

  • Jack Stinglash

    This very subject came up in a discussion here a few days ago. A few people indicated they wouldn’t go. One gent even claimed that the murder rate in Mexico is “500%” higher than it is in the U.S. Not only did he not cite his source, the statistics I found were considerably different.

    As for official warnings, the U.S. State Department is notorious for fear mongering. Those of us who live in other countries are constantly amused by this.

  • Bill___A

    I know that there are probably safe places in Mexico. However, until this country gets their act together with respect to running a country without the prevailing lawlessness, they will not benefit from my travel dollars.
    They need to address their crime and corruption problems. There are lots of other places to go.

  • Jack Stinglash

    Oh my. The foreign tourists who’ve been targeted in Florida might have something to say about that. Then again, some of them are dead.

  • Joe

    Mexico is a great place to visit and I certainly enjoy it. Saying you won’t visit Mexico because parts of it are dangerous is like saying you won’t visit Boston because Chicago has a high crime rate. Every country has its share of crime; a responsible and alert traveler would be fine visiting such a beautiful country.

  • Dutchess

    Do you have any proof for your statement or is this just your conjecture? While visiting mexico tourists are often the target of petty theft on the streets (like EVERYWHERE ELSE in the world) but most of the violent crime is related to drugs and narcotics with locals being the targets. The 43 students that were killed, those were locals. Drug cartels, and cartel violence are targeting locals who get in the way of their operations, not the family sunning on the beach in PV. So, please share your crime statistics when you make blanket statements about a country.

  • Detroiter327

    I lived in central Playa Del Carmen for the first six months of 2014. I had no problems in the city itself besides the occasional taxi driver trying to toss a tourist tax on the fare. I also birdwatch and found myself in lots of rural and isolated areas (sadly by myself as my boyfriend does not like birdwatching) and as a lone female felt safe and secure at all times. On top of that the further out I got I found the people friendlier and more likely to help. I once ended up stranded in an isolated town after all the lone bus stopped running and a bodega owner rode his motorcycle 20 minutes away to grab me a cab from a nearby town. All of that happened with me speaking very little Spanish. – Thought a first hand six month experience would be valuable to this thread.

  • Globetrotter6969 .

    I agree. I stopped going to Mexico and it had nothing to do with the State Department and terrorism. It is difficult to relax in a country where locals (and the police) are looking to squeeze (Or steal!) your wallet every chance they get.

  • Detroiter327

    Could you perhaps contribute a personal experience of police/people trying to steal from you so people can avoid it if they travel there?

  • Globetrotter6969 .

    I have had MANY experiences in different parts of the world. When I say “steal” I refer to both legal and illegal. From the hotel clerks and bartenders who charge you more for being a “Rich” American to the portable “Toll Booths” that the Mexican Police who seem to only charge American tourists riding in taxis. Every country has a certain level of crime and corruption. But only Mexico is so blatant and indifferent about it.

  • Detroiter327

    Yes but again this is a travel blog. Northern Mexico? Cancun/Playa Del Carmen area? Were you staying in a B&B, hostel or a well established all inclusive? Does your post offer any specific advice to future travelers at all? You’ve made two posts now and have not really elaborated with a personal experience or how others can learn from it.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Bill — I’m in Mexico for two weeks right now — Cabo San Lucas, specifically. I would agree that Mexico should address their crime and corruption problems, but then I see the very same things in almost all our politicians. Certainly Washington, DC, isn’t exempt from crime and corruption, but I don’t know people who stay away because of that. My issue with the State Department’s travel warning ws that it was so all-encompassing as if there are no safe places to visit. There are PLENTY of SAFE places in Mexico. I hope you’ll reconsider coming down here. Thanks for your input.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Thanks, Joe. That Boston/Chicago analogy is a good example that many travelers don’t think of.

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Hello, Detroiter327. I am so glad you had such a great experience in Playa del Carmen. Being alone could be a tenuous situation, at best, for any female. I hope you’re able go birding again, and with one someone who also likes bird watching!

  • Detroiter327

    Thank you very much! My boyfriend still does not like bird watching but I still go several times a week :) I spent the last six months of 2014 in Vietnam and always felt great in my lone birdwatching there as well!

  • Stuart Gustafson

    That’s exciting. I was in Vietnam for just a couple days in December; beautiful area and very friendly people. Keep on traveling and spread the word about SAFE MEXICO!

  • Brooklyn

    I’ve been to many parts of Mexico, though never to the resorts. I love it, including Mexico City, to the point that I always plan to spend a couple of days there on my way to wherever else I’m going. I’ve also rented a car and driven through downtown Mexico City at rush hour, though I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re a big city driver back home. If you don’t think you’d feel comfortable in Mexico, by all means go somewhere else; your vacation shouldn’t be a test of your courage. But if you’re open to another culture, it’s a great place – the history, the food, the scenery, the shopping, the people…I can’t wait to go back!

  • ScottR

    I’m a gringo that’s been to more states in Mexico than the US over the past 30 years. It helps that I speak Spanish, but it’s certainly not necessary. There are areas I’ve had to avoid (unfortunately!) beginning about 10 years ago due to the narcotraficantes, but there are still so many other parts of the beautiful country that are perfectly safe. Baja California Sur is one state I haven’t been and to is high on my list. Stuart, how badly did the recent hurricane affect Cabo San Lucas? Thanks.

  • Jack Stinglash

    Mr. Gustafson, thank you. I travel to Mexico often. It distresses me to see so many comments at a travel blog that display, for want of a better term, Ugly American syndrome. You might also take a look at the discussion here titled ‘How to avoid a traffic “shakedown”’, posted a few days ago, for similar sentiments.

  • sirwired

    The warning text seems pretty reasonable to me. It starts off with a summary of problems that occur in multiple states/areas. It then branches off to give a state-by-state breakdown of what’s an issue where.

    It’s not the State Dept.’s job to be a cheerleader for any particular destination. And yes, the information in the Travel Warning is nearly all negative; that’s why it’s called a “Travel Warning”. The text of the country information sheet is more balanced. (Which also make sense.)

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Thank you, Jack. When I’m doing interviews about Mexico and my mystery novel titled “Missing in Mexico,” I get asked about safety. I’m glad because it allows to tell people about “safe travel” no matter where you go in the world. basically, if you want to find trouble, you can do that in your own town. In 13 years coming down here to Los Cabos (admittedly lots of Americans and Canadians with timeshares), I’ve never encountred or sen any problems. But then, we’re not out at 2 a.m. doing stupid this. Enjoy your travels!

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Good points, “Brooklyn.” Your vacation shouldn’t something that stresses you out. If you’re uncomfortable going to Mexico, don’t go. If you’re uncomfortable going to China, don’t go. That holds for ANYwhere in the world. But if you do go, do more than just stay in hotels and resorts; experience some local culture — it’s fun!

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Hola, ScottR. I’m in Cabo San Lucas right now, and the hurricane last October did damage some of the buildings. The poorest — those in the barrios — were hit the hardest.We had breakfst this morning at a pool bar whose palapa roof completely collapsed. It’s all rebuilt, looks great, and we we were told, “We don’t have to worry about repairs for a while now” — referring to the new structure. Some buildings are still being worked on — insurance companies have to survery everything first. But overall, Cabo has come back very strong. You will really enjoy Baja California Sur — we’ve loved coming here for 13 straight years!!!

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Thank you, sirwired. One problem, however, is that many people don’t ready all the text, just the negative headlines. Is it those peoples’ own fault then for not knowing where it IS “safe”? Yes, but they then have the negative impression about ALL of Mexico. That’s whats too bad about it.

  • bodega3

    I would like to see you proof of this. One thing that is for certain, American tourists to Mexican beach locations, often let their guard down with lots of drinking and place themselves in situations they wouldn’t at home….well except those college students. They do stupid stuff at home, too.
    As a travel agent, I have no problem sending clients to most parts of Mexico. There are a few and sadly, Acapulco is one I won’t sell. My kids won’t ever go to Mexico again. But then, they were part of those stupid college kids who did dumb stuff, met a few local officials, paid a few fines, paid a few large guys to be body guards over spring break to keep them from meeting more local officials and paying more fines.

  • Bill Rubin

    Of course it’s perfectly safe to visit Mexico as a US tourist. Tourists are usually not dealing in drug traffic. I’m heading to Mexico City later this month for business and to Puerta Vallarta/Punta Mita over Thanksgiving for leisure. Of course, I just returned from supposedly very dangerous South Africa less than a month ago (my 4th visit) and had no issues at all. For those who always are afraid, don’t worry. For those who are so fearful they can’t go–thanks. You make it a little bit easier for the rest of us to get through customs and get a better deal or upgrade. :-)

  • BobChi

    I really don’t believe you have any basis for this. The gang and drug stuff is turf battles that don’t affect tourists (unless you’re stupid enough to get into that). Millions of people visit Mexico each year and a tiny fraction ever have any trouble. Pickpocketing and stuff like that happen everywhere.

  • BobChi

    Read the warnings for Denmark. There’s a lot of CYA in those documents. If anything remotely could ever happen, they’ll mention it. If they did a report in a similar vein on any American city, we’d be afraid to get out of bed.

  • BobChi

    Thank you! I go to Mexico almost every year and enjoy it immensely. A lot of it is xenophobia, more if it a reaction to issues around immigration in the U.S., where it becomes necessary for some to portray Mexico as evil. Like most places, don’t be ridiculous, take normal safety precautions and enjoy yourself.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Hi Detroit,
    I can’t help you with birding, but if you live anywhere near Sacramento and would like to try “catting,” I have seven of them. They’re all indoor, so they’re easy to find. :-)

  • Stuart Gustafson

    Hi, Bill. I’m glad you’re enjoying your travels, work or fun (or both!). While I do wish more people would feel comfortable traveling anywhere, not everyone is going to feel that way. But for those of us who do, life and travel is such a marvelous adventure. Keep on traveling!

  • LFH0

    Unfortunately, so many people are geographically illiterate that they cannot distinguish between places within Mexico (witness, for example, the common perception of there being a single “Mexican” cuisine!). I have long perceived both Baja California Sur and Quintana Roo to be the most secure parts of the country, precisely because both depend heavily on American tourism and government officials there do not want that tourism to stop. But since I’m not a beach enthusiast, I have mostly visited inland locations, and even got married in Oaxaca (southern Mexico) just a few years ago, all without a hitch. Most of the bad events have occurred in the north–the border states–and the California Gulf coast, mostly related to drug smuggling, and having few places of great interest (other than Los Mochis for trips to the Barranca del Cobre), and accordingly tourists should be not dissuaded from spending time elsewhere. Yes, Mexico City has its own special set of concerns, but that’s just like all cities . . . keep your street smarts with you and things should be fine. There are just so many interesting places in Mexico City (museums, architecture, communities, cuisine) that it should be no more ignored than Washington, D.C. The essential point is that each part of Mexico has its own characteristics, and the broad paintbrush used by so many should be replaced with a fine tip pen.

  • Bill___A

    I do understand that there are safe places in Mexico. However, I have no confidence in their legal system and I understand the medical system is corrupt to the point where they will extort money in addition to the medical insurance you have.

    I do not have any need or plans to visit Mexico.

  • Brooklyn

    My father became very ill in Mexico. The doctor visited him multiple times at the hotel rather than sending him to the hospital, as an American doctor would have done for the sake of convenience, the laboratories processed his tests quickly and the cost was extremely low. Because he was weak and on a special diet after he recovered, the doctor and his wife invited my parents to their home for an afternoon so their entire vacation wouldn’t be ruined.

  • Shane Schmitz

    I hope you all refuse to go…it will be less crowded for me.
    Mexico is bad please stay away.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    So where’s the easiest place to find a little warmth?

    Florida’s Emerald Coast has sand and water that will make you think you’re in the Caribbean. (Destin, Fort Walton Beach area) You do not need to leave the country or even visit Hawaii to find some spectacular beaches.

  • LostInMidwest

    I don’t get it … I just read all the comments – from “Ugly American syndrome” all the way to Chicago-Boston analogy and there are some seriously frustrated people out there. Well, I’m not American and whether I’m ugly or not is probably only my wife’s business and nobody else’s and I will not travel to Mexico.

    Let me repeat that : I WILL NOT TRAVEL TO MEXICO.

    Why? Who cares why, my money, my decision where and how to spend it. Your money, your decision to enjoy it wherever it pleases you. What’s with this “If you don’t want to spend money by traveling to Mexico you are either dumb or you have “Ugly American syndrome”?

    Believe me, last thing I want is for all Americans to discover where I spend my vacations and invade those beaches. So, I will tell them that place is horrible and they should stay away from it. I don’t get it … why advertise the place you love so much when, once invaded by hordes of tourists, it will become unusable? Enjoy it for yourself and leave everybody else alone for crying out loud.

  • Judy Serie Nagy

    So true, Joe, we spent 10 days down there over Christmas. Road trip from Mobile AL to Appalachacola. Spectacular area to visit! And the people are so genuinely sweet and friendly it’s a real pleasure to get to know them.

  • LonnieC

    Okay, a question: In the past we’ve gone to Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo and Nogales whenever we were in the southern US. We’ve heard conflicting things about the safety in the border states. Should we consider a day trip to Nogales this year when we visit southern Arizona?

  • Lindabator

    WHAT medical insurance? US insurance doesn’t cover you abroad – which is why you either pay cash, or you take out travel insurance which DOES cover the costs.

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