Mexico is known for its delicious food, fascinating culture, colourful history, warm hospitality and gorgeous sceneries. It’s no wonder it’s the sixth most visited country in the world, attracting 41.4 million tourists in 2018, of which 36.92 million are American.
Despite its reputation as a great holiday destination, Mexico’s travel safety is also often put into question, thanks to extensive media coverage on its crime and drug violence. Add to that the current tense political stance of the U.S. to the country, the dismantling of the national tourism board in May 2019 and algae bloom that has been washing up on some Mexican beaches, Mexico may seem less attractive. But should you be deterred from visiting Mexico? Not if you take some precautions.
Understand your destination
Mexico is a large country, about a fifth of the United States. And just like most large countries, there are areas that are safer than others. Knowing where the danger zones are and intentionally staying out of them can keep you out of trouble.
You can check out the U.S. Department of State’s Mexico travel advisory for a full list of Mexican states and their respective travel advisory levels.
The U.S. Department of State defines the four travel advisory levels as
Level 4 – Do not travel
Level 3 – Reconsider travel
Level 2 – Exercise increased caution
Level 1 – Exercise normal precautions
Level 4: Do not travel to
Level 3: Reconsider travelling to
- Estado de Mexico
- Nuevo Leon
- San Luis Potosi
Level 2: Exercise increased caution when travelling to
- Baja California
- Baja California Sur (This is where Los Cabos is)
- Mexico City
- Quintana Roo (This is where Cancun is)
Level 1: Exercise normal precautions in
There are no level 1 states in Mexico.
What about Cancun and Los Cabos?
Furthermore, the Mexican authorities know that tourism is their main source of income, and are doing their best to ensure that tourists don’t feel threatened to visit the country. It is in their interest to keep tourist areas safe.
So as long as you stay in these two areas and exercise the kind of caution you would anywhere else in the world, you should have a trouble-free trip in Mexico.
What about Mexico’s gang, drugs and violence?
Unfortunately, even popular tourist spots are not immune to drug-related crimes. There are a few reports of travellers being killed by drug cartels, but it’s mostly due to not following travel advisories or being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Most travellers still have a trouble-free experience.
Violence among drug cartels is common, but as long as you stay out of the way, you’ll not become a target.
What about other crimes?
Petty crimes and kidnappings are quite common in Mexico, even in touristy areas. But the perpetrators are often only after money, they don’t want your life. So keep your wealth out of sight and try to just go with the flow and you’ll be fine. More on this in point #11 below.
Keep a photocopy of your passport and travel visa
Things do get tricky if you lose your original travel documents. You’ll not only waste money and time, but you may also lose the mood to travel. The likelihood of you losing your passport (along with some valuables) is higher in Mexico due to the high theft rate.
Make a photocopy of key travel documents, carry them around with you and keep the originals in a safe in your accommodation when you are out and about.
Find out the location of your country’s embassy in Mexico just in case you lose your original documents and need help. Keep a photo of your passport in your devices and in your email to help speed up the process at the embassy.
Don’t go out after dark
Mexicans know how to party and it’s tempting to join them. If you can help it, avoid going out at night altogether. But if you do want to enjoy a night out, don’t go alone and stay in crowded areas. Be extra alert in drinking spots. More on staying safe while drinking in Mexico in points #14 and #15.
This rule applies even if you’re thinking of travelling on private or public transport – just don’t. Some remote areas are rugged and prone to accidents. There is also the risk of highway robberies.
Travel only with reputable bus companies
Bus travel is generally safe. There are security staff patrolling bus stations at all times. But the reputable bus companies go a step further to keep you safe: they conduct security checks on passengers and take high-speed toll roads to minimise risks.
Check on the route that the bus service. Make sure that the bus takes high-speed toll roads whenever possible.
Avoid taking buses at night. Night buses are sometimes a target of highway robberies. Chances are you can’t fall asleep anyway.
Stay alert on Mexico City Metro
The Mexico City Metro is one of the safest modes of transport, but it isn’t crime-free. Pick-pocketing often happens in train carriages, especially when it’s crowded. Don’t keep valuables in accessible pockets and have all your belongings secured or close to you.
If you’re a woman, you might encounter sexual harassment. Reduce your risk by travelling on the women and children’s carriage. If you’re a man, stay out of those carriages.
Use authorised taxis from official Sitios (taxi stands)
Don’t hail cabs off the street. You may get overcharged or, worse, become a victim of express kidnaps.
Take taxis only from official sitios or Uber. Keep a record of the taxi license plate number, location and time of boarding and send it to a family or friend as soon as you can.
More on express kidnapping in point #19 below.
Keep car windows closed and doors locked
Car-jacking and robberies do happen and the risk increases at night. Keep your windows closed and doors locked at all times, especially at the traffic lights. You wouldn’t want people pulling you out of your car and speeding off with it.
Take valuables out of the car
Avoid leaving valuables in your car. If the car goes missing, so does your valuables. If you really can’t help it, keep valuables out of sight, such as tucking it underneath the seats or placing it in the boot.
Don’t move your car if you get into an accident
If you get into a traffic accident, don’t move your car. Call for police and wait.
Take toll roads (COUTA) where possible
No matter your choice of transport, if you have a choice, choose toll roads (as opposed to free roads aka VIA LIBRE) as much as you can. They are safer, better maintained and are usually multi-lane. That way you get to your destination faster than being on a typical one-lane free road.
Keep your wealth out of sight
Got an expensive sense of style? Don’t flaunt it in Mexico. Otherwise, you’d be a walking target for robbers, thieves or even kidnappers.
Avoid showing off your wealth by other means as well, such as using your latest iPhone while strolling down the street or taking out a stack of cash.
Bring a decoy wallet
It’s a good idea to keep a wallet with a little bit of money and some cards that you don’t mind losing. You can use it as you go and if you do get robbed, just hand over the decoy wallet. Stash some emergency cash in a hidden money belt for situations like this; you don’t want to be walking around cashless.
Stay alert when withdrawing money
If you do run out of cash, your best bet is to visit a bank branch to make a withdrawal. There are security staff keeping the place safe.
But ATMs tend to be easier to locate, so if you have to withdraw money from an ATM, be aware of your surroundings. Make sure that no card skimmers are installed and cover the number pad when you’re keying in your PIN number.
Keep an eye out for unauthorised transactions
Even if you take all the necessary precautions, you may still fall victim to card fraud. Check your account daily to make sure that no one makes any unauthorised transactions with your card.
Don’t drink alone
If you really want to head out to a bar, pub or club at night, go with a group of trusted friends. They’ll be able to look out for you should anything happens.
Avoid getting drunk
This holds true even if you’re drinking with a group of friends. You want to be able to react to any situations that may happen at any moment.
Stay away from drugs
Getting yourself arrested is not the biggest worry here. Getting yourself killed by members of a drug cartel is.
Be careful of scams
Avoid strangers who voluntarily help you or ask for help. If you need help, don’t just approach random people walking or standing around. Find security personnel or shopkeeper. Don’t give out personal information as well.
Comply with kidnappers
Found yourself in a kidnapping situation? Try not to resist. You may end up more hurt than you’re supposed to be.
Express kidnapping is the most common form of kidnap, where kidnappers demand for a small, immediate ransom, often by forcing the victims to withdraw money from ATMs. These kidnappers in Mexico often just want your money. Complying and then paying a ransom is often safer than plotting an escape.
Avoid political commentary on the country
The Mexican constitution states that “foreigners may not in any way participate in the political affairs of the county,” so avoid saying or doing anything political in nature, especially out in public.
Don’t drink tap water or any drinks with ice
Mexico’s tap water is not safe for consumption. Make sure you only drink treated or bottled water. Avoid any drinks with ice. Chances are the ice is made with tap water. Restaurants are exceptions since they have to meet water health codes.
Watch how your food and drinks are prepared when possible
This is especially true for street vendors. If their food preparation or storage does not look hygienic to you, walk away. Avoid exotic meats like monkey, bat, lion, crocodile or guinea pig. Some of them are high-risk, while others are illegal and probably do not meet health standards.
Use mosquito repellent
The Zika virus threat is still real in Mexico. If you’re pregnant or wish to have children in the future, you should avoid visiting Mexico. But if you really do wish to visit, arm yourself with mosquito repellent.
There are many scenic hiking spots in Mexico and some of them are thousands of feet above sea level. In fact, the capital of Mexico, Mexico City, is situated at about 2,200 metres (that’s 7,300 feet) above sea level. The thinner air at height may cause nausea and headaches, so if you’re visiting any of these areas, make sure you are ready to deal with the altitude sickness.
If possible, cater some time when you arrive to acclimatise to the altitude. Avoid planning for physically strenuous activities on the day or two that you arrive (yes, that includes hiking) and observe how your body reacts to the height. Avoid consuming alcohol and smoking, especially when you’re experiencing the symptoms of altitude sickness.
Bring N95 masks
This is especially important if you’re visiting Mexico City. Due to the altitude of the city, there is less oxygen in the air for complete combustion in engines, causing cars to emit more poisonous particulates. With more than three million cars weaving through the city, the air pollution problem becomes sizeable. Adding to that are a large number of factories and frequent wildfires that exacerbate the situation.
The Particulate Matter 10 (PM10) level hits bad levels on a daily basis and coupled with the PM2.5 level, it’s equivalent to smoking 3.5 cigarettes a day. There is almost a 100% chance that an N95 mask would come in handy.
If you don’t want to be coughing your lungs out while on a holiday, put the mask on whenever you head outdoors. It’s also good to check if your accommodation has an air filter machine or system in place.
Stay low, stay safe
As scary as Mexico sounds, there are way more tourists who had a great time than those who got into dangerous situations. On top of applying the usual caution when visiting foreign lands, exercising common sense, staying extra alert and heeding travel advice can help you stay out of trouble.
Hope you have a great trip! Do share this article with anyone who is heading to Mexico.
DISCLAIMER: While we make all possible effort to ensure that our advice, particularly the ones pertaining to safety, is current, we cannot guarantee that they remain sound. Do extensive research on your own and exercise extra caution.