Is It Safe to Travel to Mexico?

If you have upcoming plans to travel south of the border, how concerned should you be about the latest violence? Security experts weigh in.

A beach in Cancun

Disputes between local taxi driver unions and Uber drivers earlier this year in Quintana Roo, the Mexican state that is home to Cancun, turned violent.

Photo by David Vives/Unsplash

The recent headlines from Mexico have been dramatic: A commercial airliner hit by gunfire during deadly rioting over the arrest of the son of Mexican drug kingpin “El Chapo”. Tourists forced out of their Ubers during protests held by taxi drivers in the resort town of Cancun. And four Americans kidnapped—two killed—after driving across the Texas border to Matamoros for a medical procedure.

While crime and drug-related violence in Mexico have been making headlines for years, the latest spate has prompted a series of security alerts from the U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Mexico and a warning by the Texas Department of Public Safety against spring break travel south of the border. And that, of course, has many travelers once again asking: Is it safe to travel there?

“Watch your own news,” one concierge at a Puerto Morales resort told me, with a hint of a scoff, when I posed the question during a February visit to the Quintana Roo seaside town that coincided with yet another mass shooting in the United States. “It’s much safer here. I won’t even go to a shopping mall in the United States.”

Indeed, the sheer number of tourists who regularly flock to the country’s beaches and tourist areas without incident would certainly seem to bolster her point. Last year, more than 13 million international travelers visited the country.

But the real answer, security experts say, is “it depends.”

It depends on where you go, how you get there, where you stay, and, perhaps most importantly, the decisions you make.

“In many ways the story stays the same—you avoid the very obvious areas where you shouldn’t go,” says Nick Phillips Jones, director of investigations and intelligence at the Mexico-based business intelligence firm Sargasso Group.

“For the vast majority of tourists who come to Mexico from the U.S. and elsewhere, they really are no more at personal risk than in their home countries if they stick to the ‘beaten track’ and major tourist areas,” he says. “Tourists are more at risk of getting short-changed or over-charged than anything else, much like anywhere. If they stay alert, most visitors will have no problems at all.”

Generally, beach resorts and popular tourist areas are considered among the safest areas as drug cartel–related violence generally isn’t aimed at tourists. That’s because the cartels don’t want to attract the attention of the U.S. government, according to Jones.

The fact that the Gulf cartel issued a public apology and handed over the men it said were responsible for the Matamoros kidnappings, “shows how keen they are to avoid and deflect the wrath of the U.S. law enforcement,” says Jones.

The biggest danger, experts agree, is being at the wrong place at the wrong time, which is what officials have said they believe was the case of the four Americans who were abducted in Matamoros earlier this month.

So how can travelers protect themselves? Here are some tips from travel security experts.

Do your research

It’s important to stay up to date so that you’re not caught off guard by any recent developments that could affect your trip and your safety.

For instance, the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, home to the popular beach destinations of Cancun, Riviera Maya, Cozumel, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, used to be considered the safest tourist area in Mexico. But a few years ago it saw a rise in cartel activity “because of tourism, and tourists like to do drugs,” says Harding Bush, senior manager of security operations for the security and intelligence firm Global Rescue.

Security has been beefed up there since 2021, when two different shoot-outs between rival drug dealers spilled over onto hotel beaches, including one in Tulum that killed two tourists.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Embassy and consulates in Mexico issued a security alert in response to disputes between local taxi driver unions and Uber drivers in Quintana Roo that “occasionally turned violent, resulting in injuries to U.S. citizens in some instances.”

Citing crime and kidnapping, the U.S. State Department advises Americans not travel to 6 of Mexico’s 32 states: Guerrero, Colima, Michoacán, Sinaloa, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.

The northern state of Tamaulipas is home to Matamoros, which is just across the Rio Grande from Brownsville, Texas.

And Sinaloa is where the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán-López, son of Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, sparked a wave of violence that killed 29 people and closed airports in Culiacan and Mazatlan when gunfire filled the streets, with some shots hitting an Aeromexico flight preparing to depart Culiacan for Mexico City.

Additionally, the State Department advises tourists to “reconsider travel” to seven other states (also on the basis of crime): Baja California (the northern portion of the peninsula, not Baja California Sur, the southern state where most resorts are located), Chihuahua, Durango, Guanajuato, Jalisco, Morelos, and Sonora.

Most Mexican states have a Level 2 designation from the State Department, which means “exercise increased caution,” including Quintana Roo, Baja California Sur, Oaxaca, and Mexico City.

Look beyond travel advisories

Don’t just look at State Department warnings and advisories, Bush says. Mexico is one of the largest countries in the Americas, and the 13th largest in the world. Its states are large as well, so it’s important to understand the situation in the specific locality you are heading to.

“Look at the news, the U.S. news and the local news in Mexico,” he says. “Talk to people who have been there before,” including those who have visited very recently.

Another good resource, Bush says, is the U.K. government site, which he said gives more detail about what is driving its traveler recommendations.

Vet your accommodations and transportation

Stay at known hotels and resorts that have well-established security, Bush advises. Many well-known brands, including Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt, and Four Seasons, to name just a few, have extensive experience operating in Mexico. And across the country, it’s commonplace for beach resorts to have a security checkpoint at the entrance, as well as security personnel who closely monitor both the properties and adjacent beaches.

Find a hotel away from busy beaches flanked by vendors and criminals who might be disguised as vendors. For instance, in Quintana Roo, all beaches are public, but there are a number of hotels and resorts set in more remote areas away from the foot traffic.

For transportation to and from the airport, or for trips off property, use a service organized by your hotel or resort, particularly if you are going out at night.

If you drive instead of fly, avoid driving at night

Most tourists fly into the popular tourist areas. But many residents of border states like California, Arizona, and New Mexico, who largely abandoned drive-to destinations like the Baja Peninsula and Puerto Penasco and San Carlos on the eastern shores of the Sea of Cortez after the government launched an aggressive war on drug cartels in 2006, have returned, with little incident, in recent years.

Still, experts say travelers going overland should take serious precautions to ensure they don’t inadvertently end up in cartel areas. And both Jones and Bush warned never to drive at night.

“The northern border region is and has long been high risk,” says Jones. “If you have to travel there, you absolutely have to take precautions, keep a very low profile, and get local up-to-date advice before doing so.”

As with any travel, implement common precautions

As with any country or region where crime is present, there are certain activities that either require added caution or should be ruled out entirely if you want to avoid any danger.

Be careful withdrawing cash from ATMs—only use them during the day, and make sure there are people around. You might think twice about wandering the streets at night, particularly alone or in areas that you aren’t familiar with. And, of course, if you engage in illicit or illegal activities such as purchasing drugs, you are increasing your risks.

“There’s a lot of crime in Mexico,” says Bush. “It doesn’t necessarily target tourists, but it’s there and [if you’re not careful] you could definitely find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Jeri Clausing is a New Mexico–based journalist who has covered travel and the business of travel for more than 15 years.
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