The image some may have of Mexico as a dangerous country with a drug cartel on every corner is far from the reality. Millions of U.S. citizens travel safely to Mexico each year, and the Mexican government puts a priority on making tourist areas secure.
Still, with the State Department urging travelers to “exercise increased caution” in the country due to crime, it’s a good idea to take some precautions to minimize your risk of encountering a problem.
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1. Choose your destination carefully
Though the State Department’s “increased caution,” or Level 2, travel advisory covers much of the country, it considers come areas, such as Guadalajara, more risky — Level 3 (“reconsider travel”).
And it suggests avoiding travel — Level 4 (“do not travel”) — in five Mexican states, including Guerrero, home to the Acapulco and Ixtapa tourist meccas.
The relatively low Level 2 advisory suggested for the rest of the country covers San Miguel de Allende; the Riviera Maya, including Playa del Carmen; and Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, where “petty crime occurs frequently in tourist areas.” Check travel.state.gov for the latest updates for every part of the country.
2. Register your trip with the State Department’s STEP (Smart Traveler Enrollment Program)
This allows you to receive updates on your destination and enables State Department personnel to locate you in case of an emergency. Also look up and keep handy the phone number for the nearest U.S. consulate before you go, in case you need help. Having travel insurance that covers medical emergencies, theft or other possible calamities is advisable.
3. If you’re an extremely cautious traveler, consider an all-inclusive resort or a cruise
In addition to having a single fee cover most of your vacation, all-inclusives typically allow only guests and employees inside a gated area. And cruise ships generally call at busy, well-guarded ports.
In 2017 and 2018, three dozen all-inclusive resorts in Mexico allegedly served tainted alcohol that sickened hundreds and killed at least several, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation. That issue appears to have been addressed, although it isn’t a bad idea to watch what you drink or stick to cans or bottled beverages opened in front of you.
4. Think twice about renting a car
Driving can be risky in Mexico. It’s possible to be stopped by police demanding bribes, slangily called mordidas (“bites” in Spanish). And your auto insurance policy may not cover you there. Experts advise having a policy for your trip that includes uninsured motorists, as well as bail: If you’re involved in a crash, both drivers can be detained, and even jailed, until fault is determined. Also, it’s not smart to drive at night, because of the greater chance of robbery at a makeshift checkpoint, carjacking or collisions on dark roads.
5. Monitor what you eat and drink
Whether it’s the discomfort of “turista” diarrhea or more serious food poisoning, no one wants to spend vacation time in a bathroom or clinic. Rule 1 is not to drink water unless you’re sure it’s been filtered or purified (the same rule applies to ice). Water in a bottle with an unbroken seal is safest.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises eating food that is cooked and served hot; avoid salads or raw vegetables that could have been rinsed in contaminated water or handled by someone who didn’t wash hands properly. It’s not a bad idea to stick to fruit you peel, such as bananas. Wash hands often or use hand sanitizer.
6. Get vaccinated and consider bringing medication
The CDC also advises getting hepatitis A vaccine to protect against the effects of contaminated food or drink, and suggests a typhoid vaccine, especially for adventurous eaters and those going to small cities or rural areas. Pack over-the-counter anti-diarrhea medicine. Savvy travelers also carry an antibiotic such as Cipro for debilitating bacterial attacks. If you get sick, stay hydrated to avoid hospitalization for IV treatment.
7. Pack a copy of your passport and credit cards
Or you can photograph them and save the images on your cellphone. Keep tabs on credit and debit card transactions so you can catch any fraudulent charges or withdrawals.
8. Bring more cash than you think you’ll need
Should you require emergency medical attention, it’s not unusual for a doctor or hospital to demand payment in cash. Though the peso is the official currency, dollars are often welcomed.
9. Leave the bling at home
Flaunting costly jewelry and watches is an invitation to be relieved of them.
10. Secure your valuables
Don’t leave anything valuable in your hotel room, unless it’s in a safe. This is a good rule of thumb no matter where you travel, but with poverty rife in Mexico, iPads and pricey headphones make tempting targets. And, of course, always stash your passport in your hotel’s safe (room or front desk).
11. Be careful when cabbing
Try to use only taxis that are official. If in doubt, ask a hotel or restaurant staffer to call one. Cabs aren’t always metered, so before you get into one, ask how much the trip will cost (hotel and restaurant staffers should be able to help if there’s a language barrier). Try bargaining if you feel the quoted fare is too high. Uber ride hailing, where available, generally is considered safe.
12. Don’t let tequila drown your judgment
Keep your wits about you. Don’t accept drinks from strangers, and be suspicious of unsolicited attempts to befriend you.
One final note: Keep these warnings in perspective. Mexicans in general are friendly and hospitable to Americans — even in the wake of friction between the two governments. “Everyone we’ve encountered has been welcoming,” says Wisconsin native Laura Bly, who lives part of the year in San Miguel de Allende and travels around the country. So take precautions, then clap along to a mariachi band or two and enjoy your stay.
Editor's note: This article was originally published on February 13, 2017. It was updated to reflect the current State Department recommendations for travel in Mexico.