People worry about danger in Mexico. Please, take a deep breath.
We've spent a fair bit of time in Mexico, and I have dreams of writing some form of travel book about the country, so a while back I did a bit of research into what other people are saying.
And OMG people, the first thing that pops up when you Google "Travel in Mexico" is the "Mexico Travel Warning" from the US State Department. This means that the second sentence the potential American visitor reads is this anxiety-provoking caution: "U.S. citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery in various Mexican states."
And after scrolling past the Lonely Planet and a few other entries, the Googler also gives you a front page link to a site on safety that includes life-saving advice such as to carry your money in a money belt under your clothes, avoid taxis, and "blend in as much as possible" in order to avoid getting robbed.
Reality check, gringo, people see you shoving your cash awkwardly into your belt, and even if you aren't decked out in matching USA jumpsuits, no one in Mexico is going to mistake you for a local. Also, "Mexican citizens have been the victims of violent crimes, including homicide, kidnapping, carjacking, and robbery in various U.S. states", so what's your point?
And besides that, please just STAAAAHHHPPPP...
Take a deep breath.
Mexico is nothing to be afraid of.
Don't get me wrong, Mexico has its issues like the rest of us, but I can't bring myself to post another word on the internet about strategies to stay safe in the country. Posts about safety are primarily posts about fear. There's enough of that going around, as evidenced by "Build the wall" and the general state of international politics these days.
A major reason all of this gets me so riled up is that I love it there. And love, some say, is the opposite of fear. Mexico, for me, isn't a danger zone, but is one of our favorite countries in the world for travel. A beautiful place, filled with beautiful people, beautiful landscapes, and beautiful churros. And I believe that there's a lot more to love here than there is to fear. Love is the most appropriate relationship that Americans and Mexicans should have with one another, and that's what the focus is going to be for our posts this month. Strategies to help Americans learn to love Mexico. Love! Claro?
Someone else can teach you about travelling safely in Mexico (it's not rocket science, btw). I want to teach you to travel fearlessly, and you'll do that when you figure out how much there is to love about place.
7 Major Reasons to Love Mexico
1) The people.
Americans talk trash about everyone (I blame all that elementary school indoctrination about how we're the greatest country in the world), but if there's a nationality that's less deserving of our negative stereotypes, I can't think of it.
I rate Mexicans with Kiwis as the warmest, most welcoming people I've come into contact with. My theory about why this isn't a common American assumption is that it's the language barrier, and it's totally worth it to learn a little bit of Spanish just to visit Mexico and get to know some Mexicans. (Our recommendation: go to Guatemala and study for a few weeks - it's a cheaper and faster way to learn than studying in the US, and Angel and I have a great connection we can hook you up with.) An added bonus is that having a bit of language skill breaks down the fear of the unknown that comes with traveling in a place where you don't understand what people are saying.)
Angel and I love travelling via AirBnB there - not just because you can get a nice spot for $20 - $30 a night, but also because you almost always end up developing relationships with amazing people. Being invited to family dinners, drinks, or parties might not be standard, but it also isn't unusual.
Seriously, if you stay in one place in Mexico for more than a few days, you're going to have a couple of local friends, a bartender, a barista, a tortilla lady, and a favorite server at a local restaurant. If you go on a tour, you're going to end up having dinner with your guide's family, and it's not going to seem weird. It took me two years to establish those kinds of connections in Seattle.
You might be saying cynically that, sure, people are friendly when you're spending money, but for real, it's cultural. A few years back we spent a week in Coatepec, Veracruz, and by the end of day two locals with no financial interest in us had invited us to a King's Day Party and given us an expensive book about their city. I'm still not sure why they were so nice to us.
On another trip, we were visiting the month after he who shall not be named was elected on a platform of building walls and deporting Mexican babies. We expected some hostility as Americans, but the prevailing attitude we encountered was a sincere confusion: "Why is that guy being so mean to us? We thought we were your friends?"
Screw the negativity. Build bridges, not walls. They're right: Mexicans and Americans should be friends.
2) The food.
I know this is entirely cliche, but cliches are there for a reason. Mexican food is hands down the best in Latin America, and in my opinion the best regional cuisine in the world. Take that for what it's worth, because that's coming from someone who's never traveled in Southeast Asia. But whatever - the food there is hugely varied, delicious, and cheap. Everything from the street food to haute cuisine is amazing, and bland isn't a word in their vocabulary. Mole and churros and pescado and good coffee and flan for days.
Don't drink the water though, or eat anything uncooked that was washed in it - Montezuma's Revenge is a real thing.
3) The Music
I'm not saying you have to love mariachi bands, but there's nowhere more musical than Mexico. When I dashed out the initial notes for this post, I was in the middle of Mexico City. It was 11 pm on a Tuesday in a densely populated neighborhood, and there was a band outside that had been playing for hours at what our host described apologetically as "a celebration of all of the various baby Jesuses from all of the churches in town". We had been on a boat the day prior and a band of marimba playing buskers floated up and offered us a private performance of La Bamba for $2.50. In a small mountain town on New Years day at 8 am, a guy who seemed to be seriously mentally ill wrote a customized song for us about how he hoped "the white people from the north" liked his town.
And it's not just the people on the street. Mexico has an incredible and complex music scene. Check out this video by Rey Pila from Mexico City - an amazing band and a nice indicator of the variety of music that Mexicans are making. It's a remarkably musical place.
4) The Culture.
On a related note, "Culture" is a difficult thing to define, but there should be no argument that Mexico represents one of the great world cultures. Art, music, dance, dress, architecture, food, religion. It's all distinctive, varied, and densely packed in Mexico.
As an American traveler, it's shocking just how different Mexico is from the United States, and even from Spain, it's ostensible cultural ancestor. Mexico is an incredibly interesting mix of Mayan, Spanish, and gringo influences, with the occasional Korean restaurant thrown in for good measure. It's a huge travel opportunity to be so close to a country with such a rich culture.
Word to the wise - as an American traveler a lot of the best parts of Mexican culture are hidden from plain site. It's a classic Mexican experience to be walking down a seemingly ill-kept, dusty side street, and happen on to a beautiful restaurant that serves the most amazing mole poblano you've ever eaten, or to stumble unintentionally on to the grounds of a world-class art museum. (Both of those things happened to us today in Xochimilco in Mexico City.) That's a great metaphor for the country as a whole - in many places, externally things look a bit rough, but once you get through the doors it's remarkable how much there is to discover.
One of our favorite ways to discover some of that hidden culture is by following the national tourism board's recommendations and visiting designated "Magic Towns", or more properly, Pueblos Magicos, which are small towns with recognized outstanding cultural, historical, or ecological significance, which are granted money to maintain their character and entered into a tourism network to boost their economy. It's a fantastic program aimed at preserving and promoting some of the best of Mexico, and it provides a traveler with a valuable map of dozens of incredible places that are generally otherwise off of the beaten (gringo) path.
5) The Landscape.
It's weird, but outside of a couple of hours in port in a lame cruise we took 8 years ago, we've actually never traveled in the popular tourist spots in Mexico. Which is to say that we've never spent meaningful time in the places that are famous internationally for their beauty: Tulum, Baja, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun, Oaxaca. We've spent the majority of our 2 months in the country in Central Mexico, in the mountains around Mexico City, and in Veracruz State.
But I would still count Mexico as one of the most beautiful places I've ever traveled. The image of Mexico as one big desert surrounded by beautiful beaches is totally inaccurate. (That's Australia, actually). The central Mexican volcanoes are some of the most dramatic peaks in the world. The jungles in Veracruz are packed with waterfalls dropping into crystal clear pools, massive lakes with islands populated by monkeys and toucans, and picturesque villages surrounded by coffee plantations. It's a poor man's Hawaiian Island nestled between the Caribbean and Orizaba, the 3rd highest peak in North America. And Chiapas (where we've also never been) is reputably even more spectacular as a tropical jungle paradise.
Mexico is a huge country - 15th largest by area in the world - and it's packed with mountains and varied climates. In my enthusiasm I've almost forgotten that this is a blog aimed at outdoor adventurers, but because of its size and varied terrain, opportunities for adventure here are endless. Mexico is made up of rock climbing meccas, surfer's paradises, world class paddling rivers, paragliding enclaves, mountain biking hot spots, and arguably the birthplace of ultramarathon running. Most of these spots are relatively undeveloped and undiscovered by outsiders, and they're just the tip of the iceberg. The whole country is a freaking treasure trove.
6) The Accessibility.
It's no small thing that Mexico City is a 3 hour flight from most airports in the Southern US, and that you can drive to Mexico if you want to. But that's not exactly what I'm talking about.
Mexico, as a travel destination, is super easy to navigate on a budget, and without a car. Uber is widely available in many of the cities, is unbelievably cheap, and is generally seen as more secure than standard taxis. (Angel and I have personally never had an issue with a standard taxi so we don't have any problem taking those either. Just ask the cost before getting in and make sure you're okay with it.). And Mexico, like all of Latin America, has a fantastic and well developed bus network. It's a common North American assumption that buses in Latin America will be run down affairs. While it's true you can travel in dusty and crowded local transit for next to nothing (we do it a lot - it's great value for money), you can also travel in upscale intercity buses that are the equivalent of flying business class. My hypothesis is that, because flight prices are out of reach for most Mexicans, and because many people don't own cars, the bus system is complex, comprehensive, and multi-tiered. In Mexico I've ridden in everything from an air conditioned luxury coach with wifi and in-ride movies to the back of some dude's friend's truck. You might have to shift between modes of travel, and brave a little uncertainty, but in Mexico public transit will get you anywhere.
Click here for a great, level headed introduction to bus travel in Mexico.
The same site also has a great, level headed introduction to taxi use in Mexico.
7) The Price
I'm sure you can get great deals at all inclusive resorts in Mexico too, but I'm talking about real travel.
For someone, particularly based in North America, looking for an international travel experience in a dramatically different culture and a genuinely beautiful place, it's hard to beat Mexico - particularly when you factor in the cost of flying to other low-cost destinations (South East Asia, Eastern Europe, etc.). It's not unrealistic at all for Angel and I to set a budget of around $1000 per person for our month there, including flights.
Because the tourism industry is well developed (it's one of the most visited countries in the world), it is also easy to spend a significant amount of money in Mexico if you stick to highly gringo'd establishments. But our strategy of finding AirBnBs in Pueblos Magicos, and eating at local restaurants with solid Google and/or Yelp ratings has been a winning one. We also solicit recommendations of places to eat and visit from locals - our hosts, baristas, people who inexplicably befriend us, etc. - and so our trips tend to look like tours of beautiful spots where Mexicans go on vacation or on the weekend, but international tourists haven't yet overrun. That strategy has helped us discover several of our favorite places - Coatepec, Jalcomulco, Valle de Bravo, Orizaba, Chachalacas, Cuetzalan and Catemaco - none of which we'd heard of prior to visiting initially.
Local knowledge is golden in Mexico, because if you're the cautious type, locals can advise you on whether that beautiful spot you've been eyeing up is safe to visit, and whether that popular place all the tourists are going is actually worth it. They'll point you to the great local alternatives and the hidden local spots.
My caveat when accessing local knowledge: don't be stingy about paying for it. Tip your freaking bartender. And if it's an option to pay a kid to take you on a tour of a cool place, even if you could get there on your own, it's good form to help that kid make a living. And if that kid charges you a couple dollars more than he charges the local tourists, don't be a jerk and freak out about it - remember, if you're reading this you almost definitely work in a stronger economy than Mexico's. You almost definitely are getting a killer deal anyway on an experience you'll remember forever, and your payment is one way to do your part to build good will between our country and our Southern neighbors. And anyway, feeding the tourism economy is a big part of what keeps cool places protected. There are a lot worse ways for you to spend that money.
In our experience this is particularly true when it comes to adventure travel. Mexico, as mentioned, is full of amazing places to climb, run, bike, cave, surf, dive, or whatevs. In North America and Europe, people tend to be used to being independent in those activities: grabbing a map or some GPS tracks and going. In most of Latin America, Mexico included, that's not really a thing for the most part. Places where you can do all of that stuff tend to be undeveloped (meaning there are no extensive trail systems) and accessing the great outdoor locations often requires local knowledge to help navigate private property, unmarked use trails, or feral dog territory. The development of the activities you love requires the financial support of the locals who are doing them!
I'm sure if you're thinking about a trip to Mexico, you'll find plenty of internet warnings about safety. But with all of that, and to conclude here, I hope that you'll see that Mexico has way more to love than to fear.
If you like my blogs, you know what else you might like? My books.