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I plan to travel to Mexico in the spring.

I know that cartels are a powerful force in Mexico. To hammer it home, a friend of mine told me of a trip he took to Mexico in college. He hit on a girl at a bar one evening, and it turned out her boyfriend was in a cartel. After he left, the boyfriend and some of his friends followed my friend and attacked him, sending him to the hospital with some broken bones. Another friend has told me that armed guards are usually posted at the gates into the Mexican resorts where he spends his anniversaries.

When traveling in Europe, I like to travel on foot without an agenda, and just go places that seem interesting - it's an enjoyable way to see sides of the culture that tourists might not normally encounter. But given the tales I've heard about organized crime in Mexico, it seems that might not be a good plan on this trip.

Should I concern myself with crime in a tourist town like Cancún, or is the danger exaggerated? What precautions should a prudent traveler take to avoid running afoul of any organized crime while touristing in Mexico? Are there any other things about Mexico a traveler ought to keep in mind?

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    What is the purpose of you trip? Vacation, cultural, archeological, pin the map? – Johns-305 Dec 28 '17 at 12:41
  • Very good question, I'd like to hear profound answer too. – Suncatcher Dec 28 '17 at 13:27
  • @Johns-305 - primarily vacation, I'm going with a group of friends who dance. But I have a cultural interest in Mexico as well, as I took 4 years of Spanish in high school, and a few semesters in college, but have never been to a Latin American country before and look forward to the experience. I also plan to visit some achaeological sites like Chichen Itza while I'm there, since I find history and anthropology fascinating, but it's just a hobby, not my profession. – JessieArr Dec 28 '17 at 15:33
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    @JessieArr don’t bother with Chichen Itza, basically a massive tourist trap with market stalls selling typical tourist trap items all over the site and all the ruins are roped off so you can’t get too close. Go to the Coba ruins instead, it has less visitors and when I visited a few years ago you could still climb them. The view from the top is incredible. – Notts90 Jan 23 '18 at 8:22
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Mexico is on average a fairly dangerous place. It is not dangerous everywhere but as a foreigner you will be more a target for certain types of crimes such as robbery and kidnapping. Unfortunately, there is also a problem of corruption which means that often the people who are supposed to help you are involved.

That being said, some places are tranquil and actually have low crime rate. The more awareness you get ahead of time, the easier it will be to know where it is safe. Busy crowded areas are much safer than others, although pick-pockets take advantage of this, there is less risk of being harmed.

Zona Hotelera, the place where most hotels and resorts are is very safe. It is a narrow peninsula with pretty much only one road that goes from one side to the other. So it nearly cut-off from the rest of the town which is slightly inland. You will have no problem walking there even into the evening, although all you will see are hotels. The town of Cancun itself is also relatively safe as it serves principally to serve people who work in the hotels.

There are many other areas of Mexico that are safe. Puebla, a famous and gorgeous town about two hours from Mexico City (DF) is very safe with people strolling into the night. I have spend days there walking until past midnight without any issues, following the main avenues. Cholula nearby is a small university town which is quite safe. Again, the key is to avoid being isolated. Going where people are will keep you safer.

They say to avoid border regions but I have only been to the north border. Mexicali seemed like a rough place but I did not say long. Tijuana too but going south from there along Baja California it is generally safe. I have done the outer and inner coast of Baja by bus, stopping at most towns along the way and never felt unsafe.

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After some research, here is what I've found. Sharing it here in case others find this useful in the future:

1: State Department

For American citizens, the State Department publishes a Traveler's Checklist which contains general advice for preparing for a trip abroad.

In addition, they also post travel advisories for other countries, including a very detailed list of Mexican states, with current advisory levels ranging from "Exercise Increased Caution" in the area near Cancun, up to "Do Not Travel" for the 5 states most heavily affected by cartel violence.

One of the recommended steps for travelers to take is to keep a copy of the address and contact info of nearby embassies/consuls. For the U.S., a list a Consular agencies in the Merida region near Cancun can be found here.

2: STEP Program

The State Department also recommends enrolling in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program, which lets you register emergency contacts for yourself, and specify the location, reason, duration, and emergency contacts for your travels with the State Department.

3: Center for Disease Control

I spoke to my doctor about vaccines, and although he said no vaccines were needed to travel to Mexico, he recommended checking the CDC's website to see health warnings before traveling to any new destination. The CDC's list of health information for traveling in Mexico is here.

For travelers from other nations, I'm sure that each country's government provides similar resources to those listed above. So be sure to check with your own government to find out details like embassy information etc.

Overall the takeaway from my research is that the area near Cancun is relatively safe, although 2017 saw an uptick in murders there, including some incidents in areas frequented by tourists in which bystanders were injured. But most of the areas that are deemed dangerous by the State Department are near the borders, and along the Pacific coast. Tourist centers are not often a focal point for organized crime, just the odd pickpocketing or robbery that you might have in any big city.

Addendum from after my trip

Overall, I didn't find many places that I felt unsafe. My friends and I stayed in a small apartment in central Cancún and either walked or took buses almost everywhere. Pedestrian traffic was very common in all parts of Cancún that we visited. The buildings are mostly surrounded by gates/walls, often with electrified cable or barbed wire on top, but outside of that I didn't see any indication of crime during the daytime or early evening when we were out.

We also visited Tulum, which is a much smaller/poorer city. There were signs of poverty on the town's outskirts, but not much that spoke of actual crime. Again, tons of pedestrian traffic in the city center, and we even hitchhiked (as a group) with a young guy when heading to the Mayan ruins on the coast.

Overall, the areas I visited were quite nice, and seemed very safe, at least during the times a tourist would be visiting. A few parting tips though:

  • If you leave the very touristy areas, plan to speak Spanish. Many service industry professionals in central Cancún are not bilingual - tourists don't visit those areas much, so you're not their target audience.
  • Even if your Spanish is bad, most people appreciate you making the effort and will bear with your bad grammar/accent.
  • Taxis at the bus station cost double what they cost if you hail them roadside.
  • The dollar symbol ($) is also used for pesos. Prices are rarely listed in USD, but when they are, it will be indicated. Ask if you're unsure.
  • The tap water isn't good to drink. But in the area we stayed, water vendors visited 6 days per week selling 20-liter drums of water for 32 pesos (About $1.50 US.) Listen for them shouting "¡Aguaaaa!"
  • Expect European/American prices for food/drink in the Hotel Zone (beach resort area.) You can get the same stuff in the Cancún city center for 30-50% the price.
  • Most places accept credit cards. But street vendors and taxi drivers don't, so carry a little bit of cash (I tried to carry about 500 pesos, which is about $25 US)
  • If you drink, give Mezcal a try. It's like a cross between Tequila and Scotch. I found it much to my liking.
  • In-home washing machines are very rare in Cancún. Instead, most people rely on Lavanderías, which are all over the place. It's basically what we call a "wash-and-fold" in the U.S. You pay by the kilogram. A week's worth of clothes cost me about $5 US to launder.
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    I prefer you'd update your answer with real-life experience and recommendations after your trip :) – Suncatcher Feb 22 '18 at 9:53
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    @Suncatcher - Done! Unfortunately I have little to report on the security front except "I didn't see any crime while I was there" - but perhaps that's useful information in itself. I also included some miscellaneous tips that proved useful while we were there. :) – JessieArr Feb 23 '18 at 16:28
  • Yep, tourist areas like Cancún are pretty much safe/usual as any tourist areas in the world :), much more interesting to hear about rural/wild areas like Chihuahua or Sonora. Nevertheless, your info is also useful, e.g. about station taxi overpricing. – Suncatcher Feb 23 '18 at 16:37

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