Safety tips for travel in Mexico
Traveling Safe in Mexico Great Advice before you go!
Millions of American and Canadian tourists visit Mexico every year. Are they Safe?
Bill and Dot Bell have traveled extensively throughout Mexico for over two decades. Their website www.ontheroadin.com is the most comprehensive Road guide on travel in México on the internet. They teach courses throughout United States and Canada on how to RV and travel safely throughout Mexico.
Please note that since this article has been written there has been a change in most states on the rules of police taking away the driver license. IN some states it is now against the law.
The hot sun, the rolling waves crashing against palmed lined beaches and the friendly people of Mexico can lull you into a sense of tranquility and that elusive dream world of “paradise found.” But is Mexico truly safe for the average American and Canadian traveler? Specifically is it safe for those visitors who travel outside of the tourist resorts by car, bus, and RV; the traveler who wants to experience the “real Mexico.”
What about the stories of kidnappings, roadside hijackings, crooked cops and the ever infamous bandidos? After 20 years of exploring all 31 states in Mexico via bus, car, train and RV, we would be lying if we said that there wasn’t anything to be concerned about. After all, in Mexico the average yearly wage of the Mexican would not even make the first down payment not to mention the worth of the cameras, computers, stereos and other equipment that is contained in the average mobile house. When you drive across the border, no matter how modest your motor home is, it is ostentatious in the Mexican environment and it stands out, sending a signal to all who see it, that you are wealthy.
Much like Canada and the United States, 99 per cent of the Mexican population will look and perhaps be envious of the apparent wealth, but would never dream of robbing you or causing any harm. In our experience, the average Mexican is much more a Good Samaritan and will go out of their way to assist you than is the case north of the border. It is that one per cent or less of the population, which is a concern and requires you to use your common sense and take the necessary precautions. Staying alert is essential to keeping your journey happy and safe.
Crime happens in all three countries, but there are cultural and economic differences. Many victims are those who are on holiday and are lulled into a false sense of security. They forget to put away valuables outside of their rigs at night; something most of us would never dream of doing back home. RVers and campers boon dock by themselves on a deserted beach or they don’t plan their trips wisely and fail to reach their destination well before night fall. Some tourists not knowing the value of the foreign currency will foolishly open their wallets, fat with pesos, to a clerk and ask how much do they owe them? Others end a night of drinking Tequila at a disco and decide they want to walk back to their hotel even though they are not familiar with the neighborhood.
As a former chair and member of the RCMP Liaison committee back in our home town of North Vancouver, we shudder every time we see a tourist leave a camera or a purse on the restaurant table unattended as they head for the washroom. What are they thinking? Vigilance when one travels anywhere in the world is necessary, even when camping in State and Provincial Parks close to home.
Lets be clear about one thing, there are varying degrees of precaution one should take while traveling Mexico. The U S State Department’s warnings about travel to Mexican border towns such Juarez, Tijuana and Matamoras should be taken seriously and we certainly recommend that you drive through these border towns early in morning and get through as quickly as possible. Extra precautions have to be taken in larger metropolitan areas such Mexico City where urban crime is as great if not greater than traveling to New York in the early 1990’s. Pickpockets here are as numerous as those who ply the Paris Metro and the taxis you take in any large city should only be those recommended by the hotel where you stay.
This is not the case in tourist destinations and small and mid sized communities throughout Mexico where crime rates are similar to those in the same size communities back home. One notable and perplexing difference between cultures is the acceptance in Mexico that police can be bribed, called Mordida, or “the little bite.” After almost two decades of road travel in Mexico and talking and writing to drivers we find that this practice is getting less and less common. Both State and Federal governments of Mexico are making earnest attempts to stop it but the practice still exists.
If you are pulled over by the police for a real or sometimes imaginary traffic violation; speeding, making an illegal turn or driving through a red, you will likely be faced with two options. You will be faced with your drivers license taken away by the police, having your vehicle impounded and waiting at least 24 hours before being able to pay the fine at the “Ministerio Público or Transito.” The other option, although abhorrent in our gringo eyes, is to have the policeman do the favor of paying the fine for you. Likely the price of this invisible ticket will be less than the official police station price. While “the little bite” is repugnant to us, it has a long tradition in Mexico. We personally do not agree with this practice but it does occur and many “Norte Americanos” happily pay the officer because it is cheap and expedient and therefore perpetuate the practice.
In the small communities and in the colonial heart land of Mexico, we have rarely felt the need to add up restaurant bills or double check a charge at a grocery store. Many times waiters and or cashiers have chased after us insisting that they had given the wrong change…too little. This has not been our experience in major tourist areas where over charging almost seems the norm rather than exception. When asking a Mexican amigo that spent his earlier days as a waiter in Cancun why this was occurring, his response was simple. “If you can afford to not check your bill, then you can obviously afford to pay the waiter a little extra.” But that’s stealing we insisted. “No. Stealing would be not correcting the bill when it is pointed out be incorrect,” said our friend. This is an unacceptable rationale for theft most would say, but a little sympathy must go out to the waiter who is serving a table of patrons that individually spends more in one sitting than he or she earns in a month. Check your bills and if you don’t understand a charge ask.
Kidnappings in some parts of Mexico do occur and perhaps to us is the most disturbing aspect of the safety question. To date the vast majority of kidnapping has occurred in major centers such as Mexico City and the bulk of those cases have been inflicted on rich Mexicans. As parents of three children, two of whom live us, and who works and lives in Mexico City, this by far creates the most fear. “What if they should change targets? What if they go after the “gringo community?” Mexico has made every effort to catch these criminals and dispatched special squads to interview victims and those threatened with kidnapping. It is difficult however to apprehend the perpetrators when they use pay or cell phones.
There lies the rub of traveling in today’s world. 9/1l, the London Tube bombings and the disappearance of the American high school girl in Aruba, all prove one thing. There is some inherent danger when traveling abroad and some that you cannot avoid. An event of such enormity is unlikely and should not deter you from travel and adventure. The key to the majority of petty crimes or crimes without violence is to be prepared, never let your guard down and apply basic common sense to your actions.
Lessen the possibility of crime by always taking note of your surroundings and acting appropriately. Don’t flaunt your wealth by wearing a gold bracelet while jogging on a beach or openly carry an expensive digital camera while sauntering through an impoverished village or neighborhood. When visiting or staying in a foreign country, register with your consulate. They will inform you by email if there is a major problem such as a hurricane or other threat that would possibly impede your stay. Read the State Departments warnings on travel to that country and take steps to minimize any potential peril. Report any crime to your consulate so that other travelers can be forewarned.
If you drive, start early and plan your trip daily to give yourself ample time to reach your destination before sunset allowing for extra time in case you have a mishap such as breakdown or flat tire. You shouldn’t drive at night. We say this not so much because of crime on the road, but because the cattle, horses, pigs and goats free range in the countryside and can wander aimlessly on the roadside, even on the toll highways.
Mexico is a fabulous country, filled with superb contrasts, palmed lined beaches, colonial cities, ancient Mayan and Aztec pre-Hispanic treasures. Experiencing it can be a highlight in your life. Traveling carefully can save your life.
Here’s list of some things you should do to avoid being a victim of crime while traveling in Mexico
- After a evening at a restaurant, bar or disco always take a cab back to your room or RV park
- Never walk on a beach late at night
- If you are at a disco or party, never be enticed to leave the establishment for fresh air or a romantic walk with someone you have just met
- If there are drugs present, leave immediately – even if it is in a reputable establishment
- Check with your consulate or go on line to read State Department warnings on criminal activities in the area that you are visiting
- Never give out personal information to strangers (room #, address, phone numbers, etc)
- Do your homework and know the value of the currency you are using
- Only carry the money that is needed for the day (use the hotel safety deposit box to keep your bank and credit cards)
- Never wear valuable jewelry or carry expensive cameras openly
- Travel in pairs or groups whenever possible
- If you are camping or RVing, never boondock on deserted beaches or back country unless you are familiar with the locals in the area or there our other RV’s parked there as well
- When confronted by a thief with a weapon, never put up a struggle. Your life is far more valuable than anything they could take.
- Never leave anything of value outside of your RV or tent, overnight or when visiting a neighbor, restaurant or even a facility onsite.
- If you find yourself in any situation where you feel uncomfortable for whatever reasons, trust your judgment and leave.
We think this list could be applied to anywhere we have traveled in the world. Mexico is no different. Your responsibility as a traveler is to travel wisely. Ensure you pack your common sense along with your bathing suit and sunscreen.