Finally Some Good News on Travel in Mexico

Speaker's Corner: Drug cartels. Murders. The news is often bad out of Mexico. Peter Ferry journeys beyond the headlines.

10.16.09 | 10:21 AM ET

Volkswagen bug in MexicoiStockPhoto

Poor old Mexico. Talk about kicking a guy when he’s down! Just when the price of oil plummets, American jobs dry up, and the fear of drug violence cuts tourism in half, along comes swine flu to cut it in half again.

OK, it’s time for a little good news. In May, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control lifted its recommendation against travel to Mexico; the swine flu isn’t so bad after all, and it probably didn’t come here from Mexico in the first place.

And now a little more good news. Drug violence is not a threat to ordinary tourists like you and me. This is according to the Mexican government, the U.S. State Department and me. Let me give you a little background.

I had driven to, in and around Mexico with impunity and pleasure, but that was years ago. Now I was planning two road trips, one from the border to central Mexico, another from Mexico City to Cuernavaca to Oaxaca and back, and my friends were alarmed.

“What about the drug war?”

“Aren’t you afraid of being kidnapped?”

No. At least I didn’t think so. The dangers of Mexico have always been exaggerated, and I have always taken them with a grain of salt. The drug trade is nothing new, and poor people have been kidnapping rich ones for money in the Third World and even in the First World (Italy) for a long time. Besides, I’m not rich.

Still, news reports in the weeks before I left caused my grain of salt to grow smaller. One said that President Felipe Calderon’s assault on the drug cartels had started a “civil war.” Another called the kidnappings an epidemic. A third compared Mexico to Pakistan and described it as a “failed state.” And an official at an Air Force base in New Mexico advised those in his command who planned to drive into Mexico to do so in broad daylight in caravans with cell phones at the ready.


I called Sanborn’s, the American insurance people who have been providing auto insurance for American motorists in Mexico for 60 years, and asked if they advised any special precautions.

“Only to stick to main routes and not to drive at night, but that’s mainly because of animals that wander onto roads.”

“Have you had problems with tourists being held up or hijacked?”

“No. We wouldn’t be insuring them if we did.” (A review of Sanborn’s rates indicates no dramatic increases in recent months or years which would likely have occurred if theft or damage claims had gone up.)

OK. I’d go, but I’d avoid Ciudad Juarez where the violence is the worst. I’d cross the border on a Sunday morning, the quietest time in any week, and I’d do it at Laredo, where the cartels recently seemed to have called a truce.

What follows are facts, anecdotes and opinions.

Here are the facts:

Mexican highways are excellent and well-marked. Most major cities are now connected by well-engineered toll roads that have limited access and are patrolled by federal police and Green Angels, motorist-assistant trucks manned by mechanics.

Customs offices are clean and customs officials are professional and efficient. Neither used to be the case.

Gas stations are also vastly improved. Almost all now include a convenience store and some even have food courts.

And the vehicle stock is better than years ago; gone are most of the lopsided buses and one-eyed trucks of the past.

Here are the anecdotes:

David Tramp is an American who has lived in Ensenada, Mexico, for three years and sells real estate. He drives his Hummer into California through Tijuana, one of the hotbeds of drug violence, about four times a month. Has he ever had or seen any trouble? “Never.” Does he have any advice for tourists? “Stay out of high-crime areas where there are drugs and prostitutes. Common sense.”

Fiona McNeill is a school teacher in her 60s with very little Spanish who is working in a Waldorf School near San Miguel de Allende in central Mexico. She drove there alone in nine days from her home in Bend, Oregon, without incident except being short-changed in a gas station.

Ramon Morales is a Harley Davidson motorcycle mechanic who came to Mexico with his pregnant wife and three-year-old daughter when he was laid off from his job in San Antonio. Despite his Hispanic name, he has red hair and a Texas twang. His wife was reluctant to come. “Now I can’t get her to go home. Hell, I gotta get back and find some work.”

Then are the drug wars a figment of someone’s imagination?

Not at all, but they are not a problem for tourists. One traveler I talked to compares them to the turf wars of inner city gangs or the internecine cocaine wars of the 1970s and ’80s in South Florida made famous in the television show “Miami Vice” and the movie “Scarface.” “People were dying all over the place, and no one stopped going to Florida.” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew the same analogy on March 26 while speaking in Monterrey, Mexico.

Then is the press in the United States overreacting?

One observer I spoke with thought it is—at least in part in response to political pressure. Fanning the flames of the issue are the anti-immigration forces in whose interest it is to stir up fear of Mexico and Mexicans. “I think this is about ‘the fence’ that anti-immigration groups want to build from the Gulf to the Pacific. Almost no one who lives down on the border wants this wall,” he said. Indeed, Texas’s conservative Republican governor, Rick Perry, has opposed the wall, and Homeland Security Chief Janet Napolitano once famously said when she was governor of Arizona, “If you build a 50-foot high wall, somebody will find a 51-foot ladder.”

But alarmist news accounts continue. A headline on an article in the San Antonio Express News in February announced, “Mexican Murders, American Victims,” and led with the statement that “230 U.S. citizens have been slain in Mexico’s escalating wave of violence since 2003.” After some alarming claims, the article implicitly admits that two-thirds of those killed were involved in the drug trade or gang activity. Many of the others were in high-crime areas. In fact, only three of the 230 deaths have resulted in protests by the U.S. State Department, seeming to support the Mexican government’s contention that “Tourists wishing to visit cathedrals, museums and other cultural centers are not at risk.” Despite the Express News’ claim that its investigation “examined hundreds of records,” it failed to report a single instance of an ordinary tourist on vacation being murdered.

A CNN report on “Anderson Cooper 360” that aired on March 5 from Rosarito Beach in Baja, California, warned American students of the dangers of traveling to Mexico for spring break, reporting that 20 murders, including some beheadings, had taken place in the community in the previous year. Only late in the report and then parenthetically was it noted that none of the 20 murder victims was either American or a tourist.

I entered Mexico with considerable trepidation, sticking to toll roads and watching both my clock and rearview mirror. When I departed a month later, I did so at my leisure using secondary roads and leaving even these to explore the villages and countryside. As a motor tourist I did not feel threatened by the drug violence or kidnappings I had read and heard about. And I was able to take advantage of the very favorable exchange rate that has made Mexico once again the best travel bargain available while rediscovering that country’s charm, beauty and friendliness.

Should you go? You’ll have to decide that for yourself. As for me, I’ve already rented an apartment in San Miguel de Allende for a month early next year. I’m going back, and I’m driving.

Peter Ferry is the author of the novel Old Heart, which Dave Eggers says "has the power to change lives" and Book Week says is a "superbly written, life affirming novel about love and second chances." Ferry is also the author of the novel Travel Writing.

19 Comments for Finally Some Good News on Travel in Mexico

Jenny 10.16.09 | 4:16 PM ET

Thanks for a well-timed, super practical piece on the “dangers” of traveling to Mexico. I drove all over the Yucatan this spring and had *zero* trouble (except for the gas station short-changed thing :). I think the people that question going to Mexico “is it safe” “will you get sick” “will you get shot in a drug war” are the kind of folks that might ask these questions wherever an adventurous traveler chooses to go. Mexico is an endlessly fascinating, regionally diverse, easy, fun, delicious and beautiful country to travel in. Just go do it!

Todd 10.16.09 | 7:48 PM ET

Timely, well-written, and well-reasoned.  It’s certainly true that visiting and driving in Mexico is vastly safer than reports in the media suggest.  The gas station short change is a classic scam that will only happen to you once. Confirm how much cash you’re handing over first and count your change and it will never happen to you again.

Still, it’s good to be cautious.  Witness the grenade attacks in places like Morelia and seemingly sleepy places like Zihuatenejo.  But my experience mimics yours exactly in the last paragraph.  Have a good drive to SmA.  Maybe we’ll see you on the road!

Tom 10.16.09 | 10:59 PM ET

Thanks for the rare positive outlook. I visit Rosarito for a monthly long weekend whenever it’s not raining. I have not had a bad encounter with anyone except a few pompous (gringo) RE agents. The 10 percent of the population who are American is a mixed bunch who look out for each other. The practical cautions of staying off the road at night, not flashing wealth and respecting the people in their culture fares all well. The scare tactics on tourism have exaggerated the current economic disaster as the loss of more than half of the cash flow has pushed a proud people into desperation.
My new worries are about what the hunger and youth drug use will do the core honest values of the society. While the DrugWar (cartels vs. authorities) remains threatening overall, already there are more reports of businesses being robbed or ransacked, a few more break-ins of homes and car thefts . I also sense a generally more aggressive youth population, although not directed towards ExPats or tourists. My wish is that Rosarito would not be painted with the same broad brush as the worst parts of TJ in the media. Rosarito has spent decades developing a tourist meca and was well on it’s way to becoming a resort destination. It’s a chicken and egg problem, without the tourist dollars returning then the progress has stalled, slow as it may have been, and therefore any restitution of normal society will likewise be thwarted. The locals only hope that the National program to remove the Drugwar threat or isolate it to east TJ first will be well funded and less corrupt than previous efforts. Last, don’t be fooled by the predictably premature prognostications of the Real Estate crowd, this is Rosarito’s Katrina.

Kim Wherley 10.17.09 | 12:37 AM ET

Very well done.  I am a Real Estate agent in Rosarito and this article is reflective of my feelings and experiences here.  We moved out here a little over a year ago from Philadelphia and I don’t know if I can ever go back.  I miss my family, but I love it here.  My only advice is for people to come down- Don’t take someone’s word for it- JUST VISIT.  You will see what we are all talking about.

As a professional- There are some deals to be had (depending on how realistic the seller is).  Not ALL of the listings are reflective of the market- so, call your agent and ask which properties are the best price per square foot, their location and if they are a good deal- they can tell you exactly which properties to go after. 

Oh- and when you look at the low, low prices of the deals your agent sends you… you can negotiate those prices as well.  Also, you can buy some properties as low as 20% down and finance through the developer or the seller - no credit checks.  Lastly, there are some other properties that start as low as $15,000 with 0% financing and only 20% down.

The media did a great job on the prices for buyers, but the buyers are too scared to take advantage!

TambourineMan 10.17.09 | 1:47 AM ET

Thank you for this, Peter. Good reporting. I travel to Mexico every year (including certain-death Tijuana this past April) and it’s nice to see someone telling it like it is.  I agree 99% of the US news headlines are alarmist bullshit. However, I have read/heard a few disturbing stories about car-jackings, robberies and rapes, involving tourists, coming out of the northern Baja region. No, you’re not dead. But my guess is having a gun stuck in your mug ,or being raped, is plenty horrific. 

I say Viva Mexico! And travel there without fear. But as you would anywhere in the world, watch your back.

Victor Loza 10.17.09 | 6:37 PM ET

What a great article depicting the warmth and friendly Mexican people. We have lived in Rosarito for the last 7 years leaving Los Angeles drug gang by shootings behind us. A recent article asked an expat how dangerous it was traveling to Mexico and he responded “Very dangerous, I have to pass Los Angeles on my way to Baja”.

I believe the US media have made us all a favor, there is great deals in Real estate particularly on the Baja Coastline. You can now get properties south of the border at bargain prices and the time to get your piece of paradise is now.

Boomers Abroad Online Community & Social Network 10.18.09 | 10:51 AM ET

Regardless of what the US media says, Mexico has long been a favorite vacation destination and tops the list in countries to consider for living, investing and retirement outside of the U.S. & Canada.

Mexico will continue to be a favorite vacation destination and will keep at the top as a place to consider for living, investing and retirement outside of the U.S. & Canada.for many years to come.

Discover why Mexico is one of the most profitable Markets in Real Estate Today!
Discover why more and more Americans & Canadians are choosing to live, invest and retire in Mexico!
Discover why health care is much more better and affordable in Mexico than in the USA.
We look to hear from You! Let us know how we can help at Online Community & Social Network.

Boomers Abroad Online Community was born in direct response to hundreds of conversations with baby boomers from the USA and Canada who were seeking a new life, and to better understand how they might live abroad, travel abroad, relocate abroad, retire abroad and/or invest abroad.

BeSafe 10.18.09 | 8:15 PM ET

Mexico is not safe period! A shocking 32% of all non-natural deaths of U.S. citizens outside this country occur in Mexico.  Many of these deaths are a direct result of poor or nonexistent safety standards both inside and outside of the resorts. To read tragic Mexico vacation DEATH stories, many written by heartbroken family members as well as stories written by victims that “survived” their Mexico vacation go to:

Steve 10.19.09 | 4:20 PM ET

Words cannot express the sorrow I feel for the losses of the people who have posted to this website. Crime, violence, and happen world wide. To blanket all of Mexico with statements that make this appear to be the only place in the world where these events occur is simply wrong.
My wife and I have lived in Mexico virtually full time since 2004. While I did personally experience one incident of car-jacking, I found the PGJE (Mexican for “attorney general”) to be very helpful. I have been through two interviews, we recovered our vehicle (minus the stereo,but otherwise intact), and a gang of seven men were arrested about three months after my car jacking.
Truth be told, had a been a little more focused on where I was, the time of day, (it was 5:30 AM), and less focused on what I needed to do when I arrived at my destination, I would have recognized the car-jacking for what it was, and quite possibly avoided the entire incident.
Please take the time to research crime statistics for any major metropolitan area and you will find a lot of places all around the globe with worse statistics than Mexico - take a look at New Orleans, Louisiana, you’ll find a murder rate and violent crime rate much higher than Tijuana, and many many other places in Mexico.
Again, my condolences to all who have lost loved ones. But I ask you to remember, most of the circumstances of drownings, accidental deaths, etc, could have happened at any resort in any country in the world.

Dale 10.19.09 | 10:31 PM ET

We travel to our home in Mexico every week-end. We drive thru Tijuana coming and returning, plus many times while we are visiting friends.  We have never felt un-safe or witnessed any crime.  We find most of what we read , un-true or misleading. We love our home and have a great desire to support the , Tijuana and Rosarito area.  If you live a clean life you have nothing to worry about. Baja is Great.

Sincerly, Dale & Ted

Victoria Ryan 10.20.09 | 5:27 PM ET

Thank you so much for a breath of reason and fresh air.  I live in Central Mexico and have since the 90’s.  I love it here, I feel safe here.  I was recently in the US.. and being a good news junkie I took the opportunity to read the local papers wherever I went.  Believe me that I was more shocked and grossed out by the type and volume of crime in the cities and towns I visited up north of the border.  The media is really way too interested in their ratings..yellow journalism is so desturctive… in fact when I heard that CNN was sending Micheal Ware down to cover the DRUG WAR I just thought we are really about to be screwed for some ratings.. it made me so sad and angry because us ordinary citicens are more or less helpless when a giant like CNN decides to focus that kind of bad press on a country like Mexico.  I agree that there is an unfair pressure by the anti-immigration folks and I am guessing that there are other self interested groups that one could add to this list. Throughout history Mexico has been the “them” to whoever “us” is supposed to be.  I also believe that anyone who has something they want to foist off like the H1N1 flu.. well Mexico is always an easy target.

Carissa 10.20.09 | 10:39 PM ET

I moved to San Miguel de Allende two weeks ago, rented a place, and have had zero problems, though people did say I would be kidnapped and asked if I was worried about the drug wars in the states.

There’s a Starbucks here, and I honest to god have to make a real effort to meet Mexicans. Everyone is American. Everyone. About the worst thing I have to fear here is the abundance of 2 for 1 drink specials and that the New York Times only comes every other day.

Maybe parts of Mexico are sketchy, but this, and Cabo, and Cozumel, and all the places tourists go, are as safe as my hometown of Portland, Oregon. And that’s darn safe.

P.S. It’s SO CHEAP. Come.

Victoria Ryan 10.21.09 | 11:22 AM ET

Sounds like all of you who live and/or travel in and throughout Mexico have nothing but good experiences.  I HIGHLY RECOMMEND sending your excellent experiences to this web-site who’s sole aim appears to be to hurt Mexico by citing either biased news or news which is editorialized out of proportion to reality.  You can find them at  Send them your good experiences.. tell your friends to do the same.  Perhaps they will see that there are good an bad experiences in every country and good and bad experiences everywhere.

Bill 10.21.09 | 6:29 PM ET

Victoria -

There is no reason to get into a flame war with people at the website you link to.  I’m certain their pain and anguish is enough as it is without strangers questioning the validity of their sad stories.

Personally, I think Mexico is by and large safer than it is made out to be but that entirely depends on who you are. I’m a cautious and seasoned traveler.

Roads and oceans can be dangerous. Crime can happen.  Be alert and aware of where you are.  There aren’t signs warning you of the presence of danger around every corner and on every hot cup of coffee like in the US or Europe.  In part, this is one of the things that’s such a draw to me.  It feels real and alive.  Think.  Use your head and your common sense.  You’ll be fine.  And don’t miss the pozole.

Victoria Ryan 10.22.09 | 9:38 AM ET

Thanks Bill for the reminder about compassion.  It is easy to lose sight of this and get a bit defensive when someone attacks the home I love.

There is however no reason to misdirect the pain into raging and lashing out at an innocent.  I was just in a US city where someone had beaten a child to death and dragged his siter around with a belt.. I am not telling people that this city is to blame.. It is kind responses l˝ike your to me that will keep us all on track and make the world a better place and I thank you for the reminder.

However it is equally important to hold folks accountable for their actions and results.  Their pain would be much better served by looking at it and maybe even sharing it with folks as needed.  There is no healing or good that comes from scapegoating any persons or places.

Thanks again

Unomos 10.26.09 | 8:12 PM ET

This is a wonderful post that helps people better understand what Mexico is actually like. I am a 24 year old gringo and I have visited Baja 1-2/month for the past 3 years. I am always greeted with a warm welcome and have never been mugged, harassed by police, kidnapped, murdered (obviously), or anything that US Americans worry about when I say I visit Mexico frequently. I have many friends from Baja that I visit and I also venture out on my own to try new things. It is safe, and if you look way back you will see that it is safer now for an average tourist than it was before the drug war started. With the combination of bad luck (Swine Flu, Economy, Oil, Drug War), the Mexican government knew it would need to protect tourists as much as possible so they have increased the number of police who focus on tourism (Policias Touristicas). Some people are scared when they see the federalis and military driving around with large machine guns but that should actually bring you comfort as they are there to protect you. One person who understands what is happening more than anyone is the Mayor of Rosarito Hugo Torres. He is actively promoting how safe Rosarito is for tourists and since the beginning of his second term has drastically reduced police corruption which was generally accepted for years in Rosarito. For those who doubt what this article says, look me up and I will be happy to take you on a tour. Vive Mexico!

Ken Liverseed 11.09.09 | 1:14 PM ET

As I was reading, I too thought of questions.  I will be retiring in 2011 and want to check out Mexico.
My family is gone except for one sister.  The trip to Mexico does scare me.  Should I buy a cheep car
to drive on my two month journey.  Will somebody steel my passport, then how do I get back.  I would
like to visit south of cuernavaca to talk with some poor families.  It seams poor people are the nicest.
Also it is a lonely life in the u.s. if you are single as I am.  I like prostitute as being legal in Mexico.  The u.s. has way too many laws for me.  I’m just looking to be happy like many folks out there.  Thanks for your time.  I enjoyed the stories…..Ken.  p.s.  I also play the accordion and most mexican
bands have accordions…...........

Rasmus 11.10.09 | 3:30 PM ET


I don’t tink that Mexico is that dangerous. There is a lot of other countries which have a lot of travellers visiting every year, who are more dangerous then Mexico. For example Kenya in Africa where I was for two years ago, but it was a nice trip!. I have fund a video from Mexico and it looks like fun to my. It is from the night life of Cancun in the east of Mexico:

And Ken it looks like some nice ladies they have in Mexico :-)

Cambria 11.25.09 | 6:33 PM ET

Thank you for writing this article! The U.S. government has skewed the statistics on murders in high crime areas in Mexico to make it sound as if Americans are in danger. My Husband and I have driven from San Diego to Loreto twice a year since 2008. It takes us 17 hours to drive and we spend the night in a hotel half way down in Baja in San Ignacio. We have never had any incidents of dangerous behavior by Mexican nationals. In fact, have found the citizens of Mexico to be very hospitable and community oriented. We stay in Loreto for at least 2-3 weeks per trip and feel very safe. This year at the Mexican Indepence day Festival in Loreto, we were two of maybe five Americans at the whole evening fiesta. Last year, there were many more Americans. The Festival takes place in the town square where the families gather and watch local school kids perform traditional mexican dances. if we were to go to this type of Festival in the U.S., security would search our bags upon entering as well as watching the crowd for rowdiness, etc. The important thing to remember here is to use common sense when you travel ANYWHERE. Mexico is awesome and it’s a shame the mexican economy is suffering because of hyped up bad press in the U.S.

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