“Is Mexico safe?”
If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone ask this question… well, let’s just say I’d never have to think twice about adding extra guac to my order. ?
This is BY FAR the most frequently asked question about Mexico in the travel spaces I frequent.
The thing is, it’s not actually a very useful question.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand the motivation for asking. With all the criticism that Mexico receives from the media, it’s natural to wonder whether a trip down here as a solo female traveler is a recipe for disaster. You want to know if this all this negative attention is just #fakenews or if you’re walking into a literal warzone. That’s totally understandable!
Unfortunately, the answers that typically follow “Is Mexico safe?” tend to be unhelpful at best and flat-out racist at worst.
This inspires confidence, but it’s also highly subjective. Did this person ever leave their hotel room? Are they are burly 6-foot man who feels safe and secure everywhere they go? Are they a savvy traveler who speaks fluent Spanish? Were they alone or with a group of friends? And what if you’re not even going to Cancun? Obviously, there are a ton of factors to consider and their experience isn’t necessarily going to be the same as yours.
“I feel safer in Mexico than I do in [insert name of US city].”
This is a pretty common response to “Is Mexico safe?” but once again, it doesn’t really provide much useful insight. Perhaps if you’re a native of whichever city referenced, this means something to you, but for someone who has never been there, you don’t have much of a point of reference. Also, as we discussed above, there is a myriad of factors to consider that could add or subtract from this feeling of safety.
I confess: I hate this type of comment. Sure, a resort is a (relatively) controlled environment and you’re liable to be mostly safe there. But, I assume if you’re reading my blog it’s because you’d like to step out of the resort and experience Mexico’s culture on your own terms.
You don’t have to stay in the resort to be safe in Mexico. I could go on a tangent about how a resort doesn’t guarantee your safety unless every person who is staying there has been forced to undergo a criminal record and ethics check, but now isn’t the time.
“Make sure you go to bars where other travelers and expats go, then you’ll be fine.”
I couldn’t find the screenshot of this original comment, but I promise I’m not making this up.
I almost choked when I first saw this comment. Not only does this not answer the question, it’s also racist AF. Over and over again I see people perpetuating this notion that the people of Mexico are “dangerous” or “bad” and foreigners are safe and “good.” I’m sorry, but there are garbage people in every country and sometimes they even travel! Travelers and expats aren’t automatically good, decent people who won’t hurt you. I’m not trying to monger fear here, just trying to be objective.
The people of Mexico are not out to get you. Just like anywhere else in the world, there are a few bad apples, but generally speaking, Mexicans are warm, friendly, and well-intentioned. You just have to get out there and meet them!
So, are you starting to see how these responses to “Is Mexico safe?” are vague and lacking helpful context? Are you wondering how you can determine whether Mexico is a safe travel destination?
Before we move on, let’s talk about what it even means to be safe.
According to Dictionary.com, safe is defined as follows:
With this definition in mind, there is really nowhere in the world that is 100% safe. The risks are just different in other places. I believe that the ability to anticipate and prepare for the potential risks you face dictates your level of safety.
For instance, I grew up in the wilderness in Canada and literally had to ride my bike past bears to get to school. That wasn’t exactly safe. But, if you’re accustomed to seeing bears on a daily basis you eventually stop fearing them. Sure, you’re cautious, but you read up on how to prevent bear attacks and go on with your life.
I lived in the United States for 5 years, and while I won’t go so far as to say that I lived in terror, I will admit that I felt vulnerable. The increasing amount of random acts of gun violence in the US were horrifying and nerve-racking for me. That type of danger is impossible to anticipate.
In that sense, I feel safer in Mexico because at least I know who is holding the guns.
If we stick with the literal definition of “safe” then the only accurate answer to “Is Mexico Safe?” is “No.” And neither is anywhere else. Literally every scenario we face on a daily basis has some element of risk… you could choke on your own saliva, you could be hit by a car, an airplane could land on your house… You just have to accept that a certain level of risk comes with living your life and do your best to minimize it when possible.
So, if you really want to travel to Mexico (and I highly recommend that you do!), the question you should be asking is: “How do I travel safely in Mexico?”
This is a question that can actually be answered! Prompting a discussion of safety in this manner forces the blanket “yes” or “no” answer-ers to back up their claims with actual evidence or advice.
I would never tell you that Mexico is a totally safe travel destination because that implies that there’s nothing to be concerned about, which is misleading. For one thing, crossing the street here is way scarier than the bear encounters of my Canadian youth, at least for me.
However, I don’t support the notion perpetuated by US media that a plane ticket to Mexico is synonymous with a body bag. Nor, would I ever encourage you to spend your entire trip holed up in an American-owned resort because something bad could happen if you venture out.
The culture in Mexico is different than it is back home, from the language and traffic laws to mealtimes and beyond. The more you can prepare yourself for these differences, the safer you will feel.
I lived and traveled in Mexico for years without experiencing anything worse than occasionally inflated “gringo” prices. Meanwhile, one of my local friends has experienced 2 instances of petty theft in the past two years
While I can’t guarantee that your trip will be free of incidents, I can help you anticipate the risks you’ll face when you visit. That information is a lot more valuable than a “Yep, totally safe” vote of confidence from a stranger who spent a week at a resort in Cancun.
With that in mind, the following are my top safety tips for Mexico.
Safety Tips For Solo Female Travel in Mexico
Manage Your Expectations
I’ve touched on this before, but I believe safety is partially a matter of mindset. The more confident you can feel in your environment, the safer you are. That’s why I recommend reading up on what to expect when you arrive in Mexico. The culture is different than you are probably used to, but the more you can prepare for that the easier your visit will be. This article on things to know for your first trip to Mexico is a great place to start!
Learn Some Basic Spanish
I’m not saying you have to learn an entire language before you set out on your trip (though, it’s not a bad idea if you’re up for the challenge), but knowing a few key phrases will go a long way. Many people in Mexico speak or at least understand a little bit of English, but they still appreciate the gesture when travelers take the time to learn some basic greetings. It’s a courtesy!
On top of winning you a few brownie points with the locals, knowing some Spanish can help you understand more of what’s going on around you. This is always a good thing and can do wonders for alleviating your anxiety. Being able to interpret signs, understand directions, and ask for help will do wonders for your confidence.
These basic phrases for travelers will get you started, but consider joining a service like Duolingo or Rocket Spanish to build your skills before your trip! If you want to go all-in on learning Spanish I highly recommend Rosetta Stone. It’s not cheap, but the curriculum is excellent.
Petty theft is not uncommon in Mexico, but it’s pretty easy to prevent. Try to be discreet about your money– don’t flash wads of cash, and keep your wallet concealed within your zipped purse or backpack. Don’t wear a lot of flashy jewelry, and if you have a smartphone or fancy camera with you, keep it concealed unless you’re using it.
Try to avoid using your phone when you’re on the street or on public transportation and if you do, return it to your zipped purse or an interior pocket. Basically, you want to make it as hard as possible for anyone to steal from you.
When I visit big cities I use a cross-body purse with a flap that folds over the zipper. This makes it extra hard for anyone to get into it without me noticing. An anti-theft purse with a slash-resistant strap would be an even better option!
I try to be hyper-vigilant about knowing where my valuables are at all times. I keep things concealed as much as possible, and I project the impression that I’m aware of my surroundings.
I’ve never been pickpocketed personally, but a friend of mine was pickpocketed twice in the same year when we were traveling together. Maybe he just had bad luck, but I also believe that my vigilance made me less of a target than he was. For instance, he had his phone in the pocket of his jacket until… he didn’t anymore.
Also, it’s worth noting that some scenarios call for more vigilance than others. I’m always extra alert when in Mexico City (especially on the metro) or other large city centers but tend to be much lazier about this when I’m in smaller towns.
Talk To Locals
I’m sure you agree that locals are the ultimate resource for any destination. They can give you all kinds of insider tips you would never think to ask about.
Locals can also let you know where to go and where not to go in the interest of safety. Basically, if someone local tells you not to go somewhere, don’t. It’s worth running your travel plans by the front desk person at your hotel or hostel, or your Airbnb host for some insight.
Maintain an Air of Mystery
When you’re a solo female traveler, it’s always best not to give away too much concrete information to strangers. Not that you would, but just in case… don’t tell strangers where you’re staying (NEVER give away your room number), or any other information that could enable them to (for lack of a better word) stalk you. You just never know.
On the same note, if you’re staying in one place for a long period of time, it’s worth varying your routine slightly from day to day, just so your behaviour isn’t predictable. This might mean changing the time of your morning coffee, varying your daily route from your accommodation to your choice breakfast spot, or going somewhere else entirely. The harder it is for someone with bad intentions to predict your behaviour, the better.
Be On Your Best Behaviour
I’m confident that you don’t need me to remind you of this, but I’m throwing it in here just in case.
You wouldn’t go to someone else’s house and act like a jerk by throwing garbage everywhere and treating your host like a servant… so why would you do it in someone else’s country?! You wouldn’t. Of course you wouldn’t. When you visit someone else’s country (or home) you have to respect their traditions, routines, and their laws.
When I lived in the Riviera Maya I often saw tourists treating Mexico like a playground — leaving trash on the beach, breaking container laws, treating local workers poorly… it made my blood boil. This just isn’t okay. And behaving badly is a sure way to attract the wrong kind of attention. So be nice, be respectful, and most importantly, obey the law!
Don’t Do Drugs
Again, I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of this, but involving yourself in the drug trade in Mexico is a bad idea. A large portion of the violence in Mexico is attributed to cartels, so it’s best to steer clear. Not to mention, drugs are illegal and can land you in all kinds of trouble. I’ve never been to Mexican jail but I’m confident I wouldn’t like it, and neither would you. Drugs are bad. Don’t do them.
Avoid ATMs After Dark & Around Payday
It’s always best to avoid taking cash out at night as you’re much more vulnerable to thieves after dark. Try to choose ATMs in areas that are highly trafficked, as it will be much more difficult for a thief to single you out. I always try to use ATMs within banks or stores (most grocery stores have trustworthy ATMs) because that way I have a little more privacy to conceal my cash before going on my way.
I would also recommend that you avoid using ATMs around payday if possible. Most people in Mexico get paid on the 15th and the 30th of the month. You’ll know it’s payday (or, quincena in Spanish) because there will be long lines at every bank! Many people take out their entire quincena on payday so thieves are often on the prowl at these times of the month. While it is highly unlikely that anyone would steal from you, it’s worth taking extra precautions.
My Sense of Safety in Mexico
I wanted to end with some thoughts on my own feeling of safety in Mexico. I spoke earlier about how everyone’s perception of safety is informed by their own personal knowledge and experience, and that includes mine. However, I would like to share it with some context, to illustrate that I do, ultimately, feel confident and comfortable in Mexico.
I’m an average-sized 30-something woman with zero knowledge of self-defense… unless you count Sandra Bullock’s SING tutorial from Miss Congeniality… though honestly, I could use a refresher on that.
I speak (almost) fluent Spanish and have traveled extensively in Mexico. I am very familiar with the culture, though it never ceases to surprise me.
Generally speaking, I feel safe in Mexico. I do notice men staring at me when I’m on my own, and I’m used to honks and whistles out of car windows as I walk down the street. I don’t like the attention, but I’ve perfected my bitchy resting face and employ it when need be.
Honestly, my biggest concerns when I’m traveling through Mexico are crossing the street and petty theft (there’s just never a good time to have your ID or phone stolen).
I’m anxious about petty theft because it happened to a local friend of mine twice in one year and it’s just really inconvenient. The second time his wallet was stolen, along with his ID, and there was much debate about whether he’d be allowed to board our flight from Mexico City back to Cancun. Fortunately, everything turned out fine, but we spent half a day of our vacation at the police station. Not ideal.
As for crossing the street… I’m a nervous pedestrian and the fact that nobody seems to follow traffic laws, or obey stop signs is confusing and stressful for me. You’re likely more savvy in this area, but I learned to drive in town with one stoplight, so I am who I am.
Any time I’ve ever experienced anything moderately dangerous during my travels within Mexico, I’ve felt supported and looked after by locals, including:
- A taxi driver who noticed a couple of men following my friends and I down the street at 3 AM and told us to get back in the cab and drove us around the block a couple of times, to make sure they didn’t see where we lived.
- The Uber driver who asked me to triple check the address of my AirBnb in Mexico City because it was awfully close to Tepito (not a nice neighborhood) and he wasn’t willing to drop me there unless I was certain it was correct.
- The hostel receptionist who suggested I change to a different room that wasn’t facing the street because she thought it would be safer.
There are more examples I’m sure, but the point is that the majority of the people in Mexico are more akin to those in the above examples than the descriptions featured in major US media.
I would always encourage you to be wary when traveling, but I also encourage you to be open-minded. Your experience in Mexico will be different than mine because you’ve had totally different life experiences to shape your worldview, but if you stay alert, and stay savvy you’re sure to have a safe and wonderful time.
- 20+ Experiences For Your Mexico Bucket List
- Tips For Your First Trip to Mexico
- Solo Travel Safety Tips from Travel Bloggers
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