Wondering if Mexico is safe? Travel expert and editor at The Sunset Diaries Ally Jackson tells us how to go beyond the guidebook, what some fun phrases to learn are, how to get around on a budget, and how to travel through the country without getting caught up in any violence.
1. What made you decide to travel long-term through Mexico?
I moved to Mexico to live in Guadalajara for four months and I fell in love with the country. I traveled around quite a lot during that time (and for a month or so afterwards) because I loved the food, the cheap prices (except for electronics) and the abundance of amazing cities and destinations.
2. What has been your favorite misadventure on the journey?
Renting a five story mansion with 20 friends for a long weekend of debauchery, getting lost on the way to Dos Ojos and encountering a jaguar, getting to help save turtles at Tulum and living in Guadalajara meeting so many amazing people.
3. What would you tell someone interested in traveling to Mexico but scared about safety?
Before traveling to Mexico I hadn’t heard too much about the country (living so far away in Australia) except for the occasional news report about drug related violence. And yes, Mexico does have drug cartels, the situation being bad mostly in the north where drug cartels clash with each other and vigilante groups who are trying to protect their homes (as is the case in many cities in Michoacan); however most of this violence is not anywhere near most popular tourist destinations such as Oaxaca, the Yucaton and Jalisco.
I have not encountered any drug related violence personally in the whole time I was inside the country, which was roughly for 5-6 months. I did go into Morelia (in Michoacan) for Day of the Dead but I was warned not to go into the state by one of my teachers other than during that special holiday as the situation was unstable.
Although as a tourist I was not in anyway affected by drug related violence, the one piece of advice I have is in regards to solo female travelers in the country. Mexican men can be very forward, and while most of the time it is harmless I did encounter a few negative experiences, which to be honest could have happened anywhere.
- Do not ever get into a taxi hailed from the street when another person also hops in (other than the driver) unless you are taking a shared cab.
- In big cities such as Guadalajara, Cancun, and Puerto Vallarta you can wear pretty much whatever you like, especially at night when the Mexican girls always wore much more revealing clothes than any of us foreigners. I would just advise not to walk alone at night — regardless of how you’re dressed — and if coming home from the clubs always try to share a taxi with friends at least for part of the way home.
- Know landmarks near your hostel or hotel especially if it isn’t one of the more popular places, as a lot of taxi drivers don’t know where they were going.
- Don’t wave around electronics on public buses – I’m referring more to laptops, tablets and SLR cameras. I had my iPod out on nearly every single bus I went on. I’m not sure how safe this was but I never even got a second glance.
- If you are ever alone and start feeling scared in a dodgy area — especially at night or while lost — walk closer to the other people around you. You don’t have to walk directly behind them, but if you are near someone else you’ll be less likely to have anything happen.
4. What’s one Mexico attraction or destination you think is overrated?
I wouldn’t recommend Cozumel unless you are a diver. I think there are good beaches somewhere but you need some sort of transport to get there, and public transport isn’t that great on the island. It was very Americanized and expensive – which you may like or may be hoping to get away from on a holiday. Even if you go there as a diver I would be careful which dive center you go with as we had a bad experience.
5. What’s one Mexico experience you recommend that travelers probably won’t find in their guidebooks?
I have a couple to recommend:
- The Surrealist Gardens near Huasteca.
- Volcan Paricutin in Michoacan. As mentioned in the safety question check if the area is safe beforehand, otherwise only go there during the Day of the Dead – a world heritage celebration where the city is heavily policed.
- Snorkel with turtles in Akumal (a beach near Tulum).
- Party at Bar Americas in Guadalajara – the best late night techno/ trance club.
- Dos Ojos near Tulum – Okay this is probably in the guide books but it is amazing.
6. Where should budget travelers go in Mexico to really stretch their dollar?
If you’re visiting in high season go anywhere apart from Playa del Carmen and Cancun to avoid high season rates, which are the only places we went where most hotels doubled their prices.
But in particular the state of Oaxaca was very cheap and beautiful.
In general you can find cheaper hostels and guesthouses by walking two to five blocks away from the center of the city or where the bus drops you off. Street food is cheap everywhere — tacos and cheap fried chicken — and you can also head to the local supermarket and cook up a storm. Obviously don’t eat in the fancy restaurants, aim for the local owned cafes and ALWAYS ask to see the menu first to scope out prices.
7. What’s your favorite budget-friendly hotel in Mexico?
I really liked the following:
- Hostel 6-19 in Playa del Carmen – in low season it was about 350 peso (about $26 USD) for the room and in high 550 (about $41.50).
- Planet Hostel in Oaxaca City – we got approached by a tout after arriving way too early in the morning and he threw in a free taxi to the hotel (30 pesos/about $2.20 worth). I can’t remember the exact price but it was good value and had a free breakfast.
- Couchsurfing – Not a budget hotel but I met so many amazing people this way. Warning: If you are a hot blonde, you’ll get swamped with requests if you post a public message.
8. What’s one meal nobody should leave Mexico without sampling?
Mole Chicken! It’s not for everyone but if you’re a fan of chocolate I’d give it a go. There are so many different types but I really like the Oaxacan and the mole from Puebla.
9 What are some handy Mexican phrases?
- Donde esta [insert location here] – Where is *location* (this is invaluable)
- Que Pedo? – The direct translation is “Whats the fart?” and thoroughly baffled me the first time I was asked it. I wasn’t sure if they were asking if I had farted or if they were playing some sort of strange fart guessing game, either way Google translate didn’t help. Use it between friends or young Mexican’s when asking what they’ve been doing lately. Don’t use it with the older generation. It’s just awkward.
- Como estas? (formal version) – This normally butters up dodgy cab drivers and grumpy waitresses by asking “how are you?”. It’s good to be nice, after all.
- Baja or Parada – Baja pronounced ‘ba-ha’ is commonly used when you need to get off the public buses. If the driver can’t understand your accent try saying ‘pa-ra-da’ instead which means ‘stop’.
10. Extra Tips for Mexico
- Always negotiate the price before hopping in a cab. If you’re unsure ask the receptionist at your hostel or guest house for approximate prices. Expect to pay more for airports and main bus stops.
- If you are caught drinking on the street the police will charge you a bribe – politeness and Spanish will normally lower the cost. Unfortunately, you can’t really get out of paying. If you see flashing blue and red lights coming your way place your drink out of sight.
- Not to stereotype, but Mexicans are terrible with directions so always ask more than one person. They value being helpful more than giving correct directions, which means if they don’t know the way they will guess. This is sweet but not always helpful.
- Always try to use Spanish. You’ll get more respect and locals will sometimes be friendlier to you. A friend and I got to hop into the roped off area in Tulum to help save some turtle eggs as the men appreciated us using Spanish to talk to them.
Ally is a 24 year Aussie eating and photographing her way through Central and South America. She believes she’s qualified to give advice on Mexico because she’s spent extensive time in the country, exploring amazing places such as the hidden crator beach in the Marietta’s, discovering jaguars while getting lost on a jungle path and finding her repressed party girl spirit in the big city of Guadalajara. You can follow her adventures at The Sunset Diaries as well as on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.