9 essential tips for staying safe in latin america
Whether you are a tourist, a solo traveler, or an expat looking to make a new home in Mexico, safety should be a top priority. When asked, is it safe to travel Mexico -- our short answer is YES! However, there are some precautions travelers must face when exploring all that Mexico has to offer. In this blog, we provide our travel safety tips and information that will help you travel Mexico safely! In our experience, these safety tips for Mexico easily apply to Central America and South America as well.
It's no secret that Mexico has quite the reputation for being a violent, dangerous country that experiences a lot of crime. So much so that most people who travel to Mexico will choose a tourist area like Puerto Vallarta, Los Cabos, Playa Del Carmen, or Cancun in order to feel safe. We are here to tell you, first hand, that there is so much more to Mexico and you would be doing yourself a disservice by not experiencing the off-the-beaten path.
It's natural to be concerned about possible risks when traveling to a new place. Having traveled 20+ countries, we consider ourselves safe travelers. We've never been victims of crime, never suffered from a highway robbery, never had a gun pointed at us, and never been involved in a scam.
Knock on wood.
So, are we just ridiculously lucky, or is Mexico not nearly as bad as the reputation it has been given? Maybe it's a bit of both. We take travel safety very seriously and have an unspoken understanding of making sure each of us feels safe at all times. One glance or hand squeeze from each other can signify that we need to remove ourselves from a situation. In all honesty, though, we felt just as safe (if not safer) living in Mexico than we do in the United States.
We can't guarantee that nothing bad will happen to you, just like we can't guarantee that nothing bad will happen to you when you go to school or your job tomorrow. Hopefully, these tips will help you feel a bit more confident about traveling to Mexico.
ONLY CARRY WHAT YOU NEED
Split up your cash, credit cards, debit cards, and any other valuables. Leave the majority of these items safely tucked away at your hotel. For example, when we go out for the day, we only take one cell phone, one credit card, one camera, and no more than 1,000 pesos in cash. We don't carry our debit card with us unless we need to go to the ATM for cash. 'Express kidnapping' is a common crime in Latin America. Basically, while at an ATM, a car will pull up next to you and force you into their car. They'll drive you around from one ATM to the next demanding that you drain your bank account. While most people make it out of this situation unharmed, we imagine it's a bit traumatizing. Also, if you have a checking and savings account linked, we recommend keeping the majority of your money in your savings account so that it's not accessible by ATM.
LISTEN TO THE LOCALS
If you remember one tip from this blog, this is the most important. Ask your hostel, hotel, or Airbnb host if there are any sketchy areas in the city or town to avoid as a tourist. These locals will have the most up-to-date knowledge. If there are, please please avoid those areas. Sometimes danger is nothing more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time and there is no way to avoid looking like a tourist and placing a target on your back.
DON'T USE OVERHEAD BINS ON BUSES
We've talked about this before in one of our South America blogs, but it's worth re-mentioning. While taking a bus across Mexico, keep your valuable bags at your feet or on your lap, not in the overhead bins. Often we will wrap our backpack straps around our ankles on long bus rides, especially if we plan to sleep at all. We've had friends who have almost been robbed by a local getting off the bus and intentionally grabbing the wrong bag from the overhead storage. Keep your laptop, camera, passport, and money close to you.
BE AWARE OF DISTRACTIONS
A lot of times, when bad things happen to good people, it's achieved because of a distraction technique. Common distraction techniques can be mothers with children asking for help, someone asking you for directions, a group of people engaging in small-talk, "charity" workers with clipboards, and persistent people wanting to help you carry your luggage. When tourists are distracted, it makes pickpocketing simple and quick. Be aware of your surroundings at all times and say no to anyone working towards distraction.
CHOOSE YOUR ATM WISELY
A common crime in Mexico is called ATM tampering. Criminals that have tampered with ATMs can have access to your bank account the minute you leave an ATM after your transaction. For that reason, never use ATMs that are located on the side of the street or facing an open public area like a plaza. Sometimes street ATMs may seem like the easiest option, but plan ahead to find a secure ATM. Use ATMs that are inside a mall, bank, or grocery store -- as these machines are secure and monitored. The ATMs on the streets are not monitored by anyone, making them a prime spot for hackers.
DON'T HAIL TAXIS ON THE STREET
Use Uber or Grab whenever possible. When using this type of service, set your "home" destination as a grocery store, bakery, etc near where you are staying instead of your exact address. If a taxi is your only option, make sure it's an official taxi. Visit the official taxi booth at the airport, train station, etc to find a ride.
AVOID FLASHING YOUR VALUABLES
This one may seem like common sense, but we're amazed how many travelers we see with their Apple watches, iPhones, multiple cameras, and drones all out at once. Keep most of your valuables tucked away securely in your backpack. For bloggers like us who carry a lot of technology, this one can be a bit tricky. Our best advice is to only use one device at a time. For example, take photos or videos on your iPhone, put it away, and then move on to using your camera. Also, please don't keep your phone or wallet in the back pocket of your jeans.
AVOID DRUGS + EXCESSIVE DRINKING
Drugs are big business in Mexico. In fact, we recently learned that an entire city in the Yucatan Peninsula, Progreso, is considered safe only because all of the biggest drug lords live there and have come to some sort of non-violence agreement for the area. Drugs kill thousands of people each year in Mexico, so we recommend avoiding drugs at all costs. Don't put yourself at risk. The same goes for excessive drinking.
THINK ABOUT YOUR DAYPACK
Invest in a high-quality secure daypack. Avoid bags with drawstrings, zippers that can be easily unzipped, and purses with open tops. Often, we opt to explore with just a crossbody shoulder fanny pack that keeps our belongings protected on the front or side of our bodies. If we're taking our camera, one of us will carry a backpack. Hot tip: if an area is extra dangerous (ie the La Boca neighborhood in Buenos Aires, Argentina), have the person with the backpack walk in front and the person without follow behind to keep tabs on the pack. While pickpocketing isn't as common in Mexico as it is in Europe or parts of South America, don't set yourself up to be the victim.
Please don't let any of our tips make you wary of connecting with the local Mexican people. The more you immerse yourself with the locals, the more raw and fruitful your experience will be. From our experience, the majority of Mexicans are incredibly kind and helpful people. They may not be as outgoing as some of the other countries we have traveled, but all it takes is simply striking up a conversation with a local Mexican to create a connection you will always remember.
So, when thinking about the question is it safe to travel Mexico?, remember that some of that answer relies on the precautions you take as a traveler. We hope these tips that we've learned over the years help you to have a safe and adventurous time traveling one of the greatest countries in the world.
If you have any additional tips, we'd love to hear about them in the comments.
In love and adventure and safety,
Bre and Daniel