In many ways, Mexico is like that wild cousin you see at Christmas every year: He may have some quirks, but he’s family, and, like everything else in life, comes as a package –both good and bad.
With a seemingly endless barrage of headlines reporting some of the grisliest cartel violence in the country, it’s hard to think about traveling to Mexico without checking in with your own personal risk tolerance level, at least to some degree – whether we like to admit it or not.
Not only are some areas of Mexico indeed seeing the worst homicide figures in decades, but the country recorded its most violent year on record last year, ultimately pointing to an alarming rise in cartel activity. This prompted the U.S. State Department to up the ante on its travel advisories to the country early this year, placing five Mexican states on its highest Level 4 "Do No Travel" advisory under its newly revamped system (yup, the same level as war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan, and Somalia) and 11 more on Level 3 (“Reconsider Travel”) .
But is it really that bad? After all, as the Mexican tourism board likes to remind us, of its 31 one states, only five are restricted, and most of the violence is rarely, if at all, directed at tourists. Still, many are left wondering if Mexico is undergoing a war of perception. Despite local police efforts to shield tourists from seeing the worst of what is happening, with two club shootings in Playa del Carmen last year, the recent explosion on a ferry in the resort town this year, and a string of violence in Acapulco over the past several years, cartel-related crime seems to be crouching on tourist territory.
Confused? Of course you are. And, indeed, with all the headlines, many are clicking away to book their trip at other destinations, and opting to avoid the country altogether. But don’t throw the mezcal out with the tequila just yet.
Writing off a country like Mexico in its entirety is a travel sin.
With the world’s most fascinating Aztec history, unbelievably delicious food (oh my gosh, the food!), mind-blowing art, gorgeous music, an incredibly vibrant culture (I can go on, you know), all somehow jumbled up into this wonderful little country, avoiding Mexico altogether would mean missing out on quite possibly the most unforgettable travel experiences Of. Your. Life. You simply need to know where to go – and where to avoid. So go pack your sombrero. But before you do, read this.
19 Safest - Mexico City
That’s right: Mexico City. Surprised?
Despite its stigma and gritty past, the national capital of Mexico is incredibly safe – a fact that’s particularly remarkable when you think for a moment that it happens to be one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world (not to mention the most densely populated city in North America).
Now, how’s that for a little perspective?
With zero travel restrictions, especially in the downtown core, feel free to go right ahead and roam through this incredibly cosmopolitan city. Walk up and through its massive Plaza de la Constitución (the main square is called the Zócalo by locals, if you want to fit in), and be sure to check out Frida Kahlo's old studio, the 13th-century Aztec Templo Mayor and its baroque-style Catedral Metropolitana de México.
From hip boutique hotels to its growing, unbelievably vibrant culinary scene, you'll certainly want to experience the eateries of the city's bohemian Condesa and Polanco districts, two of Mexico City's many, many up-and-coming neighbourhoods right now. It's a must-visit, especially for first-timers, despite the devastating earthquake that hit the city late last year.
And whether you’re into art or not, you’ll no doubt be blown away, whether it's by the recently opened Soumaya Museum owned by the richest man in the world, Carlos Slim, or the historic murals and public art peppered throughout the city by some of the country’s most famous artists, including the likes of Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiro. With so much to offer, aren't you glad to learn that Mexico City is one place you don't have to avoid?
18 Safest - Mérida
A growing favourite for tourists who hate tourists, Mérida is a wonderful alternative to nearby Cancun’s Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
Located just a three-hour drive away on the Yucatán Peninsula, it’s the perfect getaway to trade in the poolside resort experience for a dip into freshwater cenote sinkholes – over 6,000 of which can be found along the coast, thanks to a lovely little asteroid that slammed its way into the area’s sea floor over 66 million years ago.
Once used as sacred wells to perform spiritual rituals and offerings to the gods by the Maya, whose influence is still very felt in the area, visitors can experience their very own shaman-led healing journey, complete with fragrant incense, medicinal plants and cocoa beans, at underground cenotes like Sacamucuy. Merida is also a well-known destination for celebrating equinoxes. (Come to the Castillo temple at the right time, and catch the shadow of a serpent slithering down the pyramid's steps!)
But if getting your soul cleansed isn’t a priority for you right now, Mérida is also arguably one of the best places to enjoy real-deal, beyond-delicious Yucatecan food. To boot, it is quite possibly one of the most wonderfully walkable places on earth. Twice named the American Capital of Culture, the city is beaming with brightly coloured colonial buildings, broad central plazas, beautiful 17th century cathedrals, and bustling local markets like Mercado Lucas De Galvéz and Mercado Santiago. Visit on a weekend if you can, when its historical core is closed to vehicles, to enjoy a strollers’ paradise amid taco stands and open-air stages.
17 Safest - Puebla
Just two hours south of Mexico City, Puebla de los Ángeles is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico – and with good reason too.
No gang violence here, but thrill seekers can still get their fix, from its 680 metre long teleférico (cable car), to its 80 metre high ferris wheel offering spectacular views of Izta and Popo, to its famed twin volcanos Iztaccíhuatl and Popocatépetl, the former of which is even open for climbing and sight-seeing. (The latter volcano, in case you’re wondering, has been off limits to visitors since it erupted in 1994.)
While its famed Talavera ceramic tiles and architectural wonders (including some of the best preserved Spanish colonial buildings in the country) have been the main attraction to the city, recent years have also seen the growth of some serious cooking talent on the palette as well. Building on an already rich culinary history, its signature sandwich-like dish cemitas, its famous chili-chocolate flavoured mole poblano (where the national dish actually originates), and its so-local-it’s-exclusive-to-the-state raisin shot drink, the pasita, are only among some of the reasons visitors flock to this incredible city in droves year after year. Thankfully, with both the city and the state under zero travel restrictions, they can continue to do so.
In a (coco)nut shell (and at the risk of sounding like a tacky old commercial), there really is something for everyone in Puebla, so much so that, often enough, you’ll find and entire street named dedicated to that something, from Frog Alley for antique lovers, to one of the finest libraries in the world (the Biblioteca Palafoxiana) for bookworms, to Calle de los Dulces (also known as La Calle de Santa Clara) – for sugary treats. How sweet is that?
16 Safest - San Miguel de Allende
Located in the very heart of the country, amid its high desert mountains, and only five and a half hours from Mexico City, San Miguel de Allende is, as you would expect from any UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the safest places in Mexico – be it day or night.
But that’s not all: It’s also considered one of the top cities in the world.
Vibrant, mesmerizing, and just plain gorgeous, it’s no wonder the city is teeming with expats from Canada, the U.S. and Europe studying Spanish, learning to cook, or just plain enjoying la dulce vita.
As you'll inevitably discover, this city is literally pulsing with creativity and is a magical mecca in its own right for writers, musicians, artists, dancers or photographers – both gringos and Mexicans alike.
Regardless of when you decide to go (March to see more tourists; July to see more locals), safety will be the least of your concerns, if you’ll have any at all in a place like this. From colourful streets, perfect weather, and friendly locals, to incredible food (okay, I admit, that one’s pretty much a Mexico-wide thing), and endless sources of inspiration, there are no worries. San Miguel de Allende is not only a far distance from cartel wars – but from just about any care in the world.
15 Safest - Tulum
Long before news of a ferry explosion in Playa del Carmen earlier this year and the subsequent U.S. State Department warnings about travelling to there, visitors were beginning to ditch the resort town for Tulum, if only to get away from the overcrowded tourist scene.
Now, even with restrictions to Playa del Carmen completely lifted, many travelers still seem to prefer the chilled-out, laid back vibe of this well-preserved pre-Columbian, Mayan city to the bustling urban-chic crowds of its nearby resort town. It's just a short hour’s drive away, making tourists opt to stay far longer than the usual one-day outing made to the town.
Located in the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, and home to some of the most visited archeological sites, like the incredible Templo Dios del Viento (God of Winds Temple) off the Yucatan coast, Tulum does attract its fair share of tourists (over 2.2 million in last year alone).
A veritable paradise for those who love to get around by bicycle, Tulum’s rustic, back-to-nature style offers visitors a decidedly different type of vacation experience. From freshly pressed juices to yoga retreats and on-site massages in private villas to decked out cabañas on the beach, this sleepy little beach town has all the fixings while remaining wonderfully devoid of any travel restrictions.
14 Safest - Oaxaca City
Like many of the best cities in Mexico, Oaxaca City is – and quite rightfully so - a UNESCO World Heritage site, complete with cobblestone streets, beautiful brightly coloured buildings and remarkably well-preserved colonial architecture.
But it also has some of the best mezcal in the country. And while both the city and the state by the same name are safe to travel to with no restrictions, you’ll want to take it easy like any traveler should when drinking in a foreign country. Even if it’s a visit to the Mezcaloteca for a tasting (which is a must and you’ll need to make a reservation), you should be careful. Admittedly, you can hardly walk a block without seeing a mezcaleria (bar selling mezcal) or shop selling the stuff in the city center.
And there’s more. In a country that’s already home to some of the most delicious food in the world (with Mexican cuisine being designated by UNESCO as part of the “cultural heritage of humanity”), making an international name for yourself as the foodie capital of Mexico is no small feat. However, Oaxaca City has stepped up to the plate, consistently topping the list of favourite food cities by locals and foreigners alike. It has done so for its cultural depth and incredible diversity with a variety of dishes from tlayudas, quesillo and tamales, to chapulines and, of course, mole, the national dish, which the state, along with Puebla, claims to be native.
13 Safest - Bacalar
While also located in the tourist-filled state of Quintana Roo, Bacalar doesn’t have a beach, making it quite a different kind of experience from its busier provincial counterparts Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum.
With its multi-hued crystalline freshwater lake, the second largest in all of Mexico, Bacalar Lake, also known as ‘the Lake of Seven Colors,’ stretches out for over 40 kms. This is increasingly making this once-secret spot a favourite among travel Instagrammers, hammock-dwellers and cabaña queens alike.
Surrounded by lush jungle mangroves and, on its Southern side, a vast array of fascinating fossil formations, this beautiful piece of lagoon paradise is not only one of the safest places in Mexico, but one of the most affordable too.
While still slightly off the tourist track, Bacalar seems to retain a more traditional Mexican feel than most of the other hot-spots in the region, making it a great destination for those who have a preference for local culture and traditions.
If you can, be sure to visit during the first two weeks of August to experience the Festival of San Joaquin de Bacalar, when the streets come alive with even more culture events, including dances, games and incredible parades.
12 Safest - Campeche
If being within a walled historic city district, isn’t enough to make you feel safe, then maybe the fact that it’s devoid of any travel restrictions will help. As well, it comes complete with well-preserved fortifications and roving night guards.
Located on the Western coast of the Yucatan Peninsula with ruggedly beautiful limestone hills, baroque Spanish architecture, and impeccably clean cobblestone streets, Campeche is a – yup, you guessed it – UNESCO World Heritage site. Being just two hours from the more popular Merida, it's easy to travel from one to the other.
Yet unlike most of its UNESCO World Heritage site buddies, this port city is relatively untouched by tourism and Western culture. Yet it still offers plenty of vacation-worthy attractions, like the excellent seafood restaurants along its waterfront, an incredibly warm vibe thanks to its friendly Campechanos, a city square often brilliantly aglow at night with stunning views onto its Plaza Principale, and even a 7km-long boardwalk (malecón). Safe for the northern tip’s overzealous waters, Campeche is a perfectly hassle-free Mexican marvel to travel to. This beautiful spot will make for numerous unforgettable memories that you will treasure for ever. The barrage of possible activities make for a perfect romantic getaway.
11 Safest - Todos Santos
Truth be told, it’s hard to feel unsafe in a town teeming with New Age spiritualists, surfers and fisherman, let alone one that terms itself to be of ‘All Saints.’ With long, gorgeous beaches, world-class waves and a refreshing distance from tourists and crowds, this pretty little town has a timeless, magical vibe to it. It has caught the attention of artists, nature enthusiasts and government officials alike, the latter if which have even gone so far as to designate it a Pueblo Magico (Magical Town) – an honor bestowed only to a handful of towns in the country.
Todos Santos is located in the Baja California Sur, where there are currently no U.S. government restrictions for travel, and that includes the nearby glossy tourist areas of Cabo San Lucas, San Jose del Cabo, and La Paz. Todos Santos is widely considered a haven away from the cartel violence of its Northern counterpart state above, Baja California (safe for a few recent incidents said to be isolated).
And while like any other place along the Pacific coast, the usual natural hazards (sharks for swimmers and your odd rogue wave during hurricane season), Todos Santos is continually growing in popularity. Most notably, it topped travellers' must-visit list recently after the much publicized opening of Hotel San Cristóbal.
More than likely, however, the biggest draw is its wild sense of possibility. It's one you can’t help but feel when driving along the enigmatic dirt roads that connect in and out of this sleepy town. Roads that are indeed all too reminiscent of the "dark desert highway" leading up to the iconic Hotel California, which, if local lore has it right, is the very one famously referred to in the classic 1970s Eagles hit song.
10 Safest - Cholula
Granted, Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza is often on everyone’s bucket list. Yet, the largest pyramid in the world which is, in fact, four times its size and, thus, the largest monument ever built on earth, happens to be in a small town in Mexico called Cholula. In case you want to change your travel plans, it currently happens to be a safe bet, with no travel restrictions.
Topped by the Spanish colonial Virgen de Los Remedios church, and only a 20-minute ride by collectivo from Puebla City, the Great Pyramid of Cholula is covered in vegetation. Indeed, it looks more like a big hill. Nevertheless, you’ll want to go. These ruins reveal one heck of a chapter in human history.
Known locally as the Pirámide Tepanapa (or Tlachihualtepetl in the in the indigenous Nahuatl language, meaning "made-by-hand mountain"), the Great Pyramid of Cholula, although built around 200 BC. However, it wasn’t discovered until 1910 by, of all things, construction workers building an insane asylum – no joke.
Another fun fact, although, Cholula was once the most important city in the Aztec Empire and one of the major pilgrimage destinations in the central highlands, the city is now a hotbed of lucha libre. That's right, it is now home to masked wrestling. Go watch Nacho Libre for clarification or at the very least to see Jack Black as Luchador.
9 To Avoid - Sinaloa
Unfortunately, despite the country’s fascinating beauty and rich culture, not all of Mexico is a cheerful tapestry of cobblestoned streets and brightly coloured colonial buildings. Some areas are hotspots of cartel activity. One of them, widely known for hosting trafficking routes, is the Northern Mexican state of Sinaloa.
Though located on the beautiful Pacific coast, Sinaloa is a state where nefarious organizations are known to be based and operating. It’s one of five Mexican states that received the highest travel advisory ranking of Level 4 "Do Not Travel" under a revamped U.S. State Department program unveiled earlier this year. The system is designed to help travelers better understand their travel destinations.
This is serious stuff, you know, in case you haven’t quite gotten that sense just yet. The new U.S. travel advisory system goes so far as placing Sinaloa on the same warning level as war-torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia for its "greater likelihood of life-threatening risks."
The Zona Dorada historic town center in the famous resort town of Mazatlán, Los Mochis, Port Topolobampo, and all roads to and from these locations have been cleared for travel. However, the rest of the state remains under the highest-level travel warning for potential danger.
So yeah, don’t go to Sinaloa.
8 To Avoid - Colima
With the highest unnatural death rate in Mexico, you might want to avoid traveling to Colima.
Once considered among Mexico’s most peaceful areas, the country’s least populous state at just over 700,000 people has seen deaths skyrocketing in recent years. This is due to the growth of the Jalisco New Generation cartel, making even some of its once-safest towns, not-so-safe anymore. They are doing this quickly too. Colima’s murder rate has more than tripled in recent years. It's a statistic that’s surprised many of its long-time visitors who are now found struggling to cancel their tickets.
Placed under the U.S. State department’s highest Level 4 'Do Not Travel' advisory for obvious reasons, you would certainly think that Colima in its entirety would be one big no-no. Yet, this is not exactly the case. Travel to its seaside city, Manzanillo, is in fact still allowed, according the U.S. government. The site of two bays, Bahía de Manzanillo and Bahía de Santiago, the port town is one of the most popular all-inclusive destinations in Mexico. With events unfolding as they are, I’m going to venture a wild guess that prices are going at an all-time low. It's a real shame that such a beautiful place has no been outlawed, for the most part.
7 To Avoid - Tamaulipas
Located on the Texas border between Mexico and the U.S., Tamaulipas offers a key strategic opportunity that’s been all too irresistible to the area’s kingpins looking to smuggle illegal substances to the United States. It's been made into not only one of the longest-running Mexican states plagued by cartel violence, which has claimed the lives of gangsters, police and civilians alike, but a long-forgotten travel destination already absent on the tourist radar.
It’s no surprise, of course, that Tamaulipas is one of the five now-notorious states in states Mexico for which the U.S. State Department issued its highest warning – Level 4: "Do Not Travel" - under its new guidelines.
What might be news to you, however, is that, just this week, Mexican marines captured the head honcho of the region’s drug cartel. It was confirmed by government officials to be none other than the famous Jose Alfredo Cardenas. Though, admittedly, in no way should this be a cause for a tourist stampede to the area.
Catching the leader of the region’s criminal organization is no small feat, of course, but with frequently shifting criminal loyalties known to often occur state more often than you can say El Chapo, I wouldn’t bring out the tequila just yet.
6 To Avoid - Guerrero
Since certain newsworthy events occurred in 2014, Guerrero has long been a well-known do-not-travel state.
But there’s another story here. Mexican beach resorts are often exempt from travel restrictions even in blacklisted Mexican states. No doubt, this is a natural reaction to the highly needed tourist dollar. This is especially true when it comes to the poorest states such as Guerrero. Tourism is a large part of these cities local economy.
For all its classic retro-iconic lure, Guerrero’s famous beach resort town Acapulco, once a major tourist destination for Hollywood celebrities, honeymooners and diplomats alike, didn’t made the cut.
Strangely enough, although the Mexican Pacific Coast's state's travel advisory made exceptions of its 'Do Not Travel' advisory, Acapulco did not make the cut. Other hot spots like Zihuatanejo and Ixtapa were spared from the designation. Though it was initially considered safe enough, in April, Acapulco was suddenly slapped with the hard advisory level for the first time ever. This sparked headlines about how violence in Mexico is beginning to affect both tourists and the tourism industry. As you can imagine, this left Mexico's federal tourism department scrambling and "not immediately available to comment".
I don’t know about you, but I would say things are heating up in this hot little country.
5 To Avoid - Chihuahua
Set at the slightly less restrictive notch of Level 3 (“Reconsider Travel”), the state which the cute, feisty little dog is named after has a not-at-all-cute reputation for widespread illicit activity.
A definite bummer, if you decide to travel here.
Its biggest culprit? The state’s city of Ciudad Juarez, which, much like Tamaulipas, offers a coveted location just across the border from El Paso, Texas. From there, traffickers and kingpins who win the turf war gain access to the voracious and lucrative US illegal substance market.
It was considered one of the least safe cities in the world just a few short years ago. However, that violence eased right down by 2013. Unfortunately, it was only to pick up again, as it often does with these things, three years later in 2016.
Yet, despite its not-so-distant gangland past, Ciudad Juarez, believe it or not, currently has no restrictions, except for travel to the areas southeast of Boulevard Independencia and the Valle de Juarez region. After dark, travel restriction extend to west of Eje Juan Gabriel and south of Boulevard Zaragoza.
As for the rest of the state of Chihuahua, the city by the same name has travel to the Morelos, Villa, and Zapata districts down as areas where you’re invited to “Reconsider” traveling to. Outside of the city limits of Nuevo Casas Grandes are prohibited after dark. As for Palomas and the Nuevo Casas Grandes/Paquime region, as well as Ojinaga, simply be sure you use American Highway, 67 and 11 respectively.
Got all that?
4 To Avoid - Coahuila
Coahuila is a strange beast. Not only is this Mexican border state home to the oldest vineyards in all of the Americas, but the Parras Valley, where they are mostly found, is replete with beautiful backdrops that are so inspiring. If fact, they’ve won its town, Parras de la Fuente, a rare place on the country’s coveted "Magic Town" list.
But it’s hard to feel anything magical when the surrounding area of this same state has made another list - one that’s not so flattering. Indeed, the state of Coahuila is one of 11 Mexican states recently placed under the Level 3 U.S. travel advisory. Its northern parts are particularly restricted from travel due to crime in the area, compounded by local enforcement’s limited capability to prevent and respond to it.
Asked to steer clear of all adult clubs and gambling establishments when traveling to Coahuila, U.S. travelers are only permitted to visit the areas of Saltillo, Bosques de Monterreal, and of course, the lovely Parras de la Fuente. Despite not being banned, travellers are allowed only if using the most direct routes is and toll highways.
The state is home to a lot of danger regardless of its beauty, so be sure to be (very) careful.
3 To Avoid - Jalisco
Home to the city of Guadalajara, the lakeside lucky-bummer expat community of Chapala, the infamous Puerto Vallarta resorts, and Ajijic, the state of Jalisco, as you would only imagine, has no U.S. travel restrictions. Though, of course, this is except for pretty much everywhere else in the state.
It’s a tough pill to swallow with recent headlines in April about film students in Guadalajara being harmed by a new cartel on the block. To make matters worse, this was an accident, a classic case of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Over 40 narco cells are currently in Jalisco dedicated to the harming of extortion targets. All of these cells are operating not only (though mainly) in the metropolitan area of Guadalajara and its municipalities, but also throughout the state. This includes the southern coastal region. Questions are being asked about the level of harm in the state.
For the time being, however, the state of Jalisco’s Level 3 Travel Advisory focused mainly on the state’s Michoacán and Zacatecas borders and travel after dark, insisting that “cartel violence does not target tourists or touristic areas, but can be present in other parts of these States so some caution is advised.”
2 To Avoid - Michoacán
While its capital, Morelia, is certainly a safe place to travel to, and quite possibly the perfect place to explore the rich variety of world-famous Mexican dishes, the rest of the Western Pacific state, Michoacán, is – oh, how do I put this delicately – one big hotbed of kidnapping and crime.
It’s hard to believe that this is the same part of the world that is also the scene of the Great Monarch butterfly migration, when the most delicate creatures gather in the millions from all over the world into Michoacán’s very own forests.
And even though Michoacán received quite the honour recently, with special mention by UNESCO itself just last year for its incredible traditional culinary practices, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the lovely United Nations agency probably wasn’t referring to those taking place in the kitchens of the state’s fearsome cartels. With more news making headlines in recent days and weeks in the wake of Michoacán’s municipal elections, and no sign of the action slowing down anytime soon, you can bet your bottom peso, that travel to this west-central Mexican state is not only strictly prohibited by the U.S. State Department, but one you should certainly avoid traveling to these days.
1 To Avoid - Nuevo León
Drawing adventure enthusiasts from around the world, and home to both some of the best rock climbing and Mexico’s third largest – and very safe - city, Monterrey, the state Nuevo León can easily be mistaken as a safe haven from violent crime. Which is exactly why it could be particularly dangerous and vulnerable to misplaced lack of caution.
It is bordered by Coahuila to the west, Tamaulipas to the east and north, and San Luis Potosí to the south - all of which are currently under Level 3 Travel Advisories. To make matters worse, this border state is also precariously perched on the US-Mexico border. These elements create the perfect storm for a different, and much less appealing kind of adventure.
The U.S. State Department might be right to ask visitors to “reconsider travel due to crime” while underscoring the point that “violent crime and gang activity are common in parts of Nuevo Leon state”. However, travel outside Monterrey is indeed permitted during daylight though again, only on toll roads, with the exception of travel to the Monterrey airport, which is permitted at any time.
Otherwise, especially if traveling overnight, heading north of the Santa Catarina river, or anywhere outside of San Pedro Garza Garcia or Santa Catarina should basically be avoided.