Is Mexico Safe to Visit in 2021? | A Gringo's Guide!
Updated: Feb 8
There seems to be growing concerns about the safety and violence surrounding Mexico, it can all seem to be quite ambiguous at times, with all of the stories on the news about the increasing dangers for tourists, with gang violence and killings happening every day it's hard not to pay attention, but on the other hand, you also may read about topics online and hear stories from blog's or people saying it's just fine to visit.
I have personally travelled back and forth across Mexico to many destinations over the last year, I've also set up shop in Mexico City, while I absolutely do not consider myself to be an expert on the topic i'll try my best to answer some of the most searched and asked questions about the safety of Mexico.
I'm an Irish gringo with little to no Spanish, and travelling across Mexico's vast lands can be quite intimidating, I have learned a couple things over the last few months so, with the life experiences I have gained over the last year, I would like to share some of that knowledge and try to help shed some light on the topic.
Which states and cities are dangerous?
When people are looking to book a holiday or visit Mexico, this question is usually one of the first searched, everyone wants to know which places are safe to visit and which ones aren't so safe.
Once again the answer to this question may seem ambiguous, as the United States Travel Advisory has put out level four warnings (do not visit) to five states in Mexico, some states may be dangerous but that does not mean all of the town's or cities in said states are also dangerous!
You can't take what the U.S government is telling you for face value as most of the things are simply not true, it has more to do with politics than anything else. Although most of the information you hear on the news about Mexico may not apply to you, there are some dangerous areas in Mexico, just like there are in any country in the world.
Just below you will find all of the places in Mexico I consider to be dangerous at this moment, some are worse than others, and though they may be dangerous, none are considered dangerous enough so much so that you are guaranteed to have problems if you visit, you can absolutely visit, just exercise increased caution if you do choose to do so.
This is the most famous town for border crossing into the states and Mexico, you'll find that most of the dangerous places in Mexico are in fact border towns.
With Tijuana being the most popular of the towns for crossing you can expect this to be slightly more dangerous. Unfortunately, Tijuana nearly has one of the highest homicide rates in all of Mexico, with a rate of 100 people annually per 100,000.
Though the homicide rate is exceptionally high, it's mostly due to gang violence, it's very rarely if ever tourist-related.
This city has fallen far from it once was, not too long ago Acapulco attracted celebrities, politicians, presidents and was famed for its culture, nightlife and welcoming people.
Sadly those days have long been gone, now the city has one of the highest rates of crime and homicides in the country.
This is due to many reasons, drug cartels, gang violence, social triggers and issues of land rights, though these problems continue to persist, they do not affect tourism, this is primarily due to a public safety initiative put in place by the Mexican government to aide tourists and locals alike.
Zihuatanejo is one of the many beautiful coastal towns in Mexico, one I have been planning to visit for some time now, but it is unfortunately located in Mexico's most impoverished state, Guerrero.
This state is plagued by cartels, paramilitary groups and gang violence, while the coastal towns may be safe for you to visit, the surrounding areas are not, it's not uncommon to run into roadblocks where paramilitary are known to be violent towards travellers, I would recommend you reconsider your trip to visit Guerrero.
Another border town between the states and Mexico, Tamaulipas is the first state on the U.S Travel Advisories "do not travel" list.
While I disagree with the level four warning, ranking this state just as bad as war-torn countries, it has indeed got its problems and is best avoided for now.
Within Tamaulipas you will find the cities of Reynosa and Ciudad Victoria, both cities which should have their own warnings as they have high petty crime and homicide rates, they are also not very tourist-friendly.
This state is rampant with drug cartels as It's position on the Texas border provides drug smugglers with strategic advantages to smuggle drugs into the states, because of this the death toll in the cities is skyrocketing due to the shootouts between cartels, police and military groups.
Mazatlan is a beautiful beach town in the state of Sinaloa that attracts thousands of visitors daily, and while I would love to visit myself, I consider the dangers in the state to prominent in this moment to visit.
Sinaloa is often referred to as the drug cartel capital, the Sinaloa cartel is also said to be one of the most dangerous and powerful cartels in the world today.
If there is one place I will not go to in Mexico it's definitely Ciudad Juarez, although this border town seems to be improving year by year as the criminal activity and homicide rate was at its peak between 2010 and 2012, it still seems to be somewhat prevalent today.
The crime rate also seems to be high enough that the local police can't and don't have the resources to respond to all illicit activities happening in the city.
Thankfully things are slowly but surely getting better here, maybe in one or two years, the criminal activity will be low enough for me to reconsider travelling too.
Just because a country has dangerous areas does not mean another country, which deems itself to be superior has the right to slam the lesser countries tourism industry.
Those level four warnings put out by the U.S travel advisory are saying Mexico is just as bad as war-torn countries like Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan. It's quite ridiculous considering most cities across the USA have higher homicide rates than Mexico City and most of the cities across the country.
How prominent are the drug cartels?
As I previously mentioned, there are places in Mexico which unfortunately are running rampant with drug and cartel-related activity.
Mexico does have a bad reputation for drug-related crimes, the crimes are also not only limited to certain cities and states as it's becoming more prominent in favourite tourist spots such as Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Acapulco, Chiapas and others.
Although the crime and violence may seem to be increasing between the drug cartels and gangs, this does not affect most travellers.
It is exactly what it is, gang-related crime and nothing more, so unless you are looking to join a gang, sell or buy drugs, you will be just fine.
You very rarely if ever listen to stories about tourists being gunned down by gangs, and if so you can be sure that it was a case of "wrong place, wrong time".
Things like this can happen if you choose not to follow government safety warnings and advisories, if you apply common sense, you won't only have a safe trip, but I'm sure it would be an exceptional one.
Are the streets safe?
Absolutely yes! This also seems to be a recurring question for first-time visitors, and the answer is an obvious one, generally speaking, the streets are safe, especially in highly popular destinations such as Cancun, Mexico City and Cabo.
I mean if you go wandering into dangerous neighbourhoods, stay out late after dark and roam cities without the use of common sense, you are highly increasing your chances of falling victim to some sort of crime.
Not only will you find hidden gems if you choose to explore the streets, but you'll also make your holiday a more adventurous, memorable one.
When planning your visit to Mexico, just research your intended destination, know where the bad neighbourhoods are and where not to go in the city, apply common sense and will be fine!
Is it safe to go out at night?
It depends! Although the question is similar to the last, the answer is quite a bit different, even though the streets might be safe for you to roam in the day, sometimes this may not be the case come nightfall.
In popular areas and tourist destinations such as Cozumel, Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Puerto Vallarta, most places would be considered safe for you to go out at night.
You need to be aware that come nightfall is when thieves, drug dealers and all kinds of seedy people come out to play, so it's best not to venture too far from where you are staying or popular locations, avoid alleyways at all costs and stay in areas that have a lot of people.
If you do have to travel distances that are more than 20 minutes walking, I highly suggest you take an Uber or Taxi as walking such distances after dark may prove dangerous.
What are common scams in Mexico?
No matter who you are or where you are, there is a good chance you have fell victim to a scam before, at least once in your life.
Unfortunately, I have had more than my fair share of bad experiences when travelling in my own country and abroad, but because of this, I'm better informed to advise you on what to avoid and what not to do in such situations, should they arise.
These scams are not only limited to Mexico as most of them are commonly used around the world today, always keep your wits about you when travelling, so you don't fall victim to such crimes.
The 50/500 scam
This scam has become so very common in Mexico, it's like that old magic trick that your grandpa continues to show you every time you stop by.
It is used widely across the country in multiple industries and generally targets tourists that are not familiar with the Mexican peso. The scam goes as follows:
Tourist: Pays for a product (food, gas, drinks) with a 500 peso note.
Scammer: Has a 50 peso note at the ready, then takes the 500 peso note from the tourist, turns and swaps the 500 for a 50 bill, then turns back to the tourist and asks for more cash.
Tourist: Oh sorry, and pays more cash without realizing what they have just done.
It's easily avoidable by paying the exact amount cash necessary, and if you only have a denomination of 500, make sure that you clearly say to the server that you are paying with a 500 bill.
Similar to the previously mentioned scam, the attendants at Pemex stations across the country, especially in tourist areas are known for doing the 50/500 scam, they may operate a little bit differently as they often have a partner in crime.
Tourist: Pays cash to the attendant at a Pemex station.
Scammer 1: Draws attention away from the other attendant, by cleaning your car or asking would you like your oil changed.
Scammer 2: Changes out the cash you paid for with a lesser denomination and requests more money.
This is only one of the scams, another popular one they choose to do is not reset the pump, so your not only paying for the gas you bought but you also pay an additional amount depending on what the pump gave out before, always make sure the pump is reset to zero!
Both of these scams are common among tourists, so make sure to pay attention and don't fall victim.
The survey scam
Sometimes in popular destinations such as Cancun or Cabo, you will find people who speak perfect English asking if they can perform a survey on you, avoid these people at all costs!
What may seem like a pleasant person just chatting with you while you answer some bogus questions is most likely trying to scam you and your family.
They generally ask questions about some false service, product or area, then ask you for your name and contact information.
With the information you have just given them, they will research you online, find some family members, then call them and explain to them that they have kidnapped you.
While on the phone to your family members, they demand a ransom immediately. With your family being panicked and rushed, they can sometimes just pay instantly without calling or checking up with you first.
The sob story scam
This is very common in not only Mexico but the world, literally every place I have visited or been to has someone with a sob story, looking for your cash, never fall for it!
Though the scam is commonly used around the world, it generally carries a bit more weight in Mexico.
Being that I'm from Europe and have more money than most of the general population, I don't mind helping out, giving bigger tips and overpaying for small items, but what get's to most people and me is seeing really poor locals with their children begging for small change, this would just break anyone's heart.
Although they may be poor and be in a bad position, it's usually not the position that they want you to believe, It is more often than not a crime syndicate run by gangs, that specifically send children out to the streets and metro systems to beg for money.
You can also find people in popular locations who will approach you and tell you the sad story of how they were robbed and have no phone or money, it's incredible how many people have approached me in Mexico City with the same exact story and were all alone, don't believe a word.
Pigeon poop scam
This scam is almost as old as time itself, never fall for this ridiculously overused scam!
A scammer will usually have some sort of condiments like mayonnaise, mustard or ketchup, and then squirt it onto an unsuspecting victim, after doing so the scammer then proceeds to inform the person that a bird has just pooped on them.
Usually, after this happens the victim puts some items (Bag, DSLR etc.) on the floor or doesn't take much care of them, it is in this moment the thief will grab your things and run off with them.
This is easily avoidable, if a person informs you that you have bird poop and tries to help you clean it, this is an immediate red flag! Move away fast and just say thank you, then wait until you arrive in a safe place before you clean anything.
I'm sure there are plenty of dirty tricks taxi drivers use in Mexico to take your hard-earned cash, but you can better prepare yourself by reading up on local scams.