I’ve been travelling to Mexico for 40 years, on and off. And I’m not the only one: with its non-stop sunshine and low, low prices, Mexico is a top-three destination for older travellers looking to escape winter. Problem is, every time I tell people I’m going there, they ask me the same question: “Is Mexico safe?”
It’s a fair question. There’s been no shortage of headlines on the drug war that’s been raging in the country for the past seven years — especially in Mexico itself, where the tabloids make a living describing the daily murders. Still, I tell people, most of the violence takes place in the northern cities close to the U.S. border where the drugs are headed, places like Ciudad Juarez. That’s a long way from the places most tourists spend their time, like Cancun and Acapulco and Cozumel.
It’s also a long way from my favourite Mexican getaway, Puerto Vallarta. I’ve spent a fair bit of time there in the past 10 years, and when I’m there, I wander at will, from the beaches to the downtown shops to the “Mexican” parts of town, where not too many palefaces are seen. In all that time, I’ve never seen any sign of trouble.
That doesn’t mean it’s not there, though. A friend of mine, Allan, spends his winters in PV, as I call it — a true Canadian snowbird. He loves the city, has a Mexican girlfriend, and wouldn’t stop going there for love or money. But the past couple of years, his e-mails have become troubling.
Allan lives in a Mexican part of town, and a couple of years ago he saw a shootout on his street. Not long afterward, the police chief was attacked in broad daylight. There was even a gun battle in the nearby beach town of Bucerias, where I spent a few days on my last trip.
That kind of news gives you pause. While I’m still pretty certain the Mexican drug gangs aren’t looking to shoot tourists, I finally have to face the fact that bad things do happen — even in tourist centres like PV.
The question is, will that stop me from going to Mexico? After long thought, the answer is no. Despite the bad stories, I still feel safe walking its streets: crime exists, but the chances of running into it are still very small. The city has tourist police who patrol the most frequented areas, and the presence of lots of gringos usually — but not always — keeps real criminals at bay.
Still, I think the next time I touch down in PV I’m going to be a little more careful where I go, maybe stay a bit closer to the tourist areas, and avoid isolated places after dark.
Look at it this way: I live in Toronto, where in the past couple of years gang members have opened fire in a crowded downtown mall and a patio restaurant, and every week seems to bring another story of a 16-year-old kid being gunned down by some wanna-be gangsta. So even in my own city, I take some sensible precautions: stay out of seedy places and go home before the night gets too old.
It works for me in Toronto, and I think it works for most of the gringos who still go to Mexico by the millions each year: according to travel industry figures, 40% of Canadian sun trips go there, and that figure isn’t going down.
So, my advice is: don’t get too scared by the headlines. Millions of people still lead safe, peaceful lives in Mexico, and they’d be more than happy to see you. But be careful out there.