Some countries are always safe, or green, on the FCDO (Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) travel website. Those that feature orange (leisure travel not recommended) or are painted entirely red (all trips are not recommended), vary with the times: a decade-old “axis of evil” nation is the cutting edge destination of adventure travel of another.
Mexico has always fallen somewhere in between. Drug-related crime and violence have been a feature of everyday life in some regions for a long time, with places like the state of Sinaloa and Ciudad Juárez synonymous with gruesome murder and lawlessness in the imperceptible gaze of foreign media.
Even with that in mind, the FCDO map for Mexico rarely seemed so troubling. It resembles, appropriately enough, a military camouflage, with numerous orange bands bordering a dwindling number of green areas. The small print on its website now features no fewer than 27 bullet points outlining exactly where tourists should and shouldn’t go.
Among the orange areas is the state of Zacatecas, which I find both surprising and off-putting. One of my first trips to Mexico, in 2006, was to write about the so-called “silver cities”, former mining towns that got rich in colonial times thanks to precious metals.
I loved that trip. I was blown away by the seductive architecture, delicious food, welcoming people and cactus-strewn landscapes. There was no sense of risk. Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt had just been there, filming The Mexican. Real de Catorce was like a peyote-induced dream. In San Miguel de Allende I found traces of beat writers. Of the region’s capital of the same name, I wrote that it was “the only ‘silver city’ that truly feels like a city – big, bold and full of elegant shops and restaurants. It was here that the first silver vein in the Americas was discovered. “
Today, the FCDO advises against all travel to Zacatecas, “except Zacatecas City accessible by air”. My visit as a virgin from Mexico was a road trip. Like many others later: in Baja California, Chiapas, Tabasco and Yucatán. Mexico is a land of huge skies and long, empty highways; it was made for car holidays.
So what are we to think of the current council? Is it time to give up on Mexican vacations until the good times return, if they ever will? Is the patchwork of safe and less safe regions and cities too complicated to make a visit viable and, above all, fun?
It is worth mentioning that Mexico was one of the few countries that remained open to tourists during the darkest days of the pandemic. It is a nation of policemen and optimists. Furthermore, Mexico is a major destination in every respect. It had 45 million international visitors in 2019 and 32 million last year, more than five times the number received by the UK. Tourism accounted for 13.1% of the country’s total GDP, the largest share among the G20 countries. It depends on the travel trade; makes a serious effort to keep travelers safe and happy.
Nobody denies that Mexico has a crime problem. A report from the United States Congressional Research Service estimates that between 2006 and 2018 there were between 125,000 and 150,000 murders related to organized crime. Drug trafficking, mainly in the United States, is worth up to $ 29 billion (£ 25 billion), making it an attractive “business” sector in a developing country for those on the fringes and in the underworld.
Many of those who fall victim to violence are drug lords, gang members and local politicians. Most of the shooting is planned in advance. The heinous killings of women and other innocent victims are also, tragically, carefully targeted. Their deaths are symbolic, intended to send a message to rival gangs or the police. Foreign visitors were recently killed – two Canadians, one wanted by Interpol, in the Playa del Carmen resort in January, and two tourists to Tulum in February, caught in a crossfire – but such incidents are rare. Over 500,000 British citizens visit Mexico every year and “most visits go smoothly,” according to the FCDO.
A closer look at the FCDO map reveals that the main areas to avoid are Chihuahua, which is mostly desert; the northeastern border with Texas, which has always been uncertain; and the Sinaloa cartel hotspot. The most obvious losses from a visitor’s point of view are Michoacán and Guerrero, as the Monarch Butterfly Reserve is located in the former and Acapulco in the latter. Also keep in mind that nowhere in Mexico is it marked red, unlike Venezuela, and the FCDO mitigates its warnings when providing more detailed information. “If possible, travel by plane if you’re visiting one of Guerrero’s top tourist destinations,” doesn’t sound like a wake-up call.
Most tour companies, and even independent travelers, tend to go to the “green” areas of Mexico. Danny Callaghan, CEO of the Latin American Travel Association (https://www.lata.travel), said: “As in many parts of the world, we see problems with organized crime and gang-related violence in some parts of Mexico. but I don’t think it will have a huge impact on tourism in the country.
“The problems are not aimed at tourists, so unless a tourist ignores local advice or is very unlucky, there is no reason they are in greater danger than wandering around some parts of London. Go with a reputable tour operator and they will make sure they have quality local guides so tourists can simply have a great vacation in this wonderful part of the world. “
Mexico’s legendary train ride, Copper Canyon, isn’t off-limits. Nor are they the most beautiful parts of Baja California. All of Yucatán, including the Mayan sites, is still shaded with green, as are Oaxaca and Chiapas. Mexico City – the most exciting and dynamic metropolis south of New York – is completely open and, with the usual big-city warnings, safe.
And, if you feel like repeating my first transformative experience of Mexico (I’d go back tomorrow), then plan a route through San Miguel, San Luis Potosí, Real de Catorce and the city of Guanajuato. These contain enough churches, squares, cobbled streets, and treasure-filled mining museums for anyone – and the only color you need to think about is silver.
The Mexican no-go zones of the FCDO, in full
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) advises against all travel except essential travel for:
The state of Chihuahua except:
The city of Chihuahua
The border crossing of Ciudad Juárez (accessible from the federal toll road 45)
Federal toll road 45D connecting the cities of Chihuahua and Ciudad Juárez
The Copper Canyon Rail Route to / from Chihuahua and the cities immediately on this route, including Creel
The road from Creel via San Juanito to San Pedro
Highway 16 from San Pedro to Chihuahua
The state of Sinaloa except:
The cities of Los Mochis and Mazatlán
Route 32 which runs between El Fuerte and Los Mochis
The 15D federal toll road that runs along the state
The Copper Canyon railway line to / from Los Mochis / El Fuerte and the towns immediately on this route
The state of Zacatecas except:
The state of Tamaulipas except:
The state of Colima except:
The state of Guerrero except:
The city of Acapulco is accessible from the federal toll road 95D
The city of Zihuatanejo / Ixtapa is accessible by air
The city of Taxco is accessible from the federal toll roads 95D and 200D
The state of Michoacán except:
The city of Morelia is accessible from the federal toll roads 15D, 126 and 43
The city of Pátzcuaro is accessible from the federal toll roads 14D and 15 from Morelia.
The toll road 15D
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) also advises against all travel except essential travel to the following areas within these states:
In the state of Baja California:
the city of Tijuana in except
Airside transit through Tijuana Airport
The Cross Border Xpress bridge from the airport that connects the terminals across the Mexican-American border.
Federal toll road 1D and Via Rápida through Tijuana to the border
the town of Tecate in Baja California (including the roads between Tijuana and Tecate)
(Note: FCDO does not recommend all travel or all travel except essential travel to any part of the state of Baja California Sur.)
In the state of Guanajuato:
In the state of Jalisco:
the areas south and southwest of Lake Chapala to the border with the state of Colima
the northern municipalities of Hostotipaquillo, San Martin de Bolaños, Chimaltitán, Bolaños, Totatiche, Colotlán, Santa Maria de los Ángeles, Huejúcar, Villa Guerrero, Mezquitic and Huequilla el Alto