Is Mexico Safe? My Experience

Is Mexico safe? I just got back to Oaxaca after traveling for three weeks in Mexico City, Estado de Mexico and Michoacan. In Michoacan there is a U.S. State Department Travel Advisory, (I include this link to safety vs. sensationalism.)

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I went to Morelia, Patzcuaro and rural villages. I traveled far out into the countryside in a car with two other women and walked gorgeous colonial towns. How safe was it? Was I scared?

Map of Mexico

The day I returned, a must read tongue-in-cheek post came in about safety in the Distrito Federal (D.F.), the nation’s capitol, from Jim Johnston who writes Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler.  It triggered my wanting to tell you about my journey. Is Mexico safe?

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Me and Mary Anne (from the San Francisco Bay Area) teamed up to take this trip together. Yes, two women of some maturity and a modicum of wisdom traveling independently via bus, taxi, collectivo and sometimes, on foot!

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We met up in Mexico City where we walked from our hotel to historic center destinations, often at night. Yes, it was dark. Did I feel threatened or at risk? No. I stayed on well-lit streets with good sidewalks and lots of pedestrians. Mexicans love to meander with their families at night, eating an ice cream cone or nibbling on a torta, pushing a stroller or walking arm-in-arm.

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We took a taxi, arranged by our hotel, to the regional bus station at Observatorio, and bought same day tickets on the Caminante bus line to Toluca. We were the only gringas on the bus. At the Toluca bus station, MA watched the bags and I bought a Taxi Seguro (secure taxi) ticket from the clearly marked stand inside the terminal to Tenancingo de Degollado. The worry was how we were going to get our five suitcases (three of them huge) into a small taxi rather than any safety issues.

Map of Estado de Mexico

Most of our trips in Tenancingo were via group van. But, when we/I (either together or separately) wanted to go to town, we went out to the front of our hotel and hailed a private taxi or jumped into a collectivo, sharing a ride with strangers.

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When we left Tenancingo, our next destination was Morelia, capital of Michoacan. So, we returned to the Toluca bus station and bought tickets on another bus line — Autovias — that serves that part of Mexico. Again, we were the only gringas on the bus (of either gender). It’s almost a four-hour bus ride to Morelia, whose tarnished reputation for being a drug cartel area has had a negative impact on tourism, even though it is safe by strict U.S. State Department standards.

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I don’t know if this is true or not. It didn’t seem like it. I did ask MA, when we were planning this trip, is it safe? Just once. She researched it and reported that the only possible dangerous areas were rural far from where we would be.

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I’ve never been to a cleaner, more pristine city than Morelia. It has an incredible Zocalo, classical music, great restaurants, 16th century colonial architecture, outstanding gardens, churches, universities, libraries, a comprehensive Casa de las Artesanias folk art gallery and is gateway to some of Mexico’s most amazing folk art. No one hassled us. In fact, everyone was warm and welcoming. Did I feel unsafe or threatened? Not for a minute. Neither does Guns N’ Roses!

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Nacho (Ignacio), our pre-arranged taxi driver, picked us up in Morelia and drove us to Patzcuaro, with a stop along the way to Capula, one of the craft villages.  I have friends from the USA who now live full-time in Patzcuaro. We hung out together during the time we weren’t going out to explore the Purepecha villages around the lake, and met the small, but mighty Patzcuaro ex-pat community, including photographer Flo Leyret (link to her photos below).

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Map of Michoacan

We spent the day poking around Santa Clara del Cobre — the copper mining village about thirty minutes beyond Patzcuaro where Purepecha people have been working the material with hand-forging and hammering since the 13th century.

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Then, I got invited to go along to a concurso (juried folk art competition) in the village of Ahuiran, an hour-and-a-half north of Patzcuaro, where talented women weave rebozos on back-strap looms. Six of us, all women, drove in two cars over Michoacan countryside, through small villages, across rich farmland planted with corn and potatoes. At the entrance and exit to some villages there were guard posts and community-designated sentries asking us where we were going. It seems the villagers are protecting their territory and this is typical for rural Mexico where there can be land disputes or disagreements. Nothing to be afraid of.

Michoacan Artisans, Photographs by Florence Leyret Jeune

Patzcuaro 188-79 PatzLakeArtisans-16  [Above left is Purepecha ceramic artist Nicolas Fabian Fermin, from Santa Fe de Laguna, who I met this summer at the Santa Fe International Folk Art Market, with his wife. Above right is Teofila Servin Barriga, another award-winning Purepecha artist whose embroidery has won many international awards. She will be at Lake Chapala, Guadalajara, for the annual folk art market. This rebozo she is wearing will sell for 15,000 pesos.]

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In Ahuiran, we were the only visitors and the best potential customers for these stunning hand-made shawls that started at 2,000 pesos. The elaborate feather fringed rebozos (photos are still in my camera) were commanding a 5,000 pesos price tag, more than most of the local women could afford. But, then, they could weave their own or buy from a relative!

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Why go to Michoacan? For the folk art, of course, and then, there’s the landscape, and the people, the history  ….

On my return to Oaxaca, I took a taxi from Morelia center to the regional bus terminal and bought my ticket the same day. It was a five-hour bus ride to Mexico City Norte terminal. I was the only foreigner on the bus. MA flew direct from Morelia to Oakland, CA on a non-stop Volaris flight. Lucky her. I, on the other hand, got into a secure taxi for the 30-minute ride to the airport to board the Interjet flight to Oaxaca ($116 USD round-trip).

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Okay, so that’s the story. Or at least skimming it. Mexico is a treasure trove of history, archeology, folk art, contemporary art, intellectual discourse and culture. Her cities are beautiful. Yes, some parts are not safe. Most parts are. Some have reputations for being unsafe that have never been true and/or might have been true two or three or four years ago, like Morelia. Morelia is safe now. It is gorgeous. I’d go back in a heartbeat.

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Oaxaca has always been safe.

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Join us February 3-11, 2016 for Mexico Textiles and Folk Art Study Tour: Tenancingo Rebozos and More. 4 Spaces Left!

10 Responses to Is Mexico Safe? My Experience

  1. Last year during Folk Art Market week in Santa Fe, I saw a couple who looked as if they were from Michoacan (wearing traditional clothing) taking photos of each other. I offered to take a photo of both. Along came an Anglo woman showing off her Spanish by asking them where they were from. When they said Patzcuaro, she told them (not asked) that it was dangerous there. They were deeply offended and told me that the reputation isn’t fair and that it is very safe there, as long as one doesn’t do anything stupid like trying to buy drugs. They went on at length about the beauty of their home, and I was honored that they were so eager to talk to me.

    • Ruth, yes, it’s amazing how insensitive people can be … and how easy it is to jump to conclusions, make assumptions, and offend visitors to our country. I sometimes find myself apologizing for the behavior of others — my country men and women who should know better. I’m glad you were there to help ease their discomfort. Michoacan is beautiful. I’m getting ready to post some more photos of the last leg of that trip. Meanwhile, I’m back in Oaxaca and loving every moment. Sending abrazos, Norma

  2. You lead THE MOST EXCITING LIFE!!!!!!!!!!!!

  3. hi Norma,
    thanks , once again, for informing us & inspiring us to keep travelling to those places that are “officially unsafe”…
    I have, as a solo traveller always heeded the advice of my local guides & from the owners of the accomodations as to where is safe to roam or not….I think my safe passage over the years has depended on a little prior research via local opinion, positive attitude, good luck & when needed a good travel companion for a little more confidence & the “safety in numbers” factor.
    Happy travels my friend.

    • Hi, Tracey, yes, experiencing other cultures gives one a 6th sense about safety. I am always aware, always “watching my back” and having a friend along to help watch the back helps, too. I wouldn’t go into a war zone or an active area of drug activity. Since I have friends living in Patzcuaro who know the area and hiring a local guide is a great way to stay safe. Are you on the Camino? Sending hugs. -Norma

  4. Hello Norma,
    I have made several such recent trips to Michoacán while researching and writing a book on artesanía. The last one was of a month’s duration and I used Pátzcuaro and Uruapan as a base. The scariest part of the trip was the historically cold weather in March there this year! Also, my bus between Patz and Morelia was stopped by a group of young men (students) who wished transportation to the city. I mention it to be fair and open, but the most serious outcome of the event was a 30 minute delay. The students were polite and no one was threatened in any way. Just delayed.
    Furthering the ‘bad reputation’ of Mexico are uninformed US politicians like my very own John Mica of Florida. A couple of weeks ago Mexico News Daily had an article quoting Congressman Mica as saying all the US Consulates in Mexico should be closed immediately due to violence. This kind of rhetoric, strongly linked to immigration policies, does not help.
    One can always be in ‘the wrong place at the wrong time.’ A few months back I exited a store in downtown Gainesville to immediately hear a policeman discharging his weapon at someone who had just robbed a post office. You can’t protect against that. But using common sense, researching where you are going, touching base with the ex-pat community, all helps to keep you out of trouble. In general I feel less nervous visiting the pueblo communities of the Pátzcuaro area and around Lake Pátzcuaro than I do some places 30 minutes away from my home here in central Florida! Jim Castner

    • Jim, so great to hear from you again. Thanks for this wise and thoughtful comment. I appreciate your taking the time to give serious consideration to and express your opinion about this very important topic. Thanks for sharing your experiences. If those of us who travel in Mexico take the time to add our experiences, I believe it will help assuage fears and bring to light the truth that no place is all bad or good, and that there is risk in our own home towns, as you so well describe. As for the politicians, well, that’s another story, especially in Florida! But no place is immune from political hacks who use the I issue to garner votes among the homophobic. Best to you, Norma

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