Any number of concerns are on our radar as we plan our next trip, from serious issues like how destinations are working to mitigate tourists’ environmental impact to inconveniences like months-long passport wait times. In this column, our travel expert, Jen Murphy, will be addressing your questions about how to navigate the world.
I heard about the Americans who were kidnapped recently in Mexico near the U.S. border, and I’ve been reading a lot of news about an increase in crime in Mexico in general. Now I’m worried about my spring-break plans to Baja. I’ll probably still go—but I’m concerned. Is the media making a big deal out of a few isolated incidents? How risky is it to travel down there? —On the Fence
Spring Break season has officially kicked off, but like you, some Americans are rethinking their south-of-the-border travel plans after recent reports of border crime in Mexico and a new U.S. State Department warning for Costa Rica.
On March 3, four Americans on a medical tourism trip were caught in a drug-cartel shoot-out as they crossed the border from Brownsville, Texas, into Matamoros, Mexico. Two were killed and two were kidnapped but later released; they returned to the U.S. last week. The incident put a spotlight on violence that continues to happen in a country that attracted more than 33 million international tourists last year.
The State Department has a do-not-travel advisory (level four—its most severe warning) in place for six of Mexico’s 32 states, including Tamaulipas, where Matamoros is located. Seven states, including Guanajuato, where the Unesco World Heritage site of San Miguel de Allende is located, have level-three warnings, which advises Americans to reconsider travel due to local crime and/or the possibility of kidnapping.
Although Baja California Norte is also listed as level three—worth noting for anyone who plans to drive from the U.S. down to destinations on the peninsula, including the Pacific surfing mecca of Ensenada (85 miles south of San Diego)—the southern Baja area of Los Cabos is listed as level two (exercise increased caution).
Jalisco, home to Puerto Vallarta and the nearby Riviera Nayarit, is also listed as level three, because the state is the center of operations for a cartel, although most violence here has occurred in the countryside, far from the gated Punta Mita community and the nearby surf town of Sayulita.
In greater Cancún, a frequented destination in the Caribbean-adjacent state of Quintana Roo, a level-two advisory warns of potential crime and kidnapping. This is also the case for Mexico City.
Zachary Rabinor, founder of the travel company Journey Mexico, says that Matamoros is a town known for drug-related gang violence, not as a vacation getaway, and that the State Department has long upheld its do-not-travel warning for the state of Tamaulipas. “Those Americans were not intended targets, but rather caught in the wrong place at the wrong time between two rival groups’ crossfire,” he says.
How Travelers and Tourism Experts Are Looking at Trips to Mexico
Although the recent tragedy occurred far from tourist areas—more than 1,000 miles from Los Cabos, in western Mexico, or Cancún, on the Caribbean coast—it still has some people spooked. Maureen Poschman, who owns a PR firm in Aspen, Colorado, has plans to go to Baja California Sur’s East Cape with her husband and two 17-year-old daughters over spring break and says she’s received worried calls from her mother and concerned texts from her neighbor in light of the news. But she has no intention of canceling. “Mexico is a big country,” she says. “And I always think you’re safer to travel right after some kind of incident. Security is heightened, and chances of another incident so soon are slim.”
Mexico is huge—it’s the 13th largest country in the world in terms of landmass—and can’t be generalized, says Rabinor. To help travelers answer the question of “Is Mexico Safe?,” his team created a comprehensive map, below, and state-by-state analysis of State Department advisories and where there are minimal travel restrictions, which include almost all major tourist areas.
Jacquelyn Sonner of Carmel Valley, California, intends to spend her spring break in San Miguel de Allende with her husband and two children, ages five and eight. The Pilates instructor rationalizes that despite the area’s level-three travel warning, travelers will be safe if they avoid being out after midnight and aren’t there to seek, sell, or consume drugs.
Pierre de Hail, the president of Janus Group Mexico, a risk-management company in Monterrey, Mexico, says he still cautions foreign travelers ahead of visits, even to seemingly safe tourist destinations. “There is a lot of corruption here,” he says. “Everyone is up for sale in Mexico—police, judges—so if you do get into trouble, don’t expect a fair shot.”
More recently, in January, the State Department cautioned tourists against taking app-based ride-share services like Uber in Quintana Roo, where Cancún and Tulum are located, amid a series of incidents where medallion taxi drivers were harassing, and in some cases attacking, ride-share drivers and travelers.
What a Recent Uptick in Crime Means for Costa Rica Travel
Costa Rica, on the other hand, has long been considered one of the safest, most family-friendly countries in Central America. However, on March 1, the U.S. Embassy issued a new security alert, citing “increasing levels of crime, particularly violent crime, in Costa Rica and specifically San José,” the nation’s capital. Despite the heightened alert, as of press time, the State Department still categorizes Costa Rica as level two—the same travel advisory it’s had in place since October 2, 2022. (For perspective, classic tourism destinations like France, Italy, the Bahamas, and Belize are also considered level two.)
Javier Echecopar, cofounder of the travel-specialist company Journey Costa Rica, believes the recent alert is specific to cities like San José and Limón, places most tourists don’t visit. “People come to Costa Rica to be in nature,” he says. “Most travelers fly into and out of San José, then head straight to the rainforests and beaches, which are as safe as ever.”
Hans Pfister, president of the Cayuga Collection, a group of sustainable hotels that has six locations in Costa Rica, says you can’t compare Mexico and Costa Rica when it comes to safety of travel. “Costa Rica is probably a lot safer than many U.S. cities at this point, says Pfister, who lives in San José. “The problem that I see is many tourists that come here get careless and just think, Pura vida,” he says, referring to the country’s unofficial slogan, which loosely translates to “living life to the fullest.” “They don’t even take the slightest precautions, as they would at home. One has to be smart.”
Nikki Warren, who works for an insurance brokerage firm in Denver, was in San José del Cabo, Mexico, in December with her family and says she felt safer there then she does in the Colorado capital’s downtown. She plans to return with her husband and two kids, ages eleven and seven, for spring break, and next week she’s traveling solo to Tamarindo, Costa Rica, for a wellness retreat.
“Costa Rica has been on my bucket list for years,” she says, noting she’s not at all daunted by the travel advisory. “You have to take the media headlines with a grain of salt and do your own due diligence.” Warren did online research about the safety of the area to confirm it had a low crime rate for incidents like pickpockets. “It all comes down to common sense,” she says. “Don’t leave your wallet on the beach while surfing, don’t leave your purse on the restaurant table if you use the restroom—all of the precautions you’d exercise at home.”
How to Be a Smart Traveler
Jenny Clise, a San Francisco–based yoga teacher, has either led or attended retreats in countries currently under travel advisories, such as Nicaragua, Sri Lanka, and Costa Rica. “A level-two warning, to me, is not cause for canceling travel plans but a call for deeper preparation,” she says. “If you do not have a local travel partner, I suggest sourcing a local contact from where you’re planning on staying who can either act as a guide or offer advice toward your travel plans.”
She also finds it helpful to familiarize herself with the culture and customs of a destination, she attempts to respect dress codes and learn basic phrases, and she always shares her travel plans with a friend or family or even the hotel receptionist.
“Whenever I think of the fear that people have about traveling to parts unknown, I am reminded of the time a local from Nicaragua expressed his fear to me of traveling to the United States,” she says. “It really opened my eyes to how limited my perspective on travel and safety is. My home is also a foreign place to other people and not always a safe place.”
“The problem that I see is many tourists that come here get careless. They don’t even take the slightest precautions, as they would at home. One has to be smart.”
De Hail of Janus Group Mexico recommends easing your fears by buying travel insurance in case of a medical emergency or theft. He also suggests making photocopies of your passport and leaving one with a family or friend at home. And when you’re in your hotel, leave your passport there in a safe place and take a copy of your passport out with you instead. (You never know when you’ll be asked to see it by an official, and if your wallet or purse is stolen, you can breathe easier knowing your actual passport wasn’t taken and you can still get home.)
Out on the streets, don’t flash around money, fancy watches, or jewelry, De Hail advises. Some travelers go so far as to carry two wallets—one with expired credit cards and small bills, so on the off chance you get mugged, you can hand over that one.
When it comes to accommodations, avoid remote Airbnbs that lack security or neighbors. If you’re staying in a hotel, ask staff about security protocols and also whether it’s safe to take an Uber or a taxi, says De Hail. (You can also book a transfer through your hotel or a trusted travel company.) Avoid staying out late, especially alone, and ask a friend to keep an eye on your drink if you’re at a bar. Finally, if you’re someplace where a situation doesn’t feel right, get out. “No one ever dies of shame,” he says.
The bottom line, when it comes to any travel, is that you feel eager and excited for your trip—not worried. If you’re not feeling comfortable about your spring-break plans, and truly are on the fence, consider rescheduling or choosing an alternative destination. “Vacation should be fun,” says Zachary Rabinor of Journey Mexico. “Comfort levels are very personal. Vacation isn’t the time to push your limits and be feeling nervous. You want to be able to relax.”