Part 1: Before You Go
Mexico is a must-see travel destination that boasts of diverse attractions like pristine beaches, ancient archeological sites, and charming colonial cities. Blessed with a temperate climate and teeming with rich culture, Mexico wins the hearts of visitors by offering a unique blend of nature, history and culture at dollar-friendly prices. Despite its location just below the American border, Mexico is an altogether different culture compared to the United States or Canada. Because it is so different, many visitors have some apprehensions about traveling to Mexico.
These fears are unfounded. Mexico is by and large a safe place to travel. While it’s true that Mexico has its share of public violence, these crimes are mostly drug related and concentrated in a few areas close to the border like Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, and visitors are not targets. Ninety-five percent of Mexico is as safe as ninety-five percent of the USA or Canada. In fact, Mexico is consistently among the top 10 most visited countries in the world, attracting more than 20 million foreigners annually. Mexico could not possibly attract so many visitors if their safety was at risk. This is not to say, however, that all the tourist spots in Mexico are completely crime-free. Like any other travel destination, unsuspecting tourists in Mexico may fall prey to petty crimes unless basic travel safety precautions are taken.
One of the most enjoyable and safest ways to see Mexico is visiting the quaint Mexican towns located in the center heartland. Compared to the Mexican coastlines that are teeming with tourists, these off-the-beaten-track vacation spots offer an authentic Mexican experience without the tourist crowds, the tourist price tags, and the petty criminals out to take advantage of unsuspecting tourists. One such example of romantic “old Mexico” is Guanajuato. Guanajuato is a charming, hilly city of Spanish colonial architecture and atmosphere. This picturesque city began as a silver mining camp, but is now dotted with colorful houses, asymmetrical buildings, pedestrian alleyways, narrow passageways, underground tunnels, courtyards, museums, art galleries, churches, and cafes along cobblestone streets. Still an undiscovered jewel for foreign tourists, Guanajuato is a very popular weekend getaway among locals from other Mexican cities. In 1988, Guanajuato was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so visitors, Mexican or foreign, will always be able to enjoy its preserved architecture and cultural heritage. Guanajuato is a safe city, and its residents are very friendly to visitors.
But for the super paranoid among you, before you cross the border en route to Guanajuato, use these travel safety tips to help make your Mexican vacation safe and worry-free.
- Two fundamental principle of safe travel are: Protect your identification documents and your money. You can recover from just about any situation or emergency if you have your passport, visa, and cash or credit cards. The tips below explain how to do this.
- Always behave prudently – be courteous, stay healthy and absolutely refrain from drug use and excess alcohol. Avoid questionable locations, and keep your vices at home.
- Plan your trip. The best trips always start with proper planning. The web is full of helpful information on your chosen destination. You can check everything from the kind of weather to expect, recommended lodging, must-try foods, places to see and avoid, special events, even the prices of products and services. Armed with this information, you can create the best itinerary and prepare everything you need to make that trip both enjoyable and safe.
- Choose a reputable lodging. Using review websites like Tripadvisor, select establishments with good ratings from past travelers, especially with regard to personal service and security. Don’t limit your choice to the big, brand-name hotel chains. More often, the smaller inns, B&Bs, and vacation rentals are better options since they provide personalized service and attention from the hosts. Your hosts will look after you and can offer ready advice and assistance in case something goes awry. Reserve your lodging at the earliest possible time – the best accommodations are the first to be fully booked.
- Travel light. Pack only what is essential. In the event of an emergency, lighter bags allow you a greater ease of movement. Leave expensive jewelry and valuables at home, including your laptop, as cyber-cafes are widely available throughout Mexico. Take a “beater” camera that won’t identify you as a tourist or present a temptation to a snatch-and-run artist. The less you bring, the less you are at risk of losing to travel damages, loss or theft.
- Back up your travel documents. Make 2 photocopies of your passports, plane tickets, credit cards, IDs, itineraries, lodging contact info, emergency numbers, etc. Leave one set with a trusted person at home, and bring the other set with you, packed separately from the original documents. Or scan these documents and email them to yourself. These backup copies will be essential in case you lose the original documents. If you take medication, remember to bring a copy of your prescriptions.
- Split your cash, ATM cards, and credit cards into two sets. Jot down the international phone numbers of your credit cards and banks. The 800 toll- free numbers used in the US do not work in Mexico. Using slim, on-body money belts (under clothing) is a great way to keep your money safe but handy.
- Check insurance coverage. If you can afford it, opt to get travel health insurance. If you have existing health insurance, make sure that your destination is covered. You will also want to list the accredited medical institutions in your destination. If you are taking a car to Mexico, you need Mexican car insurance, which you can easily get online or in border towns.
- Learn some basic Spanish phrases. You’ll need to be able to ask for the locations of bathrooms, and know how to ask for medical and police assistance in the case of emergencies.
- Activate your mobile phone for international use. If that’s not possible, purchase a prepaid calling card. Ensure that you can call home or to any emergency number whenever you need to. Conversely, ensure that you can be reached by phone so you can be notified of problems back home.
- For the super paranoid, you may opt to register your itinerary with your country’s embassy in Mexico. This can be easily done online and this will provide another means of contact with folks back home, in the event of emergencies in either country.
Follow these safety guidelines before you leave and use sensible judgment throughout your trip. A smart traveler is a safe traveler.