This article was commissioned by the Hub Oaxaca in an effort to help inform participants of the Impact Hub Gathering and was written with a focus on Oaxaca.
When I tell people that I live in Mexico, I brace myself for the inevitable questions, “Isn’t it really dangerous there?” “Is it really as bad as the news reports say?” “Aren’t you going to get kidnapped and beheaded living there?”
Although I have heard the questions about safety in Mexico a thousand times, I understand why, the news all over the world coming out of Mexico is pretty grim.
I have always been careful with my response to questions about Mexico’s safety and have until now, shied away from writing about it, because I have a responsibility to my readers to tell it how it is and because I don’t want to minimize what is happening here. I have read so many articles claiming such things as “the only danger here is that you might not want to leave” or “you might get hit by a falling coconut” and I don’t want to insult my reader’s intelligence with such claims. The thing I have realised, however is that despite the complexity of the situation and the fact that Mexico is dealing with some serious violence, in my day to day life I feel safer (not to mention, happier) here than I often felt in my home city of London.
It’s All Relative
Let’s look back. I first visited Mexico in 2005. Whilst in a hostel Los Angeles, planning my trip to Mexico, I was told by numerous people that I shouldn’t go alone to Mexico, that it was far too dangerous. Thankfully for me, I had youth and stubbornness on my side and I ignored them, flew down to Mexico and felt an immediate sense of being home and being safe, something that I was far from feeling at the shady hostel in L.A. I traveled throughout the country for five months and not one bad thing befell me (apart from having my camera stolen at a bar). I arrived home to London and was caught up in the London Underground bombings. Thankfully I was not physically hurt, but I guess what I am saying is, things are relative. Bad things happen everywhere, even in your hometown.
Violence Under the Surface?
The thing with drug–related violence is that generally if you are not caught up in that world it doesn’t affect you and this is even more the case if you are just visiting Mexico for a week or two. There’s drug and gang related violence in London (albeit on a smaller scale) but I could go my whole life without being affected by it because I am not in that world. Of course there are knock-on effects, but your average tourists are not going to even notice them.
Additionally, where you visit in Mexico is important. Mexico is huge! The common argument therefore, is that if a mass shooting happened in Detroit, Michigan would that stop you from going to Santa Cruz, California? Probably not, right? So similarly there is no reason that violence happening in Mexico/US border towns (and a few other states) should stop you from coming to Oaxaca in the South of the country. I must also mention here that I have readers who live in the border towns that feel extremely safe too, but that is not within my frame of expertise to comment.
Oaxaca is a small city, surrounded by mountains, full of cobbled streets and colonial architecture. It has a bustling art scene and amazingly interesting and exciting civil society and a large indigenous population. It is a fascinating and inspiring place to live and my goodness the skies (day and night) are something to behold. As I write, I am sitting in a coffee shop, listening to blues and sipping on a cappuccino. Sure, I wouldn’t walk home alone at night after eleven and I wouldn’t head to the big bustling market in the south of the city with tons of valuables on me, but I wouldn’t do that in London either. I moved here on my own three years ago and I still love it and so do all the tourists who flock here!
Although I don’t really trust statistics telling me about safety and crime rates (there are too many variables and I prefer to get a local opinion) it is interesting to note that only 1% of crime in Mexico is crime against tourists and on top of that last year’s air-arrivals (read: tourists who arrive by plane) was up by 7.2% compared to a global average of 5.2%.
If you are a fan of statistics, here are some more relating to safety and violence in Mexico from a whole website dedicated to the topic.
Don’t Just Take My Word For It
I’m also not a huge fan of the U.S State Department Advisory warnings, but if you imagine that their job is to look for even the smallest possibility that somewhere may be unsafe, then knowing that they have no advisory in effect against travelling to Oaxaca, should put minds at ease. Additionally, one third of all Mexico’s states have no advisory warning in place.
Following my earlier comment about getting local advice on the safety of a place, I looked for quotes from other writers about Mexico and I asked my followers of Facebook and Twitter to let me know what they thought about safety here. I was inundated with positive comments and here are just a few, so you don’t just need to take my word for it!
“Travel in Mexico should be treated like travelling in any other country. Talk to locals, listen to their advice on where to go and not go. Follow your gut. Be aware, but not freaking paranoid. It’s all standard travel advice” Pamela MacNaughtan Savoir Faire Abroad
“Despite the obvious political and social conflicts that my dear Mexico is facing, I can say that Mexican people want to defend their way of living. Those…traditions, habits and customs that make us some of the happiest people on Earth. There is violence, yes, there is corruption from the government, yes, there is poverty, yes…But there are also millions of people that embrace life day by day, that wake up every morning with the feeling that something good will happen, that today “is the day”. Early in the morning, people sweep their sidewalks, go to the market, send kids to school…Kids play, make friends, laugh and haven’t lost their ability to marvel at life…young people strive, fall in love, party, go out on a Friday night, dream and work for a better Mexico in their small daily lives.” Sahara Mercado Cassidy
“Lived in a small fishing town on the Riviera Maya, I found that like in most places, trouble sits behind your shoulder. If you live quietly, peacefully, you don’t invite it, generally it won’t find you. Yet it will always be right there at your shoulder if you look for it” Rosemary Binks-Carvalho
“I’ve lived in 3 different Mexican states and have traveled to over half of them (all as a young, solo female I might add); never once can I recall feeling at danger. Violence can happen anywhere you go, ANYWHERE in the world, but with a positive attitude and the right mind-set, most likely trouble won’t find you. Safety in Mexico was not even a top 10 concern of mine when deciding to move to Mexico. After being surrounded by… Mexican people who have accepted me into their community, I have no plans on moving back to the USA anytime soon!” Jessica Seba, Mexican at Heart
“I live in Alamos, Sonora. I not only feel safe, but nurtured!” Nancy Swickard
“We have lived here [Oaxaca] 9 years and I feel very safe, yet like all places there are some places I wouldn’t go late if at all. A few years ago I was walking in the Centro and I hit my head – it was bleeding and within 2 minutes 2 separate women came up to help. They helped me get a taxi – rode with me to my house and helped me into the house. One woman was a nurse and she stayed and looked at it to see if I needed a doctor. My daughter has stayed with us off and on and she often goes out with friends late and they take taxis home and feel very safe” Teri Gunderson
“I’ve driven thousands of miles all around 15 southern Mexico states and never encountered anything but love and welcoming people. I feel every bit as safe driving in Mexico as I do driving in California” Jim Van Matre
Lastly, I would like to quote one of my favourite authors, Chimamanda Adichie, who said “When we reject a single story, when we realise there is never a single story about a place, we regain a kind of paradise!” Mexico is not just the drugs war, nor just the white sandy beaches and cocktails, there is no one single story that can be told about Mexico.
Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist. Her work has been featured in Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel, BBC Travel, The Independent UK, Afar and The New Worlder among others. Check out her portfolio here. Contact Susannah by email, info [at] mexicoretold [dot] com and join her on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.