Is Mexico Safe? I’ll let you decide.
“Is Mexico safe?” was by far the most asked question before embarking on this trip. Be it from friends, family or even other avid travellers. Let me answer you with a story, one which you should read til the end before making up your mind.
PRO TIP: If you’re planning to travel in Mexico, be it on a budget or on a luxury tour, I can’t emphasise enough how important it is to have decent travel insurance – especially if you plan to tour by bike or scooter. I always use World Nomads, as they’re known as the best insurer for backpackers and long term travellers.
You could say I am a very lucky traveller. Over a decade of travel and I have never been robbed, never been hurt. Well, not badly anyway. Some of my followers who read my “Worst Travel Moments of 2016” post thought I might well be the unluckiest traveler in the world – thanks to a few incidents that landed me in hospital, a dental clinic or sitting on a toilet for days on end! In reality, however, 2016 was one of the best years of my life and I would change nothing.
There are always two sides to every story, as they say, and when I look back at the last few months a little closer, I have concluded I am most definitely a very lucky traveler. Rewind to November Just days after Ian and I left Egypt and flew to Cape Town, a bomb went off in Cairo. Outside a large church in the city that we had visited days earlier. We were also supposed to travel to Turkey for a conference, with the intention of staying on for a few weeks to explore Istanbul and Cappadocia. As we followed the blasts and shootings in Istanbul from the safety of our hostel in Cape Town, I think we were in a way glad we didn’t venture there.
Due to a lot of stress over visas, we ended up cutting our Cork to Cape Town trip short, skipping Sudan and a few other Central and East African countries. It seems that might have been a wise choice, for Ian in particular, now that the Trump administration is changing laws every direction I look, and even banning immigrants from that particular nation from returning to America. There might have been a few tough questions put to Ian if they saw that visa in his passport and if I had gone I would have a lot more difficulty entering America.
On January 7th this year I landed in Cancun, Mexico. I had only booked my flight 2 weeks previously, exactly one week after arriving home in Ireland from a four-month trip across Europe and Africa. Itchy feet does not even begin to explain how I feel when I try to stay put in a place for longer than a few days. I had absolutely no plan, except to see as much of this beautiful country as possible, a mission I am definitely succeeding in so far.
Just over one week into our trip, I was given a reality to check. 24 hours after leaving the party-central resort town of Playa Del Carmen, there was a fatal shooting at the BPM Music Festival that was being hosted there. A gunman killed 5 people right there in the night club on the same beach we had walked down two nights previously. They say it was over drugs, which seems to be the root of so many problems here in Mexico. Less than 24 hours later, there was another shooting in nearby Cancun. Luckily, again, we were travelling in the opposite direction so none of this affected us. Lucky for us, devastating for anyone who was there and of course the friends and family of everyone affected.
If you are reading this from the comfort of your home in Ireland or the United States, thinking “Well, that’s Mexico getting scratched off my Bucket List!” but I beg you to read a little further before making such hasty life decisions.
Getting robbed on my birthday
January 26th, was my 31st birthday. I woke up in a beautiful hotel in Tulum and spent the morning travelling back to Cancun with my travel buddy Emily to stay in another luxury resort. Living the life, you might say. I was excited to spend my birthday lounging by the pool, eating cake and helping myself to the mini-bar. It was all-inclusive after all!
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That was until disaster struck. On arrival at the Beach Palace, I opened my wallet to pay the taxi only to realise all my money was missing. At first I wondered had I misplaced it. But then the horror of what actually happened dawned on me. Not only was all my cash gone, including the emergency €200 I keep in a small zip pocket in my wallet, but my debit cards, credit cards and even my Nando’s Card had been stolen. First came the difficult creating, then came the panic, then came the tears. I quickly searched to see if my laptop, phone, drone or camera had been taken and was relieved to find them all just where I left them.
Some time in the two-hour bus journey from Tulum to Cancun, the guy in the seat behind me and somehow slipped his hand forward or my bag back (it was safely lodged between my feet in front of my seat), opened my bag and took out all my cash and cards. The only thing left in my wallet when I opened it was my passport and driving licence. Silver lining you might say.
I rushed into the hotel to call my bank (and my parents who always know what to do in these situations!) to cancel all my cards ASAP. In the short 15 minutes since getting off the bus and discovering I had been robbed, the thief had emptied my bank account. As he did not have my pin he could not take out cash, so he physically had to go around Cancun BUYING THINGS with my stolen cards. Turns out they went to 5 separate gas stations, making purchases ranging from €26 to €870 at a time. My guess would be that he was buying gas (petrol to you Irish!) as there is a crisis in Mexico at the moment and they keep increasing the gas prices, an issue that has caused widespread protests across the country.
Getting robbed on my birthday sucked. Having all my cash, all my birthday money and my entire bank account emptied felt like someone ripping me apart. I was devastated but I was also thankful. Thankful Emily and i were not robbed at gun point. Thankful they didn’t take my passport to my laptop. Thankful because it really could have been way worse.
So, what have I learned from this experience that can help others from travelling a little smarter? First of all, you should accept that when you travel shit happens. You CANNOT avoid all danger and you certainly can’t avoid it by not going to certain countries. I had my valuables with me, in a small backpack, placed between my feet. I fell asleep for an hour, which is most likely when the theft occurred. I can’t exactly tell you to never fall asleep on bus journeys, because that would be outright impossible for most travellers.
Safety advice for travellers in Mexico
The only solid advice I can give you, and myself, is the following: Keep some spare cash in your pocket, or your big backpack such as inside your wash bag for emergencies. It’s also a good idea to always travel with two bank cards and keep them in separate bags. One thing I heard of is sewing a secret pocket into the inside of your backpack to keep such valuables – an ingenious idea which I must try myself. At the end of the day, if you are ever in a situation where you are at risk, just hand over your valuables. Your life is worth more than that. Also, make sure you go straight to the nearest police station to get a police report. This must be done within 24 hours and will be needed by both your bank and travel insurance company to make a claim.
Finally, check the small print of your travel insurance before deciding on which policy to purchase. Certain backpacker policies might only cover up to €300 for cash losses and up to €500 for loss of valuables – that’s not going to get you very far if your new Macbook Air is robbed. And if you don’t have travel insurance, you really are crazy. I mean it. Stop reading my blog right now as I think anyone who leaves their home country without travel insurance is plain mad.
The good news? Less than a week since reporting the theft my bank has refunded all stolen money into my account, minus a €75 fee for the fraud. Unsure why I am getting charged for this, but i’m still delighted to have a healthy bank balance again. Fingers crossed my travel insurance will pull through and refund me the stolen cash. I also had a birthday do-over the day after my real birthday, and our hotel gave me not one but TWO birthday cakes and upgrade us to a room with an ocean view to make up for the stress of it all! I also found out that I won Digital Media Journalist Of The Year at the Travel Extra Awards in Dublin – an award definitely worth celebrating with champagne (see photo above)! When life gives you lemons, grab some tequila and salt and have yourself a party. 😉
Let me leave you with this. Despite getting robbed, despite travelling in an area that drug-related shootings seem like an almost regular occurence, I still feel very safe here in Mexico. None of this will stop me from continuing to travel through the other provinces and I can’t wait to share with you all the amazing places we have visited so far. Is Mexico safe? It’s no less safe than any other country I’ve travelled in and it is also far more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. The people make me laugh and smile every day plus I’ll have to write a whole separate article about the food here. Mmmmmm the food.