Cruise lines have stayed away from Mazatlan, Mexico for several years, largely due to concerns the cruise experience might include a visit from a dangerous drug lord. With crime rates down in Mexico, west coast cruise ship itineraries are now retuning to Mazatlan.
Cruise lines had steered away from the port because of safety issues. There was no way that they would endanger the lives of their passengers by dropping them off at an unsafe place. The move was primarily a precaution as drug lord activity was happening far to the north of Mazatlan.
“We understand that travel agents and providers have a duty to inform their customers, but we feel as if we have been unfairly singled out as an unsafe destination,” said Julio Birrueta, spokesperson for the Mazatlan Tourism Trust, according to Caribbean News Digital.
Indeed, I walked the streets of Mazatlan at 3 a.m. with no problem on a recent trip. We explored the area during the Day of the Dead stroll and festivities in 2011, at the height of drug lord mania in the travel world. Held in Mazatlan’s old historic district, the centuries-old tradition, also called All Souls Day, honors those who have died with a Mardi Gras-like walking procession through town.
While Mexico is renowned for its tequilas and mescals, if you’re heading to Mazatlán there is another type of drink you should try: mango distilled spirits. Onilikan, which translates to “the place of liquor,” is a distillery putting their fruit to good use. In fact, they are the first people in Mexico and one of the only in the world fermenting mango to create delectable spirits.
The drink is a combination of local Mexico and foreign European influences. While the fruits are grown in Mazatlán, Onilikan adapts the European liqueur production traditions to extract the mango essence and craft a premium-quality, smooth sipping mango beverage.
So, what’s so special about the mango-infused libation? While distillers have used mango before, it hasn’t been in this manner.
“There are other people processing mango and creating mango wine, or adding mango into rum, tequila, and so on, but not the way we do it,” says Onilikan Sales Director Maria Victoria Campos.
They use a distiller called “Dora the Distiladora.” This is a German-made “pot still” designed to maximize and capture the fruit aromas. It features a heating/evaporation component, which heats the fermented fruit and juice; an aroma collection column, which uses bronze plates to trap the scents from the alcohol; and a condenser, which cools down the gases and turns them back into liquids. While the model is still widely used in Europe to distil alcohol from a variety of fruits, it is the first of its kind to operate in Mexico.
You can get the spirit in two different strengths. The milder one, a sweet sipping liquor, has an alcohol content of 24%, while the other is referred to as Aqua Caliente – fire water – due to an alcohol content of 40%. Along with being used as for cocktails, the mango liqueurs can be used for cooking and making a delicious marinade for fish or chicken.
As spring break draws near, the Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) has issued a warning that advises college students to stay away from Mexico. The warning cites ongoing drug cartel violence as the main reason to avoid going south of the border, but also mentions criminal activity including homicides, gun battles, kidnappings, carjackings, rapes and more.
Popular resort destinations such as Cancun, Acapulco, Mazatlan, Cabo San Lucas and Tijuana are not exempt from the warning, which states these areas “can be havens for drug dealers and petty criminals.” Although the DPS acknowledges that many travel to Mexico without incident and that the Mexican government has made strides battling the cartels, it encourages travelers to carefully research any planned trips and always check the U.S. Department of State website for up-to-date information on security issues in Mexico.
Just a few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of State issued a new Mexico travel warning that advised against nonessential travel to areas within 16 Mexican states. According to U.S. Department of State numbers, 120 U.S. citizens were murdered in Mexico during 2011, a number that has increased dramatically since the tally was at 35 in 2007. All U.S. citizens living or traveling in Mexico are advised to register with the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate.
Crime in Mexico has caused cruise lines to carefully assess whether or not they should be bringing business to the country. Recently, the situation has been improving as narco drug lord activity remains focused in areas where cruise passengers do not travel, and some of the world’s biggest Carnival celebrations ended this week without incident. Nevertheless, twenty-two cruise passengers recently robbed at gunpoint on a normally safe ship-sponsored shore excursion, is causing the travel industry to take another look at safety.
It’s not the first time cruise passengers have been robbed at gunpoint — that also happened in November of 2010 on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts.
“At the time of the robbery, the passengers were traveling to the Brimstone Hill Fortress, a well-visited UNESCO World Heritage Site on the southern Caribbean island,” reported CruiseCritic. The article reports that masked gunmen “put a tree across the road to block the bus.”
On a Celebrity Cruises ship-sponsored tour, the excursion was canceled indefinitely pending the outcome of the investigation. No one was harmed, calls for increased security went out, and law enforcement in St. Kitts pointed to their nearly spotless record of being a safe destination for travelers.
Thursday’s incident happened in Puerto Vallarta, when passengers who came ashore from Carnival Splendor were robbed while on a ship-sponsored tour. Held at gunpoint, they were “stripped of cameras, watches and other valuables they had with them,” reports Informador. Here too, no one was harmed, calls for increased security went out, and the Shore Excursion, a seemingly harmless nature walk, was canceled pending investigation.
“Carnival also apologized to the passengers for the ‘unfortunate and disturbing event’ and said it is working with passengers to reimburse them for lost valuables and assist with lost passports or other forms of identification,” said CruiseCritic.
The incident once again raises questions about the safety of tourists in Mexico, an ongoing matter that concerns not only cruise lines, but hotels, resorts, and pending spring breakers set to go south of the border within the next 30 days.Earlier this month, The U.S. State Department issued a new travel warning for Mexico, superseding last April’s warning. Cartel violence stemming from drug trafficking, specifically, violent struggles among the criminal organizations for control of trafficking routes, has resulted in a rising number of carjacking’s, kidnappings and gun battles throughout Mexico.
“U.S. travelers should be aware that the Mexican government has been engaged in an extensive effort to counter TCOs (Transnational Criminal Organizations) which engage in narcotics trafficking and other unlawful activities throughout Mexico,” said the State Department in the new warning posted on their website.
Though crime is nothing new for Puerto Vallarta. Not quite a year ago, in May of 2011, Leonard Schell, a Canadian father of two, was stabbed 25 times in his Puerto Vallarta home and robbed of about $13,000, bank cards, and passports, as CTV.ca reported. “They cut him from his lip to his throat. It’s terrible, and just to rob money,” said Elba Ruiz, Schell’s wife.
Still, Mexican tourism officials claim they are the victims of an unfair media focus, concentrating on isolated incidents, not typical of what visitors to Mexico commonly experience.
“We believe that these travel alerts are too broad-based and making very blind statements about Mexico that do not reflect the reality,” Lopez-Negrete said at the time.
Really? Tell that to the 22 tourists robbed at gunpoint in Puerto Vallarta this week.
This latest incident of crime involving tourists in Mexico adds yet another legitimate reason for travelers to stay away from Mexico or at least exercise extreme caution when visiting.
Hotel guests and cruise passengers will have added concern as they normally experience a destination through a sponsored tour or excursion, promoted as the safe way to go. Tour operators are said to be vetted by the hotels and cruise lines, implying they are safe to travel with.
Hotel guests get picked up and dropped off at their safe hotel, for the most part without incident. Cruise passengers know that if the locally operated tour runs late, the ship will wait for them. Those going ashore on their own take a risk using unapproved operators. If their tour runs late, the ship will leave without them. But most of those also end with great memories of a beautiful destination they may want to visit again.
It’s a hot-button topic with Gadling readers as well, causing a variety of comments both in support and against travel to and in Mexico.
“It was not the sight of 4 armed guards loading ATM machines that scared us but the fact that we were drugged at our resort and my husband ended up in a Mexican ICU, I can tell you first hand as a nurse, YOU DO NOT WANT to get sick in MEXICO.”
Considered safer than Mazatlan, where cruise lines have abandoned all calls, Puerto Vallarta continues to get ships calling from a number of lines and has a brisk hotel business. But, like the caution they urge about Mazatlan, the U.S. Department of State warns, “You should also exercise caution when traveling at night outside of cities in the remaining portions of this state.”
Readers disagree here too with one commenting:
“Puerto Vallarta is safe!? lmao I was chased back to my hotel by three drunk Mexicans throwing rocks at my head for no reason while I was on vacation. I thought it was safe and this was 6+ years ago.”
Still, many Americans and Canadianstravel to and live in Mexico, without incident. Another reader, a New Yorker who lives in Mexico during the winter, has a different take on safety in Mexico:
“(I have) been coming to Mexico since 1970, never had a problem. Have owned a home in Cozumel for 6 years. My wife and I live here winter and spring, then summer and fall in Upstate NY I’ve told many of my NY friends it’s safer here than going a NY mall on a weekend. If you don’t go looking for trouble it won’t find you. But don’t let the word get out too much, we don’t want our beautiful little island to change.”
It’s a long, ongoing battle between those in favor of travel to Mexico who love the place and those against who urge caution; one not likely to end any time soon.
Crime and danger traveling to Mexico have been widely publicized for a long time. As a result, tourism in Mexico has suffered to the point where even cruise lines have pulled ships from calling at ports that seem safe by all appearances. Still, numbers speak for themselves and according to a study conducted by Citizens Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice, nearly twenty-five percent of the most dangerous cities in the world are in Mexico.
Just this week, MSNBC reported that one person died in drug-related violence every half hour in Mexico last year, amounting to 48 executions per day on average, a sign that the violence surrounding the country’s powerful cartels continues unabated. Still, to a casual observer, Mexico looks like a reasonably safe place to visit or live.
Take a look at the gallery below based on per capita deaths for the surprising results.