I Traveled To Mexico And Came Back Alive

Two weeks ago I did something absolutely crazy. I packed a bag, got on a plane, and spent an entire week traveling in Mexico.

GASP! The horrors! Haven’t you heard? Mexico is dangerous! It isn’t safe to travel there anymore. Go somewhere else – anywhere but Mexico. There be dragons out there…

One of the hottest topics in North American travel at the moment, the question of whether or not you should travel to Mexico has been hotly circulating about Gadling for the better part of six months now.

Chris Owen in February posted an article about 22 cruise ship passengers in Mexico who were recently robbed at gunpoint. As he states in the article, however, this also recently happened in St. Kitts, and I haven’t heard many cries for avoiding the small Caribbean nation.

Fellow Gadling blogger Dave Seminara even went so far in a recent article to highlight the point that the homicide rate in Puerto Vallarta (where the gunpoint, cruise robbery took place) is actually lower than many American cities.

Nevertheless, I feel compelled to rehash this topic due to a recent conversation I had with a Canadian woman on a sailing catamaran in Maui. This, and the fact that I just spent an entire week in Mexico and managed to come back alive.While sailing in Maui I found myself discussing with a woman – who we shall call Carol – the recent addition of direct flights from Calgary to Maui by the Canadian airline carrier Westjet. To be fair, Mexico’s recent bust has been Hawaii’s recent boom, given the fact that many winter travelers who once frequented Mexico are now flocking in droves to what are considered to be “safer havens.”

“Everyone is coming to Maui now because you simply can’t go to Mexico anymore,” explained Carol. “Did you hear what just happened down there? A girl was mugged INSIDE of her hotel and was robbed! Can you imagine? Inside the resort!”

Then, with a squinting of the eyes and a lean towards my body she whispered in a seemingly prophetic tone, “it simply isn’t safe to travel to Mexico anymore.”

I bit my lip in reaction to her crowdsourced ignorance. Later that day, I opted to take 16 seconds of my life to look up the armed robbery statistics for the city of Calgary for the first quarter of 2012.

The result? Eighty-seven reported robberies in the first three months of the year, an increase of 19 percent from the same time period in 2011.

While I could rattle statistics off from a slew of different sources, the bottom line and the main point which needs to be made is that traveling to Mexico is no more dangerous than living in any major global city. Of the 60 countries I’ve wandered through and after 20+ visits to Mexico, you know where I’ve felt the most in danger (including when I thought I was kidnapped in Borneo)?

When I got lost on the south side of Chicago.

Also, Carol, there are a few travel safety basics, which need to be employed when traveling anywhere in the world with a much lower income level than we experience back home. Don’t flaunt expensive jewelry, don’t hang a $3000 Canon camera around your neck and don’t pay for a $1 bottle of water and flash a wallet, which is teeming with $100 bills. Chances are, you’re asking to be robbed. This isn’t called travel safety; this is called common sense.

You know where else people get robbed of expensive cameras, by the way? Maui (usually via car break-ins).

Sure, there are a lot of crazy headlines coming out of Mexico right now, such as rampant beheadings, mass graves and guys who mix corpses in huge vats of acid. But guess what? These people aren’t tourists; they’re drug lords. If you’re someone who’s heavily entrenched in the cocaine and marijuana trade then yeah, it might be dangerous for you to travel to Mexico right now. If you just want to go down and score some waves, soak up some sun, or experience the vibrant local culture, however, chances are that you’re going to be fine.

So why am I so fired up about this? Because what many headlines unfortunately fail to display is that the real, true victims of the Mexican violence are the peace-loving, everyday Mexican citizens who rely on tourism dollars to survive.

I have stood on the sandy shores of a campground on the Sea of Cortez and literally had a woman weep at my feet, thanking me for deciding to come and visit Mexico. Ever since the violence started, she claimed, the tourist business has completely dried up and her and her family are liable to lose their business, their house and their land because Americans who once came for the great fishing and cheap beer now go elsewhere because it’s “safer.”

I ask you, Carol, which one is worse? Having your camera taken from you, or having your house taken from you?

So, yes, I just traveled to Mexico for a week, and here is a rundown of what happened:

I ate fish tacos and lobster tails on the shores of an empty beach while drinking $1 beers after a day of surfing perfect, empty waves. I had long conversations with local people who smile and are friendly and are genuinely interested in what I have to say. I shopped at local supermarkets. I stayed in a $20/night guesthouse on the beach, not a fancy resort with a security guard. I hired a fishing boat. I entrusted my life to Mexican taxi drivers who took me exactly where I needed to go.

I wasn’t beheaded, and I wasn’t robbed. I traveled to Mexico and I came back alive.

Culinary Cab Confessions: The Search For Tacos And ‘Authenticity’ In Mexico

Culinary Cab Confessions: The search for tacos and The first taxi driver I met in Puerto Vallarta had other plans for me. “You want to go to peliculas?” he asked, looking at me through the rearview mirror. I didn’t particularly want to go to a movie. Especially not the kind he had in mind. “It’s a good movie,” he said in Spanish and then laughed in the way that would have required him to rub his hands together if they weren’t occupied with dodging pedestrians and dogs, as we tore through the streets of this seaside Mexican town.

“Okay,” he said. “Chica? You want a chica?”

“No,” I said. “I already told you. Quiero comer.” I want to eat.

And just then, he poked his head out the window at a short-skirt-wearing, twenty-something female standing on the sidewalk and said “Yo quiero un taco!” and laughed again. He jilted his head back at me and said, “Que una pussy!”

I was hoping to do another installment of my Culinary Cab Confessions in which I test the theory that taxi drivers are a knowledge repository of the best (and cheapest) places to eat, the out-of-the-way gems that you just don’t stumble across. Except this rotund, randy cab driver I was currently with was a knowledge stockroom of other carnal pleasures. Just not the kind I was seeking. I grew up in southern California where Mexican cuisine has become something of a default comfort food. Having lived in good-Mexican-food-deprived New York City for the last nine years, I relish the moments when I’m in a place that has good Mexican food (like, say, Mexico, for example). I just had to find a cab driver who would show me the right place.

When I arrived in this city of 250,000 I immediately had jumped in a cab and pointed it toward the old town. The driver recommended I eat at El Moreno, a taco stand in the Zona Romantico, the cobblestone-street-and-tourist-laden part of town. I found El Moreno, and then I found another taco cart. And another. Two hours later, I had eaten octopus tacos, steamed marlin tacos, several variations on the theme of pork tacos, and unidentified fish tacos. I swore by the time I left I’d be encased in tortilla shell myself. Some of the tacos were good. Some were excellent. All included a requisite gringo or two eating with me.

There were several questions that were nagging at me: Where could I go in town with fewer gringos? Did it really matter? Would my experience be more “authentic” if I were the only non-local? I asked the concierge at my hotel (about where I could eat without encountering other tourists). “No,” she said, shaking her head at me. And then another question arose: was I just being a culinary traveling snob?

“These places don’t exist,” said the concierge when I repeated the question on where I could find good tacos in a gringo-less environment. “We go to the same places the gringos go.” Or, rather, gringos go the same places the locals go. Still, I persisted. There had to be a taqueria-crammed neighborhood that tourists don’t venture to. “No, no, no,” she said. I sighed and walked away.
And then I got in a cab. I explained to the driver what I wanted and he knew immediately where to take me. La Aurora, a neighborhood that was about 10 minutes away.
He let me off at Universo, a street-plaza that was lined with food carts. There were carnitas tacos, porklicious tortas and a guy making Frisbee-sized hamburgers. (I’m not exaggerating.) I settled in at Taqueria Don Roque and ordered the house specialty: the al pastor tacos, the meat of which was shaved off of a huge hunk, like at a shwarma joint. The spicy pork in the tacos was intermingled with chunks of pineapple, an additional taste stratum that I very much appreciated. I ordered two more.
There was a fat man lounging in front of a grill on the corner of the intersection across the street. I wandered over and realized my presence had just roused him out of a sleep. He said he was from Michoacan and was selling a typical snack of his home region: roasted chickpeas. I bought a bag and strolled around the plaza gawking at what to eat next. The chickpeas were still in their encasing, making eating them a tad difficult but worth every juicy chickpea stream that was running down my forearm. I still had no answers to my questions about travel and the “authentic” experience some of us seek. I did, though, have one answer: I’d found the place I was looking for.

Crime in Mexico: Is Puerto Vallarta unsafe for travelers?

My colleague Chris Owen has raised some good points about crime in Mexico in his piece on Saturday about the bus full of tourists who were recently robbed at gunpoint near Puerto Vallarta (PV), but as someone who has visited PV three years in a row, 2009-11, I’d like to offer another perspective on this issue.

Early reports of the incident left the impression that the tourists were robbed by a group of armed men in the city of Puerto Vallarta. But those reports were soon corrected to reflect the fact that the incident actually occurred in a remote jungle area well outside the city and involved a lone gunman, not a gang. Those early reports went viral across the Internet and the erroneous stories are likely to leave a lasting impression on Americans considering a trip to this region.

But a look a recent annual homicide rates in medium-sized American cities reveals that some have a higher murder rate than Puerto Vallarta.

Puerto Vallarta– population- 255,725- homicides- 56 (2011) rate per 100,000-21.96
Miami– population- 399,457- homicides- 84 (2010) rate per 100,000- 21.0
Cleveland– population- 396,815- homicides- 88 (2011) – rate per 100,000- 22.2
Oakland– population- 390,724- homicides- 95 (2010) – rate per 100,000- 24.35
St. Louis– population- 319, 294- homicides- 144 (2010) – rate per 100,000- 45.14
New Orleans– population- 343,829- homicides- 199 (2011)- rate per 100,000- 58.0
Orlando– population- 238,300- homicides- 28 (2011)- rate per 100,000- 11.76
Las Vegas- population- 583, 756- homicides- 86 in 2011, 116 in 2010- rate per 100,000- 14.75/19.89
Buffalo– population- 261,310- homicides- 36 in 2011, 55 in 2010- rate per 100,000- 13.79/21.07

The tourists in Puerto Vallarta weren’t harmed, and because murders are often gang or drug related, homicide rates aren’t always an accurate barometer to gauge the overall threat level to tourists. But they do give you a general idea on the level of violent crime in a place.

I disagree with those who argue that bloggers and the mainstream media shouldn’t report incidents of crime in tourist destinations like Puerto Vallarta. Chris is right to report on this and other incidents. But he writes that “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.”

I have to respectfully disagree with the notion that travelers should avoid an entire country, especially a huge one like Mexico, which has 31 states and a population approaching 100 million, based upon one or more individual incidents in specific places. There were 199 homicides in New Orleans last year. Granted, the vast majority of them didn’t involve tourists, but even if they had, would that mean that tourists should also avoid skiing in Vermont, visiting vineyards in Napa or seeing the Grand Canyon? I don’t think so. There are dangerous places in Mexico, but there are also plenty of safe places as well.And Chris obviously knows this as well, as this post about his trip to Mazatlan last October illustrates. His point that visitors should exercise caution is a good one– travelers should always exercise caution in any city, pretty much anywhere in the world. But what does it mean to exercise “extreme caution?”

Does that mean that tourists should remain cloistered inside an all-inclusive resort afraid to go out without a bulletproof vest and a Glock tucked in their waistband? The truth is that you can build an anecdotal case against visiting almost any city in the world by finding examples of crimes that have been committed there. The tourists who were robbed have every right to be angry and I wouldn’t blame them for not wanting to return to Mexico, but their story doesn’t necessarily negate the experiences of millions of other tourists who have traveled to Mexico without incident.

I’ve traveled to Puerto Vallarta and the surrounding region with my wife and two small children three years in a row and we’ve always felt very safe, even at night, even in un-crowded non-touristy areas, like the working class neighborhood of Pitillal. That doesn’t mean that bad things can’t happen there, but I would return in a heartbeat. There is also a huge community of American and Canadian snowbirds in Puerto Vallarta, and all of the long-time winter residents I’ve met there over the last few years have told me that the city is pretty safe.

After noting the recent cruise passenger robbery incident, Owen notes, “crime is nothing new for Puerto Vallarta though.” I don’t think that crime is new for any medium-sized city anywhere in the world. Owen cites the case of a Canadian who was brutally murdered in Puerto Vallarta on May 30, 2011 as further evidence that PV is a dangerous place. But as others have noted, the victim wasn’t a tourist- he lived in PV and operated a business there. Local police indicated that the crime scene seemed to indicate that the victim and perpetrator knew each other.

That doesn’t reduce the impact of the crime but the fact is that violent crimes occur in even the safest of places. The Amanda Knox case, for example, played out in Perugia, a beautiful hill town in Umbria. Would you avoid visiting Umbria or the whole of Italy based upon the murder of one British exchange student?

Obviously the incident involving the Canadian expat and the tour bus robbery aren’t the only crimes that have occurred in Puerto Vallarta and crime there and across Mexico remains a serious problem. But I think it’s a mistake to seize upon a news report here or there and then make broad, sweeping conclusions about the security situation in the entire country.

The fact is that tourists have been robbed in probably every decent sized city in the world at one point or another, including American cities. The difference is that, in large U.S. cities, an armed robbery might not even make the paper if the victim isn’t hurt. When I lived in D.C. (I’m now in the suburbs), I knew two women from my apartment building who were robbed at gunpoint, in separate incidents, coming home at night from the Potomac Avenue metro stop. Neither incident merited even a brief mention in the Washington Post.

Puerto Vallarta’s economy revolves around tourism and Mexican officials are smart enough to know that they’ll need to redouble efforts to prevent crimes like this one from occurring again. In the meantime, travelers who are concerned about violent crime should consider visiting smaller towns, rather than big cities- not just in Mexico but also in many countries around the world.

One place that I highly recommend is San Pancho, a lovely beach community about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta that is about as safe as Mayberry.

Photos taken by Dave Seminara. (1) Beach in PV, 2) the pool at the Westin- Puerto Vallarta and 3) the beach in San Pancho.)

Mexico still not safe says cruise line

Mexico still not safeIn the latest round of bad news for travel to Mexico, Princess Cruises pronounced parts of Mexico still not safe Monday and that they would not be calling on Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlan any time soon. That’s double-bad news for a struggling Mexico that just wrapped up a week-long anti-crime campaign among other efforts to rebuild tourism. Our ongoing coverage continues.

“As the safety and security of our passengers and crew is our highest priority, and based on the continued violence in these areas, we’ve made the decision to cancel our calls to Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan,” Princess spokesperson Karen Candy told USA TODAY.Concerned about violent crime that continues south of the border, the line renewed its objection first voiced in January by canceling calls to Puerto Vallarta and Mazatlan through the end of the year. Princess had only one ship visiting Puerto Vallarta this year, the 2,670-passenger Sapphire Princess, and that ship will miss just three stops. But beyond economic void caused by the 7000 or so passengers that might have gone ashore, the message is clear: Mexico has a long way to go to win back the confidence of cruise lines.

Mexico knows that and has heard the call for safety loud and clear.

Deploying more than 300,000 police officers, Mexico just concluded a week-long anti-crime campaign that resulted in over 3000 arrests and the recovery of 1,258 stolen vehicles.

“The fundamental purpose was to prevent and fight crime, such as vehicle theft, robberies of passengers during transport, kidnappings, recovery of arms and dismantling of criminal gangs, as well as actions intended to ensure compliance with judicial orders” the government said in a statement reports MSN News.

In addition, Mexico tourism officials have been working overtime to paint a picture of a different Mexico, and with good reason. The continuing violent crime in Mexico is isolated to remote areas of the country where tourists would not normally go. That’s important information for travelers that Mexico officials want us to know.

Mazatlan, poster-city for Mexico crime vs cruise ships, could have done without this latest news from Princess Cruises. Many visitors arrive in Mazatlan not via cruise ship but by air with American Airlines recently adding non-stop daily service between Dallas (DFW) and Mazatlan (MZT).

“Tourism is very important to Mazatlan and its residents. The destination plays host to nearly 2 million visitors per year from all over the world and the number has increased steadily for the past five years” said Julio Birrueta, spokesperson for the Mazatlan Tourism Trust.

Crime involving tourists is an ongoing problem in Mexico. Tourism officials have been accused of attempting to minimize the issue. The US Department of State has urged caution visiting Mexico issuing a Travel Warning in September of last year saying “It is imperative that U.S. citizens understand the risks involved in travel to Mexico.”

Risks or not, Mexico remains a popular vacation destination as well as home for many American, British and Canadians who find the cost of living, climate and lifestyle of Mexico attractive.

In our latest coverage of trouble in Mexico we saw that Mexico travel safety kind of depends on who or what we listen to.

On one hand we have the tourism people like Gloria Guevara, Mexico’s secretary of tourism who told who the Miami Herald “We do have a challenge, but Mexico has the equivalent of 2,500 counties. What I tell the travelers is they need to get a map. It would be very helpful for them to understand what cities are involved.” adding “They might have trouble in Juarez; 2,000 miles from there is totally safe. It’s like in the U.S.: If there is an issue in L.A., does that mean that you don’t go to New York? Or if there is an issue in Las Vegas, do you not go to Chicago?”

On the other hand, recent news supports the decision made this week by Princess Cruises. Leonard Schell a Canadian father of two was stabbed 25 times in his Puerto Valarta home last month and robbed of about $13,000, bank cards and passports reports CTV.ca. “They cut him from his lip to his throat. It’s terrible, and just to rob money,” Schell’s wife, Elba Ruiz said.

Princess hasn’t canceled Puerto Vallarta calls on sailings beyond the first of next year though. Maybe there’s hope yet for a return in the future.

What do you think? Vote in our poll and leave a comment too.

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Flickr photo by HBarrison


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Mexico Travel: A Day in Melaque

melaque mexicoCocks have been crowing for hours before the sun begins to rise over the village of Melaque on the Pacific coast of Mexico, several hours drive south of Puerto Vallarta. The town lies along a large bay. At the northwest end are steep green hills, studded with rocks. The sea at this end is calm enough for easy swimming and fishing. Further southeast towards Villa Obregon, the surf is rougher and at the southeastern end is Barra de Navidad, where white buildings gleam in the sky. I run down to the beach for a quick dip in the ocean and afterwards come back to my room, drink coffee and munch a bolillo, still warm from the local bakery.

Later I may walk along the beach or on rough cobblestone streets into town. Stores cluster around the central plaza, a large grassy square with benches, a raised bandstand, a fountain decorated with a frieze of dolphins. Next to it is the Church of San Patricio. Most of the small stores are family run and there are always children around – a baby in someone’s lap, a child running in and out from the street, children are everywhere.

Despite the fact that this is the tourist season, the town is still comparatively slow paced. At the corner grocery, a young couple nestle against each other behind the cash register, as they watch a TV novella. The woman rises from her husband’s lap to help me look for candles. In the tiny one-room post office with its home-made curtains, the postmaster waves away my consternation when I realize I don’t have enough money for the postage stamps.

“Bring the money next time,” he says.melaque mexicoAt noon, all the shops are open, as well as restaurants and taco stands. Small restaurants beneath a covered arcade offer tacos and comidas corrientes, or daily specials, accompanied by rice, beans, fresh warm tortillas, and salsa. There are also a number of pelapa restaurants on the beach that serve fresh fish. Around two o’clock almost everything shuts down for “siesta.” The sun glares down on nearly deserted streets until around four or five o’clock, when shops roll open their metal shutters, and the town begins to stir again. At dusk, young boys boogie board in the surf while couples stroll along the beach. By night, the plaza is bustling with life, music, and lights.

People of all ages gather in the plaza-families with small children, older couples, and lots of teenagers. There are many festivals, of which Saint Patrick’s day is the most important. It lasts an entire week in commemoration of the Irish who fought for Mexico during the Mexican-American War. Then the sound of music, fireworks, entertainment will last late into the night.

Despite its festivities the town has a slow rhythm. Buses and trucks lumber slowly along the rutted roads. People have a slower pace, a slower walk. Nothing is hurried or rushed in Melaque. The softness of the air, the sun, the warmth, and the ocean all combine to create more a spacious sense of time along with a sense of clarity.

melaque mexicoACTIVITIES

Melaque is a place to swim, fish, walk, or just hang out and enjoy the sunset over a beer or margarita.

WHEN TO GO

The town comes to life during the tourist season from November through the end of March. The summer is hot and humid, with lightning storms and heavier surf. September is the rainiest month. Christmas and Easter weeks are the most crowded. During the summer, bargain rates can be negotiated at the nearly empty hotels.

WHERE TO STAY

Budget: Hotel Santa Maria, Abel Salgado 85, tel: 315/355-5677; Hotel Hidalgo, Hidalgo 7, tel: 315/355-5045

Mid-range: Hotel Bahia, Legazpi 5, tel: 315/355-6894

Top-end: La Paloma Oceanfront Retreat & Art Center. Reserve well in advance.

WHERE TO EAT

Ayala Calle Carrillo Puerto & Ramon Corona, two blocks from the plaza. Inexpensive, tasty breakfasts and lunches.

Bigotes on the beach near the central malecon. Restaurant and bar. Happy hour.

Cesar y Charly, a few blocks further north on the beach. Wonderful fish dinners.

Flor Morena on the square, open 5 pm – 11 pm. Excellent enchiladas and pozole

Maya, several blocks south of the plaza, offers tapas and wine.

GETTING THERE AND AWAY

Airports: Manzanillo – 20 minute drive to Melaque; Puerto Vallarta – four or five hour drive to Melaque

Bus Stations: Two long distance bus stations, Primera Plus and Cihuatlan, are across the street from Banamex, just a few blocks from the plaza.

Primera Plus runs only one or two buses a day (at ungodly hours) to Puerto Vallarta, but Cihuatlan runs hourly 2nd class buses. There are frequent bus departures for Manzanillo, Colima, and other cities, while a local shuttle runs between Melaque, Barra de Navidad, and surrounding communities.

GETTING AROUND MELAQUE

Walking: The town is so small that for the most part you can get around on foot.
Taxis: There is a taxi stand next to the central plaza and one next to the bus stations.
Local buses go to Barra de Navidad and neighboring towns. They run along Gomez Farias, past Banamex, and make frequent stops.

More information about Melaque, and the Pacific Coast of Mexico and Mexico travel, is available here.

Maria Espinosa is a novelist, poet, and translator. Her publications include three novels, including Longing, which won an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. Read her blog on Red Room.