Preparing to cross the U.S./Mexican border along a road trip our family of seven was taking from Alaska to Argentina (in a veggie powered truck), the comments and concern for our safety didn’t come as a surprise. We knew what the media was saying, and what was “common knowledge” on the current state of affairs south of the border.
In the minds of many Americans, Mexico was a “lawless, violent, dangerous” country, an “unnecessary risk” – a country that “keeps getting worse.”
We didn’t know what it was really like in Mexico. We had driven the entire Pacific Coast before, on our first road trip from the U.S. to Costa Rica (when our kids were 4, 3, 2 and 2 mos). But that was in 2007. Had things really changed that much?
We suspected that most of it was media hype, but we were also a little curious. Was Mexico more dangerous now than before? Were average citizens living in fear?
Crossing the border once again in October 2011, for four months we traveled from the Arizona border through Chihuahua, Durango, to Guadalajara, Mexico City, Puebla, Oaxaca, Chiapas, and most of the Yucatan Peninsula before crossing into Belize.
What we discovered about Mexico was so far from the rumors, news reports, warnings and “common knowledge” that it was almost comical, if it wasn’t so sadly incorrect.
More than once, we laughed to ourselves about the “danger” in Mexico, as we sent our kids on errands to the local tiendas, walked through the centros at night as families gathered, or watched a sunset while camped in the countryside.
Yes, there are people being killed in Mexico. Yes, there is a drug war going on. Yes, regular precautions should be taken, just as you would if you were taking a trip to the United States for the first time. You probably wouldn’t pick a known gang neighborhood in L.A. as the place you would spend your time.
The same logic applies for visiting Mexico. For the most part, the urban legends just aren’t true, and if you avoid the “bad parts of town,” the result will be a rich, rewarding experience.
Here are a few of the fallacies:
1. Because of the drug war, all of Mexico is unsafe. Don’t risk traveling there, especially with kids.
It’s been our experience as travelers that blanket statements are so inaccurate.
To say that all of Africa is hot, or all of India is dirty, or that all of Mexico is dangerous is an extremely over-generalized statement.
The truth is that every country has a vast diversity of culture, climate, and other variables. Some parts of Africa get cold, even snow. India has immaculately clean locales. Much of Mexico is very, very safe.
This was our experience as we traveled through fields, mountains, farms, cities, and towns. The vast majority of it was completely, entirely, undeniably safe. So safe, that during our time there we never once felt threatened, frightened, or afraid in any way.
2. Tourists are being targeted and killed, even in the “safe” areas. Anyone could get caught in the crossfire, even your children.
There have been accounts of tourists being killed as a supposed by product of the drug war.
But most often, these deaths are a result of individuals being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Individuals who have been in known drug cartel territory, nightclubs and up to no good are the most common victims of these attacks. These violent episodes aren’t usually happening mid-day in your average cities and towns.
Which provides even more reason for families with children to be safe while they travel through Mexico.
They won’t be visiting any of the places that are remotely sketchy, or hitting the bars and nightclubs when the sun goes down. Instead, they’ll be in bed (and I don’t just mean the kids).
Staying away from where bad stuff happens is a strategy that parents use on a daily basis. For the most part, it keeps you and your kids safe, no matter where you are.
Employing this strategy while traveling to Mexico will yield the same results.
3. If you do go, stick to the touristy areas – they’re the safest for you and your kids.
In our experience, tourist locations actually pose greater risks for travelers. They become target areas for criminals – an easy place to perpetrate crimes on unsuspecting vacationers.
Throughout our entire four months in Mexico, the only crime committed against us happened in the touristy town of Tulum – my $1000 camera was opportunistically stolen.
We’ve found the local villages and towns to be the safest and provide the most rewarding experiences. The local people live simply and honestly; there is very little crime, and almost no violent crime; and they’re more down to earth, open, and genuinely interested in your welfare.
Too often the locals living in the tourist areas are jaded due to repeated exposure to haughty, frightened, rich vacationers who view their country as being dangerous and poor.
If you do go to Mexico with your kids, get out of the tourist areas, and have a safer, richer experience in real Mexico.
4. Mexico is just a poor, third world country. There’s not much to see and do anyway, especially for kids.
I’ve been to Mexico before. But after our last expedition, I’ve developed a real love for the place. Mexico has a lot to offer. It’s rich in history, culture, and custom. It has great infrastructure and modern conveniences. It’s clean and refined. It also provides an abundant variety of landscapes, climates, peoples, languages, arts, traditions,and food.
Despite stereotypes, it’s not all burritos, tacos, sombreros, and adobe huts. You could spend a very long time exploring all that Mexico has to offer and still not see or do it all.
From pine forests to tropical beaches; fresh water lagoons and sparkling rivers; booming metropolises and sleepy indigenous villages; adobe huts to towering skyscrapers; ancient ruins and high speed internet; handicrafts and fine art; tacos to tlayudas; snow capped peaks and humid rain-forests; Mexico has it all. And it has a lot to offer for kids.
Our family lived in India for 5 months in 2010. When we crossed into Mexico in 2011, my children said, “Mexico’s not anything like I thought it would be. I thought it would be dirty with cows wandering around, like India. It’s not like that at all. It’s more like Utah!”
Mexico is a spectacular place to visit (and even live) with or without children. It’s a country that we’ve fallen in love with and plan to visit again and again and again as a family.
Don’t let the urban legends spoil your perception of what Mexico is really like. Go for yourself and discover the truth.
Six of our favorite destinations
Here are six of our favorite destinations from our time in Mexico.
1. Lake Chapala
The largest lake in Mexico, Lake Chapala has several towns along her shores, which seem to have perfect weather year round. A lovely place to take the kids for boating, fishing, and raspberry picking.
An attractive city that makes you feel more like you’re in Europe than Mexico, Morelia is a great place to visit for holidays. We were there for Dia de los Muertos and enjoyed their traditional gazpacho (finely chopped mango, pineapple, and jicama, topped with cheese and pepper sauce.)
3. Mexico City
One of our favorite spots to visit if you’re looking for a cultural experience.
We took the buses and subways to get around, visited the zocalo (city center) and ate some street food, and went to the Museum of Anthropology – one of the top museums in the world.
The best part is that it was all so cheap. Subway rides are 3 pesos (~$0.25USD) each to anywhere in the city. And a world famous museum was free for kids 13 and under (adults were only 51 pesos -$4USD- each). You can’t beat that!
Oaxaca is a beautiful city with lots of culture as well, but our favorite part about visiting was the ruins of Monte Alban, located just outside the city.
Situated on the top of a hill that overlooks the surrounding valleys, there’s a special feeling as you climb the massive steps where ancient peoples once lived and thrived.
Definitely a must see, and a great place for kids to explore. Again, kids 13 and under are free, adults only 51 pesos (~$4USD).
The state of Chiapas is among the most beautiful areas in Mexico. Cloud forests, indigenous villages, colorful markets – Chiapas is a magical place with a lot to offer.
Some of our favorite stops were Agua Azul and the ruins of Palenque. A popular attraction that we missed out on was the Cañon Sumidero, which is definitely worth the visit if you get the chance.
6. Laguna Bacalar
Named a puebla magica and the Lagoon of Seven Colors, Bacalar is a fresh water lagoon in the state of Quintana Roo, about 4 hours south of Cancun.
We spent six splendid weeks right on her shores – kayaking, swimming, sailing, and sunbathing. It was really, really hard to leave.
You can also read the following articles to prepare for your trip to Mexico:
>> The Mexican Coast You Didn’t Expect: Four Reasons to Visit Mazatlan
>> Traveler Postcard: Jessica in Mazaltan
>> South of the Border: 3 Mexican Road Trips for the Intrepid Traveler
>> Mexico Travel Guide
Have you been to Mexico before? Were your impressions vastly different than your preconceived assumptions? Have you ever been to a country or city that was the opposite of how it’s portrayed in the media? Comment below to share your thoughts.
Read more about author Rachel Denning here.
Photo Credits: All photos belong to the author and may not be used without permission.