Falling in Love With Mexico (And Why the Media is Full of Crap)

Mexico gets a bad rap.

Listen to the news reports and you’ll be told the entire country is a corrupt, violent, drug-filled hellhole. Murderous gangs roam the landscape, apparently, and a vacation south of the US border is as likely to leave you decapitated as sunburned. It’s just better to stay at home, where you’re nice and safe behind your big fence and double-locked door, and watch another episode of Funniest Home Videos.

The media just loves to spread fear and uncertainty, and it does a great job of it. After three months in the US being told how scary and dangerous Mexico was, I’d almost started to believe the stories myself.

Until, of course, I actually went there.

With no set plans for how long we’d stay in Mexico, Lauren and I negotiated a two month lease on an apartment in Sayulita. Within a week, we’d extended it to three. While Sayulita certainly isn’t the quiet little beach town it once was, outside peak season it still retains much of its charm.

Street vendors sell tacos for a few pesos, kids play among the slow-moving cars and horses on the cobbled main street, groups of men sit on the beach drinking beers and swapping stories as the sun plummets into the Pacific. There’s a parade of some sort every week, and fireworks seem to mark everything from a major religious festival to a day ending in y.

Sayulita parade

There’s been an influx of expats and vacationers to Sayulita in recent years, and in many parts of the world this would result in jaded locals that couldn’t care less about another foreigner in their town. Instead, all I ever seemed to get was smiles and a friendly greeting.

I barely knew a word of Spanish when I first arrived, and even that didn’t seem to faze people. If I didn’t understand, rather than getting frustrated, they’d slow down or use a different phrase. Once they knew I was in town for a while, several restaurant owners seemed to make it their personal mission to help me learn, not swapping to English until we’d exhausted every possibility.

I loved them for it — there’s no better way to learn a language than immersion, but I’d totally understand if nobody had the time or desire to help a stupid gringo improve his vocabulary.

Even when we finally decided to move on from our little beach town, we weren’t done with the kindness. Upon discovering that I couldn’t book bus tickets online with an overseas credit card, our landlady took it on herself to spend half an hour on the phone with the bus company doing it for me instead.

“You didn’t have to do that”, I protested.

“I didn’t have to. I just wanted to.” came the reply.

*****

Guanajuato

Our next stop, Guanajuato, was a gorgeous colonial city in the central highlands. It’s one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to, yet for some reason doesn’t seem to receive all that many foreign tourists. Other than a lack of beaches, I’ve absolutely no idea why – but it was a great excuse to work on my language skills.

Despite non-Spanish speakers being relatively uncommon, I was again met with smiles and understanding everywhere I went. From the taco stand owner who performed an energetic game of charades to explain which part of the animal the meat came from, to the woman at the bakery who’d laughingly correct my pronunciation, to the bystander at the convenience store who stepped in to help me top up my phone credit, nothing was ever a problem.

I regularly wandered around late at night, through the city streets or on unlit mountain roads on the outskirts, and was never accosted with anything more than a muted ‘buenas noches’ from passers-by. I’ve felt far less safe in London or Melbourne than I ever did in Mexico. We stayed in one of the absolute best Airbnb apartments we’ve ever rented (use this link for $25 off your first booking) and, overall, just loved our time there.

*****

Heading to the Yucatan peninsula was a shock after the chilly, understated beauty of Guanajuato. Foreigners were everywhere in this, the most heavily-touristed part of the country. Prices were higher, as you’d expect them to be – but they were higher for everyone. Eating mostly at street stands and hole-in-the-wall quesidilla places, I wasn’t charged a peso more than the locals that surrounded me.

The food was so great that I’d have been happy to hand over the extra cash, mind you – the succulent tang of cochinita pibil, the spicy texture of tamales con queso and the morning comfort of chilaquiles verdes had me anticipating every mealtime with ill-concealed delight.

And then there were the beaches.

Tulum beach

And the ruins.

Chichen Itza

And the sea life.

Sealife

And the iguanas.

Iguana in crack

And the cheap, efficient collectivos (shared minivans) that took me between them all.

With views, landscape and quality of life like this, is it any wonder that most Mexicans seem to love their country? Or that I quickly joined them in that assessment?

****

Of course, Mexico isn’t perfect. Just like everywhere, it has its problems. There’s income disparity, obesity and lack of opportunity in many rural areas, and yes, drug trafficking and the associated violence is a major problem in some parts of the country.

The thing is, though, that as a tourist, you’re not going to find yourself in the places where the narcotraffickers hang out. Do a minimum of research about your destination, take the same basic security precautions that you would back home, and you’re unlikely to have a problem.

I spent half a year in Mexico, and felt far safer than I did during my three months in the US beforehand. There’s a visible police presence anywhere that holidaymakers are likely to be – the authorities don’t want bad things to happen to visitors any more than the visitors do.

As respected travel writer Robert Reid points out, you’re much more likely to get murdered in Houston or New Orleans than in Mexico – yet governments and the media aren’t putting those two cities on their ‘do not travel’ lists.

Avoid the problem areas in the north of the country, and you’ll have a wonderful experience filled with glorious weather, friendly people, amazing history, delicious food and remarkable scenery. Oh, and it’s cheap. Not Southeast Asia cheap, but still, pretty damn inexpensive – especially if you stay away from the tourist bars and restaurants.

And the thing is, if I’d listened to the naysayers, I’d never have known just how amazing Mexico really is. I’d have skipped it and gone somewhere ‘safer’ – and my life would have been far less rich as a result. Like anywhere else, the best way to know what a place was really like was to buy a ticket and just head there myself.

Even if it did mean missing the latest episode of Funniest Home Videos.

37 Responses to “Falling in Love With Mexico (And Why the Media is Full of Crap)

  • Mark Fitchew
    3 years ago

    I’m a big fan of Science fiction writer Ray Bradbury and several of his Earthbound story’s feature Mexico and your description of the country reminded me so much of his, despite the fact that they were written some fifty/sixty years ago!

    As for the media perception of the place, I’m sure most of it is USA originated and is an attempt to deflect the fact that the immense wealth in the State’s stands side by side with Mexico’s poverty! A bit like the way the London based British press tends to demonize the North!

    • Yep, I think you’re onto something there — it’s much easier to focus on negatives rather than positives, especially if it deflects attention away from shortcomings closer to home…

  • I couldn’t agree more. We’ve been in Mexico for nearly 5 months now and will definitely be here for 4 more. I feel safe here, safer than I do in my hometown in the UK. And my experiences with the language have been the same as yours. Using a bit of Spanish goes a long way and people are more than willing to use gesture and mime to help you understand. Its never a dull experience! Its funny the only reason we ended up here was the cheap flight from London, now I don’t want to leave.

    • Six months definitely wasn’t long enough for me… I could easily have hopped the border and come straight back again the next day! I’m back in Australia for a few weeks at the moment, and just keep going back to Mexican restaurants in a half-hearted attempt to convince myself that I’m still there….. 😉

  • I have noticed through a few blogs that I read that there seems to be a big expact thing happening in Mexico at the moment. I wondered why that is – although your article explains a lot of that 🙂

    • Yeah, there were a few travel bloggers floating around in Sayulita at the same time as me, and Playa del Carmen is always popular with digital nomad types. Not hard to see why, hey? Especially since the internet is often surprisingly quick.

  • Good stuff, Dave!
    Mexico is still on my list of places to visit. I know some guys who are from there and I’ve been reading more and more stories from people who’ve lived there for a while and loved it.

  • We spent almost 6 months last year traveling around the Yucatan and Quintana Roo (Merida, Campeche, Valladolid, Playa del Carmen) and you are so right about the friendliness of the people and feeling safe. We would reassure friends and family with, “The only things we’re really scared about are the sidewalks”!

    • Hehe, yeah, some of those sidewalks aren’t the smoothest I’ve ever walked along. Then again, isn’t that what the street is for anyway? 😉

  • Mexico is amazing I totally agree! You opened my eyes to a few new locations!

  • The ‘Mexico is a dangerous place’ propaganda definitely seems to orginate from the US. During our travels through Central and South America, it was the US travellers that we met that were terrified of travelling through Mexico, not so much with other nationalities. Mexico is my favourite Latin American country and is so incredibly diverse and beautiful and you are so right about the friendly people – unbelievably open and warm, even in touristy places. Thanks for the great post and for promoting this amazing country

    • Thanks for the comment! The fear factor in the US definitely surprised me — although I’d obviously heard the occasional story in the past, it ramped up massively when I was in the US. 🙁

      • Jacquline Ford
        1 year ago

        You mentioned a police presence in the tourist locations but failed to say that a lot of the police in Mexico are just as corrupt as the narcos. Stating that you walked around at night in unpopulated areas is wrong and you should not encourage people to do this. Just because you got lucky doesn’t mean the next person will be as fortunate. Mexico is a beautiful country but it is struggling with a lot of violence and problems. The stats don’t lie about that. I feel it is wrong to give people this false sense of security. It could possibly get someone killed.

        • I’m sure you mean well with your comment, but honestly, it’s this kind of mindset that prompted me to write this article in the first place. Mexico is a large, very diverse country and, as I mentioned in the post, there are parts of it I wouldn’t walk around, day or night. Those aren’t the parts that tourists visit, and it’s not the places I went either.

          There’s problems with violence, murders and police corruption in some Mexican towns and cities, sure — but the same problems exist in many parts of the US. As I said in the post, the murder rate in New Orleans or Houston is far higher than the overall murder rate for Mexico, but I don’t advise people not to travel to the United States. The places I stayed in in Mexico felt far safer than many parts of the US I’ve visited.

          Since I wrote this article, I’ve returned to Mexico, and spent a month in Oaxaca where — again — I often walked around at night, by myself, without any problems whatsoever. Can I promise that anybody else who does the same in Sayulita, Playa del Carmen, Guanajuato, Oaxaca or the other cities I’ve visited won’t ever experience a problem? No, of course not — the same as I can’t promise it for New York, Memphis, Detroit, Seattle or anywhere else. Certainty about anything is rare in this world.

        • Elizabeth
          9 months ago

          HI Jaqueline,

          I’d really be interested in knowing what “stats” you are referring to in terms of violence in Mexico. Are you aware that Mexico remains a top 10 international destination for Americans and that 26 million Americans travel to Mexico annually? And, are you aware that more the homicide rate of Americans is higher in DC and in New Orleans than it is in Mexico? If you know something that the rest of us don’t know, based upon real statistics and facts, I’d certainly be open to hearing what it is.

  • Love love love this piece! As someone who has travelled to Iran three times and currently resides in Pakistan, I couldn’t agree more – the media is full of crap!!

    • Yeah, I can see that you’d definitely have that opinion after time in Iran and Pakistan. Two countries that I’m very keen to get to in the next couple of years (Iran in particular).

  • Really enjoyed your post. IT’s great to hear another perspective other than what media portrays. I’ve never been to Mexico but, any time I have considered going, I’ve been told it’s unsafe. Guanajuato looks like a cute little city. Great to hear about under rated places to visit.

  • Elsa Aikens
    3 years ago

    I HAVE BEEN GOING TO RINCÓN DE GUAYABITOS FOR THE LAST 8 YEARS AND I HAVE NEVER FELT THAT I WAS IN A DANGEROUS COUNTRY, ON THE CONTRARY , THE PEOPLE ARÉ ALWAYS NICE AND HELPFUL AND VERY ACCOMODATING. I WILL GO BACK FOR AS LONG AS I CAN. I LOVE THE PLACE AND OUR HOTEL, THE SAME PEOPLE KEEP GOING BACK THEREFORE MADE A LOTS OF FRIENDS
    IT FEELS LIKE GOING TO MY SECOND HOME

  • Totally agree with you on this whole safety thing. I’m trying to go to Argentina and my friend is convinced we’ll get kidnapped. I know it could happen but really? :-
    Anyway, you’re making me crave some authentic tacos now.

    • Yeah, bad things could happen in Argentina. They could also happen 20 feet from your friend’s front door. 😉 And now that you’re craving some local taco action, so am I….. *sigh*

  • Ronnie Sharp
    3 years ago

    A wonderful article saying the same things I know to be true. I tell everyone I can about the safety, the beauty, and the wonderful people down here. Keep up the good work spreading the news.

  • Nancy Ware
    3 years ago

    Dave, a wonderfully written piece and very truthfully stated. My husband and I have had the wonderful opportunity to enjoy the Puerto Vallarta area for two years ending in June. On one of our trips home to the San Francisco Bay area, our plane arrived much later than anticipated, placing us on BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) at 10:30 p.m. and some very hard looking riders got on in Oakland (pants around their knees and tuff guy swaggers/strutting – you know the look) and we both felt more intimidated than any late night stroll through our local’s neighborhood in Cinco de Deciembre. I thought, “oh Lord, here we come home to the U.S. from “so.called DANGEROUS Mexico” and we’re more likely to get mugged on the BART train, sitting there with all our luggage. We got home safe….but I’ll never forget how INTIMIDATED we felt in our own U.S. town! Thank you for your wonderful pictures and truth about Mexico!

  • Catherine
    3 years ago

    After reading this I am so tempted to scrap all the travel plans I have formulated thus far and just go straight to Mexico! I It sounds absolutely amazing! The people can really make the difference and it sounds like Mexico is full of lovely people.

  • The story is the same everywhere, you will find people willing to help. Mexico is certainly unique in that they take pride in helping for just a smile in return. I have been fortunate to visit Mexico several times over the last 20 years and always enjoy my experience. Last time I was there, in Valladolid, while biking in the outskirt of town, I was trying to find a certain road to a cenote and the local map was not quite accurate and there was no sign to tell me if I was in the right direction. A local helped out, grabbed his son and put his groceries in his scooter basket, and literally guided me all the way to the last road I needed to take. It made for a terrific afternoon. I am actually planning a trip back to there in the fall. Looking forward to it.

    • Great — but not unusual — story about your time in Valladolid. You’re right about people being helpful everywhere, but also that Mexicans seem to lift it to a new level. I really do love that country.

  • I’m Mexico bound soon, and this has me peumped for my trip. Thanks for the on the ground report that proves that the media is full of it (gotta sell that fear!), and that Mexico is relatively safe for visitors.

  • Richard
    3 years ago

    Wonderful post, this is what I have been telling people in the UK aboutMexico for a long time now. I hate how the country gets such a slaughtering in the Media, despite being far more beautiful and full of culture than places such as the US or UK. Next time you go you should check out Puebla near Mexico City. They have a Cathedral there which is even more impressive than the Vatican, i am not kidding, it is amazing, and the City is beautiful, i love it!. Thanks for the post, it was an excellent read!

    • I’m really sad I didn’t get to Puebla on that trip — it was totally part of the plan after Guanajuato, but we were in the middle of an unexpected cold snap and decided to bail for the beach instead. Next time, next time…. 😉

  • I visit a “dangerous” city on the border all the time Tijuana and even there ive never felt unsafe. This city is interesting because its sorta like a mix between mexican and US culture and lately it has been going through an exciting revival. Many new restaurants, bars, shops and cultural activities are springing up all over the place. I went to the movie theater at a mall and it was just amazing, MUCH better than any theater ive gone to in the states and very reasonably priced.

    I can truly say that the effect cartels have had on mexico is EXTREMELY exagerated and mexico has sooo much to offer and thats probably why the media wants people to stay away from mexico because so many great things are happening down ther

  • I am Mexican American and I had never been to Mexico because my mom say that, I will get killed over their that mexican people are criminals. My father is 100% mexican but he can’t take me because my mother put a restrictions order on him and lied to the police. In fact, I really hate my mom for lying because I can’t spend time with my dad no more. Someone is mexico dangerous like the news says? I get different versions every time I ask. I can’t even have mexican friends because of my mom.

  • Roberto
    2 years ago

    The north is not that dangerous either I am from the north we have beautiful places to visit too 🙂

  • Alfonso Galindo
    1 year ago

    Many Great Cities, Towns and Villages across Mexico, From the highlands to lowlands, Beaches, Forrest, Jungles, and deserts. There is a perfect place for you someone in Mexico and probably the reason estimates now put it at close to 2 million foreigners now call Mexico home either full or part time and many do so on a budget of less than $1200 USD a month.

  • Marius
    1 year ago

    Thank you for sharing your experience. This is the kind of story that opens the eyes of the undecided traveler. I would love to travel to Mexico for at least few months. Did you ever think about travelling to El Salvador ? I am highly recommending it. I’ve been there eight times and never felt unsafe. It is one of the countries that are not infected by the mass tourism , with pure and unspoiled nature attractions. The stats of the murder rate are intimidating, but the Salvadorian people are one of the warmest I ever met in my travels. The landscape is stunning, also.

    • I actually planned to go to El Salvador as part of a Central American trip just after writing this post, but we only got as far as Guatemala before Lauren got offered a book deal and we had to totally rethink what we were doing for the next 12 months! I’d love to get back to that part of the world and check it out, though — it looks and sounds amazing.

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