Mexico has suffered some bad press in recent years. Many people now just dismiss it as a holiday destination with blanket statements such as “it’s too dangerous”, or “a lot of people get murdered there”, and so on.

I will admit that after visiting the country four times between 2001 and 2008, all that bad publicity gave me pause. Since there were so many other places that I wanted to see anyway, I forgot all about Mexico for a while. That is, until last fall.

When I returned from Europe and Turkey in late November, temperatures were already dipping below freezing and I realized that I needed a winter escape: somewhere close… and somewhere cheap. Well, if you live in Canada it’s a no brainer: the closest, cheapest warm country is Mexico!

Beach in Zihuatanejo (state of Guerrero, Mexico)

Beach in Zihuatanejo

Some quick research indicated that the Yucatan was currently a “safe area” so I booked a one-way flight to Cancun. I spent nine weeks in the country, six of those in Oaxaca, a city popular with expats that was also deemed secure. I had no problems whatsoever. Nothing. I didn’t hear gun shots, didn’t see dead bodies, or come across drug lords. I didn’t even smell the telltale odour of marijuana in the parks. (I wish I could say the same about Toronto.)

So should you go? And should you even consider going if you’re a solo woman traveller?

The general security situation

From what I can gather, most of the violence in Mexico is drug-related. Tourists are not the target. So the logic goes: if you stay away from drugs, people involved with drugs, or areas where drug wars occur, you should be fine.

Border areas with the United States are notoriously risky, so flying into Mexico (rather than driving in) is a good idea. The northern states in general are to be avoided, but these are not very touristy anyway. Before you book your tickets, check your government website for detailed advisories. The good news is that the most popular destinations with tourists and expats are fine.

Follow these links for Mexico advisories from the governments of Canada, USA, UK, and Australia.

Don’t be too put off by the words “exercise a high degree of caution”. You will find this label applied to pretty much all developing and third-world nations by first-world governments, whether it’s Peru, Thailand, or Nicaragua.

If you exercise normal caution in Mexico, like you would in any other developing country, by avoiding demonstrations, not travelling at night (especially by car), not walking alone in deserted areas, and not carrying large sums of money, wearing expensive jewelry, or showing off expensive cell phones, you should be fine.

The solo woman situation

But what should you expect as a solo woman in Mexico?

Two solo women I met in Oaxaca (Mexico)

Two solo women I met in Oaxaca

All five of my trips to Mexico over the last 14 years have been as a solo woman. And I’ve had no trouble whatsoever. Mexicans are warm, friendly and helpful. Of course it’s a Latin country where machismo is very much alive, so if you’re a pretty young lady, you may generate a little attention, but nothing aggressive or threatening. If you’re approached by someone wanting to “chat and get a coffee” and you’re not interested, just say so and they should leave you alone. My most annoying “suitor” in Mexico actually turned out to be another traveller!

If you’re walking around in short skirts, even in urban areas, yes they will probably stare at your legs without the subtlety of the guys back home.

I’ve met many women travelling alone in Mexico. The locals don’t bat an eye, and I haven’t heard any horror stories so far. Unlike many places in Southeast Asia, there isn’t a widespread tendency to scam tourists either. Just be skeptical if a taxi driver tells you that the hotel where you want to go is “bad” and that they can take you to a better one. They work for commissions.

I feel perfectly comfortable walking around on my own in Mexican towns, even after dark, as long as there are other people around. Unlike in North America, Mexican parks and plazas are full of people at night, including families, who wait for cooler temperatures to go out for a stroll and a bite to eat. The parks are actually busier at night than at midday, often featuring bands, or dance performances.

Dancers on the main square in Campeche (Mexico)

Dancers on the main square in Campeche

You will find a lot of expats in Mexico. Most of them are retirees living there full-time, or part-time during the winter. Well-known expat areas are San Miguel de Allende and Ajijic near lake Chapala, but places like Oaxaca, Puerto Vallarta, and Merida are gaining popularity. (If you’re interested in living/retiring in Mexico you should read Tim Leffel’s book “A Better Life for Half the Price”). In those places you should have no trouble finding people with whom to chat in English.

If you truly want to experience Mexico though, I’d recommend learning (at least) some basic Spanish. As a solo traveller, this will also make it easier to meet people. You could do this before leaving home, or just sign up for a class once in Mexico, if you have enough time. The latter will be cheaper and you will probably learn faster, being able to apply what you’ve just learned in real life situations. Find yourself a coffee shop or bar with a chatty (and not overly busy) waiter or waitress and try to use your new language skills. Mexicans will appreciate your efforts.

It’s also fairly easy to go on organized day trips in Mexico, even if you’re a solo traveller. There are often several companies to chose from, and enough travellers signing up that you won’t hear the dreaded “sorry, you’re the only person interested so far, and we need a minimum of two people”. In Zihuatanejo, I even ended up on a snorkelling trip where I was the only passenger!

Popular day tours around Oaxaca include indigenous markets (Mexico)

Popular day tours around Oaxaca include indigenous markets

What’s not to love?

Overall, I love Mexico. The winter weather is gorgeous (especially in the mountains and on the Pacific Coast), everything is colourful, music is everywhere, and the food is much tastier and interesting than what you find in neighbouring Central American countries. You also get better value for your money (and more authentic culture) if you venture outside tourist meccas like Cancun and Acapulco.

It’s a big country but travelling independently is easy, with good buses, good roads, and many domestic air connections.

So next time someone tells you not to go to Mexico because it’s “too dangerous”, you can smile smugly, because you know better. Or you can just point them to this post. 🙂

As this CNN article wisely stated two years ago: “Mexico is both as dangerous as ever or as safe as ever, depending on one’s destination, actions and common sense.”

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