Watching the news, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Mexico is the new Columbia : drug gangs ruling the streets; crooked cops looking for la mordida; armed robbers lying in wait for the first hapless tourists.
The state department has dire warnings for travelers to much of Mexico
Highway robbery and carjacking are ongoing security concerns for travelers on the Mexican toll road Highway 15 in Sonora and on Maxipista Benito Juarez in Sinaloa. These highways are known to be particularly dangerous at night when roadside robberies occur. When traveling in Sinaloa, U.S. government employees are required to use armored vehicles and may only travel in daylight hours.
And the state department are not the only ones hyping up the danger.
In late 2011, I jumped in my car for an impromptu road-trip to Mexico with a friend. As we traveled south towards the Mexican border almost everyone we spoke to thought we were crazy. And not just insulated Americans; Mexicans in America thought we were crazy there too. “It’s bad down there, too much trouble”, “not a good time to go.” One man, working checkout at the auto-parts store, fit and in his 30’s, advised us to go mountain biking in Arizona instead, “otherwise, I fear you will be killed.”
We went anyway.
And we’re glad we did. Once we’d got over our initial nervousness, we found Mexico to be quite safe, and full of wonderfully generous and hospitable people. People look out for each other and tourists are well-cared for. The country is beautiful and it’s quite amazing that such a diverse and fascinating country is right nextdoor.
Here’s a few notes :
Drug trafficers, Highway robbers, and bears, oh my.
Of the areas getting bad press, we went through a lot of them. We crossed into Mexico through Nogales, and drove down Hwy 15 through Sonora, Sinaloa, biked our way through the Sierras to Chihuahua, before driving on to Nayarit and Jalisco.
The border areas have a particularly bad reputation. This is where pressure between the narco-trafficers and the police is highest. Since the police are easily corruptible, the military have been brought in, and you’ll see trucks of armed soldiers roving around in pickup trucks.
But while the battle is between the narco’s and the federales, you’d have to be unlucky or stupid to get in the middle. Don’t traffic drugs, and listen to the locals if they warn you not to go somewhere. In my time in Mexico I didn’t come across anyone who had run into this sort of trouble.
Here’s some resources :
- UK FCO Mexico Advisory – I always recommend looking at the UK FCO advisories for a more rational advisory, but this is pretty dire too.
- Drive the Americas – Great site with lots of stories of all sorts of people driving south through Mexico and beyond
- On the road in Mexico : Facebook group – This site set my mind to rest…. up to date postings from all manner of folk on the road in Mexico.
Don’t drive at night
This is perhaps the fundamental rule of driving in Mexico, and if you’re there during the winter months when the days are short, then it is one of the easiest ones to break. Most of the locals we talked to along the way strongly agreed with this statement. But it’s not as if the banditos come out as soon as the sun comes down. We frequently found ourselves on the road after dark, and there were usually many other cars out too. Highway robbery is still unlikely, but if it’s going to happen it’s most likely to be on a deserted road, and lets face it, most roads are deserted at 1am. – So, don’t be there.
The other big reason to avoid driving at night is animals. Especially up the Baja peninsula, black cows wander freely across the highway. At night they become next to invisible, and have a tendency to lie in the middle of the road where the ground stays warmer. If you have to make some miles up the peninsula after dark, my advice is to follow a big truck.
Don’t flaunt your wealth
My aging Jeep Cherokee with tinted windows really was the perfect Mexico vehicle. Petty theft in Mexico didn’t appear to be any worse than in the US. It’s usually not a problem to park your car on the street overnight, but put your valuables out of site. Without doubt, the sketchiest place I parked my car on the trip was Venice, CA.
Cars with US license plates are common in northern Mexico. Many of them are driven by American Mexicans who are visiting families, or who have just brought their vehicles back and are avoiding paying the import duties. On Hwy 15 south down the mainland we saw tons of US plated vehicles. In some parts of Baja it seemed that 50% of the cars have US plates.
Think things through in advance
No-one ever pressed a knife up against us, but it helps to think what you’d do in advance. Think through what you’ll do if you come across a roadblock in the middle of the night. These are unpleasant situations, and there isn’t a right answer, but preparation is the key to success.
As my friend Tommy Lynch, a security expert, likes to repeat : “There isn’t a bad situation that you didn’t put yourself into in the first place.”
If you’ve spent much time in latin America you’ll be familiar with ‘La Mordida’ – the colloquial term the bribe you pay cops after they’ve pulled you over for a random infraction.
I’ve enjoyed this a couple times, so have a couple thoughts about this :
- Plan in advance If you spend enough time on the road in Mexico, you are going to run afoul of a corrupt cop. This is definitely not a reason not to go, but it’s worth planning in advance about how you’ll handle it.
- Treat it like a game Once the blue and red light goes on it’s natural for your adrenaline to surge and the fight or flight mechanism to kick in. That’s the wrong reaction. When the lights go on, you’ve just entered a game. Treat it as an opportunity and one of the more entertaining parts of the traveling experience. For the most part, the cop simply wants to pad his paycheck, and you simply don’t. Unless you act up, the stakes are fairly low. The worst outcome is that you’ll have to pay the official fine; this is usually a lot less than it is at home, and you won’t be getting points on your license. So, treat it like a game, and play to win.
- Avoid the bribe In Mexico, if you get a fine, you should pay the fine at the police station. If you pay the cop, it is going straight to his pocket. If you pay the clerk at the station, it is going to the community. In Rosarito, 10 miles from Tijuana, I was pulled over for having a boat mast sticking out the back of my truck without a red-flag. It was such a ridiculous infraction, especially in Mexico, that we gambled that the cop would look corrupt for even trying to process it officially. We insisted we should pay the fine at the station, and after following the cop all the way there, negotiating with him outside for five minutes, he eventually sent us on our way without any fine.
- Throw him off In your preparation think of ways you can the conversation off from the start. I don’t know of any guaranteed method, but here’s a couple ideas : When he pulls you over, effusively thank him and start asking for directions; maybe let slip that you’re writing an article on his town for a travel magazine; introduce yourself and ask for his name…. all little ways to distract him or make him think that taking you for a ride might land him in trouble.
- Time is on your side Unless you’re on your way to the airport or genuinely in a hurry, sit back and take your time. You are on holiday, he’s on the clock. Be relaxed, think things through, talk things through with your partner in english while he looks on.
- It’s ok to be stupid Is there anything more frustrating than trying to communicate to someone in a foreign language? Use this to your advantage. Ideally you understand him, but throw in a lot of confused looks, ask him to speak slower, ask him to repeat three times. Then tell him you don’t understand. Think Borat.
My story : In Commondu, a tiny town in Baja Sur, we were pulled over for speeding through town. Seeing the speed limit was 20mph for five miles with a barely a house in sight, this was definitely a gotcha moment. You know you’re being taken for the bribe when he asks, “do you want to go back to the station or pay here.” – He made sure to point out that the station was 10 miles away, but seeing as we were vacationing anyway, I said that was fine by us. The cop turned around and drove 40mph back up the road. We followed at a sedate 20mph to the station that was only a mile away.
Unfortunately, unlike Rosarito, this was a tiny town, and our cop was the only law in town. At this point I realized it was going to be a small mordida, or the full fine. He pointed out how expensive the full $150 fine was. I pointed out that he seemed a nice guy and since we were just foolish tourists, maybe he could cut it down to $15. He figured $80 was more appropriate. I pulled out the $15 (200pesos) and suggested that could be used for painting the police station, but otherwise the full fine was fine too as that would be used for the town and for ‘Mexico’ – Well, to cut a long story short we haggled back and forth, but I stood firm on the $15 for the station or the official fine. He relented, and pointed out the folder for police station expenses, and sent us on our way.
So, that was fun.
Word of note : If you’re foolish enough to be caught doing something serious, such as carrying drugs or weapons, forget what I’ve said about drawing things out. These are big-time offenses and you definitely don’t want to go back to the station. Solve the problem fast.
Another word of note. Military inspections are run by what seem to be very earnest and honest soldiers. If you run afoul of them, play it by the book.
Baja : A paradise apart
Travelling in Baja is much easier than the mainland. There are beaches galore to get away from it all, and I found the people to be unfailingly friendly and non-threatening.
I cannot recommend a road-trip through Baja highly enough. Bring a tent, some hiking shoes, and know how to change a tire. Then go.
The main trans-peninsular highway is a very good two-lane highway, and you can do 65mph for much of it. But if you decide to take the side roads, you can really find yourself on an adventure.