MEXICO CITY – After years of hunkering down because of COVID-19, U.S. travelers are heading out, and Mexico is again one of their favorite destinations.
More than 21 million international tourists traveled to Mexico between January and July this year. Of those, nearly 8 million were from the U.S., government data shows.
That’s a 41% increase in the number of U.S. visitors compared to the same time period in 2021.
Mexico’s rich culture, beaches, resorts, Mayan and Aztec ruins and distinctive cuisine combine to make it one of the top 10 most visited countries in the world.
But there’s also a darker side to that allure.
Mexico is constantly making headlines about security, as drug cartel-fueled violence spreads from the white sands of Tulum to the Pacific coast.
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"My friends used to call me and ask, 'I want to send my daughter down to Cancun for spring break.' I'd show them the phone with all the violence down there and say, 'I wouldn't be sending my daughter there because that's too risky,' " former U.S. DEA Special Agent Derek Maltz said.
Knowing the level of that risk in advance is crucial, experts say.
Like in any country, there are some dangerous places and others that can be visited without trouble. Common sense is the key when traveling to potentially hostile areas, experts say.
Everard Meade, director of Proceso Pacifico, a peace-building organization based in Mexico, said "foreign tourists are really safe."
"I mean, there's just so few incidents where foreign tourists are victims of violence and particularly homicide. Organized crime groups know that it's not productive to target them. They know that if they did that, the result would be the National Guard running all over the city. And they just don't want that."
For those considering a trip to Mexico, here’s a list of some of the most visited destinations by U.S. tourists and what the experts are saying about each:
Cancun and the Riviera Maya
Cancun’s airport is Mexico’s most popular landing destination for foreign visitors, including more than 3.4 million U.S. citizens between January and July of this year.
Its white-sand beaches with turquoise water, shopping malls, Mayan ruins and luxury resorts make it a top destination.
Cancun is located on the stretch of Caribbean coastline on Mexico’s northeastern Yucatán Peninsula. South of the city, along the coast, is known as the Riviera Maya, an area that includes Tulum, another destination hotspot.
In the past year, an increasing threat of violence has plagued the area, however.
The U.S. State Department issued a warning on Aug. 17 to Americans planning to travel there.
Tourists were warned to "remain in well-lit pedestrian streets and tourist zones" in the wake of shootings between rival drug cartels that have injured bystanders.
Last fall, two tourists were killed while having dinner in an outdoor restaurant in Tulum. A month later, guests at a resort in Puerto Morelos were forced to hide after gunmen arrived by boat and killed people.
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And in January, two Canadian tourists were killed at a luxury hotel in Playa del Carmen the same month the manager of a popular beach club was murdered in a restroom by two men who fled on a jet ski.
"When you see things like that happening, that's just an indication that the cartels are fighting each other to gain control of those areas, not just for drug smuggling routes, but also for the street sale of drugs," said former U.S. Marshal for the Western District of Texas Robert Almonte.
Reporters from The Courier Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, traveled to Tulum in July and witnessed the presence of drug cartels, a situation that prompted an exit from the area the next morning.
"(Tourists) go to the beach resorts, and some of them are drug users. So, they're buying drugs, and you have the cartels fighting each other over those sales," Almonte said.
Even though some tourists have been killed in the Riviera Maya, security analysts agree they aren’t the target of criminal groups.
"Sometimes, it's just being in the wrong place at the wrong time," said Scott Stewart, vice president of TorchStone Global, a U.S.-based security firm.
"But, certainly, I have a lot of clients that have businesses operating in Mexico. And you can do so if you're careful and if you know the risks ahead of time and if you have plans to mitigate the risks – you can certainly have a great visit there," Stewart told The Courier Journal.
With its 22 million residents, Mexico City is one of the most populated metropolises in the world.
Its history makes it a unique destination. It has the largest park in Latin America, "Chapultepec Forest," more than 150 museums and a multitude of restaurants and bars that make up its iconic nightlife.
"I would tell people that Mexico City, in general, is safer than the beach resorts," said Almonte, who is now a Texas-based security consultant.
But a city with such a population also has its risks. In Mexico City, local gangs working for powerful cartels control the illegal drug trade, using extortion and kidnappings to maintain their grip.
Then again, the presence of law enforcement is bigger than in other states.
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The U.S. State Department’s website tells travelers to: "Exercise increased caution when traveling to Mexico City due to crime."
"Both violent and nonviolent crime occurs throughout Mexico City. Use additional caution, particularly at night, outside of the frequented tourist areas where police and security patrol more routinely. Petty crime occurs frequently in both tourist and non-tourist areas," the advisory reads.
"You do have more law enforcement security there in Mexico City. So, I would say if I had a choice, I would go to Mexico City rather than Cancun or Puerto Vallarta," Almonte advised.
"The border is attractive because if you live anywhere near … for example, in California, you can go down from Los Angeles the same day and visit Tijuana," Meade, the director of Proceso Pacifico, said.
The northern city of Tijuana borders Chula Vista in the U.S. Nearly 100,000 people cross the border every day to work, for fun, for medical purposes, etc.
Border cities have a unique flow and routine. Tijuana has become a destination for Californians.
"It's attractive because I think the culinary scene and the art scene in Tijuana, they're really vibrant. It's a lot more experimental and less risk averse than food and arts in the U.S.," Meade said.
However, as tourism has increased, so has crime.
"There's a serious problem with violence in Tijuana, and it's a problem that a lot of the boosters of the region have tried to kind of hide for a long time. And it's not hidable anymore," Meade said.
In August, cartel members launched a campaign of terror on the streets of Tijuana, setting vehicles on fire and roadblocks. The U.S. Embassy there urged U.S. government employees to shelter in place.
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The State Department advises on its website: "Reconsider travel to Baja California due to crime and kidnapping."
"I think what happened, it wasn't new. It didn't represent a new level of violence. It represented a new spectacle. But that violence is there, and it's been there. Tijuana has been one of the most violent municipalities in the world very consistently since 2017," Meade said.
Tourists, though, have often been able to stay above the fray in Tijuana, security analysts agreed.
“… Violence doesn't target tourists and foreign visitors, it really just doesn't, and that's the paradox of it," Meade said.
Many Americans have moved to Tijuana or invested there in the last decade.
"We've got tens of thousands of people in San Diego whose health insurance has all the services provided in Tijuana. It's a multibillion-dollar industry there, and bad things are not happening to them. They're fine."
On the other hand, trouble can arise, such as during spring break, if visitors seek it out, he said.
"I think buying and doing drugs in Tijuana, really anywhere in Mexico, is colossally stupid," Meade said.
"It's just a very bad idea because it makes you incredibly vulnerable to either organized crime or to corruption frankly, by law enforcement, if they catch you with marijuana, with cocaine or something, they've got you, and they've got leverage over you."
As of July, more than 800,000 Americans have visited Puerto Vallarta this year, government data shows. Located on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, Puerto Vallarta is home to stunning beaches, sports, nature and nightlife.
But it’s also the home of a very powerful drug cartel.
The U.S. Department of Justice considers the Jalisco New Generation Cartel to be one of the five most dangerous transnational criminal organizations in the world.
What does this mean for travelers?
"The concern is that the tourists are going to be sitting at a table, where the intended target is. These cartels go in there, and when they're going to kill their target, they're not very careful," Almonte said.
"Unfortunately, innocent people are struck, and they're injured or killed."
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U.S. law enforcement officials recommend staying away from Puerto Vallarta. The State Department says to "reconsider travel" to the state of Jalisco because of crime and kidnappings.
"If you were thinking rationally about this, what you want to do is you want to avoid being of any interest to organized crime," Meade said.
"In other words, things that most tourists just don't need to worry about if you're in the right place, and the right place is the main tourist quarter. So, if you're on the Malecon, you're around the beach, you're fine," Meade told The Courier Journal.
Only six states in Mexico have the warning "do not travel" from the U.S. State Department, and one of those is Guerrero, where Acapulco is located.
Once a tourist paradise for international travelers, Acapulco has become a city with incredibly high homicide rates.
Still, though, it remains a destination for domestic travelers and a weekend getaway for the rich and famous. Beaches, food and nightlife are the main attractions.
"Acapulco is the one place where I would really tell people to hesitate. And I hate doing it," Meade said.
He said the state of Guerrero has a combination of high levels of violence and political corruption, "but also extreme poverty that makes violence more complex."
Analysts say the dynamics of Acapulco tourism have changed. Even though there are still foreign tourists visiting, it has nosedived in the past years.
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"The general guidance on Acapulco is that if you stay in the Zona Dorada (the main tourist area or Golden Zone), you're OK. I think Americans often don't understand the huge wealth gap between southern and northern Mexico. And when you combine that with the violence, it really does change the quality of safety and security," Meade explained.
Almonte recommends travelers hire transportation prior to their arrival in Mexico.
"Based on my experience and my research, I would recommend that the first thing is to make sure you have some transportation that is more reliable and trustworthy, and I would recommend doing that through the hotel."
Almonte agreed that tourists visiting Mexican resorts should stay in that area.
"I would not venture off into other areas of the neighborhood, things of that nature because tourists are going to stand out to the cartels and the gangs as tourists."
Also known as "The Pearl of The Pacific Ocean," this resort town is in northern Mexico, along the Pacific shoreline in the Sinaloa state.
Its fine residences, historic center, deep blue seas, aquatic sports and unforgettable sunsets in the Golden Zone have attracted tourists from all over the world. It also has a community of working and retired expats, Americans among them.
Sinaloa is also home to the violent Sinaloa Cartel and is another of Mexico’s six "do-not-travel" states, according to U.S. State Department advisories, which cite crime and kidnapping as the reasons. However, U.S. government employees may travel to Mazatlán by air or sea only and "are limited to the Zona Dorada and historic town center, and must travel via direct routes between these destinations and the airport and sea terminal," the advisory reads.
Regarding traveling to Mazatlán, "What you need to do is just do your research, understand the threat environment, understand your own risk threshold and what you're willing to take," said TorchStone Global’s Stewart.
"… If I were a tourist, and I'm visiting, and I didn't have somebody guiding me, traveling on the highways between cities at night – I would not do," Meade said of Sinaloa.
Karol Suárez is a Venezuelan-born journalist based out of Mexico City. She is a contributing writer to The (Louisville) Courier-Journal. Follow her on Twitter at @KarolSuarez_.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Mexico tourist locations: Safety of popular Mexican destinations