Tourism during Mexico’s drug wars

This is the sort of amazing thing you miss out on by discounting Mexico as a dangerous place

This is the sort of amazing thing you miss out on by discounting Mexico as a dangerous place

“Ohhh Central America, you’d better be careful. It’s such a dangerous place.”

It’s a quote that could be attributed to lots of different people I spoke to before I left Australia. It’s a conclusion they have come to with good reason too.

Media reports back home, and in many other Western countries, are full of narcos (drug gangs which wage war against each other), drug wars, and dismembered bodies. Rural areas are considered particularly dangerous with rogue banditos descending upon towns and wreaking havoc.

With this fresh on my mind, I arrived in rural Mexico.

It was 8:30PM and everything was closed except Vicki’s. By everything I mean the restaurant and tiny store that serviced this rural town. My brother Thomas and I had arrived 6 hours earlier; he’d spent the afternoon surfing while I’d spent the afternoon exploring the amazing coastline. It was beer o’clock.

With no other options we went into Vicki’s. It was a small house with a few tables and chairs out the front. It moonlighted as a restaurant at night. Fortunately, she sold beer too. We asked for two bottles and she opened them.

“$27 pesos,” she said.

I handed her $50 pesos.

“I don’t have change for that.”

We madly scrambled to find the exact money, coming up with nothing except $200 peso bills.

“That’s alright,” she smiled, “bring it back with the bottles tomorrow.”

We’d never met Vicki before, and she had no idea who we were or where we were from, yet she trusted us to bring her money the next night. We did go back the next night – and the one after. (We ate at her makeshift restaurant too and it was some of the best food I’ve had in Mexico. Her special homemade hot sauce was particularly amazing.*)

I thought this was an anomaly but in town after town it was the same attitude. Everyone was grateful to see us, patient with our not-quite-correct Spanish, and willing to go out of their way to help us. Locals would take us to an ATM (even if it was a 45 minute drive away), help us find our buses, call us cabs, and give us a lift if we were walking along a road – always dropping us off at our destination, even if it was out of their way.

I met a Mexican girl named Maria when we were in a beachside town called Chacahua. She spoke excellent English and was really curious to know whether or not I liked Mexico and what it was about the country I liked.

“I love it,” I replied without hesitation, “everyone here is so friendly and welcoming. Definitely not what I expected.”

She looked relieved and explained how upset it makes her that the media portrays Mexico as such a dangerous place.

“People are so friendly and welcoming because they love having you here. We want more people to visit, but the world thinks it’s such a bad country,” she said with sadness in her voice, “I’ve never been robbed here, though, and I plan on keeping it that way.”

I don’t want to sugarcoat Mexico and pretend that nothing bad happens here. There are still many northern states that it is safer to just plain avoid because of the drug wars. The prominent military vehicles with eight men and their machine guns piled on the back also indicate that things aren’t quite right in the country and narco wars still break out in various towns from time to time.

Rio Nexpa is one of those towns. It’s not a typical town; instead it’s a series of cabanas that line the beach. The nearest town is Caleta, about 5km down the road. The cabanas service ex-pats, surfers, and tourists from Mexico, while most of the people who own the cabanas and work there live in Caleta.

Business has been slow in Rio Nexpa over the last four years.

“Narcos have been around and it’s been driving the visitors away,” explains Manuel who owns some of the cabanas with his brothers, “we were living off the papayas we grow for a while, it was tough.”

“Things are better now, though. The town is safer, and the visitors are slowly coming back.”

He doesn’t say it directly, but it’s widely known in these circles that when things become ‘safer’ the local mafia has stepped in and driven the narcos away.

Even stories like this don’t deter some people, though. Victoria moved to Mexico in 1991 and is now a citizen.

“That [violence] is something that goes on between those groups,” she says with a shrug, “there is almost never an innocent bystander.”

“I haven’t seen any violence at all. In some areas the cartels keep the peace more than the police. I haven’t locked my door in six weeks.”

This is the general attitude most people have despite some disturbing stories. It’s rare to come across someone who has experienced any violence firsthand, though. It’s always a ‘friend’ or someone who has ‘heard about someone’. I’ve only met one person who has faced any danger in Central America. Martina is a Dutch surf instructor who spends her winters in Mexico. (Work for surfing instructors is scarce during Holland’s winters.) She was taking a night bus through Acapulco, an area notorious for nighttime bus robberies.

“We were driving when suddenly rocks we coming through the window and a girl started bleeding from the head,” she says, “the driver stupidly stopped and these men with guns were advancing toward the bus, so everyone was telling him to drive.”

“We were lucky they didn’t shootout the tyres, though.”

I took that same bus trip without incident, but I would advise against doing it on the weekend. Although, I’ve been told that now the buses form convoys before driving though that area.

These are just my experiences with Mexico and what I’ve discovered. You should definitely still have your wits about you travelling through the country and read safety advice. Don’t be deterred by media reports, though, because there’s often more to the story and it’s an amazing country with a reputation undeserved of many areas.

*not a paid advertisement

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *