Should You Go to Mexico for Spring Break?

Caution on the US and Mexico Border
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Pop quiz! What's the safer spring break destination, New Orleans or Juarez, Mexico? Some background: Five years ago Juarez was the world's most dangerous city, while New Orleans welcomed nine million visitors in 2012, and a Super Bowl in 2013.

So this is an easy choice, right? Hold on a sec.

The past few years, Juarez's homicide rates have quietly been falling, officially down to 38 per 100,000 residents last year. That level is actually less than New Orleans's 2013 rate of 42 per 100,000.

Meanwhile, the US State Department, in January's updated travel warning for Mexico, still advises against "non-essential" travel to parts of Juarez, never much of a travel destination anyway. This notice seems fair considering it's unclear how the recent arrest of drug kingpin "El Chapo" could shake things up on the border.

Taken at face value, does this mean places with higher homicide rates than Juarez -- places like New Orleans, Detroit, Baltimore and the Bahamas -– should be on the "non-essential" list too?

This isn't meant to pile on the Big Easy. I'd definitely go, and I'd pick it over Juarez. I'd just be careful (as I am anywhere) about where to go, and where not to go.

Actor and writer Odin Dupeyron, a Mexico City native who once played a Muppet on Mexico's Plaza Sesamo (the Mexican Sesame Street), is like many locals I've talked to, perplexed the story is such in an issue. He said, "I live in Mexico City and I live in peace. I go on tour all over Mexico, and never had a problem."

Why should Mexico be treated differently?

Twelve Mexican states are free from warning by the U.S. State Department. Map them out and you'll see it neatly matches most guidebooks' list of travel highlights: Mexico City, Mayan and Aztec ruins, Cabo and many Pacific beaches, colonial towns like San Miguel de Allende or Oaxaca –- all free of warning.

Also on that list is the Yucatán, Mexico's safest state with a homicide rate of 2.2 (per the Economist). Comparing that level with FBI stats finds that 42 U.S. stateshave higher homicide rates. (Only Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Utah and Vermont are lower.)

That's right, the Yucatán is safer than Kansas.

Observers rightly note that the Mexico murder rate is five times higher than the United States's (24.7 vs 4.7). If you look at the U.S. State Department's list of American murdered in Mexico (73 by my count), 70 percent are in northern states –- the ones advised against "non-essential" visits, the ones most linked with the grisly drug war reports we see in media coverage.

Eight of the murders were in the 12 states not in the U.S. travel warning, while popular states like the Yucatan, Quintana Roo, Oaxaca, Chiapas and Puebla had none. (Incidentally 27 Americans drowned in Mexico in 2013, 17 committed suicide and 56 died from traffic accidents.)

If the overall figure still haunts you, try asking an Italian how to cope. Each year Italy sends three-quarters of a million visitors to the United States, despite the fact that the US's murder rate is an equal five times greater than theirs.

Many Americans, of course, go to Mexico. About 15,000 cross the border each day, more than 5 million in a year. Most find what Tim Leffel, an American travel writer living in Guanajuato, has found in his new home. Locals aren't worried about getting shot in the street, but just the possibility of "getting mugged by some teenage thugs looking for trouble, which generally happens at three in the morning."

I lived with local families in Guanajuato, Chiapas and Mexico City in the past without any trouble. (I was never out at 3 a.m. either.) Once I had a bag snatched in a Guadalajara bus station. I've only ever been physically attacked once; that was a block from my apartment in New York.

Two months ago, I spoke to a Canadian expat group at Lake Chapala, an hour from Guadalajara. I was stunned to hear, two weeks later, that two local Canadians –- perhaps in the audience for my speech –- were killed at home in a robbery (not a drug deal) gone awry. In 16 trips to Mexico, it's the closest I felt to the headlines we see. It bothered me to hear it. So too though did the news, while on that trip, of a man getting shot at a movie while texting in Florida.

Sadly, violence happens in Mexico, as it does everywhere. And it's impossible to ensure 100 percent security anywhere you go.

Ultimately, I think, this American question of "should you go to Mexico" isn't about comparing grisly statistics, it's about simple negative perception. And it's one that never seems to go away for Mexico.

One woman traveler, for example, planning a trip there neatly summed up the warning friends gave her in a list she called, "Things-That-May-Happen-to-Visitors-in-Mexico." She included "horrible hotels, tropical fevers, robbery, rape, bandits, political riots, mayhem and murder."

Sound familiar?

That was in 1960. And the woman, Nell Murbarger, traveled in a trailer for months in Mexico with her 70-something mother, and without incident, something she summed up the book 30,000 Miles in Mexico.

You don't have to go to Mexico, but it's not as far-fetched as some make it out to be.

If you plan to go, check our list of alternative Mexican destinations, all in places not listed in the state department's "non-essential" list.

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