With how much media attention there is surrounding cartel activity, versus how little positive attention we see surrounding Latin America, you can't help but have some fear when traveling south. Fortunately, Brenton had experienced Mexico firsthand on several occasions before deciding to travel across by vehicle and the two of us. He first went to Mexico as a teenager to visit family who lived in the north near the border. Then in 2003, he and his sister backpacked across Central Mexico while studying Spanish. In 2009 the two of us backpacked across the Yucatan and a big loop, exploring ancient Mayan ruins. Finally, in 2010 we embarked on a multi-day river expedition down a remote stretch of the Rio Grande, having to step foot into the state of Chihuahua several times just to safely mitigate the waters.
So we knew first-hand how safe Mexico can be, but it’s still very easy to let all of the negative media attention and hype create fear.
After first crossing the border into Tijuana, it admittedly took us a little time to completely relax. First of all, Tijuana can be a stressful place to navigate and do all of the proper paperwork for an extended journey. After we made it further south to Ensenada, we realized one of our necessary forms was processed incorrectly. We had to go back to the border and do it all over again, so we decided to go to Tecate where we heard it was less chaotic. The Tecate border was much more straightforward in comparison and we realized that Tijuana was a poor introduction into our first big border crossing.
For the next 3 months we found our own rhythm and found our own comfort zone while traveling Mexico. We learned to trust more and "put ourselves out there" more, but we always try to remain situationally aware while having contingency plans for the possibility of danger. We try to trust our gut and we have trigger words in case either of us feel that we are in a situation that doesn't feel right. No questions asked, we'll move along and create some distance. Rarely have we ever had to do this, but we feel this is an important strategy when traveling through ANY unfamiliar territory, whether it be in your home state or the other side of the world.
This can be a difficult balance to find, but once it's achieved you find so many amazing opportunities to make new friends and incredible experiences get thrown in your lap. If you are too nervous or insulate yourself from the locals in fear, you miss out on so much of the culture and hospitality that can be found.
Mexico is an amazing country with so much to offer and we are very fortunate that we were willing to take a chance and spend so much time there. I can honestly say the only times that we didn't FEEL safe, were unjustified and only due to a fear of the unknown. The travel boogeyman that can haunt you when you're in a strange new place, especially after dark when you can see less of your surroundings.
So why are we constantly being told how dangerous Mexico is?
The situation in Latin America is highly sensationalized, but it's impossible to deny the facts. Between 2006 and 2012, roughly 40,000 people have died in Mexico alone. These numbers aren't stacked with tourists or foreigners, and as a matter of fact, we had a very difficult time trying to find any cases where tourists were targeted for violent crime or murdered. I wasted a lot of time researching statistics and analyzing the violence... which specific regions we should avoid and what kind of situations to watch for. The sad truth is that border violence sells newspapers, gets tv ratings, radicalizes people and gets votes. It also sells the illusion that your home country is the only safe place on earth and you should probably spend all your hard earned money (and taxes) here until you drop dead.
I can be killed in parts of Chicago or Philadelphia just as easily as I can be killed in parts of Juarez. Most of our travels are thru quiet pueblos, colonial cities, and remote countryside. As a matter of fact, there is even the argument that Americans are actually safer in the Mexico than at home. Shortly before we left, I even read an article about the cartel presence in Austin, which is the town we were living in before heading south.
Our firsthand experience is that the world can be a very friendly place. Every corner of this earth is full of people with hopes, dreams and curiosities much like ours. The majority of us value family, friendship, and genuinely want to take care of each other, including strangers. As long as we pay close attention to our surroundings, trust our gut and do our best to avoid the people who give us a bad feeling, then there is a vast planet out there to explore.