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Nov 11

Is Mexico Safe Enough to Bicycle Across?

To cycle of not to cycle, that is the question!

First the proposed trip: Cycling from San Francisco to Colombia, a distance of approximately 7500 km.  From there? Maybe further, we’ll see.  If anybody wants to come with, they are more than welcome.

Just reading that title of the blog makes the traveler in me cringe.  ”Of course Mexico is safe!”, I instinctively say to myself, “the news just freaks everyone out”.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t have seriously questioned the dangers of cycling across Mexico if it wasn’t for, not one, but two uncles adamantly advising against it.  When something like this happens, you need to take a moment, swallow your pride, and do a little research.  It’s OK to take risks traveling, but it’s smart to know those risks beforehand.  It’s especially smart if you are planning on cycling and camping over 7500km.  At the very least, taking the time to look into it will make your mother happy.

So how do you work out if a country is safe or not?  Here is the process I usually go through:

  1. I reflect on recent personal experience in the country/region
  2. I check in with one or more of the following: US Consular Sheets, Australian Travel advisory, UK Foreign Office to get their take on it.
  3. I read the news.
  4. I email any friends I know who live there or who are from there.
  5. I email any friends I know who have recently traveled extensively there.
  6. I go to Lonely Planet’s website and Matador.com see if there is anything on there.
  7. I do a google search and check the travel forums and blogs.

Now, with all of these checks I am not so much looking for if the country is safe, but I am looking to see if the country is safe for foreigners.  In this case of Mexico, I’m working out if it is safe for a foreigner to cycle across the country.   

If you want to skip the research and go straight to The Verdict just scroll down to the bottom.

Day Trip to Puerto Nuevo

Lobster Feast in Puerto Nuevo, Mexico. Jenae likes

My sister and I recently drove down to Mexico for the day.  We drove through Tijuana to Puerto Nuevo, a small fishing town about 50km from the border, famous for their lobster.   Driving down I had my defensive systems fully powered up, my chinese bargaining skills locked and loaded; I was an arrow nocked and drawn, ready to get us a cheap lunch and avoid being hassled and hustled.  Turns out none of that was necessary, so almost regretfully I released the force and moved out of my snake-meets-mongoose stance.  We had a great day, a fantastic lobster lunch and a nice drive.  The bargaining was straightforward, and the hassling was tame.  Even the 3 hour wait to get back across the border was kind of entertaining with all the people trying to sell things that redefined the word “random”.  Their wares included gaudily framed paintings of the last supper, puppies, hello kitty dolls, hot pink tiger blankets and large ceramic tortoises.  When a guy appeared walking down the queue of cars with a near life-size carving of the crucifix over his shoulder and a toddler’s play-desk in his hand, my sister declared “Now THAT’S what I’ve always needed”.  Again though, we received no hassle from any of these guys, everyone was very friendly, presenting their goods, smiling, saying “thank you”, and moving on.

What do the Governments say?

The travel advice issued by the various governments is a good starting point in your research.  Don’t expect good news though, this advice is always extremely conservative, preferring to err on the safe side.  I always joke that at any one time the US Consular sheets would advise against travel to half the countries in the world (OK, OK, at the moment it’s only 33 countries).[1]  Still, though, its a good starting point.  The US had a very detailed report, you can read the whole thing here But here are the pertinent parts, (I had to put a lot of effort in to get it this short):

Millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including more than 150,000 who cross the border every day for study, tourism or business and at least one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico. The Mexican government makes a considerable effort to protect U.S. citizens and other visitors to major tourist destinations. Resort areas and tourist destinations in Mexico generally do not see the levels of drug-related violence and crime reported in the border region and in areas along major trafficking routes… While most victims of violence are Mexican citizens associated with criminal activity, the security situation poses serious risks for U.S. citizens as well… visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where criminal activity might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable…

According to Government of Mexico figures, 34,612 people have been killed in narcotics-related violence in Mexico since December 2006. More than 15,000 narcotics-related homicides occurred in 2010, an increase of almost two-thirds compared to 2009. Most of those killed in narcotics-related violence since 2006 have been members of TCOs. However, innocent persons have also been killed as have Mexican law enforcement and military personnel… There is no evidence that U.S. tourists have been targeted by criminal elements due to their citizenship…

Transnational criminal organizations (TCOs), meanwhile, engage in a wide-range of criminal activities that can directly impact U.S. citizens, including kidnapping, armed car-jacking, and extortion.  The number of U.S. citizens reported to the Department of State as murdered in Mexico increased from 35 in 2007 to 111 in 2010…

TCOs have erected their own unauthorized checkpoints, and killed or abducted motorists who have failed to stop at them…

Violence along Mexican roads and highways is a particular concern in the northern border region…

…you are strongly urged to travel only during daylight hours throughout Mexico, to avoid isolated roads, and to use toll roads whenever possible… you are urged to defer non-essential travel to the states of Tamaulipas and Michoacán, and to parts of the states of Sonora, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Sinaloa, Durango, Zacatecas, San Luis Potosi and Jalisco…

You should be especially aware of safety and security concerns when visiting the northern border states of Northern Baja California, Sonora, Chihuahua, Nuevo Leon, and Tamaulipas… More than a third of all U.S. citizens killed in Mexico in 2010 whose deaths were reported to the U.S. government were killed in the border cities of Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana…

Carjacking and highway robbery are serious problems… Most victims who complied with carjackers at these checkpoints have reported that they were not physically harmed… There are some indications that criminals have particularly targeted newer and larger vehicles with U.S. license plates, especially dark-colored SUVs…

TCOs continue to use stolen cars and trucks to create roadblocks or “blockades” on major thoroughfares, preventing the military or police from responding to criminal activity in Monterrey and the surrounding areas. Travelers… have been targeted for robbery that has resulted in violence. They have also been caught in incidents of gunfire between criminals and Mexican law enforcement. In 2010, TCOs kidnapped guests out of reputable hotels in the downtown Monterrey area, blocking off adjoining streets to prevent law enforcement response. TCOs have also regularly attacked local government facilities, prisons and police stations, and engaged in public shootouts with the military and between themselves. Pedestrians and innocent bystanders have been killed in these incidents.

The number of kidnappings and disappearances in Monterrey, and increasingly throughout Monterrey’s consular district, is of particular concern. Both the local and expatriate communities have been victimized and local law enforcement has provided little to no response. In addition, police have been implicated in some of these incidents. Travelers and residents are strongly advised to lower their profile and avoid displaying any evidence of wealth that might draw attention…

Since 2006, more homicides have occurred in the state’s capital city of Culiacan than in any other city in Mexico, with the exception of Ciudad Juarez. … Travel off the toll roads in remote areas of Sinaloa is especially dangerous and should be avoided…

In the last year, the city of Mazatlan… there were over 300 narcotics-related murders within the city, compared to fewer than 100 in 2009. You are encouraged to visit Mazatlan during daylight hours and limit the time you spend outside tourist centers…

When traveling in Sinaloa, U.S. government employees are required to use armored vehicles and may only travel in daylight hours… [and] are prohibited from traveling to Colotlan, Jalisco, and Yahualica, Jalisco… You should defer non-essential travel to the State of Michoacán, which is home to another of Mexico’s most dangerous TCOs, “La Familia”…Do not take the dangerous, isolated road through Ciudad Altamirano to the beach resorts of Ixtapa and Zihuatanejo and exercise caution traveling on the coastal road between Acapulco and Ixtapa due to the risk of roadblocks and carjackings…

Scared yet?

The Aussies’s say more or less the same as the Yanks, and recommend you “use a high degree of caution” traveling to Mexico which is one notch below “Reconsider your need to travel” which they recommend for Ciudad Juarez, and which is one notch below the “DO NOT TRAVEL” category.[2]  They also had this to add:

  • You should avoid all large public gatherings, protests and demonstrations as they may turn violent.
  • The hurricane season is June to November when landslides, mudslides and flooding may occur. In the event of a hurricane, monitor local media reports and follow the instructions of local emergency officials. See the Natural Disasters, Severe Weather and Climate section for detailed advice.[2]
You got to love the Australian Government: “don’t accidentally get sprayed by gunfire, and oh yes, mind the weather!”
And what about the Brits?  More of the same, though I did note this:
“There have been a number of violent car-jackings and robberies along the Pacific Highway. You should exercise particular caution along this route, travel in convoy where possible, and avoid travel at night.”[3]

What’s in the news?

I checked out the latin american section of BBC Mundo, and apart from a video about how Shakira won some big award, there was the headline, “Human rights watch: Neither security, nor rights in the drug war in Mexico.” and the headline “Mexico captures top Sinaloa drug boss Limon Sanchez”.  Well that’s good news but what worried me about this article was not the headline, but the photograph.

 

See the two police?  See their faces? No, you don’t and this is the norm for the Mexican drug war.  The police are scared, so scared that they don’t want their faces ending up on the news.

El Pais had a lot more of the same with articles about the difficulty of opening a business in Mexico, Prostitution, guns, drugs, and cock fights in an Acapulco prison, and another article on the human rights watch accusations.

Email a Friend

I emailed my friend Polo, who is from Mexico City to see what he thought, this is what he had to say:

Hi friend, how you doing, it looks great, but I need to know if you go just you, or it is a group of people, I mean, it is not very safe if you do the route alone. It is not that you are going to be keep napping or something, but it is a very long distance.
Remember that I am In mexico city, so if u r comming you have to visit me .. OK!!!

Not a whole lot of help there.  He’s encouraging, but discouraging.  I get the impression that he’s more worried about the dangers of cycling than the dangers of being a victim of highway robbery.  I emailed him again, specifying that my concern was not the cycling, but getting hijacked.

Travel Forums/Blogs

Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum can often be helpful:

hello

i am cycling from new york city to argentina
now i am almost in austin and preparing to cycle through mexico
i plan to take the border in reynosa and then cycling to mexico city and from there to guatemala
i know already cycling mexico city is madness
but the americans here have warned me already a million times that its not the right moment to cross mexico by bicycle, and i am starting to doubt
are they right? what should i do? am i really crazy ?

bart

You are not an obvious target – most Mexicans looking at you will think “Jeez, this guy can’t even afford a car” so a robbery seems unlikely. There is the remote possibility of wandering into a shoot-out near the border but the chances are very, very slim. Once you’re away from the border area you should be fine.

Dave

“The Americans here” haven’t got the faintest hint of a clue. Like Americans everywhere, they gather their beliefs from mass media, then repeat to each other until convinced it must represent the only possible truth.

Those of us who’ve actually traveled around the surface of Mexico (and elsewhere) recently are almost unanimous in reporting an absence of any problems beyond the usual (get off the road by sunset, trust your instincts, don’t flash cash around in public, try to resist offers of suspect substances, etc.) precautions applicable in New York or London.

Safe journeys!

Mark

Then I found a blog of a super-cyclist “Anna” who cycled through Mexico in 2010.  This is what I was looking for!  She had no problems, so why should I?

Finally, I looked at Matador.com and found an interview of a family of four who spent three years cycling the length of the Americas.  13 year-old Davy had this to say

“Don’t be afraid to go and do it. The kids will learn from being there, and you won’t be mugged or attacked like everyone thinks you will.”

The Verdict

"WE RIDE!"

Picture me on a horse.  I am in full medieval armor, complete with a large, red, obnoxious plume gracing the top of my helmet.  In a deep sonorous voice that echoes across the hills and makes ladies weak in the knees (yes, there are hills) I announce “WE RIDE!!!” and gallop off into the sunset.

Having done the research, I would not say I feel Mexico is %100 safe to ride a bike across.  However, by avoiding the largest problem areas and getting off the road by sunset, I substantially reduce the risk of a severe incident occurring.  The US consular advice gives a great deal of very location-specific information, and it just so happens, that my proposed route avoids the worst areas.  Only two parts of the ride are in areas that have had a substantial rise in crime and violence over the last few years.  The first part is in Northern Baja around Tijuana and near the border, but I can cycle through this isn less than a day.  The second part is in southern Sinaloa, including Mazatlan and the road south of Mazatlan, but the warnings for this area are not as severe.

Even if I am unlucky and something were to happen.  Odds are, the worst case scenario will be I get robbed.  I can live with that.  The odds of anything worse happening is small enough to not worry about it.  In reality, the biggest risk I take is the inherent dangers of cycling on mexican roads with mexican drivers.

It’s still possible I might not do the trip, I do have other options I want to explore, but now I have at least one very good option.

 

References:

  1. travel.state.gov http://travel.state.gov/travel/cis_pa_tw/tw/tw_5440.html
  2. smarttraveller.gov.au  http://www.smartraveller.gov.au/zw-cgi/view/Advice/Mexico
  3. www.fco.gov.uk http://www.fco.gov.uk/en/travel-and-living-abroad/travel-advice-by-country/north-central-america/mexico1

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