Thinking about a trip to Mexico? If so, you'll be joining 10 million other Americans who traveled there during the first half of this year, almost twice as many as flew to Europe, according to the U.S. Office of Travel and Tourism Industries.
Crime and drug-related violence are real, but they affect mainly cities and neighborhoods where tourists rarely go. Still, travelers would be foolish to plan trips without doing their homework.
I point out in my Travel Wise column for The Seattle Times this week that government travel advisories are a place to start. But when it comes to a more general finger-on-the-pulse feel for what it's actually like to be in Mexico, I like many of the websites and blogs written by expat Americans and Canadians living there.
One of my favorites is Mexconnect, an electronic library with a searchable and cross-indexed database of more than 4,000 articles on Mexican travel, food, arts, culture and history.
Click on "Culture & Arts" and you'll find stories on Oaxacan handicrafts and "lucha libre" (pro wrestling). Go to "Cuisine" to learn about the yucca, a starchy tuber that appears on menus in many forms including tamales, yucca pudding and meat pies.
Travelers interested in current social issues will find well-researched stories on ethnic diversity, the Mexican water crisis and rural education.
Jim Johnson, an artist, former New Yorker and author of "Mexico City: An Opinionated Guide for the Curious Traveler," uses his blog to offer insights into life in Mexico City, where he has lived since 1997.
Johnson's blog is a go-to site for off-the-beaten-track arts happenings such as the recent reopening of the Museo Rufino Tamayo in Chapultepec Park. He wanders the city, searching for the best tacos, and points visitors to bookstores and galleries in his favorite neighborhoods of Colonia Roma and La Condesa. Look for links to a food blog written by his partner, Nicolas Gilman.
With the end of the Maya calendar coming on Dec. 21, visitors to Merida, Cancún and the Riviera Maya will find useful information at Yucatan Living. Click on "Yucatan Primer" for info on cenotes, the underground freshwater pools that dot the peninsula; bird-watching, diving, flamingos and eco-resorts.
John Barreiro, a retired English-as-a-second-language teacher from El Cerrito, Calif., has rounded up information on getting around Mexico by bus at www.larpman.com. Most helpful is the way he has organized the info to display travel times between cities serviced by three first-class bus companies.
Author Julia Taylor, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and moved to Cuernavaca, weighs in on safety issues at www.home-sweet-mexico.com, a website aimed mainly at those thinking of relocating to Mexico, but also useful for travelers.
The country remains under a U.S. State Department travel warning advising Americans to exercise caution, and to avoid some areas completely.
The specifics about areas to avoid are far more detailed than in previous advisories (in Acapulco, for instance, travelers are told to go no more than two blocks inland of popular beach areas). The problem is that the information hasn't been updated since February.
Politics and trade relations can sometimes influence government travel advice, so I like to round out the picture by also checking the latest advisories from Canada and Australia Both have been updated recently.