I'll be leaving soon for a 12-day trip to Mexico. Reading over the U.S. State Department's revamped travel advisories, I'm either headed into a country that warrants no more caution than travel to France or Italy, or depending on where I go, carries the same threat of potential danger as war-torn Syria, Iraq or Yemen.
The revised guidance system for U.S. citizens traveling abroad, announced January 11, was intended to simplify an outdated and sometimes politicized method of issuing travel warnings and alerts for worldwide travel.
While the new ratings are easier to understand, they are apt to leave travelers headed for Mexico confused and worried.
The State Department rated the whole of Mexico a Level 2 on a scale of 1-4, meaning Americans should exercise "increased caution" because of widespread drug-related murders, kidnapping, carjacking and robbery.
Five states, however, earned a Level 4, the highest level of potential danger under the new system. It carries U.S. government advice to avoid travel completely.
This means that the five states- Tamaulipas on the U.S. border and Sinaloa; Colima; Michoacan; and Guerrero on the Pacific Coast - will be likely off limits to student and volunteer groups, given insurance and liability complications, but what about the average tourist who just wants a few days at the beach in Ixtapa (Guerrero) or a cultural excursion to the Monarch Butterfly Reserves in Michoacan?
A closer look indicates that the State Department considers some destinations within the five states safer than others. One indication is where it allows government employees to travel.
Scroll down an alphabetical list on the Mexico Travel Advisory to the state of Michoacan state, for instance, and you'll find the colonial capital city of Morelia singled out as an exception to the "do not travel rule" for government employees.
Many ex-pat Americans and Canadians have homes in Morelia. I doubt much has changed there since I spent a delightful few days there two years ago, mixing with the locals on the Plaza de Armas, and strolling through narrow streets lined with 17th- and 18th-century buildings built from pink stone.
In the state of Sinaloa, the State Department allows its personnel to go into Mazatlan's historic town center, a far more interesting area than more modern areas filled with all-inclusive resorts. There are also no restrictions for government employees in Guadalajara and Puerto Vallarta even thought the whole of Jalisco State carries a Level 3 advisory to "reconsider travel."
As Mexican tourism officials point out, plenty of other areas in Mexico are rated Level 2, advising travelers to exercise caution but not to avoid travel. They include Baja California Sur and Quintana Roo, where two popular tourist destinations — Los Cabos and Cancun — are. Also Chiapas State (Palenque and San Cristobal de las Casas); Baja California; Guanajuato (the cities of Guanajuato and San Miguel de Allende); Oaxaca and Mexico City.
Mexico's Tourism Ministry noted that more than 28 of its most popular tourism destinations for international travelers have no restrictions.
Bottom line: For those who care what the U.S. government has to say about travel, the current advice on Mexico is more useful than it’s been in the past. Could it improve? Sure. Let's hope officials keep it up to date, and not let political biases affect ratings. It's hard not to suspect politics played a part in Cuba's Level 3 rating (Reconsider travel), although that's a notch up from an earlier warning not to travel there.
Beyond consulting the State Department's advisories, travelers are always wise to poll a variety of sources when planning a trip. Talk to people who live in Mexico or visit frequently. Read the blogs and forums on websites such as tripadvisor.com. Check to see if your travel insurance will cover you (some policies don't cover areas where the government has warned people not to travel). And check out what other governments are telling their citizens.
Canada's advice on Mexican travel is to exercise a high degree of caution in general, and avoid some of the states targeted by the U.S., but it helpfully singles out exceptions such as Mazatlan in Sinaloa; Ixtapa, Zihuatanejo and Taxco in Guerrero; and Morelia in Michoacan.
Australia recommends reconsidering the need to to travel in Michoacán, but exempts Morelia and the Monarch Butterfly Reserves since the reserves are accessed from the State of Mexico and are insulated from the rest of Michoacán. Like Canada, it exempts Ixtapa-Zihautanejo and Taxco from its Guerrero warning.
I’ve traveled somewhere in Mexico once every year or two for many years, and have never encountered any problems bigger than a compromised credit card. My take is that most drug-related violence occurs in peripheral towns and neighborhoods where travelers rarely go, and that petty crimes happen mostly in touristy beach resorts.
Stick to the historical cities or low-key coastal towns that attract a mix of Mexican and foreign travelers interested in outdoor adventure vs. all-inclusive drinking and eating, and you should be fine.
This time I'm off to the town of Tequila near Guadalajara for a story on the family distillers and agave growers who produce Mexico's national drink, then I'll head south to San Cristobal de la Casas, a highland town in the southern state of Chiapas (rates Level 2). I'll be doing what I love most, that is finding ways to tap into Mexico's rich cultural heritage. I consider that the best, and yes, safest way, to explore all Mexico has to offer.