The Mexico You Love is Still Here

by Felisa Churpa Rosa Rogers

As a kid, I was accustomed to the double take, the long stare, the muffled giggle. We spent months of each year traveling the backgrounds of Mexico and Guatemala, and we ended up in a lot of places where the locals hadn’t seen a gringo in years. Of course that was back in the days when Americans were afraid to go to Mexico because they were convinced the country was overrun with murderous banditos and crooked cops. Oh wait…

photo credit: Chelsea Mcalister

After decades of grumbling about tourists crowding my favorite haunts, this December I felt like I’d time-traveled back to the days when Mexico was a truly exotic destination. Upon arrival, my friend Chelsea and I got the eerie impression that we were the only gringas in Mexico City. When I traveled to Michoacan to see the monarch butterflies, my friends and I were, in fact,  the only Americans in the town of Ocampo (despite the town’s proximity to a famous tourist destination). In San Miguel de Allende, I saw a healthy number of local expats, but very few American, Canadian, or European travelers. My friend Carlos says enrollment in his Spanish classes is down by 50%.

Why is Mexico so empty? Part of the drop in tourism is the result of the crappy global economy. The other reason is just as obvious, but it doesn’t make as much sense.

Many travelers seem to understand that some parts of Mexico are relatively safe (Cancun remains inexplicably popular), but I don’t think Americans and Canadians realize how many parts of the country are relatively safe. As Tony Burton reports at the excellent Geo-Mexico blog, narco-related deaths in 2011 were heavily concentrated in eight states: Chihuahua, Guerrero, Nuevo León, Tamaulipas, Durango, Jalisco, State of México, and Coahuila. Mexico has 31 states and a Federal District. When it comes to the narco wars, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato isn’t even on the map.  But even in areas that do register on the narco violence radar, tourists are statistically unlikely to be targeted. For example, Burton’s co-author Richard Rhoda notes that an American who visits Mexico City is more likely to die of a traffic accident in the US than as a result of drug violence in Mexico City. 83 times more likely, in fact.

Here at the People’s Guide, we enjoy statistics, but we are even more fond of anecdotal evidence. To this end, I recently conducted a highly scientific survey of safety in Mexico.  The results: Mexico feels just as safe as it ever has.  I did not encounter crooked cops, nor was I menaced by black Escalades. I was not mugged, beaten, robbed, or executed. On my entire trip, I was the victim of one crime: someone (presumably an employee of United Airlines) stole a bottle of 12 year Flor de Caña rum out of my suitcase while en route between Houston and Portland, Oregon.

To the casual traveler, the most noticeable effect of narco violence is the lack of foreign tourists. The overall number of visitors to Mexico is at its lowest level in 15 years, and my trip through the highlands definitely illustrated this statistic. I might have enjoyed ‘authentic’ gringo-free vistas if it weren’t for my gnawing sadness for the people who are hard hit. Everywhere I went, I saw hotel owners and waiters tending to empty businesses with a resigned dignity that is muy Mexicano. Meanwhile, with equally typical cynical optimism, Mexican politicians and tourism authorities are counting on an ‘end of the world’ tourism boom for 2012. I’ll believe that when I see it. The good news is that Mexico is still here, and these days the entire country feels off-the-beaten path.

photo credit: Tina Rosa


5 Comments so far

  1. Alyssa on January 18, 2012 7:27 PM

    I probably stole the rum. If I was there, I would have at any rate. Though at least I would have had the decency to split it with you. Thiefs these days! The airlines are full of ‘em. It’s just not safe to fly anymore. Better take the train.

  2. Churpaon January 19, 2012 7:14 AM

    If you had been anywhere in the vicinity, you would certainly have been my first suspect.

  3. Tina V. Rosa on January 19, 2012 10:50 AM

    It´s funny, but today I went into San Miguel for my Spanish lesson, and the place is crawling with gringos. The snowbirds are back! And I HATE it. I´d gotten really spoiled over the seven months of the year when they all go home.
    Nonetheless, despite this particular anthill of gringos, it´s still true that most of Mexico is suffering from the dearth of tourism.
    And even here there are endless listings of houses for sale (scared foreigners who want out) and for rent.
    In all my 45 years of travel in Mexico the scariest thing that ever happened to me was ONE time when a truck almost ran us off the road with no shoulders.

  4. Churpa on January 19, 2012 1:27 PM

    Thanks for your expert perspective, Tina! Might I convince you to write the occasional piece on life in Mexico for this blog? Hmmm?

  5. Tina V. Rosa on January 20, 2012 7:42 AM

    You might get me to, with appropriate incentives…