Thoughts: Misconceptions about Mexico
Thanks largely to the recent election, and also to the media in general, the entire country of Mexico has been painted in a deep shade of black that's hard to rub off from the other side of the border. There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings plaguing the US right now, and the ones surrounding Mexico are big too.
Since we arrived in Baja, we've gotten a lot of questions via Instagram about safety down here. It seems a lot of people are concerned or have been scared into thinking that driving down into Mexico, even Baja, is like driving into a nightmare. I'll even admit that when we drove over the border, I was scared. Why? I'm really not that sure. But I have a feeling it's the same reason that any one of you feels scared, too. It's the fear that's seeped into my subconscious thanks largely to the news media, and my inability to weigh what information is worth holding onto and what's not.
I want to take some time to clear up some of the assumptions you might have. Because I had them too, but in truth we feel totally safe down here. About as safe as we would feel in the United States doing what we're doing (living mostly in our car).
Please note that all of the opinions expressed here are mine (sometimes ours) alone. None of this is meant to be prescriptive or predict what your travels will be like! All that I write here is just based on my own experience, to encourage you to get down here and have your own.
Let's clear some things up...
First off, I want to express to you what a beautiful place and culture thrives here, rich in color, happiness, and life. So that maybe, if you've been teetering on the edge of deciding whether to come down here for a while or not, you'll take the plunge. It's worth it.
Some things that might frighten you out of coming down here have largely (probably) been blown out of proportion by the media. Think for a second how eager they are on a regular basis to take a story and run with it, milking it for every cent with sensational rhetoric.
In the light of the recent climate around media, to be clear I'm not saying the media lies, I'm just saying sometimes they over sensationalize because that's what sells.
How about we talk about some of the things you may be thinking thanks to that rhetoric.
For the record, I'm speaking more directly to Americans, but also to whoever else is interested. This is purely because of the recent election and conversation around the country of Mexico that I don't feel is at all fair.
Well, despite what Trump has been touting about all of the killers and murderers that come over the border, there are more that are US citizens. According to one source I found, "150,000 people visit Mexico safely every single day". The stat alone should make you feel better. I also found some quick stats on Wikipedia about crime in Mexico that confirmed that, while the national murder rate down here is higher, it's largely due to cartel activity and it's not that much higher than in the US.
In fact, here's a nugget I found in a good article by HuffPo:
"What you don’t get from most reports in the US is statistical evidence that Americans are less likely to face violence in Mexico than at home, particularly when you zero in on Mexico’s most popular travel destinations. For example, the gateway to Disney World, Orlando, saw 7.5 murders per 100,000 residents in 2010 according to the FBI; this is higher than Cancun or Puerto Vallarta, with rates of 1.83 and 5.9 respectively."
In 2014, the homicide rate for tourists in Mexico was 3.4 per 100,000 individuals. In the US, it was 3.9 per 100,000, according to Time Magazine. According to CBSNews, "murder is the second leading cause of death among Americans aged 15 to 24" and is "the third leading cause of death among those aged 25-34" according to a 2010 WHO study. The US also has the most guns per capita in the world. The world, ya'll. That is the main ingredient in the recipe for a dangerous environment, period.
Basically, you're safer visiting Mexico these days than you are the US.
But remember that at the end of the day, danger is everywhere and you just have to accept some risk in order to live your life fully! You're probably more likely to die driving from your house to your office as you are to have a really bad experience down here in Mexico (at least, if you travel smart). Yes, there is corruption here. Yes, there is murder. Yes, there is rape. But don't we (I'm talking to Americans here) live in a country with one of the highest murder rates (among developed countries) in the world?
HERE'S A TIP
Travel smart. Know about the places you're going before you go there. There are loads of books and resources out there on Mexico, so be sure to check them out, especially before driving down. One key tip from us about the drive is, up North, do NOT drive at night. The highway up there is incredibly narrow and dangerous. It's one of the main causes of tourist death down here in Baja. Find a place to park for the night before sunset. You'll be really glad you did.
The Surfer's Guide to Baja
Moon Guides: Baja
Dirty is totally subjective, so I'm not going to pretend like I know what dirty really means to you. But from my point of view, because we used to live in San Francisco, Mexico isn't even that bad. At least there isn't human feces on the sidewalk down here like there is in SF...
But to be totally fair, the trash epidemic here is pretty real. I think I'm a bit more desensitized to it now since we've been here for almost two months, but yeah, it's not good. Traveling through some of the northern parts of Baja, I was particularly shocked and saddened by the amount of trash that I saw incredibly close to the ocean. Most of it was made up of plastic bottles, plastic bags, and other random single-use waste items.
That being said, if you don't like the idea of a more adventurous and earthy vacation that's going to make you cringe sometimes with it's realness, Baja probably isn't for you. There's a lot that isn't pretty, like the trash heaps, but there's a lot that's absolutely beautiful, creating a sharp contrast.
Depends largely where you go! You can come to Mexico and spend just as much as the US if you do it wrong. Going to super touristy areas and indulging in all of the touristy things, you'll spend a bit less but still be spending a comparable amount to what you'd spend in US dollars.
As in any place, just be smart about what you spend. If you go to local markets, buy fresh food, you can save tons of money and eat some of the best produce you've ever had (we've been particularly keen on the papaya, guava, and avocados down here). SO DELICIOUS.
Here's a tip
If you love fresh produce as much as we do, often the best stuff is either at local farmer's markets or fruterias that sell exclusively produce. That's just our experience! Some of the bigger stores have good produce, but we've found (at least in Todos) that this isn't the case. The smaller, produce focused places are where it's at!
It's full of scams
Yes, there are some people that might try to take advantage of you in Mexico. But I'm sure that's true of any country. You just have to be wary and have your wits about you at all times (and this is true of traveling through any country, especially one plagued by poverty).
I've personally had people try to change prices on me here and there, but again you just have to be able to say "nope, sorry, I don't want it" and walk away. At first, it's going to feel weird, but you just have to get comfortable doing that.
HERE'S A TIP
Before you come down to Mexico, learn how to count from 1-1000 in Spanish really well because people are sometimes going to try and switch prices on you. It's just what some are going to do to make a little more money. No big deal. Also, know the conversion rate well and (if you have issues with math) practice dividing prices (in pesos) by that number. It'll come in handy later.
5. No one speaks English
This really depends where you go, but most people speak at least a little bit of English. That being said, it's 1) respectful and 2) smart to learn some conversational Spanish before coming to Mexico. The more you at least try to speak Spanish, the better your experience will be and the more you'll connect with people.
HERE'S A TIP
If you haven't heard of it, download the DuoLingo App from the App store for your smartphone. If you don't have a smart phone, go find a good book on beginner/conversational Spanish! You won't regret it.
The water will make you deathly ill
Okay, maybe you've had a friend who got sick drinking something by accident, but again the chances are extremely low that it's going to happen. Be smart when eating/drinking out. There are bugs down here that most people from outside of Mexico aren't exposed to on a regular basis.
Overall, try to order things that 1) are cooked and 2) come from a bottle (when it comes to water).
HERE'S A TIP
Try to avoid ice in your drinks if you can help it! Though we now tend to brave it after spending some time here, it's best not to risk it. Though, if you're at a pretty touristy spot where lots of other gringos are drinking things with ice, it's probably safe.
Someone will rob you
According to the same Wikipedia article I cited in the first point, theft/robbery/burglary are all much higher in the US than in Mexico. In touristy areas, I'm sure it's more prevalent, but just be smart. As long as you don't flaunt your expensive things all over the place and know that you're traveling in an impoverished country, on the whole you should be safe. For example, I rarely take out my pricey lenses and camera in public places, because I don't want to be targeted. It just says "there's more where this came from". I may be taking it too far even, but I just feel safer that way. Chances are, nothing would ever happen, but to me it's just not worth it to risk it.
And for the record, it's not even that I think the people who want to take my camera are bad people. They just have to eat, maybe have families to feed, and that's what they feel they need to do to get by. Ultimately, I just don't want to be their means.
Finally, no two experiences are the same
My experience down here is undoubtedly going to be different from your friend's last trip to Mexico, but on the whole I'd just like to say: come down here!!! There's so, so, so much beauty and frankly, a need for tourism.
Why is it important to visit? If not only to form your own perspective and ideas about Mexico, to spend your money in a country who's lower class desperately needs it. The disparity here between rich and poor is pretty vast, and you'll see it when you visit. It's hard to know where the middle class lies, especially here in Baja. So if you're going to take a vacation, think about that! Your dollars (or other currency) will help build and hopefully shape the tourism industry here.
And when you do venture across the border, be kind and patient and respectful, especially if coming from a developed country. Everyone down here is living life and getting by, just like you.