We’re planning another trip driving through Mexico and I’ve begun researching via news what to expect out in the wild. It’s making me nervous, I can’t lie. I’m as inclined as anyone else to not be kidnapped or decapitated, but the news reports are hysterical and contrary to our previous experiences driving and living in Mexico and I’m choosing to ignore much of what I’m reading. I live in LA, people are killed here on the regular and it doesn’t seem to bother me, probably because I don’t have the news shouting at me: NEVER GO THERE EVERYONE IS A CRIMINAL AND WILL STEAL EVERYTHING YOU HAVE BEFORE EXTORTING YOUR FAMILY AND KILLING YOU MERCILESSLY. Media coverage is biased, good news doesn’t sell, and for some reason it makes people in the US sleep better if they think Mexico is a shit-hole.
What areas are considered dangerous in Mexico?
Competition between cartels is most fierce around the US border. Towns like Ciudad Juarez are the real losers of US drug policy and have long had issues with gun battles in the street, obviously, it’s not a tourist destination, but tens of thousands of people drive through the town every day without incident. A good strategy for driving through dangerous areas of Mexico is to drive early in the morning and pass through before anyone is awake, last I checked criminals tend to sleep in.
Recently, and unfortunately, a lot of criminal activity has been taking place in Jalisco, Michoacán, and Guerrero. I lived in in the sleepy surf town of Sayulita, on the border of Jalisco state, where if there was nefarious dealings going on they were well concealed. Still, every town has a dark side and you’d do best to avoid it. Michoacán and Guerrero states struggle financially and own a mountainous topography suited to hiding-out or trafficking and are thus uniquely susceptible to criminal enterprise.
So why go driving through Jalisco, Michoacán, and Guerrero?
Because there is surf, lots of surf. My travels in the area were confined to the coastline and if it weren’t for the waves I don’t know that I would have gone at all. But if it’s surf you after, I can’t recommend the area highly enough. Michoacán especially is incredibly beautiful, like driving through Big Sur in California, or the Great Ocean Road in Australia’s Otways, a road meanders low and then high above the sea, the highway perched on the cliff as if taped on. Of course, conditions are more treacherous than my first-world examples, but only because villagers really want you to slow down and take a look at their store as you pass through and build unmarked concrete speed humps in the shape of knee high triangles. You quickly learn to slow down at the first sign of houses.
Michoacán is incredibly interesting, the majority of people living there consider themselves not Mexican and perceive the government sending in police, army, gas stations, even road workers as acts of invasion. This animosity doesn’t extend to visitors, Michoacános are incredibly friendly and fiercely proud of their lands and heritage, my Spanish improved immeasurably simply because everyone there is really keen to have a chat. Travelling is such a better experience when you feel welcome to explore the area and that is exactly how I would describe Michoacán, welcoming. I’d even go as far as to say visiting Michoacán was my favorite experience while living in Mexico.
What’s it like driving through dangerous areas of Mexico?
Never drive at night in areas you don’t know. Ever. Prepare yourself to be searched by lots of different people. It’s a hotbed of criminal activity in the midst of a policing war. When I say prepare yourself, I mean, don’t be in possession of things you shouldn’t be.
The federales have their roadblocks around the major cities you pass through, the army has sporadic checkpoints along the coast highway, and in Michoacán especially, each village has a militia that wants to know who’s coming and going. You’re going to be searched, a lot.
Federales are scary. Be polite, friendly and cross your fingers. Army will thoroughly search your car, but they are also the least likely to screw with you. It’s sometimes good to carry some food or Coke cans for the army boys, they don’t eat like kings in the service. The militias are most usually people who care desperately about their village and have taken action because they felt there was little choice. More often than not, once they see you’re a gringo they just wave you on, otherwise, they just want to see a driver’s license.
You will find changeable road conditions while driving through dangerous areas of Mexico, but for the most part roads are good to excellent.
Be aware that it’s tough to find a gas station in Michoacán, locals tend to set fire to the government gas stations. You should get a full tank and carry some spare gas before entering.
That sounds scary
And it is, I don’t think I’ve ever felt my heart pound harder than during one very thorough search by army outside of Tecomán. But we didn’t have a problem, no one asked to be bribed, no one hassled us beyond wanting to search the vehicle, everyone was polite and professional. I don’t want to play down the risks involved in driving through dangerous areas of Mexico, which are very real. But violence mostly affects those who are involved in things they shouldn’t be and killing gringos is bad business. I’d never recommend letting fear dictate your travel plans. Be safe, be smart, trust your instincts and you might just have an incredible adventure.
We did have one strange run-in with the police in Sayulita, but that’s another story.