Mexico is having a rough moment. In 2017 alone, state-sponsored and cartel-related murders soared to their highest rate in decades, while everything from devastating earthquakes, tainted alcohol, and news about sexual assaults plagued the nation's popular tourist destinations. These issues have led the U.S State Department to release travel warnings on some of the country's tourist hot spots, including an update to an August 2017 warning about the Mayan Riviera as well as more recent alerts for four individual Mexican states. Even so -- and despite signs that late 2017 was seeing dips in the number of international tourists arriving in Mexico -- the country still exerts a magnetic pull on travelers, particularly those from the United States. While many head to Cabo San Lucas, Cancun, and Tulum, the nation's capital -- Mexico City -- has also become a major destination. However, given that it's one of the largest cities in the world -- and travelers' fears about Mexico in general -- the question is often asked: "Is it safe to visit Mexico City?" The answer is yes -- for the most part. Here's what you need to know.
The Truth About Mexico City's Murder Rates
Let’s start with some basic facts. Mexico City is huge. The city itself is home to nearly nine million citizens, while the metropolitan area holds nearly 21 million. To put this in perspective, the greater Mexico City region includes nearly as many people as the entire nation of Australia and twice as many as all of Portugal. The city itself sprawls over 513 square miles, barely impeded by mountains that spring up within it and around it. Within that sprawl, Mexico City is divided into 1,700 colonias (neighborhoods) that spread out in all directions. These facts alone can make the city intimidating to first-time visitors. However, it’s often the nation’s soaring murder and crime rates that have the biggest dampening impact on travelers’ prospective dreams of visiting Mexico City.
Unfortunately, Mexico City hasn’t been immune to the nation’s murder woes. The nation’s drug war — fueled by the United States’ demand for illegal narcotics, plus a flood of firearms from the United States into Mexico as well as the U.S. government’s demands that Mexico clamp down on the trade — flared in Mexico City in fairly spectacular fashion in 2017. In July, residents of Mexico City witnessed a blockade of burning vehicles set by drug cartels in retaliation for the police killing several kingpins of a local drug network. That fact is tied to other unsettling statistics: According to the Financial Times and Mexican news outlet Reforma, “there were 330 cartel-related murders in the area in the first seven months of 2017.”
Those numbers aren’t good, and mark an upward trend in murders to which the city had previously seemed immune. To put this in perspective, New York City is roughly the same size as Mexico City — in terms of absolute population and metropolitan area — yet experienced 290 homicides in the entirety of 2017. What’s more? Delegacion Cuauhtemoc, the central Mexico City district that includes its most-visited neighborhoods, had the highest murder rate in the city as of June 2017 (9.61 per 100,000 residents, according to Animal Politico).
Even so, it’s crucial to add some context to these facts. While Roma, Condesa, Juarez, Zona Rosa, and the historic Centro are included in Mexico City’s most violent district, the murder rate for this part of town is far lower than many major world and U.S. destinations. For example, Cape Town’s murder rate has historically been six times higher, while Chicago, Miami, and Philadelphia — all major tourist destinations within the U.S. — had more than double the murder rate of Mexico City on the whole in 2017.
What Is It Really Like on the Ground?
The incident described above — where narcotraficantes set vehicles ablaze to sow chaos — happened well outside of the city center, in Tlahuac. In fact, most tourists have likely never heard of the neighborhood, which is located in the city’s extreme southeast. Even so, the fact that Delegacion Cuauhtemoc is the city’s most violent area initially seems like cause for concern. When you examine the situation more closely, though, the picture of just why the district is so violent becomes clearer.
Cuauhtemoc contains the aforementioned neighborhoods that are some of the biggest tourist draws in all of Mexico City. Collectively, these neighborhoods are home to the city’s most famous art galleries, historic sights, monuments, dozens of museums, and many of its commercial nerve centers. It’s also where you will find the lion’s share of Mexico City’s nightlife (though wealthy Polanco — in a safer, neighboring district — has plenty of its own as well). Walking around Condesa, Roma, Juarez, and the Zona Rosa day or night is unlikely to feel any less safe than walking around New York City’s most popular neighborhoods. Day or night, the pavement cafes are filled with people sharing drinks and food, while families take their children to play in the city’s parks or snap pictures below Palacio de Bellas Artes in the Centro.
However, Delegacion Cuauhtemoc is also home to notoriously rough neighborhoods, like Tepito and those found north of Plaza Garibaldi. While Tepito in particular is known for its massive counterfeit markets and buzzing food stalls during the day, it has a reputation for being wildly dangerous even among locals. Shoot-outs and drug busts aren’t infrequent occurrences in this part of town. Still, that doesn’t stop tourists from taking guided tours through the neighborhood, visiting sites like a shrine dedicated to Santa Muerte — the deity revered by Mexico’s narcotraficantes. Farther south in Delegacion Cuauhtemoc, the Doctores neighborhood, bordering trendy Roma and south of the Centro, should also be avoided at night.
Earthquakes and Pollution
While Mexico’s crime rate sadly continues to climb, there are other factors that weigh on the minds of prospective visitors to Mexico City. Twin quakes shook the city in late 2017 and did significant damage to certain neighborhoods as well as the cities, towns, and villages in the nearby and neighboring states of Puebla, Morelos, and Oaxaca. While there is no way to predict when the next quake will happen, scientists have tried their hand at probability. According to researchers interviewed by the Washington Post, Mexico has a 25 percent chance of experiencing another major quake in 2018. There is no telling how strong, but the area — like California — is under almost constant shaking of some capacity. By way of comparison, the U.S. Geological Survey estimates that the next quake event to strike the San Andreas fault in California — a similar tectonic zone to the ones that have rattled Mexico recently — will be between seven and eight on the Richter scale (the range in which the more destructive of Mexico City’s recent quakes fell).
The same factors that make Mexico City particularly vulnerable to the effects of earthquakes — it’s built upon an ancient lakebed in a high-altitude valley that’s three-fourths ringed by mountains and volcanoes — also contribute to its air pollution woes. While the air is still better in Mexico City today than it was decades ago (and trends in fine particulates in the atmosphere are heading downward), there are still plenty of days per year when smog is visible across the city. This, coupled with the altitude and frequent sunshine, can make the atmosphere a trap for PM2.5 particles. According to The Guardian, Mexico City’s PM2.5 levels are around double what the World Health Organization recommends. While that sounds bad, it puts Mexico City in company with places like Paris, Prague, Istanbul, Jerusalem, Brussels, and the towns of California’s San Joaquin Valley.
So, Should You Visit Mexico City?
To put it simply, yes. While the reputation of Mexico — like other must-see Latin American destinations including Brazil and Colombia — precedes it, the city itself is a cosmopolitan, modern, and vibrant place. In many ways, Mexico City is the zenith of all things traditionally Mexican, and very far removed from traditional Mexican life. But as the region around Mexico City has been a cultural nerve center for centuries — well before the Spanish invaders arrived — the allure of this city is deep. From the colonial buzz in the Centro and Zocalo to the cafes and restaurants of Roma to the vibrant markets in almost every colonia — plus beautiful parks, luxe shopping, booming arts, and more museums than any major city in the world — Mexico City has plenty to offer any traveler.
With this in mind, you should exercise a bit of caution depending on where you are staying. While it’s safe to stroll around neighborhoods like Juarez, Roma, Coyoacan, Condesa, and Polanco at night, walking around Doctores and parts of the Centro south and west of Bellas Artes is a little riskier. Check with your hotel or vacation rental host for on-the-ground intel on what parts of town to avoid. Also be careful on public transit like the metro and metrobus, which can both be crowded (especially during rush hour) and thus a haven for pickpockets. Keep anything valuable in your front pockets, or underneath layers of clothing. Alternatively, Uber is incredibly cheap in Mexico City, and is often an easier and more secure way for many travelers to get around.
At the end of the day, Mexico City — particularly the parts of town where tourists go — simply doesn’t merit the fear that many travelers have. In fact, the facts and figures show that the the city is safer than many major tourist destinations in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. When you add an exchange rate that’s friendly to foreign visitors, cheap flights from most major U.S. cities, cultural destinations in spades, and street food that rivals the best cuisines of the world, you’d be missing out big time if you passed over a visit to Mexico City.
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