by Dave Seminara
Fifteen years ago, my brother who lives near San Diego took me to coastal Baja in Mexico and the experience has stayed with me ever since. We ate fish tacos, went swimming at a sublime, deserted beach and fell asleep on the beach to the sounds of the surf. In December, I’m heading west to visit my brother again, this time with my wife and sons, ages 3 and 5, but when I asked him to take me back to the same places we visited long ago he told me that it wasn’t safe.
“No one goes down there any more,” he said. “Those places are all ghost towns.”
And after contacting Budget, the company we’d reserved a car with at its LAX location, and being told that we weren’t allowed to take our rental car down to Mexico, I wondered if perhaps my brother was right.
Crime in Mexico is serious business and anyone who suggests that safety isn’t a legitimate concern is kidding themselves. But I’ve been traveling to different parts of Mexico for years, including recent trips in 2009, 2010 and 2011, and I still believe that there are parts of the country that are safe to visit.
In March, I wrote a piece about safety in Puerto Vallarta in the wake of an armed robbery incident involving cruise ship passengers, citing crime statistics indicating that several U.S. cities have higher murder rates than Puerto Vallarta. The post generated nearly 100 comments, with readers deeply divided on the issue of safety in Mexico.
The U.S. Consulate in Tijuana has a useful page on how to avoid being a victim of crime in Baja with a host of common sense tips, such as stay sober and avoid traveling at night. The most recent State Department travel warning for Mexico, issued in February 2012, has the following segment on the safety situation in northern Baja.
You should exercise caution in the northern state of Baja California, particularly at night. Targeted TCO assassinations continue to take place in Baja California. Turf battles between criminal groups proliferated and resulted in numerous assassinations in areas of Tijuana frequented by U.S. citizens. Shooting incidents, in which innocent bystanders have been injured, have occurred during daylight hours throughout the city. In one such incident, a U.S. citizen was shot and seriously wounded. According to the Government of Mexico, as of August 2011, the city’s murder rate was approximately 20 per 100,000. During 2011, 34 U.S. citizens were the victims of homicide in the state. In the majority of these cases, the killings appeared to be related to narcotics trafficking.
Most observers agree that southern Baja, including Cabo San Lucas is generally regarded as safe. But in an effort to help readers decide if northern Baja is safe to visit, I reached out to two writers with extensive experience there. Nikki Goth Itoi is the author of the indispensable Moon Guide to Baja, the guidebook you want to pick up if you are considering a visit to the region. And Carla White, a resident of the Ensenada vicinity for ten years, is the editor of Baja.com a terrific site for anyone planning a visit to the region.
Nikki Goth Itoi, author of the Moon Guide to Baja
Mexico has gotten a lot of negative publicity due to the narco-violence there. How has that impacted Baja?
Tijuana is a much more interesting place now for visitors because it’s become a city for locals. All the tourism dried up, so now it’s a local scene. There are galleries, cafés, artsy places that don’t just cater to people from San Diego popping over for the night. It’s not as Americanized.
What safety tips do you have for visitors to Baja?
In terms of safety, all the basics apply. Be careful where you go. Don’t go out late at night. Don’t go to the red light districts. Be as inconspicuous as possible. Stay in well-lit places and don’t drive at night. It comes down to common sense in traveling to a foreign country. There’s going to be petty crime and that kind of stuff happens.
You have two young boys, ages 6 and 4, would you hesitate to take them to northern Baja right now?
No, I wouldn’t at all. I’m planning that trip right now.
Some would call you crazy, right?
People have this sense that Mexico is to be avoided, period. Rosarito is a ghost town. But those who live down there think there’s a comeback in the making in northern Baja and it’s centered on food and wine.
People have to do what they are comfortable with. If you’re worried about safety and headlines you saw in the news, you’re not going to have a good time. I don’t try to win people over.
Crime in Mexico is covered in the U.S. media more than crime in U.S. cities is. If you look at crime data for major U.S. cities, the numbers are lower in Baja. If they’re not comfortable, some are better off staying in San Diego, but Baja has a lot to offer.
The people are very warm. The hospitality is wonderful. Between the eco travel opportunities and the food, wine and cultural opportunities, there’s a lot to discover in Baja. So if you are intimidated by Tijuana, go east and use one of the quieter border crossings. You can also go in a caravan – with a group, there’s always safety in numbers.
You spent time traveling alone and also with your kids researching the book in Baja. Did you ever have any safety issues?
I’ve never had any issues whatsoever. We’ve been pulled over for questionable reasons in Tijuana, but it’s always been fine.
Carla White, editor of Baja.com
You’ve lived just outside Ensenada for ten years. Is Northern Baja safe?
We are very aware of the articles that come out about safety in Mexico and we roll our eyes. We watch the San Diego news down here and we look at the U.S. and go ‘wow,’ the crime that goes on up there is so random. I have friends and relatives in L.A. and Orange County who won’t come down here because they’re afraid. It’s difficult to explain to them that we find it safe here. They think we’re crazy.
Have you ever been robbed or had any other safety issues there?
I had an ATM issue in Rosarito a couple years ago. Someone tried to grab my card. I was robbed. I went to the police and they were very responsive, in fact, the Rosarito government was very responsive as well. But this same kind of thing happens in the U.S.
Did the thief drive you around and make you withdraw money at various ATMs?
No. He didn’t have a gun. I walked into an ATM booth and I had already put my pin code in and a young, nice looking guy at the machine next to me said, ‘Oh, here, let me help you with that.’ And I told him I didn’t need help. And he was very aggressive and out of the corner of my eye, I saw another guy approaching the booth, so I actually abandoned my card and just got out of there. For me, it was personal safety first. They were able to withdraw $2oo or $300 from my account.
What about other people in your social circle. Have any of them been robbed or had other security issues?
About two years ago, there were some burglary issues up and down the coast. But there were no violent attacks that I’m aware of.
How would you compare the safety and crime situation now compared to a few years ago?
Things definitely got worse when the economy hit the skids a few years ago. I can’t speak to Tijuana as much; I’m more familiar with Rosarito and Ensenada. Tourism from the U.S. just stopped and that may have inspired some of the crime that happened. I’ve lived here for about 10 years and I’ve felt safer here than I’ve ever felt in the U.S.
Recently we’ve seen things improve. We’ve seen more tourism – not necessarily from the U.S., but from Mexico and Europe, and an upswing in the economy. And the government has stepped in and has been very sensitive to travelers and tourists.
Of the areas in Northern Baja that are frequented by tourists, are there any you would advise people to be more cautious in than others? Or avoid entirely?
Not really. I even love Tijuana. It has the best restaurants and is a fun, interesting place. But I wouldn’t be hanging out in the bars there after midnight! A tip that I would give any traveler is to stick to the toll roads, especially at night. I would use the same precautions in Baja that I’d use anywhere in terms of doing things after dark. As far as specific locations, I think I would stay in the main, touristy areas.
What about Ensenada?
I feel very safe in Ensenada. I’m not a bar scene person but I feel comfortable in Ensenada after dark. You just have to keep your eyes open.
So for Americans looking for a safe beach getaway in northern Baja what do you recommend?
I would highly recommend Ensenada. There are great hotels and it’s super sensitive to travelers’ needs and desire for safety. And I don’t not recommend Rosarito Beach.
A good outcome to all the bad press Mexico has gotten in the U.S. is that it created a hyper-awareness here, so I think tourists can feel safe here as long as they pay attention to their awareness and surroundings.
What about police shakedowns in Baja. Are they still a fact of life?
A lot of people have had occasions where they’ve been pulled over and it turned out to be a shakedown. I would say that was happening quite a bit about six years ago. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’ve had nothing like that happen recently, nor am I aware of it happening to anyone else in my community in many years.
But if you are pulled over, is it best to pay the bribe or insist on going down to the police station?
It seems easier to pay $20 and go on your merry way but you need to tell them to take you to the nearest police station. Maybe you were really speeding and it was a real ticket but you’re better off either way. A lot of Americans go down to Baja and think, ‘Wow, I’m in another country. I can do whatever I want here.’
Some people think they can drink themselves into a coma and then hit the road, and it’ll be fine because this is Mexico. But the bottom line is that if you are pulled over, the best bet is to go to the police station. And ask for their identification. If it’s a scam, you’re calling their bluff. And make sure you have insurance and have your paperwork with you.
Note: There is no definitive answer to the “Is Baja safe” question. If you talk to people who have gone there and were robbed, the answer is ‘no,’ it isn’t safe, and if you talk to people who have gone and enjoyed themselves the answer is ‘yes’ it was fine. As our experts said, every traveler needs to decide what they are comfortable with.