Mexico As Imagined By the Washington Post

Categories: Indigestion
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Flickr user yarhargoat

It gets fatiguing reading the same articles on travel to Mexico that parrot the U.S. State Department over and over again. Precious few of those people have ever actually been to the places they're writing about, but they turn the fear dial up to 11, the result being that Americans are more convinced than ever that all they have to do is put el dedito pequeñito south of the border and they'll end up dead.

It was refreshing, then, to read an article in the Washington Post last week by Andrea Sachs called "Mexico: A guide to which parts are safe to travel to, and which are dangerous" (though that title needs some work). Surely this would calm the hysteria, right?

The intent of the piece--to get people to stop treating Mexico as one giant, bullet-sprayed turf war--was noble, and she's helping to dispel some of the old, lingering myths; Chiapas, for example, has been a safe and amazing destination for years, filled with some of the kindest people and most jaw-dropping sites in Mexico.

She's also right about some of the places she mentions. It's not a good time to go exploring Ciudad Juárez--not necessarily because of the danger of crossfire, but because the city is paralyzed and not functioning at its best. Going fishing in Falcon Lake along the border is one of the worst vacation ideas ever. The state of Chihuahua is a beautiful desert, which would be the Texas of Mexico if Jalisco didn't already hold that title; they make wonderful cheese and are masters of grilled meats--but reports are that it's sewn up tight out of fear.

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Dave Lieberman
Then there's Sachs' treatment of Tijuana, which she files under "Go with caution, or with a burly friend."

A burly friend? Are you kidding? What is a burly friend going to do, loom in the darkness and scare people away?

"As safeguards, avoid low-end bars and drink or eat only items that have been prepared in front of you. Also, travel during the day and plan your modes of transportation in advance."

That's not how you avoid the illness known as las turistas. Any seasoned traveler can tell you that you pick the places where people are eating, preferably the locals. People line up for food for a reason; the places that are busiest are usually the best, and the patrons are usually proud of them and will tell you what to order, even if you're communicating via exaggerated body gestures.

Writing off street food is a ridiculous idea in a city where half the best food comes from carts and tents. Fish tacos from a cart in Ensenada or birria from a cart in Tijuana is one of the glories of the food down there. There's a reason there's a constant stream of people, even early in the morning, at Tacos Fitos next to the Mercado Hidalgo. I can't see the food being prepared in front of me at the Carl's Jr. at 5th and Revolución, but that's not the reason I avoid it.

Also, it's winter right now, in case Sachs hadn't noticed, which means that if you don't venture out after dark, you're going to be mighty hungry between 4:30 p.m. and 6:30 a.m. That means no cocktail receptions at art galleries, no long, upscale Baja Med dinners with Baja's excellent wine, no bar hopping along Calle Sexta, and no churros, bacon-wrapped border dogs, or steaming bowls of post-club seafood soup with your fellow partygoers.
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Lilyricob
Lilyricob

Hello there! Great article, thank you for being ambassador of our beautiful country. We look forward to welcoming you all.Do you have a twitter account?

Kenn Morris
Kenn Morris

Dave - great commentary, and (given that I visit Tijuana 4-6 times/month on business) totally agree with both your perspective and your offer to take Ms. Sachs around.  I'll buy the tacos (or maybe a great beef filet grilled at the Argentina restaurant I visited today, although admittedly I didn't watch them cook it, so maybe myself and the business executives that frequent that place are eating food that's been dropped on the floor, as Ms. Sachs apparently believes happens in Mexico). I'm in process of updating some security statistics that might also shock Ms. Sach and her burly friends: in 2011, Tijuana had a murder rate nearly equal to Oakland, California (and around half that of unfortunate New Orleans). When, oh, when will the big name reporters (as you suggest) just GO and see for themselves? Sigh.... Let me know if she takes up your invitation....the street tacos or sit-down Argentina-style beef meal offer stand.

Mickey D
Mickey D

Kenn, so you're saying Tijuana's murder rate has dropped from a record 76 per 100,000 in 2010 to about 10 per 100,000 in 2011? Sounds as though it's dropped (they said this in 2009 and 2010 however - it increased), but not by that much. One year it has 3.5 times the murder rate of New Orleans the next it has half?? Forgive me for being sceptical.

As far as New Orleans is concerned, let us wait until the 2011 FBI Uniform Crime Report comes out in September which is a while off. In fact, there's no doubt TJ's murder rate is still significantly higher than all American cities so I don't know why I'm arguing the point.

Bozo
Bozo

Actually, the Post article sounds reasonable and balanced (and yes, I've been to Mexico).Dave here offers only personal opinion based on his limited experience to attack an article based on extensive research and opinion of travel and security experts, locals and expats.This high-school level article is akin to a chihuahua nipping at the heels of a pit-bull.

wideNCawake
wideNCawake

Mexicans: bring the food, leave your trash.

Karen
Karen

It is impossible to convince the fearful, as the media continues it's fearmongering.I began visitng Mexico in the 70's, when it was still somehat of a 3rd world country.  My memories are still very fresh of Monterrey as a small city beautiful city with a majestic countryside, before being exploited as an industrial center for production of all kinds using "cheap" labor.  The beauty of the countryside and it's kind people, some of the most incredibly fresh and flavorful food are still emblazened in my memory.It's time to stop blaming Mexico for the carnage of the drug war.  Yes, a somewhat failed strategy.  It is the voracious appetite for drugs in the US and Canada that are the cause.  It wouldn't be such big business and the competition for smuggling routes.  Don't overlooked the USA's complicity w/ it Fast and Furious free pass for arms smuggling and the money-laundering game, too.Not to mention the consumers north of the border who can buy goods from Mexico at a lower cost, than those made domestically.  Don't overlook the explotation of illegal immigrants north of the border.  They exist for the benefit of the gringos.  Deport them and the labor force is diminished.  Legalize them, costs increase to the detriment of the consumerism.  If nationals would do the jobs, there wouldn't be a market for illegals.I chose to make Mexico my home 6 yrs. ago, when the US economy decline began it's decline.  Friends thought I was crazy, but by 2008 they asked "what did you know?".  I saw the handwriting on the wall in the housing market and seeing the insane lending practices in the sub-prime arena.  Come on sub-prime doesn't read as a red flag.  Those who profitted from it should be ashamed for the lives they damaged.I feel perfectly safe living in Cozumel and haven't a second thought about my decision.  Yes, there is some crime, but being an island has advantages.  Even the President of Mexico, Felipe Calderon, vacations here.  He is here now with family and friends.  Of course, he is well protected.  The island has the advantage of bases for all branches of the military, Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines.  Plus an international airport built by the US in the 1940's.Don't be waylayed by the media, discover Mexico for yourself.  Might I mentioned, the USD is strong against the peso so you money goes farther.I'm not a conspiratorist, but I feel the media's agenda is to encourage people to stay home and spend their money in country.  The frenzy of the swine flu had a very detrimental effect on our island's economy.  There was never a case of it on the island.  It also did not start in Mexico, as the first case of this strain was discovered in 2006 with the case of a boy in Michigan.  Information they was buried and only reported by a Newsweek science writer. 

Luis Navarro
Luis Navarro

Great article and accurate perspective .  We travel back and forth all the time. I love it here (live in Rosarito part time).  i have this type of conversation at least twice a week and I have gotten to the point that no matter what I say I cannot change their sense of safety.  

So come if you like or stay home if you will.  Lastly, if you are considering getting a passport, get a passport card which will allow to use the "Ready lane" this makes for a faster trip back to the USA.

Althea Baldwin
Althea Baldwin

Have been coming to Baja for 17 years and never once have my husband or I ever felt threatened. For 13 years we drove down from Canada and the military stops were not a problem. They were more afraid of our dog than us of them. We eat in every type of establishment from backyard taco stands to high end Sushi bars and haven't died yet.We have made friends with countless Mexicans and have been invited to many special events in their lives. In fact we stay on the property of some of the nicest people you could meet anywhere in the world. Yes they are Mexicans and they have adopted us and vice versa. I consider the children my grandchildren having watched them grow up go to university and begin their careers.I would hazard a guess there are far more middle class Mexicans today than in either the USA or Canada. This is a up and coming country and deserves far better press than it has been getting.

Whiskeyread
Whiskeyread

Very well written article.  We have been travelling around Mexico in our motorhome for 4 of the 5 past winters and have never had a problem. We love Mexico, it's culture and it's people.  We have had many people tell us that we are crazy and like you have mentioned the majority of them have never travelled here and only listen to what the media tells them.  It's unfortunate that what trouble there is in certain localized areas is made out to be like it is the whole of Mexico.  This doesn't happen for the entire country of the USA so why do this to Mexico!  

http://www.travelwithkevinandr... 

Nancy
Nancy

...and if she takes you up on your offer, I would love to invite you both to continue South to Mazatlán, another town she says to take a pass on.  We have lived here for four years, and the food, culture, beach, and people are wonderful and peaceful.  Check out more than 500 posts on my blog if you want to know more.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Someday I'm going to make it to Mazatlán... there's a restaurant in Los Angeles that sources its fish from the puerto in Mazatlán and it's by far the best seafood I've ever had.

GringoLoco
GringoLoco

I appreciate what this author and the author he reviewed are trying to do, and in general they are correct; but it is clear that they have not lived in Mexico or at least not in central Mexico.  There are not military roadblocks on all major highways, just in areas where they suspect drug dealers are operating.  I have never been stopped or seen a road block in my state, Queretaro, in the six years I have lived here.  The military does not have domestic enforcement duties in normal times, and in fact, there has been a lot of concern about President Calderon using the military for domestic enforcement which some claim is unconstitutional. Eating food from street vendors is not recommended although it can be very, very tempting. Street vendors do not normally have access to water to clean their hands or implements and I know many Mexicans who have gotten sick from eating such food.  When something is dropped on the ground it usually is picked up, brushed off, and put back on the cart.  The chances of getting sick may not be much greater than at a poorly run McDonald's in the US, but it is there.  Over the past year or two there have been a number of expats in Queretaro who got typhoid from eating in the streets.  I have lived in Mexico for about 11 years total and rarely eat street food, and I have rarely had amoebas and never typhoid.

Mexicans are friendly, helpful (much more than the average US citizen), honest to an extreme, and a lot of fun.  Mexico has a tremendous climate, certainly better than Florida, Midwest, New England or the desert Southwest.  Mexico has an incredible history and the beautiful historic districts to prove it.  Mexico has great food, not just tacos and nachos, and virtually all restaurants and kitchens have access to potable water for washing and cooking so that salads are no longer a problem (except in the street). Mexico has been attracting a lot of European tourists who more than make up for the lack of US tourists, and there has been a large increase in tourism among Mexicans as well.  The only way to learn about a country that was settled during the Renaissance (my town was founded in 1531) and that is more exotic for Americans than Europe is to come down and experience it for yourself.  Articles, even sympathetic ones like the referenced here, cannot truly relate what it is like to be here.

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

You're right that I've never been to Querétaro, but I seem to remember roadblocks in places other than the drug running routes in the north. It has been, to be fair, a long time and that may have changed. What hasn't changed, though, is that roadblocks are almost never a problem for Americans.

I maintain that if there's a long line of people waiting for street food, the sanitation is probably not a concern. It's when you're the only one and people are walking past the booth you're stopping at that you should start to investigate a little more fully.

Thanks for your well-written reply!

GringoLoco
GringoLoco

But the fact remains that road blocks are there for a reason, and even if you are in the majority who do not get sick from street food, for the few who do it can ruin a week long vacation.  For me that is not a problem, but for tourists it can be a big problem.   I always counsel people to be safe about food, whether they are in the US, France or Mexico.  Why take a chance?

Dave Lieberman
Dave Lieberman

Because "why take a chance" translates directly to "be afraid of everything", at which point you end up missing some of the best foods ever. Mexico wouldn't be the same without its street food. I can't imagine Paris without roasted chestnuts and crêpe stands, or New York without dirty-water hot dogs and street pretzels.

Also, what constitutes "safe"? Remember that street food vendors are out to make a living. If you sicken your customers you won't make a living. Obviously some people are filthy (though I'd invite you to investigate the kitchens of many, many "safe" American restaurants), but they won't have a line of people.

Of course the roadblocks are there for a reason. That doesn't mean you're in any more danger, or that you need to be afraid of them. The only time I've ever had anyone even ask anything more than the usual questions (what nationality are you, where are you coming from, where are you going, how long have you been in Mexico) was at the permanent stop on the free road from Rosarito to Ensenada, where they asked if they could trade flashlights with us since ours had working batteries.

RickZ
RickZ

I live outside of Acapulco in a working class community and have never had a problem.  Just use some common sense.

Jmcguinness
Jmcguinness

I was in TJ amonth ago for a day trip to take my annual burro/zebra Christmas card picture and I'm headed down to the beach near Santo Tomas and on to Guerrero Negro for my family's annual New Year's camping trip. Never had any sort of a problem besides breakdowns (VW van) and was always helped with those by friendly locals. The truth is that I have never even spoken to anyone who has had a problem firsthand in Mexico. People can only tell me what happened to a friend or relative .... sort of like urban myths.

The 41 Percent
The 41 Percent

Washington, as imagined by the OC Weekly, would be a similar story. Especially anything to do with politics.

20ftJesus
20ftJesus

I've never had any problem with the food or people in TJ.  Although a bit pedestrian, Mariscos Negro Durazo is a favorite lunch spot.  Sit far away from the band -- unless you want to go deaf. 

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