Travel to Mexico Can be Safe -- But Spring Break Visitors and Others Should Prepare for Experience

Traveling to and around Mexico can be a fun experience, but you should use your head if you're planning on going there for spring break. It's not as simple as driving to Lake Havasu or San Diego, and -- as we detail in this week's feature article on Rocky Point -- the safety factor is debatable.

American tourists haven't been targeted in Mexico's drug war, and no American vacationer has been attacked in Rocky Point for 20 years, our research showed. Still, it pays to be a savvy international traveler. Below are some of our thoughts and tips for potential visitors to Mexico, and be sure to follow the links to our slide-show, which contains pictures not used in the article's print version, and a video made by our crack art team (well, either crack, or large amounts of hallucinogens):

* Get Mexican auto insurance if you take your vehicle across the border. Stats from Rocky Point police show that 26 Americans had their cars stolen last year in or near the town. If you don't have Mexican auto insurance, you're probably S.O.L. because your American carrier won't pay for the loss. Even worse, if you get into an accident with a Mexican citizen and you don't have Mexican auto insurance, you'll probably be jailed until you can prove you can pay for damages.

* Leave the firearms at home. Possession of even one bullet in Mexico can get you thrown in jail. Not that the Mexicans are looking very hard for weapons. Mexican border agents waved us through without a care, but in December, we were asked by U.S. customs agents whether we had any weapons in the vehicle. Brian Levin of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency tells New Times that if an American citizen is found to be carrying guns south during an inspection, the American agents won't let them pass. But it's for the best, given Mexico's harsh anti-gun laws.

* Southbound inspections by U.S. officials don't typically use the drug-sniffing dogs seen in northbound checks. But you never know what might happen on the Mexican side if you take some weed or other drugs into Mexico. You're taking your chances, obviously. Forget trying to come back with drugs. That's what the multi-billion-dollar gauntlet at the border is there to catch.

* Check out the State Department's advisory on travel to Mexico. However, we can't tell you how closely to follow that advice. That's up to you. For instance, the advisory states:

It is imperative that U.S. citizens understand the risks involved in travel to Mexico, how best to avoid dangerous situations, and who to contact if one becomes a victim of crime or violence. Common-sense precautions such as visiting only legitimate business and tourist areas during daylight hours, and avoiding areas where criminal activity might occur, can help ensure that travel to Mexico is safe and enjoyable.

The nightlife in Mexican resort towns is a big reason many people go. It's also fun, (albeit somewhat spooky) to explore a dark beach. That's not so safe in the States, either.

* Passports: Yes, they're required now. No, they're not worth stressing over. If you don't have one, you'll still get back into the United States, Brian Levin of the CBP assures us. The border crossing might not be as smooth as it could be -- the passport-less person's identity would need to be verified on federal computers, and it's possible the person's vehicle might get pulled over for a more-thorough inspection. It helps if the person has a driver's license or some other sort of official ID. But CBP policy is that no U.S. citizen will be refused re-entry to his or her country, Levin says.

We tested the system on our trip to Rocky Point in February. New Times fellow Gregory Pratt didn't have his passport in time for the trip, but went anyway. On the way north through the Lukeville crossing, a border agent glanced at Pratt's driver's license and copy of his birth certificate, punched his name in her computer, then told us to have a nice day. No problema.

* Americans do end up hurt or killed in Rocky Point, but it has nothing to do with cartel members or worshippers of Santa Muerte. Vehicle accidents are the culprit. Roads aren't as well maintained in Mexico as in the United States, and neither is the health care system. Tourists tend to feel more comfortable with driving drunk than the would in, say, Scottsdale. And if you don't have much experience with ATVs, be extra careful if you rent one. Local police told us that a young American woman recently broke her neck on an ATV.

* Watch out for the dim, hard-to-see "alto" signs. Street signs are also difficult to see. An official an Rocky Point's Convention and Visitors Bureau admits they're a problem, but says it's not one that will be fixed anytime soon.

* If you've braved the trip down, don't be afraid of the street food, either. But travel guides still suggest avoiding tap water, which contains microbes that American bodies aren't used to. We also avoid ice and lettuce, which may be rinsed with tap water. That's just us, though.

* Experienced Mexico travelers, please feel free to add your thoughts. We're also wondering if anyone's taken the drive to Caborca lately, and what the beaches are like at Desemboque.

Buen Viaje.

Click here for Rocky Point slideshow.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.
Contact: Ray Stern