Travel Advisory for Mexico – A Vacation Horror Story

CDMX sign in Condesa

…is the type of headline the media continues to use to sensationalize and exaggerate news stories involving popular Mexican tourist destinations. Some of you want to hear about all the bad things that happened to us on our last trip to Mexico; here’s what actually happened when we visited Sayulita, Mexico City, Playa Del Carmen and Tulum:

Beach hammock in Tulum
Beach hammock in Tulum
  • We were HORRIFIED by the amount of totopos we consumed,
  • We had our hearts STOLEN by the kindness of locals in Mexico City
  • We were HELD CAPTIVE by the sunsets at Playa Escondida
  • We were BURNED by the spicy aguachile dishes on the beach in Sayulita
  • We were ROBBED of sound and light pollution during those peaceful evenings in Tulum
  • We had our defenses CORRUPTED by the constant FEAR of not trying a taco or margarita in Playa Del Carmen
  • We were TERRIFIED by the fact that we’d have to leave it all behind and return to the gloom and rain of late March in the Pacific North West.
Street in Sayulita
Street in Sayulita

From severed heads to innocent tourists beaten to death, the news gives Mexico a bad reputation and some of it is definitely blown out of proportion. With misleading headlines like “With 14 killings in 36 hours, tourists urged to be cautious”, no wonder people feel scared. Despite media sensationalism of how dangerous Mexico is, it continues to be a popular tourist destination with 35 million visitors in 2017.

Biking in Tulum
Biking in Tulum

Bad and unexpected things can happen anywhere, including at home, but you do need to be more situationally aware and cautious in Mexico than a destination like Hawaii. Just after we booked all components of our itinerary for our last trip in March 2018, the US issued a travel advisory for Playa Del Carmen, we were told about the mysterious and infamous “Sayulita Sickness” that allegedly leaves no prisoners behind, and we received an article about how the most dangerous cities in the world right now are in Mexico. In this post, we’ll talk about the risks vs rewards in visiting Mexico and why we chose to go ahead with our trip and why we will continue to visit Mexico.

Walking to the beach from our casita at Encantada in Tulum

Risks vs Reward:

When planning trips, we often use the “Risk vs Reward” methodology to determine where we want to go and what we want to do. The basic premise is that if the perceived risks associated with trip are higher than the rewards, we won’t enjoy ourselves.

Here are our perceived risks of travelling to Mexico:

  • Illness from eating food and drinking beverages
  • Petty crimes like theft, scams and counterfeit currency
  • Bodily harm as a result of a motor-vehicle accident and/or taking part in leisure activities such as swimming, walking/hiking, biking, etc.
  • Victim of a violent crime or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time during a violent crime
Interjet flight taking off from PVR
Interjet flight taking off from PVR

Here are our perceived rewards of travelling to Mexico:

  • An affordable destination due to the value of our Canadian Dollar against the Mexican Peso
  • An easy to access destination due to all the non-stop flights offered by domestic and Mexican carriers. Recently, Mexican carriers Volaris and Interjet have been expanding their route networks into and within Mexico.
  • Access to nature in tropical settings, i.e stunning beaches, cenotes, jungle, and mountains
  • Experiencing a rich and diverse culture that varies from coast-to-coast and city-to-city with lots of historical sites to visit
  • Access to a vibrant, diverse and unique food scene that includes street-food to high-end dining
  • Cultural immersion through learning and practicing Spanish

As you can see, for us, the rewards of travelling to Mexico outweigh our perceived risks.

Cenote Cristal
Cenote Cristal

Fearmongering Vs Facts:

As mentioned at the start of this post, there were 3 factors that arose after we booked our last trip to Mexico and we will discuss each one to explain why we decided to go ahead with our trip.

Factor #1 – The World’s Most Violent Cities are in Mexico:

A family member sent us an article that lists 12 Mexican cities that made the top 50 deadliest cities in the world as a detractor to our trip even if none of the places we were visiting were included. Most people think they’re doing you a favor when they share these types of articles with you but all they’re doing is propagating media sensationalism. This so-called risk had nothing to do with our current trip and was really easy to dismiss.

Medano Beach in Cabo San Lucas

Factor #2 – The US Travel Advisory for Playa Del Carmen:

In March 2018, the U.S. Embassy in Mexico issued a travel advisory that placed restrictions on government employees traveling to Playa Del Carmen and using ferries. During this period, the consular services office in Playa Del Carmen was also closed. The reason for the alert was as a result of an undisclosed security threat which is believed to be related to the explosion of a ferry on its way to Cozumel and the subsequent discovery of explosives on another ferry. Just 4 days after it was issued, the ban for government employees and the travel advisory were lifted, and the consular services office re-opened in Playa Del Carmen.

Beach in Playa del Carmen Mexico

Anyone who was following the developments may have felt inundated by all the headlines and articles published during and even after the travel advisory was lifted because very few media outlets reported that it was over and that the consular office had in fact re-opened. Even a more reputable source like Condé Nast was sharing misleading information during the travel advisory about where to access consular services during the Playa Del Carmen office closure. Condé Nast was directing people to Merida 175 kms from Playa Del Carmen instead of the Cancun office 65 kms away that remained open. Despite sharing this information with Condé Nast, it was never acknowledged and the article remains unamended.

Al pastor tacos with a beer at El Fogon
Al pastor tacos with a beer at El Fogon in Playa Del Carmen

Since we’re Canadian, we consulted Canada’s Department of Foreign Trade and Affairs risk level for Mexico to better assess the situation. Despite the US’ alerts and restrictions, the “Risk level(s)” cited for Playa Del Carmen remained unchanged at “Exercise high degree of caution” but the travel advisory was updated under “Safety and security” to include the information about the ferry incident in Playa Del Carmen and all Canadian consular service offices remained open. Since we were not planning on taking any ferries and consular services for Canadians would remain open, we felt reassured about our safety and security as we did during past visits. We were also reassured by our friends who visit Playa Del Carmen yearly with their young children as they were there during the period of the US’ travel alert/advisory and reported that it was business as usual and that they did not feel any less safe than they had during their past visits.

Factor #3 – Sayulita Sickness:

Research on TripAdvisor led us to find numerous Forum topics and posts about “Sayulita Sickness” that affects more people than not. There doesn’t appear to be any definitive cause of the illness; some say they got sick from swimming in town, for some it’s food and beverage, and for others it was a flu or norovirus outbreak but there is one commonality and that’s the Sayulita River pollution. Sayulita continues to be a small town but has also experienced exponential growth in a short amount of time due to an increase in expat residents and tourists and the current infrastructure cannot support this growth, including the existing sanitation plant. As a result, it is said that smelly black sewage water flows through town and ends up in the ocean on the busiest stretch of beach where people swim and surf but we were in Sayulita during dry season so we didn’t get to witness the river of black sewage. The fear of Sayulita sickness was high for us especially since it would be the first stop on our 9 day trip. In speaking with friends and acquaintances we trust and who have visited Sayulita, it was 50/50; some had become ill and some hadn’t. The overall consensus was that Sayulita is a great place and worth visiting but those who became ill will not go back until the new sanitation plant is built and the sewage problem resolved.

Swimming in the ocean at Playa Escondida
Swimming in the ocean at Playa Escondida

In an effort to mitigate the likelihood of illness, we chose to take a Dukoral booster the week before since it had been more than 3 months since we last took it and this vaccine “is indicated for the prevention of heat-labile enterotoxigenic E. coli (LT-producing ETEC)-diarrhea and/or cholera for adults”. During our time in Sayulita, we were also extra careful to limit eating in town which meant we did avoid a few taco stands we had found and opted to eat at Playa Escondida where we were staying instead. We also always disinfected our hands after handling cash, wiped the tops of beverages off, and did our best not to touch any food with our hands, which are all things you should be doing when travelling anyways. In the end, we enjoyed ourselves and were unscathed by Sayulita sickness.

Sunset at happy hour at Playa Escondida
Sunset at happy hour at Playa Escondida


Over the last 15 years, we’ve visited Mexico 10+ times and hope to keep visiting because we always have fun and enjoy ourselves. At one point or another, something bad may happen to us but so far we’ve fared well. The extent of negative things experienced have been minor illness, touts for scams like those in Asia, our bikes were stolen (which has also happened to us in Canada) and Sargassum seaweed has affected our enjoyment of the beaches.

We were very hesitant to visit Mexico City after hearing so many negative things about it but we found it to be one of the most unique and beautiful cities we have ever visited in Latin America. We exercised caution much like we did in Argentina, Chile, and Peru and enjoyed ourselves so much in Mexico City that we’re hoping to go back in the next few months.

Marketplace in Sayulita
Marketplace in Sayulita

While Mexico is paradise in some ways, it’s not a perfect place and there are lots of very serious problems there but it is truly a beautiful and interesting place to visit. Our objective with this post was not to convince you about how safe Mexico is but maybe you’ll start to realize that Mexico isn’t as scary of a place as the media portrays it, maybe you you’ll be less inclined to share click-bait articles about crime and violence in Mexico, and just maybe one day you’ll visit some of the places we’ve visited and enjoy them too.

Have you visited Mexico or are you too scared to? Are we missing any perceived risks that you think we should consider? Do you think Mexico is not as scary as the media portrays it after reading this post?

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