This article is from the March 1999 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Travel Safety Tips on Mexico

by Dan McIntosh

Dan McIntosh has been a private investigator for 23 years and has conducted investigations in all but one of the Mexican States, Central America, and South America. In California he has worked on several serial murder cases including the "Freeway Killer," "Nightstalker," and the "Hillside Strangler" investigations. He has lived in Ensenada, Baja California, for the last 13 years with his wife and 5 year old son. If you want to contact Dan, his e-mail address is bajapi@telnor.net

Working on life insurance death cases in Mexico, Central America and South America , as well as being a private investigator in Los Angeles for several years, has made me very cautious when I travel. I live out of a suitcase eight months out of the year. The following is an outline of various things to watch out for when confronted with situations in your travels you may never have run across before.

Traveling anywhere in the world, especially places you’ve never been before, is a different experience for everyone. Some people adjust more quickly than others, and some people never adjust at all. These are probably the people who have heard all the horror stories and believe them to be true.  Don’t believe everything you hear. 

I have lived in Mexico for the past twelve years. I honestly feel safer here than when I lived in the U.S. I take precautions anywhere I live, just like anyone, but when you travel there is a whole new set of rules that apply and which you must follow to ensure a great vacation without fear of having it ruined.

Use Common Sense in Any Situation

Most Mexicophiles are true travelers who like to experience places that other people only read about. Using your common sense will get you through almost any ordeal that you may confront.

For example, I was working in Medellin, Colombia, last July investigating the death of an individual who worked for the Medellin Cartel and had a life insurance policy with an American carrier. My job was to find out how the was murdered. I went to the cemetary outside Medellin where he was buried and took pictures of his headstone and talked to the employees there. About ten yards from the headstone were three older women praying and two men with semi-automatic guns in their hands. I asked the employee with me who was buried there. He took me by the arm and led me toward the three women praying. I looked at he headstone and it said “Pablo Escobar,” who probably was the most well-known drug trafficker in the world. He is a legend in Colombia who killed many people to gain his now-collapsed empire. I learned that his mother was one of the women praying. She saw me (with camera in hand) and asked if I knew her son. Using my common sense I did not tell her what I really thought of her son. I explained that I had heard of her son and wished his soul eternal peace. Then I excused myself, kept my hands where the bodyguards could see them – and got out of there! 

Hotels

Before you check into a hotel, talk to other people who have been to that city before to get some input. There are websites (go to www.mexicofile.com) and back issues of The Mexico File that can be very helpful in making the right decision.

Check the room out before paying. Does the door have a deadbolt? Is there an eyehole in the door which you can see through? Look at the windows and make sure they can be securely locked. If you don’t feel comfortable, ask to see another room. You don’t want to stay up all night feeling insecure.

While checking in, do not let anyone know about how much money you have. Take one credit card from your wallet and pay with that. Try to obtain a hotel which has security safes in the rooms – not all hotels have them. Do not let others at the front desk know what room you have. When you leave your room to do some sightseeing, do not leave valuables in your room. Take these things with you or leave them in your safe.

Taxis

In Mexico City (where all you hear about is how dangerous the taxis are), travel by taxi is really not a problem at all, as long as you use common sense. If you are staying at one of the better hotels in town, ask at the front desk if they have taxis that work directly for the hotel (most of the better ones have this service) and hire the driver for the day if you feel comfortable with him. I do this every time I am in Mexico City and the cost for an eight-hour day is probably around $60 or $70 dollars. I suggest that you do this rather than taking several cabs throughout the day and taking the chance of being robbed. Plus, your driver will look out for you as you sightsee. It may cost more, but you can enjoy the day without being hassled. Not only do you have a driver, but you also have a bodyguard included in the price, as well as someone who knows the city and can help you with all your questions on what to do and what to see. Hiring a taxi by the day applies only to Mexico City.

Before you get into a cab, ask how much it will cost to go from one point to another. Get a set price. I have used hundreds of taxis in Mexico and have never had a problem because we have already agreed to the price. If the driver says, “Get in – we’ll talk about it,” find another taxi. 

A few years ago I was working on a kidnaping case in Oaxaca. I found a driver, set our price, and off we went to a location about two hours away. Once we reached the mountain roads, the driver felt compelled to test his car to the limits. Going into curves with 300-foot drops at 60 mph and hearing him grind his teeth with a smile put me just a little bit on edge. I told him that I was in no hurry and that I wanted to see some of the sites on the way. He slowed down finally. Remember that you are the boss, and if you don’t feel comfortable, change cabs.

Airports

I was recently in the Monterrey airport and saw things that really concerned me regarding how careless people can be. Several Americans were standing around the check-in area with their passports, airlines tickets and wallets sticking out of their back pockets just waiting for the first pickpocket to spot them. I really wanted to say something, but I’ve said things before to people and had various reactions – so I kept quiet.

Keep your luggage, your kids, your spouse and anything else you would like to hang on to with you at all times. Don’t let things out of your sight! You can bet someone else is watching. Remember to use common sense. I have had beggars ask for change at airports and I refuse to give them anything for various reasons. Once you go into your pocket for money, the “beggar” and anyone else watching will know which pocket you keep your money in. I have been a victim of a pickpocket – it happened so quickly and these people were so smooth, I was amazed. By the time I realized what had happened, they were gone and I was out three hundred dollars. A pickpocket can be a six-year-old girl or an old man pretending to be blind. Be aware of your surroundings.

Money

Carry enough money for the day and not a penny more. If I need more, I go to the nearest ATM and get what I need. There is a charge every time you use it, but I would rather lose a little than a lot. The ATM’s in Mexico are very good and are in English as well as Spanish – and they give you the current rate of exchange. You can also change your dollars at any bank for a fair exchange rate. If you use a Casa de Cambio, check the current exchange rate and always get a receipt. Use the Mexico peso for all your transactions while traveling in Mexico. Using the peso eliminates a lot of potential problems.

On the Streets

Have you ever been somewhere and thought you were being followed? Working alone in different countries leaves me somewhat of a target for robbers. I am 6'2" and 235 pounds, so I have been told that I probably won’t have many problems with robbers and pickpockets. But it’s not my size that’s the real  impediment to one with evil intentions. Anyone can present themselves as being secure and confident – and the robber will pick up on this and leave the person alone. If you feel you are being followed, go to a place where there are a lot of people. Tell someone, perhaps a store-owner, and look for a policeman. Do not confront the person. If you are confronted by a robber, give him what he wants and then get help. Remember what he looks like so you can give a description to the local police.

Whenever I feel I am going to be confronted with a threatening situation, I stand up straight, act confident as though I can handle anything, and make eye contact with that person. If you present yourself in this manner, someone who wants to shake you down will more often than not leave you alone and move on to someone else. It works. It’s human nature.

Camping

Years ago my family would take vacations to some of the most remote places in Mexico. Pitching a tent on the beach or on a remote mountainside away from everybody was the thing to do. Times have changed. Do not camp unless you are with a large group or are in an area with security guards.

 A year ago two Nevada men in their early forties drove a few hundred miles south in Baja to go fishing. These men knew Baja very well and were educated regarding camping. Their families had not heard from them for some time, so they contacted me for help in finding them. After searching from Tijuana to Cabo, we finally learned that two people had been found dead, still in their sleeping bags in a dry river bed. These two people turned out to be the lost men. It appeared that they were sleeping and were attacked at night. They died as a result of the attack. They were not in a secure area and were camping by themselves. The “Today Show” contacted me regarding a segment they were doing on the dangers of travel in Mexico and we drove to the area where the two men were found. I was interviewed for almost an hour on tape and was asked my views on how dangerous it was. Well, when the show aired I was on for about 15 seconds because I did not tell them what they wanted to hear. The two men made a mistake which led to their deaths. They could have been camping on a beach in San Diego and been assaulted too, but because it was in Mexico it became national news. Remember: use common sense.

Driving in Mexico

If you are planning a trip in a motor home or car into the interior of Mexico, consider traveling in a group. Carry a CB radio, as well as a first aid kit, flares and water. Traveling at night is something you should never do. Do not pull off to the side of a road to sleep. Plan your driving time to stop at a hotel or secure camping area. There is safety in numbers, so always caravan whenever possible. Travel with car insurance – always.

I think I have covered the most important things you need to keep in mind to ensure a great Mexican holiday. Times have changed, but travel to Mexico can be safe. Treat people the way you like to be treated and you should have a trouble-free vacation. Whenever I have had a problem in Mexico, I have contacted the Mexican Ministry of Tourism and they have followed up with my contact. (Within Mexico, call 91-800-90-392, and from the U.S., call 1-800-482-9831.) 

Have a great time exploring one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and always remember to use common sense.