Let’s be honest. When we’re talking about a holiday trip to Mexico, there’s a Spanish-speaking elephant in the room, and he may be packing heat.
So – is Mexico safe for tourists? If you do your research, you will find that the answer can be “no,” “probably,” or “just as safe as any other tourist destination” – depending on which part of Mexico you are talking about.
In this case, we’re heading for the Riviera Maya, the holiday playground on the shores of the Caribbean Sea. The destination includes the cities of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, hundreds if not more than a thousand hotels and resorts, and a plethora of holiday attractions. And, according to multiple sources, the Riviera Maya is one of the two safest destinations in the country.
That comes with a caveat, but one that applies to almost all travel: visitors need to do their research, be cautious, and take the advice of experts. That advice, in the case of Cancun, Playa del Carmen, and the rest of the district is, “Be careful where you go, and don’t do anything stupid.” This is especially valid because drug cartels have recently become more active in the district — although at this point, they don’t seem to be a threat to tourists, again according to a wide variety of sources.
Tourism is huge in Mexico — the industry accounted for more than 8% of the country’s GDP last year, totaling about $35 billion US. So the Mexican government is understandably determined to support the industry, including by beefing up security. Recently, almost 1,500 members of the Mexican National Guard were assigned the Riviera Maya region as a new “Tourist Security Battalion.”
So … that’s the picture. And during my recent visit to Riviera Maya, I did not feel threatened or uncomfortable, and I did enjoy myself, start to finish. That being said, I stayed at the new Sensira Resort, an ocean-front property about halfway between Cancun to the north and Playa del Carmen to the south. This family-friendly resort was terrific, but it was quickly apparent that — in common with many Caribbean destinations — visitors were wise to either stay within the confines of the resort, or only venture forth in an organized excursion. Some visitors believe that the days of wandering freely into and through small towns and back country are largely a thing of the past. Although a few of my colleagues hopped in a taxi and went to a nearby market town, where the only threats they encountered were uber-enthusiastic market stall owners offering bargains and tequila. That was in the daylight, though — such adventures are now strongly discouraged in the later hours.
While there have been many recent headlines about violence in some parts of Mexico, this hasn’t stopped Canadians and other tourists from heading to the “quieter” parts of the nation. In fact, I was there because Canada’s Swoop Airlines was celebrating its first-ever flight from London, Ontario to Cancun – a very comfortable and accessible way for residents of southwestern Ontario to get to somewhere sunny and warm.
Overall, Riviera Maya seems to be deservedly popular. It offers almost anything a tourist from the chilly north could want. There are accommodations aplenty — the Quintana Roo Tourism Board (which includes Riviera Maya and Grand Costa Maya), says the district has more than 123,000 hotel rooms. There is beachfront aplenty, and a huge percentage of those hotels and resorts are waterfront properties (although some are fighting a daily battle with seaweed, which covers the beaches and muddies the waters).
Leisure activities range from visits to Mayan archaeological sites, incredible snorkeling and scuba diving, nightlife hotspots (especially in the entertainment heart of Cancun), and the most interesting and entertaining theme park I have every visited.
Let’s talking snorkeling, for a moment. The coral reefs just off the coast are accessible, and rich with marine life. Our group opted for a combination excursion offered by Jungle Tour Adventure Cancun. We piloted small but swift speedboats across the large bay, and then a short bit out into the ocean, where snorkeling areas are designated with buoys and ropes. The five small speedboats were lashed together, and our guide told us to don flotation vests, masks, snorkels and flippers, and jump in.
This presented a challenge, I thought. Getting into the water was clearly easy — gravity would take care of that — but getting out seemed impossible. There were no ladders on the boats, which were sitting high in the water (especially empty of passengers) and I could not see any way of clambering aboard.
Nonetheless, I jumped in, and reveled in an hour of excellent snorkeling, encountering dozens of species of tropical fish in their natural environment. Finally, the guide waved us back to the boats. I happened to be closest, so I was first back. I swam to the back of the boat — slightly lower than the prow. Nope! The guide motioned me to the front, indicated I should put my hands on the bow, and without warning, grabbed my life vest and heaved me upon onto the front of the boat like a harpooned beluga. Amazing. There is no video of the event — for which I am deeply grateful. Nonetheless, I would highly recommend the excursion, for the boat ride, the snorkeling, and for the poignant connection you suddenly feel with our friends, the whales.
And whatever else you do in the Riviera Maya, you must – must! – visit Xcaret theme park, just south of Playa del Carmen. I have found a number of descriptions of this destination (pronounced shh-karet). Some call it a water park, some an amusement park, some a cultural destination. Well, yes, all of the above, and more.
Let me mention just a few of the highlights. There is an underground river down which you can swim for about 45 minutes, wearing a life jacket — an absolutely unique experience. There is a village of local artisans producing inexpensive, authentic crafts, and artwork. There is a huge, walk-through aviary, well populated with dozens of brightly coloured, Mexican birds. There’s also a walk-through butterfly conservatory. There are archeological and cultural features, introducing visitors to Mayan and Mexican culture. There is a zoo, with native but seldom-seen animals like pumas and jaguars.
You can — and should — plan to spend the entire day at Xcaret. And then, stay for the evening show, the most spectacular theme park production I have ever seen. It is a musical and dramatic presentation of Mexican history, complete with at least 100 singers and dancers, elaborate and exquisite costumes, live bands, and a reenactment of Mayan sports, including a game that can only be described as fire hockey — the “puck” is a fiery ball, and the goals are two large fire pits. It’s thrilling.
The show takes place every night, to a large and enthusiastic audience — and you can book it as dinner theatre, although I found that it was hard to even notice the food, because the entertainment was so enthralling.
So, yes, there is much to do and see in the Riviera Maya, and yes, it is reportedly relatively safe, and accessible from multiple Canadian airports. But when you go — to quote the sergeant from the venerable cop show “Hill Street Blues” – “Let’s be careful out there.”
MORE ABOUT MEXICO
Tourism Website: Visit Mexico