Don’t Drive through Mexico or Central America: You Will Be Kidnapped, Killed, or Worse!

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When I told friends or family that we were going to spend months driving through Mexico and Central America, the most common responses were something along the lines of:

“Are you crazy? That’s so dangerous!”

“Better watch out for the cartel!”

“Hope you don’t get kidnapped…”

“Hope we see you alive again…”

And on and on came the negative reactions, with very little in the way of positive responses.

At times it made me question my decision.

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But I took those comments with a grain of salt because they were all made by people who either hadn’t been to Mexico at all or hadn’t been there recently.

They also stood in stark contrast to the accounts of people actually doing it, sharing their experiences online, and essentially saying “come and see for yourself, it isn’t like you see on the news.”

Kidnapped, Killed, or Worse

Obviously we survived, or I wouldn’t be writing this post.

Even as the trip was unfolding, or after finishing Central America, I continued to hear comments that were completely at odds with my positive experience.

One time in particular stood out when we had just left Mexico and driven into Belize. It was at that time when I started sharing blog posts about the beginning of the journey.

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I shared one particular post about Baja California in an outdoor adventure bloggers group on Facebook.

I mentioned to the group that the security concerns were overblown and saying we had just wrapped up an amazing trip through Mexico while encouraging others to consider a road trip south of the border because it was totally worth it.

Someone responded in the comments section with (paraphrased):

“So not worth it! In addition to the bribery, kidnapping is a national sport or didn’t they tell you that? Go somewhere safe. There are many beautiful things to see in the USA.”

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The only part I agree with is that there are many beautiful things to see in the USA, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t more to see in this world.

I was floored by their comment and couldn’t stop thinking about it as we drove through the tranquil Belizean countryside.

The perception of Mexico as being some horrifically dangerous, violent, and menacing place clashed so strongly against what we had seen and experienced first hand…

From the big metropolis of Mexico City to the smallest little pueblos and even remote stretches of wilderness, everything was fine.

Having finished the trip, I can say unequivocally that the reality on the ground is not like what the news portrays, and not like what many naysayers say.

So what’s it really like? Where does myth meet reality when it comes to safety and security in Mexico and Central America?

The Reputation

For Americans, Mexico in particular has gotten a bad reputation over these past few years as the drug violence spirals out of control, but there are also other countries throughout Central America that commonly raise red flags like El Salvador and Honduras.

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To be fair, these red flags aren’t exclusively held by gringos up north, as the negative reputation(s) holds true even among Latinos and from one country to another within Latin America…

Andrea, my girlfriend, is from Medellin, Colombia. She grew up in the worst of times before and after Pablo Escobar, with violence and homicide rates that were double even the worst of the worst today in Central America, and yet she was genuinely worried about visiting Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.

She was pleasantly surprised by all of them.

The Neighboring Country is Worse

I remember a few different Mexicans warned us about crossing into Belize, about how scary and dangerous it is there.

I didn’t pay much attention to the first person who said it, but by the third or fourth random person who warned us about driving into Belize, I began to doubt our decision…

But then we got to Belize and everything was fine. Normal.

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It seems like every country thinks that the next one over is far more dangerous then theirs.

For the USA, it’s Mexico.

For Mexico, it’s Belize.

For El Salvador, it’s Honduras.

For Colombia, it’s Venezuela.

For Canada, it’s the USA.

And on and on.

Everybody seemed to think that some other place just beyond was more sinister or dangerous, and then when we got there, it turned out to be normal and everyone there said the bad place was somewhere else.

After spending more than six months in Central America, driving through eight countries (Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama), I can say, generally speaking, it’s all relatively safe and sane.

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I would not consider our trip to be “crazy” by any stretch of the imagination.

Nothing bad at all happened to us on the journey (beyond some travel sickness, police problems, and road blockades). Never robbed, never pickpocketed, never even had a towel stolen on the beach while we swam in the ocean.

Safer than the USA

I’ve heard many fellow overlanders remark that the USA is far more dangerous than south of the border, or they will say that it’s just as dangerous to drive into bad neighborhoods in big cities in the USA and that you basically just need to take the same precautions south of the border.

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I think that advice is disingenuous at best, and dangerous at worst.

In one sense, that might be true… You aren’t likely to be randomly gunned down in a movie theater, concert, or school (like in the US, but even in the States that isn’t “likely”), that’s thankfully not something you’ll need to worry about south of the border.

But for day-to-day crime, you’re at a higher risk of experiencing it in Latin America…

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As an overlander and someone who has now passed a considerable amount of time in Latin America (also living in Medellin for 2+ years), as well as being able to offer the perspective of Andrea (someone born and raised in Latin America), I think it is important not to downplay the safety concerns, but to provide a more realistic view.

While nothing happened to us, I don’t want to sugarcoat it and say that driving through Central America is all peace and flowers and carefree attitudes. We took common sense precautions at all times.

The biggest concern for a foreigner in Latin America is, undoubtedly, armed robbery and other forms of theft.

It is far more common in Latin America, and can happen in cities of all sizes — big or small. It happens to Gringos and it happens to Latinos.

It is something that you should be more wary of in Latin America than you are in the States.

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Disclaimer:

For those quick to criticize, of course there are plenty of robberies in the States. It can happen in the big cities. It can happen while parked at a remote trailhead.

I know more people that have been robbed back home in the States than have been robbed while traveling abroad (but the reason why should be obvious: we spend so much more time at home, and thus increase the odds of something happening at home).

Of everywhere I’ve ever traveled in this world, the only place I’ve been robbed is in Washington, D.C., a few blocks from my house on Capitol Hill.

But pretty much every foreigner that has spent a considerable amount of time in Latin America has either a personal story of getting robbed or knows a close friend that has been robbed.

Big Cities

I agree with the overlanders who say that while driving in Latin America one should take similar precautions as big cities in the USA…

But there are still distinct differences between the two.

While traveling in any part of a big city in Latin America (not just rough neighborhoods) I highly recommend taking heightened precautions that you don’t need to take in the USA (unless you’re driving through like the south side of Chicago or something?), IE keeping your windows mostly rolled up, doors locked, only parking in secure, paid parking lots, etc).

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Things happen in small (usually only if they are touristy in nature) and medium sized cities as well. The more time I spend in Latin America, the more stories I have from acquaintances, friends, or friends of friends.

Let’s remember in Latin America you’ve also got a strange foreign plate that calls attention, and you’ve likely got a lot of gear inside that would be worth a lot, even more so in the local currency.

Break-ins happen in just a moment, and it can happen to anyone, anywhere.

Andrea’s extended family recently went on vacation to Panama City, to one of the nice shopping malls just before they were going to go to the airport, and they had ALL of their luggage stolen (from like seven people) from the van in a parking garage with security.

In Colombia they frequently say “No dar papaya” (Don’t give papaya), because if you offer up papaya (which means anything here), someone will take it from you.

Her family — even though they’ve all had “no dar papaya” ingrained in their heads since they were little — they gave papaya, let their guard down in a fancy shopping mall, and someone took ALL their papaya.

They returned to Colombia empty handed, literally with just they guys’ wallets and the women’s’ purses (which luckily had the passports).

Rural Areas

I would never think twice about driving at night in the States. I’ve done it millions of times.

In Central America, it is a bad idea for a variety of reasons: the most frequently cited being the numerous speed bumps (which often appear without warning), the prevalence of drunk drivers, and livestock or people roaming the dark roads.

Speaking from my personal experience of having spent lots of time road tripping throughout the American West (from big cities to remote areas), you don’t need to be as preoccupied with any of these things as you are in Latin America.

But there are other, more pressing issues throughout Central America, like bandits or fake police officers.

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Have I driven at night in Latin America? Yes, but not by choice. It happened when I got held up by blockades in Oaxaca, or held up for hours behind an accident in Honduras.

There can also be some regional insecurity issues that one needs to be aware of in the rural areas of Latin America.

Just south of Los Mochis, a pair of Australians were pulled over at night by fake cops who then attempted to rob them.

From the accounts I’ve read, one of the Australians tried to resist the robbery (something you should never do) and was shot in the scuffle.

The robbers then killed both of them, drove their car to a remote field, and set their van on fire with the bodies inside. We passed along that same stretch of road a few months before them.

I can think of no reason why I would ever tell someone not to drive at night in the States (except for weather), but driving at night through the state of Sinaloa (one of the most dangerous) as the Australians did was just reckless.

We can’t pretend that driving in the USA is more dangerous than Latin America, or some people may get lulled into a false sense of security, which is what I fear happened to the Australians.

General Tips for Security

  • Never wave around lots of cash or valuables. Be discreet with your expensive camera, especially so in big cities.
  • Don’t keep a fat wallet in your back pocket which is ripe for pickpockets. I’d recommend a slimmed down wallet in your front pocket.
  • Never leave valuables visible in your vehicle. Not even running inside the gas station or supermarket. There have been too many robberies when someone was just gone “for a minute” with lots of people around, or even with the vehicle in eyesight of the owners. At minimum hide the GPS, iPod or whatever in the glove box or below the seat.
  • Use ATMs that are inside supermarkets, malls, or other big box stores. Avoid using ATMs on the street whenever possible.
  • While driving through medium and large cities, it is best to keep windows rolled most of the way up and the doors locked. Motorcycle robbers look for easy marks while stopped at stop lights so they can make a quick getaway.
  • Use pay parking lots whenever possible. Especially when parking overnight. I only parked 2-3 times on the street overnight, and while nothing happened, it is no fun worrying about your belongings all night.
  • Talk to locals. You should learn enough Spanish to have basic conversations and ask about safety and the route ahead. The answer 9/10 times is going to be that nothing ever happens here (aqui no pasa nada). Take it with a grain of salt though, since their tolerance to petty crime is often higher (you’d be surprised what has happened in a town where “aqui no pasa nada” when you get to talking more).Remember your foreign plate and vehicle full of valuables. That 1/10 that they are warning you about something, well, you should definitely pay attention because that is a big red flag. Harry Devert was a motorcyclist who was killed in Mexico. He was warned a few times that the route he was about to take was particularly dangerous. He didn’t heed the warnings and was never heard from again.

All this doom and gloom.

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To boil it down, I think Central America is much safer than mainstream news media would lead you to believe, and much safer than the reputation it has garnered.

BUT don’t be mislead by other overlanders who say that it’s far safer than the USA and that nothing ever happens, unless you do something stupid.

That’s just not true, and unfortunately, sometimes it just comes down to random back bad luck, as well.

Central America is quite safe, but don’t let that make you complacent.

Don’t put yourself in a position where you become the easy target.

Too many overlanders have been the victim of break-ins or robberies on the road. Many just chalk it up to being part of the adventure and having another story to tell.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

Take a few of the precautions above, remain vigilant of your surroundings, and don’t expose yourself as an easy mark.

What is your perspective on safety and security in Central America? Any experiences (good or bad) that you’d like to share? Sound off in the comments below.

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Don’t Drive through Mexico or Central America: You Will Be Kidnapped, Killed, or Worse!

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"You're driving through Mexico? What are you, crazy?!" -- That was one of the most common responses... But what's the reality like when it comes to safety and security south of the border?

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Don’t Drive through Mexico or Central America: You Will Be Kidnapped, Killed, or Worse!

Ryan

Author, Writer, and Head Honcho at Desk to Dirtbag
Ryan is an author, adventurer, perpetual wanderer, and self-proclaimed dirtbag (but that might not mean what you think). Originally from Seattle, he headed to Washington D.C. where he spent five years working for Congress before heeding the call of the wild. He set out living in his pickup truck to road trip across the American West. Since then he backpacked through Colombia, drove across all of Central America, and also wrote a best selling book: Big Travel, Small Budget. He just finished driving his old truck across all of South America -- support the adventures by visiting the D2D Shop. Follow the adventures on social media or read more about me.

Comments 63

  1. Hey Ryan,
    I have enjoyed reading tour posts and hearing all the respones. I am an American living in the US and have been seeing someone from Panama.
    I have been there 3 times now and starting to get a good feel for the culture and have been driving quite a bit.( This will definitely sharpen your driving skills!) I have only visited via flying into Miami and then on to panama.. I have been thinking of driving my car down through Mexico to Panama. I have a Newer Mercedes and have had many people to tell me that It would be a Big Mistake to do this. If i had to rent a car i would rather fly. I was wanting to have my car while in Panama with my girlfriend as she lives there.
    What are your or anyone else’s thoughts on this.. I am definitely adventurous and do not scare easily but in my older age have learned to be cautious and that things do happen in this world of ours..
    Thanks for any advice..

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      Author

      Hey Chris,

      Driving in Panama City is definitely the worst of anywhere I drove in Central America, so if you can drive there, you should be fine! I’m not sure how nice a rig you’ve got, but Mercedes are fairly common work vehicles and it is not unusual to see BIG fancy European overlanding vehicles which cost as much as a small house (or even smaller Sprinter vans which are also super expensive)… I’m not aware that those groups have more problems than anyone else might.

      The same rules apply for everyone… Always find secure, paid parking, never park on the street (especially at night), don’t ever leave anything of value in view (even a backpack with nothing of value inside could be a target). Realistically, it is very unlikely that you have your vehicle stolen, but there may be higher probability of a smash and grab type of theft.

      I think you would be fine and basically in the same boat as everyone else driving across, but the bigger question is what you will do with your car at the end? You only get X number of months in Panama with a foreign plated vehicle, so you will have to figure out what you are going to do in terms of 1) importing it permanently ($$$), 2) driving back to the USA, 3) storing it long-term storage locally or in a neighboring country (both Panama and Costa Rica are popular choices for ease).

  2. I am a Immigrado al Mexico. I have driven in all Mexican States and Belize. The only problem I ever had, which was not my fault, which was in Campeche, for driving too fast over a topes. It was all settled for two beers. Just a note you can purchase an annual automobile policy for Mexico valid with your driver’s license, which allows you to drive any vehicle not for hire in Mexico. The cost is $90 and it covers liability a Mexican attorney and a bond.

    I need information about crossing the borders into Central America, with my jeep, visas, automobile registration, insurance.

    Two items of information for your readers: 1. If you are 60 years or older you are a pentioniado and entitled to get in for free to most Mexican National Attractions, such as pyramids etc. South of Mexico City they wanted to see my proof of residency in the north they did not seem to care. You may take with you your spouse and minor children who have not reached the age of 14. Chaiapas is a very beautiful place and friendly if you are dealing with Mexicans and not indois. It is the only place in Mexico I felt it necessary to sleep with a flare pistol as a flare pistol is not a firearm.

  3. Hi Ryan,
    I have a plan to travel from Texas to Ushuaia with my 5 yo. daughter and my wife .
    I have a truck F-150 2018 4X4 which I will gear up for overlanding.
    My concerns are basically how safe is to travel with this kind of car with a family and what kind of gear would you recommend to have particularly for this part of the world

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      Author

      Hey Roger, the things I wrote about here for Central America & Mexico basically apply throughout the rest of Latin America. I don’t think the vehicle will cause any other special attention — there are overlanders in much more extravagant vehicles. As for gear, I basically recommend things from my truck camping gear list, check it out!

  4. Hey Ryan I enjoyed the article, have read most of the comments and have also been struck with paranoia and worry spread by family and their friends from south/central america on driving there.

    So I’m planning to drive from NY all the way to Argentina, buying a used car which I’ll get checked out and I don’t really know much Spanish and I’m traveling alone. I’m planning to learn the language before I leave and as I go, but with that in mind and the fact that I’m not a big strong person, relatively young, 21, have driven across the u.s. and did a 500 mile pilgrimage on foot across Spain and went to Morrocco (without any money) all alone, would you say that someone like me would be able to get through this trip, in your experience? Heeding the advice given. And would say that in Mexico and the south American countries you’ve been to, that either sleeping in your car with the windows covered or via tent is at all safe? I slept in my car across the us,often in public parking lots outside of chain restaurants, or randomly on the side of the road or state provided camping sites. worst thing that happened there was being woken up by the police. Or would you say it’s a must to always find a garage (and if so how much did those usually cost you) and sleeping at a hostel or hotel or indoors?

    Thankyou and I see you recommend going from Baha California, is it necessary to take a ferry at all or in your experience would it be fine to go following the pan American highway all the way down?

    thank you and I appreciate your responses, it’s one of those experiences where I know i’ll be scared shitless until I actually get to the countries and it’s a matter of being aware of surroundings, dressing appropriately, not sticking out, putting ducktape on and trying to make my cameras look as invaluable as possible. And do you have any recommendations on how to maybe hide an american license plate? If it’s even possible to get a mexican one.

    Anyways thank you and hope to hear back!

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      Author

      Hey! Sounds like you’ve got some awesome plans coming up! I totally think it is doable, provided you are somewhat confident behind the wheel (you will undoubtedly face lots of stressful situations). As for sleeping for free wherever, no, it isn’t like the U.S. and in general I would not recommend doing so without speaking to others (travelers & locals). We generally only free camped in parks or other nature areas, rarely in a parking lot (like at a gas station, hotel, or something). Things change from country to country though, for example, in Mexico we rarely camped outside of campgrounds after leaving Baja, but in Costa Rica, Chile, and Argentina, we camped frequently and almost wherever.

      You could follow the Pan-American all the way down Mexico, but Baja is cool and provides a nice gentle introduction to the journey.

      As for hiding your license plate, I wouldn’t recommend that either. You would just invite more potential problems from officials. If you are worried about the plate, you could buy a vehicle from another country and then sell to a traveler. Colombia and Chile are popular places to buy.

      Good luck, if you have more questions shoot me an email.

      1. Thankyou for getting back to me so quickly, I appreciate the response! I’ll take it all into consideration and will certainly avoid sleeping in my car or out in the open like that for the most part. Just one other questions I had and the rest is for me to plan/figure out as I go (which is most of the fun). But how was your experience with shipping your car from Panama to Colombia (easy to plan, something trustworthy and concrete, doable with minimal spanish?) I read your FAQ on driving in central America and you mentioned you found an agent. Was that something you were able to do online or after you arrived in the country.

        Anyways thank you again, it’s really valuable in this type of trip and I think in general to pass on the knowledge/experience you gained from making such a journey and I’m sure you and others have prepared a lot of travelers and probably definitely saved some lives from this. I’ve had silly thoughts of dirty my clothes/car, throwing some mud on my CT license plate for the first few days, but like a trip to every new culture, you can travel in fear and once you get there you just operate based on your surroundings and the general plans you have in place. These are big countries and good people live there. Caution is necessary, but fear will get you taken down quicker than anything else. Enjoy the rest of your travels!

        1. Post
          Author

          You can arrange for the shipment in the weeks beforehand, the most important thing is to try and find another traveler who you can share the shipping container with. You can reach out on one of the groups like PanAm Travelers on Facebook, or the agent may be able to connect you with someone else (I worked with Tea Kalmbach). Shipping from Panama is a fairly annoying and time consuming process, but you will get good directions from your agent and it is definitely doable with minimal Spanish, it’s mostly just two days of waiting/running around.

          If you are worried in the beginning, I’d recommend posting something in one of those groups and seeing if anybody else is traveling and wants to caravan for a little bit. That way you can travel “with” somebody else, feel more secure, and then go your own ways whenever you want.

  5. I’m of the approach that Mexico is safe until it hasn’t. God help you if you encounter criminal activity or are the target of crime. 1/2 of law-enforcement is corrupt and most crimes aren’t ever really legitimately reported. They will not help you. Some say there is US fear mongering about Mexico, I feel if anything, it is downplayed, as so many crimes and missing people are never reported on. I’m glad your journey was safe –but I am someone who is very adventurous and worldly and have been to Mexico more times than I can count. But since 2011, I will no longer go there or support their corrupt government. 133 politicians murdered this year. More journalists tortured/murdered than any country in the world. And there is never justice for any of the victims. It’s also the only country I know of where if you get murdered there–you are to blame. You must have been doing something nefarious and therefore caused your own death. Only in Mexico. Read borderlandbeat if you want a real view of the daily news in Mexico.

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      Author

      You raise valid points about the state of affairs. Believe me, Mexico isn’t the only place where the murdered victim gets blamed. At least when foreign tourists get murdered in Mexico, they will begrudgingly admit that it was due to insecurity. Down in Colombia every foreigner that gets killed is somehow involved in the sex trade supposedly, at least that’s always the official story.

  6. Ryan, personally, I would not recommend travel trough Mexico to anybody unless it is an organized tour and that is even not safe. A tour bus crashed on the highway in Mexico killing several people. Back in May of this Year, a German and a Polish bicyclists were murdered in the Mexican state of Chiapas and their both bodies had been mutilated. All this over some cash and cameras. Not even the bicycles were taken.

    1. Post
      Author

      Yeah, that was another terrible story. Certainly not the first time, and probably not the last. As I mention in the article, you should always be careful. There have been about three terrible cases over the past 3-4 years. They are always shocking, but still if you consider the numbers of foreigners still traveling through, statistically it is very unlikely. That being said, it is still more likely in Mexico than other parts of Latin America.

  7. I really enjoyed reading your post. Thank you for your honest, upfront, and detailed information. It was very refreshing.

  8. My wife & I have lived in Guatemala for the last 3 years. I agree with your general assessment and warnings. In here is as safe as you “want” to be. Thives are looking for easy targets, especially if you are a female, male/female with an expensive phone exposed, a bulch pocket (pants/sheet). Motorcycle thieves sandwich you with 2 motorcycles in red-lights after they see valuables in your vehicle. Never oppose! Give what they want. They kill you if you don’t. When we go to the city, I don’t take “anything” with me. I hide my treasures in a hidden packet. Use common sense. It is safer if you go as group. If you want to buy something, ask a friend national to go with you. Let her/him negotiate for you snile you keep your distance from him/her. Enjoy it!

  9. Hey Ryan, great text.
    I’m looking for a trip to Mexico. I was thinking about renting a car from Guadalajara to Puerto Vallarta, to Mexico City, to Merida. Would you recommend it?

    1. Post
      Author

      That is basically the route we took. There is a lot of awesome stuff to see on the way… Depends on how much time you have though, and I’d be wary of heading into Chiapas if your time is limited (we hit lots of delays).

  10. Hi Ryan,

    My friend and I (both girls) are debating between renting a car to drive around Chiapas for about 3 days or to just choose Palenque or San Cristobal as a home base to take tours from. We would be flying in and out of Tuxtla. We’re concerned about the parking situation as well as the obvious “we’re petite people traversing Chiapas by ourselves” kind of thing lol. I’m curious to know what your thoughts are. Please let me know! Thanks!!! 🙂

    1. Post
      Author

      Chiapas was probably the most difficult stretch of driving for us in Mexico, to be honest. Since it is autonomous region, there is little law and order (even when comparing to the rest of Mexico) so there are semi regular to frequent blockades, and they aren’t just disturbances to make a political point but rather to extract money from travelers. We lost two full days of travel thanks to four blockades between San Cris and Palenque. There are also sometimes roadside robberies there, like the recent case of the two foreign bicyclists who were murdered in a (likely) botched robbery. Chiapas is amazing for the nature and everything, but it was our least favorite part of Mexico to drive through thanks to the people. I’m not saying don’t do it, just be prepared for stress and inconvenience that is far beyond anywhere else I’ve driven in all of Latin America (and I’ve driven all the way to the tip of South America now).

  11. I want to thank you for bringing this topic to a reality, we retired in 2010 and have been living in El Salvador since then, I have to say that so far we have never encountered any problems, we do speak spanish and my wife grew up there, it also helps that we live by the beach and have seen the number of Americans and Canadian citizens grow. We are thinking of doing a reverse and drive from El Salvador to the States and ossibly Canada……. Remember you have to approach this experience with an open mind and to know that you are outside your comfort zone…….

  12. The U.S. always give distorted information about Mexico. Things can happen but truthfully I would take my chances in Mexico before a lot of large U.S. cities. The U.S. has to blame someone or something there high crime rate on. Now we have to deal with a nut case in the White house

  13. Thank you so much for posting this. As a travel consultant, we battle with misperceptions about Mexico every day. Mexico is a wonderful destination! The crime rates in Orlando, Chicago, and Washington DC are significantly higher than those in Riviera Maya. It just makes me sad that the news has made it seem so out of control.

  14. So I am planning on driving my 2014 Convertible Stingray from California to Guadalajara. I am concern that because is a nice car my likelihood of getting robbed (or anything) is higher. I am a US citizen with Mexican heritage. I grow up in Guadalajara & the south border of Zacatecas. I know the road from Ciudad Juarez through Guadalajara, I have drove in the past different (less catchy eyes vehicles), however it’s been over 10 years driving experience through Mexico. Your feedback will be appreciated and if you have a suggested route let me know.

    1. Post
      Author

      Hey Israel, that could be the case… If I was in your position I would probably drive via Baja California to La Paz and take the ferry to Mazatlan. Just be sure to always observe the rule of never parking on the street, always use secured, paid parking lots, especially at night. If you haven’t yet, check out the iOverlander app/website for great info on hotels, parking, etc, as you drive.

  15. We were thinking of driving all the way to Panama from Canada with 3 kids. Do you think an RV would be more of a target? Have you seen any families overlanding?

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      Author

      There are quite a few people who RV it south of the border, so I don’t think it would be any more of a target that other foreign vehicles used among the overlanding community. We have encountered numerous families on the road with small children in tow, there are even a number of them blogging about it, so I think you’ll find similar company pretty easily.

  16. Beautiful read!! I’ve been thinking about doing a similar road trip with my husband but have been a little freaked out at what we’ll find. (NOTE: I’ve NEVER been to Mexico).
    In your opinion, would it be safe for him and me (a skinny-ish girl) to road trip through Mexico, just the 2 of us? I’ve always wanted to visit but absolutely hate the thought of staying at a resort…
    Appreciate it! 🙂

    1. Post
      Author

      Well, yeah, I think so. We did just fine… My girlfriend is also a skinny-ish girl, and we never stayed at any resort… 😀

      If you’re careful and streetsmart, you shouldn’t have any major problems while traveling through Mexico.

  17. 35 years ago I traveled extensively through Mexico and central America by bus, thumb, donkey and on foot. I spent a lot of time on the Caribbean coast and had the time of my life. Unfortunately I have gotten old and cannot run as fast as I used to. My adventurous side is still intact but I am sometimes a grouchy old hot-head bastard and would not be nearly as patient with the sometimes maddening situations that come up in Latin America. I get into enough trouble with US drivers.
    I appreciate the accurate description of driving in Mexico and beyond, but I know I had better stay this side of the border because I am sure I would try to beat someone half to death if I caught them stealing anything I have worked hard to buy, think Paul Teutul, Orange County Choppers. Although I cherish memories of driving through Latin America I will just fly there and enjoy it as a destination and keep the rest as memories. Thanks for the great article Amigo……….

  18. I appreciate your attempt to rationalize the state of affairs in Mexico, and, in fact, I have made many of the same arguments about Mexico and attitudes toward it by its northern neighbors in the padt. But that was a few decades ago, and today security in Mexico is quite another matter.

    Despite living in the “safest” city within the Republic of Mexico, life here is a battle and deadly violence is always only a moment away in a culture where human rights and law are often discussed and rarely invoked. My Mexcan wife and I have been violently attacked downtown and in broad daylight. CCTV not withstanding, life here is all about who has “palanca” and justice will not be served. I’ve now had knives brandished at me a few times downtown or at Pemex stations, and my wife adamantly instructs me never to give any response to the violent outbursts of Mexicans as we are liable to be shot in our seats. Mexican friends and family are fearful of venturing on the nation’s highways–even the tollway “autopistas” where they say you stand a decent chance of being robbed, raped or killed.

    If you want to purchase land or a home, you must be paranoid that the seller will just disappear with your money, probably working in collusion with a notary and other officials. If you do purchase sucessfully, you will have to deal with paying carte blanche to associations which are purchased by the wealthy in order to stick it to the less fortunate. My neighbrhood has two such associations, one being owned by a guy from Tamaulipas (one of the travel warning states) who has purchased about four of these upscale neighborhoods plus the local soccer team…well, we pay for the team which will be in his name. Protest is likely to find you in the local morgue or just cast aside on some highway or even a local street.

    This is just the tip of the iceberg of my experience here over the past couple of decades. I have driven most of the country–north and south–and know of what I speak. In recent years, Mexico has descended into violent anarchy and shows no sign of improving any time soo, and remember…

    …El que no transa no avanza!

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      Hey Don, what you’re saying here basically aligns with what I’ve said in the article… The problem in Mexico and much of Latin America is that there is an underlying insecurity mostly related to robberies and theft. That’s the deal: you can be robbed in big cities, medium cities, even small touristy towns or in the middle of nowhere. It doesn’t only happen in bad neighborhoods in big cities.

      But in terms of your Mexican family and friends being afraid to venture onto the toll highways, that is a bit exaggerated (although I wouldn’t travel at night). In virtually every country you will find plenty of locals who are overly cautious or afraid, but who haven’t traveled anywhere themselves — their advice should also be taken with a grain of salt.

      The fact that you’ve spent a few decades driving around the country with few if any major incidents should go to show you that it really isn’t crazy dangerous… Things can happen related to robberies and theft, but again you’re not at all likely to get kidnapped or killed as a foreign tourist in Mexico.

  19. Hi ryan thanks for great info. The wife and i are retiring in june and making the trip, gonna buy somewhere but want to stay from mexico to panama before making the decision. I know i cant cross the border with my gun, so what if anything can i have for protection or are we just helpless prey. Thanks alan and jane

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      A common suggestion is a machete or bear spray if you feel the need for some sort of weapon for self-defense, though that’s really probably not necessary…

  20. Hi Ryan. I’m currently in Nicaragua and I’m considering buying a car and driving up through central America into the US and across to Florida. I feel slightly nervous purely because I’d be on my own, but I’m a “big strapping lad” as we’d say in England. I have re-read your post multiple times and think I definitely want to do it.

    However, my only confusion now is… What about crossing borders with a car, are there requirements, additional costs etc? If I’ve got Central American registered car, can I enter the US? What did you do for insurance? Is it only needed in the USA?

    If you could share your experience with me, or point me in the direction of a resource you used I’d be really grateful.

    Thanks, Kyle

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      Author

      Hey Kyle, from what I’ve heard, it can be difficult or even impossible to enter the US with cars from developing countries like those in Central America, because those vehicles often don’t meet the emission standards for vehicles. I am by no means an expert on this though, so I would recommend joining the PanAmerican Travelers Group on Facebook and asking for more info.

      Check out my responses about insurance and border crossings and such in my Central America Road Trip FAQ.

  21. Hi Ryan,
    Its been 17 years since I drove down to Central America from Canada and hope to be doing it again in 60ish days. What route, in terms of less delays and current safety issues, would you recommend. I can cross anywhere into Mexico. My last trip was down the east coast (brownsville) and back up the west coast. Never had any problems other than losing a motor in Puerto Vallarta coming home. lol.
    Thank you

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      Consensus has been to cross and go down Baja for a nice gentle transition into Mexico, which is why we went down that way as well. Then you can just hope on the ferry in La Paz and cruise on over to Mazatlan to continue your Mainland Mexico adventures.

  22. Hi Ryan, I recently backed out of a 10 hr road trip to Monterrey from Texas with my two female friends for some these same reasons you spoke of. I was hit a little backlash and attitude because the cost will be split between two now and not three. I am an activist for human trafficking and I couldn’t talk myself into the trip. I’m am pretty adventurous but 3 chicks driving through Mexico alone sounds like easy bait plus all the comments in my head about cartel, kidnapping etc.from friends and family,Your thoughts ?

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      I think you would’ve been fine… I can’t speak to specifics about Monterrey, but plenty of women have traveled through Mexico. Check out the two gals who were traveling for many, many months (years?) without incident in Mexico and Central America at VagaBroads.com.

  23. Hey Ryan, I have been considering a motorcycle trip through Mexico for many years now. Your perspective is one I appreciate….coming from actual first-hand experience. I am currently at the point that you were at in the beginning of your article as you were planning your trip and talking to others. Everybody treats me like I am suicidal for even considering traveling through Mexico. Here is the kicker…I am a cross-country motorcyclist, I have seen the entire U.S. and a lot of Canada. I yearn to experience Mexico. Living in and experiencing cultures outside the U.S. has opened my mind to a lot about the world that most people around my Midwest home can’t appreciate. My buddy, with whom I have shared most of my motorcycle travels, is also very open-minded, at this point having lived more of his life outside the U.S. than inside the U.S. We are going to do this trip eventually. My question to you is if you can think of any additional precautions we should take as motorcyclists and if you could lead me to some resources of those that have shared said experiences. Thank you so much for taking the time to document and share your travels. They are very intriguing.

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      Hey Heath! Awesome to hear that you are planning a similar journey. There is so much out there to see, and I’m sure you guys will love it. Most of what I’ve said here applies equally to both motos and vehicles, and I can’t really think of much specifics that apply to you as a motorcyclist, since I don’t really have the perspective. Lots of people make the journey in moto though! One thing, definitely be sure you are a good defensive driver, because some drivers are pretty reckless down south — though it’s not too bad if you’re only going as far as Mexico. Make sure your gear locks down tight since the most common crimes are simply stealing things that are easy to grab. Maybe check out the Overland Expo (either east or west) so you can connect with more riders who can offer a better perspective and specifics to you. Here’s an interview I did with a buddy who did the drive in motorcycle.

  24. Is their an age restriction on driving vehicles down to Puerto Vallarta from California? I have a 2017 Ford 150, was thinking of bringing a travel trailer, and my two dogs. They are fairly large dogs. I know the vet requirements but heard vehicles had to be at least 4 years old in Mexico. Any RV or caravans along these lines?

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      Author

      Hey, I haven’t heard of any restriction for either new or old in terms entering Mexico as a tourist. These are just temporary import permits, not for permanent residency or import which would be different. Look up the PanAmerican Travel Group on Facebook though, but it seems like a strange restriction to impose on tourists…

  25. Hi there!
    Sounds like an awesome trip.
    I have been wanting to do a road trip for as long as I can remember, but haven’t been able to yet for one reason or another.

    I have a couple questions….
    Do you think this is appropriate for a solo female traveler to drive through Mexico down to Panama?
    About how much did you spend on gas, food, lodging, permits, etc. during your trip?

    Thanks!

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      I think it’s absolutely doable for a solo female traveler. While I don’t personally know any solo female travelers, I’ve certainly heard of a few doing it on social media, whether by motorcycle or traveling with their pets. Lois Price is a somewhat known overlanding author who goes solo to all sorts of places. And there is a female same sex couple that is launching a book specifically about women overlanding around the world, check it out maybe?

      We budget about $75 per day as a couple, so if you’re traveling solo it would be a higher cost on an individual basis than our per person costs, but it is still surprisingly cheap. I just published an article about three months of our expenses in Peru, you’ll find some similarities.

  26. Yes. As a woman, I took my 14-year old and husband on an 1,100 mile drive through Mexico over about 2 1/2 weeks, including to some remote parts of Chiapas and through the lower jungles of Quintana Roo, near to the Belize border. We didn’t drive at night, we did get searched by some federales at one checkpoint between states (I think they were confused that a foreign woman was driving, honestly), but that was fine. The worst thing was getting lost on occasion in small towns, but then I just asked for directions. People were very friendly, and we speak a bit of Spanish, so that helps. The topes a.k.a. bumps in the road are fierce and tire-popping. And some rural roads have serious pot holes or can be narrow. Sometimes the traffic can be vicious in some cities as well. Otherwise, no problems. I’ve spent about a month in Mexico, not yet to Central America, and am considering a road trip through in the future, perhaps, and was trying to figure out if it would be as chill as in Mexico, which I have to say was really chill (we went to Yucatan, Tabasco, Campeche, Chiapas, and Quintana Roo). I am someone who has traveled around the world, hitchhiking in Jamaica (not such a great idea), driving through desert in Turkey (fantastic), been across the U.S. a few times as well by car, and everywhere in between, and Mexico was one of the friendlier places I have traveled and will always be one of my favorite places because of this. It’s very family-oriented. Everyone was extra nice to my son. The only downside, at all, was one Pemex gas scam attempt, and one round of vicious food poisoning of some kind from who-knows-what. The driving? No problem, and really pretty views.

    And I’ve been mugged once, in San Francisco.

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      Awesome tips, basically jibes with my experience as well. Though a few more police problems (most common around any borders, either north or south). If you’ve driven all around the Yucatan and Chiapas, you’ll find the driving in Central America will be basically the same or even more chill. After Mexico we had basically no problems whatsoever, and people are generally friendly everywhere… I’m sure you’ll love it!

  27. Thank you for this! My husband and I lived in our truck for a while and are now traveling and living abroad in VN. When/ if we head back to the states we plan on upgrading our space to a van and living out of that for longer term. We have considered driving all the way to Patagonia but as you’ve said, there is so much fear that it is difficult to wade through it and find reality…. in the middle. I follow a few people’s life journey who have done this or something like it, so I know it’s an option worth thinking about. We originally thought about flying down and wandering for a year or so, but after living in the truck it has become more appealing to have our “house” with us.

    I started following you when I was researching how to build out our truck, which we ended up doing a very similar build. So I greatly appreciate you sharing an honest non-inflated account of what to expect.

    I will have to dig in and start reading all of your posts.

    Thank you!

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      Author

      Thanks so much Laura! Glad to hear that you found the post helpful. Really I can’t recommend enough going down with your own set of wheels, the experience of traveling like that is so incredibly freeing, and I can’t imagine going back to traditional travel. I wrote this awhile ago, but still loving this lifestyle even after so many 10s of thousands more miles. Cheers from Cusco, Peru!

  28. Too Funny. I am a Special Agent who has been assigned to 7 different countries as a Law Enforcement Officer/Security Officer in Embassies on 4 continents. Your guidelines and suggestions read almost word for word from my New Arrival Security Briefing I give to all families assigned to my Post (1 – NA, 2-
    Asia, 2 – Eur, 2 – Africa),. Boils down to your frame of mind, don’t be so afraid that you cannot make any decision or precaution, don’t be so oblivious that you are unaware of danger. Live in a good situational awareness, use common sense, stay away from bad areas, try to speak to someone else who has gone before and if possible use the buddy system. Done. Condensed an hour brief into 30 seconds.

    I an headed to the general area you speak of and appreciate your suggestions.

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  29. Ryan, thank you for the information on driving through Mexico. My plan is to move to Mexico. I want to drive my car but I have fears. I would feel safe if I could follow a caravan. Can you help me on this one??
    Thanks for our time. Sincerely yours, Jeanette Toensing

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      Author

      Jeanette, check out the PanAmerican Travelers group on Facebook. You could ask there about people who are crossing the border at the same time and see about tagging along for awhile. There are many who make the trek, many overlanders travel together for fun, safety, friendship, etc.

  30. Ryan,

    Great article. I really enjoy your clear and honest approach. I’m inspired to read your other articles. I’m a big fan of facts – not hearsay and fear mongering from those who lack firsthand knowledge.

    Keep up the great work.

    Cheers,

    Paul

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      Author

      Thanks Paul, I appreciate hearing that. There’s a strange mix of both fear mongering and downplaying it as overly safe, when the reality is somewhere between the two. I hope my article encourages people to travel south of the border, but not with rose-colored glasses.

  31. Always recall a friend’s experience. Bob was in Venezuela, driving a borrowed Jeep. The owner told him to leave nothing in the car when he parked it. He still got robbed. They took the gearshift knob and the floor mats!

  32. I would bet you’re experience is more the exception than the general outcome of most. Not that I would actually KNOW, I’m one of those that pays more attention to the ‘naysayers’ about those South of our border looking at us as a ‘meal ticket’ or easy pickings; heck, even OUR government advises against it more times than not. And I’m strictly talking about do-it-yourselves- see-the-world sightseeing/vacation trips. How many times have you heard/seen our illustrious government (Embassy) NOT come to the aid of someone in a ‘foreign’ land. In MY mind, TOO much risk with little reward

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      Hey Mark, I appreciate hearing your thoughts, but I really don’t think my experience is the exception, rather it’s the other way around. I think if you’re not in the high tourist areas, that nobody really looks at you as meal ticket. I’d encourage you to consider it at some point down the road, but I know the process of even entertaining the idea of driving south of the border is often something that needs to “marinate” for awhile, sometimes years.

  33. My wife is from Mexico about 5 hours south of the border and we drive down once or twice a year to visit the beaches. I also used to work for a large manufacturing company that had 3 factories just across the border in Mexico and was usually in Mexico for work once or twice a week. I have never had any issues driving or walking in Mexico during my countless visits there. Most people are helpful and friendly, maybe even more so that in the USA. My advice is to not drive at night (hidden speed bumps, livestock and roads that often don’t offer much of a shoulder), keep your situational awareness up and don’t go looking for trouble.

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      Appreciate hearing your perspective, Christopher. I think you’re absolutely right, the vast majority are extremely friendly and welcoming to foreigners, despite the sometimes terrible rhetoric they hear coming from the American government and many American people at times. Solid tips about the situational awareness and not looking for trouble.

  34. All good advice. One other tip I discovered while on a lengthy road trip up and down the length of Mexico: tinted windows are handy. They help hide valuables inside the vehicle and provide a small measure of privacy.

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