Riding in cars with boys: an initial experience on solo female travel in Mexico

I couldn’t find the right words to describe solo female travel in Mexico. I thought about using “half” in the title, which refers to a ‘half-baked’ experience as I’ve only been in Mexico for 20 days – not enough for me to generalize the safety levels for solo female travelers. Yet. So I chose “initial.” It can change, evolve and develop into different experiences that will make me conclude how safe is Mexico for women travelers.

I always write safety is objective because I believe every woman traveling in this world has a certain level of traveling. It’s not a race or a social currency but more often than not, our safety depends on how we navigate ourselves in our travels. For example, when my friend from Hong Kong traveled to Syria by herself, I was a little surprised at how she was able to pull it off. Don’t get me wrong, I am not underestimating this friend but for someone like her brought up in such a traditional small country culture, it was quite amazing to know that girls like her don’t relent.

I recently reached out to her for stories about her experience traveling in Syria. She told me that before coming, she planned the trip accordingly by making sure she knows locals in Aleppo. She passed me that contact (which is also a woman) with a little warning that Syria is not for everyone. She asked me if I am to come to Syria, I should not write about it like it’s rainbows and unicorns. Syria is still a little unstable and only female travelers who have experience will be able to pull it off.

I felt very privileged that she regarded me as someone with the gold star experience. But did realize that regardless of gender, the levels of the travel experience is distinct for every human being.

Mexico, I guess, is in the mid-level. I’ve been here before, at a totally tranquil time, but many have told me that today is quite different. Preparing to come to Mexico is a little painful. There are a lot of things you will read on the Internet about how unsafe Mexico is. This will either break you (cancel the plans) or make you (go for it). In my case, having visited Mexico before, I did not feel very pressured but I did feel my limitations.

Those limitations came in the form of an Uber driver in Mexico City. When he knew where I was staying, he warned me that where my hotel is located is not really a safe zone.

“You’re in an unsafe zone. Be careful.” the Uber driver said as he dropped me at my hotel in CDMX.

“Aren’t all places unsafe?” I asked with a roaring doubt in my head.

I’m scared. I’m really scared. For the past few years, I’ve been inside my comfort zone, living in Tel Aviv and Subic Bay, where things are too stable and too familiar. I returned to that moment when I first visited Mexico 6 years ago — what was different?

Alexa Loebel writes, “the significant changes that impact our lives, don’t necessarily come from a specific experience in itself. It comes from how we react. Who you are today might not be who you were five years ago. Who you are today might not be who you’ll be five years from now.”

Everything that I was or am told that I couldn’t, shouldn’t, won’t, or can’t do — I do. Everything that was or is ignored and didn’t/doesn’t matter — I make matter. Everything that was or is pushed to the back burner by someone else — I bring to the forefront of my life.

And today, even after years of being on the road and somewhat calling this the second gap year in Latin America, I fear.

I fear. I am afraid. But there is always that voice inside my head that asks, “who is braver than you?”

I answer, all the time, “no one.” And that makes all my fears go away.

I’m out of the game for the past year (2018) as I was living in my comfort zone for a long time. I slowly processed how I feel about solo female travel in Mexico and I can’t get to that exact feeling. I am not 100% confident. Ever since that Uber driver told me that my area in Mexico City is unsafe, I had doubts going out at night. If I do go out, I will ask my local friends to pick me up and bring me back. I would never walk on the street of my hotel, except during day time.

You might think why I chose this hotel and the truth is, it’s top-rated on Booking.com and Agoda. I checked both websites and learned that this hotel is very beautiful and cheap. In the review section, no one mentioned about the area being unsafe. So I went for it. I only checked the information about this area after getting warnings about it. A TripAdvisor forum discussed personal experiences of people in Colonia Guerrero. Number one lesson: read before booking. Reviews and hotel booking website rankings have always been sufficient for me ever since I started traveling 9 years ago. But now, I want to be mindful when choosing a place to stay.

But you know what? Even without that mindfulness, my stay in this zone in Mexico City was not so bad. I enjoyed the hotel so much and for the first time in my life, I was considering what other people tell me about safety. I guess being 30 did that to me. My life-long motto is to go before saying it’s unsafe but now the balance to that rule developed with a little mindfulness. That’s a personal growth for me for not having to live by “rules” most of my formative years.

Most women who want to travel Latin America alone think that they will not have a seat on the table because more often than not, this region, especially Mexico is associated with “machismo”, a strong sense of masculine pride.

I tried the ride-sharing from Mexico City to Guadalajara and to my surprise, I had a 6-hour ride with 3 grown men who did nothing but be nice to me. I actually had no idea I was going to pave the whole way with men (pictured on the cover photo of this post). I also didn’t feel threatened when I arrived at the meeting point. These men didn’t feel harmful at all. I am not sure if you feel that when you’re traveling but for me, there is a good and bad light shining around strangers. This is what I look at when I feel threatened. I always see that aura in everyone! If I saw the bad light, believe me, regardless if I already paid for the ride, I will not push through. But I did. Because these men looked so harmless.

In this ride, I was expecting to be asked why am I, a woman, traveling so far away from home by herself. They didn’t bring it up. Never. I was even involved in their conversations but there were topics where they did not ask for my opinion. I guess, in a way they don’t notice, Mexican men still label some conversations masculine and feminine.

In my experience traveling the whole of Latin America, when they see a woman traveling alone, men become more protective and caring. They always warn the women, “don’t go there, it’s not safe.” Women are always given assistance whenever they ask for it. But if you’re a man, they will never tell you where to go and where not to go. Often, there are almost zero conversations about safety. Men who are traveling by themselves do not receive these warnings because, hmmm. gender. I guess in this case, being a woman is not a curse.

Mexico gets a lot of bad press when it comes to women traveling alone (it is pretty extreme in some areas). But I’m thankful that everywhere I have been in this country, people were very caring and respectful. I’m speaking from my experience but I’m not sure how safe Mexico is until I am able to cover the whole country.

I posted this photo on Facebook, sharing my experience solely about this ride without generalizing safety in Mexico for women travelers. I received a comment from a Mexican. I think he misinterpreted my post and ended up to an understanding that I publicly proclaimed that Mexico is a safe country.

I am glad your travels have been safe. That being said, Mexico’s “bad press” is well-deserved. Femicide is a problem in Mexico. Women are abducted, tortured, raped, and killed at an astounding rate in Mexico. Many simply “disappear” and are never found. Worse, such crimes are rarely investigated and if an arrest is made, the punishment is usually very low. So again, I’m glad you’re having a safe trip, but don’t paint Mexico as a wonderful oasis vis-a-vis women. Because it isn’t.

solo female travel in Mexico

I am very aware this isn’t the case. But I am still confused on how I should process these feelings towards safety in Mexico. When I arrived Guadalajara 2 weeks ago, my friends and family back home had no picture of this city but Narcos Mexico on Netflix. This show tells. a story about the beginning of drug war in the country, led by Miguel Angel Felix Gallardo, the famous convicted Mexican drug lord who formed the Guadalajara Cartel in the 1980s. But the keyword here that most of us highlight is Guadalajara. We kind of omitted the 1980s as an important element. And that was almost 40 years ago.

After Miguel Angel comes El Chapo, another famous druglord who’s life has multiple series on Netflix. From these shows, we know that Chapo ruled the drug cartels in Sinaloa. By the way, that’s where Miguel Angel is from but chose to operate in Guadalajara for a higher power.

“You should go to Sinaloa and write about the situation there,” a friend from Guadalajara told me. And this friend is literally from Culiacan, the largest city in and the capital of the state of Sinaloa. By situation, he meant how it is so far from what’s on the Netflix shows. I think when we’re watching TV shows about Mexico or about anything, we tend to forget to consider the timeline of what we’re watching. There is a subliminal message implying that it’s in present time. Just to clarify, where I am now (Guadalajara) is peaceful. It’s not like you’re walking on the street and you’ll witness the drive-by shooting like in the movies. The cartels are very quiet I don’t even know where to look.

A close friend from France is currently traveling Sinaloa by herself and she told me it’s all good. And so, I have added Sinaloa in this Mexican journey of mine.

So yes, the point is I am torn but I am considering my sources: is this person telling me these things travel a lot? Do we have the same travel style? Has this person been to this destination in the past year? Although I don’t believe there’s a lot of credible sources about travel safety but travel bloggers themselves, here’s what I researched about solo female travel in Mexico. Mostly on where not to go.

  • The US State Department always issues travel warnings to certain countries. They made a map of the worst places to travel in Mexico, published on January 10, 2018. The 5 states labeled unsafe in this map are the northern border state of Tamaulipas and the Pacific coast states of Sinaloa, Colima, Michoacan and Guerrero. They are all labeled “level 4” unsafe. I don’t even know what that level entails but Sinaloa is in this list.
  • This article listed the 12 most dangerous cities in Mexico to avoid at all costs. The list is super surprising as it involves cities I kind of knew from friends who are locals here. The list mentioned Mazatlan, where one of my friends from Spain is currently traveling there. Acapulco, where I plan to go, is also in this list! Of course, Sinaloa is a favorite in every safety in Mexico article.
  • This article by Celeb Stoner (what a name for a website) listed not only 12 but 16 most dangerous states in Mexico.

I think the problem with these resources is they don’t really tell how it is for travelers. They don’t cite exact experiences on how readers will relate to. They only put keywords like “39.32 homicides per every 100,000 people.” These are facts that are sort of political than experiential.

I received a message from an Instagram follower that struck me: “is it true that kidnappings are common? I plan to go to Mexico but I am afraid to be kidnapped.”

I did not want to answer this because the word “kidnap” is something I don’t understand in Mexico. I’ve never heard about it before so I felt I am not the most credible person to talk about kidnapping in Mexico. I couldn’t even answer the question, “who would kidnap you?!” I hardly heard foreigners and tourists being ‘kidnapped’ or even involved in a cartel war in Mexico.

So if you are a solo female traveling in Mexico (or anywhere that the news has labeled unsafe), I ask you, in any way you can to tell an experience-based story. Do not base it on state department facts most especially if you are already physically present in that country. Sharing your experience is the only way to make people understand this confusing world of safety for female travelers.

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What do you think about solo female travel in Mexico? Do you have any experience?

Where did you go? Where did you not go? I would love to hear your personal experiences as it can help other women traveling to Mexico plan their travels accordingly. Leave your thoughts in the comment box below!

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Trisha is one of those people who left their comfortable life to travel the world and learn about life. Her style is to stay in one place she likes for 3 months (or more) to know what it feels like to eat, cook, speak, and sleep in another culture that isn’t hers. She'd like to believe she's not traditionally traveling but she just chooses to be somewhere else all the time. In no particular order, her favorite cities in the world are Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Mexico City, and Tel Aviv.

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P.S. I'm On My Way is a blog by Trisha Velarmino. She didn't
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