A few months ago a young Aussie couple were travelling through Central when the minibus they were travelling on THROUGH THE JUNGLE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT IN GUATEMALA was hijacked.
This made made the Daily Mail because HELLO CLICKBAIT.
When we read this story, we were totally unsurprised at this set of circumstances to be honest.
We do not want to perpetuate the stereotype that Mexico and Central America are unsafe to travel in. On the contrary, absolutely nothing untoward happened to us during the four months we spent in this underrated part of the world. We’ve heard of phones being stolen in broad daylight in Paris, wallets whipped out of bags in Amsterdam and thousands of dollars in cash taken from under a hostel mattress in Berlin. Tragic fatalities from terrorist incidents in cities and towns once considered secure, like London, Paris and Barcelona just last weekcontinue to mount at a horrifying rate.
Meanwhile, Australians are quick to point out the danger in the rest of the world while glossing over our own track record of travellers facing horrendous and sometimes fatal treatment here, from kidnapping and sexual assault to attempted murder.
60 per cent of the 9.9 million Australians who departed Australia to travel short-term overseas in 2016 did so to take a holiday. The evidence says the world is not a safe place, and yet we continue to explore it.
With this in mind, there are a few basic tips to follow for travelling safely through Mexico and Central America – which will hopefully decrease the likelihood of experiencing this type of ordeal.
Don’t travel at night
This is a golden rule. Take shuttles and buses that get you where to you need to be in the cold hard light of day. When booking flights, try to book them so you land before nightfall. If this is not possible and you have to arrive at an airport at night, do your research about how to get from the airport to your hotel or hostel, whether this is via a transfer, colectivo (minibus) or tourist bus.
The exception to this rule is the case of first class tourist buses in Mexico which complete overnight trips between cities. This class of bus is significantly more expensive than local buses or colectivos (minivans) but they are infinitely safer as they travel on highways that are practically impossible to blockade.
Don’t always choose the cheapest option
Who hasn’t sat next to that guy at the backpacker bar who’s rattling on about his epic journey:
“It took us two days, three buses, a horse and cart and a short swim through sting ray infested waters to get here, but we made it. Best part? Only cost eight US dollars”.
It’s always great when you make it to the final destination on a shoestring budget, but it’s not so great if something goes wrong. While flying is obviously a much less intrepid option to get from Point A to Point B it can be quite cheap to fly around Central America and within Mexico, particularly in comparison to expensive tourist shuttles.
For example, when we travelled from Guatemala to Nicaragua we took the time to look at a few different options. We could catch three cramped shuttles that would take close to two days in travel time, or we could fly from Guatemala City to Managua in Nicaragua. While it possibly cost an extra $100 or so by the time we travelled to Guatemala City and stayed there for a night before heading to the airport the next morning, the comfort and safety of flying instead of travelling overland was a very small price to pay.
The infamous chicken bus – to take, or not to take…
Hitching a ride on a chicken bus – a retired US school bus shipped south to Latin America and revamped to transport the masses – is considered a rite of passage for most travellers in Central America. They provide an authentic travel experience with local flair and they also transport you from A to B – albeit stopping at C, D and E along the way.
While they are fun, they are also notoriously dangerous. There are numerous, generally agreed-upon elements comprising the ‘danger’ mix:
- the upkeep of the bus – the buses are privately owned, so maintenance varies
- the origin and destination of the journey – for example, it is well known catching a chicken bus in and out of Guatemala City is risky business
- the likelihood of robbery – depending on route, remoteness and the terrain of the journey
- the driver at the wheel – their bravery (aka stupidity) and even their sobriety.
We chose not to catch chicken buses in Guatemala for a couple of main reasons:
- We spoke to numerous travellers, including westerners who had been based in not-for-profit organisations in Latin America for years. They did not endorse catching chicken buses
- We saw chicken buses career around mountain roads at breakneck speeds with their horns blasting as a token ‘precautionary’ measure countless times. Trust us, we didn’t wish we were on those buses.
Instead we paid a few extra dollars for cheap tourist minivans that shuttled between each major attraction. Wimpy and boring? Maybe. Safe(r)? Hell yes!
However, we did travel by chicken bus regularly in Nicaragua on short distances between stops along the Pacific Coast. The terrain was far less mountainous and the bus drivers seemed much calmer and drove without haste. Overall we found these trips to be super cheap, entertaining, safe, fun and reliable!
Listen to safety advice…
…From anyone who will offer it!
Naturally, check government warnings and other sources online regarding safety for anywhere you are heading.
You should also heed the advice of those actually living and working in the region. Guidebooks are always very quick to mention the beauty of a city or the magical scenery you can see from a certain viewpoint. They aren’t so quick to mention the local gangs that run the joint or the likelihood of getting robbed on the trail to the aforementioned viewpoint.
Good hostels will provide local safety advice upon check-in. In popular Mexican beach town Sayulita we were unceremoniously told to avoid a certain street at night because (and I quote):
‘There are people down there with machetes, and they will take your money because you’re white.”
Sweet mate. Good to know.
In a hostel in Granada, a written sign at the entry implored travellers to not walk around at night by themselves after 9.00pm because of robbers.
When advice this explicit is given to you unsolicited – DO NOT IGNORE IT! You’re being told this for a reason – for your safety and the safety of others.
Stay away from drugs
With Australians being some of the biggest drug consumers at the highest prices in the world, we’re probably shouting into the abyss with this advice. Sure, Mexico may have decriminalised the possession of small amounts of illicit substances in 2012, but travellers shouldn’t think this gives them the all-clear to let loose without fear of reproach as the law is quite often loosely applied.
People forget their inhibitions when overseas and it might seem everyone is ‘doing it’ with zero interference from law enforcement. However, an experience we had in sleepy Tulum changed this impression pretty quickly. One evening we saw a vehicle, swarming with police in riot gear and adorned with semiautomatic weapons come to a grinding halt in the middle of the street. A hippie-ish looking young guy was plucked from the pavement, hauled onto the road and body searched while his girlfriend watched on, crying. Once it was established he had nothing on him, he was unceremoniously pushed back off the road and the police moved on as quickly as they arrived, presumably to continue performing the same routine throughout the night.
No harm was done, but things could have gone very differently if the traveller had something in his pocket he shouldn’t.
We might sound boring, but give drugs a miss. If you can’t have fun without them, then it’s possible you’re the one with the problem.
PS: Don’t skip Tulum because of this! Check out our guide to what we believe is one of the world’s best holiday spot here.
When in doubt, take a guide
It’s generally agreed there is nothing more awesome than solo adventuring at your own pace. Empowering people to explore on their own is what we are all about.
From swimming into sea caves in Portugal…
To hiking the Dolomites to alpine lake Lago di Sorapiss…
To finding the best view in Barcelona…
And the most beautiful waterfalls in Slovenia…
It’s official – exploring without anyone else dictating the agenda is officially the bomb. We LOVE it.
But in Central America, exploring solo was something we gave up for the most part. Instead, we accepted the status quo and joined tour groups.
It is frustrating constantly paying for guides who often don’t speak English, but for the additional security it’s worth it.
Learn to speak a little Spanish – or find some friends that do!
No matter your first language, learning Latin Spanish if travelling to South America is not just good for your safety, it genuinely makes life easier in this part of the world in every aspect of your life, including
- ordering food
- getting places and
- interacting with people along the way.
Additionally, if you find yourself in any kind of sticky situation having a few words to explain yourself is very helpful. This one we know from personal experience.
Finally, when Spanish lessons are so cheap and there are so many free resources online, it’s crazy not to learn the basics. Find an awesome guide from bloggers along dusty roads on getting started with learning some Español here.
Do your research
This is a generalisation, but due to some instability in the region, the mood and overall safety of a city can change quite quickly. For example, when we visited the Yucutan state of Mexico, we stayed in Tulum for a total of six blissful weeks in total peace. However a friend of ours had a very different experience. When she visited Cancun she was unable to leave her hostel, as she was there when gangs shot the city up in early 2017.
Don’t be ignorant. Check out what’s happening where you’re heading next.
Tell people in the hostel and at home what you’re doing and where you’re going
Don’t just disappear for the day. Tell people your plans. Yes, it’s kind of lame but stay in touch with your mum, loved ones and friends at home. If something goes wrong, they can then raise the alarm on your behalf if something goes wrong when they don’t hear from you.
Venturing out alone? Then this is extra important.
Finally, be prepared for anything and everything and listen to your gut
Mexico and Central America can and will throw everything at you, so be prepared for anything and listen to your intuition. If you don’t want to do something deep in your gut, there might well be a reason for it.
When we went to Mexico City, we didn’t bother taking the metro, even though it was recommended to us by a young guy who said it was a cheap, safe way to get around. Instead, feeling completely overwhelmed at the city’s size and craziness, we caught Ubers. Then, after leaving Mexico City we then heard from several different females that they’d been robbed and/or assaulted on Mexico City’s metro system. At the time we had felt like silly gringoes, too scared (and maybe lazy) to take the train, but upon hearing other women’s experience we felt completely validated.
Be organised. There’s no guarantee someone will step in and help you if you’re unprepared for something. Always, always carry bottled water and do not drink tap water, no matter how hungover you are, unless you want to be laid up in bed for the next few days exploding from both ends.
In addition, if you’re told to prepare for something – PREPARE! We went on the adventure of our lives in Guatemala, climbing Mt Acatenango on a cheap tour, and very nearly skimped on hiring and buying items before to keep us warm like socks, gloves, beanies and ski jackets. The night was abominably cold and without these extra items we would have seriously struggled – and our tour guides certainly didn’t have superfluous clothing or sleeping bags to lend to people who didn’t have what they needed.
A couple of days later, six people died of hypothermia in the exact same base camp.
Sometimes listening to your gut about doing something or going somewhere could mean avoiding an unsafe situation, and being equipped for the adventure you’re about to embark on could be the difference between life and death. For real.