What You’ll Find in This Post
An apartment near Parque México in Condesa
Let’s be real, Mexico is not portrayed as a safe place to Americans. Many of the portrayals are sensationalized and cherrypicked, often coloring the entire country as dangerous and its people as criminals. However, I’m sure we can all agree that defining an entire location or group of people as just one thing is ridiculous, often causing more harm than good. So, in this post I am going to run down my experience in Mexico City when it came to safety. I will go ahead and tell you now that some of it was bad, but most of it was fine.
ATMs were often tucked away deep inside buildings, grocery stores, and restaurants, but some were literally located in dark alleys. Because of this, taking out a big wad of cash at the airport and breaking it down into small bills later might actually be the safest thing to do.
A fortune telling shop around Condesa
Condesa was the part of Mexico City I stayed in. I read that residents who had lived there for a long time complained of drugs and prostitution with the recent influx of restaurants, bars, and tourism. I didn’t observe either of those things, but I’m not going to discount it; after all, I only lived there for a week and experienced the night life just a handful of times. To me, Condesa felt safe during the daytime and safe enough at night because it was well lit and often populated.
Also, we were told not to hang out around Arena México, which I think is in the Colonia Roma neighborhood. We weren’t told what made this part of town dangerous, but I wasn’t interested in finding out from experience. I also read that the neighborhoods of Doctores, Ciudad Neza, Iztapalapa, Merced, and Tepito, were dangerous, but again, I can’t tell you what makes them unsafe.
Being black? Being American? Being a woman?
In front of the replica of Teotihuacan
I haven't got much to say about any of these based on my experience. I didn’t receive any manner of harassment or discomfort when it came to my race, gender, or nationality. Stuff like this really depends on what part of Mexico you are in and Mexico City was a place that didn’t pose any issues for me. Now, I did read that sexual harassments against women are common on the subway—as in most subways around the world—but Mexico City does offer separate female-only carriages. I’m not sure if the sperate carriages are a cultural thing, like much of the public transport in the Middle East, or if it’s an attempt to limit the number of assaults. If it’s the latter, well, in my opinion it seems like a band-aid that doesn’t actually get at the heart of the issue.
Oh, but speaking of solutions that don’t really solve the problem, you gotta to check this out: The penis seat. This was an attempt to raise awareness about sexual assaults on the metro, but in my opinion once again, it falls way, way short. The awkwardness and discomfort of a seat you have the option of not sitting in is nothing compared to a woman’s body being violated. But, what, A for effort?
Now, when it comes to being black, the closest thing I can think of is when our group leader handed all the black students mismatched IDs, awkwardly saying “you all look so different than the photos you sent in,” but it came across as though he was confusing us because we were black. After all, he didn’t have any problems with anyone else in our group despite their changes in hair and dress. It was that awkward attempt to seemingly place his confusion on us that made the exchange kind of insulting.
That said, though, it did make me think about the prevalence of black people in Mexico. Were we truly so rare as to confuse locals when there was more than one of us in a room? After researching a bit, it seems as though blacks—more specifically Black Mexicans—aren’t rare at all, they’re just a minority that’s been overlooked. I won’t get too deep into it, but I can tell you that it boils down to the usual culprits: Colonialism, racism, colorism, slavery, power, stereotyping, carefully curated history, and lack of inclusion. I will also leave you with a few links. Take your pick:
'We exist. We're here': Afro-Mexicans make the census after long struggle for recognition (2020)
Their ancestors fled U.S. slavery for Mexico. Now they’re looking north again. (2019)
Afro-Mexicans Fight for Visibility and Recognition (2019)
The Untold History of Afro-Mexicans, Mexico's Forgotten Ethnic Group (2019)
The black people 'erased from history'(2016)
A stray dog at the Museo Nacional de la Estampa
A person is not inherently dangerous just because they are homeless. However, I wanted to include this topic in this post because homelessness presents itself differently in different countries, as in to say, the causes of it can vary. For example, the difference between homelessness connected to high drug use vs. homelessness connected to limited job availability vs. homelessness connected to both simultaneously. These are the kinds of things that tourists should be aware of when it comes to a country or city’s population.
When it comes to Mexico City, I didn’t see many homeless people. I tried Googling it just to be sure and the internet also seems to suggest that the country as a whole doesn’t have a high homeless population. Here’s the thing though: Understanding poverty in Mexico is really weird. The country has about 40% of its population in or near the national poverty line, but their economy is one of the top in the world and continues to grow. Apparently, many of the people in that 40% live in makeshift homes, meaning they aren’t technically homeless, and the reasons for their homelessness are connected to all kinds of things, from education, to lack of infrastructure, to a boom in population, to government corruption. Like I said, it’s complex.
This is a big one, right? We’ve seen plenty of news reports from the U.S. perspective on the subject and it’s easy to find documentation from the Mexican perspective too. Even when I think of American television about Mexico, the first three shows that came to mind related to drugs. The drug trade in Mexico is a big deal for a number of reasons and should be taken seriously. However, I also feel compelled to highlight that Mexico is known for essentially the management of illicit drugs, not the usage of them. Much of their industry is fueled by U.S. consumers, which isn’t a surprise because the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs.
So, were there any inklings of drug prevalence during my time in Mexico City? No. Not at all. There were no signs of distributing drugs, taking drugs, or even rehabbing from drug use. There was nothing.
I encountered boys selling flowers on the sidewalk, mothers with babies asking for money, older men sending kids through outdoor bars to ask for money, and one instance of a boy in a school uniform jacket asking for fundraiser money, doing his best to speak English. Some of these really did come across as scams, but others could have been legit. Unfortunately, though, the safest rule in situations like this is when in doubt, don’t because if it is a scam you might end up in a deeper situation than you’re prepared for now that you’re labeled as the naïve, wealthy American tourist.
I wonder where he went . . .
Like the other countries I’ve visited, I was warned about pickpocketing on subways because they are so crowded. So, as always, don’t keep things in your back pockets, wear clothes with pockets that zip, and keep your bag where you can see it.
Are you ready for a story, though? I’ll try to keep it short and minimize the venting, but I make no promises.
So, on my way back from Mexico to the U.S. I got some stuff stolen out of my luggage.
Apparently, the United flight that I was taking from Mexico City to Newark didn’t have enough space for the carry-on bag and personal item that they allow for each passenger. The thing is, when I Googled my flight—from the type of aircraft to the number of open seats—mathematically there should have been enough space for all of the passengers’ carry-on luggage. But maybe I’m missing some piece of vital information that would rationalize them checking so many passengers’ carry-on luggage at the last minute.
Because, you see, that’s what happened. I was in line, getting my passport stamped before boarding the plane, when a United employee came over and told a few passengers, myself included, that he had to check our luggage. I wasn’t really given an option (though I later read that I could have paid $30 to keep my own luggage with me, luggage that was originally free of charge). At the time, though, this didn’t really bother me; there was nothing in my carry-on suitcase that I would need during either of my flights. After returning to Richmond, though, I opened my bag to see it had been ransacked. Stuff was all over the place, bags were ripped open, and my things were missing, including a teddy bear and a few pesos I had saved for my collection.
I contacted all the entities involved: United Airlines, Newark Liberty International Airport, and the Mexico City International Airport, but no one took any responsibility or had any answers for me. United had the most to say. First they apologized, jotted down my information, then proceeded to tell me that they weren’t responsible for some of the things that were stolen out of my bag because “it’s the passenger’s responsibility to keep their valuables with them.” To this I reminded the man that my valuables were on my person; they were in my carry-on bag, but United decided to check it at the last minute. Usually I lock my checked luggage, but there was no lock on my bag because it was never intended to be checked.
Next, he offered me two vouchers that would make my next flight with United cheaper, but I said to him, “No, I don’t want a voucher. I think you can understand why I wouldn’t want to ride with you again.” Then he offered to write me a check for the bear that was stolen, and I essentially said, Sure, thanks, but are you going to acknowledge your role in this? Because, you see, it was United’s lack of planning, overbooking, staff at CDMX, money-hungry policies, or something of that sort that made them think it was okay to check passengers’ carry-on luggage 15 minutes before boarding else the passenger must pay for a bag that was free of charge two minutes prior. There was clearly a loose screw in the United’s system and I wanted some kind of acknowledgement from them saying, “Hey, we might need to rethink how we run things, we’ll look into it and correct any problems we find.” Instead I got offered a “take what you can get” kind of check which felt dismissive and disrespectful. I wasn’t mad at the customer service rep, and I made sure he understood that, but I also told him that the United protocol he was evidently being told to follow was tone deaf.
Other details you may be interested in knowing is that the check takes eight to ten weeks to get processed and if they don’t find your missing things within 30 days the case is closed (though it does stay in their archives). The report I filed with Newark Liberty International Airport said something similar: They’ll look for my missing things, if they don’t find them in a month they will close the case, and they will notify me in a few weeks on the status of my inquiry. Though, to their credit, they called me with their final updates in a very timely fashion, a gesture that I surprisingly appreciated. And Mexico City International Airport? Yeah, they just emailed me a document two months later saying that they didn’t find my items and the case was closed. The document was in Spanish, by the way, so be prepared for that if you contact them like I did.
And while I’m here, I’ve got one more complaint to share. When we all returned to Richmond, there was this bizarre moment of people’s luggage being unloaded right outside the airplane, that long hallway that connects the plane to the airport after it lands. Usually you get your luggage from the conveyer belts deep inside the airport, right? Well, this time some of the luggage went to the belts and other luggage were piled outside of the airplane one by one. There was no way to determine if your luggage was in that pile or on the belt, which resulted in half of the passengers crowding the hallway in 40 ° F degree weather looking through luggage to see if they can find their suitcase. It was confusing, chaotic, and cold.
United is an absolute mess.
It’s a picturesque scene but watch out for that loose stone. Rough sidewalks were all over Mexico City and technically count as a safety risk
The luggage theft is really the only safety issue I had regarding Mexico, and compared to the endlessly dangerous portrayals of the country we have often been given, teddy bear theft ranks pretty low on that scale. Overall, my personal experience in Mexico didn’t feel that dangerous, but also keep this in mind that I am just one person with one set of experiences in one city. I can’t speak on the entire country and I don’t speak for all tourists, all Americans, all women, all black people, or all students. And even though being a woman, or a person of color, or someone from a specific country means you often have specific measures you must take to protect yourself, also remember that most safety rules boil down to common sense. Know what part of town you’re in, know the risks of traveling at night, know the pros & cons of being in a populated placed, and remember that sometimes things are out of your control.
The best advice I can give a traveler heading to any country is to reflect on whatever preconceptions you have and let some of them go, free your mind a little bit. Yes, still do your research and keep your wits about you, but don’t let it overshadow your experience, don’t let it cloud your mind. Because to really experience a place abroad for what it is, you need an open mind. Enter a situation prepared for the worst, but not expecting it. Level with yourself and with your environment, see everything for what it is, not what you think it is.