Is it Safe to Go Birding in Mexico?

Social Flycatcher, Piste, Mexico (photo Prudy Bowers)

Social Flycatcher, Piste, Mexico (photo Prudy Bowers)

Beginning sixty some years ago with a high school Spanish class in a broken down bus from Kansas City, I have traveled to Mexico far too many times to count.  One reason we retired in Arizona was its proximity to Mexico, and since living here, we have crossed the border dozens of times, flying to remote Mexican cities and driving our own or rental cars almost everywhere in that fascinating country.  One reason, of course, is the birding.  More than a thousand birds can be found in Mexico, including many tropical and exotic species not found anywhere else in the world.  We have never found ourselves in danger, never worried about our well-being and never felt at risk, even when driving some of the worst roads imaginable in some of the most far flung places rare birds often prefer.  In spite of this, most of our friends are worried about travel to Mexico and few of them would ever join us on one of our trips.  The reason is simple:  almost continuous media reports on violence south of the border.

Citreoline Trogon, La Bajada, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

Citreoline Trogon, La Bajada, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

However, in spite of flamboyant homicides and the press’s proclivity to sensationalize them, the risk to tourists and birders is more perception than reality.  When the facts are examined, a tourist is less likely to be murdered in Mexico than in the U.S., and the risk in many U.S. cities is far higher than that in Mexico.

Gray Silkies, Copala, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

Gray Silkies, Copala, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

To consider the relative safety of traveling, birding and being in one place or another, a little research is worthwhile.  To a prospective tourist, two considerations are paramount:  personal risk and the relative rate of homicide.  For all its negative publicity, Mexico actually scores well on both counts.  Consider that Mexico is as big as Western Europe—Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain and Italy combined.  There are 2,457 municipalities in Mexico, and most violence occurs in less than 10 percent of them, while more than 1,500 municipalities are violence-free.  Thirteen of the Thirty-one states in Mexico have no travel advisories whatsoever posted by the U.S. State Department, and all but four states have only partial travel advisories.  Much of the State Department’s advisories can be summed up as follows:  stay out of high risk areas, avoid driving at night, avoid casinos, other gambling and adult establishments and stay away from drugs and drug dealers.  Obviously, this advice could apply to the U.S. as well.  Mexican homicides are largely drug-related.  When Calderon became president in December, 2006, he initiated a war on drug cartels, which led to battles between police, the military and the cartels, and subsequent turf wars between cartels for lucrative distribution routes initiated most of the worst violence.  According to Mexican statistics, 90% of drug war-related homicides are criminals, 6% are military and police and 4% innocent bystanders.

Xantus's Hummingbird, Baja California (photo Bob Bowers)

Xantus’s Hummingbird, Baja California (photo Bob Bowers)

It’s important to note that foreign tourists, including birders, have never been targeted throughout this escalating violence.  If you have ever been in the opposite situation, you will appreciate the significance of this.  In 1994, we traveled to Cambodia while there was a bounty on U.S. citizens, and in 1996 we spent 3 weeks in Egypt while radicals tried to bring down the secular government by killing tourists.  Of course, an innocent bystander can always be caught in crossfire, but it’s a lot different when someone is actually trying to kill you.  This is not to say no U.S. citizens are ever killed in Mexico, but when you look at the numbers it’s clear how little risk actually exists for American tourists.  Since 2006, more than 140,000 murders have taken place in Mexico.  In the past three years, about 70,000 people have been murdered, more than 20,000 annually, but during that same three years only 265 of those were Americans.  The 81 killed last year represent a rate of only 1.35 per 100,000 tourists, far below the U.S. homicide average of 4.8 and only a fraction of the overall Mexico rate of 18.8.  You’re actually 4 times safer in Mexico than in Arizona, where the rate in 2012 was 5.5.

Streak-backed Oriole, Alamos, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

Streak-backed Oriole, Alamos, Mexico (photo Bob Bowers)

Mexico’s murders are publicized out of proportion, as well, due no doubt to our shared border and the fact that half of all U.S. citizens living abroad live in Mexico.  The homicide rate in Mexico is actually lower than much of Latin America.  The homicide rate per 100,000 habitants in Honduras is four times the rate in Mexico, and 13 western countries and territories exceed Mexico’s rate, including such tourist destinations as Belize, Jamaica, Guatemala, Trinidad and Tobago, the Bahamas and Puerto Rico.  Worldwide, there are other popular destinations with higher homicide rates, including South Africa at 31.0.

In 2008, we drove more than 5,000 miles birding Mexico from Tucson to Oaxaca along the central mountains and returning along the coast.  We’ve birded the length of Baja California three times, and this past January we rented a car in Cancun and birded more than 2,000 miles of the Yucatan peninsula including the states of Chiapas and Tabasco.  Other than a little car trouble, we have never experienced an unpleasant incident.  We have found the country warm and inviting, the people friendly and helpful and the birding magnificent.  Nevertheless, there are places we avoid based on feedback, travel advisories and our own research, and not, incidentally, just in Mexico.  Researching material for this article, I read dozens of articles and reports, and reviewed State Department advisories as well as statistical data available from the U.S., the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the Mexican Statistics Agency (INEGI) and Mexico’s National Security System (SNSP).  There is no shortage of factual information about safety in Mexico, and anyone contemplating a trip should take advantage of this wealth of data and opinion.  Who knows, you might decide to join the six million Americans who visit Mexico annually.  The birding alone is worth it.

(This article originally appeared in the January, 2015 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

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About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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