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Is Mexico safe? Where to travel now

Jo Piazza, Special to CNBC
Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Getty Images | Xinhua News Agency

Mexico is a popular vacation destination with more than 40 million tourists visiting in 2017. But in the past year, various parts of the country have been besieged by gang violence, assaults, natural disasters and even reports of poisoned liquor.

On March 8, ahead of spring break season, the U.S. State Department issued a security alert for the popular resort spot Playa del Carmen after the U.S. Embassy in Mexico City received a security threat against the town.

The alert, which was later downgraded to include on five neighborhoods, came less than a month after an explosion on a tourist ferry in Playa del Carmen injured 24 people, including five Americans. And in December the U.S. Office of Inspector General opened an inquiry to investigate possibly tainted booze at all-inclusive resorts in Mexican resort towns like Playa Del Carmen and Cancun.

It's all left travelers wondering if it is safe to travel to the country.

Experts say yes.

"The vast majority of destinations that tourists and travelers visit are safe," says Zachary Rabinor, the President and CEO of Journey Mexico, a travel company with three offices in Mexico. "Like in the rest of the world, unsafe areas have more to do with local petty crime or if visitors engage in unsafe activities or visit unsafe establishments."

Currently, as a country, Mexico's threat level, according to the State Department, is a level two. That means tourists should "be aware of heightened risks to safety and security." For context, the Bahamas are also rated a level two (due to crime like burglaries and robberies).

Five states in Mexico have a level four rating — Colima, Guerrero (where Acapulco is located), Michoacan, Sinaloa (where Mazatlan is located) and Tamaulipas (part of which borders Texas) — the same ranking as war zones like Afghanistan and Iraq. The State Department recommends that Americans should not travel to those locations due to "widespread violent crime."

But as long as you're not traveling to one of these areas, "there is no reason to do more than to be aware of the warnings and to exercise the normal degree of caution that should be done while traveling anywhere," says Christopher Wilson, the deputy director of the Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center.

"Don't drink the tap water, have a cab called for you instead of flagging one down on the street," recommends Wilson.

Additionally, leave a detailed itinerary with family and friends that includes contact information for hotels and guides, says Rabinor. Also avoid wearing flashy or expensive jewelry that would make you stand out among a crowd.

Where to travel now

There are some great, safe places to go, say the experts.

La Paz, on the eastern side of Baja California Sur on the Sea of Cortez, is quickly becoming a well-known beach vacation destination, particularly for those fond of snorkeling and diving. Tour operators offer whale watching excursions, swimming with whale sharks (the largest fish in the world) or day trips to Isla Espíritu Santo where visitors can swim with the sea lions, snorkel over coral reefs and dive in artificial reefs made growing out of two sunken ships.

"It is totally safe," says Carlos Rodríguez Bucheli Cota, the General Director of the La Paz Tourism Board. "It is a preferred international vacation spot for families, adventure tourists and retirees."

Rabinor of Journey Mexico recommends the resort town of Puerto Vallarta and Sayulita on the Riviera Nayarit on the West Coast. It has the charm of a small beachside village, but the amenities, restaurants and rental properties of a top beach destination. It's great for families, couples and solo travelers and has a lively ex-pat community.

Riviera Maya and Tulum on Eastern Yucatan peninsula are also a good bet, says Rabinor.

"Yucatan is a safe haven," Rabinor said. "Major U.S. cities such as New York and Chicago have higher murder rates than the entire state of Yucatan."

Mexico City is quickly becoming one of the foodie destinations of the world for everything from street food to true culinary gems. The Mexican capital is a big city and visitors should exercise the same caution they would in any other busy urban area, but it has recently been relatively free of the gang and drug violence that have infected other parts of the country. It has a lower homicide rate than Washington D.C., according to Christopher Wilson of the Wilson Center.

Hana LaRock, a 26 year-old writer living in Toluca, an hour outside of Mexico City says she has seen more tourists recently in Mexico City than she has in the past.

"People seem to be less concerned with safety in this city than they were years ago," LaRock said. "One cool thing that Mexico City has done is that they've created train cars that are only for women and children, in order to keep them safe against sexual harassment on subways, which, as we know, happens everywhere."

Mexico City
Bloomberg | Getty Images

And even though the city was struck by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake last fall, it is currently considered safe for visitors according to Wilson. "Potentially unstable buildings have been closed," he says.

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Tulum, Quintana Roo, Mexico
Getty Images | Xinhua News Agency