Back in 1936, E. Alexander Powell flew to two dozen republics and colonies “fringing and dotting the Caribbean,” in “half that number of weeks,” relying heavily on Pan Am clippers, a flying boat. In his book Aerial Odyssey, he offered the following introduction to Mexico, “without charge, to any transportation, tourist agency, or hotel which cares to use it”:
Mexico! Land of the Aztecs and the conquistadors; mother of California; hunting-ground of the predatory and the ruthless from Cortés to Villa; hill-towns as picturesque as those of Italy; roofs the color of faded rose petals; white houses sentineled by slim black cypresses; smoking volcanoes; pyramids and temples hoary with antiquity; fountains splashing in scented patios; chaparral and cactus; parrots and leopards; Christian shrines on pagan altars; creaking oxcarts and ambling mule-trains; silver mines; Indians in bright serapes, and pigtailed matadors in gold-laced jackets; guitars beneath the stars; vaqueros astride of prancing horses; slim señoritas with come-hither eyes and hard red lips; droves of donkeys amid clouds of yellow dust; priestless churches crowded with kneeling worshipers; forests of oil-derricks; violent and vindictive mural paintings; enchiladas and frijoles; treasure in the hills waiting to be found; patient brown peons; hard-faced politicos with guns bulging in their hip-pockets; luxury and misery; wealth and squalor; revolutions just around the corner; and the peso at 3.60 to the dollar.
After taking a deep breath and typing a period on his first sentence — over 165 words and 18 semicolons — he dedicated the foregoing with a rather more concise epithet: “And, what’s more, it is true, every word of it.”
If it was true then, it is pretty much still true today. Well, there are more priests in the churches nowadays and way fewer oxcarts, and the peso has dropped considerably (averaging around 18 to the dollar), but as for the rest — I’d say Powell’s description is as valid now as it was in 1936. Particularly his lines about “hard-faced politicos with guns bulging in their pockets” and “luxury and misery; wealth and squalor.” Whether a revolution is “just around the corner” depends on modern usages of the word, and those “hard faced politicos,” without a wild stretch of the imagination, could well envelop the multitude of cartels and gangs plaguing the public.
In fact, the ubiquitous and senseless violence, often targeting tourists, convinced me to put future travels to Mexico on hold years ago — long before COVID-19 was even a rapid-eye-movement twitch from a Chinese Wuhan bio-technician.
Still, I’ve traveled widely throughout Mexico and parts south, and I have many very fond memories. Current problems notwithstanding, once the lawlessness is effectively addressed, I am looking forward to traveling there once more.
Mexico has never been particularly safe. I get it. I have German friends who dine out on their story of a road trip south of Mexico City, a decade or so before the drug cartels. Assailed by six gun-wielding brigands in sombreros and serapes, they immediately produced their German passports. The astounded robbers apologized profusely and (in broken English) explained, “But we thought you were gringos!” The ruffians plied my German friends with tequila and waved them on their way.
And I’m not looking for “safe” — at least not in absolute terms — just doable odds.
About the same time when my friends were almost getting robbed by banditos, my wife and I were making frequent sorties from El Paso, Texas, to Juárez, Mexico. Again, this was long before the cartels, and the hordes of illegal aliens and porous borders. The jaunt was our weekend gift to ourselves, and we trudged eagerly across the vast wire-enclosed bridge over the Rio Grande, stopping at the first liquor store on the left for piña coladas, surrounded by shelves of cream liquors and the refreshing cool of terracotta fountains. We walked fearless and unafraid to the Plaza de Toros, or bullfighting stadium, in a pretty rough part of town and over to the upscale mall. Of course, that was then.
My last visit to Mexico, just a few years back, centered on Acapulco. We were “off-season” but still had the chance to watch the cliff divers. The nightly news featured a veteran cliff diver who was proudly flaunting tradition by training his young teenage daughter to jump from the cliffs, which up to then had been pretty much an exclusively male profession. We didn’t get to watch the event, and, tuning in to newscasts while proceeding further south, we learned of a bus full of tourists that had been targeted by a cartel-led kidnapping. All were killed. Yikes. That could easily have been us. Oh, and prophetically, when we caught up with the news of the little cliff diver’s “maiden” jump? She survived the fall but had broken her arm on impact. Yikes, again.
Today, the international news still terrifies with reports of drug cartels, crooked Mexican police, corrupt politicians, gang wars, assassinations, and kidnappings. It isn’t just media hype. Unscrupulous travel promoters may brush away the dangers, claiming, “It will probably be fine if you stay in the resort.” Of course, few people visit very far afield just to stay isolated in some “tourist ghetto” — and even if you do? It still may not be safe.
Poisoned, contaminated, or drugged alcohol still finds its way into “exclusive tourist resorts,” and rapes, robberies, and violent assaults are never far from the headlines.
Paranoia is an ugly thing, and there is absolutely no need to live one’s life in fear. I get it. But travel is expensive — in time and treasure — and I, for one, am reluctant to squander either on high-risk enterprises. There are lots of safer places to see, lots of safer things to do.
Of course, the situation is bound to settle down south of the border — eventually — and, when it does, Mexico will be high on my “must see (again)” list.
Seattle native Mike Howard is a travel journalist working out of the Pacific Northwest.
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