Is Nogales, Mexico, safe? It’s often one of the first questions that people ask when they start planning a trip to this city on the AZ-Sonora border. And they’d be right too. It’s no secret that Nogales has been a major hotspot for narco-traffickers and cartels for some decades, and crime rates are noticeably higher here than in other, more-visited, parts of the country. Burglaries are relatively commonplace and there’s even the potential for violent crime, especially in certain areas.
On the flip side, Nogales remains a very popular entry point for US visitors to Mexico. It’s also a major medical and dental tourism destination, thanks to the uber-cheap private healthcare clinics that await just past passport control. Oh, and folks flock over to the markets of downtown Nogales to shop for traditional Mexican wares and handicrafts, much of it brought up from states far further south.
A majority of trips to the town go off without a hitch. Thousands of travelers move in and out of Nogales and the namesake town of Nogales, AZ, just across in the US, every day and night – just look at the queues on the border! However, there’s no ignoring the dangers of these sorts of US-Mex border towns and the potential risks that they bring with them. That’s why we’ve put together this guide, which answers is Nogales, Mexico, safe by addressing all the key points and details.
Where is Nogales, Mexcio?
Roughly speaking, Nogales is in the far northwestern part of Mexico. Set deep in the dusty and sun-blasted lands of the Sonoran Desert, right at the northern end of Sonora state, it’s surrounded on all sides by cacti-spotted hills and brittlebush valleys that seem to go on forever.
The location is very important to consider when you come to decide if Nogales is safe to visit. Border towns in Mexico are natural flashpoints in the underworld of drug trafficking. Simply by being close to the United States, they have the potential to attract narco gangs and all the dangers that go with them. On top of that, border towns are obvious places for immigrants to gather before making an attempt to cross illegally from Mexico to the US. That happens a lot around Nogales, especially in the desert to the west and east, where you can even see long, high fences intended to keep people out.
These facts dovetail together to create somewhere that’s hardly your typical tourist hotspot south of the border.
Major dangers in Nogales, Mexico
Increasing reports of violent crime and kidnappings up and down this section of the US border are directly related to narco-gang activity in the region. It’s all about the presence of what the US Overseas Security Advisory Council, a State Department and private sector security collaboration that focuses on threats abroad, calls Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs). You and I know them better as drug cartels, and they are driving key crime stats to all new and dizzying heights in Nogales. Here are just a few threats that you’ll need to be wary of:
- Homicide – The homicide rate in Nogales increased two thirds from 2018 to 2019, hitting a whopping 248 in the consular district (an area to the south of the downtown) alone.
- Residential burglaries – The rate of residential theft in Nogales tripled from 2018 to 2019.
- Car theft – More than 500 incidents in 2019 in Nogales. TCO gangs specifically look to steal MPVs and pick-up trucks.
- Gun crime – Possession of a firearm is technically illegal in Mexico but gangs are known to carry weapons (including heavy weapons and machine guns) throughout Nogales.
Although there’s no evidence that gangs target US tourists and international visitors in Nogales, the threat from TCOs can’t be ruled out. That’s especially true if you venture to less-trodden parts of the city (more on those later), where there’s a smaller police presence. What’s more, crime rates are generally on the increase all across Sonora and Mexico. Recent arrests of drug kingpins have caused division and strife between gangs, making violent crime all the more likely.
Minor dangers in Nogales, Mexico
Nogales is not a place for tourists. Despite the overload of shopping spots and dental tourism clinics in the downtown, this town isn’t up there with Cancun and Acapulco. Visitors report being “stared at” as they walk the streets, and begging for money is commonplace. You’ll notice that there are lots of locals simply hanging around the main shopping plazas from morning until night. They are a direct result of soaring unemployment numbers in Sonora state and often double as petty criminals. Others won’t hesitate to ask for money from anyone they deem to be visiting from the US.
You should also watch out for physical dangers like uneven sidewalks and roads. There’s a noticeable dip in the quality of the infrastructure the moment you cross over the border in Mexico here. Always watch where you’re placing your feet, as the concrete is often broken and slabs are often laid badly.
Is Nogales safe for solo travelers?
There are certainly some destinations in Mexico that welcome solo travelers with open arms, from Cancun to Puerto Vallarta. However, Nogales isn’t one of them. Traveling solo here presents even more of a danger than if you were in a group. You’re more likely to be targeted by petty criminals, more likely to be asked for money in the shopping areas, and more likely to fall victim to major violent crimes and drug-related crimes. We’d always recommend going to Nogales as at least a pair and never, ever walk around the more dangerous areas away from the tourist zone by yourself, especially not after dark…
Is Nogales, Mexico, safe for nightlife?
After dark, Nogales, like Acapulco, becomes much, much more dangerous. Exploring the strip in downtown Nogales offers a taste of Mexico’s famous tequila bars and mariachi music. Our advice, though? Simply do not be tempted. The late-night spots here are gathering points for members of Nogales’s narco gangs and have proved to be some of the most dangerous locations in the whole city.
What’s more, heading out at night means you also have to head back. That’s a total no-no. Walking anywhere in Nogales once the sun has set presents a much higher risk of falling victim to serious crime. In fact, the vast majority of major gun crime occurs after hours in the backstreets of Nogales. That’s not something you want to have on the travel itinerary.
Is the tap water in Nogales safe to drink?
The tap water is not safe to drink in Nogales. Tap water can be contaminated with sewage and other toxic elements, so it is best to stick to bottled or filtered drinking water throughout your stay south of the border. Some hotels will offer free filtered water, which is also typically safe to drink. When purchasing bottled H2O, always insist on opening the bottle yourself. According to www.tapsafe.org information from Nogales and nearby locations showed that the average water score in Mexican cities is about 39 out of 100. That’s not too good, eh?
The main tourist areas of Nogales, Mexico
Most of the crime in Nogales isn’t in the area immediately by the border with the United States. In fact, the authorities here have made a conscious effort to make the shopping and healthcare areas close to the US as safe as can be, mainly to encourage cross-border tourism. The people that work and live in those areas also have a vested interest in keeping them as safe as possible. The result is a sort of enclave of the city where things are generally better, although we’d still warn of getting too comfortable.
There are three main parts to the tourist area in Nogales: Plaza Pesqueira, Campillo and Obregon. The first is a small plaza that opens onto the medical tourism area that stretches on down Campillo, filled with pharmacies and clinics of all shapes and sizes. Obregon is the place to go for shopping. All of these are easily accessed via the Deconcini Port (one of the main pedestrian gateways on the border). You can also enter an area that hosts the town’s best Mexicana eateries that’s still sort of within the tourist zone by crossing via the Nogales-Morley Gate to the east.
Top safety tips for those visiting Nogales, Mexico
- Don’t go alone – It’s much safer to visit Nogales as part of a group.
- Don’t be flashy – Swap out the new DSLR for something more modest, take off the jewelry, and never pull out your wallet or wads of cash in public. That’s just asking for it.
- Return to the US by nightfall – It’s much safer to stay in the US and be back over the border by sundown. Remember that queues can get pretty long at the border, especially on weekends, so allow ample time for the crossing.
- Know your Mexico emergency numbers – It’s 911 for police and 078 for the Green Angels, crews of English-speaking tourist assistants that service major highways.
- Stay away from parked cars and don’t stop to ask questions about them – You never know whose car you’re looking at and it’s best to keep yourself to yourself in Nogales.
- Don’t share your travel itinerary – Kidnappers love to plan ahead, so don’t go telling them where you’re going to be before you arrive.
- Stick to the main tourist areas – These are Campillo, Obregon and the Plaza Pesqueira. Anywhere beyond these points is where things will get more dangerous.
So, is Nogales, Mexico, safe to visit?
Is Nogales, Mexico, safe? Well…yes, and no. While most of the visits to this city go smoothly, there’s no denying that there are potential dangers and risks when it comes to crossing over from Nogales, AZ. That’s true of many of the border towns that dot the deserts in the extreme north of the country, though. Simply because of where they are, they’ve emerged as fertile grounds for gang activity and narco-traffickers. That’s why we’d say be sure to steer clear of Nogales at night, especially in certain areas where crime rates are higher. It’s not advisable to go to bars or clubs, period. Oh, and be very careful driving around as traffic accidents are commonplace.