The land of mezcal and mariachi, Mexico is a beautiful and varied country with no shortage of exciting vacation destinations. It’s long wowed visitors with its jungled mountains, its vine-strewn Maya ruins, its glinting Caribbean beaches, and surf-washed Pacific resorts. But there’s a dark side to this nation – Mexico’s reputation has been tainted by stories of cartel crime over the years, and it’s true that the country still has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. So, what are the safest cities in Mexico?
That’s what this guide is all about. It will hop from the highland plateaus of Oaxaca to the salty coves of Puerto Escondido, the palm-fringed Yucatan to the volcano-studded heart of the country, all on the hunt for the towns and cities that have reputations for being among the less-dangerous spots in old Mex.
We think you might just be pleasantly surprised at the range of places that are on offer. Together, they offer a chance to explore UNESCO-tagged ruins and laze on pristine beaches, to encounter handsome Baroque churches and taste Mexican fine-dining in the hills. Of course, we can’t 100% guarantee your safety in these, but you they are places that are a whole load better on the crime front than the infamous likes of Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez.
The capital and largest city of the state of the same name, Oaxaca is widely seen as one of the safest places in the country. It’s very far from the crime flashpoints on the US-Mex border and hasn’t succumbed to the power of the cartels like other corners of Mexico in the last 50 years. Stats show that there were a total of 682 homicides here in 2011 – compare that with the 4,500+ that happened in Chihuahua! On top of that, travel stat collator Numbeo lists the risk of being being attacked, witnessing drug crime, and being mugged as “Low” for Oaxaca.
So, what’s on offer? On top of incredible architecture and unique culture, Oaxaca is also home to a thriving foodie scene and is often dubbed the culinary capital of Mexico. The state has been nicknamed “the land of seven moles”, with each region producing its own variation of the savory-sweet sauce that’s packed with chocolate. In fact, chocolate is a huge part of Oaxaca’s cuisine. The first ever shipment of chocolate to Europe came from Oaxaca in 1502 and it’s still used in wedding dowries throughout the region. The smell of cacao fills the air in the early mornings in the city, as locals huddle over bowls of hot chocolate in the markets and cafés, accompanied by large rolls of pan dulce, or “sweet bread” for dipping.
Oaxaca is also well known for its Zapotec and Mixtec archaeological sites, including the spectacular city ruins of Monte Alban perched 6,400 feet above the city and dating back to 300 AD. It’s also the gateway to the colossal state that bears its name. That means remote mountain villages, the amazing travertine waterfalls of Hierve el Agua, and the surf beaches of Puerto Escondido.
Some six hours through winding mountain roads from Oaxaca city is the large port town of Puerto Escondido, best known for its buzzing nightlife and world-famous surf. Located on the Pacific coast, there are a host of sprawling beaches to explore but the most famous is Zicatela, a busy stretch of golden sand renowned for its Mexican Pipeline surf break.
Thousands of avid boarders flock to Escondido every year to brave the expert waves, but the town has also become a hub for digital nomads and party tourists with its laidback café community and lively bars.
November is a great time to visit when hurricane season has officially ended and international surfing competitions are hosted on Zicatela Beach. The city relies on tourism and is even served by its own international airport.
Crime rates are low and Escondido is one of the safest places for tourists in Mexico with friendly locals and a slow pace. Escondido and surrounding beach resorts are popular places for families and solo travelers, but you should also exercise general precautions and watch out for pickpockets. With its boisterous nightlife, partygoers should also be extra careful to avoid trouble, not only with locals but also with the police, who won’t go easy on misbehaving tourists.
The energetic capital of Mexico’s state of Yucatán is enriched with Mayan history and the colonial past. Mérida’s dynamic heritage is just waiting to be soaked up at every turn but there’s something for all travelers within the colorful city limits.
Once one of the wealthiest metropolises in the world, Mérida is peppered with colonial mansions, built by henequen plantation owners in the late 1800s. Henequen is a fibrous plant that is native to Yucatán. Known as the time of “green gold” for Mérida, the henequen boom saw nearly 1,200 haciendas pop up within an 80-kilometer radius of the city. Although hundreds of plantations were abandoned in the 1950s, memories of Mérida’s unique industry can be enjoyed all over the city.
Mérida is home to broad plazas and impressive cathedrals with narrow streets punctuated by traditional multicolored homes. Colonial buildings sprout up from leafy boulevards all over the city, but Mérida also has a living indigenous culture with many of its friendly local population being of Mayan descent.
The Yucatán Peninsula is scattered with Mayan ruins and ancient sites, with towering pyramids and active archaeological digs all easily explored from Mérida. When visiting Mérida, also be sure to savor the unusual local cuisine which is a far cry from the Oaxacan hot chocolate that you’ll find some 1,400 km across Mexico from Mérida. Yucatán food is influenced by the hot climate and nearby coast.
Panuchos are one of Mérida’s best-loved delicacies. Not to be confused with tacos, the dish consists of small corn tortillas, cooked on a hot cast iron skillet until puffy, sliced open, and stuffed with refried beans. Panuchos are topped with a variety of ingredients from marinated pork to tomatoes and sliced avocado.
Mérida is home to around 800,000 people and is the largest city in the Yucatán State. Yucatán is already the most peaceful state in all of Mexico with the lowest homicide rate and third lowest violent crime rate in the country, but Mérida itself is also the safest city in the country. Drug crimes, vandalism, robbery, assault, property crime, and even political corruption are all very low and Mérida is much safer than many North American cities. The biggest danger is probably the busy traffic, but it’s also not advised to walk alone in some areas at night.
There was a time when Cancun was super, duper safe. Rewind some 10 years and the city hardly had a smidgen of crime, save for the drunken antics of certain spring breakers out of the USA and Canada (ahem). Sadly, things have been destabilized in recent years as cartels have moved in in an attempt to capitalize on all-new drug trafficking routes across the Caribbean corridor. The result? A handful of particularly gruesome murders and attacks, some of which have seen tourists caught in the crossfire (literally!).
All that aside, there’s no doubt that Cancun deserves a spot on this list of the safest cities in Mexico. It draws in literally millions of visitors every year with its bumping bar scene and wild party nights, all driven along by clubs such as Coco Bongo and Senor Frogs. Most of those millions of people will come and go without a single issue.
A lot of that is down to the fact that Cancun has a designated Hotel Zone. It’s a whole region of the city that’s dotted with sprawling resorts that front white-sand beaches. Stay there and you should find that there’s a very strong police presence and that pretty much everything is geared towards making travel super easy.
Another coastal town that is hugged by the Pacific shoreline, Sayulita was once a small fishing village but is now a popular beach resort with families, backpackers, and surfers who all enjoy its golden sands. Sayulita still maintains its slow pace and rustic vibe, but the picturesque town has great nightlife and one that draws people from all over Riviera Nayarit.
Sayula means “the place of mosquitoes” in Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztec people. Thanks to its estuaries, marshes, lush jungle, and sub-tropical climate, it’s likely Sayulita was named after the ever-present bugs that call the town home. Still, that’s no reason to be deterred.
Sayulita is increasingly popular with an alluring hippie vibe, colorful streets, and great surf. Like many towns in Mexico, “Ojos de Dios” and “Papel Picados” grace its central streets. These colorful decorations are a prerequisite of quaint Mexican villages, but Sayulita broke the record in 2019 for displaying the most “Ojos de Dios” of any city.
Sayulita is located just north of Banderas Bay at the southern end of Nayarit State and is backed by the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains. Outside of the city and its great restaurants, beaches, boutique shops, and indigenous art galleries, there’s plenty of wildlife and nature to enjoy. The Marieta Islands also sit just southwest of Sayulita and are home to diverse marine life like humpback whales and dolphins.
Like Oaxaca, Nayarit is far from USA-Mexico border drug cartel activity but you’ll still find a reassuring police presence and well-lit streets. The national average of crime per 100,000 inhabitants in 2019 in Mexico was 1,601, but Nayarit had just 379 incidents making it the 4th safest state in the country. Petty theft can occur but violent crime is uncommon in Sayulita. Use common sense and always keep an eye on your belongings, but Sayulita is very peaceful and one of the safest cities in Mexico for all travelers.
Nestled in east-central Mexico, southeast of Mexico City, Puebla is a historic city well-known for its culinary traditions, colonial heritage, and pottery industry. Poblanos, the people of Puebla, are known for their warm, kind-hearted attitudes and this is just one of the reasons that Puebla is among the safest cities in Mexico for tourists.
Often called “Angelopolis” meaning City of Angels, Puebla is known for its great quality of life, despite being the fourth biggest state capital in Mexico. Puebla’s unique offerings are endless. Along with its traditional Talavera ceramics, crafted from the same techniques introduced by Spain in the 16th century, and “mole poblano”, the spicy sauce with around 20 different ingredients and a 400-year-old recipe, Puebla is also home to the smallest volcano in the world.
Cuexcomate sits in the center of the city reaching 43 feet high with a diameter of 75 feet. The volcano is inactive with the last eruption happening sometime in the 1660s, and visitors can descend inside for a small entrance fee to check out the volcanic chamber and underground waterfall.
Puebla was the birthplace of the Mexican Revolution and Cinco de Mayo. There are a handful of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and Mesoamerica’s largest ancient city can be found in northeastern Puebla, dating back to 50 AD. Puebla also has a host of modern historical architecture and is often called the “city of streetlights” as its roads are decorated with ornate street lamps left by the French. In fact, there are almost 2,000 streetlights in downtown Puebla.
The city might have more than five million inhabitants, but Puebla is one of the safest in Mexico and is removed from narco-violence. The people are friendly and welcoming and the streets are, unsurprisingly, well-lit. Puebla has one of the highest per capita incomes in Mexico too and this contributes to the lower crime rates. Still, visitors should avoid wearing flashy jewelry, keep belongings close, and exercise general precautions as they would in any large city.
Located on the Gulf of Mexico, Campeche is a port city best known for its well-preserved baroque architecture, walled historic center, and military history. The city was fortified in the 17th century in a response to pirate attacks and its two spectacular hilltop fortresses are now public museums.
Campeche is a logical overnight stop on the way from Palenque to Mérida, but you could easily spend a few days enjoying all of its cultural offerings. The city sits in the state of the same name, just next door to Yucatán. It’s now one of the least-populated states in the country, but it was once home to a thriving Mayan civilization, and the oldest carnival in Mexico is still hosted in Ciudad del Carmen, the second biggest city after Campeche.
Campeche is a rich state, with 52 percent of the state’s GDP accounted for by mining and oil production. A high quality of life contributes to low crime rates and the state capital is one of the safest cities in Mexico.
Campeche is a World Heritage Site and is punctuated by traditional colorful homes, old churches, cozy cafés, and boutique shops downtown. The historic center, colonial architecture, Mayan ruins, and lively street markets are all big pull factors to the city. The state is one of three on the Yucatán Peninsula, one of Mexico’s safest and most visited regions.
The city of Campeche is a tourist hotspot and most visitors face no problems. Violent crime is low and cartel violence does not affect this area of the country. Local authorities do well to upkeep Campeche’s safe reputation and the sleepy feel of the city makes it suitable for all travelers.
San Miguel de Allende
Nestled in Mexico’s central highlands, San Miguel de Allende, or San Miguel for short, is a colonial-era city with Spanish architecture, a vibrant art scene, and an exciting festival roster. It’s a popular city for expats and has been since the first trickle of GIs and veterans stared coming in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Today, it’s also surely among the safest cities in Mexico.
The cobblestone streets of San Miguel house the neo-Gothic Parroquia de San Miguel Arcángel church. You can hardly miss that. It’s the icon of the town, spiking the main plaza park of El Jardín with its towering pink spires that rise above. There’s also the Templo de San Francisco among its other impressive religious sites. That 18th-century church boasts a churrigueresque facade, lavishly ornamented in baroque style. Let’s just say that you’ll be snapping photographs at virtually every bend in the road.
The state of Guanajuato where San Miguel makes its home has historically been one of the safest in the country. However, there’s been a noticeable uptick in crime here in the last three years and even some incidents in San Miguel itself. That said, the town is generally still seen as a bit of a safe haven, with overall low incidents of gun crime and violent crime. Still, be sure to do your research and keep your wits about you as you travel around.
If you’re keen to touch down on the Mexican Pacific but don’t want some long-lost surf town, then the resort come city of Puerto Vallarta could be the perfect pick. It strings along the huge Bahia de Banderas, unfolding from its clean-as-a-whistle Hotel Zone (where you’ll hardly even need to leave the resort) to the immersive Zona Romántica (a district of charming cobbled lanes and LGBTQ+ bars).
What’s also great is that the place has been noticeably absent from the cities that have been heavily affected by cartel violence in recent years. Crime rates remain low, and PV – as it’s referred to by its loyal group of followers – is regularly cited as the safest town in the whole country.
You can fill whole weeks with activities by making PV your base, too. Be sure to spend a whole day hiking between the beaches to the south of the town. A public bus can take you as far as Boca de Tomatlan, and then you hop into water taxis to connect to Colomitos Beach and Las Animas Beach. The surf town of Sayulita is just to the north, as are other, beginner-friendly breaks at Punta Mita and La Lancha.
The safest cities in Mexico – our conclusion
It’s no secret that Mexico is hardly among the safest major travel destinations on the globe. High poverty rates and the government’s ongoing struggles with powerful drug cartels are both well documented, with the latter even resulting in pitched street battles in certain Sinaloan towns as recently as January 2023. But would-be travelers to the land of tequila and tacos should also bear in mind that Mexico is one HUGE place. It’s also a seriously popular escape for vacationers, adventurers, and all sorts of traveler. The upshot? There are places you can go where the risk of getting caught up in crimes or trouble drop nice and low. They include the much-loved expat town of San Miguel and the foodie hub of Puebla, along with a whole load more. Happy travels!
When is the best time to visit Mérida?
If you’re after dry weather and plenty to do, the best time to visit Mérida is between December and March when the rainy season is months away and the warm tropical sun shines down on the city. Mérida Fest, an annual celebration honoring the founding of the city, also takes place in January. Accommodation prices might be their highest, but seeing Mexico’s most colorful city in all its glory is well worth it. However, even in the rainy season, Mérida makes a great place to visit.
Are there drug cartels in Mexico?
Mexico has done a lot to shed its reputation that was once riddled with drug crime and violence. The country is now a popular vacation destination where most visitors experience problem-free trips. However, cartels still operate in some regions. The Guadalajara and Jalisco cartels are still among the most dominant and dangerous criminal organizations in the world. Cartel crime shouldn’t impact visitors, but border towns are generally unsafe for tourists.
Is Mexico city safe?
Mexico City demonstrates high crime rates, both violent and petty, and visitors should take extra precautions, especially when traveling around at night. However, this isn’t to say the capital is off-limits to tourists. Mexico City is a vibrant and exciting place that millions of foreigners enjoy every year. As far as Latin American capitals go, it’s not the most dangerous city but you need to keep your wits about you and it’s a good idea to avoid certain areas completely.