Mexico’s popular Riviera Maya has historically been peaceful and largely problem-free. But the last few years have seen a rising number of incidents of gang-related violence. Although these have largely involved Mexicans or international travellers connected with illegal activity, principally the drug trade, the violence has spilled over into tourist areas. In 2021 for example, two tourists (one German, one from the US) were killed in the crossfire of a gun battle between rival drug dealers in Tulum. In response to increased drug-related gang violence, the Foreign Office has recently updated its travel advice for Mexico: it’s now advising UK travellers to avoid certain parts of the country.
In addition, a category five storm hit Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast at the end of October, causing significant damage to local infrastructure. If you’re planning a trip to Mexico soon, here’s what you need to know.
Main photo: people wait for phone service after Hurricane Otis hit Acapulco (Getty Images)
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What has happened in Acapulco?
Hurricane Otis, a category five storm, hit the beach resort of Acapulco on Mexico’s Pacific coast on October 25 and caused significant damage between Zihuatanejo and Punta Maldonado. It struck at 165mph, flooding homes, hospitals and impacting up to 80 per cent of the city’s hotels and has resulted in around 50 fatalities so far. There have been reports of looting and robbery following the limited supplies of food, water and fuel. Electricity has now been restored in most areas of the city and the National Guard have been deployed to Acapulco to support with disaster efforts.
Both Zihuatanejo and Acapulco airports are open, however the only flights being operated are for those transporting stranded tourists back to Mexico City. Normal flights are yet to resume. The Mexican government are offering buses to Mexico City for affected tourists. British people who have been affected by the hurricane and are in need of urgent assistance are advised to call +52 55 1670 3200, select option one for English followed by four to speak to an officer.
Is it safe to travel to Acapulco?
The Foreign Office is advising against all but essential travel to the city of Acapulco. This is because the post-storm situation remains dangerous in Acapulco and the wider state of Guerrero and further flash flooding and mudslides may occur.
What’s the latest Foreign Office advice on Mexico
As well as Acapulco, the Foreign Office is currently advising against all but essential travel to the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Zacatecas, Tamaulipas, Colima, Guerrero and Michoacan, as well as the city of Tijuana, due to increased drug-related gang violence. There are certain exemptions within the states, too, such as the cities of Chihuahua, Los Mochis and Acapulco. In some cases, it depends on how you’re getting there — road access might be unsafe, though flights are considered fine. You can find the full list of exceptions here.
If you decide to travel anyway, be mindful of the fact that your standard travel insurance will likely be invalidated. It’s therefore worth seeking out specialist cover in case of emergencies. More generally, the advice is to stick to the more touristy areas and avoid going out at night, especially alone. Also make sure someone knows where you’re going at all times.
What are Mexico’s entry requirements?
Your passport should be valid for at least six months after your entry date into the country, but a visa is not required for tourists — unless you’re planning any activities that involve scientific or technological research (if you’re unsure, this can be checked with the Mexican Embassy in London). However, British nationals entering Mexico by land must fill out an immigration form online, which you can find here.
Be aware that the state of Quintana Roo charges all visitors a tax, which can be paid before or during your trip via the Visitax web portal. You will have to show proof of payment at the airport when you leave Mexico. You might also be required to pay a departure tax, the cost of which can vary, although this will likely be incorporated into your ticket price.
Is Mexico safe for female travellers?
For the most part, Mexico is safe for female travellers. However, there have been reports of sexual offences taking place in tourist areas, so visitors are advised to take care even in populated areas. Safety will vary by area, too, with tourist resorts among the best. The Foreign Office advises female travellers to be alert when drinking and on public transport, where women travelling alone “have been targeted with harassment, robbery and sexual assault”.
There have also been instances of “express kidnapping” (short-term opportunistic kidnapping) and long-term kidnapping, so you should be careful when discussing your financial affairs in public.
Is Mexico safe for LGBTQ travellers?
Mexico is, on the whole, accepting of LGBTQ relationships. Public displays of affection between same-sex couples could be frowned upon, but same-sex relations are generally tolerated (and same-sex marriage has been legal in Mexico since 2022).
That said, in the past Mexico has been a hostile place for the LGBTQ community. In 2007, the country had the second-highest rate of homophobic crimes in the world after Brazil, and homophobic attacks do occur. You might find that certain parts of the country, such as Mexico City, are more tolerant of LGBTQ travellers.
Is Cancun safe?
Yes. Many British travellers will arrive into Cancun international airport, take a taxi or bus to their hotel, and, with sun, sea, food and drink sorted, spend most or all of their holiday within the grounds. Most properties across the Hotel Zone have always been security-conscious, with guarded gates and security patrols, and many have their own private beaches — as safe and hassle-free as holidays get. The Mexican government has also increased police presence because of the increased gang violence.
As a new city, Cancun isn’t the most soulful place; but souvenir markets, restaurants, bars and shops, including modern, air-conditioned shopping centres, are generally safe. Stay in touristy or populated areas, and be conscious of the petty, opportunistic crime that you find in any tourist areas — don’t flash cash, cameras or iPads.
For nightlife, stick to popular bars and clubs, stay with friends or groups, and always have a clear plan of how to get back to your hotel — lone, drunken wanderings at night, as in any city, are not a bright idea.
Is Playa del Carmen safe?
Yes. Midway between Cancun and Tulum, Playa del Carmen has a reputation as a party city, though plenty of the hotels are great for families or romantic breaks. As in Cancun, it’s possible to spend your whole holiday by the hotel’s pool or on the beach, though most people will want to explore the shops, bars and restaurants of safe, highly touristy Fifth Avenue and surrounding streets.
At night, avoid roaming too far from the brightly lit, busy area around Fifth. Take a taxi for longer distances after dark, ideally one booked by your hotel or at an official stand — always confirm the fare before getting in.
Most visitors are likely to find the stinky sargassum (algae) drifting onto Playa’s beaches more of an issue than security, but be mindful of the fact that a shooting happened on Fifth in July 2022.
Is Tulum safe for tourists?
Yes. Hotels, bars and restaurants in Tulum’s downtown and along the beachfront are still safe. The ancient coastal ruins of Tulum are visited by thousands of people each day without any issues. A few hawkers aside, Tulum beach is blissfully carefree and great for long walks, even for lone travellers, though, as in many other countries, once the sun has set, it’s advisable not to be on the beach alone.
Many travellers go up and down Tulum’s quiet, dimly lit beach road between bars, restaurants and boutiques on foot or by bike (there are a shortage of taxis), which is fine, though, again, after dark, it’s best not to be here alone. Tulum’s downtown, a few miles inland from the beach, has bars, restaurants, shops and hotels, safe by day, and best enjoyed with friends or groups at night. Don’t walk the long, empty, dark stretch of road that links the beach to downtown.
Are Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum gay-friendly?
Yes. “Cancun and Tulum have the highest LGBTQ+ community in this area of Mexico,” says Stefan Arestis from the gay travel-blogging couple Nomadic Boys. “Outside these areas, we found a gay ‘scene’ mainly in touristy Playa del Carmen. We felt very safe and welcome in Cancun and Tulum as a gay couple and noticed other queer couples there. However, as with all places in the world, we were more cautious about PDA in more rural areas.”
Loba Tulum is a gay, male-only hotel in Tulum, but Cancun, Playa and Tulum don’t have as many “gay only” or “gay-specific” hotels as some international destinations; however, many places are mixed and gay-friendly, including Hotel Breathless and Hostel 3B in Cancun.
“We found a few excellent, adults-only hotels that were very welcoming to LGBTQ+ travellers, such as Hidden Beach Resort au Naturel, a nudist resort, and the Illusion Boutique Hotel in Playa del Carmen,” says Arestis. “In Cancun, we liked Temptation Cancun Resort, Le Blanc, and Secrets — all three are adults-only. In terms of booking hotels, we definitely look at whether they’re welcoming to gay couples. It’s a question we always ask them at the outset.”
Cancun’s gay scene includes 11:11 Club, a large, popular gay club with electronic music, karaoke and stripper shows, Laser Hot Bar Beer y Queer (bar with drag shows) and Japi Cancun.
LGBTQ+ travel company Pink Flamingo Gay Tours operate tours along the Riviera Maya, including ATVs, caves, and Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve.
Are Cancun, Playa del Carmen and Tulum safe for solo female travellers?
Yes. Of the three, Cancun can feel more confined, with so many travellers staying at their (often all-inclusive) hotels, while Playa del Carmen and Tulum are the more sociable for solo travellers.
“I preferred Tulum over Cancun as it’s chilled out,” says solo female travel blogger Claire Sturzaker from Tales of a Backpacker. “Although it’s not the quiet fishing village it used to be, it isn’t as intense as Cancun and felt safer to me. There are some great hostels in Tulum where you can meet people, such as Amorcito Hostel, where I stayed, which has a rooftop pool.”
Many standard guidelines for solo female travellers anywhere in the world apply here. “Avoid walking around alone at night in places like Tulum’s beach road and places off the main streets that aren’t well-lit, including the beach itself,” advises Sturzaker. “Don’t accept drinks from people you don’t know, and never leave your drinks unattended. It’s a long walk from Tulum’s beach zone to the town, so consider getting a taxi after dark. I don’t think you need to be any more careful in Tulum than you would anywhere else. You can always join a group tour to visit the ruins or go snorkelling or diving if you don’t feel like exploring alone.”
Is Tulum safer than Cancun?
Not really. They’re both generally safe. The key difference is that Cancun’s mainstream holidaymakers tend to stick more to their hotels, especially the all-inclusives. Tulum, from the upmarket boutique hotels to the cheap hostels, has more of a bohemian vibe; with more travellers who come to hang out, meet other people and explore, including the beach road and downtown, which means more time outside the securely enclosed confines of a hotel’s grounds. But sensible travellers should feel safe in both.
What other options are available?
If you have lingering doubts about the Riviera Maya’s hotspots, it’s worth remembering how much else there is across the region, including plenty of hotels north of Cancun, such as the Playa Mujeres area, and in less visited towns, such as Akumal (famous for turtles in the ocean) and Puerto Morelos.
There are also many secluded hotels along the coast, such as the massive all-inclusive Grand Velas Riviera Maya, Hotel Esencia, Belmond Maroma, and four great luxury hotels inside the gated Mayakoba complex, including Banyan Tree, Andaz, Fairmont and Rosewood, all of which feel far away from tourist crowds and even the slightest hint of trouble. Even further removed, check out the scuba-diving island of Cozumel or the lovely laidback Isla Holbox.
Additional reporting by Qin Xie