Gary is currently in ?????, ?????? (Oct 23rd, 2014)
 

Search Form

Traveling to Dangerous Places

105
SHARES

Soldiers in Preah Viher, Cambodia

This Saturday I’m flying to Acapulco, Mexico. I’ll be there a few days before sailing on the Queen Elizabeth up to Los Angeles as a guest of Cunard Cruise Lines.

Not surprisingly, almost everyone I’ve told mentioned something about crime, murders, drug gangs, or beheadings.

Almost all the news coming from Mexico lately has been bad. It seems the only thing you hear about is violence, kidnappings and drug lords running wild.

So am I crazy for going to Mexico?

Over the last four years I’ve been to about 80 countries depending on how you define the term. Five of those countries were on the US State Department travel warning list when I visited: The Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Israel, and Mexico. (Thailand and Indonesia are no longer on the list) In addition to these places I’ve been at the Thai-Cambodian border while the two countries were fighting and I visited Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea a week after it was named the #1 Hell On Earth. I was also in East Timor the day of the assassination attempt on the President and Prime Minister.

I mention this not to brag or to make it sound like I’m some super traveler who doesn’t fear danger. Quite the contrary, I have no desire to become a martyr to the cause of travel blogging. (I often joke that getting kidnapped would be the greatest thing I could do to boost the traffic to my site. I do, however, value my life more than I do pageviews.) I mention it because all of the places I visited that had travel warnings seemed quite pedestrian. Even when I was standing between several hundred Bangkok police officers in riot gear and several thousand redshirt protesters, I never really felt any immediate danger.

Bangkok police in riot gearBoth the media and the government paint with a very broad brush. When something happens in Nuevo Laredo, it doesn’t happen in Nuevo Laredo, it happens in Mexico. All of Mexico is lumped together with things which might be happening in certain cities or regions. The make no distinction between the north and south

In early 2010 I was in Bangkok during some of the protests that were going on. During that time, travel legend Arthur Frommer wrote a blog post suggesting that travelers should stay away from Thailand. The problem was, protests weren’t occurring all over Thailand, they were only occurring in Bangkok, and even then, they were only occurring in certain sections of Bangkok. If you weren’t in that area, you’d have no clue that anything was going on. Thailand is a pretty big country and what goes on in the capital is not representative on what goes on elsewhere.

The same is true with almost every country on the list. There certainly are places you probably should avoid, but that doesn’t mean you should paint the whole country with a broad brush. If you apply the same logic to the United States, people should avoid Des Moines because of crime in Detroit. It makes no sense. The only reason we accept that sort of thinking for foreign countries is because we aren’t as familiar with them.

UN Vehicles in East TimorThe Philippines are a great example. In the south near Malaysia, there have been cases of violence with Muslim separatists. Political violence in some areas has also been noteworthy and it has one of the highest murder rates for journalists in the world. That is what you hear about on the news. However, the northernmost province of Batanes has a crime rate of zero. ZERO. The police complain of having nothing to do and if you lose an item it will usually be taken to the radio station to find the owner.

Batanes and Mindanao are part of the same country, but culturally and physically they are hundreds of miles apart. Yet, when you hear of problems in “The Philippines” everything gets lumped together.

The government has an incentive to be conservative in its warnings. If someone has a good time on their vacation, no one will hear about it. If someone gets killed, then it gets on the news. It is in their interest to overstate the dangers of a place.

For example, as I write this in January of 2011, the US State Department has a generic, vague travel advisory for the entire continent of Europe. Basically, something might happen somewhere in Europe at sometime. They issues things like this to cover their ass. If something happens they can say they warned people. If nothing happens, no one will care or remember.

There are plenty of places I have no desire to visit. Anywhere that is an active war zone is off my list. I wouldn’t want to have visited Baghdad at any point in the last 10 years. The Ivory Coast is a place I’ll put off visiting for a while (but if someone from the Ivory Coast told me that conditions are only bad in certain spots, and I’d have a hard time arguing with them.)

Here is an informal list of rules I follow:

  • Are tourists being targeted? In many places, like what is happening in Tunisia currently, it has nothing to do with Americans, westerners or even foreigners. If the problems are internal, you probably don’t have too much to worry about. If, like in Yemen, tourists are specifically targeted because they are tourists, you might want to think twice. Likewise if they are targeting groups you might belong to or foreigners in general.
  • Do problems exist in the city or region you’ll be visiting? As I explained above, many countries are quite large and lumping everything together makes no sense. Make sure you get specifics on where you will be, don’t just get news at the country level, unless the country is really small.
  • Could you get caught in the middle of things? Even if you aren’t a target, that doesn’t mean you can’t get accidentally get caught in a crossfire.
  • Be inconspicuous. Don’t stay in the most expensive, well know hotel in a city. Don’t look like a tourist if you can avoid it.
  • Have an escape plan. During the Bangkok protests, I had a plan for getting out of the city if thing blew up. (Taxi to Pattaya.) When I was photographing the protesters, I had an escape plan for getting off the street I was on. (Run up a parking ramp and into an office building with embassies). Just giving a few minutes of thought to what you would do if things went bad could save you if it does.

The final thing I will say on this subject, is that the real dangers while traveling aren’t the ones that come from the news. The biggest killer of tourists is automobile accidents. Most of the serious injuries sustained by travelers I know personally have come from bicycle or motorbike accidents. These are the real dangers while traveling and they are ones you’ll never hear about on CNN. They are the common everyday accidents that happen at home while we are worried about terrorism.

Safety should be a priority while traveling, but you shouldn’t worry about problems that don’t exist. Do your research, use common sense and that should take care of the majority of potential problems.

  • 39 Comments... What's your take?

Get My Free Travel Photography Ebook

Subscribe to my email newsletter to get a FREE 100 page ebook of my favorite travel photos.

Comments

  1. Matt says:

    I don’t think Acapulco was the best example for this article… there is actually quite a bit of gruesome local violence in Acapulco, heads floating up on the beach, last year in one night 13 taxi drivers were burned to death inside their taxis throughout the city, the gang rape of those Spanish tourists, etc. A large chunk of Mexico does have a systemic problem with corruption and violent crime, and it’s not only a border issue. What tends to happen is that narcos take over whole states by getting involved with elected politicians or state police forces. Once that happens, an entire state can become a gray zone without a functioning police force (Michoacan, Guerrero, San Luis Potosi, Zacatecas). This isn’t a secret–you can even ask people from those states “Which drug cartel controls your state?” and they’ll tell you, “Oh, right now it’s Chapo,” etc. I just think there’s huge difference between a country being on the State Dept list because there was a one-time political riot, as opposed to a country like mexico where tens of thousands of people have been murdered and an equal number of police officers have been bought off by druglords. That is not an even that’s going to blow over anytime soon.

    Having said all that, I agree with the overall idea of the article–locally dangerous places are often incorrectly extrapolated to the entire country, and Mexico is a large country. Just because Acapulco is bad doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit Oaxaca, or Chiapas, or Yucatan. In many cases these places are actually safer than a major city in the US. And even in a “hot zone”, your chances of being the victim of violent crime are still extremely low.

  2. Max Neumegen says:

    My eldest brother was killed in the Bangkok democracy riots. The earlier ones. May 1992. And he just when around the corner from Wat Bowon to get a tomato juice.
    Can see link
    2bangkok.com/2bangkok-blackmay-blackmay05.html

    Life is fatalistic .
    Having spent a 20 career in “safety”,
    It is all about potential. If the potential is there of an injury or loss happening, it is not a question of “if”, it is a question of “when”.
    And is’nt that life?

  3. You’re so right Gary – the same problems with media and all the warnings exist here in Germany. Due to this my family and friends are often worried about when i tell them that my next destination is a country like colombia or peru.
    The tips you name are essential and i guess most of the travelers have that in mind – mostly it’s up to yourself to avoid dangerous situations…

  4. Mirella says:

    i fallow this mexican blog you can hit the translate button ….. it’s always updated and pretty legit Acapulco seems to be making headlines a lot more often :/ http://www.blogdelnarco.com/

  5. I’ll never forget the old Mexican woman who was shocked when I told her I grew up 6 hours from NYC.

    She had seen the World Trade Center disaster on TV, and thought the United States was some kind of dangerous war-zone now. She told me she’d never want to go to NYC.

  6. Victor says:

    Very good article, Gary, and wise rules.

  7. Steph says:

    I spent a week in Mexico City a couple of months ago and never felt unsafe!

  8. It is very useful post! In fact if traveler wants to be in safety during travel abroad he (she) must choose travel places and prepare for travel in advance. I just want to add that this preparation should take into account all dangers that may happen during travel: extreme weather, natural and man-made disasters, ecological and epidemiological problems, social and political tensions etc. Create a list of possible dangers that may affect you during travel and prepare for your travel on the base of this list. Be prepared and enjoy your travel!

  9. danee gilmartin says:

    I agree with you Gary, that lumping a whole country into a danger list is misinforming. But I think the US State Department and those lists are compiled for the majority of the public who may not know the different parts of a country and not for an avid traveler.

    Danger is definitely not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of Mexico. I’ve never felt I was in danger when I was there. And I wonder how do they decide the US State Department warning list? Some of those countries didn’t make me nervous to visit- especially Israel. I felt like Israel was one of the safes places I’ve been being that their army is very intelligent and protectant- unless you plan on standing right on the border! I even felt surprisingly safe in the Palestinian Territories.

    Although, I do agree with the earlier comments that danger can be anywhere, obviously there are places that are prone to problems and more probable that you might experience trouble, like you said, the Ivory Coast and Baghdad. Not everyone wants to risk their life (especially if they have kids) to travel and some places have a much higher risk of danger and that’s NOT the same as saying that danger or problems can’t break anywhere.

    The most dangerous places that I’ve been, where I can say I definitely felt uncomfortable and that the risk of danger was high was driving through small towns and the jungles of Colombia (I was there multiply times, for a few months with a friend from Medellin and most of the time I was told not to speak because of my accent) and el Fayoum, Egypt. IMO- I’m surprised Egypt hasn’t been on the US State Department list already. Although Colombia is still one of my favorite countries, I would still hesitate to tell people to travel there that aren’t willing to risk their safety.

    I think, in general, if you think Colombia is safe then perhaps you have only been to Cartagena and Bogota…

  10. As Americans we love to think our country is the safest (despite the reality), and outside our borders the streets are filled with thugs and terrorists looking to snatch our wallets and cut our throats as soon as we step beyond our borders. The fear mongering runs deep even among highly educated people. Remember only 25% or so of US citizens even have a passport!

    I’d like to help spread the truth about people everywhere – their generosity, curiosity, and love of all the same things we love here in the good ol’ US. They love their families, want the best for their children, and enjoy spending Sunday afternoons watching sports just like we do! They want the same things we do – global peace, economic stability, opportunity for education and the chance for personal achievement.

    Articles like this help spread that word. Thanks Gary!

  11. Hi Gary. Thank you very much for this post. I am a Filipino who lives in Mindanao-known internationally for violence and terrorism. But such events happen only in the southern part of the 2nd largest island of the country. Bucas Grande Island is situated in the northeastern tip of Mindanao. In our 12,445-hectare island, peace and tranquility reigns among it’s 20,000 inhabitants. But we have lots to offer, in fact Sohoton Cove- our flagship ecotourism destination has gained prominence as all-in-one tourist destination.

  12. Hi Gary. Thank you very much for this post. I am a Filipino who lives in Mindanao-known internationally for violence and terrorism. But such events happen only in the southern part of the 2nd largest island of the country. Bucas Grande Island is situated in the northeastern tip of Mindanao. In our 12,445-hectare island, peace and tranquility reigns among it’s 20,000 inhabitants. But we have lots to offer, in fact Sohoton Cove- our flagship ecotourism destination has gained prominence as all-in-one tourist destination.

  13. Thank you for this article. It is important for people not let fear totally take over. It is important to do your research and make sure you go in with your eyes wide open. I agree, if they are rioting in Paris then go south, east or west. We drove to San Felipe Mexico recently and had no issues. The crossing at Mexicali was painless as was the drive and our wonderful time in the sleepy little fishing village along the Sea of Cortez was amazing!

  14. Thank you for this article. It is important for people not let fear totally take over. It is important to do your research and make sure you go in with your eyes wide open. I agree, if they are rioting in Paris then go south, east or west. We drove to San Felipe Mexico recently and had no issues. The crossing at Mexicali was painless as was the drive and our wonderful time in the sleepy little fishing village along the Sea of Cortez was amazing!

  15. Leigh says:

    In researching a previous post I found that Washington, DC made the Top 10 most dangerous places in the world. But stats can easily be manipulated and it depends on the source. Still there are something like 200 million guns floating around the US so there are plenty of unsafe places.
    As for Mexico – I hear many more positive stories than bad. As always common sense should prevail.
    Your tips make great sense.

  16. Leigh says:

    In researching a previous post I found that Washington, DC made the Top 10 most dangerous places in the world. But stats can easily be manipulated and it depends on the source. Still there are something like 200 million guns floating around the US so there are plenty of unsafe places.
    As for Mexico – I hear many more positive stories than bad. As always common sense should prevail.
    Your tips make great sense.

  17. Liudwp says:

    This is the normal practice in mass media in the last years. They do not know what to write and to envent and create these terrible pictures of places and people. So, I agree with you about the real dangers of our life. And real problems we have to think about. Specially, when travel.

  18. Ladrett Wiesbaden says:

    Take care over there.

  19. Mexico is getting a bad rap for no real reason. Yes, there is more violence than in the past. However these are violent acts that do not involve tourists. The conflict is gang/cartel related and these gangs are targeting each other, not visitors.

    Use common sense, stay away from places you don’t know. Travel in groups, don’t flaunt money, jewelery or fancy electronics. The people of Mexico are warm and welcoming. I always feel safe there and I’m looking forward to my next visit.

    Viva Mexico!

  20. I love Mexico and having lived in San Diego for several years I have visited more times than I can count. Things have changed. The people are still amazing, beautiful and warm but the cartels have been struggling for control for the past 2 years or so. It really has gotten bad. Acupulco is one of the worst cities for drug violence right now. I wouldn’t worry too much about it as a tourist and I would still visit myself but just stick to common sense. Yes, the police presence is strong in Mexico but a lot of times, it is the policia you have to worry about. Remember to always have cash on you, in case of a bribe. I doubt this will happen to you but it has happened to me and it’s nice to just have the cash and walk away. Randy has encountered a lot of violence in Mexico – even was once put in a sleeper hold on the streets and robbed. This is all in Tijuana which also has severe drug problems right now.

    Mexico shouldn’t be feared though and the further you are from the US border the better it will be and the happier the people are. Just keep a really good eye on your gear and honestly, don’t let it out of your sight.

    The locals will be very happy to help you. Tourism is slowed considerably in Mexico and honestly the people need all the tourism dollars they can get because they can’t rely on their government.

    Have fun and have a burrito for me!!!

  21. ChinaMatt says:

    Back in 2005 I was looking to move to Israel (of course, I found that there were no jobs for me there), and everyone asked me if I was concerned about safety there. I didn’t see it as any more dangerous than living in the NYC area. You’re right that it has to do with knowing your surroundings and recognizing when to move along.

  22. ChinaMatt says:

    Back in 2005 I was looking to move to Israel (of course, I found that there were no jobs for me there), and everyone asked me if I was concerned about safety there. I didn’t see it as any more dangerous than living in the NYC area. You’re right that it has to do with knowing your surroundings and recognizing when to move along.

  23. Angela says:

    Great post, I totally agree. True, sometimes governments and media definitely use a too wide brush. Other times, I honestly don’t know where people get the information from though. Since I’m native of the Italian island of Sardinia, I published many posts about my hometown, and looking at the keywords that led readers to my blog, I can’t help it but smile: “Is Sardinia safe?” or “Is Sardinia really dangerous?”
    Or when I told my friends in Europe I was moving to China, some of the funniest reactions: “OMG! be careful!!” Careful? Shanghai so far has proved to be one of the safest cities I’ve ever been to.
    Everywhere you need to be careful, this goes without saying, but if people are so paranoid they end up spending their life at home..

  24. Thanks for the insightful post on dangerous places!

  25. You know I find that the majority of the times those “alerts” they have are complete BS. People for example are still scared of Colombia because of the stigma they have had years ago. I dont pay attention to any of the alerts from the state government I prefer to reach out to other travelers and see what their experiences have been

  26. JG says:

    at least mexico has a strong governmental presence. don’t’ worry about mexico.

  27. When Jack first came to Indonesia to visit my family, his family was freaking out because the state issued a travel warning. It was very specific to a region (Aceh) at the time, but you know… Aceh, the other 13000 islands, same thing to them :) Then, of course while we were there, the tsunami happened. *sigh* Just confirmed their idea that the world is a dangerous place.

  28. Turkey's For Life says:

    I wish a lot of our British friends would read this post. Many of them cancelled their holidays to Turkey during the Iraq war. Their logic: Iraq is next to Turkey. Turkey has lots of Muslim people, therefore we are in danger. Foreign office advice matched this fear. Meanwhile, we all continued to enjoy the slightly emptier beaches, towns and cities. And Turkish traders; well, thanks to the media and the foreign office advice, they struggled and many went out of business. What a shame they don’t dish out advice such as ‘use your common sense!’

  29. Gary says:

    Hey Gary, that sounds great Acapulco is a great place. Come over to Africa for some more adventure Travel. Be safe and enjoy the ride.

  30. Gary says:

    Hey Gary, that sounds great Acapulco is a great place. Come over to Africa for some more adventure Travel. Be safe and enjoy the ride.

  31. Heather says:

    Great post! I am passing it on to everyone I know. My husband and I travel a lot and are always told that we are crazy for going some of the places we go because it’s SOOO dangerous! We use common sense, and planning, and listen to people who have been there for advice instead of being afraid of everything.

  32. Andi Perullo says:

    Danger smanger, there is danger in every city in the world. I say go and use common sense!!! Enjoy Mexico, I’ll be there a few days after you. :)

  33. Andy Jarosz says:

    Good tips. I’d add to your list that local advice is essential when you arrive in a country. We just returned from central America and enjoyed a trouble free 6 weeks. Checking with people wherever we stayed (and esp. the tourist police in El Salvador) let us know where we should go and which areas to avoid, even what times we need to be switching from walking to cabs.
    Foreign office/state dept. advice is too much about covering their legal backsides and not enough about real information that you can use.
    Enjoy Mexico.

  34. It all depends upon perspective.

    The most severe threat on my life occurred one afternoon when a riot broke out a couple of cities away from the suburb that I was visiting. A controversial court decision had been handed down in the city, and people took to the streets in protest. The violence was several miles away from me, but there was the possibility that copycat violence could break out much closer to me. There was huge local media coverage – actually, there was international media coverage, and I didn’t know what to expect.

    Eventually I left the suburb, always on the lookout for an eruption of violence. I drove about 30 miles, and didn’t encounter any sort of problem until I was much closer to my final destination.

    All of this happened during the Rodney King riots. I was working in Monterey Park, a suburb of Los Angeles, and was literally just a few blocks away from East Los Angeles. No trouble broke out in East L.A., but I did run across a little bit of trouble in Pomona as I made my way home to Ontario.

    Of course, everybody knows that the United States is a dangerous place because everyone carries guns and shoots with no warning. :)

  35. Wade | VagabondJourney.com says:

    Mexico is full of European tourists decked out in khaki taking pictures. I just spent five months traveling up through Chiapas and Oaxaca. Truly nothing to fear. It is only the Americans and Canadians who seem afraid to come. It is truly business as usual here.

    Wade
    Oaxaca, Mexico Jan 21, 2011

    • It does depend on the local situation, and on your background. One of my co-workers has family in Baja California, and I asked her whether the stories of violence are exaggerated. She looked at me, and at my very white skin (and probably at the way that I dress), and told me that I probably shouldn’t be visiting the border towns at this time.

  36. Anonymous says:

    Gary, you got a typo I think “The Philippines are a great example. In the south near Malaysia, there have been cases of violence with Muslim separatists.” or is that a name of a city in the Southern islands?

  37. Theodora says:

    Wow! And I thought the UK government’s blanket restrictions were broad beam. Though, of course, noone wants to be rescuing kidnapped tourists from Mindanao (or travellers who’ve crossed a border into Iran)…

    These are great tips. To which I’d add your tip from your last post about reading history books over guide books. I think safe travel largely comes down to research, before you go and while you’re there… And, in fact, researching the stories and culture and recent history — including tensions — of a place is key to travelling well in any case.

  38. Theodora says:

    Wow! And I thought the UK government’s blanket restrictions were broad beam. Though, of course, noone wants to be rescuing kidnapped tourists from Mindanao (or travellers who’ve crossed a border into Iran)…

    These are great tips. To which I’d add your tip from your last post about reading history books over guide books. I think safe travel largely comes down to research, before you go and while you’re there… And, in fact, researching the stories and culture and recent history — including tensions — of a place is key to travelling well in any case.

Leave a Reply

You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

About Gary Arndt

My name is Gary Arndt. In March 2007 I set out to travel around the world...
Read More

Get My Free Travel Photography Ebook

Subscribe to my email newsletter to get a FREE ebook of my 100 Favorite Travel Photos and exclusive travel updates.

  • Archives

  • January 2011
    M T W T F S S
    « Dec   Feb »
     12
    3456789
    10111213141516
    17181920212223
    24252627282930
    31