Nov. 8, 2010— -- With drug wars escalating and daily reports of murders in Mexican border towns, many American tourists have been wary to visit the warm beaches to the south.
While there are some dangers to traveling to Mexico -- the State Department has issued a travel warning -- most resort areas have remained immune from the drug violence and make for an easy, and often affordable, vacation.
Mexico remains the top tourist destination for Americans traveling outside the United States, with the number of international tourists arriving by air increasing by 18.8 percent this year compared with last year.
"Mexico is a really large country. Just because there might be border violence in one area, it's like saying that there's crime in New York so don't go to L.A. It just doesn't make sense," said Anne Banas, executive editor of travel Web site SmarterTravel. "Most of the tourist areas are perfectly fine, perfectly safe. It's the same no matter where you go, you have to go with a little common sense."
In September, the State Department issued a detailed travel warning for Mexico saying that the Mexican government's fight with drug cartels has led to a "vicious struggle" between various trafficking organizations and that unpredictable outbreaks of violence can occur.
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The government did make it clear that the vast majority of violence is occurring between drug cartels and along the border towns and encouraged Americans to stay in the well-known tourist areas.
"Although narcotics-related crime is a particular concern along Mexico's northern border, violence has occurred throughout the country, including in areas frequented by American tourists. U.S. citizens traveling in Mexico should exercise caution in unfamiliar areas and be aware of their surroundings at all times," the warning said. "Bystanders have been injured or killed in violent attacks in cities across the country, demonstrating the heightened risk of violence in public places."
There is even trouble in Acapulco, a once-popular destination with the international jet-set of the 1960s that has become mainly a domestic tourist spot. Shortly after arriving in Acapulco on Sept. 30, 20 men from elsewhere in Mexico disappeared after being hauled away by gunmen. The tourists' bodies were recently found in a mass grave.
Alfonso Sumano Lazcano of the Mexico Tourism Board said he recognizes the U.S. government's responsibility to safeguard Americans and the warning against traveling to the border towns.
"It also explicitly mentions that millions of U.S. citizens safely visit Mexico each year, including tens of thousands who cross the land border daily for study, tourism or business," he said, "and nearly one million U.S. citizens who live in Mexico, and that the country's tourism destinations remain safe places to visit."
While no place is 100 percent safe, here are seven of the top spots for international tourists; locations that are generally considered safe to visit. But be advised that 31,000 people have died in drug-related violence in Mexico in recent years. Police are widely viewed as corrupt and incompetent. No area and no group is immune from the turmoil and until the people and political leaders of Mexico exert the will to stamp out the drug gangs, tourism in this mainly fine and agreeable country will continue to suffer.
#1: Cancun -- Cancun is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Mexico and also one of the closest and easiest for Americans to get to.
Its superb Caribbean location makes it the perfect place for everything from ecotourism, snorkeling, horseback riding and fishing, to golf, scuba diving, surfing and sailing.
Cancun is comprised of three distinct but integrated areas: the city of Cancun, a boomtown of more than 500,000 people, popular for shopping, and dining; the ecological reserve with many mangroves and lovely lagoons; and the resort zone, an island.
For those looking to escape the beach, there are nearby Mayan ruins. And at night, the vibrant club scene takes over.
#2: Riviera Maya -- Located in the Mexican Caribbean on the coastline of the Yucatan Peninsula, the Riviera Maya is located just 11 miles south of Cancun International Airport but is worlds apart.
Considered the unofficial capital of the Riviera Maya, Playa del Carmen combines the feel of a quaint fishing village with a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Visitors in search of luxury, shopping and dining can visit Playa del Carmen's Fifth Avenue (Quinta Avenida) and stay in the nearby resort area of Playacar, offering upscale accommodations and several all-inclusive hotels.
One of the Riviera Maya's most popular natural attractions is Tres Rios, a tropical reserve named after the three rivers flowing through the area. Popular activities in this virgin jungle territory include canoeing down crystalline rivers, swimming, snorkeling, horseback-riding and bicycling.
The small fishing community of Puerto Morelos offers the Crococun crocodile farm and the Yaax Che Botanical Garden, as well as its own Marine Natural Park (Reefs of Puerto Morelos), boasting a wide variety of multicolored tropical fish, dolphins and turtles, as well as breathtaking corals.
#3: Los Cabos -- Located on the southernmost tip of the Baja California Peninsula, Los Cabos is one of Mexico's most breathtaking beach destinations. Los Cabos, which means the Capes, includes the picturesque 18th century mission town of San Jose del Cabo to the northeast, Cabo San Lucas at the southernmost tip of the peninsula where the Sea of Cortes and the Pacific Ocean meet, as well as the 20-mile stretch of golf courses and luxury hotels in between both towns called El Corredor.
The region's geography is diverse and beautiful, with unspoiled desert landscape, white sandy beaches and dramatic rock outcroppings. Popular beaches include Playa Azul, El Chileno (great for diving), Palmilla, El Medano, Cabo Real and Playa del Amor. During the winter, the western beaches of Cabo San Lucas are ideal for whale-watching on the Pacific. Los Cabos is also known as the world's capital of marlin fishing.
#4: Puerto Vallarta -- This city offers 25 miles of golden beaches on the Mexican Pacific and is characterized by its impressive colonial and modern buildings, hotels, shopping malls, fishing villages, mountainous landscapes, jungles and golf courses. These attractions have made the city a favorite among vacationers and retirees, who now call the city home.
The best beach for water sports like sailing, fishing and jet skiing, for example, is Bahía de Banderas, while Quimixto, Punta Mita and Los Arcos are ideal for diving. Boat rides around the bay offer the chance to observe dolphins, turtles and humpback whales.
One of the greatest natural sights to witness is the famous Ridley turtles laying their eggs on Vallarta's shores.
Downtown Puerto Vallarta is lined with cobblestone streets, white-walled houses, wrought-iron balconies and red-tiled roofs, complemented by impressive colonial structures like the Templo de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a church located in the city's main square and a symbol of Puerto Vallarta's historical architecture.
#5: Riviera Nayarit -- Surrounded by tropical jungles and the Sierra Madre Mountains, Riviera Nayarit has quickly developed into an important tourist resort.
In Riviera Nayarit you'll find seemingly untouched beaches, bays and coasts where diverse plant and animal species thrive. While enjoying the magnificent scenery, you can surf, swim with dolphins, snorkel, scuba dive and sail.
The area is fast-becoming one of Mexico's foremost golfing destinations. Renowned professionals and designers have created several aesthetically pleasing golf courses with varying degrees of difficulty. Among the highlights is the El Tigre Golf Club at Paradise Village designed by Von Hagge; the Jack Nicklaus-designed course at the Four Seasons Golf Club in Punta Mita; and the Mayan Golf Resorts Vallarta by Lipe.
#6: Mazatlan -- Located on Mexico's Pacific Coast at the foot of the Sierra Madre Mountains, Mazatlan is Mexico's second-largest coastal city with nearly 600,000 inhabitants. Visitors enjoy an authentic mix of culture and history within a modern destination. The city's two main areas include the revitalized Old Mazatlan historic district and Zona Dorada (Golden Zone), the main shopping, dining and entertainment corridor. Both areas are connected by a seven-mile coastal road that borders golden-sand beaches.
After being discovered by Hollywood in the 1940s, Mazatlan became known as the first "Mexican Riviera" resort. This fishing village has evolved into one of Mexico's major seaport cities and tourist resorts.
Mazatlan has the country's largest sport fishing fleet. The coastal waters here teem with Pacific sailfish, marlin, yellowfin tuna, wahoo, and dorado.
#7: Mexico City -- Mexico's capital and the world's largest city, Mexico City combines sophistication and modern conveniences with rich culture and thousands of years of history, making it one of the country's most popular tourist cities.
The immense, volcano-dotted valley in which Mexico City sits, harbors a population approaching 23 million, commonly referred to as "chilangos."
It is the longest continuously inhabited city in the Western Hemisphere and sits atop the lake basin where the Aztecs founded their empire in 1325 and were defeated by the Spanish under Hernan Cortes two centuries later.
Mexico City boasts a wealth of museums containing everything from pre-Hispanic artifacts and colonial treasures to handicrafts and modern art. Mexico's bustling capital also offers visitors all sorts of dining and entertainment possibilities during the day and at night.