A Guide to Staying Safe While Traveling Through Riviera Maya

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Is Riviera Maya safe? The answer is yes for the vast majority who travel there.

Safety concerns can cast a shadow over travel plans, especially with sensational headlines often inciting hysteria about Mexico. While there are genuine ongoing security threats in the 32-state nation, incidents involving tourists are rare and newsworthy precisely because of their rarity, and Mexico is exceptionally popular with international travelers who spent upwards of $30 billion there last year.

In Riviera Maya, the gorgeous coastal stretch between Puerto Morelos and the Sian Ka’an Biosphere Reserve, the vast majority of sunshine-seeking vacationers enjoy their stay without a hitch. Nevertheless, shootings related to the drug trade have resulted in crossfire casualties in Tulum and Playa del Carmen, and robberies, bribery requests, drinks being spiked, and street scams do occur. So, as you set your sights on this paradise with its deep cenotes, ancient ruins, and dreamy white sand beaches, consider these practical tips to enjoy your stay and navigate Riviera Maya with confidence.

Health Concerns in Riviera Maya

You might be surprised to be able to walk into a pharmacy and stumble upon controlled substances or drugs that typically require a prescription where you’re from being sold freely over the counter in Riviera Maya. This includes anabolic steroids, Viagra, Percocet, Oxycodone, and Adderall. Just because these drugs can be purchased easily doesn’t mean you should. There have been reports of pharmacies in the Mexican Caribbean selling fake versions of these pills that are laced with heroin and fentanyl.

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To stay in tip-top shape, it is advisable to avoid drinking tap water anywhere in Riviera Maya. Doing so could result in an upset stomach or traveler’s diarrhea. Most resorts and serviced apartments provide bottles or large purified water jugs that are refillable. When eating out, be mindful of leafy vegetables that might have been washed with tap water. Avoid salads, forgo the cilantro when ordering tacos, and request drinks without ice cubes as they may be made with tap water.

Stay hydrated at all times to avoid heat stroke when traveling in Riviera Maya, especially during the extra-scorching summer months. Carry your own refillable bottle of water with you, and only use purified water to top it up.

Local Laws to Abide By

Employing common sense is your first line of defense. In Riviera Maya, as in any place you choose to visit, the golden rule is to carry the respect you have for the laws of your homeland across the border. Being abroad in Mexico doesn’t mean crossing lines you wouldn’t dare blur back home. Whether it’s the temptation to carry arms, leaving your mark on public property, or relieving yourself in less-than-private places after overindulging in the local spirits to the point of public spectacle, remember that such actions carry consequences ranging from hefty fines to imprisonment.

Local laws to be aware of include the prohibition of foreigners engaging in political activity like protests (you may be detained or deported if caught). Exporting ancient Mexican artifacts is also banned. Throughout the state of Quintana Roo, where the towns and cities of Riviera Maya are located, supermarkets and convenience stores are not permitted to sell alcohol after 11 pm from Monday to Saturday. On Sundays, sales stop at 5 pm, so don’t try to pressure salespeople to sell to you after that time. Public intoxication is illegal in Mexico as is drinking under the age of 18.

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Drug-Related Nuisances in Riviera Maya

A common thread among travelers who face troubles in Riviera Maya is an entanglement with illicit substances. Steering clear of banned substances, no matter the source, is the key to a drama-free stay. Purchasing, using, or attempting to sell drugs not only exposes you to less-than-reputable individuals but also increases the likelihood of unwanted encounters with criminal networks or corruption. When buying illegal recreational drugs, you run the risk of getting set up by unscrupulous dealers who are working with compromised police officers who may then threaten you with jail time or impose a hefty on-the-spot “fine” for the crime you have just committed.

The presence of drug cartels in the Riviera Maya is an undeniable truth though the majority of locals are law-abiding citizens who share the burden of the turmoil brought about by drug trafficking within their communities. There have been shootouts between alleged and known cartel members which led to foreigners getting hurt or killed. A presumably drug-related 2022 shooting in Playa del Carmen led to the closure of a well-liked bar and lounge called Tequila Barrel when a U.S. citizen was shot seven times. Vacationers have also been left frazzled by fatal attacks in broad daylight at beach clubs. Cartels also wreak havoc on businesses and foreign nationals who have attempted to open businesses or buy property in Riviera Maya with extortion schemes. Beware of this if contemplating setting up longer-term roots there.

Safety at ATMs

Some find the exorbitant fees for taking out cash with foreign credit cards to be a form of highway robbery but there are other more pressing safety concerns to keep in mind when withdrawing cash in the region. On highly-touristed main streets or near major bus terminals, there have been reports of ATMs skimmers—nefarious devices designed to clone your card’s data. Before using a machine, take a moment to play detective and inspect the ATM for any signs of tampering, like misaligned graphics, mismatched colors, or odd materials around the card reader, screen, or keypad.

The best place to withdraw money around Riviera Maya is from an official cash machine linked to a bank like Scotiabank, HSBC, Santander, or BBVA. These usually have air-conditioned private cubicles with padlocks, so you don’t have to worry about intruders. Also, it’s best to use ATMs in broad daylight.

Bribery and Corruption

Some say that it’s the police you need to be most afraid of in Riviera Maya. Men, more so than women, are targeted for bribes regularly, sometimes multiple times a day. When driving, you could be stopped and searched or accused of committing a bogus traffic offence. Being found with drugs gives officers carte blanche to demand any amount they see fit from you. It is possible that you might be asked for whatever cash you have in your wallet or, in extreme cases, marched to an ATM to withdraw more money. For this reason, it’s always wise to head out with a travel-specific bank card with a not-too-high cash withdrawal limit and or have a digital bank account like Revolut, which has an app that lets you freeze and unfreeze your card within seconds.

Safety on Public Transportation

Colectivos, the region’s 14-person white minivans, are an economical and efficient way to hop between destinations. Don’t brandish your valuables when riding on them, and be sure to let the driver (or driver’s assistant) know where you want to stop so you don’t get lost. This is when knowing a bit of Spanish comes in handy to smooth out potential hiccups in communication or simply say the name of your stop and “por favor” (please) when it is approaching. During rush hour, these buses get quite busy, so you might need to negotiate your way in.

Taxis in Riviera Maya are not metered, and fares are determined by a zone chart, so it’s always best to agree on the price before hopping in. It is not unheard of for arguments to break out because a passenger refuses to pay the seemingly overpriced fare that’s requested once a journey is completed. The driver might prevent you from leaving or flag nearby police officers to get involved if you are presumed to be a fare evader. Also, if you must take a taxi home alone at night, note down the registration number on the side of the car before entering and share it with a friend. Be wary of entering unmarked cars.

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Pedestrian Safety

The night is no friend to the lone traveler or the drunk. Avoid solo night-time excursions into unfamiliar areas, particularly if you are visibly intoxicated. When walking by yourself, the old trick of pretending to be on a heated phone call can deter bad-intentioned people from approaching you if they believe someone can bear witness to a crime or sound the alarm in real-time.

In Tulum, don’t walk on the beach road between Pueblo (Downtown) and Playa at night, as it is not well-lit and drivers (drunk or otherwise) may not see you. The road is also rather narrow and without a dedicated section for pedestrians. When strolling after dark in Playa del Carmen, it is always best to walk on 5th Avenue or 10th Avenue as these streets are bright and have the most foot traffic. There is safety in numbers.

Driving Tips and Regulations

When exploring the wonders of Riviera Maya behind the wheel, maintain a safe distance from construction trucks to avoid windshield damage from flying gravel. This mishap is not typically covered by basic insurance, which you are required to have when renting a car. Before embarking on a long journey, fuel up beforehand, as gas stations are sparse in remote stretches.

The word “topes” will quickly become part of your driving vocabulary. Varying from subtle yellow metal circles to concrete mountains, these are omnipresent speed bumps designed to temper your pace. Despite their prevalence, they have a knack for surprising even the most vigilant drivers. In Playa Del Carmen, the one-way streets and ambiguous stop signs demand your constant vigilance. Note that driving on pedestrian-friendly 5th Avenue is a tourist faux pas, and 30th Avenue might be slow and congested since you’ll be sharing it with several bus routes.

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Where to Stay in Riviera Maya

With 24-hour closed-circuit television systems, Riviera Maya resorts are probably the safest places to spend your time as it is in their best interest for guests to feel comfortable, rebook during subsequent visits, and spread the good word via reviews. Still, always place your belongings in the hotel room safe, and don’t be flashy with your valuables.

Opting for accommodations in gated communities like Puerto Aventuras or Playacar and Tohoku in Playa del Carmen can offer peace of mind and add an extra layer of security to your stay. To minimize the risk of robbery, try to find rentals or hotels on main, well-lit streets if you intend to walk around a lot, particularly at night. Choose apartment buildings with round-the-clock security and door staff like Anah, which has multiple short-term rental units in Akumal, Playa del Carmen, and Tulum, often with pools, gyms, and upscale facilities.

Communication and Reporting Crimes

Having emergency contacts at hand and learning basic Spanish phrases are simple and effective steps to enhance your safety. A little Spanish can go a long way as a sign of respect to the locals and also enhance your experience.

Arm yourself with the phone number of your nearest consulate or embassy. This may be a lifeline should you need assistance. U.S. citizens should enroll in the State Department’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to ensure they’re on the radar of State Department personnel in case disaster strikes. STEP will also keep you informed with the latest updates about your Mexican destination.

Somebody should always be aware of your whereabouts, so stay in touch with someone back home for the duration of your trip. Share your flight and accommodation details as well as your itinerary so that your loved ones can give up-to-date information to any authorities in case of an emergency.

Always have a roaming data plan on your phone so that you can quickly look up emergency numbers or send out an express SOS message whenever, wherever. If roaming abroad is too costly, consider buying a local eSIM (virtual SIM card) from a company like Airalo.

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