Tim Woodward: Mexico's not safe for tourists? Yes and no

Some spots seem far from cartel violence, harking back to a simpler time.

woodwardcolumn@hotmail.comMarch 30, 2014 

Editor's note: Tim Woodward recently returned from Mexico. This is the first of two columns from the trip.

SAYULITA, Mexico — "You're going to Mexico? Do you really think that's safe?"

You get that a lot when you're planning a trip to Mexico. People wonder about everything from the drinking water to cartel violence. "El Chapo," the country's most notorious cartel leader, was arrested the week before we left, so the news was awash with reports of cartel violence.

"Maybe you could cancel and still get your money back," a well-meaning friend said. "The drug dealers do horrible things to tourists down there."

In Sayulita, the reality couldn't have been more different. We'd been there before and were impressed by just how safe it was. It's a small town on the Pacific coast — peaceful, old-fashioned, almost quaint. Except for more tourists this trip — it has been discovered now — little seemed to have changed.

A Canadian who spends a month there every winter laughed when I asked him whether there was cartel violence in Sayulita.

"The cartels are the reason it's so peaceful here," he said. "They have two rules: Don't hurt the local businesses, and don't hurt the tourists."

I had serious doubts about that. If you believe even half of what's been reported about them, the cartels are guilty of outright butchery. The thought of El Chapo or anyone like him being a peacekeeper struck me as ridiculous.

So I asked Rollie about it.

That would be Rollie Dick, a Sayulita institution. When he retired as a school principal in Northern California, Dick moved to Mexico to chase his dream of running a restaurant. He knew nothing about the restaurant business, but his hard work and charm have made Rollie's one of the town's most popular hangouts. The food is great and the prices reasonable, and laughter is always on the menu.

When a customer there made the mistake of asking whether the restaurant's water was purified, its fun-loving owner shouted — loud enough to be heard half a block away — "a glass of the bad water on table six, please!"

When I asked him about the Canadian's absurd notion of the cartels as peacekeepers, Rollie's response surprised me:

"I think there might be some truth to that. A lot of people here think they sense the presence of the cartel. I've never seen evidence of it, but I think it's possible. Bad things rarely happen here," he said.

Whatever the reasons, Sayulita is an oasis of tranquility. When you arrive at the nearest airport, in Puerto Vallarta, you're mobbed by vendors offering everything from crafts to taxi rides. When you arrive in Sayulita, an hour's bus ride away, you're mobbed by no one. No vendors, no time share peddlers, no pressure. As you schlep your luggage through town, stopping for a cold Pacifico or Corona en route, people smile at you. Real smiles. They seem genuinely happy to have you there.

Electric streetlights are a relatively recent phenomenon. Visitors are told to bring a flashlight to negotiate the streets after dark — good advice, as most of the streets are dirt or cobblestone and the sidewalks have bone-jarring drop-offs where you least expect them. I'm told that a few years after the lights went in on Main Street, they were temporarily voted out. Too much modernity.

Life is simple there. We slept with the doors open to the deck and the night air. No need to pack an alarm clock. Roosters wake you up at sunrise.

Our morning entertainment was drinking coffee on the deck and watching vendors hawking their wares — from bottled water, fruit and shrimp to propane gas — on the road below. One of the neighbors still rides a horse to work.

We were waiting for a bus one day when a little boy — he couldn't have been more than 4 — grabbed one of our suitcases and rolled it to a different spot. It was his way of telling us that the bus didn't stop where we'd been waiting. He didn't hold out his hand or ask for a tip. He just wanted to help.

Another day, when my wife left her camera sitting on our table after lunch, our waiter chased us down and returned it to her. The same thing happened another time when we forgot some change.

Mexico isn't safe? No argument — depending on where you are. Border towns are best avoided, and it's smart to check the State Department warnings when planning your trip.

But in a place like Sayulita, you're safer than you'd be in a lot of U.S. cities. My favorite story is about some Boiseans who went there for Christmas. When it was time for the local kids to break open a Christmas pinata, they deferred to the Boiseans — saying their kids should go first because they were guests.

The cartels didn't have anything to do with that. They were just good kids. Good kids growing up in a place that, for whatever the reasons, is as safe and idyllic as where I was lucky enough to grow up — a then-little town called Boise.

Tim Woodward's column appears every other Sunday and is posted on www.woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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