Should I Worry About Health, Insurance or Safety in Mexico?
As a prelude, Southern Baja is typically just as safe as Southern California. Personally, save driving the roads at night, I feel a whole lot safer in Baja. I avoid the roads as much as I can because of equipment failures, animals, bad lights and tired drivers. Otherwise, I take the same precautions I take everywhere — I don’t wave cash in the air and I am more careful on the rare occasions I have too much to drink.
Here’s some more information for those of you who want to be cautious, which is never a bad idea.
Travel Insurance — The cost of travel insurance varies widely, depending on the destination, the cost and length of your trip, your age and health, and the type of trip you’re taking, but expect to pay between 5% and 8% of the vacation itself. You can get estimates from various providers through InsureMyTrip.com. Enter your trip cost and dates, your age, and other information for prices from more than a dozen companies.
U.K. citizens and their families who make more than one trip abroad per year may find an annual travel insurance policy works out cheaper. Check www.moneysupermarket.com, which compares prices across a wide range of providers for single- and multitrip policies.
Most big travel agents offer their own insurance and will probably try to sell you their package when you book a holiday. Think before you sign. Britain’s Consumers’ Associationrecommends that you insist on seeing the policy and reading the fine print before buying travel insurance. The Association of British Insurers (tel. 020/7600-3333; www.abi.org.uk) gives advice by phone and publishes Holiday Insurance, a free guide to policy provisions and prices. You might also shop around for better deals: Try Columbus Direct (tel. 0870/033- 9988;www.columbusdirect.net).
Trip-Cancellation Insurance — Trip-cancellation insurance will help retrieve your money if you have to back out of a trip or depart early, or if your travel supplier goes bankrupt. Trip cancellation traditionally covers such events as sickness, natural disasters, and Department of State advisories. The latest news in trip-cancellation insurance is the availability of expanded hurricane coverage and the “any-reason” cancellation coverage — which costs more but covers cancellations made for any reason. You won’t get back 100% of your prepaid trip cost, but you’ll be refunded a substantial portion. TravelSafe (tel. 888/885-7233;www.travelsafe.com) offers both types of coverage. Expedia also offers any-reason cancellation coverage for its air-hotel packages.
For details, contact one of the following recommended insurers: Access America (tel. 866/807-3982; www.accessamerica.com); Travel Guard International (tel. 800/826-4919; www.travelguard.com); Travel Insured International (tel. 800/243-3174; www.travelinsured.com); and Travelex Insurance Services (tel. 888/457-4602; www.travelex-insurance.com).
Medical Insurance — For travel overseas, most U.S. health plans (including Medicare and Medicaid) do not provide coverage, and the ones that do often require you to pay for services up front and reimburse you only after you return home.
As a safety net, you may want to buy travel medical insurance, particularly if you’re traveling to a remote or high-risk area where emergency evacuation might be necessary. If you require additional medical insurance, try MEDEX Assistance (tel. 410/453-6300;www.medexassist.com) or Travel Assistance International (tel. 800/821-2828;www.travelassistance.com; for general information on services, call the company’s Worldwide Assistance Services, Inc., at tel. 800/777-8710).
Canadians should check with their provincial health plan offices or call Health Canada (tel.866/225-0709; www.hc-sc.gc.ca) to find out the extent of their coverage and what documentation and receipts they must take home in case they are treated overseas.
Lost-Luggage Insurance — On international flights (including U.S. portions of international trips), baggage coverage is limited to approximately $9.07 per pound, up to approximately $635 per checked bag. If you plan to check items more valuable than what’s covered by the standard liability, see if your homeowner’s policy covers your valuables, get baggage insurance as part of your comprehensive travel-insurance package, or buy Travel Guard’s “BagTrak” product.
If your luggage is lost, immediately file a lost-luggage claim at the airport, detailing the luggage contents. Most airlines require that you report delayed, damaged, or lost baggage within 4 hours of arrival. The airlines are required to deliver luggage, once found, directly to your house or destination free of charge.
General Availability of Health Care — In most of Mexico‘s resort destinations, health care meeting U.S. standards is now available. Mexico’s major cities are also known for their quality health care, although the facilities available may be fewer, and equipment older than what is available at home. Prescription medicine is broadly available at Mexico pharmacies; however, be aware that you may need a copy of your prescription or to obtain a prescription from a local doctor. This is especially true in the border towns, such as in Tijuana, where many Americans have been crossing into Mexico specifically for the purpose of purchasing lower-priced prescription medicines.
Contact the International Association for Medical Assistance to Travellers (IAMAT; tel.716/754-4883 or, in Canada, 416/652-0137; www.iamat.org) for tips on travel and health concerns in the countries you’re visiting and for lists of local, English-speaking doctors. The United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (tel. 800/311-3435; www.cdc.gov) provides up-to-date information on health hazards by region or country and offers tips on food safety. Travel Health Online (www.tripprep.com), sponsored by a consortium of travel medicine practitioners, may also offer helpful advice on traveling abroad. You can find listings of reliable medical clinics overseas at the International Society of Travel Medicine (www.istm.org).
Over-the-Counter Drugs in Mexico — Antibiotics and other drugs that you’d need a prescription to buy in the States are often available over the counter in Mexican pharmacies. Mexican pharmacies also carry a limited selection of common over-the-counter cold, sinus, and allergy remedies.
Common Ailments — Sun Exposure — Mexico is synonymous with sunshine, with most of the country blanketed in intense sunlight most of the year. Avoid excessive sun exposure, especially in the tropics where UV rays are more dangerous. The hottest months in Mexico are April and May in the south, and July through September along the Pacific Coast, including Baja California. The deserts of northern Mexico are extremely hot during summer months.
Dietary Red Flags — Travelers’ diarrhea or turista, the Spanish word for “tourist”: persistent diarrhea, often accompanied by fever, nausea, and vomiting, used to attack many travelers to Mexico. (Some in the U.S. call this “Montezuma’s revenge,” but you won’t hear it called that in Mexico.) Widespread improvements in infrastructure, sanitation, and education have greatly diminished this ailment, especially in well-developed resort areas. Most travelers make a habit of drinking only bottled water, which also helps to protect against unfamiliar bacteria. In resort areas, and generally throughout Mexico, only purified ice is used. If you do come down with this ailment, nothing beats Pepto Bismol, readily available in Mexico. Imodium is also available in Mexico and is used by many travelers for a quick fix. A good high-potency (or “therapeutic”) vitamin supplement and even extra vitamin C can help; yogurt is good for healthy digestion.
Since dehydration can quickly become life-threatening, the Public Health Service advises that you be careful to replace fluids and electrolytes (potassium, sodium, and the like) during a bout of diarrhea. Drink Pedialyte, a rehydration solution available at most Mexican pharmacies, or natural fruit juice, such as guava or apple (stay away from orange juice, which has laxative properties), with a pinch of salt added.
The U.S. Public Health Service recommends the following measures for preventing travelers’ diarrhea: Drink only purified water (boiled water, canned or bottled beverages, beer, or wine).Choose food carefully. In general, avoid salads (except in first-class restaurants), uncooked vegetables, undercooked protein, and unpasteurized milk or milk products, including cheese. Choose food that is freshly cooked and still hot. Avoid eating food prepared by street vendors. In addition, something as simple as clean hands can go a long way toward preventing turista.
High-Altitude Hazards — Travelers to certain regions of Mexico occasionally experienceelevation sickness, which results from the relative lack of oxygen and the decrease in barometric pressure that characterizes high elevations (more than 1,500m/5,000 ft.). Symptoms include shortness of breath, fatigue, headache, insomnia, and even nausea. Mexico City is at 2,100m (6,720 ft.) above sea level, as are a number of other central and southern cities, such as San Crist?bal de las Casas (even higher than Mexico City). At high elevations, it takes about 10 days to acquire the extra red blood corpuscles you need to adjust to the scarcity of oxygen. To help your body acclimate, drink plenty of fluids, avoid alcoholic beverages, and don’t overexert yourself during the first few days. If you have heart or lung problems, talk to your doctor before going above 2,400m (7,872 ft.).
Bugs, Bites & Other Wildlife Concerns — Mosquitoes and gnats are prevalent along the coast and in the Yucatán lowlands. Repelente contra insectos (insect repellent) is a must, and it’s not always available in Mexico. If you’ll be in these areas and are prone to bites, bring along a repellent that contains the active ingredient DEET. Avon’s Skin So Soft also works extremely well. Another good remedy to keep the mosquitoes away is to mix citronella essential oil with basil, clove, and lavender essential oils. If you’re sensitive to bites, pick up some antihistamine cream from a drugstore at home.
Most readers won’t ever see an alacrán (scorpion). But if one stings you, go immediately to a doctor. The one lethal scorpion found in some parts of Mexico is the Centruroides, part of the Buthidae family, characterized by a thin body, thick tail, and triangular-shaped sternum. Most deaths from these scorpions result within 24 hours of the sting as a result of respiratory or cardiovascular failure, with children and elderly people most at risk. Scorpions are not aggressive (they don’t hunt for prey), but they may sting if touched, especially in their hiding places. In Mexico, you can buy scorpion toxin antidote at any drugstore. It is an injection, and it costs around $25. This is a good idea if you plan to camp in a remote area where medical assistance can be several hours away.
Tropical Illnesses — You shouldn’t be overly concerned about tropical diseases if you stay on the normal tourist routes and don’t eat street food. However, both dengue fever and cholera have appeared in Mexico in recent years. Talk to your doctor or to a medical specialist in tropical diseases about precautions you should take. You can also get medical bulletins from the U.S. Department of State and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. You can protect yourself by taking some simple precautions: Watch what you eat and drink; don’t swim in stagnant water (ponds, slow-moving rivers, or wells); and avoid mosquito bites by covering up, using repellent, and sleeping under netting. The most dangerous areas seem to be on Mexico’s west coast, away from the big resorts.
What to do if you get Sick Away from Home — Any foreign consulate can provide a list of area doctors who speak English. If you get sick, consider asking your hotel concierge to recommend a local doctor — even his or her own. You can also try the emergency room at a local hospital. Many hospitals also have walk-in clinics for emergency cases that are not life-threatening; you may not get immediate attention, but you won’t pay the high price of an emergency room visit.
For travel abroad, you may have to pay all medical costs up front and be reimbursed later. Medicare and Medicaid do not provide coverage for medical costs outside the U.S. Before leaving home, find out what medical services your health insurance covers. To protect yourself, consider buying medical travel insurance.
Very few health insurance plans pay for medical evacuation back to the U.S. (which can cost $10,000 and more). A number of companies offer medical evacuation services anywhere in the world. If you’re ever hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, MedjetAssist (tel. 800/527-7478; www.medjetassistance.com) will pick you up and fly you to the hospital of your choice, virtually anywhere in the world, in a medically equipped and staffed aircraft — 24 hours day, 7 days a week. Annual memberships are $225 individual, $350 family; you can also purchase short-term memberships.
If you suffer from a chronic illness, consult your doctor before your departure. Pack prescription medications in your carry-on luggage, and carry prescription medications in their original containers, with pharmacy labels — otherwise they won’t make it through airport security. Also bring along copies of your prescriptions in case you lose your pills or run out. Carry the generic name of prescription medicines, in case a local pharmacist is unfamiliar with the brand name.
Crime — Crime in Mexico, especially in Mexico City, in selected cities along the U.S. border, and in some states affected by drug violence, has received attention in the North American press over the past several years. Many feel this unfairly exaggerates the real dangers, but it should be noted that crime rates, including taxi robberies, kidnappings, and highway carjackings, have risen in recent years. The most severe problems have been concentrated in Mexico City, where even longtime foreign residents will attest to the overall lack of security. Violent crime has also continued at high levels in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, Nuevo Laredo, Acapulco, and the state of Sinaloa. The U.S. Department of State recommends caution in traveling to the southern states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Guerrero due to sporadic incidents of politically motivated violence there. Check the U.S. Department of State Consular Information Sheet (and any applicable travel advisories) for Mexico before you travel to any notable “hot spots.”
Precautions are necessary, but travelers should be realistic. Common sense is essential. You can generally trust a person whom you approach for help or directions, but be wary of anyone who approaches you offering the same. The more insistent the person is, the more cautious you should be. The crime rate is, on the whole, much lower in Mexico than in many parts of the United States, and the nature of crime, in general, is less violent.
Although these general comments on crime are basically true throughout Mexico, the one notable exception is in Mexico City, where violent crime is serious. Do not wear fine jewelry, expensive watches, or any other obvious displays of wealth. Muggings — day and night — are common. Theft is even common at the Benito Juárez International Airport, where items such as briefcases, cameras, or laptops are common targets. Arriving passengers wanting to obtain pesos should use the exchange counters or ATMs in the arrival/departure gate area, where access is restricted, rather than changing money after passing through Customs, to avoid being targeted by criminals. Avoid the use of the green Volkswagen and libre taxis taken off the street, many of which have been involved in “pirate” robberies, muggings, and kidnappings. These taxis are also common in incidents where a passenger is “hijacked,” and released only when the limit on their ATM bank cards have been withdrawn. Car theft and carjackings are also a common occurrence.
Travelers should also exercise caution in traveling Mexico’s highways, avoiding travel at night, and using toll (cuota) roads rather than the less secure “free” (libre) roads whenever possible. It is also advised that you should not hike alone in backcountry areas nor walk alone on less-frequented beaches, ruins, or trails.
All bus travel should be during daylight hours and on first-class conveyances. Although there have been several reports of bus hijackings and robberies on toll roads, buses on toll roads have a markedly lower rate of incidents than buses (second and third class) that travel the less secure “free” highways. The Embassy advises caution when traveling by bus from Acapulco toward Ixtapa or Huatulco. Although the police have made some progress in bringing this problem under control, armed robberies of entire busloads of passengers still occur.
Bribes & Scams — As is the case around the world, there are the occasional bribes and scams in Mexico, targeted at people believed to be naive — such as the telltale tourist. For years, Mexico was known as a place where bribes — called mordidas (bites) — were expected; however, the country is rapidly changing. Frequently, offering a bribe today, especially to a police officer, is considered an insult, and it can land you in deeper trouble.
If you believe a bribe is being requested, here are a few tips on dealing with the situation. Even if you speak Spanish, don’t utter a word of it to Mexican officials. That way you’ll appear innocent, all the while understanding every word.
When you are crossing the border, should the person who inspects your car ask for a tip, you can ignore this request — but understand that the official may suddenly decide that a complete search of your belongings is in order. If faced with a situation where you feel you’re being asked for a propina (literally, “tip”; colloquially, “bribe”), how much should you offer? Usually $3 to $5 or the equivalent in pesos will do the trick. Many tourists have the impression that everything works better in Mexico if you “tip”; however, in reality, this only perpetuates the mordida attitude. If you are pleased with a service, feel free to tip, but you shouldn’t tip simply to attempt to get away with something illegal or inappropriate, whether it is crossing the border without having your car inspected or not getting a ticket that’s deserved.
Whatever you do, avoid impoliteness; under no circumstances should you insult a Latin American official. Extreme politeness, even in the face of adversity, rules Mexico. In Mexico,gringos have a reputation for being loud and demanding. By adopting the local custom of excessive courtesy, you’ll have greater success in negotiations of any kind. Stand your ground, but do it politely.
As you travel in Mexico, you may encounter several types of scams, which are typical throughout the world. One involves some kind of a distraction or feigned commotion. While your attention is diverted, a pickpocket makes a grab for your wallet. In another common scam, anunaccompanied child pretends to be lost and frightened and takes your hand for safety. Meanwhile the child or an accomplice plunders your pockets. A third involves confusing currency. A shoeshine boy, street musician, guide, or other individual might offer you a service for a price that seems reasonable — in pesos. When it comes time to pay, he or she tells you the price is in dollars, not pesos. Be very clear on the price and currency when services are involved.
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