Is Sinaloa safe to travel to? The Mexican state of Sinaloa is quite notorious for its links to criminal organisations and the fact that it is one of a handful of places on the “Do Not Travel” list for Mexico, but is Sinaloa really that dangerous?
As someone who has travelled extensively through Sinaloa state, I wanted to write this guide to help you get a realistic view of what the safety situation is actually like in Sinaloa, and to help you plan your trip there if you are considering visiting for whatever reason.
You are in good hands here because I live in Mexico and my partner is Sinaloan and was born and raised in Los Mochis. In 2022, we spent several weeks in Northern Sinaloa and Chihuahua over Christmas and in 2023, we did a road trip from Los Mochis to Puerto Vallarta via Culiacan and Mazatlan.
A lot of my desire to write this article came from the fact that there is an awful lot of misinformation online about safety in Sinaloa, including, alarming articles written by people who have not even travelled there! You really do need to exercise a lot of caution in certain parts of Mexico, so following the wrong advice could be potentially dangerous.
In this post, we will discuss the government safety warnings in place for Sinaloa, its reputation, safe destinations in Sinaloa, and practical tips to keep in mind before you go.
Is Sinaloa Safe to Travel to in 2023?
Unfortunately, my answer to the question of “Is Sinaloa safe” is largely “It depends”. Having lived in Mexico for the last few years and travelled to 13 different states, I often feel that Mexico gets an unfair rep in the Western media and its “dangerous” stereotypes aren’t true.
However, the reality is that the safety situation in Mexico varies substantially from state to state, city to city. There definitely are charming and beautiful parts of Sinaloa state but there are also a lot of places where you need to be careful or you ought to avoid completely.
While Los Mochis is no great beauty, it boasts an excellent, untapped food culture and street food scene, has some great markets and walking trails, and marks the starting point for the El Chepe Copper Canyon railroad through Northern Mexico.
The nearby beach towns of Topolobampo and El Maviri have their charm, and Sinaloa is home to numerous pueblo magicos, including El Fuerte, the fictional home of Zorro. Mazatlan, in the southern part of the state, is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country and is becoming more and more of an expat hub with each passing year.
If you are going to travel to Sinaloa, do check your government’s latest travel advice before you go, do as much research as possible, and put a lot of thought into exactly where you will go and your route through the state. Some major roads are not safe, nor are rural areas.
Speaking Spanish will help you substantially and on the whole, I would say that Sinaloa is a place best left to seasoned travellers, unless you have local friends and family that can show you around.
Government travel advice for Sinaloa
It is always a good idea to check your country´s government travel advice before travelling anywhere and this applies to travelling to Sinaloa and visiting Mexico in general. The US Department of State provides a safety breakdown of each of Mexico’s 32 states and breaks them down into four different categories.
The Yucatan state and Campeche state are the safest states in Mexico, and the only two states on the “Exercise Normal Precautions” list for Mexico. Several states are flagged as places to “Exercise increased precautions” when travelling to, and several more are on the “Reconsider travel” list.
As of November 2023, there are currently six states, including Sinaloa on the “Do not travel” list. (Along with Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.)
The official US government advice states:
“Violent crime is widespread. Criminal organizations are based in and operating in Sinaloa. U.S. citizens and LPRs have been victims of kidnapping.“
“FCDO advises against all but essential travel to the state of Sinaloa, except:
- the cities of Los Mochis and Mazatlán
- road 32 that runs between El Fuerte and Los Mochis
- the 15D federal toll road that runs the length of the state
- the Copper Canyon rail route to and from Los Mochis, El Fuerte and the towns immediately on this route”
This is generally good advice. Violent crime in Sinaloa and Mexico in general is typically not random nor does it target tourists, but there are many narcotics operations across Sinaloa so you cannot just randomly drive around through the mountains here as you might end up somewhere where people will not take kindly to your presence.
The safety situation can change at a moment’s notice
I think part of the reason for the strict travel warnings in Sinaloa is due to the reality that safety-wise, things can quickly change at a moment’s notice. For instance, we felt completely comfortable in Sinaloa in early January 2022, but shortly after we left, there were riots and violence all over the state after the Mexican authorities arrested Ovidio Guzman Lopez, the son of the Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
A shelter-in-place warning was issued for foreign travellers in the area and there was even a terrifying incident in Culiacan where narcos started shooting up at an Aeromexico plane with innocent civilians on board.
Still, the chances of something bad happening and you being in the wrong place at the wrong time are rare. However, this is why it is important to check your government safety advice before you go and be aware of what is happening in the region in the lead-up to your trip.
Cartel activity in Sinaloa
Unfortunately, there is no denying the fact that Sinaloa has a strong cartel presence. The Sinaloa cartel is one of the most notorious drug trafficking cartels in the world.
As a tourist, as long as you don’t go looking for trouble in Mexico, trouble won’t go looking for you. However, since drugs are cultivated in rural parts of the state, this is exactly why you need to be careful where you go and avoid random rural areas as you may rouse suspicion if you are way off the beaten path, lost somewhere near a drug farm.
(People may assume that you are not a tourist, but someone working for the DEA or similar). While this sounds terrifying, the presence of cartels is not exclusive to Sinaloa.
Various criminal organizations that exist in Mexico are constantly fighting for turf which often results in violent clashes. Even in tourist cities like Cancun and Tulum, tourists have occasionally been caught in the crossfire.
Safe Destinations in Sinaloa
If you know any Sinaloans, they will often tell you about charming villages, towns, and pueblo magicos in their state that tourists have never even heard of. Many are home to centuries-old traditions and cultural practices.
Unfortunately, due to Sinaloa’s reputation and travel warning level, few international travellers have ever ventured there. If you have the opportunity to meet and befriend any locals in Los Mochis, Mazatlan, etc, they can tell you about and take you to wonderful places.
Los Mochis is a city in the northern part of Sinaloa state and the capital of the Ahome region. It isn’t a tourist destination in itself, and for most people, passing through Los Mochis is seen as something of a necessary evil to get to the El Chepe train.
But scratch beneath the surface and you will find that Los Mochis and its surroundings are one of the most untapped destinations to travel to in Northern Mexico. You will find Mexican delicacies and street food eats here that are only found in this part of the country.
Treat yourself to the famous Los Mochis tacos el chavo for breakfast, washed down with an agua de cebada. Hot dogs embarazzada (pregnant hot dogs), loaded Mochis nachos, and carne asada tacos are other local specialities to try.
Los Mochis may not be a beauty, but it provides a welcome glimpse into what “real” life is like in Sinaloa. Stroll through the Jardin Botanico when you explore the centre of town.
These botanical gardens were created by Benjamin Francis Johnston, the American who founded Sinaloa, as a gift for his wife. He collected many exotic plants and flowers around the world and planted them in this garden.
Many, like bamboo and banyan trees, are never seen in Mexico but they thrive in this gorgeous garden. The nearby Plazuela 27 de Septiembre is a bustling central square that often plays host to local markets and events.
You can enjoy spectacular panoramas over the city if you climb to the top of the Cerro de la Memoria hill. (And learn the legend of the female ghost that is said to be here).
Topolobampo is a coastal area and port town that sits 22km away from Los Mochis in Northern Sinaloa. Many locals come here at weekends for some R&R by the coast.
The Malecon (seafront promenade) in Topolobampo is a nice place to walk by the sea. It is lined with street vendors selling fresh oysters doused in hot sauce, coconuts prepared with all manner of crazy toppings, and Sinaloan aguachile.
Many local fishermen dock their colourful wooden boats by the port and offer to take tourists on tours of the area for 600 pesos per boatload. Among the hidden beaches and coves, the boat allows tourists to see the famous local dolphin “El Pechocho”.
This little dolphin has been living in isolation in the area for decades and has become something of a local mascot. (He isn’t captive, he just prefers it here!)
He can often be seen swimming alongside boats and jumping for travellers. If you are driving, you can head down the coast from Topolobampo to the beach town of El Maviri and the famous bat cave nearby.
El Fuerte is a Sinaloan pueblo magico and one of the first stopping points on the El Chepe train route that runs from Los Mochis to Creel, Chihuahua. It is one of the safest places to visit in Sinaloa and is very worthy of a day’s exploration. (Or more, if your schedule allows).
The town dates back to 1564 when it was founded by the Spanish Conquistador Francisco de Ibarra. It was originally named “San Juan Bautista de Carapoa” before being renamed to “El Fuerte” in 1610.
This literally means “the fortress” – a nod to the sunbleached ruins of an old defensive fortress that guard the town from atop a hill here. In the central square, you will find some excellent restaurants serving regional dishes, as well as the gorgeous 1804 Parroquia del Sagrado Corazon de Jesus church.
The old fortress has been converted into a museum that tells the history of the area and the indigenous groups that call it home. Just outside of the town center, you can hike to a place called the “cerro de la mascara” (the hill of the masks).
A woodland hiking trail leads you to an obscure ceremonial area filled with platforms and petroglyphs (rock carvings). The carvings date back to between 600AD and 1450AD and were believed to have been used in Shamanistic rituals.
Mazatlan is quickly emerging as one of the most popular coastal destinations to travel to in Mexico. The city is safe and an increasing number of people are choosing to travel here in favor of Puerto Vallarta and Cancun.
Mazatlan is a historic port city whose colonial old town has been lovingly restored to its former glory. The “Centro Historico” is a great place to walk and simply allow yourself the time to get lost among the narrow, winding cobbled passageways.
Many of these old, pastel-coloured buildings have been converted into luxury hotels, artisanal stores, coffee shops, and restaurants. If the biggest appeal of Mazatlan for you is the chance to relax by the beach, you won’t be short of options for doing just that.
Zona Dorada (“the Golden Zone”) is particularly popular among tourists. However, Playa Brujas, Cerritos Beach, Isla de las Piedras, and Olas Altas Beach are all worth adding to your radar too.
Riding the El Chepe train from Sinaloa
The El Chepe (“Copper Canyon”) railway that runs through Sinaloa and Chihuahua in Northern Mexico is widely regarded as being one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world. The route starts in Los Mochis, and ends in Chihuahua City, passing through El Fuerte, Témoris, Bahuichivo, San Rafael, Areponápuchi, Divisadero, Creel and Cuauhtémoc.
You can simply enjoy riding the train from point A to point B, or you can disembark at the various stations, and spend a night or two in different towns and villages. Creel Chihuahua is particularly charming and is a favourite among both international and domestic Mexican travellers.
It is particularly magical during the winter months when the mountains around the canyon are often topped with snow.
The towns and villages where the El Chepe train stops are generally quite safe. You should just be mindful not to go wandering off from there and travelling overland out into areas of Sinaloa that you don’t know, etc.
Safety Tips for Travelling to Sinaloa
Some common sense safety tips for visiting Sinaloa are detailed below. A lot of these are good practices wherever you go in Latin America, but they are worth reiterating here.
- Be careful what information you trust – there is a lot of garbage advice about safety in Sinaloa online
- Try to learn a little Spanish before your trip. English is not widely spoken in Sinaloa at all, outside of a few tourist zones in Mazatlan
- Download the Google Translate App on your phone so if you get stuck trying to communicate with someone, you can easily type out what you are trying to say
- If your phone plan doesn’t cover Mexico, pick up a Mexican sim card from Oxxo so you can always stay connected
- Don’t wear flashy or expensive designer clothing, accessories, sunglasses or jewellery. A lot of people live beneath the poverty line here and you do not want to attract opportunists
- Consider purchasing a theft-proof backpack or money belt
- Share your plans with friends and family but do not post to social media in real time.
- Be careful when withdrawing money from an ATM. ATMs in banks and malls are less likely to have been tampered with. Only withdraw cash in the day, and be mindful of who is around you
- Don’t carry wads of cash. 4000 MXN pesos is sufficient to last you for a few days. Ideally, separate your money into two different purses and keep just enough for what you need for the day in a small coin purse.
- Uber exists in Los Mochis and Mazatlan and is usually considered safer than taking a street cab. (There is more accountability via the app and you have all the driver’s details, past reviews, etc).
Police checkpoints in Sinaloa
When driving in Mexico, you will often encounter police checkpoints on the road. This can be a bit intimidating if, like me, you are not from a country that has a high police presence but it is somewhat reassuring to know that they exist for everyone’s safety.
In tourist areas like the Yucatan, Quintana Roo, etc, you are usually just waved on through. In Sinaloa, we would drive past one area in the morning and there wasn’t a checkpoint, and then when we would pass through again in the evening, there would be an impromptu checkpoint and about half a dozen armed guards who would stop us and ask where we had come from and where we were going.
This was the first time I had ever been stopped at a checkpoint in Mexico. Sometimes, they were in random, quiet places like when we visited my partner’s family in the little village of El Carrizo, but it seems that there are more police in Sinaloa due to the presence of drug cartels and the safety situation.
Encounters with corrupt police in Sinaloa
If you read travel guides about Mexico, you will often see people talking about corrupt police stopping them and trying to extort them or force them to pay bribes. In two years in Mexico, I have experienced extortion twice – once when a friend was involved in a small crash in Campeche and the state police forced him to pay 1,800 pesos and once in Sinaloa.
My partner and I were unfortunate enough to be involved in a small accident in Los Mochis when we were driving along a main road and another car sped straight through a red light at a junction and smashed into the passenger side of our car. We stopped and pulled over, expecting to exchange information with the other driver, who promptly reversed and sped away like a getaway driver.
Unfortunately, we were then surrounded by police cars who had not even seen the incident happen. Having explained our situation where we were essentially the victim, they clearly saw us as an opportunity to make some money.
One policeman entered the front of the vehicle and sat in the passenger seat and we had to drive in a convoy of police cars to the police station where we were forced to pay 1,500 pesos (About $85 USD) to the cops who threatened that they would keep our car there otherwise. We went to an ATM to withdraw the money and hand it over, and they all stood in the car park and divided it among themselves.
Excellent. Although this wasn’t pleasant, we tried not to let it ruin our trip. But it is perhaps just worth noting as an extra reminder to try and avoid interactions with the Mexican police, especially in areas like Sinaloa, Michoacán, etc, where local law enforcement is known for corruption.
Can solo travellers visit Sinaloa?
It is possible to visit Sinaloa as a solo traveller. However, more caution, preparation, and planning are definitely required in this part of the world.
A solo trip to Sinaloa is perhaps best reserved for a seasoned solo traveller who has already spent some time exploring Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
(If this is your first trip to Mexico, you may find it easier to consider planning a Yucatan itinerary or travelling to Mexico City or some of the beach towns along the Caribbean coast. If you enjoy the trip and get by okay, then you can look at travelling to more ¨adventurous¨ parts of Mexico such as Sinaloa).
Is Sinaloa safe for solo female travellers?
As an experienced solo female traveller who has explored Mexico extensively and visited 57 different countries, I always tell people that I do not let my gender/physical appearance deter me from travelling anywhere. However, being solo in Sinaloa was one of the only places in Mexico where I felt uncomfortable.
It wouldn’t be my first recommendation as a place to travel alone in Mexico. However, if you really want to do the El Chepe train route, or visit Mazatlan, those are the only two places I would recommend alone.
The first time I visited Sinaloa in 2022, I flew from Merida to Los Mochis solo because although we were visiting my partner’s family, his employer messed him around at the last minute and changed his vacation days which meant I had to fly ahead of him. I stayed at the Fiesta Inn in Los Mochis for a couple of days by myself, and when I left the hotel, I just felt that people were constantly staring at me.
I didn’t want to draw attention to myself, and I couldn’t even enter a coffee shop without everyone stopping to look. This was most likely because I looked different and, as my Mexican boyfriend suggests “they have never seen a gringa before” but it was not comfortable.
What to wear as a solo female traveller in Sinaloa
It is also worth noting that many Sinaloan women will opt to wear jeans and t-shirts in cities like Los Mochis and Culiacan, even when it is warm, rather than skirts and dresses, largely so that they don’t receive unwanted attention. When I first arrived, I had packed cute sundresses that I wear living in Merida, but quickly realised that that attracted a lot of stares and looks, and switched to trousers.
Food hygiene and safety in Sinaloa
Sinaloa is often referred to as “the bread basket of Mexico” on account of the region’s strong agricultural and farming industry. Seafood also makes up a huge part of the regional cuisine here due to the state’s Pacific Coast location.
If you chat with anyone who has grown up in or travelled to Sinaloa, they will tell you that seafood from other parts of Mexico simply can’t come close to what they can eat and enjoy in Sinaloa.
Ceviche, shrimp aguachile, and tuna tostadas are popular dishes that you will find virtually everywhere here. Norteño cuisine (food from Northern Mexican states like Sinaloa) also features a lot of grilled and barbecued meats so you will encounter a lot of mouthwatering beef, pork and chicken tacos here.
A lot of people assume that travelling to Mexico is synonymous with getting sick but it doesn’t have to be. If you do not indulge in as much traditional Mexican food and street food as you can, you haven’t really had the full Mexico travel experience.
Just use your common sense and be mindful of what and where you eat. Check past reviews of restaurants on Google or Tripadvisor before you go and seek out local recommendations.
If you want to experiment with street food, look for stalls that are popular and frequented by locals, rather than those that are quiet and empty. Never eat anywhere where food has been sitting out or there are flies around.
(I am guessing they wouldn’t look appealing anyway!) Always carry hand sanitiser and wash your hands before eating.
You cannot drink the water in Mexico but this is not used in food preparation nor for making ice cubes.
Purchase comprehensive travel insurance before you go
It is prudent to purchase comprehensive travel insurance wherever in the world you travel and Mexico is no different. Despite the best planning in the world, you never know what is around the corner.
Should you get into an accident or fall ill while travelling in Mexico, the cost of receiving healthcare abroad is often extortionate. Although healthcare in Mexico is not as expensive as that in the United States, it isn’t as cheap as you may think if something happens and you need assistance.
If you have an accident or need help, you will be asked for your insurance details first and foremost. It is a good idea to purchase a comprehensive plan that has at least $250,000 USD worth of coverage.
A good plan also comes with additional extras such as repatriation, coverage for theft/loss of luggage, and outdoorsy activities like hiking. Always read the small print for any policies that you are considering to make sure that you know exactly what is and isn’t included.
Once you have purchased your insurance, write down or print out your policy number and make sure that you always have it on hand during your travels. If you need help in Mexico, this number will be the first thing you are asked for.
Try to learn a little Spanish before your trip
English is not widely spoken in Mexico on the whole, particularly not in areas that are not frequented by tourists. It is a good idea to try and learn a little Spanish before your trip to Sinaloa to help you get by.
Free apps such as Duolingo are fun and easy to use. You don’t need to establish any level of fluency to be able to comfortably travel through Sinaloa and wider Mexico.
However, even just mastering a few basic phrases to help you introduce yourself and order food or check in to a hotel will go a long way. Google Translate can be a lifesaver when you need to quickly translate something and communicate with someone.
Most people in Mexico are very friendly and helpful. Even if you just type something out in English on Google Translate on your phone, and then hold it up to them in Spanish, they will be understanding and try to help you.
Useful Spanish phrases
Some useful Spanish phrases for your trip to Sinaloa are detailed below.
- Yo tengo una reserva – I have a reservation
- Mi nombre es – My name is
- Lo siento, no entiendo – I’m sorry, I don’t understand
- Disculpe – Excuse me
- Yo quiero – I want (useful for ordering food)
- La cuenta por favor – The bill please
- Quanto es? – How much is it?
- Buenos dias – Good morning!
- Buenos tardes – Good afternoon!
- Buenos noches – Good night
- Hasta luego – See you later
- Una mesa para uno/dos/tres – A table for one/two/three…
- Dónde está – Where is…
- Gracias! – Thank you
- Tienes wifi? – Do you have wifi?
- Necesito ayuda – I need help
- Habla Inglés?
- Lo siento no puedo hablar español – I’m sorry I cannot speak Spanish
Final thoughts on staying safe in Sinaloa, Mexico
Sinaloa is not the safest place in the world but there are tourist zones that can be enjoyable provided that you take precautions and plan your trip carefully.
Even Culiacan can be okay during the daytime if you use common sense. The fact that there are few resources, travel guides, or travel articles about Sinaloa online adds to the presumption that the entire state is not safe.
When really, a lot of this comes down to a lack of information. It is more daunting to venture into the unknown when there is virtually no information about a destination online. Check your government travel advisory before you go, stay alert, and make an itinerary before you go.
Have you travelled to Northern Mexico or other areas of the country previously? If this is your first trip to Mexico, you might enjoy reading this post on Mexican traditions and culture, or this article on the top things to know before your trip.
Of course, I can understand that you might be nervous about travelling to Sinaloa. I definitely terrified myself before travelling there for the first time. If you have questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to me and I will do my best to get back to you as soon as I can.
Stay safe and have a wonderful time!
Buen Viaje! Melissa Xo