Is Sinaloa safe? The question of safety is likely to be something that is at the forefront of your mind if you are planning or considering a trip to the Northern Mexican state of Sinaloa.
The state is one of only several Mexican states that are on the USA and UK ¨do not travel list¨ and it is not somewhere that is commonly associated with safety. But there may be a couple of reasons why you are considering passing through Sinaloa during your time in Mexico.
After all, the cities of Mazatlan and Los Mochis, with its nearby beach resort town of Topolobampo, are charming coastal destinations. They are appealing places to travel in themselves, particularly if you are someone who has enjoyed traveling Mexico extensively and likes getting off the beaten path.
Similarly, Sinaloa is the gateway to the famous El Chepe train. This is a scenic railway route that leads tourists through the Copper Canyon, past dramatic canyons, gorges, and mountain scenery, en route to Chihuahua.
This is a bucket list travel experience if there ever was one, and it would be a shame to miss out on it if it is something you really want to do, out of fear. So is Sinaloa really that dangerous?
Is Sinaloa safe?
If you read the government travel advice for Sinaloa, it is enough to deter you from traveling. The strict travel warnings paired with the fact that very few travelers venture to Sinaloa will have you thinking of the state as a no-go zone.
However, the reality of safety in Sinaloa is more nuanced than that. There absolutely are areas in Sinaloa that you shouldn’t travel to.
But if you have spent any amount of time traveling in Mexico or Latin America previously, you will know that the safety situation can vary dramatically from city to city. Mazatlan, Los Mochis, Topolobampo, and El Fuerte are relatively safe.
Even Culiacan can be okay during the daytime, provided that you take common sense precautions. 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.
That being said, Sinaloa is a place where you have to take extra precautions. Many stretches of road are definitely not safe.
It all comes down to planning everything very carefully, doing thorough research on the areas you plan on visiting and passing through, and having common sense.
Government travel advice for Sinaloa
It is always a good idea to check your country´s government travel advice before traveling anywhere. This applies to traveling to Sinaloa and visiting Mexico in general.
The United States travel advisory lists Sinaloa as one of the six Mexican states that you should not travel to. (Along with Colima, Guerrero, Michoacan, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas.)
The official advice reads ¨Do not travel due to crime and kidnapping.¨
¨Violent crime is widespread. Criminal organizations are based in and operating in Sinaloa. U.S. citizens and LPRs have been victims of kidnapping.¨
The UK government travel advice for Sinaloa is a little more liberal. It states:
¨The FCDO advises against all but essential travel to the state of Sinaloa except the cities of Los Mochis and Mazatlán, the 15D federal toll road that traverses the length of the state, road 32 running between El Fuerte and Los Mochis (including the town of El Fuerte itself), and the Copper Canyon tourist train.¨
While the government travel advice is a good gauge of how safe Mexican states are in relation to each other, it is better to just use it as a guide. The US government travel advice, in particular, can be overly strict.
Riding the El Chepe train from Sinaloa
The train stops at several charming towns and pueblo magicos between Los Mochis, Sinaloa, and Chihuahua, Chihuahua. This includes 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 favorite among both international and domestic Mexican travelers.
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 traveling overland out into areas of Sinaloa that you don’t know, etc.
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 travelers 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 specialties 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 center of town.
These botanical gardens were created by Benjamin Francis Johnston, the American that 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 colorful 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.
Cartel activity in Sinaloa
For a lot of people, any mention of Sinaloa is synonymous with the idea of the Sinaloa cartel. The Sinaloa cartel is one of the most notorious drug trafficking cartels in the country.
Drugs are cultivated in rural parts of the state, which is one of the main reasons why you need to be careful where you go. As a tourist, as long as you don’t go looking for trouble in Mexico, trouble won’t go looking for you.
However, this is exactly why you need to avoid rural areas. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time is a definite risk in Sinaloa and parts of Northern Mexico.
The various criminal organizations that exist in Mexico are constantly fighting for turf which results in violent clashes. Even in tourist cities like Cancun and Tulum, tourists have occasionally been caught in the crossfire.
While it is rare for tourists to be caught up in such incidents, you are likely to arouse suspicion in rural parts of Sinaloa. People may assume that you are not a tourist, but someone working for the DEA or another form of American authority.
After all, it is very unusual for them to see a tourist wandering around in such areas. Having the ability to speak Spanish conversationally or fluently here is likely to arouse even more suspicion.
Things can escalate at a moment’s notice
Remember that while the chances of you being caught up in something are slim, things can quickly escalate. All of the photos in this article were taken in December 2022/January 2023.
Shortly after we left Sinaloa, the Mexican authorities arrested Ovidio Guzman Lopez, the son of the Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Violence broke out across the state and a shelter in place warning was issued for foreign travellers in the area.
This isn’t a daily occurrence, so don’t terrify yourself too much about things like this happening if you are visiting Los Mochis, Mazatlan, the El Chepe route, etc. But at the same time, be sure to follow any local developments and follow your government’s advice where necessary.
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 makes up a huge part of the regional cuisine here due to the state’s pacific coast location.
Chat to anyone that has grown up in or traveled 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.
When wondering what to eat in Mexico, you will note that the food varies significantly from one part of the country to another. For instance, Sinaloan food is notably different from Yucatecan food, which in turn is very different from the food that you will find in Jalisco or Chiapas.
Ceviche, shrimp aguachile, and tuna tostadas are popular dishes that you will find here. As is the case in many other parts of Mexico, street food is also a big part of Sinaloan food culture.
In the zocalos and plazas of Los Mochis, Mazatlan, etc, you will see street food vendors selling all manner of weird and wonderful snacks. Elotes and esquites are popular.
This is Mexican sweetcorn served with fresh cream, cheese, chili, and spices. People tend to automatically assume that they will get sick if they eat out a lot in Mexico but that isn’t the case.
Go ahead and experiment with the local cuisine and the seafood in Sinaloa, just be mindful of where you eat. When it comes to street food, opt to shop at stalls that are popular and frequented by locals, rather than those that are quiet and empty.
Always carry hand sanitizer 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 your trip to Mexico
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 traveling 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 $1 million dollars worth of coverage.
A good plan also comes with additional extras such as repatriation, coverage for theft/loss of luggage, and coverage for any activities. Always read the small print for any policies that you are considering.
Simple activities like hiking may be classed as sports and may not be covered by a regular policy. Once you have purchased your insurance, write down or print out your policy number and make sure that you always have it to hand during your travels.
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 for 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 – Im sorry I cannot speak Spanish
Purchase a Mexican sim card
It is also a good idea to purchase a Mexican sim card so that you stay connected during your trip. Most hotels and restaurants in Mexico do have complimentary wifi but you cannot find free wifi randomly on the street in Mexico as you can in other countries.
If you have an American or Canadian sim card, Mexico may be included in your plan. Do check this before your trip.
Having a local sim card means that you have access to data at all times. This is important for checking Google Maps/GPS and being able to contact people or use Google Translate.
Having a local number also makes things easier if you need to make a phone call – perhaps to reserve a hotel, make a restaurant booking, or call a local for help. Several cell phone providers offer call, text, and data packages in Mexico.
Telcel, Movistar, and AT&T are the main Mexican cell phone networks. Of the three, Telcel is arguably the best option.
You can pick up a Telcel sim card at any Telcel store, Oxxo convenience store, or 7/11. The card itself is 80 pesos (circa $4 USD).
You can then purchase bundles for between 100 and 500 pesos. For 100 pesos (circa $5 USD), you get 1.3GB of data and unlimited social media for 15 days.
For 200 pesos, you get 3GB of data and unlimited social media for 30 days. You can then top up online (you will receive a text message with a weblink to top up when your data/package is running low) or at an Oxxo, Telcel, or 7/11 store.
Petty theft and security items to consider
Petty theft is an issue across Mexico and it is mostly a crime of opportunity. There are several things you can do to stop yourself from being a target.
First of all, avoid wearing anything flashy or expensive in Sinaloa. People don’t really show off labels here and doing so will draw unnecessary attention.
Leave your brand-name clothing items, your expensive sunglasses, your Designer bags, and your favorite jewelry at home. Most people in Mexico have smartphones but there is a lot of poverty in some areas.
Keep your phone in your bag or in your pocket out of sight when you are exploring and never just leave it on a cafe/restaurant table. You may want to consider purchasing a theftproof backpack or money belt like those offered by Pacsafe.
Pacsafe bags are slash-proof and waterproof and come with TSA-approved locking devices. They are a little more expensive than regular backpacks but they come with a lifetime warranty and add an extra level of security.
Be aware of your surroundings at all times and always watch your personal items, especially in crowded markets. When you are walking in particularly crowded areas, you may want to consider walking with your bag in front of you.
Be careful with your money
If you need to draw money out from an ATM, be mindful of who is around you. If you get a weird feeling from someone, trust your gut and wait until you see another ATM. There are plenty around.
Try to use ATMs in branches of banks rather than standalone ATMs. They are less likely to have been tampered with. It is better to use those contained within malls or in busy areas.
It is understandable that it probably makes sense to draw out several thousand pesos at once rather than making repeated trips to ATMs. Just be careful when taking your purse out of your bag to pay for things.
It is better not to let anyone see how much cash you have on you. Consider carrying a small coin purse with just what you expect to use for the day in it. Keep the rest of your cash at the bottom of your bag in another purse and have an emergency amount in your luggage.
Share your plans with friends and family but keep them off social media
Friends and family members often tend to worry when we travel to adventurous destinations, particularly if traveling somewhere that is on a ¨Do not travel¨ list! Sharing your plans can give your loved ones at home peace of mind.
One good way to do this is to create a shareable Google doc or Google spreadsheet with all of your itinerary details on it. You can detail where you plan to be on each day of your trip, with information on the hotel where you are staying and any relevant contact details.
If you make any changes to your plans, you can simply edit the document. Set it to read-only so that someone cannot accidentally delete something!
At the same time, it is a good idea to keep your location and trip details off social media. You can never really know who is watching your accounts, particularly if they are public.
Save all of the wonderful photos that you take of your trip and post them later, once you have left the destination.
Can solo travelers visit Sinaloa?
It is possible to visit Sinaloa as a solo traveler (or a solo female traveler). 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 traveler 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 traveling 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 traveling to more ¨adventurous¨ parts of Mexico such as Sinaloa).
Final thoughts on staying safe in Sinaloa, Mexico
Have you traveled 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.
Have a wonderful time! Buen Viaje! Xo