Travel

The Mexican state of Guerrero offers iconic beaches, culinary delights and a pleasing climate. But for tourism promoters trying to sell it as a dream destination it has one major hitch – a frighteningly high crime rate. By Ann Deslandes.

Tourism in Guerrero, Mexico

Acapulco Bay in Guerrero State, Mexico.
Credit: Gordon Sinclair / Alamy

The bus from Mexico City to Chilpancingo takes about four hours and runs around 10 times a day. It’s taken by commuters, tourists and people who live in the national capital returning to visit family. In my case, over the past year, I’ve been taking it to research and cover stories on the everyday effects of, and community solutions to, the rampant violence associated with organised crime and government impunity in the state of Guerrero, of which Chilpancingo is the capital.

If you wanted, you could break your journey just past Guerrero’s state border in Taxco, a “magic town” that’s famed for its silver jewellery and Spanish colonial architecture. From Taxco, you could take an hour-long bus ride to reach historic Iguala, where the Mexican national flag first flew. Or you could continue on another couple of hours to the “Diamond Coast” of Acapulco, home of 1950s Hollywood glamour, historic pre-Hispanic and Spanish architecture, Diego Rivera murals, and about 380 kilometres of spa towns. While on the coast you might also visit Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, known for its breathtaking beaches and stunning marine life.

But this story begins in Chilpancingo (full name Chilpancingo de los Bravo), which lies in the central south of the 63,596-square-kilometre state with an estimated population of 3.533 million, at a restaurant called Los Magueyes, a family-run chain.

“We say that once you’ve eaten in Guerrero, you’ll never eat anywhere else,” Javier Borgúa, the face of social media campaign #GozandoGuerrero (Enjoy Guerrero!), tells me.

Few who have eaten pozole, a point of particular guerrerense culinary pride, would question Borgúa’s passion for his local cuisine. The traditional stew is chunky with hominy, beans and pork, and served in a large clay bowl with garnishes of radish, oregano, salsa, avocado and lime. Ideally, these items are packed on top of the dish in a particular order. Ideally, you will also enjoy pozole with a shot of mescal – the liquor that rivals tequila as Mexico’s national drink and is made by fermenting the maguey (agave) cactus. Together, they taste of ancient perfection, a complex sense of home, and strong, fine booze.

#GozandoGuerrero is Borgúa’s passion project with associates Daniel Gálvez and Ángel Pastor. The 20-somethings, Guerrero born and bred, are communication specialists who want to share their beloved territory with travellers the world over.

The team have a tough sell. A cursory news search for Guerrero will bring up stories of conflict between “narco” drug cartels, street shootouts and murders. The tropical mountain range that surrounds Chilpancingo is dotted with opium poppy farms, whose produce is transported north to supply the heroin trade in the United States, making the region especially vulnerable to the violence and lawlessness that plague all of Mexico. Across the state of Guerrero, conflicts between cartels fighting for control of territory are estimated to be responsible for most of the 2318 murders recorded in 2017 and 2472 in 2018. Meanwhile, there are an estimated 1000 unsolved murder cases for each homicide police detective employed in the state.

Borgúa says he understands why there would be concern about visiting Guerrero as a tourist, but says he’s never met one who didn’t fall in love with the state. Indeed, he believes “tourism is the most important industry” for Guerrero’s economy. He’s supported in this by researchers from Mexico’s national university, which found that the violence in Acapulco, for example, “has negatively influenced the growth of the region, given its significant impact on tourism”.

While safety is a priority for foreigners it is, overwhelmingly, local people who are the targets of violence, which has its roots in specific conflicts. Tourists, as a Business Insider report put it recently, are far less commonly affected. And it’s possible that tourists could play a role in stimulating the economic growth that’s needed to reduce crime and violence and protect local people from its excesses.

“As well as the state’s gastronomy, the things we most want to communicate via #GozandoGuerrero are its natural beauty, indigenous arts and artisanal handicrafts, and our history,” Borgúa explains. “Visitors will find everything here. We have everything from beaches to mountains; from hot to cold climates. I mean, we’re so much more than just Taxco and Acapulco.

“Other places I like very much are Coyuca de Benítez,” he enthuses, referring to a municipality a short distance from Acapulco, where the bay, river and a lagoon are particularly popular with visitors interested in marine-life preservation. “If you go at the right time, you can participate in the annual release of baby turtles whose eggs are protected by the community to replenish the turtle population.”

In one #GozandoGuerrero video, Borgúa and his associates interview two male residents of Coyuca – one elderly, one younger – on the best things about their home. “The sunset in the evenings, it’s very beautiful,” says the first man. “The food and the climate,” says the second, as a drone camera rolls over the pale crystal water of the lagoon. When Borgúa asks if they would ever leave, both reply with a vehement “no”. “I’d be lost if I did not live here,” says the elderly gent.

The Costa Chica, further down the Pacific coast, is “another jewel”, says Borgúa. It’s home to a large Afro-Mexican community – a proud reference to the heritage of the state’s namesake, Vicente Guerrero – and it runs all the way past the state border with Oaxaca, another state of Mexico much loved by visitors.

“One of the places I love most is Chilapa,” Borgúa continues. About 35 kilometres east of Chilpancingo, the colonial town of Chilapa sits in the indigenous-dominated region known as La Montaña. “It’s the capital of artesanía [handmade traditional arts and craftwork] in Guerrero. Many indigenous creators converge there from La Montaña. I think it has extraordinary potential.”

For some, the well-publicised danger of Guerrero is exciting. Media productions such as Netflix’s Narcos has added a certain recognisability to similar terrain across the country, with “narco-tourism” now an option.

But for most guerrerenses who find themselves facing a danger not of their making, risk and pleasure are lived in the more quotidian ways that most of us live them – regulated and mediated by intimacy, family and friendship, ancestral pride, the remaining beauty of the environment and objectively delicious food and drink.

In this, people like Borgúa want to show you that their home is not all bloody violence and corrupt institutions. They are right, but the numbers don’t lie – parts of Guerrero are among the most dangerous places in the world, and the shooting of a young tourist guide at the end of July in Taxco showed the tourist industry is not immune. Many lovers of Guerrero inside and outside Mexico are putting their hopes in the new government of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who promised to establish a cross-portfolio federal approach to solving the security crisis. Communities under fire in the sierra region are discussing solutions such as legalisation of opium poppy and regionalisation of remote villages. If these new ideas are implemented and they succeed, Borgúa’s dream of freely sharing the wonders of Guerrero with the world may yet be realised.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 17, 2019 as "Mexican standout". Subscribe here.

Ann Deslandes
is a freelance journalist and writer in Mexico.