(CNN) — With one of the least restrictive travel policies in the world regarding COVID-19, Mexico has been open to international travelers during the pandemic. What you find when you get there seems to depend a lot on where you travel and when you travel.
Two recent trips to the country, one to sunny Tulum and the other to the big city of Guadalajara, revealed contrasting attitudes and approaches to covid-19.
More by chance than by choice, the two trips were very different.
In one, I flew directly from the United States on an American airline, while in the other, I walked across the border and traveled within the country on a Mexican airline. These differences have also caused covid protocols for returning to the United States to vary widely.
Tulum: a carefree beach holiday
With much of the rest of the world closed to non-essential travel or plagued by health restrictions, south of the border emerged early in the pandemic as a viable international destination for many Americans.
Cancun has also emerged as one of the world’s top destinations during the pandemic. Cancun and Tulum were among the most sought after locations by American travelers.
But I wasn’t prepared for the scale of interest in the destinations until we went on a family vacation to Tulum in December. We chose to try the Cross-Border Express (CBX) for the first time. It’s a terminal registration in San Diego, on the US side, with a pedestrian bridge that crosses the border to Tijuana International Airport.
It took us two hours to cross the cross-border bridge, a closed and narrow space with no distance, with hundreds of other people who took the 18 night flights that left Tijuana after midnight.
Those torturous two hours on the CBX bridge was the only time I really worried about covid-19 on our vacation.
Among the benefits of using CBX were much cheaper flights from Tijuana (we’re talking about half the cost of flights from the US) and direct non-stop flights, rather than the hassle and unpredictability from Connection airports.
We had to complete an online health form for the Mexican government before going through immigration on the Tijuana side of the bridge, but no one asked to see our vaccination cards at any time during the entire 10 day trip. And we were not required to have a negative covid test to enter Mexico.
With its yoga studios, vegan restaurants and full moon beach parties, Tulum would have a hippie elegant. But, almost immediately, it became clear that many visitors were in complete denial about the pandemic.
Even as shops, bars and restaurants asked customers to wear masks and keep their distance, most of the tourists I witnessed blatantly ignored the pleas, even as the omicron variant of the new coronavirus was beginning to gain traction.
What saved us was the fact that so much of Tulum is outdoors, with world-class attractions like gorgeous beaches, cenotes, biking and hiking trails, bars , restaurants and Mayan ruins.
Return to the United States
It wasn’t until the day we got back from Tulum that covid reared its head again. Anyone traveling directly to the United States should be tested for COVID-19 within a day of travel, regardless of their vaccination status.
Otherwise, you will not be able to board your flight. Those who test positive will have to self-quarantine in Mexico, normally paid out of pocket. Some resorts have included free or discounted quarantines in their offerings.
Back-to-school testing requirements have spawned a cottage industry of COVID testing trailers and vans along Cobá Avenue, the main thoroughfare between the beaches and downtown Tulum.
I asked a visitor from New York what street testing was all about. He told me it was “quick and easy”, cost $35 and would take about an hour to get the result.
Those of us who took domestic flights to Tijuana didn’t need a covid test, but that doesn’t mean we were spared. On our flight from Cancun to Tijuana, many English-speaking passengers simply refused to wear masks, despite reminders from flight attendants.
The epilogue to this story is the fact that covid started picking up in Cancun and Tulum around Christmas, the day of our flight home. Cabo San Lucas, another popular Mexican beach destination, saw a similar increase.
Mexico has a four-level traffic light system that indicates the level of risk in each state. In early January, the state of Quintana Roo, where Tulum is located, reverted from the lowest risk level, green, to yellow, as Covid-19 cases spiked after the holidays. On January 24, it went up a notch to orange.
Baja California Sur, where Cabo San Lucas is located, was declared orange on January 24. Red is the highest risk level.
Guadalajara: a stay in a strict city against covid
Precautions against covid-19 in Guadalajara, a metropolis about 190 kilometers from Puerto Vallarta, in the state of Jalisco, on the Pacific coast, could not be more different than those in Tulum, in the Caribbean.
I traveled to Guadalajara on a research trip to write a month before my vacation in Quintana Roo, just before the discovery of the omicron variant was announced.
Being the second largest city in Mexico (with 5 million people) you would imagine covid has been a big deal. But until recently, charts showed consistently low infection and hospitalization rates.
Like much of Mexico, Jalisco saw a sharp rise in cases in January, although the rate of cases per 100,000 people in the state is still about a third of that of Quintana Roo. Jalisco changed from green to yellow on January 24 in the country’s traffic light system.
Before flying, I asked a colleague from the local tourism industry how the town had managed to avoid the worst of Covid. He detailed three main reasons:
- The Governor of Jalisco State took the pandemic seriously from day one and immediately implemented mask mandates and other measures.
- Jalisco has what many consider to be the best healthcare system in Mexico.
- The pandemic has not been politicized in the state, meaning residents of all stripes have followed rules and recommendations to contain covid-19.
Strict rules in town
The serious covid measures were evident from the moment I left my hotel that first morning. Everyone wore masks, inside and out. Entrance to all shops, restaurants, churches and museums, as well as the pedestrian entrance to the historic city center, required a mask, the use of hand sanitizer and digital temperature screening.
Instead of closing, the city’s main attractions have adapted new rules and procedures. For example, the Cabañas Cultural Institute, which preserves more than a hundred priceless murals by José Clemente Orozco, has been transformed into a one-way route, with doctors ensuring that visitors maintain a minimum distance of 2 meters .
In Guadalajara the covid regulations were much stricter than anywhere else I have traveled to in the US since the pandemic began, including the states of Washington, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Texas.
And since January 14, the state of Jalisco has imposed vaccination, or a negative covid test result, for closed spaces, such as bars and casinos.
I had to get tested for covid-19 before flying home via Houston, but it was a breeze.
An entire floor of the large parking lot at Guadalajara International Airport had been transformed into a test center.
I paid the $25 fee with a credit card, had a nasal swab done, and 20 minutes later I got my negative result, both on paper and by email.
As with most foreign travel these days, you should be prepared to self-quarantine if you test positive before returning home.
In summary: If you really feel the need to travel abroad, Mexico remains one of the easiest places to travel, as long as you are prepared to manage your potential exposure to the virus.