MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - While most travelers flock to Mexico to sip margaritas on white-sand beaches, a hardy few choose lesser-known tourist sites where they are chased down by immigration agents or risk their lives in dangerous slums.
Escalating violence in Mexico’s war on drugs may be prompting some would-be tourists to think twice about Mexico, but agencies offering alternative tourism are thriving among those seeking not just a break, but a break from the ordinary.
Innovative tourist agencies offer trips to remote mountain areas home to leftist Zapatista rebels and to the most crime-ridden neighborhoods of Mexico City.
It is uncertain whether the trend can provide a boost for Mexico’s tourism sector, which accounts for about 9 percent of Latin America’s second-largest economy.
But foreign tourists, mostly from Europe, are signing up for undercover tours in Tepito, a sprawling market area in Mexico City notorious for drug deals, underage prostitution and pirated goods, said Cesar Estrada, head of Universal Travel.
Another community center runs what they call a ‘safari’ in this historic area, where many Mexicans refuse to set foot for fear of being robbed at gunpoint.
“We tell visitors to dress simply. If they want pictures, our guides take them discreetly,” Estrada said.
Donata Von Salviati, a German tourist, said she prefers such tours because they provide the kind of insight into the real Mexico one could not get in a beach resort like Cancun.
“Things like this don’t exist in Germany,” she said.
Domestic tourists are taking to reality tourism in the central state of Hidalgo, where one agency run by local residents simulates the dangerous trek Mexicans and Central Americans undertake as they cross the U.S. border illegally.
Tourists pay about 200 pesos ($15) for a nocturnal trek through a state park where they struggle to keep up with guides posing as “polleros” -- ruthless traffickers charging thousands of dollars to usher poor would-be migrants across the border.
In order to help tourists understand migrants’ plight, guests are prohibited from carrying food and water as they wade through a river in the darkness and hide in bushes to elude the “migra,” or U.S. immigration authorities.
The tour ends quickly for those who don’t run fast enough -- they are thrown in the back of a mock border patrol truck.
The trips began six years ago in a bid to draw attention to the plight of undocumented immigrants -- nearly 7 million Mexicans lived illegally in the United States as of January 2009.
Originally offered in northern Mexico, they were moved to the center of the country as security deteriorated in northern Mexico.
More than 28,000 people have been killed in drug violence since President Felipe Calderon declared war on powerful cartels when he took office in 2006.
Global Exchange Reality Tours, a U.S.-based tour operator that seeks to educate tourists about social conditions in developing countries, brings travelers to meet with leftist rebels in Mexico’s southern state of Chiapas.
There, tourists visit remote mountain areas that are home to members of the Zapatistas, the rebel group that spurred a largely bloodless peasant revolt in 1994 in support of indigenous rights.
Travelers may not get a glimpse of the Zapatistas’ elusive leader, the iconic Subcomandate Marcos, but they get acquainted with the food and culture of Mexico’s indigenous south.
“People want to see the Zapatista movement personally,” said Sneh Rao, regional director of the Global Exchange.
Writing by Caroline Stauffer; editing by Missy Ryan and Mohammad Zargham