Travel Safety in Colombia

Why am I not surprised to find the most widely downloaded sites on Colombia travel raise the question: Is Colombia Safe? It’s a question I’m always asked when I talk about my travels in Colombia. I don’t pander to those insecurities. Years of travel in this Colombia have led me to believe the question is dated and exaggerated.

It doesn’t help that the movies and t.v. shows being filmed in Colombia continue to dramatize drug trafficking and violence. Shows like Netflix’s ‘Narcos‘ exploit this image. But the Godfather saga never stopped tourists from visiting Italy.

Colombia is Not DangerousAt Least Not Anymore

Colombia’s prior reputation as a violent and unsafe country is for the most part unfounded today. Colombia was once the most notoriously violent epicenter of drugs and kidnappings. In 2000 Colombia had the highest rates of kidnapping in the world. 220,000 people died in the drug war conflict between 1958 and 2013. But since then Colombia has seen the murder rate fall from 70 people per 100,000 people to just 24 per 100,000 in 2016.

Colombia was not a safe place in 1980. But since the year 2000, the country has been getting progressively safer.

Colombia’s Complicated Past

The Colombian conflict began in the 1960s as a low intensity war between the Colombian government, crime syndicates, right wing paramilitary groups and left wing guerrillas groups like the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the ELN (the National Liberation Army). All of the armed groups have been involved in drug trafficking and civilians were caught in the cross fire.

The dark days  of violence resulted in more than 260,000 deaths, the disappearance of tens of thousands of people and the displacement of 6 million people.

In the last decade the  Colombian government has killed or imprisoned most of the notorious  narco-traffickers and the drug trade has been pushed out of the cities and into the jungle and the country’s most remote areas.

Peace accords have been struck with the FARC The group turned over its weapons and is in the process of reorganizing a political movement.  A cease-fire was also signed with the ELN.

(For more background information, see the article: ‘Former Coca Leaf Farmers Turn to Tourism and Crop Substitution’)

Colombians tell me they feel  safe now walking the streets and country roads. But the people are still trying to come to terms with the violence they have lived through.  The war on drugs has had a toll on the country. But rather than look back, they choose to look ahead to a more promising future.

Happy to see tourists returning, they’re proud of their country. Tourism means more jobs and commerce. They just can’t believe the foreigners keep bringing up. ‘Of course it’s safe here,’ they say defensively. ‘Why go there? It’s no longer like it used to be. It’s much better now. We’ve moved on.’

A reputation as a violent and unsafe country is mostly unfounded today.

Colombia is safe now. It is becoming a new ecotourist destination, the new darling of South America. Traveling around Latin America these last few years, I feel Colombia is one of the safer countries in South America.

Colombia’s 30 years of violence had stunted the country’s tourism development. But tourism is rebounding today. Colombia received 3 million foreign visitors in 2017 according to the country’s trade ministry.

Today, the tourist office’s promotional slogan is: “Colombia – the only risk is wanting to stay.” 

Still be cautious – Here’s How

When traveling, one should never throw caution to the wind. Traveling around Colombia is a far cry from rowdy vacation to a gated resort in Cancun.

City centers, where there are a lot of people, are generally well patrolled and pretty safe. Safety in numbers?  My rule of thumb is stay away from the empty streets, poorer areas and the shady parts of town. You’ll know them when you seen them.

Small cities and villages are perfectly safe, but stay away from the even more remote areas of the country. The border areas around Panama, Ecuador and Venezuela have been declared unsafe for tourists. Check with the official travel advisories before venturing out. And when hiking into the back country it’s always advisable to hire a recommended and experienced guide.

Stay away from Illegal and Questionable Activities

When traveling in Colombia it’s much safer to keep your nose out of the vices. Stay away from drugs, prostitutes and hard drinking aguardiente bars. Don’t get sloppy drunk in public. Be careful where you go at night. A little common sense and street smarts will  prevent you from stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time. If you’re looking for trouble, you’ll find it. Or, more likely, it will find you.

Don’t walk alone at night. Take the right taxis

If you booked  a great deal on a nice hotel but it’s in a questionable part of town, not a problem. But  take a taxi to the city center or wherever it is you’re going, day and night. Taxis are cheap. Why take a chance of a mugging to save a couple dozen pesos?

And it’s best not to just hail any taxi on the street. While the vast majority of the taxis in Colombia are legit, some cabs are not and the cabbies may be crooks. The driver could stop and let another passenger jump in the cab. Then take you to isolated spot and rob you. Scary thoughts, for sure. So have the hotel or restaurant call you a registered cab. Cabs lined at the taxi stands outside of bus stations and airports are safe. Even calling an Uber is better than grabbing just any cab on the street.

Ask the hotel and restaurant personnel if it’s safe to walk around town – where and when. They will steer your in the right direction. Most hotel managers feel responsible for your well-being

Chances of Getting Robbed

As one seasoned traveler grimly said, “If you stay in Latin America long enough,  you will get robbed.”

Let’s hope this never happens to you on your trip. But if robbed, just shut up and  give them what they want.  Your pack, what’s in your pockets, watch, jewelry, camera – whatever they want. And do it quick. Thieves are nervous and the plan is to grab and dash. Don’t mess  with that plan. Give it up and send them running  quickly before you start talking  too much, they get nervous,  or you do something stupid and end up getting hurt. Your stuff is not worth personal injury. Your life yes, your stuff no.  

I know this capitulation goes against human nature. But it’s the smart move. If they go packing quickly they might not have time to check to see if you have more money or belongings hidden. They  might forget to grab your watch or rings. The crooks didn’t stop you to reason with you, or to discuss their life choices,  or to learn how much your stuff means to you, or how much of an inconvenience this robbery is. When they confronted you, they already saw your stuff as theirs.

Usually two men hold up a traveler when he or she is alone.  It’s harder they rob travelers  when they’re in a group of two or more. But it can’t be ruled out, either.  Robberies  usually happen on an isolated streets. And they  can happen any time of the day or night, even in public places.

Don’t try to fight. Not even if you’ve been trained for this.  There is always a knife and/or gun present. And these are not nice people. They have stopped you and have the element of surprise and the upper hand already in their favor. Speaking as someone who has been robbed, if you just give them what they want, it’s the safer bet. They probably won’t hurt you. But then again, some barking dogs actually do bite out of spite. If your life is in danger, then fight and yell.

As soon as possible after the robbery – go get a local police report. Never a fun way to pass a day, but necessary.  If they made off with your passport you will need the report at the embassy. Photo copies of your passport will also speed things along. The police report could also help dispute any unauthorized charges on stolen credit cards.

Wear a Concealed Money Belt

Carry a dummy wallet with maybe 50,000 COP for them to run off with. Keep you credit cards, passport and extra cash in a money belt. Or better yet back at the hotel.

I found the flat, stream-lined money belts that clip around the waist and are worn beneath your pants are the best. They are comfortable to carry and have plenty of zippered compartments.

Don’t keep your valuables in fanny packs, or in the pouches that hang by a string around your neck and go under the shirt. When they rob you they’ve been known look for those by patting your chest. It’s unlikely they will stick their hands down your pants looking for a money belt.  But don’t rule it out.

Use the hotel safe in your room when available. There are  also portable, lock boxes on the market. Basically they’re bags made out of hard to cut materials that lock onto a fixed  object in the hotel room. They’re not impossible to get into, or to get  loose and run off with, but it makes it the job harder and more time consuming. 

I never had any problem in Colombia with anything missing from my hotel room. Hostels can be a little more sketchy. Travelers have reported some problems with valuables disappearing in hostels. I always prefer to leave my valuables in a locked hotel room  rather than hauling them with me onto the streets. I split up my credit cards and money and hide them in different places in the room, just in case.

Carry a Copy of Your Passport on the Street

Keep a copy of your passport in a safe place or store it in the cloud. This will help you get your passport quickly replaced at the embassy should it be stolen or lost.

While you’re at it –  keep a photocopy of your credit cards, too. That will help you quickly cancel them and replaced.

Travel with a photocopy of your passport in the streets of Colombia to use as i.d. Don’t use the original passport as i.d. Leave that at the hotel. But do keep your passport in your money belt when traveling by bus as there are often military and police road blocks and they would rather see your real passport with the Colombian entry stamp.

Beware of Strangers. Don’t Leave Drinks Unattended.

Always keep an eye on your drink, never leave your drink unattended as someone may put something in it and you’ll wake up in a whole other world. The drug being used in Colombia is Scopolamine otherwise called “the devil’s breath” which is derived from a flower belonging to the Morning Glory family.  The drug is odorless and tasteless and can be easily dropped in your food or drink, applied to a cigarette or simply rubbed or blown into your face. It’s been used over the years as a truth serum.

Under this drug someone can convince you to do anything including going to different ATM’s and withdrawing money for them. You stay fully conscience while under the influence and are happy to do whatever they ask. To the people around, you will look like you’re having a good time with your new friends. But in the morning you will  feel hungover and  remember nothing. In high doses this drug can be lethal.

Always be skeptical of strangers, especially if they are being overtly nice, offering you free food, drinks and cigarettes. And don’t let them touch your face. Scopolomine can be administered through a gentle caress. Remember – if it’s too good to be true – it usually is.

Is the Food and Water in Colombia Safe?

For the most part the food in the hotels, restaurants and market stalls in Colombia is safe. If you’re eating street food (and sometimes at night that’s all there is) make sure they prepare it right in front of you. Don’t eat food that has been sitting out exposed to the heat and flies.

The tap water is actually quite safe to drink in Colombia’s major cities and towns. But if you are in remote villages it’s best to drink bottled water.

Is the Health Care Good in Colombia?

Colombia has been ranked #22 out of 140 countries for  its quality of health care by the World Health Organization. Lasik surgery was invented here in 1963 as was the pacemaker in 1958.

Dental, health care, and aesthetic procedures are safe and affordable. A lot of the dentists and doctors in Colombia have studied in Europe or North America. In fact there are a lot of people who get medical and dental procedures done in Colombia where it is much more affordable than at home.

Other bits of advice:

Don’t use ATM machines after dark. Shopping centers and banks with ATM machines inside are the best bet. And schedule your withdrawals during the day.

Take long haul buses during the day time hours. It may be tempting to take a bus during the night. You can sleep through the trip, save travel time and the cost of a hotel room. But there have been cases of buses being stopped at night and robbed. Enjoy the scenery. Take buses during the daytime hours. If time is an issue, take a plane from one town to another. Fares are usually under $100.

Don’t wear flashy or provocative clothes. Try to blend in when you’re in the cities. On the contrary, when you’re in deep rural areas, try to look a little more like a tourist. It’s less likely you will be mistaken as military, police or a DEA agent.

When on the street, keep expensive cameras, money, jewelry, etc. out of sight. In Colombia they call it ‘non dar papaya’. It means don’t be stupid and put yourself in a vulnerable situation when others could take advantage of you.

Learn a little bit of Spanish. Few people speak English or any other foreign language in Colombia.

Beware of plain clothes cops. If someone comes up to you in plain clothes saying their a cop don’t immediately hand over your documents. This is probably a scam. Police in Colombia are almost always are in uniform. Never give them your wallet or show them your money. Make them show you their badge or official i.d.

The chances of any of these things happening to you are slight. But always be aware. Stay smart and stay safe.

For more information see article: ‘Travel in Colombia. What to Expect, What to Pack, How to Stay Safe’

Author: Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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