Travel in Colombia / What to Expect/ What to Pack/ How to Stay Safe

Couldn’t be a better time to see Colombia

Reading the travel guides on Ecuador – they talk about it how tourism has changed the country. ‘Should have been here 10 years ago when it was quaint and undiscovered,’ they say. ‘Now there are big hotels, boutique shops, robberies all over the place.’

Well, that’s not the case with Colombia. Outside of Cartagena it’s all to be discovered. There is no big corporate tourism here. In a way, Colombia has remained unchanged for the last 40 years. But there is so much pent up tourism potential.

The country is so beautiful, the people so friendly and helpful. The climate is perfect. A good service structure already exists. Everything is so affordable. Tourism is overdue and coming fast.

Is Colombia Safe?

They say Colombia is safe now. After traveling around Colombia these last few years, I feel it’s one of the safer countries in Central and South America. Colombia has just emerged from a dark era – 30 years of violence – which basically stunted the country’s tourism development. A reputation as a violent and unsafe country is mostly unfounded today.

But after three decades of violence people still down play the horror. They have  put that entire chapter behind them. They look ahead  happy to see tourists returning. They know the endemic violence is over they just can’t believe the foreigners keep bringing it up.  ‘Of course it’s safe here,’ Colombians say defensively. ‘It’s no longer like it used to be. It will never be like it was before. It’s much better now. We’ve moved on.’

Military  patrolling the countryside

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

Still, one shouldn’t throw caution to the wind as if they’re  on holiday in a gated resort in Cancun. To error on the side of caution is always advisable.

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.

And when traveling in Colombia it’s best to keep your nose out of the vices. Stay away from drugs, prostitutes and hard drinking aguardiente bars. A little common sense and street smarts will  prevent you from stumbling into the wrong place at the wrong time.

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 bucks?

Have the hotel or restaurant call a cab for you. Ask the hotel and restaurant personnel if it’s safe to walk around town – where and when. They know and most hotel managers feel somewhat responsible for your well-being.

Women can’t travel in Colombia alone?

Not so. According to government statistics, women traveling alone represent the major gender of foreign tourists in Colombia. I saw many women traveling alone, in groups and pairs. It  takes a certain savvy attitude, to be sure along with audacity, spunk and street smarts  but women  can travel freely in Colombia with little harassment.

A Colombian picnic

Colombian people

I’m a huge fan – have been for decades.

The women walk down the streets proud, graceful and cat like They know they are being watched and watch you out of the corner of their eyes; acknowledging, then just as quickly dismissing you. They are strong, independent women with a dedicated sense of family. The women run not only the households but the country. There are more female politicians in Colombia than most other countries.

And the men show  old school respect and graciousness. They call you ‘caballero’ or gentleman. Looking you straight in the eye, they are ready to engage in a political discussion just to see the stuff you’re made of. But never before always offering a tinto (coffee), asking you how you woke up today and if there is anything they can do to help.

A Chiva bus (in the back) and a Tuk Tuk

Communications

Communications in Colombia are very good. For a baby-boomer I can’t believe how easy it is to travel in Colombia these days compared to 40 years ago. With just a phone one can tap into the Wi-Fi  which is available in almost every hotel and restaurant in the country. Even  in the most remote, rural villages I found Wi-Fi. Just ask for their Wi-Fi pass codes or (clave).

You can text, send photos, contact home, access Netflix  and use apps to reach out to locals or fellow travelers. There’s face time with Skype, Messenger,  Whats app. Colombian’s, both young and old, are hooked up to these platforms. With the internet you can book a hotel room, research your next destination and always hit the ground running.

Vaccinations

Contact your local, medical, international travel clinic for up to date information.
For  Colombian travel  it was recommended one get a vaccination for:

  • Hepatitis A – for food and water transmissions
  • Hepatitis B – for blood and bodily fluid transmissions
  • Typhoid Fever – for contaminated food or water
  • Malaria pills – for malaria carried by mosquitoes
  • Yellow Fever – if you’re going to be on the coast or in the Amazon. They won’t give you the vaccine if you’re over 60 and don’t let them as it can be fatal.  They say you need the Yellow Fever  vaccine to get into Ecuador and Panama from Colombia but at the borders they never asked me to show mine.

Documents

Arrive with a passport that is valid for at least the next six months. Most North Americans and Europeans don’t need a visa, but do check. A visa is usually granted for a 90 day stay. Make sure to ask immigration at entry for the 90 day visa. If you need more time you can always cross the border and come back with a brand new 90-day visa.

Getting around by jeep

Storing Valuables – Playing it  Safe

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 in a safe place, too.

Travel with a photocopy of your passport in the streets of Colombia. Don’t use the passport as i.d. Leave that at the hotel or hidden. But keep it on your person when traveling by bus as there are military and police road blocks and they would rather see the original.

Wear a money belt

I found the ones concealed around the waist are the best and keep your passport, credit cards and cash in the belt. There are also leg belts and regular waist belts with zippered compartments to hide money. Don’t keep your valuables in fanny packs or the pouches around your neck and under the shirt. When they rob you they’ve been known to pat your chest. It’s  almost inconceivable they will stick their hands down your pants looking for a money belt.  But don’t rule it out.

Use the hotel safe when available. There are  anti-theft , cloth portable safes  with combination locks 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 get  loose and run off with, but it makes it the job harder and more time consuming.  Personally, 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.

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 drink 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 withdrawing all your money for them. You stay fully conscience while under the influence and are happy to do whatever they ask. 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 offering free food and/or drinks. Remember if it’s too good to be true – it usually is.

Stand there and make sure your bags get loaded into the bottom of the bus. Buses run fast and furious and more than one bag has been inadvertently  left on the sidewalk and not loaded into the cargo hold.

Don’t let people run off with your bags with the pretense they’re doing you a service helping you quickly catch a departing bus, train or boat. Most of the time these guys are harmless.  They’re either  getting paid by the transport company to grab your business from the competitors or they’re just looking for a tip.

Don’t travel with even the smallest amount of drugs. There are police with dogs where you least expect them. This year in Colombia I saw a lot of drug sniffing dogs and police in the larger bus stations. Those dogs are good and the police have been stopping foreign tourists and making them unpack their bags right in the middle of the  bus stations.

Chances of Getting Robbed

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

If robbed, and I truly hope this never happens to you,   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. It’s never worth it.  If they go packing quickly they might not have time to check to see if you have a money belt or pouch. Or they  might forget to grab your watch or rings. They 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.

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.

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 a safe bet, they probably won’t hurt you. But then again, some barking dogs actually do bite.

As soon as possible after the robbery – go get a local police report. Never fun but necessary.  If they made off with your passport you will need the report at the embassy. It could also help dispute any unexpected charges on stolen credit cards.

Sleeping in ‘chinchoros’ hammocks

What to pack:

Colombia is hot and then it’s cool and then hot again – all depends on the altitude, so be prepared for both – often in the same day.

If you’re going to be moving around, traveling by air, taxi, bus and on foot I recommend a back pack.  You’ll have to walk a short distances when traveling and a backpack makes that so much easier. They have back packs where the shoulder straps zip up into the bags which transforms the pack into a duffel bag or suitcase. This solution keeps your pack’s shoulder straps clean and free from getting snagged and ripped in the cargo hold of a bus or plane. Also keep a smaller, carry-on, day  pack to keep your computer and other travel necessities. I never put this one in a cargo hold or even in the overhead, but keep it on my lap or on the floor by my feet where it can be watched at all times.

I know it’s never easy to minimize when you  have to travel light and are packing for a long trip. My theory is you can always buy what you forgot when you get there. Whether you’re traveling for 2 weeks or 2 months, here’s a basic list of what I packed on my last trip to Colombia. Next time I’ll take even less.

Clothes:

  • 5 pair socks low top and high top
  • 4 T-shirts
  • 1 tank top
  • 1 sweater – hooded slightly heavy – Colombian buses are often air-          conditioned to the absurd max.
  • 1 down jacket which you tie up in a ball. You’ll probably only use              during arrival and departure
  • 1 pair lightweight cargo pants (those pockets are priceless)
  • 1 pair blue jeans – can be used in formal settings too.
  • 2 pair shorts cut to the knee (Colombian men only wear shorts at the beach.) Gringos can pull off wearing shorts but try to get shorts with a knee cut – not too short)
  • 1 pair comfortable shorts for lounging around the hotel
  • 1 swim suit
  • 1 beach towel
  • 1 pair lightweight sweat pants
  • 2 pair flip flops or water shoes to wear at the beach another for the hotel
  • 1 pair comfortable loafers or shoes
  • I pair trekking shoes – broken in.
  • 1  baseball hat
  • 1 rain jacket
  • 1 collapsible umbrella
  • Ear Plugs
  • 1 money belt
  • 1 blue jean or long sleeve shirt

Technology

  • 1 laptop 10″-11” with photo capability for Skype and watching movies
  • 1 Phone
  • 1 kindle – download books – why  carry them
  • 1 small camera
  • Power cords – Colombia uses the American 110 voltage similar to electrical  outlets found in the United States and Canada

Accessories

  • 1 lock and key for hotel rooms, storage cribs
  • 1 pair of swimming goggles for salt water and pools
  • 1 pocket knife – remember to pack it in your suitcase not your carry-on
  • 1 spoon and fork, plate, knife
  • Sunscreen
  • Mosquito repellent
  • Skin cream
  • Separate organizational pouches
  • Bottle opener/ corkscrew
  • Rope – for hammocks, drying wet clothes
  • Flashlight

Medicine bag/ Toiletries

  • Razor
  • Toothbrush and holder
  • Soap and holder
  • Aspirin and Ibuprofen
  • Vaseline
  • Cortisone
  • Deodorant
  • Toothpaste
  • Band Aids
  • Prescription Medications, birth control, allergy meds, etc.
  • Chap Stick
  • Motion sickness pills – if needed, and  Altitude sickness pills
  • Needle and thread

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Please leave your comments, personal experiences or any questions you may have in the comment box below and we will get back to you.

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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