Your Questions Answered is a new feature on Backpack South America which aims to answer specific questions from fellow travellers, with as much detail as possible. Read more about this feature here and get in touch if you have your own question – we have a team of South America experts who are dying to help!
Last week, Melody Pittman – the blogger behind Wherever I May Roam – got in touch to ask a very valid question about Colombia:
Were you ever scared in Colombia? We go to Panama a lot and I’d like to have some girlfriends there join me in Colombia, but I’ve read so many dangerous stories about it.
Colombia looks so beautiful and I really want to go there, but my husband is concerned with my safety (the worrier).”
It’s a good question, and one I’ve been asked by quite a few travellers now. Before I travelled there last year, I was apprehensive about visiting Colombia. It seems all travellers hear the same things from the people back home: it’s so dangerous there, you’re going to get kidnapped, you’re going to get killed. And so on.
But then I went, and I found out that Colombia isn’t the guerilla infested jungle, or the hotbed of organised crime and drug lords, that most people picture. It’s a beautiful country of stark contrasts – Caribbean beaches to misty Andean highlands to dense jungle to colourful historical centres to vibrantly modern cities – where every new stop feels like a different country, and where almost all visitors fall in love simply because there is something for everyone to fall in love with. And no, I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t robbed or mugged or kidnapped or killed. I felt no less safe in Colombia than I did in the rest of South America, or the rest of the world for that matter, and I never once had a reason to feel scared.
Colombia is fighting it’s old reputation, and promoting tourism, with huge benefits for the country. According to the Ministry of Tourism, now “the only risk for tourists is wanting to stay.” Check out their fab video below to whet your appetite, and if you’re still having doubts about Colombia, read on to see if it really is safe…
Is Colombia Safe?
As a direct result of the increase in safety and stability accomplished by the Uribe administration between 2002 and 2010, Colombia has become a destination accessible to more than just a select group of intrepid business travelers and vacationers.” From Terrorism to Tourism: Waving the Flag of Development in Colombia, Wharton University of Pennsylvania
The FARC, a terrorist group based in Colombia, have been in peace talks with the government since 2012. The lull in fighting and an improvement in internal security have led to a significant increase in tourism: in 2013 Colombia attracted 1.7 million tourists, an increase of more than 300% compared with 2002. Equally, the drug wars took a significant downturn with the death of Pablo Escobar in the mid-1990s, and with President Uribe’s crackdown on security in the early 21st century Colombia is slowly but surely escaping it’s old reputation as the playground of drug barons and crime lords.
Terrorism – The UK Government’s travel advice website ranks the threat level of terrorism in Colombia as high. However, it’s worth being aware that the same source also ranks the terrorism threat level in France as high, the UK as severe, and other major countries like the USA, Germany and Spain are all considered to have a general threat of terrorism. Unfortunately, the risk of terrorism is simply a worldwide problem these days, but this does mean that you’re no more likely to encounter terrorism in Colombia than anywhere else in South America.
Kidnapping – This is one of the big fears that still surrounds Colombia. The problem of kidnapping hit a peak in 2000, with 3572 reported kidnappings. Since then, kidnapping has dropped drastically as the Colombian government pushed the guerrillas away from economically important areas, and in 2012 the FARC banned kidnappings. In 2013, there were only 292 reported kidnappings, of which only 61 were by terrorist groups (source). According to the UK Government’s travel advice site, the targets of kidnappings are most frequently Colombian nationals.
On the flip side, there has been a rise in so called “express kidnappings”: short-term opportunistic abductions, aimed at extracting cash from the victim by driving them to ATMs and forcing them to empty their bank account. Sadly, the targets are often tourists. Victims are usually targeted in unlicensed cabs where the drivers may well be in cahoots with the criminals. So, only take licensed taxis, and always call a reputable company to book rather than flag a cab down in the street.
Crime – In summer last year, the Colombian ministry of defence released a series of videos highlighting the country’s diminishing crime. That year, the homicide rate dropped dropped 18%, muggings by 4%, business robberies by 17%, and break-ins by 16%. From January to May of 2013; 39,518 people were mugged in comparison to 37,779 during the same time period of 2014 (source). While crime rates are still higher than in cities like New York or London, they are dropping annually and things are getting better all the time.
Real Life Impressions
These statistics all show serious improvement, and as the tourism industry grows in Colombia, so too does the safety of tourists. But all those warnings about express kidnappings and robberies can still seem a little frightening, so it’s helpful to compare them with some real life experiences from actual travellers. Sarah Duncan, the blogger behind Sarepa.com, has frequently travelled solo in Colombia, and even spent two years living there, and she says she has never felt unsafe once. I myself visited for about five weeks in February last year, and had a similar experience; as did every other traveller I spoke to about the country.
Of course it is safe! As long as you have some common sense it is not more dangerous than any other country in South America! [I was there] almost three months in 2014 – I even hitch-hiked when there was no bus leaving – and never had a problem.” Elena Nach, Gone With the Backpack
Everyone who visits Colombia says the same thing I do. The people are so friendly. It’s a cliché that crops up in guidebook spiels for almost every country in the world, but in Colombia it really is true. I’ve never travelled in a country with such genuinely warm, friendly, helpful locals. In Santa Marta, one man spotted us fumbling with a map and walked about twenty minutes out of his way to take us to a bus stop and put us on the right bus to Tayrona Park. My internal pessimist was telling myself he would ask for cash any second, but all he did was shake our hands and wish us a nice day.
While I lived in Colombia, I found the people to be very proud of their country and very willing to ensure tourists have a good impression and a great stay while visiting their home.” Sarah Duncan, Sarepa.com
That was our experience all across the country. There were many similar instances. Locals were delighted to see us, take pictures with us (two blonde people is still something of a novelty in some areas), help us, and wish us a nice day. Almost everyone was nice, almost everyone took care of us. A few people ripped us off and sometimes we felt a tiny bit intimidated at night in certain city neighbourhoods, but on the whole our experience was glowingly positive.
You know what’s dangerous about Colombia? Letting your guard down and being complacent. I lived in Colombia for about two years from 2006-2013 and I never had any problems. Not once. I never had anything stolen from me, I never had any trouble with anyone, I never found myself in an overly dangerous situation. But it’s only because I was aware of my surroundings. I often advise people that, just like in any big city, they’ll be fine as long as they don’t invite anything to happen. If you are cautious and aware of your surroundings you will be fine.” Sarah Duncan, What’s It Like Living in Colombia, Sarepa.com
It wasn’t just that the people were so welcoming, and looked after us so well. We were safe because we were careful, we stuck to the main tourist route, and avoided the areas which we were warned against (there aren’t too many). Bear in mind that in cities like Bogota, there is a strong police and military presence on the streets during the day, especially in tourism areas like El Candelaria (the old town) or around the Plaza de Bolivar. Crime rates are on the decline and although petty thefts still occur in popular tourist spots (just as they do in Barcelona’s La Rambla, for example), these can be avoided with a little vigilance.
I was in Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, and Salento/Eje Cafetero last spring. Beautiful country, beautiful people, safe… must go!” Vicki Mattingly @VoyagerVicki
The major cities – Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Cartagena, Santa Marta, and Baranquilla – are all really modern and felt generally pretty safe, as are most other popular tourist destinations, like Minca, Salento, and Tayrona Park. The popular tourist attraction of the Ciudad Perdido (lost city) trek in Sierra Nevada comes with a word of caution: there are still armed groups active in parts of the Sierra Nevada, and there are some areas of coca cultivation, although the tourist treks will avoid these areas. Only visit as part of an organised tour, and confirm with the organisers that they are aware of the FCO Travel Advice. Also, as of November 2014 there was an armed FARC attack on the police station on the island of Gorgona, one of the world’s best preserved national parks and a popular eco-tourism destination, which led to tour operator Aviatur suspending all visits to the island.
Normally, I’m a big advocate of getting off the beaten path, but it’s still fairly inadvisable to visit many remote areas in Colombia, so just make sure you check up on travel safety information before travelling somewhere off the Gringo Trail, and if in doubt – ask a local. We were lost in a city once, and a friendly local actually called over to us to prevent us from walking down a road which we later realised led to a shanty town on the the edge of the old railway (literally the wrong side of the tracks!).
So, ask locals, stay on the right side of the tracks, avoid unsafe areas, stick to well lit areas and don’t go out alone at night, and use common sense. Which is advice I’d offer to travellers visiting any South American country. See the ‘Tips’ section for some more specific advice about travelling safely in Colombia.
Solo Female Travel
Melody is planning on visiting Colombia with a couple of girlfriends, which is a little different to travelling as part of a couple, and may seem more intimidating. When I visited, it was with my partner, and having a man with me was, admittedly, something of a reassurance. But Sarah, mentioned above, has travelled there as a solo female many times and she says that she’s never had any trouble. In fact, Sarah argues that being a solo female traveller can actually work in your favour. Girls can be less threatening, which may result in fewer problems with locals, and may make locals more inclined to help. I met a lot of women travelling solo or in small groups when I was in Colombia, and all of them had had brilliant, positive experiences, and they all loved the country as much as I did. Melody certainly shouldn’t have any qualms about visiting as part of an all-female group, and neither should her husband “the worrier”.
Read Sarah’s post on Solo Female Travel in Colombia for more information.
A Few Tips
Listen to your instincts, do your research before you travel and stay safe, but ultimately go out, enjoy yourself and get the most out of your trip.” Sarah Duncan, Sarepa.com
There are always mishaps when travelling. In all countries in South America, I met travellers who’d been robbed or ripped off, who’d had run-ins with corrupt police officers, or who’d gotten lost in dodgy neighbourhoods. Petty crimes like pickpocketing happen all over the world, unfortunately, and Colombia is no different – but it’s also no worse. Just be careful, follow these tips – which are more or less the same as I’d give someone visiting London – and make sure you have good travel insurance for your valuables…
- Try not to take a taxi from the street. Instead call a reputable company to book.
- In our recent Destination Guide, Bogotá for Every Budget, Alicia Lauhon recommended downloading the TAPPSI app for Colombia, which will let you electronically hail a safe, reputable cab whilst on the streets of Colombia’s major cities.
- Keep doors locked whilst in a taxi, and don’t share with anyone you don’t know.
Out and About
- Keep a low profile: Keep valuables out of site. Don’t show your phone in public, and try not to flash big wads of cash when paying for items.
- Don’t carry more cash than you need
- Always keep a backup bank card in your hotel room in case your wallet is lost or stolen.
- If you’re worried about pickpockets, invest in a slash-proof anti theft bag or camera strap.
- Don’t keep valuables in pockets. Use a bag, preferably a cross-body bag or bum-bag (aka fanny-pack).
- Don’t walk alone at night, especially in quiet areas.
- If you want to go out at night, whether it’s just to explore or for a bit of partying, ask a local about where you’re planning to visit first.
- Stick to well lit, populated areas at night. Creepy side alleys are a no-go.
- Have common sense. All countries have individuals who will take advantage of tourists, so be aware of possible threats, don’t let your guard down, and stay on top of your belongings.
- When taking a bus, keep your hands on your bag and personal belongings. I know most travellers prefer overnight buses to avoid wasting a day travelling, but know that it might be safer to take a bus during the day – plus you can remain awake and keep an eye on your things.
- Also ask a local, for instance at your hotel, about more rural or remote areas you want to visit – if it’s safe, and how to travel there safely.
- Check your government’s travel advice for areas before you visit (not just in Colombia, but all over the world). The UK Government’s Foreign Travel Advice for Colombia is regularly updated and can advise which areas you should avoid. See the map in the ‘Real Life Impressions’ section above for the latest map (Jan 2015).
So, is Colombia safe? I can honestly say yes. Can you wander around without a care in the world? I would have to say no. As with all destinations, you need to be sensible, stay vigilant, and care for your belongings – but please don’t ever be too scared to visit Colombia. You have no idea what you’re missing out on. Colombia is ridiculously beautiful, and with a fairly new tourism industry travel there still feels like an adventure. It’s also an extremely rewarding country, with genuinely welcoming, friendly locals, most of whom really want to give foreigners a good impression of their country.
My advice? Go! Go as soon as you can and join the ever increasing crowd of visitors who have truly fallen in love with Colombia.
If you’ve visited Colombia and have any advice for Melody (and all other travellers considering a trip there), please leave a comment!