The issue of safety in Colombia is some thing that often deters people from traveling or moving to Colombia. Plenty of people raise their eyebrows when I mention travel in Colombia and immediately ask about kidnapping and drugs. “Be careful” older family members often say to me when I’m back in the US. I once met a couple who chose Venezuela to teach (😳) over Colombia because of the old stigma it still carries. Later, they told me they never felt safer than when they were traveling through Colombia.
I also know dozens of solo travelers (both male and female) who only have wonderful things to say about the warmth and helpfulness of Colombians… so you see, it’s definitely an “experience it to love it” kind of place; however, that is not to say that travelers (and locals) still face dangers if they don’t stay alert.
Colombia’s issues with safety stem from a complicated mix of long term civil war, narco trafficking, cartels, and poverty (though often perpetuating each other), which left the country vulnerable to kidnappings, cross fire, corruption, petty theft. While some of the bigger stuff is not as rampant as before, things like petty theft and paseo millionario* should be kept in mind while visiting.
Safety in Colombia is reality; but not unlike any other country…Even the US, where gun safety is a hot topic. That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy your stay here or have to feel like you’re constantly looking over your shoulder. Be wise about it. Be mindful…
There is a local saying in Colombia: “No dar papaya“. Literal translation: Don’t give papaya but it could be translated more or less into: don’t be an idiot or don’t be an easy target… It’s often reserved for moments when you’re setting yourself up for trouble or making yourself vulnerable in sticky situations. This is a solid phrase to keep in mind while traveling and you’ll probably hear it mentioned among cab drivers or locals.
So can you travel without giving papaya and still have a really great time? Yes, yes you can. Some common (totally fool proof) safety tips (you’ve probably already heard) but that I highly recommend would be these:
- Keep your valuables close and discreet. A good (zipped up) purse or backpack will do the trick. Don’t walk around with your phone hanging out unless you need to use it and if you do, be alert-I’ve seen people get their phone snatched out of their hand while they were mindlessly facebooking. There is really nothing more annoying than simultaneously losing your phone, photos, and large sums of cash while on vacation. It’s happened to me twice (once in Mexico and Belize (2x in one trip) and another time in Bogota. So annoying.)
- Be alert in large crowds –this tip ties in with #1–Like any where in the world, crowds (festivals, tourist zones, concerts) are prime targets for pick-pocketing. In these cases, keep your belongings close to your body. Never leave anything in your back pocket, and go the extra step by keeping your hand in your pocket if necessary. Purses are best served as cross body bags with the opening or zipper facing toward your body if possible and backpacks are recommended to be carried on your front side while walking through tight crowds or standing on buses. Remember: pickpocketers are professionals. If they want it, they’ll get it.
- Never leave purses, valuables, or belongings in general on the beach while you go for a swim. You might think you’re the only one on the beach, but you could be wrong. They will get snatched and you won’t even notice until 45 minutes later.
- Call cabs or ubers using legitimate apps or services. This is smart traveling no matter where you are… To avoid malicious situations always take the extra precaution and call for your cab or driver and avoid taking cabs off the street. Situations like this are all too common in Bogota and other major cities in Colombia, both for locals and foreigners. See Paseo Millionario below.
- Don’t fight back. In larger cities like Bogota, Medellin, Cartagena, or Cali, armed robberies in the street are possible. Because of this risk, it’s wise not to walk alone, particularly at night. If someone does approach you demanding for your phone or money (even if you are in a group), don’t try to fight them or refuse. I know it sounds terrible and nobody wants to submit to giving your phone to a thief while on vacation; but the truth is that it’s dangerous and no phone or amount of cash is worth getting hurt over. The people who are robbing you have either 1) grown up seeing and doing this, 2) acting on very accelerated adrenaline and are scared, or 3) feel like they have nothing to lose so they’ll do whatever they think they need to do. Trust me on this. It’s not worth it.
While these tips are pretty obvious and often shared, they are ones I believe in and have practiced regularly since moving to Bogota over a year ago. They don’t rule my life or control my experiences but I do keep them in the back of my mind and constantly stay alert. Keeping them in mind has allowed me to make the most of my time here and live an authentic life: I go to festivals and concerts, go out at night with friends, and enjoy walks around my neighborhood. I’ve traveled cross-country by car and visited small towns in remote areas. Even if it’s your first time in Colombia, you can still experience those things without fear of a Narcos-esque heist–I promise you.
Honestly, there is nothing Colombians appreciate more than when travelers come to visit and help break the horrible stigma that was created decades ago. So make friends while you’re here! Keep your mind open and try new things, whether it’s food, learning to dance, or exploring the Andes on horseback. Don’t be afraid of the unknown but just stay vigilant, ya know?
My intent is definitely not to scare you or make you feel insecure while traveling/living here. Rather, it’s to provide you with the proper knowledge and real-life situations to make sure you have made the most of your time here. Despite all it’s tumultuous history, Colombia remains a beautiful place with plenty of opportunities to gain a rich and valuable travel experience, and there’s really no better time than now to see it.
I don’t believe in living or traveling in fear. As human beings, we have natural instincts and intuitions that go off (for the most part) (Mateo, I’m looking at you) when a situation is dangerous. All I’m saying is listen to those intuitions. And like, no dar papaya… me entiendes?
*Paseo Millionario: a very shitty situation in which you hail an illegitimate cab off the street and get held at gunpoint (or drugged) long enough for the driver and their accomplices to drive you around while they rob you and make you take money out of your bank accounts.