Safety in Colombia

Safety in Colombia

Despite its reputation, travelling in Colombia is far safer than people are often led to believe. With some basic common sense and safety precuations, there is absolutely no reason to miss the opportunity to travel to Colombia because of safety concerns. What follows are a few key observations based on living three years in Colombia.

1.  When in Doubt, Ask the Locals

Always remember that 99% of Colombians are good people; it's unfortunately the 1% of bad people (guerrillas, paramilitaries, narcotraffickers, thieves) that give the rest of Colombia a bad reputation. Spend a day in Colombia and you will quickly realize that Colombia is one of the kindest and most welcoming countries to foreigners. They will help you! If you are not sure if what you're planning on doing is safe, ask a local for advice. From the biggest cities, to the smallest villages, there are good parts and bad parts. Locals will tell you if an area has a dangerous reputation for thieves, pick-pockets, drugs, you name it.

2.  Learn the Language

While in large cities (especially Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena) you'll find English speakers in the touristy areas, in the rest of the country you are out of luck. Thus, it's critical that you acquire at least a basic conversational level of Spanish, or go with a friend who speaks Spanish. The better knowledge you have of the language and culture, the more likely you are to avoid dangerous areas, situations, and people.

3.  Be Wary of Anyone Who Approaches You on the Street

Remember that Colombia, despite its recent economic growth, still has high levels of extreme poverty. Many Colombians will see a dollar (or euro or pound or yen) sign on your back. Be EXTREMELY cautious of people who approach you out of the blue on the street. They are most likely looking to take advantage of you. The best course of action is to politely, but firmly, decline to talk with them, and keep walking.

4.  Leave Your Valuables in Your Hostel, or Don't Bring Them at All

Your belongings are 100 times more likely to be robbed while you are out walking around, than back in your hotel or hostel. Leave EVERYTHING you possibly can in your place of lodging, but ESPECIALLY debit/ATM cards, credit cards, passports, electronics, jewelry, watches, and laptop computers. While technically Colombian law requires visitors to have their passports, you should be fine with carrying around a photocopy.

Bring only the cash you will need for the day/night.  Typically it's a good idea to have at least $40.000-$60.000 COP ($22-33) on you at all times, in case of emergency. Hotels in Colombia are safe, and I've never heard of a case of hotel employees robbing personal effects from rooms. Likewise, all youth hostels have lockers. Bring your own padlock or lock with key, and use them!

5.  Be 100 Times More Cautious at Night

As in any country, parts of Colombia that are perfectly safe during the day are dangerous at night. This is especially true of the "centro" (downtown) areas of most Colombian cities. Thriving business zones by day, they often turn into the domain of prostitutes, thieves, drug-addicts, and homeless people. Be extra extra cautious of your travel plans at night, and be aware of your surroundings. Police in Colombia wear bright yellow jackets, and have a high presence in all major cities, so use them to your advantage.

6.  Make Wise Use of Taxis

Before living in Colombia, I had heard stories of rogue taxi drivers participating in criminal activities in Colombia. Nothing could be further from the truth! Taxi drivers are your best friend. For very reasonable prices ($5 for a 20 minute taxi ride) they will take you wherever you want to go. Plan your inter-city travels so that you can walk or use public transportation by day and early evening (typically public transport shuts down at 11pm in most cities), and return by taxi.

7.  Stay Away From Drugs and Alcohol

Sure, you come to Colombia on vacation, and you're going to have a few drinks. But if you're going to drink, be careful. Thieves in Colombia are known to scout out bars and nightclubs looking for foreign patrons that are leaving under the influence of alchol. If you've been drinking, always take a taxi home. Also, be very vigilant of your drinks, as unscrupulous individuals have been known to slip drugs into tourists' beverages. Be careful, but not paranoid.

8.  Know the Enemy

You're unlikely to get robbed in Colombia by an elderly grandma in her eighties. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of crimes in Colombia are committed by young, unemployed men between the ages of 15 and 30. Additionally, a lot of crime is fueled by drug addicts who live on the street. Downtown areas of the city are particularly notorious for crimes committed by street dwellers, so be careful! As best you can, keep to well lit areas, that have adequate police patrols. Fortunately, as you will see, Colombia has a high military and police presence in comparison to other countries.

9.  Watch Your Stuff

Never, ever, ever, assume that because somewhere looks safe that your bag/suitcase/computer/phone will be OK left alone for a few minutes. This especially holds true in bus terminals and on buses. There are plenty of petty thieves who make a living scoping out places with high tourist presence, and they don't need more than a blink of an eye to run off with your things. Be especially careful when traveling on overnight buses. Some buses pick up and drop off passengers on the side of the road in Colombia, and if you are asleep or distracted, it presents a perfect opportunity for a thief to snatch your bag or backpack on the way off the bus.

10.  Minimize the Risk

The bottom line is: it's impossible to predict with 100% certainty that nothing well ever happen to you in Colombia. But following a few safety protocols will dramatically minimize your risks. Unsurprisingly, people that go looking for trouble (i.e. drugs, prostitution, late night drinking binges, dangerous parts of town) typically find it. Always prepare for the worst possibility, and have an emergency plan.

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