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If you rewind the history books just 20 years, Colombia was not a place that was on the radar as a tourist destination. The country spent the better part of 20 years as one of the most dangerous places on earth, thanks largely to Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels that were in operation throughout the majority of the 1970’s and 1980’s. Unfortunately this didn’t end with Pablo’s death in 1993. Cartel operations continued, not to mention the civil war that has been engulfing parts of the country since the mid 1960’s. Colombia remained a dangerous place for tourists to venture up until the turn of the millennium.
Fast forward to today, and Colombia is fast becoming one of the most popular tourism destinations in South America. I spent five weeks travelling through Colombia as part of an extended trip through South America, and it quickly became one of my favourite destinations that I had visited. One of the most common questions that I get asked after spending time in there is if Colombia is a safe place to travel. My short answer to that question is yes, Colombia is a safe place to travel, so long as you’re careful and stick to the main tourist areas. The long answer makes up the rest of this post. Yes, it’s a safe place to travel, and you absolutely should go there. But as is the case with a lot of places, there are a few things to be aware of and safety tips for travel in Colombia.
Is Colombia Safe? The Official Line On Travel In Colombia
Colombia gets a bit of a bad rap at time as a travel destination. While its reputation is definitely improving, many people still consider it a fairly dangerous place to travel. So what’s fact and fiction when it comes to travel in Colombia?
Crime rates have improved dramatically in Colombia since the early 2000s. Kidnappings, once commonplace in Colombia, are now extremely rare. While crime such as pickpocketing and at time armed robbery can still be a problem, particularly in major cities like Bogotá, this too has dramatically improved. And let’s be honest, this can be a problem in just about any city in the world.
Around 2010, tourist boards around the world began to indicate that some areas of Colombia were safe to travel to, so long as a degree of caution is taken. Currently, Smart Traveller AU recommends visitors to exercise a high degree of caution, and the UK foreign travel advice warns visitors to take care with safety and security.
I was fairly cautious during my time in Colombia, and I took all the advice I was given. I felt safe the entire time that I was in there. Most people that I talked to there also had great experiences, and fell in love with the country. I did hear some stories of other travellers running into trouble and having things stolen. Shitty things happen, and they can happen wherever you are. But overall, I thought Colombia was as safe if not safer than everywhere else that I travelled in South America.
Read on for a few safety tips for travel in Colombia..
Safety Tips For Travel In Colombia
1. Be careful where you go in the country
Officially, Colombia is still in the midst of a civil war that’s been going on since 1964. In parts of the country, there are guerrilla groups that more or less control the regions, and the Colombian Government has little influence over these regions. The war is contained to more regional and rural areas. The main tourist cities in Colombia are safe, and there’s no need to be concerned about it when travelling in these areas. This includes Bogotá, Medellin, Cali, the Zona Cafetera and much of the Caribbean coast.
Areas that I was advised to avoid included
- Anywhere along the Colombian border with Venezuela
- The area between the main cities and the Pacific coast (some areas of the pacific coast were deemed as safe, but it’s not advisable to get a bus there, only to fly in and out.
- The border with Ecuador. This was an interesting one, as i know many people who have crossed the border by bus with no issues. But other people, including some locals, warned against getting the bus between Colombia and Ecuador, and suggested taking a flight to avoid the border crossing. So I wouldn’t necessarily avoid it, just be careful.
- The border crossing to Panama (by land). There is no way to cross the border to Panama by land unless you trek through mountains which is highly dangerous. Fly or take the boat.
Smart Traveller AU has a handy map showing safer and more dangerous areas of the country (below)
2. Be careful where you go in each city
Particularly in major cities, there can be some areas that are considered quite dangerous for tourists and locals alike. This is no different to the majority of cities in South America. The first thing I did in every place i went was to ask the hostel staff where was generally safe to go and where wasn’t. I’d get them to show me or draw on a map so i could reference it later if i needed.
In Bogotá, lots of people are warned about La Candelaria area in the city centre. I stayed in the area, and had no issues. I was warned by hostel staff about straying too far up the hill from La Candelaria, and heard stories of muggings there, so avoided it. But there are hostels in La Candelaria itself, I stayed in one, and had no issues.
3. Don’t ‘dar papaya’
They have a saying in Colombia that we were told on a couple of walking tours I did: “No dar papaya”.
What this basically means is don’t make yourself an easy target (by flashing valuables, drawing attention to yourself or acting like an ignorant tourist). This is pretty standard advice for anywhere you go as a tourist. You’re more than likely going to stand out enough as it is being a tourist, so don’t go drawing extra attention to yourself by flashing expensive laptops or cameras all over the place.
As long as you’re careful though, this doesn’t mean don’t take valuables out at all. In most places I felt extremely comfortable to take my camera out and take some pics. I generally walked around with my phone and wallet on me, and I had no issues with pickpocketing or crime.
4. Be aware of drugs, particularly ‘Devil’s Breath’ (Scopolamine)
I never came across this, but it was something i was warned about a couple of times.
Devil’s Breath (Scopolamine) is a drug in powder form that in strong enough doses can reportedly cause the victim to lose control of their own free will. The drug comes from a flower that’s commonly found in parts of Colombia. It’s reportedly used in Colombia and Ecuador to incapacitate victims, who may then be taken to an ATM to withdraw cash or be robbed.
There are lots of rumours and stories that go around about Devil’s Breath (which no doubt you’ll hear if you go there). Some of the stories about devil’s breath included tourists being targeted in the street and having powder blown into their faces, although it’s hard to know if there’s any truth behind this. The more likely way of ingesting the drug is via a drink being spiked.
Again, I never came across this while I was there, nor did anyone that I talked to. But it’s something to be aware of, and no doubt people will warn you about it while you are there.
Precautions I took:
- Never lose sight of your drink. This goes for both guys and girls. Tourists and wealthy looking guys can reportedly sometimes be targeted by good looking girls.
- Be wary of random strangers approaching you. Though it’s not entirely clear if the drug could work by being blown into your face, you should probably be wary of strangers approaching you anyway.
5. Be wary of strangers approaching you
Repeating what I’ve just said above. It’s also good to be aware of people that may be trying to scam you or pickpocket you as well. Again, pretty standard tourist advice. Most people in Colombia are really nice and extremely welcoming. And you really don’t have much to worry about. But just be aware.
6. Using public transport – don’t hail taxis
Hailing a taxi on the street in Colombia was something that I was warned against. There are illegal taxis that operate there. Some will overcharge you. Some might take you to the wrong hotel (who they will then convince you to stay with – this actually happened to me but I just got out and took another taxi).
I was also warned not to hail taxis in Colombia due to the small chance of a ‘paseo millonario’ (a millionaires ride, an express kidnapping). These illegal taxi drivers won’t physically harm you, but they might rob you or take you to an ATM to withdraw all of your cash. It’s really rare for this to happen to tourists. I did hear a couple of stories of it happening in different places throughout South America, but none of the stories I heard were in Colombia. Saying that, it’s best to just make sure you are getting a taxi with either an official company or taking an Uber, to make sure that it doesn’t happen to you.
My tips for taxis and transport
- There’s an app called Easytaxi which I used all over Colombia. It’s basically Uber for taxis, so it’s super easy to use and it means you know that you’re getting an official taxi. Download it and use it.
- If you don’t have an internet connection, I’d recommend getting your hotel / hostel / restaurant to order you a taxi, so you know you’re getting an official one.
7. Travelling between cities: Bus vs Plane
Bus travel throughout Colombia is much safer than it once was. 15-20 years ago you would have been mad to take the bus anywhere within the country. Nowadays, many tourists do safely. However, bus hold up’s do still occur in some parts of the country. For that reason, I was told to take a few precautions when taking the bus, and at times to take the plane.
Precautions and Tips
- If you can, take the bus during the day, rather than at night.
- For longer trips (for example from Bogotá or Medellín to the Caribbean Coast) it’s probaly easier to take the plane.
- Viva Colombia is a super cheap airline that you can usually get last minute tickets on, that lots of tourists and backpackers (including me) use it. Make use of it.
- In particular I was warned to not take the bus when crossing the border between Colombia and Ecuador. Although i did hear of some people doing this and not having any trouble, the warnings people gave me (some of them from locals) made me decide to just take a flight from Bogota to Quito.
I took buses all around the Caribbean Coast with no issues. I talked to lots people taking buses between Bogotá, Medellín and the Zona Cafetera with no issues. If you are going to take the bus between A and B in Colombia, it will probably be fine. Just do some research or ask at your hostel to double check the safety of the route.
Take home message
Is it safe to travel in Colombia? Yep, I think Colombia is a safe place to travel. As long as you stick to the tourist trail follow some basic advice, it’s a great place to visit. There’s heaps to see and do, and you’ll easily fill 3-4 weeks looking around the country if you have the time.
Thinking of going to Colombia and want more info? Leave us a comment or send us a message and we’ll get back to you!