So you are thinking of traveling to Colombia, but are not sure what to expect. Is Colombia scary? Is it safe for you to travel there? Will your life be in danger? All these questions and more are answered.
Misconceptions about Colombia
Pablo Escobar. Strippers. Blow. Murder. These are just some of the misconceptions about Colombia. It is true that Escobar once had his henchman kidnap officials in a government building and tanks leveled the building to kill the intruders. They also killed many innocent people. There is also truth to the corruption of Colombia. There was the Banana Massacre way back in 1928. Then bribery and treachery once filled every level of government, from the police to city and country officials. Never mind that for 30 years the Medellin Cartel brought $22 billion a year into Colombia. This world is dying away, replaced by a citizenry who has seen their siblings, moms and dads become drug addicts and alcoholics, or even die as part of the cartels.
Colombia has changed, and the country is moving past the "plata o plomo" (silver or lead) method of life. Visiting Colombia doesn't mean you are going to be walking down the streets with drug dealers wielding AK 47s everywhere. Instead, in Bogota a new business district surrounds a beautiful park, "Parque 93," where locals can sit without fear of gunfights and murder during the daylight.
The Reality of Colombia
Colombia has two sides. There is the beautiful side and the ugly side. Everywhere you go, even in beautiful places the ugly lurks close by. There is a strange Colombian tension between the two, a strong subversive undercurrent. But that is Colombia, its personality. And the beauty is worth it as long as you remain vigilante and smart. Some of Colombia's cities still rank on the list of most deadliest cities in the world. Change takes time.
The government is still weak, crippled after years of corruption. Infrastructure in many places is severely lacking. This means poor roads, holes in sidewalks, trash piled on sidewalks or dropped in the holes, and smelly, dirty streets. But, Colombia is recovering. Private security is prevalent outside many hotels and respectable establishments. In most cases these private guns for hire are enough of a deterrent to most common criminals. Sure, just a few years ago a DEA Agent was kidnapped by a cab driver and underwent a "millionaire ride" where he was coerced into withdrawing money at every ATM the thieves stopped at before being stabbed to death. Corruption still exists, as people are driven towards desperation by the manacles of extreme poverty. The reality that the average income of most Colombians is $8,000 US a year cannot be escaped. These facts are good to know because they keep us aware.
There is still a chance of danger when visiting Colombia, but this danger can be greatly mitigated by doing a few things.
How to Stay Safe in Colombia
- Travel during the day. Even in less developed areas your safety will be increased by daylight.
- Never hail a cab. That's how the DEA Agent ended up dead after a "millionaire ride." Instead have the restaurant or hotel call you a cab.
- Don't be a drunk. You will be an easy target.
- Don't stay out partying late at night. This one coincides with number three above.
- Just like in every other city there are good and bad areas. Even good areas can have bad externalities and vice versa.
- Do not accept "chicle" from anyone
- Be respectful of their culture. Many people are scarred by the cartels, and become rude Americans. Don't forget that many want to show you the good side of Colombia, of their home. They want you to have a good experience so that you will go and tell your friends to travel here...like we are doing right now.
- Venezuela is the new Colombia. Stay away from the Eastern side of Colombia. Lots of drug running and overflow issues in to Colombia with drugs and cartels.
- Stay in populated areas. I know we promote off the beaten path travel, but when in Colombia you're already off the beaten path so just stick to the well worn ones.
- Don't flaunt your fancy belongings. They only make pennies compared to most Americans, so your shiny new iPhone may be a draw.
Safe and Unsafe Cities in Colombia
A good rule of thumb when deciding where to visit in Colombia: Stay to the fringes and outside of the middle.
Bogota is fine, even though this massive city is located centrally. Above Bogota you have cities like Medellin, where the Medellin Cartel (Escobar's possee) once thrived. When the cartel collapsed a massive void was created fill with people who knew how to make money through violence. Around 29 people in 100,000 are murdered every year. In one city, Valle del Cuaca, the homicide rate was 23 percent a few years ago. Medellin and Cali are close behind that percent. Bogota, because of it's sheer size of having almost 10 million inhabitants is also high. Many of these most violent cities are centralized in Colombia.
When you travel to the fringes of the country, especially the northwest part you encounter a different culture. The people here have always been slightly disconnected from the rest of Colombia. Areas like Cartagena and Santa Marta are "wealthy" getaways for the rich. To someone of our income and wealth, visiting these places will still cost very little.
Also keep in mind I have had friends visit Medellin and Cali, the second of which has some of the best salsa dancing in the country. If you are going to do that, don't be stupid. Trust your gut and your travel instincts. But if you are prone to anxiety in unsafe situations, then do yourself a favor and stick to the following cities:
- Santa Marta
- Barranquilla (to experience real life and culture)
- Most Coffee Plantations (we visited Finca La Victoria)
How Safe is Colombia?
If you are thinking of traveling to Colombia, and are a semi-seasoned traveler (have been more than 4 places out of the country) then Colombia is recommendable. Due to minimal violence and poverty-induced crime Colombia isn't a good place for inexperienced travelers or first timers to start. Colombia is not safe enough to travel alone at night. Always travel with others for maximum safety and ensure you don't stand out as a typical tourist. Oh and one final word of wisdom, don't drink the water unless you want to test your digestive system. They may say its potable, but it will still clean you out.