With its chronic drug wars simmering down and the FARC insurgency disbanded, Colombia’s dark days of endemic violence are finally over. Does that mean Colombia is safe to visit now? Judging purely by the statistics, Colombia is still one of the most violent countries on the planet. Even so, the majority of travelers will not find themselves in an unsafe situation so long as they do not wander far from the tourist mainstays.
Of course, such an approach would be extremely limiting and would prevent you from experiencing the country the way most locals do. If, like me, you are hopelessly inclined to wander into unsafe neighborhoods, you’re going to need a different set of rules to keep yourself safe.I managed to survive all of Colombia’s major cities with few notable mishaps, but there were many close calls. Colombia is the first and only country I’ve visited thus far in which I felt I was in real and imminent danger. That nothing terrible happened I credit to the stories and advice I received before my trip from friends experienced in the country. Here I seek to pass on to that torch and lend confidence to would-be visitors who might otherwise feel too intimidated to hazard a trip to the land of a million arepas.
1. Be ready to backtrack.
Firstly, it is in the big cities, Bogota, Medellin, and Cali in particular, where the threat is greatest. Within these cities, though, the violence is intensely concentrated in specific neighborhoods and on specific blocks. Bogota’s North, for example, is as safe as anywhere whereas even the police won’t go to certain neighborhoods in the South.
But discerning safe from unsafe is not quite so simple. Medellin’s city center, for example, is relatively secure during daylight but decidely dangerous by nightfall.
Moreover, the level of safety in Colombia’s cities can deteriorate extremely quickly as you move from block to block. At times you may turn a corner and find the difference in security between one street and the next to be like night and day. If there are women, elderly people, and children on the street, that’s a good sign. If all you see are young men, you might be in trouble. Be ready to backtrack quickly if you turn onto a street that just doesn’t look right.
2. Blend in.
Whether you’re black, Caucasian,South Asian, or Middle-Eastern, most people can pass for local in Colombia’s multiracial society (except, perhaps, blondes and East Asians). Obviously speaking a foreign language like English or imperfect Spanish will blow your cover, so avoid speaking as much as possible when you are riding public transit or walking a street that doesn’t seem positively secure.
The easiest giveaway that someone is foreigner is what they wear. Tourists to Colombia tend to walk around in shorts and a tanktop. Locals, regardless of the climate, don’t do this. If you’re going out at night or exploring unknown barrios, dress as the locals do. This usually means wearing pants and a jacket.
3. You can stop them if you see them.
Muggers do not want resistance or a chase. Some just want to snatch a phone or a bag off your person. Others want to come up from behind and either put you in a deadlock or place a knife at your throat and demand you hand over everything. Either case depends on an element of surprise. Don’t give that to them. Look around you at all times (and especially over your shoulder). The would-be assailant is almost always a young man and often you can find his eyes tracking you. If you catch him before he gets too close, you’re already an unappealing target. Make eye contact to let him know you see him coming. Cross the street. Walk faster. Watch where he goes until you’ve made it back into the home stretch. This is how I defused several budding plots to rob me; by ruining the surprise. If you find someone is following you, walk briskly to somewhere more crowded and public or veer into a restaurant or enclosed business.
5. Guard the low-hanging Fruit
Don’t take your phone or wallet out when you’re on the street. That is an invitation to be robbed by snatch-and-run opportunists. If you need to look at your phone, go into a corner and huddle your body around it, so nobody can see it clearly. When walking around at night, put you hands in your pockets so would-be assailants cannot discern whether you have a phone or wallet in there. Or, better yet, don’t bring your phone or wallet if you don’t need it. If you encounter sketchy people on the street, wrap your arms around your purse or backpack. When you sit down to eat or rest, do NOT hang your bag on the back of your chair nor place your wallet or phone on the table.
6. Beware of Impostors
Phony policemen or “neighborhood security” may stop you and ask to see your documents as a pretext to robbing you. If they are wearing plainclothes and do not look legitimate, keep walking and threaten to call the real police. Never get into a black cab (a regular vehicle operating illegally as a taxi). You will see many beggars on the street in Colombia, and if you choose to give them money, take care not to take out your wallet in front of them, lest they help themselves to your money. This is how I got robbed. Instead, turn around and remove whatever coins or bills you wish out of their reach.
This is the protocol I have been following, and it has served me well. Colombia is safe (enough?) to visit so long as you are prepared to competently manage the risks. Don’t allow fear to stop you from experiencing a place as breathtaking and unique as Colombia.