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Is Colombia Safe? Everything You Need To Know

Is Colombia Safe? Everything You Need To Know

Is Colombia safe? It’s a question I’ve gotten many times since returning from two weeks traveling through the country. Colombia has been a dream destination for me ever since I backpacked through South America and didn’t make it there. In November 2014, however, I finally got my chance.

A friend of mine from NYC had found $400 round trip flights between Cartagena and JFK Airport. After further research, I realized if wasn’t a deal, but that Colombia was just that awesomely cheap to visit during the fall from New York. Even further research showed that I could fly multi-city for virtually the same price. Fate? A sign? I chose to think so.

And that’s how I ended up on a 2-week trip through Cartagena, Santa Marta, Tayrona National Park, Medellin and Bogota. By the end of the trip, I wasn’t at all ready to leave.

But, is Colombia safe?

This was a question I was asked a lot before and during the trip, and am still getting asked now that it’s ended. Of course there are places that are genuinely unsafe for travelers (and even locals) — typically areas plagued by war and disease outbreak; however, there are very few places I would 100% say are unsafe for travelers.

Is Colombia plagued by corruption? Yes. Are drugs prevalent in the country? Of course. Is it likely you’ll get pick pocketed? Well, it’s not unlikely.

That being said, I would highly recommend it to all of you.

is Colombia safe

The colorful streets of Cartagena on a rainy day. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

The Beauty

As soon as I stepped off the plane into Cartagena’s tropical arms, I felt happy and warm, and not just from the weather. Walking down the Old Town streets — which are extremely colorful, literally, I was asked to do an on-camera interview about what I liked about the city, was asked by a woman who saw my lost-looking face if I needed help and danced salsa with about 17 different locals once the sun set.

The salsa culture was my favorite. Even in sit-down restaurants locals would get up and start dancing. Nobody minded when I joined in or asked for help perfecting my “leg kick-twist,” as I took to calling it (seriously, how do they do that?!).

In Medellin I became obsessed with the adventure and nightlife. Paragliding over the city, taking the cable car up to Parque Arvi for zip lining and hiking, and embarking on a day trip to climb El Peñol, explore the colorful pueblo of Guatape and kayak were all worthwhile and safe-feeling activities. Moreover, bar hopping until 4am in the touristy El Poblado neighborhood provided nightly fun, while wandering the upscale? Llares area introduced me to pretty parks and tasty local eateries without issue.

is colombia safe

Climbing up El Peñol. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

paragliding in medellin

Paragliding in Medellin. Photo courtesy of Jessica Festa.

is colombia safe

The view from the top of El Peñol, beautiful even on a cloudy day. Photo courtesy of Jessie Festa.

I was told once I reached Bogota that would change. That the warm, friendly smiles and willingness to help would disappear; however, I didn’t feel Bogota locals were cold at all. Maybe it’s because I’m from New York, but I think it’s a perception that city people are “mean,” usually because they’re busy, over-stimulated and may not have spare time to say hello to everyone they see (This Salon article has some interesting notes on this). In fact, a highlight of Bogota was being welcomed into a local home to savor a traditional cooking class and learning about how the husband and wife enjoyed woodworking and gardening.

Throughout the trip I hailed taxis off the street without issue, aside for in Bogota where I used an app called Easy Taxi to make sure there was a paper trail. I ate the vegetables, drank the water (in major cities) and chatted up locals, not running into a single problem the entire time.

These were the experiences that made the trip so memorable for me.

I’m not saying it’s guaranteed that nothing will happen to you if you follow the same itinerary as me. I’m just providing an account of my impressions.

is colombia safe

The setting on the Cartagena waterfront before I was accosted by cops. Collage photos courtesy of Jessica Festa.

And The Not So Beautiful

It’s important to note that there were some instances of discomfort. On my first night in Cartagena, a friend and I got takeout from a local deli and ate by the water. Suddenly, two motorcycle cops pulled up next to us, at first saying hello and moving on to another group. We couldn’t hear what was said, but we saw the males in the group get searched and then hand over money.

We thought we were in the clear since the cops had seen and bypassed us; however, they ended up coming back over and doing the most thorough search of our stuff I’d ever encountered. They kept asking us about drugs and, it seemed like, trying to distract us from what they were doing. I didn’t take my eyes off the cop’s hands flipping through my pesos for a single moment.

While they didn’t take anything from us, we were warned by locals that cops will sometimes plant drugs on people to extort money from them. For this reason, it’s important to pull your pockets inside-out and to never look away when being searched.

is colombia safe

Papaya. Photo courtesy of Luz Adriana Village via flickr.

Moreover, in Medellin we were given some warnings from our tour guide. One reference that really stuck with me — and that’s helpful to think about when visiting Colombia — is the “papaya” reference, as in “Don’t give papaya.” While there is some damn good papaya in Colombia, with this particular reference it means not making yourself a target by doing things like sticking your cell phone in an open pocket or pulling out large bills of money. Essentially, not giving someone the opportunity to take advantage of you.

As we explored the El Centro neighborhood of Medellin, there were certain times the papaya reference was much more relevant. This didn’t stop us from walking around these more seedy areas; however, sometimes it became necessary to switch our backpacks to the front of our bodies to avoid theft.

In Bogota, Colombia’s capital, touted as a very rough city, I fell in love with the colorful street art and vibrant biking culture (don’t miss the Ciclovías/cycleways where certain streets are closed to cars on Sundays).

One highlight of the city for me was doing a cycling tour with Bogota by Bike, which ended up being enlightening in more ways than one. Amidst viewing parks and landmarks, sampling local fruits and playing the national sport of Tejo, a woman in the group absent-mindedly put her iPhone in her jacket pocket and zipped it up. A stealthy local crept up behind her, unzipping her pocket so gently yet quickly to grab the gadget she almost went unnoticed. Luckily, someone in the group saw it happening and shouted, scaring the woman away.

Our tour had about 30 people on it, so you can see how bold these local thieves can be. And how you really need to watch your back, even in a group.

The moral of the story? Go out, have fun, explore, talk to locals and soak up the culture. Just make sure to be aware at all times, use common sense and keep those valuables completely hidden or in sight (pickpocket-proof underwear, anyone?).

Visiting Colombia yourself? Check out my Colombia trip stories, as well as The Broke Backpacker’s Colombia travel guide and Two Scots Abroad’s travel guide to Colombia. All offer great insight!

Have you visited Colombia? What was your experience like? Please share in the comments below.



Jessie Festa standing in front of grafitti wall

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11 Comments

  1. Amanda on December 16, 2014 at 6:07 pm

    So good tips here, Jessie! I think it mostly just comes down to common sense and being aware of your surroundings. It doesn’t sound any more or less dangerous than, say, Spain or Paris.

    I’m glad you had a good time – Colombia is really high on my list of places I really want to visit!

    • jess2716 on January 7, 2015 at 5:17 pm

      @Amanda: Agreed! I think anywhere can be dangerous if you don’t use common sense 🙂

  2. Hernando on March 4, 2015 at 5:54 pm

    Cool article about my Country. I’m glad you enjoyed your time there. I’m from Bucaramanga; you definitely need to go visit Bucaramanga and the Chicamocha Canyon on the way between Bogota and Bucaramanga. There’s a new tourist park right in the mountains. You can also do paragliding at the canyon. I live in Texas now, but I’m taking my wife and kids to Colombia this summer (My wife has never been there).

    about the pick-pocketing… it is true. Every time I walk in Bogota i put my wallet in my front pocket and leave my iPhone at the house where I’m staying.

    Now, about the national sport, you said “playing the national sport of Tejt.” Did you mean “Tejo”?

    • jess2716 on March 4, 2015 at 6:40 pm

      @Hernando: Next time, for sure! And yes, typo 🙂 Will fix that now. Thank you for pointing it out!

  3. Peter Dexters on April 9, 2015 at 9:06 pm

    I went to Colombia 4 weeks in february 2014 (same plages except Bogotá) with my wife and kids (11 & 14). Befor we scanned the internet to male sure it was safe ( enough). It was GREAT i totally agree with your article. You just have to Think. Most scary experience (and one of the Best) was attending the football derby between Nacionales and Independente – great fun but after the game we were caught between Groups of rivaling fans and police with horses offroaders machineguns… And the neighborhood didn’t Seem safe so we had to stay close to the police (and the riot) until we finally Got a cab. But theese kinds of riots happen at Any respectable derby around the world even in very safe Denmark where we come from (only the police has less equipment). I would say that Colombia is probably as safe for tourists as most other latin American countries and it’s people are certainly wonderful. Travelling as a family is probably even safer because you don’t get (so) drunk and do less stupid things – and also criminals are less likely to target families cause the situation Can likely get out of controller. Anyway we Also visited Isreal and The West Bank on october which was also a fantastic and safe experience. This february we went skiing in France and while we were away 2 people were killed in a terrorist attack in our own neoghborhood 500 meters from where we live (…) This August we are taking a year off from work to live in Mexico for a year – which i believe will also be a beautiful experience – although also concieved as unsafe by some. To coclude I Will say that I would Never put my kids in danger – but nothing is ever 100% safe – and I don’t want my kids to grow up learning to fear other people and miss out on the adventures of this World. Thank you for the Nice article.

    • jess2716 on April 11, 2015 at 1:57 pm

      @Peter: Thank you for sharing your experience. Funny enough I leave for Israel in a week. I often think about 9/11 in NYC. I was here when it happened, and I imagine people from around the world had an idea of New York being less safe. It wasn’t, there was just one horrific incident all over the news that made it appear that way. In fact I think it was more safe because people were coming together. These big incidents make the news, while all of the positive things happening in a place at the same time do not.

      PS: Love that you’re introducing your kids to the world. I don’t have kids yet but if/when I do I hope to do the same!

    • Erick García on March 4, 2016 at 4:16 pm

      Hi Peter! I really like your last phrase :” I don’t want my kids to grow up learning to fear other people and miss out on the adventures of this World” Totally agree! Im a Mexican guy living in Cartagena Colombia, and I love it! You will love Mexico, thats for sure! Don´t forget to visit my hometown, Guanajuato and a beautiful city nearby San Miguel de Allende, you will like it! and please let us know how is your adventure there so far. Thanks Jessie for your excelent post!

      • Jessie Festa on March 5, 2016 at 1:12 pm

        @Erick: Thanks for the assistance and the kind words! 🙂

  4. Maria on January 18, 2016 at 2:26 am

    Thank you for the great article. We’re planning on going to Cartagena in March with our daughters 14,12 &5 and now that it’s all booked, we’re a little nervous re safety. We travel annually to new places with and without the Girls but now doubting if this is the right place for a family trip- Any tips?

    • Jessie Festa on January 18, 2016 at 8:31 am

      @Maria: Good for you for getting your girls out young to see the world. They will be better off for it 🙂 I think Cartagena is one of those places you’ll need to keep your guard slightly up for; however, my friends and I had no problems aside for police accosting us a few times and checking us for drugs, which I think they were actually trying to just get into our purses, though I think if you’re with a family they’ll likely leave you alone. If you check out my Travel Essentials page I have health and safety recommendations (https://jessieonajourney.com/best-travel-gear/). The one I would recommend for this is the pickpocket-proof undergarments, as they’ll allow you to explore Colombia without having your purse/wallet visible. Other than that enjoy the beaches, the food, the music and the culture and have a great time!

    • Erick García on March 4, 2016 at 4:24 pm

      Don´t worry Maria, you guys will be just fine 🙂 Cartagena is a wonderful place to visit, you will see. Of course, as Jessie says, just be careful and everything will be OK. If you guys need anything I will be glad to help. (I think Jessie can share you my email ?) Have a good trip!

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