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