Is Colombia safe to travel? It was a question I long pondered before finally stepping on the plane. The stereotypes of dangerous drug cartels, express kidnappings and violent streets were certainly once true of Colombia but by many accounts, things are different now….or are they?
In this article, I’ll share with you my experience of backpacking Colombia as a female traveller and we’ll also hear about the experiences of the South America Backpacker Community.
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How Dangerous is Colombia on Paper?
Colombia might not be making it onto our list of South America’s safest countries but it isn’t the most dangerous either, Venezuela currently holds that accolade. According to the Global Peace Index 2020, Colombia sits at position 140 out of 163 of the world’s countries, not a great stat. However, it is important to delve beneath the surface.
In the year 2019-20, although there was an increase in political and civil unrest, the homicide rate actually fell and Colombia’s place on the political terror scale improved. It has certainly come a long way from the no-go country it was just a few decades ago!
The Changing Face of Colombia
Nowadays, Colombia is wildly different from its past. Tourism has boomed in the country with foreign visits rising from 0.6 million in 2007 to a whopping 2 million in 2017. It is also becoming a popular country with expats and digital nomads who love the friendly locals and laid back vibe. Even Medellín, which was once one of the world’s most dangerous cities, has been transformed into a hipster hub of innovation. There has certainly been no better time to visit this Latin American hotspot.
My Experience Travelling Colombia – As a Female Traveller
Before I went backpacking to Colombia, as a female traveller, I’ll admit that I was nervous. This was mainly due to the responses I received from friends and family. “Oh my God, why are you going there? Don’t get shot!”
Reading government warnings online did not make me feel any better either…
“Street crime is a problem in major cities, including Bogotá, Medellín, Cali and the Caribbean coast. Mugging and pickpocketing can be accompanied by violence. British nationals have been robbed at gunpoint in the Candelaria area of Bogotá .” –Foreign Travel Advice on the GOV.UK website.
Having travelled extensively in Southeast Asia (an extremely safe region to travel), making the jump to South America, I was aware that I would need to readjust my approach to safety in Colombia.
Arriving off the plane in Cartagena in the early hours of the morning, a well-dressed Colombian woman started chatting with me. I was immediately on my guard. She’s probably been planted by some drug gang to make me feel comfortable… then she’ll lure me into a situation where I will be robbed at gunpoint! My jet-lagged brain was in paranoid mode and I was almost rude to the woman as we waited for our bags at the luggage carousel.
When we got to the taxi rank, I stupidly had no spare change for the taxi and the ATMs were not working. The woman did not hesitate in giving me the money to pay for the taxi to get to my hostel in the Old Quarter. She wanted nothing in return and simply wished me a pleasant journey. The next day, I realised how my preconceptions had caused me to be suspicious of the woman unfairly. It hadn’t yet been a full day but I was already in awe of the friendliness of the Colombian people.
Throughout my time in Colombia, travelling by myself and with a female friend, there was only one time when I felt in danger. This was during the evening in the city of Santa Marta and I say ‘felt’ because I’m not actually sure that I was in any danger. For some reason, I just found this city dodgier than other parts of Colombia with a few suspicious characters lurking in doorways…
I think I was more on guard here, as it was from the rooftop of our hostel in Santa Marta where I watched a fellow traveller have her camera grabbed from her by a kid on a bicycle. (She ran after him and actually got it back – a reaction that’s not always advisable but in this case, turned out okay!)
We were also warned by fellow backpackers about nearby Taganga. Apparently, gangs of young kids were frequently robbing foreigners, which didn’t sound like much fun, and so we decided not to go there at all.
Safety is a complex issue to summarise – it depends on being in the wrong place at the wrong time anywhere in the world! However, based on my personal experience, I’d say that yes, on the whole, Colombia is a safe place to travel. (As long as you have your wits about you and don’t do anything stupid – which is true of almost anywhere in the world!)
Is Colombia Safe for Solo Travellers?
Although I travelled largely solo throughout Colombia, I didn’t want this article to just be a reflection of my experiences. To provide a more rounded perspective, I asked the South America Facebook Community what their experiences were. Here is a selection of what some of them said:
“I have travelled extensively in Colombia and I have lived in Bogotá, Cali and Cartagena. I have always felt safe, sometimes I was careless when I shouldn’t have but I think if you have your wits about you, don’t take unnecessary risks and know where you are at all times, it’s no different to any other place. I’ve spent most of my life in London and there are places where I wouldn’t go at night, same as Bogotá and Cali.” – John.
“I felt very safe, except for a couple of moments in Santa Marta. I’m saying that I’m aware of my privilege (weird I know ) of being black and being able to speak some Spanish, which often meant I was left alone and not easy to pick as a target as many would I assume I was Colombian / Brazilian. It’s very likely, my skin colour was a deterrent to possible thieves/criminals. In saying that though, I have met many other tourists who also told me they felt quite safe.” – Nabil.
“Backpacked Colombia for 2 months with my girlfriend. The only time I felt unsafe in Colombia was around the ‘police’.” – Steve.
Is Colombia Safe for Female Travellers?
The consensus within our Facebook community is yes, Colombia is generally safe for female travellers. However, some did reference bag snatches and other instances of petty theft. Here are a couple of quotes from readers who have travelled around Colombia solo.
“I was a solo women traveller and I’ve always felt safe. I didn’t go much off the beaten track (except for Ciudad Perdida and las tres cruces in Medellín where I was literally alone). Security was never an issue and Colombians were extremely helpful and nice.” – Krishna.
“No. I had a phone ripped off my person by a guy on a motorbike in Pasto, near my hotel. Had to hide everything away in Bogota, Cartagena, Santa Marta. Medellín felt a bit more secure. I was a solo female traveller with a disability (51). I’d venture to suggest that it’s safer to travel in a couple and you’re less likely to be targeted.” – Susan.
“ I was travelling alone in Colombia (Caribbean Coast and Medellín) for 2 months. I never had any problems and felt totally safe. I just heard from some people that their mobile was stolen in Barranquilla during the Carnival.” – Eva.
Whilst a few of our group members did say they had been victims of robbing and muggings, the overwhelming majority of people said that they loved the country and would be keen to return. However, you do need to be vigilant to avoid trouble. To help you get the most out of your visit, here are my top tips to keep you safe in Colombia.
18 Safety Tips for Travelling to Colombia
1. Book flights that arrive at the airport in daylight hours.
It may be psychological but I much prefer getting a taxi in a new city when I can see my surroundings.
2. Ask the staff at your hostel if there are any ‘no-go’ areas in the city.
In Santa Marta, we didn’t even need to ask this. When we arrived, a guy at reception gave us a map and highlighted some streets that were fine and some streets that he felt we should avoid, especially after dark. Any hostel will do this for you if you simply ask. In my experience, 90% of people who experience crime when travelling ignore such sound advice. If the locals say don’t go there, just don’t go there.
3. Try to blend in.
Dressing like a local can help but you should try to blend in with your attitude too. Don’t speak loudly in English (or your native language, unless it is Spanish), don’t gawp open-mouthed at your surroundings or have your head constantly in Google maps (with the directions blurting out in English). Basically, don’t do anything to give away the fact that you just landed.
Female travellers – here’s how to dress like a local Colombian woman. (You’re going to need some hoop earrings!)
4. Walk like you know where you’re going.
This is a tip that a good friend of mine gave me and it definitely works. When you’re in a part of a city that feels a bit dodgy, put your collar up (if you have one!), keep your head down, act cool and stride out with purpose like you’ve done the walk a thousand times.
5. Learn as much Spanish as you can.
It goes without saying that being able to understand the local language will help you to feel more confident as you travel and help you to blend in. From my experience, it would be difficult to travel in Colombia with no knowledge of Spanish at all. Watch Spanish movies on Netflix before you go, check out Spanish YouTube videos and podcasts or, right at the beginning of your travels, why not sign up for a reputable Spanish course that will help you master the basics! (You’re likely to make some travel buddies too!)
6. Listen to fellow travellers.
Is there someplace that keeps coming up in conversation among fellow travellers as an unsafe place to go? (For us, this was Taganga.) Then just avoid it! It’s not cool to put yourself in unnecessary danger.
7. Don’t flaunt your stuff.
When you’re out and about, especially in cities, don’t flaunt expensive pieces of jewellery, cash, cameras or technology items. These will make you an easy target (dar papaya) for a thief.
The Colombians use the expression ‘dar papaya’ which literally means to give papaya (as in the fruit). To dar papaya is to give a thief an easy opportunity to steal something from you. Having a camera lolling over your shoulder, a mobile phone sticking out your bag or your wallet poking out your back pocket is to ‘dar papaya’.
8. Be wary of fake police and local cops.
Some criminals may pose as policemen to gain your trust in order to rob you. Whilst the federal police generally have a good reputation, some local police officers have been known to be less trustworthy. A member of the South America Facebook Community said that he and a friend were once robbed of a considerable amount of money by policemen on motorcycles.
9. Secure your luggage.
An anti-theft daypack or a money belt is a good idea. If you’re taking overnight buses and you must store your larger backpack underneath the bus in a luggage compartment then a mini padlock is essential.
10. Don’t buy cocaine.
Locals will hate you. And here’s why.
11. Avoid illegal taxis.
Like elsewhere in South America, Colombia does have a problem with illegal taxis. Never just get into a random taxi as even if it looks official, it may not be. I’d always recommend booking one in advance or asking somebody at your hostel to do it for you. Uber is available in some of the bigger cities.
12. Be suspicious of strangers who offer you food and drink.
Although this is not as common as it once was, there have been instances of foreigners being unwittingly given the ‘Devil’s Breath’ drug. This leaves them in a zombie-like state, making them easy to take advantage of. One person I met during my travels had been given this drug in Colombia (around a decade ago) and had been robbed of everything. The drug increases compliance and in this situation, the victim actually assisted the thieves by carrying his belongings out to their car. Scary stuff.
13. Carry a decoy wallet just in case.
Some travellers prefer to carry a decoy wallet so they have something to give over to thieves. Don’t forget to make it look realistic though – keep a couple of old cards and a small amount of cash in here, storing the rest of your money across your person or in your money belt.
14. Don’t use ATMs at night.
You don’t know who is watching you in the shadows.
15. Travel with a reputable company on tours.
Some areas of Colombia are still dangerous to visit. For example, if you are visiting Caño Cristales, you will need to be accompanied by a guide. To ensure your safety (and avoid getting ripped off) make sure you travel with a reputable company with good reviews.
16. Download an offline map.
Nowadays, there are so many apps for backpacking that make travel easier. I recommend downloading maps.me so you have a visual reference to help you avoid getting lost. Don’t forget – never flash your phone on the street, you’re just asking for trouble!
17. Don’t resist if somebody tries to rob you.
Even travel pros can get into a spot of bother if they try to prevent themselves from getting robbed. Just look what happened to Nomadic Matt! The consensus is, if somebody threatens you and asks for your valuables, hand them over. Street crime can quickly turn violent in Colombia and it is just not worth it.
18. Make sure you have travel insurance!
Many backpackers visit Colombia every year and have no issues. However, there is no denying that petty theft is still a problem. I always recommend getting travel insurance anywhere you go but when visiting somewhere such as Colombia, it is even more advisable. We recommend and personally use SafetyWing and World Nomads.