“You can’t go to Colombia, its too dangerous!”
Sound familiar? Our friends & family said the exact same thing to us too. You can’t blame them. Colombia was once considered the most dangerous place in the world due to its drug war and the endless catastrophes that entailed.
But things are changing for this South American destination. The local people are rewriting history - and its set to be a bestseller.
After spending 1 month in Colombia we feel inspired to encourage other travelers to experience its magic. Like most places along the continent you obviously need to exercise standard safety procedures. Read on to find out more about traveling Colombia as low-risk as possible. We talk cartels, sketchy bus rides, and heaps of other useful info…
Colombia safety: Then & Now
During the 1990s Colombia was making global headlines as the most dangerous place in the world. Anyone who has watched the series Narcos can understand some of the reasons why (more on this later.) The country was at war, mainly over drugs, causing national unrest and uproar. Up to 30 murders were happening every day and bombs exploded on every corner. Innocent people were being wiped out, leaving little hope for a brighter future.
Moving onto the 2000’s, the drug war was coming under some sort of control and whilst still very much active, Colombia was starting to undergo notable change. Governments took action in implementing an abundance of new strategies to improve the lives of the local people. This included, but is not limited to, further education opportunities, safer public places, and an integrated metro train & cable car system (the only one in the whole of South America!)
Let’s take a slight step back to what we mentioned earlier. The Narcos series has probably inspired a lot of you to visit Colombia due to a curiosity surrounding the drug escapades carried out by the notorious Pablo Escobar. However, do not expect to visit Colombia to learn much about him. This country has suffered so much at the hands of this man that the very mention of his name in public could land you in serious trouble. They quite rightly act like he never existed, in turn shaping a new country outside the shadows of the 1990s.
Nowadays Colombia is known for its brightly colored streets, striking artworks, insanely talented young generations and the generosity of the local people. This is a completely different place to what it was 20-30 years ago, and whilst crime naturally still occurs, it shouldn’t be a reason to stop you witnessing the incredible changes this country is making with your own eyes. It is nothing short of inspiring!
Safest places to visit in Colombia
We have considered all the places we have spent time in Colombia and noted down all the safest ones here for you.
Bogota - Safest area: La Candelaria
Cartagena - Safest areas: Centro, Getsamani and San Diego
Medellin - Safest area: El Poblado
Santa Marta - Safest area: Tourist District (Historical District)
There is one place we visited that we don’t feel comfortable recommending, and that’s Cali. Don’t get us wrong - there is a certain vibe there that travelers adore. It’s a great destination for learning Salsa and taking spanish classes. However, it is the only neighborhood where we genuinely didn’t feel safe. We also witnessed and heard of a lot of robbings taking place, so personally can’t suggest it as a must visit. There are plenty of other cities that are more worthy of your time in our opinion. Give it 10 years though and we reckon the place will be much better suited for tourists.
Considering our short time in Colombia, chosen route and emergency dental surgery (yep, some parts of traveling long-haul are brutal) there are plenty of other places we didn’t personally get the chance to visit but would still be safe for travelers. It might be worth researching other articles for further inspiration, like this Safest Spots to visit in Colombia by Culture Trip (please note that we are not affiliated with any other blog.)
Safest transport methods in Colombia
Colombia do have their national taxi service which we have found to be perfectly safe the few times we have used them. That being said, we always feel much safer using Uber given you can book them to any location and the journeys are always tracked. Plus you always know the price when you book so there’s no chance of any last minute price increases from the driver.
NEVER get in an unmarked car. They will no doubt offer a lower price than the official taxi’s, but you’re just asking for trouble trusting an unlicensed stranger to take you around. The few pennies saved isn’t worth your life, or entire bank account (more on this below.)
For those longer journeys where an internal flight might be too expensive, we have found buses to be a fine alternative. We have also found the staff at most bus stations to be much friendlier and patient in comparison to other countries across the continent.
There was one incident that happened to us which we feel important to share though. When opting to take the bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena, we foolishly let a man from outside of the terminal guide us to a bus inside. Usually we make our own way to avoid the risk of getting scammed but for whatever reason we let our guard down this time. The cost of this trip cost us 60,000 Colombian pesos each (around $30 USD in total for us both) which we found out later to be ridiculously expensive. That wasn’t the main issue though. Around 2 hours into the journey we were woken up by the stewards, instructed to leave the bus and take a private taxi that they had arranged all the way to Cartagena (there was still at least 2 hours of the journey to go.) The bus had stopped randomly at the side of the road with no bus station in sight. Immediately we felt this was dodgy and told them that we would prefer to stay on the bus - a seriously tough encounter when no one spoke English! After around 5-10 minutes of back and fourth, and local people on the bus coming to our rescue with Google translate, we were allowed to stay where we were. Not long after we started going again, a random gentleman approached us to say (via Google translate) that in no way should we let them move us to another mode of transport and we should demand they take us all the way to Cartagena. We thanked the man, but naturally this made us feel quite uncomfortable. A man that wasn’t involved in the situation, and didn’t speak our language, had gone out of his way to warn us. Around 15 minutes after this whole episode, we arrived to Soledad bus station where everyone else left the bus. The company clearly had no intention of ever going all the way to Cartagena! We were instructed to leave the bus by the stewards, but this time being at a bus station we felt much safer. So we got off, and the stewards carried our bags to a different bus, where they paid for a ticket for the remainder of our trip to Cartagena. We said our goodbyes, and that was that. We got to Cartagena safely in the end. Now we know things could have been a lot worse. Genuinely we feel that the stewards were polite the whole way through. We hope that they didn’t intend anything malicious by ordering us into a private taxi, but there was no way we were getting into that unmarked car. If a similar situation happens to you, we urge you not to leave the bus until you arrive at an official bus station. Do not get into an unofficial/unmarked mode of transport under any circumstances.
Generally speaking, we mainly opt to take long haul bus journeys during the night so we don’t waste those precious daytime hours. Naturally these times tend to leave you at higher risk of getting robbed. But don’t worry, just keep the following things in mind and you‘ll be fine:
If you choose to leave valuables in your larger bag in the hold, be sure to still hide them well as locks (especially TSA locks) can easily get broken and items/money taken out. (We didn’t experience this in Colombia, but it did happen to us in Mexico, so we still find it important to mention.)
Always carry your passport on your person as it is quite common to be checked by the police. It’s nothing to be concerned about (unless you’ve been naughty!) They just want to confirm that you have the Colombian stamp and are travelling legally.
It’s reassuring to know that we didn’t personally experience any danger in relation to the following things mentioned. But, as we have heard of things through word of mouth, we thought best to include them too:
Do not let anyone show you to your seat on the bus. There are common scams whereby people act as bus staff to show you to your seat, offer to take your bag, and then just run off with it.
Never place your small bags on the shelves above your seat. This is the easiest place for someone to take it. Always keep your smaller bags on your person. Selini wears a shoulder bag and wears a hoodie over it. For rucksacks, we place these on the floor whilst ensuring a strap is always around our legs, making it impossible for someone to swipe it away.
Don’t be flashy with your valuables. Most people have smartphones now, but things like iPads, laptops and cameras are still rather steal-worthy.
Common risks to safety and how best to avoid them
Besides from the points made above, there are a number of other crimes that are still commonplace in Colombia. Again, it’s helpful to know that we didn’t personally encounter any of these, but sadly we did witness or hear about them:
The ATM run - travellers can be kidnapped either on the street or from unlicensed taxis and driven round to a bunch of ATMs until their bank account is empty. Whilst we do not have first-hand experience of this happening, we generally practice only carrying cash on us when we go out.
Robbing at knife or gunpoint - unfortunately this seems to be one of the most common attacks on travelers in Colombia. You should always practice walking in groups, never walk alone at night, stick to well-lit areas, and always get taxis once the sun goes down. The general recommendation is always to give them whatever they want and run. This is also a good reason as to why you should avoid carrying important documents and valuables wherever possible. Money is easily replaceable, but things like your passport and memories on your phone not so much.
Robbing by motorcyclists - again another common attack against travelers which has more chance of being avoided if you follow the steps in point 2. Also be cautious to wear your backpack over two shoulders (but preferably don’t draw attention to yourself and try to carry your items in a less obvious way.)
Throughout our entire time in Colombia we thankfully never experienced any major threats to our own personal safety. Not only that, but it is the first country of our trip where we feel genuinely sad about leaving. Do not let its past deter you from experiencing its charm first hand! Have your wits about you and enjoy every moment.