Is Colombia safe to travel to is a question everyone seems to be asking themselves right now. Especially those who desire to explore and experience the real heartbeat of South America.
When we see inspiring photos on our social media feeds, sometimes we can’t help but dream about sizzling cities such as Cartagena, Medellin, the dazzling blue ocean of San Andres, or the super cool capital Bogota, and what it would be like to visit Colombia. With that dream also comes the question, how safe is Colombia now?
The travel warnings and what you’ve heard about Colombia’s safety issues are probably true. Social leaders get assassinated by armed terrorist groups, drug traffickers move around freely, and corrupt politicians are like overnight celebrities.
However, most of this happens in a world far away from the streets of La Candelaria in Bogota or even the disco lights of Parque Lleras in Medellin. Or does it?
So, is Colombia safe to visit? What do you need to know about safety in Colombia? And more important, what are the dangers in Colombia you can encounter during a trip? Let’s find out!
Is Colombia safe to travel to?
Yes, Colombia is safe for travelers, but you need to know the dangers and how to avoid problems. We see more and more digital nomads and female travelers visiting Colombia, and its dangerous reputation among travelers is changing. So we can guess things are getting safer there.
If you always imagined Colombia to be one of the least safe countries in South America to visit in your life, then you may just be right. But it is also one of the most exciting countries in South and Central America and worth visiting.
The media and travel advisories from many countries list Colombia as one of the most dangerous countries in the Americas, and it’s true. But international travel to this amazing country is growing, and the Colombian Government is investing and focusing more and more on tourism.
That said, you are unlikely to be affected by the major violent crime events the country is infamous for. In fact, most horror stories I hear that make international news happen in areas with no military or police presence. Places that you should avoid when traveling in Colombia, anyways.
To put your mind at rest, one thing you will notice on any trip to Colombia, especially if it is your first time, is that the police are literally everywhere. You will see police officers in the city center, near shopping malls, tourist areas, and areas with public gatherings.
This Colombia safety guide is here to help give you an overview of safety issues you might encounter and help with your travel plans. That’s why I divided it into two parts. First, I’ll share some tips for staying safe in Colombia. Then we’ll talk about the safety in Bogota, Medellin, and Cartagena, three of Colombia’s most visited cities.
These travel tips will help you navigate through Colombia’s biggest cities and enjoy the Colombian culture and attractions while feeling safe. This way, you can get a 360 view of what to expect in some of Colombia’s most popular destinations and be ready to travel to Colombia safely.
Colombia safety tips
No matter where you go in Colombia, you will need to have some universal safety knowledge. Simple rules that will help you avoid unsafe situations in most Colombian cities.
In case you are not so familiar with how to move around the countries in South America, here is a list of general tips for staying safe in Colombia.
- Avoid withdrawing money late at night or alone.
- Keep an eye on your credit cards all the time, especially when you are paying at restaurants and souvenir shops.
- Only purchase items and food that have their price in Pesos
- Carry photocopies of your passport.
- Do not accept anything free from strangers.
- Walk on major roads.
- Carry a small backpack and remove all airline tags from it.
- Do not wear expensive jewelry.
- Separate your cash by putting it in different pockets.
- Having a money belt can be a good idea (check out these money belt options).
- Learning some key phrases in Spanish.
- Be careful with taxis, especially getting a cab at night.
- When using public transportation, plan your route carefully, especially when getting night buses or metro.
- Avoid drinking Colombian tap water despite what locals tell you. Opt for filtered or bottled water.
- Be extra vigilant in crowded areas.
- Book your accommodation in advance and read the reviews carefully. Booking.com and Agoda are trustworthy websites for hostels/hotels in Colombia
Another rule of thumb is, no matter where you are, whether it’s the swankiest hotel or a budget hostel, remember to never leave your belongings unsecured or unattended.
Just when you think you know it all, remember that Colombians are super creative when it comes to setting up scams. You must be on top of your guard 99% of the time.
Getting yourself good travel insurance is a good way to protect yourself (medical care) and your belongings from total loss. SafetyWing, HeyMondo and World Nomads are three trustworthy travel insurance companies that work in Colombia and South American countries. For long-term traveling, read this great insurance guide by Love and Road.
It is important to mention that when visiting different cities in Colombia, the mindset can change drastically. This means that the same set of precautions you might take in Bogota is not likely to be the same for a city on the Caribbean coast such as Cartagena, Barranquilla, or Santa Marta. That’s why it’s hard to tell which is the safest city in Colombia, as each of them will have different problems or situations travelers need to be aware of.
To explore this notion further, and to get you fully equipped for a safe trip in Colombia, let’s start by looking at Bogota safety.
Safety in Bogota – What do you need to know?
Is Bogota safe to visit?
Yes, Colombia’s capital city is a safe destination to travel to, but there are a few precautions that you will need to have in mind before, during, and after visiting.
In Bogota, picking pocketing is rife! If you don’t believe me, watch the 2018 film Pickpockets on Netflix. That breathtaking film, which is actually set in Bogota, will give you a much-needed primer on what can easily happen. On the positive side, you can watch Magic Andes, one of the best travel shows on Netflix that has episodes about the beauty of Colombia.
According to the World population review, over 11 million people live in Bogota, so you can begin to imagine just how busy it can get.
Bogota is filled with museums, galleries, and cultural hotspots. The huge city also has one of the most cultural melting pot streets you will have ever seen in Latin America, named La Septima.
Bogota is a Mammoth city, and it can take the best part of a week to begin to understand how to maneuver properly. I recommend you take a taxi when getting around the city. If you want to explore all the best things to do in Bogota, you won’t be able to do it all on foot.
Street crime is rife in some areas, and although the main streets designated for tourists are heavily guarded by the local authorities, it is not difficult to get caught in a scam or be a victim of petty crime.
Solo scam artists, street vendors, and sometimes even beggars will go out of their way to rip you off. In many cases, a bit of Spanish can go a long way. However, you will need to have some street knowledge to back it up.
Some basic safety tips for Bogota:
- Avoid walking around at night.
- Carry a jacket for colder temperatures.
- Don’t invite strangers to your hotel.
- Learn some basic Spanish.
Is Medellin safe? Here is what you need to know
If you can survive a few days in Bogota without anything going amiss, you’ll feel a breath of fresh air when arriving in Medellin.
Known as the city of eternal spring, you may even wish you skipped the capital altogether. Medellin is considered one of the safest cities in Colombia for solo travelers.
However, never take kindness for weakness. If you allow the endearing paisa accent to let you put your guard down, you could be wishing you were not so naive and gullible with your courtesy.
Most travelers get a taste of the nightlife in places such as El Poblado and, in many cases, don’t want to leave. I, however, like to avoid the area.
To be safe in Medellin, you must look out for things such as theft and drink spiking. Usually, both come hand-in-hand, and they are common in crowded bars or clubs in the party district. Or through connecting with locals via dating or meet-up applications.
In Medellin, it is very easy to feel connected with the culture. However, there is a deeper, darker side that many unexpecting tourists don’t consider. Whenever walking around the city’s Zona Rosa, also known as El Poblado, you are like prey. This is a very lucrative area for scammers and dealers.
Some popular places to visit in Medellin include Lleras Park, The Botanical Gardens, Parque Arvi, Pueblito Paisa and Parque de las Luces.
There are some definitive areas and neighborhoods in Medellin you should avoid, but admittedly when using the city’s innovative Metro, it is quite easy to end up in an undesirable place. The best thing you can do is have a clear plan of what you want to do and where you want to go and stick to it.
If you like the idea of visiting places such as Comuna 13 (a neighborhood that once was one of the most dangerous places in Medellin due to the drug trade), it is highly recommended that you go with a tour guide. You can book your tour in advance and via a trustworthy tour operator. Here is a Comuna 13 Graffiti Tour with a local guide worth checking out.
The good news is that in Medellin, you won’t get harassed on the streets as much as you would in places such as Cartagena, but it can quickly become tiring having to say ‘no gracias’ 10 times in the space of 2 minutes.
Some basic safety tips for Medellin:
- Do not accept drug offers from anyone.
- Never leave your drink unattended in a bar.
- Always meet new people in a public area.
- “No dar papaya” meaning don’t ask for trouble (in Spanish).
Safety in Cartagena – tips for planning a safe trip
If you didn’t already know, Cartagena is one of the most iconic cities in Colombia when it comes to history and heritage.
This 16th-century colonial port city is best known for its walled city, which was once the gateway to South America for the Spaniards. The relatively small-sized city attracts over 2 million tourists each year.
The scammers and street dwellers who want your hard-earned dollars are very open and friendly but, at the same time, somewhat sophisticatedly rude.
Although it may seem obvious what somebody is approaching you for, it often isn’t what you expected because it can be completely masked. But 8 of 10 times, you can bet the reason is for something nefarious.
In other cases, there are people that will approach you, and you may feel like you are about to be scammed. But in actual fact, they are working to impress you with a talent, special device, or a prop they are working with.
Along the way, tons of people will approach you, so knowing how to be firm and polite is the key to moving along with your day of activities swiftly.
With iconic landmarks in Cartagena to visit, such as San Pedro Claver Church, Castillo San Felipe, the Rosario Islands, the Getsemaní neighborhood, and much more, it can all become overwhelming in the heat.
Getting off the streets of Cartagena does not always guarantee safety, though. There are various restaurant scams to watch out for too. For example, one is where someone will wave a plastic menu in your face and guarantee you the best price meal or cuisine. They are very convincing. Once you have finished your plate, you’ll realize that it’s not a fair price. It actually is much more than you expected. This may seem like a small loss, but if it happens to you 3 times a day, it can slowly eat into your hard-earned travel budget.
So here are our Cartagena safety tips to help you enjoy this interesting city.
Some basic safety tips for Cartagena
- Never leave your drink unattended.
- Be careful when people approach you to sell or offer something.
- Use only licensed taxi drivers.
- Avoid walking in the city center at night alone.
- Take guided tours to save money and time. Have a look at some interesting tours we suggest below.
Colombia safety guide wrap up
So, is Colombia safe to travel to or dangerous?
It can be both, so when traveling to Colombia, safety should be at the forefront of your mind, especially when traveling to Colombia in the major cities.
You have to be aware of your surroundings and learn how to anticipate the next move you will make. After a while, it becomes second nature. However, if it’s a short trip you’re on, I suggest you aim to follow some of the tips shared in this guide and keep traveling.
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Author: Daniel James
Daniel James from Layer Culture is a cultural traveler from the United Kingdom who is based in Medellin, Colombia. Daniel dedicates his time to learning Spanish while exploring and learning about life in Latin America.