Colombia is quickly coming up in the travel scene as a chic new destination – a surprising twist considering that its violent past still lives in our recent and collective memory. Happily, the South American gem’s new-found appeal has been drawing travelers from all over, boosting the tourism economy and introducing the world to a country with a stunning and vibrant cultural landscape. However, if you’ve ever seen Colombia show up in a news headline, you might have some reservations.
Why is Colombia Dangerous?
This question was much more relevant 5 years ago, prior to 2016. Not that today it is without issue, but the peak of the country’s violent internal conflict occurred in the 90s and early 2000s. The rebel paramilitary group FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) emerged in the 60s in protest to the central Colombian government (and they weren’t the only such guerilla group). The tactics of these guerilla forces, which included murder, kidnapping, and other such forms of domestic terrorism, made global headlines, and presence within Colombia was largely a non-option for any foreigner.
In a massive political shift, peace deals in 2016 between FARC and the Colombian government ended the armed conflict (for the most part), and the country has been attempting to make reparations for the victims and those affected ever since.
What is the most dangerous city in Colombia?
While several cities seem to have held this prestigious title over the last couple of decades, most of the former chart-toppers have cooled off and lightened up in recent years. Once upon a time, the bustling hub of Medellin was declared “the most dangerous city in the world” due to an unparalleled crime and murder rate, thanks in most part to the infamous narcotics trade and presence of Pablos Escobar and his mafia. These days, Medellin is considered not only relatively safe, but a very desirable travel destination.
Currently, the city of Cali might be considered the most dangerous city if we look purely at statistics. That said, it remains a huge draw for tourists and will be safe if one follows usual precautions (outlined below). The US State Department discourages any travel to Arauca and the regions of Chocó, Nariño, and Norte de Santander (all of them bordering neighboring countries) due to conflict which still exists at the country’s borders.
Do I need any vaccinations to go to Colombia?
Vaccines are important health precautions to take, not just for yourself but for others. There are indeed some diseases for which foreigners in Colombia may be at risk, and you will want to evaluate and take action depending on your circumstances.
Among the diseases to watch out for are yellow fever, malaria, multiple forms of hepatitis, and dengue (which is transmitted through mosquito bites) among others. Risks fluctuate according to where you are traveling and where you are coming from. The CDC and US Embassy have recommendations for all travelers, but be sure to talk to your doctor before you travel about your specific needs for vaccinations, so that they can advise you accordingly. Otherwise, carry bug spray and avoid insect bites to the best of your ability.
How dangerous is Colombia today?
Recent statistics report that kidnappings, once a massive threat among foreigners and locals alike, have dropped as much as 90% since the early 2000s. Subsequently, the cultural explosions in major cities like Bogota and Medellin could well be described as a renaissance, which means traveling-hopefuls the world over are itching to make it before the throngs of tourists with cameras arrive to share in the magic.
And while the booming tourism industry is great for the country as a whole and has led to many drastic improvements in safety and resources, there is still plenty to be aware of as you plan your trip. Remember: Colombia is safer, not safe entirely. Still, with some know-how put into practice, you can minimize your risks and keep yourself in good spirits knowing you’re armed with the tools to keep yourself protected from those who would do harm. Many of the tips below are good things to remember no matter where you travel, and some are specific to Colombia, but you’ll want to keep them all in mind nonetheless:
How do you stay safe in Colombia?
- Stay in crowded areas. Being by yourself is the easiest way for muggers, thieves, and pickpockets to target you. When possible, stay in crowded and touristy areas, or with traveling companions/friends, to evade petty theft.
- Don’t go out at night. While the cities are generally safe during the day if you’re being smart, nighttime is when the worst of the worst come out. If you must be out at night, do not do so without being part of a crowd, and call a reputable taxi or Uber if possible.
- Never get into a random taxi on the street. Hailing a taxi from the side of the road is extremely risky, as the chances are high that the car you get into will not be an authorized taxi, but a random driver posing as a taxi driver and intending to do you harm. Use Uber, which is considered quite safe, or research and call a reputable taxi company for your ride (better yet, have your accommodation call one on your behalf).
- Do not flash your valuables. This is one of those universal tips – even taking your phone out on the street demonstrates to would-be thieves that you have something valuable for them to take, and they might then follow you to an opportune spot at which to rob you. Don’t wear jewelry or watches, period. And only use your phone or take out money while you’re indoors, never on the street.
- Purchase travel insurance. Another good thing to have in any destination – in the event that you are robbed or even just need to visit the doctor, having insurance will help cover the costs of what you lose. Be sure to read the terms of any plan before you buy in, so you know in advance the steps you’ll have to take if you need to file a claim.
- Give them your money. In the event that you do fall victim to the muggers (it can happen to anyone), give them what they’re asking for. It will be better than inciting violence from them if you refuse and ultimately will keep you safer in the long run.
- Don’t do drugs. No, this isn’t some half-baked speech from the D.A.R.E. officers from highschool. It’s not just that drugs are dangerous for your health and well-being (also, they’re illegal in Colombia and can land you in trouble), but by purchasing and doing drugs in Colombia, you fund a violent trade responsible for the murder of Colombian citizens, and a major cause of the conflict which threw the country into decades of turmoil. Purchasing and doing drugs in Colombia is largely viewed as disrespectful and offensive to the local culture. Don’t do it.
- Avoid drinks and cigarettes from random people. It is still fairly common to spike drinks (and even less-suspect items, such as cigarettes and chewing gum) with undetectable drugs which can lead one to lose will-power or even consciousness, allowing the attacker to take advantage financially or sexually. Do yourself a favor – don’t take treats from people you don’t know, and watch your drinks carefully.
- Avoid border areas. In general, the most unsafe areas of the country are still near the border regions, specifically with Peru and Venezuela. Do yourself a favor and stay in the more Northern cities to avoid the possibility of running into armed conflict which still inhabits these areas.
Seems like a lot? We know. Despite the relative safety of Colombia, especially compared to 20 years ago, there are still many steps which are necessary to take to minimize your risk of encountering or falling victim to crime.
That said, Colombia is nonetheless a beautiful country, full of good people, good food, and beautiful sights all around. And remember, the tourism industry is truly booming, which means it’s not long before cities are swarming. Go and enjoy Colombia while you can still immerse yourself, and remember: be safe!