When it comes to the safety of tourists in Colombia (and Latin America in general), money (and trying to hold onto it) is the root of all evil. Scams, petty thieves, and thieves who are….less petty, are what drive tourists to buy money belts, utilize hotel safes, and keep their phones in their pockets – smart tourists that is. It doesn’t take much to keep yourself protected, but knowing exactly what to look out for will help ensure you’re not taken advantage of while just trying to enjoy yourself.
Scams in Colombia
Knowing the threats is the best way to avoid them altogether. Below are a combination of actual scams otherwise malicious tactics that someone might use to try and take your money, but they’re all relevant.
- Fake Police: watch out for anyone approaching you claiming to be a police officer. They might do any number of things – ask to inspect your cash/documents to see if they are “counterfeit,” confiscate that money, plant drugs on you, force you to pay a bribe. Best way to avoid it? Carry copies of your passport and entry stamps instead of the real thing, and if someone does claim to be police and wants to have a conversation, get them to go inside a police station or hotel to do it – just get off the street.
- Tricky taxi drivers: Some taxi drivers have a deft hand when you hand them a large note. For example – you hand them a 20,000 peso note, they switch it for a 2,000 note and claim that’s all that you gave them. Another fun one – you hand them a large note, they take it, and hand it back telling you “no change.” When you say it’s all you have, they suddenly produce change out of nowhere, but you go to pay with that same note the next day and find out it’s fake. You’ve been had. The best way to get around this is to only use small notes when paying.
- Taking the long way: Another one for taxi-takers – some drivers will try to take advantage of tourists ignorant to the local routes by taking unnecessary turns and going in circles to drive up the meter price, assuming you don’t know the route anyway. You have a couple of options here: you can take Uber, where the ride is already tracked via GPS, or you can (casually) mention to the driver that you’ve taken this route, minimizing the chances he will try anything tricky.
- When you weren’t looking: Always keep your eyes and/or hands on bags, folks. Pickpockets the world over will try things like this – you’re enjoying a drink or a meal at your outdoor table and someone comes over to try and sell you something. While you’re not looking, they reach into your bag. This can happen anytime your bag is slung over your chair, or in crowded areas where the thieves work in groups. Stay alert, and never hang your bag on the back of a chair, etc.
- Don’t show me the money: At most markets, all items are up for negotiation. That is, right until the vendor watches you rifle through your wallet and sees a crisp 50,000 peso note. If they know how much you have, there’s no way they’ll let the price go down. Keep it hidden, you’ll be all good.
Keeping your money safe in Colombia
Now for some advice: is it your first time in a pickpocket culture? Lacking confidence? Not to worry, because there is really only one word you need to remember: vigilance.
The best friend of thieves is distraction. When you are not looking and unaware of the last time you even thought about your phone, that is their ideal time to strike. The solution? Know exactly where your things are at all times, and never leave something valuable in an easily accessible pocket. This means that money goes in the front pockets (NOTHING in the back pockets), and is ideally split into multiple locations so that if they get you, they don’t get everything.
Phones should not be out in the open when you’re on the street, and should be kept in a secure pocket or even under the clothes for maximum security. In the event that you fall victim to mugging, be sure to only have as much money on you as is needed for the day, so you can minimize your loss.
In order to feel absolutely secure against petty theft, many travelers opt for a money belt (some of them even look like real belts!), or a full sized money pouch to be kept under the clothes. There’s really no better way to feel secure in keeping track of your bills and notes.