Colombia is so much safer to visit than it was several years ago, but that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have its dangers like everywhere else. There are many things you can do to avoid any problems and make sure your trip to Colombia is fun and blemish-free, so here are 10 essential tips for how to stay safe on a trip to Colombia.
The Colombian phrase ‘no dar papaya’ – literally, ‘don’t give a papaya’ – basically means don’t make yourself an easy target. Sure, it feels a little bit like victim-blaming sometimes, but all they’re really saying is that you shouldn’t walk around at night flashing your fancy iPhone or brand new camera or leave your bag hanging open on public buses. Just try and be aware of the impression you give while you’re travelling around, and keep an eye on your belongings.
Street robbery can often occur in tourist areas after dark – neighbourhoods like Bogota’s La Candelaria are bustling by day but get deathly quiet at night, so it’s always best to get a cab, even if you don’t have far to walk. For example, the path back from the Monserrate entrance can be quite unsafe after dark and, even though it’s a short walk from there to most hostels, it’s not worth the risk.
It’s not like speaking some Spanish will necessarily prevent you from being robbed or anything, but being able to communicate with at least some confidence will not only make you feel more at ease, it will also deter others from trying to take advantage of you as a foreigner. Plus, how much nicer is a trip when you can chat to the locals?
There are several taxi apps available to use in Colombian cities – the most popular ones are Tappsi and Cabify – so there’s no excuse for just grabbing one off the street in the dead of night. If you don’t have phone data, ask your hotel or the bar or restaurant to order you a taxi and they will happily oblige.
The main tourist areas of Colombia have been considered largely safe and secure for several years now, but if you are planning to go off-the-beaten-track then do your homework first. Although Colombia has signed a peace agreement with the FARC guerrillas, some armed groups are still active in extremely rural areas and cities on the Pacific coast. Check online and ask the locals about the security situation before ploughing off into the unknown.
Although its prevalence has been hugely exaggerated by several media outlets and documentaries, drink spiking with the drug ‘burundanga’ does occasionally happen in Colombia, especially in big cities. Don’t accept a drink from a stranger or leave your drink unattended in bars and nightclubs.
No legitimate Colombian policeman should ever request to inspect your passport and, especially, money on the street – there have been reports of criminals masquerading as plainclothes policeman, taking a look at travellers’ bills, declaring them to be fakes, and then confiscating them. If someone makes such a request, simply call over to the nearest uniformed policeman or demand to talk to one. They’ll move on sharpish.
Drug tourism is sadly common in Colombia, but if you want to avoid trouble on a trip there, you’d be advised to steer well clear of buying and taking drugs, particularly cocaine. It’s illegal to buy or take cocaine in Colombia, and going around – often drunk – at night looking to buy drugs can land you in hot water with the police or local criminals. And never accept random offers of drugs on the street, it’s most likely a set-up.
First of all, avoid using ATMs on deserted streets or at night. But, whenever you use one, give it a quick once-over to make sure that it hasn’t been tampered with – there is a scam that involves installing fake keypads on ATMs and then cloning the cards. If the keypad seems loose or misaligned then move on to another one.
This is another one that might seem obvious, but you’d be amazed how many people put up a fight when a thief steals their brand new iPhone and then end up regretting it – nervous people with guns are not the right folks to tangle with. While being held up on the street is rare, it can happen, and it’s best in those circumstances to accept the loss and be glad of insurance (bonus tip: get insurance!). It can be helpful to carry a decoy wallet with some smaller bills, as most thieves want to be in and out quickly.