Friday, May 6, 2011

Staying Safe in Colombia

Papaya; don't give it.
Colombians have a saying, “No dar papaya” which translates as, “to not give papaya.” It has nothing to do with giving tropical fruits and everything to do with staying safe. It means to not put yourself in a situation where you can be taken advantage of, hurt or worse.

With the dramatic improvements in its security situation, Colombia is becoming one of the most popular backpacker destinations in South America. Although coming here ten years ago would have been an exercise in fatuity, today Colombia has cleaned up its act enough so that it is safer for foreigners to visit.

But safer doesn’t mean safe—in coming to Colombia, you are pretty much by default, darring papaya. Although the Colombian tourist board will probably have me assassinated for saying this, Colombia is still a developing country plagued by an ongoing (albeit limited) civil war. Besides Colombia’s unique dangers, it poses the risks that come standard with any developing country.

Here are six things to keep in mind to stay safe during your time in Colombia:

What you look like to criminals.
1. Don’t make yourself a target—the greatest danger you face in coming to Colombia is not kidnapping or dodging bullets, but everyday street crime. As a foreigner, Colombians criminals automatically assume you have money. Whether not this is true, they will see a green dollar sign floating over your head. You can minimize your chances of standing out by dressing as plainly as possible and not wearing any expensive-looking items—jewelry, shoes, designer backpacks and more. Use common sense and you should be fine.

2. If someone gets the drop on you, don’t resist—most muggers would rather take your possessions than your life. Even the U.S. Embassy employees in Bogotá are told to not resist muggings unless they feel that their life is in jeopardy. Think about what’s more important—a couple dollars or your life. A British man was recently killed in Medellin because he failed to follow this simple advice (He also failed to listen to #1).

3. Never carry more money than you need—when you are out and about playing tourist, there is no need to carry more money than you will spend that day. In the event that you do get robbed, the thieves will have not made off with your entire net worth. As an added safety check, make a habit of keeping a $20,000 peso note in your shoe—if something does happen then you will at least have enough to get back to your hostel or hotel.  

4. Never drink excessively—with Colombia’s party culture, vibrant night life and cheap alcohol, it can be easy to party to the point of losing control. When I visited the U.S. Embassy, the security officers told us that a majority of the reports they received of Americans being victimized happened because they were drunk. While I was traveling in Manizales over Semana Santa, I met an Irish backpacker who was nearly killed because he resisted a mugging while inebriated. The mugger stabbed him in the gut, slashed his arm and punched him so hard in the jaw that he had to have a wisdom tooth removed. I’m not saying don’t go out and have fun while you are in Colombia, but drink responsibly if you do.

5. Do your homework before making travel plans—I’m going to be blunt; not all regions of Colombia are safe—for Colombians, much less foreigners. Although their power has drastically diminished over the past decade, the guerillas and paramilitaries are still out there and the threat is still very real. Just last week I read about a FARC attack against a small town in southwest Colombia. Colombian police officers were killed and the town’s population had to seek refuge in specially-made “guerilla attack” shelters. That being said, there is very little threat of coming into contact with these armed groups in the major cities; however, if you venture off the beaten path and visit more rural areas, the threat becomes very real.

Bus accident in Colombia.
6. Avoid traveling long distances by bus—Colombia has an extensive and cheap intercity bus system, which appears ideal for travelers on a budget. But traveling by bus can also be one of the most dangerous things you do there. Colombia’s unique geography makes traveling by bus a risky business—most of the (poorly kempt) roads zig-zag through mountainous terrain with sheer drops off high cliffs. Colombian bus drivers tend to suffer from a severe case of machismo and value speed over safety. Also, Colombia has been suffering from excessive rains this year, causing dangerous mudslides that have injured and killed many people—recently a bus traveling from Bogotá to Manizales was swept off a cliff by a mudslide, killing fourteen people. Although plane tickets can be expensive in Colombia, it is always safer to fly.

I don’t mean to scare you away from visiting Colombia, but to make sure you have an honest appraisal of the potentials dangers so that you can stay safe during your time here. Colombia is not the bullet-ridden Pablo Escobar dystopia many make it out to be—in fact, by Latin American standards, Colombia is safer than most countries (especially Mexico).

Don't let the risks scare you from seeing Colombia.
Colombia is a beautiful, exotic place that should be on everyone’s Latin America travel itinerary—but as with all worthwhile things, it comes with a degree of risk.

I hope this can help you to minimize it.


  1. Hola! Hello!

    Me gustó mucho este post ya que me identifico con muchísimo de lo que aquí planteas. Yo soy de México (viviendo en Londres...go figure!) El caso es que amo mi país pero cada vez que alguien va de visita me pongo nerviosa. Sé algo de la historia Colombiana y como México es ahora la oveja negra de América Latina. Creo que los puntos que tocas son mucho sentido común pero por lo regular son los menos comunes! Nunca está de más decirlos! Espero algún día mi país recupere el buen camino y salgamos del hoyo en el que estamos actualmente. Sin duda espero conocer Colombia algun día. Gracias por compartir! =)

  2. Yet another wonderful post with some wise words. I still can't believe how careless and downright stupid some people can be when travelling. In my opinion, the most obvious point that you make is #1- don't make yourself a target.

    I remember hearing a few horror stories about other backpackers when I was travelling in Colombia and Central America in 2009. The most shocking was a tale of a couple travelling on a night bus. The pair had come from New York to South America and had done a bit of shopping in the Big Apple. The girl was wearing a Tiffany and Co. bracelet and carrying a designer handbag (can you imagine!?) Needless to say, the bus was held up and the hijackers hit the jackpot. Not only did the couple make themselves a target by having flashy items on their person, but they also had all their cash, credit cards, passports and money in the one designer handbag. I'm sure they learned the hard way that a little bit of commonsense and caution go a long way!

    Fi Mac

  3. My son Greg posted your blog on his fb and I thought I'd take a look. I want to tell you how much I enjoyed reading about your experiences. You write beautifully.

    I looked back today hoping you had written more, and although disappointed, I understand how busy you must be and writing can be time and thought consuming.

    I enjoyed learning about you and your struggle to find what's important in life. I particularly related to your comments about feeling overwhelmed at all the help that is needed in the world. My solution to this feeling of being overwhelmed has been to find one family that is struggling and to try and help. Although I can't help much, I know that what I do shows people that others do care and if I can take just a little burden off their lives I feel more complete,

    Please keep writing when you can. Your story is fascinating and written beautifully.

    Stay safe and enjoy your journey.

    Kathy Hoskin

  4. Thanks for the comments everyone! Don't worry, I should be making a new post today. I appreciate you readership!

  5. I'm from colombia, and found all your page tasteful and hilarious. For the foreigners, good lock visiting colombia, for us, the circus keep roling, yeehaa!!