Cartagena is one of Colombia’s top-visited cities, along with Bogota, Medellin, and Santa Marta. With easy access to beaches, islands, and nightlife, there’s no wonder tourists keep returning to Cartagena.
However, just how safe is Cartagena for foreign tourists? Colombia has a bit of a negative reputation, fueled by media shows like Netflix’s Narcos.
Is Colombia worthy of its reputation, and what should you know about it before traveling to Cartagena, Colombia?
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Is Cartagena Safe to Visit?
Cartagena is safe to visit, especially if you stay in touristy areas like the historic center, Getsemani, and Bocagrande. The vast majority of tourists remain in those areas, which benefit from crowds and an increased security presence.
However, it’s essential to understand that not all areas of Cartagena are safe. Despite Cartagena’s stunning skyline, it only makes up a small part of the city. Cartagena is a city of contrasts and extreme inequality.
While some areas might make you think you’re in Miami, others are impoverished. If you wander around the city, you may venture into slums, where gangs and other malicious actors operate.
Fortunately, those areas are far from the touristy areas, so you’re unlikely to wander there by just walking around. Nevertheless, that’s not to say that tourists face no risks.
The most common issues tourists experience are pickpocketing (especially in crowded areas) and armed robberies. Many tourists also fall victim to druggings, especially in nightclubs. Both men and women face this risk, although foreign men are often targets for their money.
Crime in Cartagena
Crime in Cartagena comes in several forms. While some tourists have been the victims of armed muggings and robberies, many robbers target tourists in nonviolent ways. For example, pickpockets are common in the historic center of the city.
Snatchers are common all over the city. They usually operate on motorcycles, which is why it’s essential to watch out for motorbikes riding up too close behind you.
They may snatch your phone while you’re looking at your map for directions, or they may grab your backpack or purse. The government has made it illegal for two males to ride on the same motorcycle in many parts of Cartagena.
The law is supposed to reduce motorcycle-related crimes, including snatchings and armed muggings, often committed by two males riding on motorcycles. However, while the law has reduced motorcycle-related crimes, it hasn’t eliminated them.
Robbers may violate the law, dress up as women, or even rob tourists while operating alone. Home or hotel break-ins may occur, but staying in a safe Airbnb or hotel and locking your door can prevent such crimes.
You may also face scams such as taxi drivers overcharging you. Having some basic street smarts, staying away from trouble, and not flashing valuables in the street can significantly reduce the chances of being the victim of a crime.
Avoiding Bad Neighborhoods
Cartagena has many sketchy neighborhoods. The best places to stay are inside the old city (within the actual walls) or in the nearby area of Getsemani, according to a French government travel advisory.
There are plenty of hotels and Airbnbs in those areas, and there are many fantastic food options, cafes, and nightlife in the area. Other good places to stay are Bocagrande and nearby Castillogrande.
Those areas feature high-rise apartment buildings that make up Cartagena’s famous skyline. The beach is nearby, so if you prefer to stay by the water, you may prefer them over the old city.
They are also quieter and less crowded — and they’re cleaner. The ancient city can sometimes get noisy and dirty, and there are a lot of prostitutes in the streets at night.
However, that’s not to say that those areas are completely safe. You may face touts on the beach in Bocagrande. They can make it difficult to enjoy your time on the beach, and some may even get aggressive.
At night, the beach can sometimes become isolated. It’s best to avoid the beach during those times, especially if it’s dark. The old city also has many touts, but most are harmless.
They usually try to get you to buy something, but they aren’t typically violent. They may be more persistent than you expect, and they may follow you and ask you to buy something even if you decline the first time.
In the old city, you may find yourself approached by rappers. They aren’t there to give you a free performance — they will ask for money afterward. Don’t pay them attention or just say you’re not interested, even if they persist. However, they’re usually harmless.
Manga is another safe area to stay in, but it’s more residential, so you may have to spend some money on Uber if you want to visit attractions.
It’s best to avoid the other side of the city, including areas like Armenia, Bruselas, and Santa Monica, as it can be hard to tell the difference between a dangerous slum and a harmless “barrio popular” (local area that is low class but not dangerous).
In Cartagena, you’ll find sites on the map with names such as San Francisco, Boston, Palestina, Andalucia, and Bruselas (Brussels).
It’s common for Colombian cities to feature neighborhoods with names of foreign cities or countries, but don’t let that fool you. Bearing the name of a foreign city doesn’t mean the area is safe.
Keeping a Low Profile
It’s critical to keep a low profile while in Cartagena. The less obvious you make it that you have money, the less of a target you will be. Don’t carry expensive jewelry, watches, or clothing.
Don’t take out your wallet in public. If you are taking out money from an ATM, find one in a shopping mall or a public area. Don’t take out your phone, credit cards, cameras, or other expensive items in public.
Knowing What to Do If You Are a Victim
The Canadian government warns against resisting robberies in Colombia, as thieves may become violent. It’s best to avoid carrying large amounts of cash with you.
If a robber demands you hand over your wallet or money, hand it over and never resist. Resisting robbery has led to deaths in the past. Leave most of your money and credit cards at home. Instead, take a debit card with very few funds on it or even a dummy credit card with you.
That way, if someone robs you, your losses will be minimal. You may also keep a few extra bills in your sock, shoe, underpants, or bra. That way, you will have enough money for a taxi after a robbery.
Staying Safe While Taking Taxis
It’s critical to avoid flagging down taxis on the street in Cartagena. Taxi drivers in Cartagena have a terrible reputation. Many of them overcharge you, especially when you land at the airport. They are often aggressive, may give you fake bills as change, or may even rob you.
Express kidnappings happen when you get into a taxi, and the taxi driver robs you with an acquaintance. They force you to go to ATMs and take out money until you exhaust your card. If you have additional cards, they repeat the process.
Instead, take Uber. Uber works in Cartagena, although the drivers may ask you to sit in the front seat. That is because Uber operates in a gray legal area in Colombia.
Police often stop and harass Uber drivers, demanding fines. To avoid detection by the police, Uber drivers ask passengers to sit in front to make it appear as if they are transporting a friend. When ordering an Uber, check the driver’s profile before entering the car.
They should have good reviews. If they are new to Uber, if their face does not match their profile picture, or if their license plates don’t match the details on their profile, that’s a red flag.
You may also use Cabify to order official yellow taxis. You’ll get the driver’s details and rating right off the bat, making it safer than flagging a yellow cab down on the street.
Avoiding Scopolamine and Druggings
Some tourists in Cartagena have been victims of druggings by scopolamine or other drugs. Thieves usually administer such drugs by dropping them in the victim’s drink.
They cause the victim to become incapacitated and receptive to suggestions. The thieves then take the victim to an ATM and withdraw cash. Sometimes, they accompany the victim to their apartment and steal laptops, phones, money, and other valuables.
Gangs often use women as bait. These women may approach foreign men in bars or clubs, or they may meet them online on dating applications or websites.
Sometimes, the woman may even accompany the man home first and administer the drug once there, making it easier for them to steal. There have been reports of such druggings taking place in coffee shops, in taxis, and even on the streets.
Be wary of anyone offering you free food or drinks, regardless of gender. Don’t accept leaflets or flyers from random people on the street, nor should you smell perfume samples if someone offers, as the drug may also be administered via inhalation.
If a strange woman approaches you in a bar or nightclub, whether or not she’s with a friend, be wary. She may have ulterior motives.
If you are meeting someone after chatting on a dating application, meet in a public area and watch your drink at all times. You may want to have a friend stay at the same bar (though not with you) and secretly keep an eye out for you.
Alternatively, tell a friend to check up on you at your apartment. If you are staying in an Airbnb, tell your host or the doorman to check up on you.
Porteros, or doormen in Spanish, can require your guests to present a valid ID and register themselves upon arrival. They can also prevent women from leaving without confirming your approval.
Staying Safe on the Beach
The beaches of Cartagena are generally safe to swim in. However, if the waters look too rough, it’s best to avoid them. You may take a ferry or speedboat to one of the nearby islands, which offer cleaner beaches and fewer crowds.
Many individuals congregate near Bocagrande and Castillogrande on the shore, offering boat rides. Ensure that the boat is in good condition and that you are wearing a lifejacket.
Things to Consider
Here are some essential things to keep in mind when traveling to Cartagena:
- Stay in a safe hotel or Airbnb in a secure area, preferably an apartment building or hotel with a security guard or doorman.
- Memorize your address and leave some cash at home so you can get a taxi home at any time.
- Learn some Spanish so you can communicate with locals if you need help.
- Be wary of police officers, as they may try to extort you or even be thieves posing as cops, according to the Australian government.
- If a police officer approaches you, ask to see an ID, speak to a supervisor, or be accompanied to the station.
- Call emergency services by dialing 123, as per the Irish government.
- Enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program to receive security alerts during your time in Cartagena.
- Enjoy your time in Cartagena.
- Flag taxis from the street.
- Flash valuables in public.
- Partake in political demonstrations, as they may turn violent, and clashes may erupt between protestors and police, according to a UK travel advisory.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some of the most common questions we see from readers about safety in Cartagena.
Is Cartagena or Medellin safer?
That’s a tricky question! According to a Colombian survey by ComoVamos (pages 40-41), 45% of Medellin residents felt safe in their city compared to just 15% of Cartagena residents. People felt safer in their own neighborhoods, but Medellin won by a significant margin (75% compared to 30% for Modelling).
Is Cartagena safe to walk around?
Absolutely. As long as you walk around in the neighborhoods I mentioned above, you are unlikely to face any issues. You will notice many other foreigners walking around in those areas, entirely at ease.
Is Cartagena worth visiting?
Yes. Despite the possibility of crime, Cartagena has so much to offer in terms of history, culture, art, and beach life. You can also significantly reduce the risk of crime by following the advice in this article.
Do they speak English in Cartagena, Colombia?
Not extensively. Many business owners, waiters, and hotel receptionists will speak at least some English in the tourist areas such as the old city. However, it’s worth learning a bit of Spanish as well.
Is Cartagena violent?
Cartagena is not a violent city. Any violence, including homicides and shootings, tends to involve gangs and local trafficking groups and rarely targets tourists. While the State Department lists several reasons of Colombia under a “Level 4 – Do Not Travel” advisory, Cartagena is not one of them.
So, Is Cartagena Safe to Visit?
Yes. Cartagena is generally safe for tourists who stay in the areas of the historic center, Getsemani, Manga, Bocagrande, Castillogrande, and the neighboring islands with luxury hotels.
However, it’s essential to blend in as much as possible, learn some basic Spanish, and watch out for scammers and thieves. Happy travels!