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Is Colombia Safe? | Travel Tips & Safety Concerns

Is Colombia Safe? | Travel Tips & Safety Concerns

Colombia is one of the top tourist destinations in Latin America, which isn’t surprising given that it’s the second most biodiverse country in the world.

From chilly mountain areas to hot, sunny beach towns, Colombia has it all. Some tourists come for the nightlife, while others come for the famous cuisine, but is Colombia safe to visit? 

Is Colombia Safe to Visit?

For a piece titled Is Colombia Safe, grgeous colonial homes in Antioquia

Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit Colombia each year, and the vast majority of them have no problems. At the same time, a small minority of tourists become victims of crime, including pickpocketing, drugging, and armed robbery.

The savvy traveler who is aware of the risks and knows how to avoid them will significantly reduce the chances of anything happening. Most of the crime happens in major cities.

It’s often opportunistic, so knowing which areas to avoid and keeping a low profile will help you stay safer.

In addition, if you plan on going out to bars or clubs or going on dates, it’s essential to know about the dangers of scopolamine and other druggings, which are more common in Colombia than in other countries. 

While earthquakes do happen in Colombia, they’re rarely severe. A more dangerous natural disaster is landslides, but that is only something to worry about if traveling on rural highways by bus or private vehicle. 

While guerillas and other armed groups are active in Colombia, their activity is limited to specific areas, primarily rural jungle areas and small towns. Foreigners seldom have any interactions with such groups, so the main thing to worry about is urban crime. 

Crime in Colombia

Gone are the days of Pablo Escobar, who terrorized Colombia with armed shootings and gang violence. Despite what you may see on Netflix, Colombia is a calm place, for the most part. 

Crime and violence in Colombia have decreased drastically over the past couple of decades, with the homicide rate dropping significantly.

Colombia isn’t even in the top 15 countries for homicides, while popular tourist destinations like Mexico and Jamaica are. Of course, it’s critical to differentiate between homicide and crime rates.

Gang violence often drives homicide rates in Latin America, but such violence usually doesn’t spread beyond specific neighborhoods and doesn’t always correlate with urban crime targeting tourists. 

At the same time, crime is always an issue in most Latin American countries, and Colombia is no different. The Covid-19 pandemic has impacted crime rates – rising unemployment and desperation lead to a natural increase in crime. 

There are a few significant types of crime in Colombia to worry about: 

  • Pickpocketing
  • Armed robbery 
  • Home break-ins
  • Express kidnappings
  • Druggings
  • Taxi scams
  • Police corruption
  • Political violence
  • Gang and guerilla activity

However, you can typically avoid most crimes by: 

  • Avoiding bad neighborhoods
  • Keeping a low profile
  • Staying away from remote areas where guerilla groups are active
  • Knowing what to do when dealing with a corrupt cup
  • Watching out for drugging scams
  • Avoiding demonstrations
  • Taking Uber rides instead of taxis

Avoiding Bad Neighborhoods

Terrible part of town picturing the slums in Medellin for a piece titled Is Colombia Safe

Lukas Kovarik/Shutterstock

Your first step is avoiding bad neighborhoods. The good news is that it’s a lot less tricky in Colombia than it is in other countries. 

Let’s start with Bogotá, the capital city. In Bogotá, avoiding bad neighborhoods is as easy as staying in the north. Starting from the center (La Candelaria), the further south you go, the more sketchy and dangerous it becomes. 

Chapinero Alto and areas further north, including around El Parque de la 93 and the areas of Cedritos and Los Rosales, are relatively safe. However, crime can still occur. Avoid Kennedy and other southern areas. 

What about Medellín? The rule of thumb in Colombia is to avoid neighborhoods on mountains surrounding the city, as they have increased gang activity. It’s best to stay in El Poblado, Laureles, or Envigado, the top tourist areas. 

In Cartagena, the safest areas are within the old city walls and the neighborhoods of Bocagrande and Getsemani. 

How can you know which neighborhoods to avoid? The French government has an updated travel advisory that details which areas to avoid in cities such as Medellín, Bogotá, Cartagena, and Cali.

Use Google Translate to translate it into English. Not many governmental travel advisories go into as much detail about the safety of specific neighborhoods. 

I also recommend asking your hotel reception or Airbnb host about safety and security. Locals will always know which areas are safe and which you should avoid. 

Keep a Low Profile

The best advice for visitors to any country is to keep a low profile. Avoid standing out as a tourist, and avoid any displays of wealth whatsoever. Even something that might be standard in your country, like a nice watch, can make you a target in Colombia.

Remember that people are struggling, and a watch can easily be worth a few months of the minimum wage. Avoid taking your wallet out in public. It’s better to withdraw money from an ATM at a mall than one on the street.

Malls in Colombia typically have guards, making them relatively safe. Some malls even have bomb-sniffing dogs. Avoid wearing expensive clothes or jewelry.

Try to wear long pants and a regular t-shirt to blend in. Shorts, flip-flops, sunglasses, and a camera hanging from your neck will make you stand out as a tourist.  And never take your phone out on the street unless it’s necessary.

Instead, go into a shop or mall to make your call. Always try to look like you know where you’re going. 

If you’re a victim of a robbery, don’t resist! Keep most of your credit cards and money at home, but take some cash to give to a robber, so they leave you alone. Resisting robberies can lead to injuries. 

Know How Druggings Work

There have been increased reports of thieves drugging tourists and ex-pats in Colombia. Typically, the victims are men who go out with girls from Tinder or other dating apps. 

These girls often operate in organized gangs, slipping a drug into the man’s drink, taking them home, and then leaving with his valuables. However, women have been victims as well. 

Often, it’s men administering the drugs, which means you have to be careful when on a night out with a stranger who seems too friendly.

In addition, thieves frequently target men alone at nightclubs, slipping something into their drinks when they’re not looking. The best rule of thumb is that if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.

Be cautious if a girl appears too into you or a stranger seems too friendly. Always meet a date in a public area, and watch your drink at all times. Don’t even leave it unattended to go to the bathroom. 

Stay in a hotel or a building with a doorman. Have them check your guest’s ID and take a copy, and tell them not to let your date leave without calling you to confirm you’re safe. 

Avoid Taxi Scams

Yellow cabs on the street in Medellin for a post titled Is Colombia Safe

Michaelpuche/Shutterstock

Taxi scams fall into two categories: nonviolent and violent. The first type usually involves a taxi driver overcharging you by not using a meter or using a tampered meter. The driver may also give you back fake bills as change. 

Armed robberies can occur in taxis as well. The taxi driver may pick up an armed accomplice who takes you to an ATM and forces you to withdraw money.

You may have heard about these “express kidnappings,” which happen all over South America, not just in Colombia. The best way to avoid all taxi scams is to use a ridesharing app instead of the yellow taxis.

The only place where you should use taxis is at the airport. There are regulated white and yellow taxis at the airports in Bogotá and Medellín. 

Otherwise, use ridesharing apps – there are a plethora of them in Colombia. They include: 

  • Uber 
  • Didi
  • Cabify
  • InDriver
  • Beat

You will see your fare upfront, and you can see details about the driver, including their rating and how many rides they have already completed. You can also input your destination beforehand and track yourself on the map. 

Beware of Corrupt Police

Corruption is an issue in Colombia. Some cops are corrupt, while other cops aren’t real cops – they’re imposters with fake IDs. 

If a cop stops you or asks for money for a fine, ask them to take you to the nearest police station to ensure that they’re legit and that what they’re asking for is legit.

Call your hotel or Airbnb host for assistance if you don’t speak Spanish. Have your embassy’s number on hand, so you can call them as well. 

Understand Guerilla and Paramilitary Groups

There are a few types of armed groups active in Colombia (other than the police and military). The guerilla groups tend to align themselves with the left-wing, while the paramilitary groups align with the right-wing.

Various narcotrafficking groups control specific areas of the country. Fortunately, as a foreigner, you don’t have to worry about these groups. Several years ago, the Colombian government signed a ceasefire with FARC, the leading guerilla group.

While some guerilla groups remain, like ELN, their numbers are small, and they don’t have much power. It’s still important to pay attention to news and avoid travel to rural areas, especially during “armed strikes” by the ELN.

Recently, after the extradition of a Colombian drug lord to the US, the “Clan del Golfo” retaliated by burning vehicles on highways. 

The State Department advises against travel to Arauca, Cauca, and Norte de Santander. The UK government has added several other departments and regions to the list. Avoid those areas, and you will be safe. 

Understand Political Tensions and Demonstrations

Demonstrations against government policies are not uncommon. There may be roadblocks, vandalism, small fires, and strong-handed police responses. Avoid all demonstrations, especially around election times. The US Embassy in Colombia releases alerts when they expect protests. 

Frequently Asked Questions

San Francisco church in colonial city Popayan, Colombia for a post titled Is Colombia Safe

Matyas Rehak/Shutterstock

Are you still nervous about your trip to Colombia? Here are answers to some of the most common questions we see from readers:

Is Colombia safer than America?

It’s hard to compare the US and Colombia. Both countries have cities with high levels of crime and gun violence. As a tourist in Colombia, though, you will stand out, which puts you at greater risk.

What places to avoid in Colombia?

Avoid slums, dark areas at night, and any area locals warn against traveling to. Try to stick to the beaten track. Avoid departments like Cauca, and avoid border areas with Venezuela.

Is Colombia worth visiting?

Yes. Despite the media and film hype about gang and drug activity in Colombia, it doesn’t deserve that reputation. Once you travel to Colombia, you will realize that many fears are overblown. Keep proper precautions, and there will be a low risk of something terrible happening to you.

Is Colombia safe for female solo travelers?

Yes. Many females travel to Colombia alone with no issues. Take the same precautions as you would everywhere. Avoid unlit areas at night, don’t hitchhike, and take Uber rides instead of taxis.

Is Colombia safer than Mexico?

It’s hard to compare the two countries. Out of the five cities in the world with the highest homicide rates, four are in Mexico (the other is Caracas, Venezuela). Colombia doesn’t have any cities in the top 20. However, as I explained, crime and homicides are two separate things.

Is Medellín, Colombia, safe?

Medellín isn’t the safest city in Colombia, but it’s also not the most dangerous. Tourism is prevalent in Medellín, and you won’t stand out as much as a foreigner, as people are used to seeing tourists. Overall, the areas of El Poblado, Laureles, and Envigado are fairly safe.

So, Is Colombia Safe? 

Yes, Colombia is generally safe, and most tourists have uneventful trips. Crime is an issue, but it’s improving as more tourists flock to Cartagena, Medellín, and other cities.

As long as you stay aware of what’s happening around you and take some basic precautions, you will enjoy your time in Colombia.