How to Travel Safely in Colombia

Colombia has had its share of headlines for all wrong reasons in the past decade. Notoriously linked to the vicious drug trade that spawned television series (The Infiltrator, Pablo Escobar: El Patrón del Mal) and films (Sins of My Father, El Rey), Colombia’s charming natural beauty and friendliness of its people were drowned by the bad stereotype it got buried.

Make no mistake, Colombia is blessed with wonderful attractions that deserve a visit from international tourists. For those who are looking forward to experiencing natural attractions, Tayrona National Natural Park is a must-see while colonial and charming atmosphere welcomes you at Barichara and La Candelaria in Bogota.

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But a wise traveler is conscious of his or her surroundings and aware of possible dangers ahead. Is it safe to travel in Colombia? Let’s find out.

Kidnapping in Colombia
Guerilla movements initiated kidnappings in the 1970s and was continued by criminal groups. The M-19, the FARC, ELN among others widely exploited this practice while members of the Medellin cartel used the practice to discourage politicians from approving an extradition treaty with the United States.

Estimates in 2005 put the number of FARC kidnapped civilians at 2,500, without including the number of military servicemen or government officials. Between 1996 and 2004, 500 people have been kidnapped by paramilitary groups, typically demanding ransom for the release of victims or means of inflicting terror or coercion.

From its beginnings in the 1970s, kidnappings in Colombia increased until 2001. At its peak in 2000, the number of kidnapped victims in the country rose to 3,572. The number declined steadily afterwards; as of 2006 the number dwindled to 687. As of 2015, the number of reported kidnappings have shrunked to 213 and continues to go down, according to government data.

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Travel Advisories on Colombia

US State Department (April 5, 2016)
Tens of thousands of U.S. citizens safely visit Colombia each year for tourism, business, university studies, and volunteer work. Security in Colombia has improved significantly in recent years, including in tourist and business travel destinations such as Bogota, Cartagena, Barranquilla, Medellin, and Cali. However, violence linked to narco-trafficking continues to affect some rural and urban areas. Despite significant decreases in overall crime in Colombia, continued vigilance is warranted due to an increase in recent months of violent crime, including crime resulting in the deaths of American citizens. This Travel Warning replaces the previous travel warning released on June 5, 2015.

Global Affairs Canada (November 17, 2016)
Global Affairs Canada advises against all travel to the following areas: Most rural areas of Colombia due to the presence of illegal armed groups and the evolving security situation. The exceptions are some parts of the coffee-growing area southwest of Bogotá (Risaralda, Quindío and Caldas) and resort areas with established tourist industries, such as the islands of San Andrés and Providencia, the Rosario Islands off of the Atlantic Coast and the Amazon resorts near Leticia.

The Departments of Antioquia (excluding Medellín), Arauca, Cauca, Caquetá, Chocó, Cordoba (excluding Monteria), Guaviare, Huila, Meta, Nariño (excluding Pasto), Norte de Santander (excluding Cúcuta), Putumayo, Santander (excluding Bucaramanga), Tolima, Valle del Cauca (excluding Cali), Vichada and southern parts of La Guajira due to the presence of illegal armed groups.

UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (August 31, 2016)
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to:

the port of Buenaventura in the department of Valle de Cauca
the port of Tumaco in the department of Nariño
The FCO advise against all but essential travel to:

  • the departments of Putumayo, Arauca, Caquetá, Guaviare, Guainía, Vichada, and Norte de Santander (except their capital cities, as indicated on the map)
  • the department of Cauca (except its capital Popayán and the road between the tourist site of the San Agustin ruins in Huila and Popayán city)
  • the department of Chocó (except its capital Quibdó, the whale-watching towns of Nuquí and Bahía Solano, and the tourist site of Capurganá)
  • the department of Nariño (except its capital Pasto and the Ipiales border crossing)
  • the department of Meta (except its capital Villavicencio, and the tourist site of Caño Cristales); visitors travelling to Caño Cristales should only do so with a reputable tour company travelling by air to and from the town of La Macarena
  • within 5km of the Venezuelan border in the departments of La Guajira, César and Boyaca
  • rural areas in northern Antioquia, southern Cordoba, southern Valle de Cauca, and southern Bolivar

Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (November 30, 2016)

Negotiations between rebel groups and the government of Colombia towards a peace agreement are continuing (see Safety and Security). The level of advice has not changed. We continue to advise Australians to exercise a high degree of caution in Colombia. Higher levels apply in some parts of the country.

Colombia overall, exercise a high degree of caution
The departments of Antioquia (except Medellín), Arauca, Caquetá, Cauca (except Popayan), Guainía, Guaviare, Meta, Nariño (except Pasto and Ipiales), Norte de Santander, Putumayo, Valle de Cauca (except Cali) and Vichada, reconsider your need to travel
Chocó and areas within 20 kms of Venezuela and Ecuador, except the Pan American Highway crossing at Ipiales, do not travel
Cities of Buenaventura and Tumaco, do not travel

Understanding Secuestro Express
This method of abduction, Spanish for express kidnapping, and has been popularized in a 2005 Venezuelan film, is a method of abduction where a small immediate ransom is demanded, often by the victim being forced to withdraw money from his or her ATM account. A victim can be a passenger taking an unlicensed taxi, whose driver picks up his “associates” and abducts the victim for financial purposes. While this is generally a problem throughout Latin America, government campaign in Colombia has been more successful that its counterparts.

General Colombia Travel Tips
All these tips are generally applicable to travelers elsewhere. But it’s a gentle reminder that while peace and order situation in the country has improved, pockets of petty crime and occasional violence still occur.

1. Keep a low profile. When you’re in a public place, you’d never want to try to get everyone’s attention in different ways such as the way you behave (talk loudly) or dress (wear elaborate jewelry). Try to blend in with locals and observe how they do things — pay at the cashier, hail a taxi or order at a restaurant. Of course it helps to know a few phrases of the local language.

2. Don’t flash money or valuables. It’s unavoidable to take money from your pocket occasionally but ensure that this is done on a more secure place than in the middle of the crowd or at a place where strangers can easily notice. Prepare loose change and small bills in your pocket so you don’t have to take out your wallet all the time.

3. Don’t use illegal taxis. Bright yellow taxis are widely available and cheap means to get around the city. You can call Taxi Libre in Bogota at (031)211 1111 and Taxi Individual in Medellin at (034)444 4444. Use of mobile apps such as Easy Taxi and Tapsi are also becoming popular. In most cities such as Cali, Medellin and Cartagena, metered taxis are the norm. However, in Bogota, passengers may need to do a conversion using table available inside taxi cabs, and such method could be a tool to overcharge foreign, unfamiliar travelers. Uber is also available and generally offer a safe option to ride in Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Cartagena, but may cost more than traditional taxicabs.

4. Watch out for drink spiking in bars. Friday nights are popular, however Saturday nights are the busiest nights of the week. When entering bars and discosetas, pay attention to your drinks as on some occasions reports of drink spiking may target unsuspecting customers, aiming for their belongings rather than killing them.

5. Avoid driving on rural roads at night. Unless it’s an emergency, it’s safe to stay in your hotel and postpone your travel in the morning. To avoid becoming victim of theft, ensure to lock the doors of your car and keep sufficient amount of fuel at all times.