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Is It Safe To Travel To Colombia?
Colombia, the South American country with a frightening reputation for warring drug barons and - thanks to Russell Crowe and Meg Ryan – kidnapping, is surprisingly a hot new destination for backpacking.
So is it safe?
WorldNomads.com travel safety specialist Phil Sylvester put on his journalist’s hat (it’s a trilby with a card in the band that says PRESS) and did some investigating. No judgment about the beauty of the scenery, the friendliness of the people or the charm of the culture, all of which we're assured are top notch.
The Bad News:
Colombia is not as bad as it once was, but you need to use common sense and caution to stay safe.
The number of kidnappings is down hugely from a few years ago, but there's been a surge in 2010, 25% more than the same time last year.
3 foreign tourists were among the 146 people kidnapped (for ransom) so far this year. They've since been released.
The south of the country is especially dangerous and many foreign governments recommend against any travel to that region because of the risk of kidnap or being caught in the crossfire of a drug war.
The US State department reissued its warning that it considers Colombia "dangerous" in March 2010 and said: "...violence by narco-terrorist groups continues to affect some rural areas as well as large cities."
The Australian government (mine) says Do Not Travel to the south - at all.
It recommends you Reconsider Your Need To Travel to: provinces of Cesar, La Guajira and Antioquia (excluding Medellin), the cities of Cali and Popayan, and most rural areas.
Of Colombia as a whole it says Exercise A High Degree of Caution. (It says the same thing about Brazil.)
The Good News:
In February 2010 the French government declared parts of Colombia to be "safe": adding Santa Marta, Barranquilla, Bogota, Tunja, Bucaramanga, as well as the Zona Cafetero departments of Quindio, Risaralda and Caldas to Cartagena and San Andres as destinations approved for travel.
Traveller forums (people who've actually been there - this year) overwhelmingly rave about the place; they say it's beautiful and it's safer than other South American countries.... as long as you stick to the popular tourist destinations.
Which seems to be the key: Going off the beaten path might not be the best idea, and when you're in the cities ask locals or other travellers which areas to avoid.
The city of Cali continues to be troublesome and best avoided, as are most rural areas, and the whole of the south.
There’s a 2005 movie called Secuestro express, about the kidnap of a rich businessman's daughter, and set in Venezuela. It describes the capital, Caracas, as "the most dangerous city on the planet". That was probably a promotion stunt to cover up for the fact the movie wasn't very good. However, kidnapping is one of the dangers of South America, a crime particular to the region, and particularly lucrative for the criminals.
Unfortunately, other South American countries haven't been as successful as Colombia at combating kidnap. In fact it's getting worse in some places - like Ecuador, where Express Kidnap (Sucuestro express) is rife.
What Is Secuestro Express?
You get kidnapped for an hour or so... as long as it takes for them to drive you around town visiting ATMs to empty your bank account and max-out your credit card. Or they hold you for as long as it takes for your family (or travel companion) to do the same.
It usually begins when the victim gets into a taxi. It drives around the corner and the bandits jump in. They 'persuade' you to cooperate with knives, guns, a punch or two, and unfortunately for women, sexual assault.
In Ecuador in June 2010, depending on whose figures you believe, there were between 194 and 363 express kidnaps - in one month. Middle class locals are the main targets, but wealthy ex-pats who aren't vigilant are also common victims. Travellers might also be mistaken for wealthy ex-pats or simply look like an easy target.
Am I Covered?
If this happens to you, your travel insurance will cover medical expenses for injuries they give you, and you'll have access to an emergency assistance helpline that will put you in touch with consular officials and experts who can help you deal with the psychological trauma - invaluable stuff.
You'll have to argue with your bank about the credit card bill.
What To Do
Perhaps you should take a second credit card with a low limit to South America, and leave the main card at home, or locked in the hotel safe (not the room safe, they might take you back there and force you to open it).
Try to keep a low profile.
Don't flash your money or valuables.
Don't use illegal taxis.
Buses are also a problem, as are rural roads where a single car is an easy target.
Don't drive on rural roads at night at all.
Lock the doors of the car, and keep at least a half a tank of fuel.
Don't travel alone.
Watch out for drink spiking at bars and clubs.
And if you are kidnapped - hand over what they want; fighting back will only make them more demanding and violent. It’s better to lose a few hundred dollars than your life.
Bogota, backpacking hot spot.
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