World Nomads Tips for Bogota – How to Stay Safe

Bogota is one hot destination, with sizzling nightlife and proud locals anxious to show off their city. But a growing divide between rich and poor also contributes to the city's struggle with street crime.

Author: Julia Canal Paternina. Bogota is at the forefront of Colombia's charge onto the world tourism stage. And although it demands a little extra attention, Bogota really rewards street-smart travellers and should be on the list for any South American adventure.

New transport developments and plenty of new police have opened up the city to travellers keen to take advantage of its great nightlife and friendly atmosphere. However, the speed of this transformation means progress has been a little patchy. There are still dangerous pockets scattered throughout the city so careless tourists can quickly find themselves in trouble.

Avoiding Street Crime in Bogota

Street crime is Bogota's biggest problem. Pickpockets are common on the city's crowded buses and on the TransMilenio but can easily be avoided or thwarted if you're aware of the threat. Hold any bags close to you throughout the trip and keep a watchful eye on people around you. A wary tourist is an unwelcoming target.

During the day the city is a great place to explore, as long as you don't wander too far out of your depth. However, muggings and armed robbery are a danger, especially after dark in known tourist areas like La Candelaria and near the Montserrate cable car.

There are a few places where delightful and dodgy areas bump up against each other and a two block detour can put you in danger. Talk to someone at your hotel about your plans for the day before you go out and they can recommend the best route.

As a general rule the north and east of the city are O.K, but things can get riskier as you head south. The Plaza Bolivar is a great spot to visit but you don't want to wander too far outside its bounds.

The Ciudad Bolivar locality should be avoided completely. Not only is there a high risk of robbery here but recent torrential rain in Colombia means the city's crowded shanty towns and any hillside development are at risk of flooding and landslides.

Cerro de Monteserrate is one of the most beautiful spots in Bogota. Because of the extraordinary view many visitors catch the teleferico up in the afternoon to try and capture the city at sunset, heading back on the last cable cars around 7pm. It's just a short walk back to La Candelaria but it has been the undoing of many tourists. Gangs of thieves know the descending tourists will have their cameras with them and stake out the surrounding streets.

One traveller had to cut his trip short after a brazen gang of thieves shattered his kneecap in a robbery just 50 metres from the well-guarded Montserrate teleferico. Even if you're in a group you should always catch a cab back to your accommodation.

The weekend is safest time to scale the mountain. Many locals will head to the hilltop church for services and the crowds provide a bit of security, although you should be on the lookout for pickpockets.

It is possible to walk up the hilltop and many people make the little pilgrimage on weekends. However the track is notorious for muggings and recent heavy rain means it's not very safe.

Thieves often lurk around the hostels in La Candelaria. It's best to head out in a group, especially at night. All the hostels have security gates and most require someone to buzz you in from the inside. Understaffing means you can be waiting around outside for a while, often with your back to the street, making you a tempting and vulnerable target.

Make sure to keep an eye out when heading back to your accommodation and beware anyone who's been hanging around the door.

Hotel and Hostel Security in Bogota

Being mindful of your accommodation's security is especially important in light of recent events. Since the latter half of 2010 there has been a string of attacks on hostels themselves. Armed gangs have broken into tourist accommodation and violently attacked, robbed and even sexually assaulted guests.

There's not a lot you can do to defend yourself against this sort of attack once the gang is inside, although cooperating with the bandits and handing over your stuff quickly is the best way to ensure your safety.

Instead you should try and find a hostel that has a good security record and has introduced measures to combat this trend. Most of the attacks have occurred in La Candelaria, so it might be a good idea to look for accommodation further north. Zona Rosa and Usaquen have some good hotels and, although they're a little pricier, they're also right on top of the city's best nightspots.

Keeping a Low Profile in Bogota

Where you go has a lot to do with minimising the threat of robbery but even if you stick to the safest streets, some thugs will track tourists until they see an opportunity to attack. Thieves are all about risk versus reward, though, so if you don't look like an easy target they won't waste their time. The way you dress has a lot to do with it. Avoid obvious designer labels and don't wear any flashy jewellery. Try not to wave around big expensive cameras too much. They are a prime target for thieves.

Looking like a lost little lamb is a sure fire way to have bandits stalk you. Always have an idea of where you're going and walk with purpose. If you're lost, ask a local for directions rather than pulling out a giant map. Colombians are incredibly approachable and keen to leave a good impression on tourists.
Be careful when withdrawing money. ATMs can be hotspots for muggers but also secuestro express (express kidnapping) attacks. Avoid using ATMs on the street if at all possible. Stick to the machines inside shopping malls or guarded ones in bank buildings. It's best to visit ATMs during daylight hours. If you can find some friends to accompany you, that's even better.

If you are robbed you should hand over your stuff quickly rather than risk violence. A dummy wallet with some old cards and a few notes can be a good way to placate muggers without leaving yourself strapped. Either way, you shouldn't walk around with bundles of cash. Just take what you need for the day and leave the credit card locked up. If you're carrying a bag it's best to throw it away from you and then make a break for it. The bandits will be much more interested in what you're carrying than where you're going.

Bogota at Night

There's a big student community in Bogota, which always makes for good nightlife. There are a few bars and clubs around La Candelaria but the best spots are further north. Parque 93, Zona T and the famous Zona Rosa make up a cosmopolitan centre that's great for eating, drinking and dancing. Residential Usaquen, the city's northernmost district, has some great restaurants and a more chilled out vibe. They are all quite safe, much more so than La Candelaria, but you still need to be wary when you're on the streets at night.

Getting home from a night out is the main focus. There are plenty of hotels around Zona Rosa if you don't mind the noise and are willing to spend a bit more for security and convenience.

If you're staying in La Candelaria you'll definitely need to take a taxi. Unless you're with a few friends, hailing a cab on the street isn't recommended. Bogota's taxi system is generally reliable but there are a few renegade drivers who spoil it for the rest. There have been a few incidents in which drivers stop to let some armed chums into the cab, who then rob passengers blind or take them on a secuestro express tour of the city's ATMs.

Ordering a radio taxi from one of the city's reputable companies is the safest option. Get some numbers from staff at your accommodation before you head out and carry it with you. Or you can always ask a bouncer to call in a cab for you. Taxi Libre, Taxi Express, Radio Taxi and Taxi Real are all good companies. They'll tack on a little surcharge, but at around 900 Colombian Pesos ($0.50) it's a small price to pay for safety.

Spiked Drinks in Bogota

Drink spiking is a highly publicised problem in Colombia, although it's not the epidemic that stories might suggest.

Extracts from a plant known as borrachero (get you drunk) are used to incapacitate unwitting tourists. Women travellers are always warned not to accept drinks however it's actually young men who are the principle targets of this tactic. Bogota's beautiful women make for an enticing honey trap but you should be wary of any new friends.

The odourless and tasteless drug can easily be mixed into drinks but also laced through cigarettes and even gum. So, even if you're travelling on a budget, it's best to gently rebuff any generous offers.

There are even reports of women dusting their breasts with borrachero powder before shoving men's heads into their intoxicating cleavage. It could be an urban myth, but you should still beware any overly amorous advances.

Transportation in Bogota

Getting around Bogota can be a little adventure of its own. There are several competing modes of transport so the roads can be a little chaotic and finding the right service can take a little practice. But, aside from the occasional traffic jam and some death-defying drivers, it's actually quite a treat to traverse the city.

The TransMilenio is one of the coolest ways to get from one spot to another. It was decided building an underground metro was an impractical option so instead the City of Bogota emulated that system using buses. Dedicated lanes and sleek glass stations make for a very effective alternative.

Not all the services stop at every station so it takes a bit of planning to work out your route but each trip costs less than a dollar and, as long as you don't leave the station, you can jump between buses as much as you like. The TransMilenio is notorious for pickpockets though, so make sure you don't let go of your bags and keep an eye on your fellow passengers.

Privately owned buses and busetas run specific routes, with streets and neighbourhoods listed on cards in the front window, but don't have specific stops. You have to wave them down like a cab so don't be shy or you'll be standing there all day.

Colectivos work the same way but these vans weave madly through traffic to get you there a little quicker. Keen to run through their route as fast as possible, colectivo drivers will often set off as soon as your foot's in the door, or on the street, so you be careful when boarding and disembarking.

Political Violence in Bogota

The Colombian capital is at the centre of some very passionate and volatile politics. Unfortunately that means it can become a target for violent protest. The threat of terrorism has decreased in Bogota in recent years but attacks do still occur. Car bombs were detonated in the north of the capital in January 2009 and August 2010. Another bomb plot was foiled in October of 2010. Although tourists weren't targeted or harmed in either explosion, foreign interests have been the focus of attacks in the past.

In January 2011 the leader of guerrilla faction FARC, Alfonso Cano, announced the group was redoubling its activity. A number of kidnappings and armed assaults have since occurred, although most of this activity has been restricted to remote areas of the country. But you still need to be mindful of the danger. Security levels in Colombia tend to change quickly so make sure you keep up to date with the news and any travel warnings. And avoid any public demonstrations or public protests as they have a tendency to turn ugly.

12 Comments

  • Carl said

    Do you have news reports of hostels being robbed or are you spouting BS? My ex from here has heard nothing of that either...

  • Jimmbo said

    Thanks, that's a useful report. But one thing:

    ========
    "A dummy wallet with some old cards and a few notes can be a good way to placate muggers without leaving yourself strapped. "
    ========

    Since you yourself described a scenario where armed thieves take victims on a tour of ATMs, I'd imagine said armed thieves would be pretty ticked off if your "old" card was rejected by those ATMs, revealing the "old wallet" ploy.

    Better, I'd imagine, to open a second account (or e-banking account) with a balance of a couple hundred bucks - if and only if you dress and comport as someone traveling with just a couple hundred bucks in the bank (if not, again, the thieves, who presumably have some experience in their profession, will spot the scam).

    Or just bring your damned credit card, take the hit, and hope the police report holds some sway with the bank, so you're not responsible for the full load of charges. And you'll get home without a shattered knee cap or worse.

  • Ricardo Ribeiro said

    Oh boy! Department of State style at World Nomads. What a shame!

  • PhilSylvester said

    Ricardo,
    as you know things have changed quickly in Colombia. We're in the middle of a revision of all our content. A new version of this article will be live in the next couple of weeks.
    Thanks for the input.

  • Sean Manks said

    Excellent tour tips! Planning to go to Bogota on business. Will be extra careful and not venture into Anthony Bourdain's 'Parts Unknown" territory!

  • Linda L. said

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article. As a single woman traveling to Bogota on business, I found the information to be very helpful. It's better to be safe than sorry!

  • Ann said

    I don't appreciate the sarcasm of the comments following your article. It's not helpful in anyway. There's no useful information there. I Think it's interesting that all those empty comments come from males. I have traveled to Bogota a few times over the last several years, and I simply appreciate that someone has taken the time to document these tips with some relevant context. I am curious why these gentlemen who commented bothered to read it in the first place. Where are their tips and more updated, detailed, helpful information? I'd like to read it too. My bet is they have none. Typical.

  • Emily said

    Hey everyone. Unfortunately the hostel robberies are not bs. We have been in colombia for a total of two months (currently in Cali) and have met several people who it has happened to in Bogota. One of our friends hostels was held up at gun point and everyone robbed. I also know a few people in the hostel I am staying at now hostel were drugged a few nights ago (in the hostel) and robbed.
    Don't get me wrong, i absolutely love Colombia, it is well worth the visit. Just be cautious and have good travel insurance.

  • John said

    Julia: I enjoyed your safety tips and I think people thinking of visiting Columbia or any big city should read up on one of things that might save you from becoming a victim. As a retired law enforcement officer I think I'm pretty street savvy, but that doesn't mean I can't fall victim to a robbery or other crimes. I try to heed the very things you suggest and have found the most important thing is to be aware of your surroundings. Thanks for your article.

  • Eric said

    I've been to Bogota many times. The first time i went it was a little sketchy...but that was in 2008. The day i arrived Venezuela and Ecuador had decided to mass there troops on the border and threatened to invade the country. Things like that should eorry any travelers. But in my more recent visits everything has been better...even great (my first trip was great too...just scarier.) The main things you should remember are
    1. Don't act like a tourist...you will stick out.
    2. Carry your bagpack or purse on your chest..that way you will be less likely to be purse snatched.
    3. Avoid going out at night in small groups...the bigger the better.
    4. Always use a service to call a taxi.
    5. If you do get approached by someone unsavory play dumb..they get iritated and usually move on..if they are armed just give them your stuff. Stuff is not important.
    6. Whenever possible hang out with some local people you can trust. If you have any local friends be sure to listen to their advice.
    7. Have fun.

  • Yalpe Nismou said

    Was there in 2011 and was mugged. Visit a safe country.

  • Kevin said

    Went to Colombia in 2014 and my buddy and I got held up at knife point walking from a bar 20 meters away from my hostel in La Candelaria. It was around 11:30 PM. Thankfully the police drive around the neighborhood with their lights on and the guy ran away before I had to give up my wallet or get hurt.

    I ended up going to Cartagena the next day but found out my friend got held up at knife point again the next day around 5 PM in La Candelaria.

    Colombia is a great place to visit but you need to take the safety precautions seriously. I caught an Israeli tourist trying to sneak his hand in my bag while taking a bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta.

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