7 Travel Safety Tips for Nomads in Bogota

With extra police on patrol and transport developments in Bogota, the city has opened up to travelers who are keen to take advantage of the vibrant nightlife and culture.

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However, the speed of this transformation means progress has been a little patchy. There are still dangerous pockets scattered throughout the city, and careless tourists can quickly find themselves in trouble.

Avoiding Street Crime in Bogota

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

Explore the city during the day, just don't wander too far out of your depth. Muggings and armed robbery are a danger, especially after dark in known tourist areas like La Candelaria and near the Montserrate cable car.

Delightful areas are never too far from dodgy zones, 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 okay, but the further you head south the more risk you'll find. The Plaza Bolivar is one attraction you wont want to wander too far from.

Safety in Ciudad Bolivar

The Ciudad Bolivar should be avoided completely. Not only is there a high risk of robbery, but torrential rain can lead to flooding in crowded shanty towns, especially on a hillside development. 

Crime near Cerro de Monteseratte

Cerro de Monteserrate is one of the most beautiful spots in Bogota. Because of the extraordinary view at sunset, visitors flock to catch the teleferico up in the afternoon 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's 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 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.  Alternatively, hop into the free shuttle that leaves approximately every 15 minutes from the bottom of the teleférico to the Las Aguas TransMilenio station. The service runs from 5pm-11pm.

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 always be on the lookout for pickpockets.

You might want to walk up the hilltop, and many people make the little pilgrimage on weekends. Just keep in mind this track is notorious for muggings, and after heavy rain it's not very safe.

Safety in La Candelaria

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 inside. Understaffing means you can be waiting around outside for a while, often with your back to the street, making you a vulnerable target.

Always keep an eye out when heading back to your accommodation, and beware of anyone 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. In the past, there's been a string of attacks on hostels, 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 nightlife.

Keeping a Low Profile in Bogota

Avoiding dodgy areas will help minimise threat of being robbed, 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. So, if you don't look like an easy target, they won't waste their time. 

Don't Dress Like a Flashy Tourist

The way you dress has a lot to do with it. Avoid obvious designer labels and don't wear any flashy jewellery. Don't make it obvious that you're carrying a big expensive camera too much. If you do, you're a prime target for thieves.

Always Look Like You Know Where You're Going

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 want to leave a good impression on tourists.

Withdrawing Money

Be careful when withdrawing money. ATMs are hotspots for muggers, but also secuestro express (express kidnapping) attacks. Avoid using ATMs on the street if at all possible. Stick to machines inside shopping malls, or guarded ones in bank buildings. It's best to visit ATMs during daytime. If you can find some friends to accompany you, that's even better.

What Happens If I Get Robbed?

If you are robbed, hand over your stuff quickly. If you don't, there's a higher chance of a violent attack.

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 means, a great nightlife scene. 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, which are great for eating, drinking and dancing. Residential Usaquen, the city's northernmost district, has some great restaurants and a more chilled out vibe. These spots are much more safe 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. If you don't mind the noise and you're willing to spend a bit more for security and convenience, there are plenty of hotels around Zona Rosa.

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 where drivers stop to let their 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 ask a bouncer to call a cab for you. Taxi Libre, Taxi Express, Radio Taxi and Taxi Real are all reliable companies. They'll tack on a little surcharge, but at around 900 Colombian Pesos (US $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 are used to incapacitate unwitting tourists. Female travelers 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 traveling 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. With several competing modes of transport, the roads are quite 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. Instead of building an underground metro, the city of Bogota emulated that same 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. 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 run specific routes, with streets and neighbourhoods listed on cards in the front window. However, they don't have specific stops, so you'll have to wave them down like a cab. 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 close to the speed of light. 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 be careful when boarding and disembarking.

Political Violence in Bogota

The Colombian capital is at the centre of some very 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 have been detonated in the north of the capital in the past, and although tourists weren't targeted or harmed, foreign interests have been the focus of attacks in the past.

Security levels in Colombia tend to change quickly so make sure you keep up to date with the news and any travel warnings. Avoid any public demonstrations or public protests as they have a tendency to turn ugly.

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16 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.

  • Dave said

    Thanks for all the advice. I have a friend who lives there, she invited me to visit as it's easier for me to visit than her with getting a visa to the U.S. I'm a little nervous.

  • G said

    I am in same situation Dave, how was your visit when you're staying with someone?

  • Rico said

    Went to Bogota a little over a week ago, and we are back here safe and sound.
    Crimes are everywhere in the world, but just like every other cities you just need to do your normal precautions. We stayed in La Candelaria against the advice of any blogs I read but it was perfectly fine.
    We normally have our dinner at around 9pm around the restaurants in La Candelaria and there are still a lot people outside (especially on a Friday night).

  • Andreas said

    Visited Bogotlá on my own a few months back. Never had a bad experience at all, but met a few people who had had so. Generally I would recommend to just stay calm; my first week in Colombia, I was dead-nervous because of all the rumours I'd heard. But soon as you get a grasp of going around, there's really nothing to worry about, as long as you take normal 'security' measures, not going out alone after dark, etc.
    Knowing a little Spanish helps you a lot, though!

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