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Colombia is a South American country with a bad reputation for drug wars and kidnappings. Despite its history of violence and insecurity, Colombia is – and has been for a while now – a favourite travel destination for adventure travelers.
From the charming culture and friendly locals to the vibrant nightlife and breathtaking natural landscapes, it's hard not to fall in love with this magical country.
So is Colombia safe for travelers? The short answer is yes – as long as you keep your wits about you and stay away from known dangerous areas. Do that, and Colombia will be one of the most incredible destinations you visit in South America.
While Colombia's crime and kidnapping rates have significantly reduced over the last decade, you still need to use common sense and caution to stay safe.
Petty crime, such as mugging, pickpocketing and cell phone snatching, is common, especially in busy areas and on public transport in major cities. Keep your valuables out of sight when you're out and about. If you need to use your phone, don't whip it out in the middle of the street. Instead, go into a nearby shop or bank.
The number of kidnappings is down hugely from its peak in 2000, but it's a threat that you need to be aware of.
The southwestern and northeastern parts of the country, which border Ecuador and Venezuela, are dangerous. Many foreign governments recommend against any travel to those regions because of the risk of kidnap or getting caught in the crossfire of a drug war. Don't travel anywhere your government tells you not to.
Colombians elected Gustavo Petro as their next president in June 2022. Petro will be the country's first leftist leader, and his election has given hope to millions of young, struggling Colombians desperate for change.
The transition of power has put a pause on anti-government strikes, and there is presently no major civil unrest in Colombia. That said, things could change, and protests and demonstrations can start up. Monitor local news reports and avoid all protests or demonstrations, which may turn violent quickly.
Government travel advisories have declared several regions of Colombia to be safe for travel. These include Bogotá, Tunja, Bucaramanga, Medellín, Cali, the Coffee Zone departments of Quindio, Risaralda and Caldas, San Andres, the Caribbean cities of Cartagena, Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Capurganá, and the Pacific coast towns Nuquí and Bahía Solano.
Bogotá has its dodgy areas, but stay clear of them, and you'll find that the capital city is an exciting – and safe – place to explore.
When we speak to travelers who have been to Colombia and foreigners who live there, they only have good things to say about the country. They say it's beautiful and much safer than what the media make it out to be. However, that's only true if you stick to the well-known tourist destinations.
Going off the beaten path to more remote areas will only be safe if you do so with a reputable tour agency and expert guide. And when you're in major cities, ask your hostel staff, a friendly local or other backpackers which areas to avoid.
Common sense safety rules apply when traveling in Colombia:
If you show excessive signs of wealth, you'll stand out and increase your chances of getting robbed or mugged.
Colombians dress nicely in the cities. So try to blend in, and you'll avoid looking like a tourist – and a target for criminals. Don't wear shorts, hiking pants, or flip-flops – wear jeans and a nice t-shirt. And if possible, wear clothing with hidden pockets to stash your valuables.
With increased security measures along major roads and the ceasefire agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, the risk of being kidnapped in Colombia nowadays is very, very low.
Criminals aren't waiting at the airport or outside restaurants to kidnap you and ask for ransom. However, if you venture into remote areas controlled by still-in-operation rebel groups, such as the ELN and dissidents of the FARC, you do place yourself at risk of being kidnapped. Stick to tourist spots, and you will be fine.
Secuestro express (express kidnappings), also known as paseo millonario (millionaire's ride), happens when you are kidnapped for an hour. Or however long it takes for the criminals to drive you around town visiting ATMs, emptying your bank account, and maxing out your credit card.
The ordeal usually begins when the victim gets into a taxi they flagged in the street. The driver will go around the corner where the bandits jump in. They persuade you to cooperate with knives, guns, or a punch of two.
Although express kidnappings don't happen often, criminals are opportunists and randomly select their victims. Stay safe by never hailing a taxi from the street. Nor enter an already occupied taxi or car you ordered on a ride-hailing app.
You could take a second credit card with a low limit to South America and leave the main card at home.
If this happens to you, your travel insurance may cover medical expenses for injuries caused by them. You'll have access to an emergency assistance helpline that will connect you with consular officials and experts who can help you deal with the psychological trauma. But, you'll have to argue with your bank about the credit card bill.
Traveling to South America? Listen to The World Nomads Podcast episode about Ecuador
Ask any Colombian the best tactic to avoid being a victim of a crime, and they'll tell you "no dar papaya" (don't give papaya).
This local saying means don't put yourself in a vulnerable situation where someone can easily take advantage of you. For example, don't walk alone late at night or flash valuables in public areas.
Most travelers who've encountered problems in Colombia have likely broken this simple rule.
Here are a few other ways to avoid crime in Colombia:
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