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Is Colombia safe for travelers? Should you worry about express kidnappings, and where is safe to go? We debunk the dangerous myths to show you Colombia's safe side.
Colombia is country in South America with a frightening reputation for drug wars and kidnappings, but it is – and has been for while now – a favourite destination for adventure travelers.
The short answer from us is yes, it is safe to travel to Colombia – as long as you keep your wits about you and stay away from known dangerous areas, this is one of the most incredible destinations in South America.
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 its peak in 2000, but it's a threat that occasionally exists.
The southwestern and northeastern parts of the country which border with Ecuador and Venezuela are dangerous, and many foreign governments recommend against any travel to those regions because of the risk of kidnap or being caught in the crossfire of a drug war. Don't travel anywhere your government tells you not to – simple as that.
In November 2019 protesters took to the streets of the Colombian capital, Bogotá, frustrated by the slow rollout of the 2016 peace deal with the FARC rebels, and to protest against the current government.
Since then, anti-government protests and demonstrations have continued on-and-off across the country. Monitor local news reports and avoid all protests or demonstrations, which may turn violent quickly.
Government travel advisories have declared parts of Colombia to be safe and approved for travel: adding Santa Marta, Barranquilla, Bogota, Tunja, Bucaramanga, as well as the Coffee Zone departments of Quindio, Risaralda and Caldas to Cartagena and San Andres.
Medellin is a popular place to go among travelers, and it's becoming much more safe. Bogota has it's dodgy areas, but is also emerging as an exciting city to explore.
When we speak to travelers who have been to Colombia, they have nothing but good things to say about the place; they say it's beautiful and it's safer than other South American countries. However, that's if you stick to the well-known tourist destinations. Going off the beaten path might not be the best idea in Colombia, 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 here: Don't wear flashy jewelry, keep your phones and cameras out of sight, only carry enough money for the day, avoid taking cards or passports out with you. If you choose to show excessive signs of wealth, you better expect to get robbed or mugged.
Try your best to blend in. Colombian people dress nicely in the cities – don't wear your hiking pants, joggers and a daggy jumper – wear jeans and a nice t-shirt to blend in. Wear what you would normally wear, but try to wear clothing with hidden pockets to stash your important items.
We spoke to Jacqui de Klerk to find out about the risk of kidnapping in Colombia today.
"The risk of being kidnapped is rare these days in Colombia and will probably only happen if tourists venture into remote areas, areas controlled by illegal groups, or get involved in drugs and gangs. Criminals aren't waiting at the airport or outside restaurants to kidnap people and ask for ransom – secuestro express is a more likely scenario (and even this depends on the situation – who the tourist is hanging out with, or if they are involved in dodgy activities."
The 2005 movie, Secuestro Express, is about the kidnapping of a rich businessman's daughter, and is 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 a crime particular to South America.
You get kidnapped for an hour, or however long it takes for them to drive you around town visiting ATMs, emptying your bank account, and maxing-out your credit card. Or they hold you for as long as it takes your family (or travel companion) to do the same.
It usually begins when the victim gets into a taxi. The driver will go around the corner where the bandits jump in. They persuade you to cooperate with knives, guns, a punch or two, and unfortunately for women, sexual assault.
If this happens to you, your travel insurance may cover medical expenses for injuries caused by them, 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. But, you'll have to argue with your bank about the credit card bill.
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).
Here are a few other ways to avoid crime in Colombia:
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Jacqui de Klerk separates the fact from fiction on kidnapping risks in Colombia, and everything you need to know to stay safe.
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