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Colombia has become one of South America's best travel destinations. The violent crime and chaos that kept visitors away in the past has been drastically reduced over the last decade. Particular progress has been made combatting that worst of traveling nightmares – kidnapping.
Here are a few things you need to know about kidnapping risk in Colombia.
For decades the citizens of Colombia were caught in the middle of conflict between left-wing guerrilla groups, far-right paramilitaries and drug cartels. Kidnapping was increasingly used as a terror tactic and ransoms provided a source of finance, along with cocaine production. Though Colombia is fighting the war on drugs, the cocaine trade still continues. Over 360 tonnes were seized in 2017, including 12 tons in November found in banana plantations near the Colombia-Panama border. Due to increased drug seizures, the incidence of the crime has fallen, at least in the major cities.
No, you won’t get kidnapped. The historic peace agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC, together with increased security forces in cities and along major roads, have led to a significant decrease in kidnappings. In fact, kidnappings have fallen a whopping 92% since 2000.
Although there is an agreement with the FARC, there are other groups that continue to pose a risk in certain areas of the country.
Departments, excluding their respective capital cities, which should be avoided according to the several governments, include Nariño (except Ipiales border crossing), Putumayo, Arauca, Cauca (except the road between San Agustin ruins in Huila and Popayán), Caquetá, Guaviare, Guainía, Vichada, Huila, Norte de Santander, Santander, Chocó (except the whale-watching towns of Nuquí, Bahía Solano, and Capurganá).
It is also recommended to avoid rural areas in northern Antioquia, southern Cordoba, southern Valle de Cauca, and southern Bolivar. With the exception of Villavicencio and Caño Cristales, the department of Meta should be completely avoided.
The Venezuelan government often temporarily closes its land borders with Colombia due to security concerns, the smuggling of contraband and the COVID-19 pandemic. Check with authorities for the latest security updates before traveling near the border.
Taking buses and public transport in Colombia is safe, and there is a very, very slim chance of being kidnapped.
However, try to always travel long distances in the day and with a reputable bus company, such as Marsol, Berlinas, Expreso Brasilia, or Rapido Ochoa. These companies always travel on main routes, only stopping to pick up passengers at official bus stations.
The so-called paseo millonario (millionaire’s ride) happens when criminals working with taxi drivers take a passenger to various ATMs and force the victim to withdraw money from their account.
The abduction doesn’t last long (24-48 hours) and victims are released unharmed. The targets are usually middle-to-wealthy Colombians, as well as foreign tourists for their perceived wealth.
Although this type of crime doesn’t happen often, it is important to be aware that criminals are opportunists and by avoiding vulnerable situations, this will not happen to you.
Never flag a taxi from the street, especially in dodgy, or tourist areas in big cities, or if you are alone; nor enter an already occupied taxi. Rather call a taxi from a restaurant, bar or hotel or use Uber, Tappsi or Easy Taxi.
Leave bank cards, passport, and valuable jewelry locked up in the hotel safe and only carry a copy of your passport and enough money for the day/night.
Alternatively, bring a credit card with a low limit.
The danger is greatest in the far south and northeast of the country where rebels and drug cartels hide out in the remote mountains and thick jungle. For visitors this makes things pretty easy: most of the major cities and tourism draw cards lie outside the danger zones. The key is to avoid traveling too far off the beaten path and to stay out of rural areas. Luckily this doesn't apply to the gorgeous Zona Cafetera, where Colombia's coffee production is centred.
Traveling by night isn't a good idea. Night buses might be a convenient way to combine sleep and travel times but they are more often targeted for robberies and kidnapping. It's also best to stick to the big national bus companies like Expreso Palmira, Bolivariano, Berlinas, Expreso Brasilia, Copetran and Rapido Ochoa. They tend to take more direct routes and are less likely to stop for roadside passengers along the way, which can be risky. Domestic flights are relatively cheap in Colombia, with some airlines offering great promotional deals to rival bus prices. It's worth checking online before you buy a bus ticket.
Hire cars are sometimes targeted in robberies and abductions, especially on tough rural roads where a slow moving car is an easy target. If you do want to drive yourself make sure you stick to the major highways and don't stop unless you're in a populated area. Try to keep the petrol tank topped up so you're not forced to stop in danger zones.
Carjacking can be an issue in the cities so remember to keep your doors locked at all times. Be wary at intersections, especially at night, and don't hang around if you think you're in danger.
Before you buy a travel insurance policy, check your government travel warnings and health advice – there may be no travel insurance cover for locations with a government travel ban or health advice against travel.
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