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Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Colombia: Read the latest travel alerts to find out how COVID-19 restrictions may affect you.
Colombia is one of South America's best travel destinations. The violent crime and chaos that kept visitors away in the past have been drastically reduced over the last decade. Particular progress has been made combatting the worst traveling nightmare – kidnapping.
Here are a few things you need to know about kidnapping risk in Colombia.
From the 1960s, Colombians were caught in the middle of a civil conflict between left-wing guerrilla groups, far-right paramilitaries and drug cartels. Kidnapping was increasingly used as a terror tactic or for political leverage. Ransoms provided a source of finance, along with cocaine production.
While some of the kidnappings were planned, many of the reported incidences were opportunistic, especially those involving foreign citizens traveling through regions operated by rebel groups.
The chance of being kidnapped in Colombia nowadays is slim to none. The historic ceasefire agreement between the Colombian government and the FARC and 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. That said, you still need to use caution and common sense to stay safe in Colombia.
While there is a peace agreement with the FARC, other rebel groups – such as the ELN (National Liberation Army) and dissidents of the FARC – continue to pose a risk in particular areas of the country. Colombians are typically the main targets, but rebel groups can also target foreign nationals working in (or thought to be working in) the oil, mining and other related industries.
The Venezuelan government often temporarily closes its land borders with Colombia due to political tensions, security concerns, and contraband smuggling. Check with authorities for the latest security and COVID-19 updates before traveling anywhere near the border.
Taking buses and public transport in Colombia is safe, and there is a very, very low 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 and foreign nationals for their perceived wealth.
Although this type of crime doesn't happen often, it is important to be aware that criminals are opportunists and randomly select their victims.
By avoiding vulnerable situations, this will not happen to you. Most express kidnappings involve victims who have hailed a taxi from the street.
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. Instead, call a taxi from a restaurant, bar or hotel, or use ride-hailing apps Beat or Cabify. (Uber is not available in Colombia).
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.
Tips to staying safe:
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.
This makes things pretty easy for visitors: most major cities and tourism drawcards lie outside the danger zones. The key is to avoid traveling too far off the beaten path and stay out of rural areas. Luckily this doesn't apply to the gorgeous Zona Cafetera, where Colombia's coffee production is centred.
Departments, excluding their respective capital cities, which should be avoided according to 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, and Santander.
Much of the department of Chocó on the Pacific coast is remote, with active illegal armed groups throughout the region, particularly near the border with Panama. So except for Capurganá and the whale-watching towns of Nuquí and Bahía Solano, Chocó should be avoided.
Avoiding rural areas in northern Antioquia, southern Cordoba, southern Valle de Cauca, and southern Bolivar is also recommended. Except for Villavicencio and Caño Cristales, the department of Meta should be avoided entirely.
If you intend to visit Chocó or Caño Cristales, travel by air, and don't travel beyond the main tourist sites. And if you decide to do the Lost City trek in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, you should only do so with an organized tour.
Illegal Colombian armed groups have become active along the Venezuelan border in recent years, particularly in the department of Arauca, where there are frequent clashes between rebels groups. To avoid being caught in the crossfire of a drug war, it's best to avoid the Colombian-Venezuelan border altogether.
Traveling by night in Colombia 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 vehicle is an easy target. The risk of kidnapping or coming across roadblocks set up by rebel groups is higher in some rural areas.
If you do want to drive yourself, make sure you drive during daylight hours and stick to the major highways – 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 bigger 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.
If you want to travel to remote areas, only do so with a reputable tour agency. You should also check for up-to-date advice from your government and the local authorities before your journey. And it goes without saying that hitchhiking is not a great idea in Colombia.
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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