Is it Safe to Travel Colombia? Backpacking Safety Advice
Probably the biggest thing that stops people travelling to countries that they are interested in is the concern for their safety.
Is the country safe enough? What is the likelihood of something bad happening to me?
Most of the time, because of the media, a person will simply rule out an entire country because the media has made them believe that it’s extremely unsafe and that they will probably die if they go. And on top of that, you have your parents who might know nothing about the country and just believe the media. Which can be very confusing when you’re a young budding backpacker who just wants to travel the world and have a good time.
And this is the case for quite literally any non-western country. The advice and information I’m going to be discussing in this video can and should be applied wherever you go travelling but in this particular video we are going to be discussing safety in Colombia.
Colombia is the most recent country I visited. I backpacked around pretty much the whole country for just over 3 months. I went to Spanish School, learnt how to Salsa, explored from the Pacific coast to the Caribbean islands right the way up to the seemingly abandoned desert that is La Guajira.
Now, I was warned a lot about the risks to my safety before visiting Colombia. It doesn’t have the best reputation. I knew this before visiting and I made sure I followed my own basic backpacker safety rules.
So what are the basic backpacker safety rules I hear you ask?
1 - Bring at least 2 padlocks with you. One for your backpack and one to lock your valuables away in your hostel locker. I like these flexible ones because hostel lockers are all very different and some are kind of skew-wiff so you want something that can mould to all the shapes and sizes.
And then of course you actually must use the lockers, don’t leave your valuables unattended.
2 - Don’t go to secluded spots at night by yourself. If you need to get somewhere, get a taxi or get someone to escort you.
3 - Always have a charged phone on you and preferably with a local SIM card. It may be worth carrying a portable charger and the local SIM is so that you can always stay connected and have valuable information at your fingertips when you really need it. You’ll need to make sure your phone is unlocked before you travel.
4 - Have travel insurance because if something were to go wrong, you’re not held back by the financial stress of what it costs to fix your situation.
5 - Dress appropriately to respect the customs of the country that you are in.
6 - Don’t take drugs or drinks from people you don’t know or trust.
7 - Never get to the point where you are a liability. It’s not cute and it’s not safe.
A lot of those may seem obvious to you and if they are not currently obvious to you, make them obvious because this is your basic backpacker safety wherever you are in the world.
But now back to Colombia. In my time there, nothing bad happened to me personally. But it would be irresponsible if I didn’t share with you some stories of when things have gone wrong for some travellers.
There is saying in Colombia called “no dar Papaya” which means ‘don’t give papaya’. Okay I get it, that probably still doesn’t make sense. It means, don’t give the bad person a reason to target you. And my basic backpacker safety rules will cover you for most of this. But in Colombia, this extends to not having your valuables out in public. Even your phone, keep it away somewhere that is not visible and not accessible.
Pickpocketing is very common and petty theft. You will hear numerous stories from backpackers who have had something stolen. Their phone just being taken out of their hands by someone in a passing vehicle. Wallets being stolen from pockets. Maybe they’ve done something to distract you like bump into you so you’re flustered and they reach in and grab something valuable.
If it makes you feel any better, you won’t just hear these stories from tourists, locals are stolen from too. There are no exceptions unless you have followed the rule of ‘no dar papaya’. Having a bumbag or cross body bag that sits on your front is perfect because your valuables are zipped away, not to be seen. Don’t get them out!
Okay so what about the stories of the people who have been robbed at gunpoint, knife point or something similar. This is a lot more serious and could happen to you even if you don’t have your valuables on show.
First of all, this is very unlikely. You do hear stories but in reality, the chances are very slim. And in pretty much every case, there were clear but avoidable factors that contributed to the attacks.
I want to share with you Nomadic Matt’s story and the important points to take away from his experience. Nomadic Matt is a very popular travel blogger and last year he shared how he was stabbed in Bogota, or knifed to be more specific as the knife was small and did not go in deeply. Anyway, Matt’s story. He had been in Colombia for a while and was aware of the possible bad things that could happen, he is a very experienced traveller. But he, like many tourists became complacent. Because nothing bad had yet happened to him. It’s all well and good you receiving this advice from me and others and sticking to it but when you’re in Colombia, you see all the locals with their phones out and it’s fine. So you start being more casual with your own valuables and when nothing bad happens you feel safe. It feels normal.
So Matt was in the reception of his hostel in Bogota with his phone in his hand. He then walked out of the hostel still with his phone in his hand. 3 steps out of the hostel, a guy tries to snatch his phone. Matt obviously reacted in defence and held on tight to his phone and pulled it in. The guy continued to fight with Matt and Matt continued to fight back, now yelling for help and keeping his guard up. To cut a long story short, because of the adrenaline, Matt didn’t realise that this guy was actually knifing him. After a short amount of time, people came running over to help, the guy had run away, Matt actually still had his phone but he was in shock. The people helping him were so friendly, and made sure he got to hospital, the owner of his hostel actually stayed with him in hospital to make sure he recovered okay. They ended up catching the bad guy who got sent to prison and Matt recovered from his wounds.
This is a very abbreviated version of the story so you can read his full story here.
So what can we learn from this story?
Matt himself admitted that he had become complacent. At the beginning of his trip, he wouldn’t have walked out on the street with his phone out. But because he saw other people doing it and he started doing it and as it was always fine, he became comfortable with it.
Lesson: never become complacent
Another thing to perhaps take away is that things only got violent when Matt resisted. If Matt had have just handed over his phone, things would not have become violent. But of course, like Matt says, that’s not your instinct in the moment.
Lesson: If someone is threatening you, it’s probably best to hand over your things.
I have a friend who was approached in Cali by about 3 guys who had a gun. They asked for his phone. My friend said I’m not giving you my phone because I need it but here’s some cash. The robbers said okay, they took the cash and went on their way. My friend is much braver than I would have been. But he was alone and there wasn’t anyone else on the street. Perhaps had he not been completely alone on this deserted street, that probably wouldn’t have happened.
I also met a guy who was with his friend on a night out. They met 2 Colombian girls and decided to book a love hotel. The guy I met said he got a bad vibe from the girls and decided to go home but his friend wanted to stay. The Colombian girls were giving him drinks. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the morning with phone and wallet stolen.
So that’s enough about bad stories. Although these are terrible things, I hope you can see how these situations could have been avoided if you stick to the rules and don’t get complacent.
Let’s talk a little bit more about “no dar papaya” and things to actively do and not do to avoid bad situations.
CASH AND ATM’S
Don’t get cash out at an ATM on the street. Make sure it is inside a bank or shopping mall. Somewhere with security cameras. Don’t get out too much cash at once unless you absolutely have to and put it away somewhere safe before you leave. If you have to withdraw a large sum of cash, put just a small amount into your daily purse and the rest in a hidden pocket.
Go inside to use your phone. A restaurant, a shop, a hostel, a bank. It doesn’t matter. If you need to use your phone while walking on the street, wait until you can head inside, then use your phone and then head back out again with your phone away.
You may well see other people with their phones out who are seemingly fine. Most of the time it is fine but you do so at your own risk.
If you are in the wilderness or you’re at a really touristy destination, generally it is fine to have your camera out. Whenever I did use my camera, it was always either strapped around my wrist like my GoPro or strapped around my body, with my big camera. I never got my big camera out when I was on my own, I only ever did when I was walking with someone else or in a tour group.
Now you may have seen me using my GoPro and my phone in vlogs when I was by myself. I’m afraid this was me becoming complacent. I felt safe. Now the chances are I was safe but if I wanted to guarantee something bad wouldn’t happen, I shouldn’t have done that. That was at my own risk.
I asked you on Instagram a few days ago, when you think about safety in Colombia, what is it that you are specifically scared of?
Getting raped, murdered, kidnapped by a drug cartel all came up, amongst other things. I personally have never heard of any of these things happening in recent years. Colombia has changed a lot in the last 20 years. Most Colombians are utterly ashamed and embarrassed of their country’s past and the reputation it has given them, because Colombians are genuinely among some of the nicest and friendliest people on the planet. However, as in every country, there are some rotten eggs amongst them.
But being sold to sex slavery is unheard of nowadays for backpackers and it is much less likely to happen if you don’t give papaya.
A few other concerns include unwanted male attention, catcalling and creepy men. I can safely say my experiences of these things were not half as bad as they are in Ladbroke Grove in London.
Public transport and night buses. Your biggest threat here is pickpocketing and petty theft. If I could, I would keep all my bags on me and next to me the whole time, which is where having a small backpack comes in handy. If there is physically no space, at the very least, make sure you have all your valuables in a zipped up bag which sits on your lap. Again, if you can, do not get your valuables out at any point, but if you do, be very discreet.
Are the taxis reliable? Generally I would always favour getting an Uber or equivalent. In Colombia you can try downloading, Lyft, Beat, Didi. I know Uber was banned in Medellin. And when your ride arrives, don’t say “ah is that for Christianne?”, you say “Como te llamas?” Which means what is your name? They must tell you their name which must match up with whoever is on your screen before you get in the car. You can also of course cross-check their picture. Read their reviews. Check it is the correct vehicle.
And then when you are in the car, if you are worried, you can do things like pretend to be on a call to a friend who is at the destination you are being dropped off at. You can make it seem like this person on the phone is expecting your arrival. You can talk to them about where you currently are in the car and what you are driving past. If the driver was planning on doing anything dodgy, he’s not going to be so keen if he knows that someone is expecting you.
Taxis are generally okay though, I would just make sure that your hostel or restaurant calls one for you from a reputable service. Check that the taxi has a working meter and if not make sure you negotiate the final price before you start the journey.
If it is on the meter, make sure you are tracking the journey on Google Maps on your phone to make sure your taxi driver is not driving around in circles to try and ramp up the price. Make it known that you know exactly where you should be going.
Is it better to dress modestly?
I mean it definitely doesn’t hurt to dress more modestly but generally it is okay to dress however you want within reason. A lot of Colombians are pretty liberal in the way they dress. You can wear shorts and strappy tops and crop tops. Maybe don’t dress like a hooker because that might give people the wrong impression but it’s not like the Middle East for example.
Did you feel particularly vulnerable as a solo female?
Honestly no. I always say this but as a solo traveller, I am very rarely actually by myself. If I was and I had to walk somewhere, I’d get a taxi. I’d recommend the same if you are a man. Use your initiative, take no shit from people trying to give you a hard time. I’d say this for if you were anywhere in the world, male or female, with friends or not.
How to pick a good hostel in Colombia and not a dodgy one?
So I would always recommend reading the reviews on booking.com and Hostelworld to get a good sense of what a hostel is like. But some hostels that you can always trust throughout the country are Selina hostels and Viajero Hostels.
Any common scams to be aware of?
Someone told me on Instagram that they were told to never give their passport to police doing random street checks as they hold them ransom for bribes.
So you can avoid this by not carrying you passport around with you generally. You could also say, I will only give it to you at the police station. If they are not a real policeman, then they will obviously not want to do that.
An obvious one is market vendors and their prices. Obviously, they will say the price is much higher than it is so you should try and negotiate the price down.
People telling you that they have no change. A lot of the time, they do actually have change but are just reluctant to give it to you. A way to avoid this is to make sure you always have small change yourself. The supermarket is normally a good place to break your big notes.
Okay so in summary, my answer is Yes, I do believe that Colombia is a safe country to visit. But keep your wits about you. No dar papaya and don’t become complacent. And you will have an incredible time and enjoy the very best of Colombia with no problems.
Even if you did become complacent, which I’ll be honest, I certainly did... you still have to be pretty unlucky for something bad to actually happen. It’s a case of wrong place, wrong time. But if you follow the rules, those risks are eliminated.
Like I said, Colombians are some of the nicest people on the planet and are so hospitable and will go out of their way to help you. They are so kind. They are so upset that some tourists don’t want to visit because of the countries past and reputation.