Colombia, a country long plagued by drugs, violence, and crime, is no longer the place that it was 20 years ago. These days, tourism in Colombia is on an upswing. This once war-torn country known for kidnappings and violence is making its way up the tourist destination list is receiving much more positive attention from media outlets.
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Even with this notoriety, there is still much debate as to whether Colombia is a safe place to travel. There is reasonable speculation among foreigners about the current state of the country.
To really understand the climate in Colombia we need to dispel some of the false and dramatized representations that are circulated about the country while also addressing some of the real threats.
Narcos vs. Now
It’s difficult to speak on the political climate of Colombia without mentioning the impact that the popular Netflix series, Narcos, has had on its image.
Narcos is a show that romanticizes the very reputation that the Colombian people are working hard to dismantle. Some say it glorifies the pain that the Colombian people have experienced as a result of drugs and violence.
What is important to know about Narcos is that it is set 20+ years in the past and does not reflect the current state of Colombia. The violence shown in the series is a far cry from the realities of modern Colombia.
Not surprisingly, the show is unpopular among the Colombian people because of its focus on such an ugly part of the country’s history.
Colombia is so much more than what Narcos portrays, as evidenced in documentaries like Colombia Magia Salvaje. It’s important to understand Colombia in its entirety before making a judgment on its level of safety.
Peace in Colombia
Fifty years of warfare came to a symbolic halt when the current Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos, began peace talks with the primary guerrilla group in Colombia: the FARC.
Colombia has faced a long-standing war (the longest in the western hemisphere until the peace talks) between the government and radical leftist militia groups that has resulted in the kidnapping and murder of hundreds of thousands of officials, soldiers, and civilians.
The Colombian people lived in a state of fear for decades. Aggressive operations against the guerrillas and subsequent peace talks changed that by implementing a cease-fire agreement.
Shortly after, the Colombian government and the FARC signed an official peace agreement. The international community gave an almost unanimous stamp of approval and Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
However, while the peace process makes great headlines in the rest of the world, the Colombian population is divided over the peace process. In an October 2016 referendum, the Colombian people actually voted against the peace deal. Why? The terms were seen by many as being far too flexible for the FARC. Despite the referendum, Santos went forward with the process, much to the disdain of the common people. Despite the international applause, Santos’s approval rating hovers in the low twenties in his own country.
Today, Colombia continues to work on rebuilding its communities and combating the impact that the war has had on the country.
The Colombian Spirit
The resilient and optimistic spirit of the Colombian people is something that is felt immediately upon coming to Colombia. It’s a feeling that permeates the country as a whole.
This unanimous spirit is evident from the warm hospitality, engagement, and jovial energy of the people.
It is a testament to the character of the Colombian people in spite of their arduous past. It demonstrates their desire to create better conditions as well as construct a new image of their country.
What’s It Like on the Ground?
The big picture stuff is certainly good to know, but what’s the situation look like on the day-to-day for the common tourist? Here are a couple of everyday aspects that you should scout out before arriving.
Taxis: Taxi safety and reliability depend on the city. Bogota’s drivers get mixed reviews. Upon entering the taxi be sure to check the meter and monitor it as you go. Driver’s have been known to ask for more than what the meter counts. Medellin, on the other hand, is much more reliable on the taxi front. Drivers are generally trustworthy, honest and tend to know the city well. The coast is where taxis gets ugly. Taxis don’t have meters so there is room for negotiation (read: exploitation). Uber is illegal in Colombia, but is common and is often a safer alternative, especially for female travelers. If you’re in Medellin, the metro is an efficient and safe option as well.
ATM’s: Bancolombia is the largest bank in Colombia and is your best bet for finding an ATM. General withdrawal rules are fairly fundamental. Only withdraw in the daytime and if you have to withdraw in the night time, be sure to have a group of friends standing immediately outside the ATM waiting for you.
Buses: Colombian buses get mixed reviews and vary in terms of security depending on the region. One thing that’s fairly constant is poor roads in rural areas. Know that poor road conditions do not mean that drivers will slow down. Many a foreigner and Colombian alike have gotten sick on windy bus trips.
Nightlife: This is one of the best parts about the country. Colombians are experts in fun and trips to discotecas or the more traditional fonda watering holes are quite the experience. Whether it’s salsa, reggaeton, rock, or mixes of music from all over the world, you can find it all. Going out with a mixed group of Colombians and foreigners is the way to go as you won’t be regarded as “the group of foreigners over there”.
It is also important that you look for the right types of fun. Drinking and meeting new friends can be a blast, but when you start to get risky, threats increase exponentially. Depending on where you are in the country, drugs and prostitution can be commonplace. The Colombian party style is fun enough without these things, so take the safe route.
Asking for directions: Colombians are generally open and won’t mind helping you find your way. People from Bogota have a reputation for being slightly more cold, while people on the coast and in Medellin are famous for being helpful. Just be polite and don’t assume they speak English.
Colombia by the Numbers
So what do the statistics say? Let’s slow down a little. The numbers still cause a little bit of concern.
– Colombia is home to four of the world’s 50 most dangerous cities in the world.
– The U.S. Department of State’s Colombia travel warning covers a wide range of risks and threats including kidnapping, narco-terrorism, and general street robbery.
– The country consistently ranks in the top 15 for national murder rates in non-war zones. The 2016 murder rate (murders per 100,000 residents) was 24.6. By comparison, the U.S. finished 2016 at 4.8 and the U.K. at 0.92.
– Those four cities (Cali, Palmira, Armenia, and Cucuta from high to low in murder rate) are not common tourist destinations. More frequented cities like Cartagena, Bogota, and Medellin, while still high-crime cities on international standards, are significantly safer in terms of violent crimes. Medellin has the highest murder rate of the three and typically hovers in the low twenties, a number that usually stacks up to that of Washington D.C.
– It is the State Department’s job to educate travelers on the risk they may encounter in a foreign country. Travel warnings aren’t meant to tell good stories.
– American cities like St. Louis, Detroit, New Orleans and Baltimore, far outpace Colombia’s top tourist cities in violent crimes.
Medellin has come a long way since the Narco terror days of the Medellin and Cali Cartels and civil war. Travelers with all ranges of experience visit Colombia and see the brighter side of the country that hasn’t earned nearly the same level of fame as the horrors of the past.
That being said, there are still risks and bad things can certainly happen. You can’t put a price on common sense here. Staying away from certain areas and seeking the right types of fun are the best defenses a traveler can have.
Don’t let the narco shadow cover the beautiful side of Colombia forever. Perhaps no country in the world has made more progress over the last two decades and there is a new sense of hope in the population. Foreigners are beginning to see it too.
Plan your visit to Colombia with the confidence that it will be an experience to rival all other travel destinations.
Looking for a way to volunteer in Colombia? Check out A Broader View — a 501(c)(3) that connects volunteers with programs around the world.
Read more on Colombia at ATR