Is Colombia safe for travelers?
If you’ve ever heard the name Escobar, or FARC, or seen Blow, this question might give you pause. And that’s okay. Your safety is always worth your time when travel and unfamiliarity collide—especially when the world around you keeps rolling out reasons to worry, as it has with Colombia.
The Republic of Colombia, we’ve all heard, was not a pretty place in the early 90s; a place of drug-fueled violence, drug-fueled kidnappings and generally just a good amount of drug-fueled bad news. Political instability, too, headlined by the efforts of leftist guerrilla groups like FARC and ELN, would seem the status quo since the mid-60s if you didn’t know otherwise.
Well, the times, they are a-changin’. Two decades after the well-publicized death of Pablo Escobar, Colombia is once again (finally?) safe for travelers. And with my passport now bearing the stamp of a qualified visitor, I’m here to say first-hand that it’s time to take advantage.
Technically, I can speak only for the map I colored in: Bogotá, Cali and the Coffee Triangle. And of course I really can’t claim to speak for any entire country, or city, or even just one or two friendly Colombian guys. But it is in areas like the ones I visited—the cities and more touristy destinations—that government clean-up efforts have really made a difference, and I was impressed by what I saw.
By all reports, drug trafficking has slowed drastically, and many of its biggest proponents have been taken out altogether. Violent crimes and kidnappings have plummeted, and business and trade conventions are on the rise. Colombia is even training front-liners in other countries (most recently in Mexico) in the art of combating their own cartels, a testament to the internationally recognized progress it’s made.
But just as important is the fact that for ten Colombian days, and full days each of them, I felt completely and truly safe. The unanimously friendly locals assured me they, too, felt safe, and were excited to have even a blunted international outlet through which to share the news. Times have a-changed, and the optimism is tangible.
In the words of the government’s latest (and pretty direct) campaign, “the only risk is wanting to stay.” Well, Colombian government, that’s probably a little too optimistic (you’re not quite there yet), but with my own feet on Colombian soil, first-hand, I heard as much as felt just how close it is. An ex-Bostonian named Justin told me that in nearly four years of blissful living in Bogotá, the only crime he’d come across involved just one stolen camera and zero violence. The tempered rebel movement still has life in the provincial regions, but my local friend Dave rebutted the notion of rebel threats to city folks as anything but media scare-tactics.
In other words, there are risks, but the perception simply isn’t the reality anymore. And if you travel smart, and with a group like LivingTrips, they’re practically nonexistent. Urban life in Colombia isn’t quite South Kensington. It probably won’t ever be. But already, it’s right in sync with the sometimes-frenzied energy that defines Latin America’s best experiences, and that just feels right.
Tourism has grown at a rate of 10.6% a year since 2000, and I have to think that will accelerate as word gets out. This is a country—one of only 17 megadiverse countries in the world—that has been tragically under-visited for far too long. Incredible and diverse landscapes (like the Valle de Cocora), unexpected cultural attractions (like the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquirá) and a warm and artistic people have been lost in the chaotic shuffle. Trips to, say, Bogotá, Cali and the Coffee Triangle can help you find them again.
With the help of a group like LivingTrips (you can translate to English in the top left of the site nav), you can help this amazing country shed its outdated reputation. And just as I did, you’ll probably end up wanting to stay.
More on safety, which comes first
- Cautionary tips from the U.S. State Department
- Britain weighs in (in kg) with more cautionary tips
- From the House Ways and Means Committee in 2011: Colombia looking good!
Things to know about Colombia
- Spanish is the country’s first language, and it’s squarely in front of the rest. If your Spanish isn’t great, an English-speaking guide (with LivingTrips, for one) is a quick fix, and probably necessary.
- The currency is the peso. When written, amounts in pesos are denoted with the same symbol ($) as the U.S. dollar sign, so don’t be thrown off by what look to be silly high prices. Click here to see the peso against the U.S. dollar in real-time, courtesy of xe.com.
Helpful tip: Though the other notes are marked with their full numeric values, the 50,000 peso note reads, “50 mil.” Without all the zeroes, I found, it’s easy to forget this is the highest denomination. That said, worst-case scenario is leaving an amazing tip.
- The country is broken up into 32 departments (the equivalent of our states), one of which unites a stunning yet somewhat unknown collection of tropical islands lying off the coast of Nicaragua. Known as the Archipelago of San Andrés, Providencia and Santa Catalina, all are popular holiday destination for countrymen who can have a hard time leaving the country’s jurisdiction.
- Alongside rum (“ron” in Spanish), aguardiente is the most popular alcohol here. The name can be loosely translated as “fire water,” which is actually a pretty accurate description of its anise-tinged taste. Each department is licensed to produce its own, and so generally speaking, you drink the local brew—and usually neat.
- There are no laws against public drinking, so feel free to go nuts in the plaza if that’s your thing (just don’t be a fool and show respect, like anywhere else). Chicha, an alcoholic drink made from fermented corn, is a popular choice for outdoor drinking.
- Club Colombia is the most imbibed beer. There are several variations, including Black and Red, but Gold is the original. All are solid, though I’d say Red might be my favorite.
- Outlets accept U.S.-style, 110-volt plugs.
- Plantain chips, paired with some sort of salsa, come gratis with/before practically every meal. They’re like the bread and butter of Colombian restaurants, in both senses, and they’re great.
- Meal portions, particularly with lunch and dinner (in that order), are for the most part pretty huge.
- Like most of the international community, Colombia uses the Celsius scale instead of our beloved Fahrenheit. Don’t forget that, and just generally, check out this quick conversion guide from earthXplorer.
- The country is around 95% Roman Catholic, so don’t be surprised to find many establishments closed on Sundays.
- Tipping is customarily less common than in the U.S., but don’t hesitate if it feels appropriate (and that’s the right way to put it). In such a case, 10% is usually standard.
- Colombia was named after Christopher Colombus, who never set foot inside the present-day borders. The country was also once officially known as the United States of Colombia, at a time when the The New York Times didn’t read as well.
- Simón Bolívar is the dude to know here. As in much of this corner Latin America, “the Liberator” is pretty unanimously considered to be a/the national hero. As such, the main square in every Colombian city is known as the “Plaza de Bolívar,” and all but two have statues in his honor.
Worth a read
Pablo Escobar is responsible for some truly terrible things, and in fact much of the darkness that defined this most recent and tragic Colombian epoch. Still, I learned during my visit about another side of the man, one that led many locals—particularly in his Medellín—to see him as a sort of Robin Hood figure. This, and a general curiosity about his movie-inspiring place in history, led me to read this book, which may finally be adapted into a movie after years of hype. Good stuff. I’m still hoping for Javier Bardem.