Is Colombia safe, people would always ask me when they would hear I lived for three years in this Latin American country. Ever since I was eighteen, I started moving quite a bit. Out of all those experiences, people are mostly intrigued by me living in Colombia. ‘’Is Colombia still dangerous?’’, they would ask. Although safety in Colombia has been enormously improved, the Colombian peace process was not as fruitful as expected. Crime was not completely eradicated, simply because there had been brutal conflicts for decades, and mentalities do not change overnight.
Aside very complicated history in Colombia, especially in the second half of the XX century, there are areas in every country and city in the world that you would never, as a tourist, go to. Am I right? Or, at least, you would go with a local. Those places are often not even in the tourist guides, because there is nothing touristic there to see. It is the same thing when it comes to safety in Colombia. Is Colombia safe? You definitely need to be cautious, you need to avoid certain parts of cities, adopt certain behaviors.
When you start living in Colombia, things get a bit more complicated because the sense of danger becomes omnipresent. You are obliged to change certain behaviors. But don’t worry, most of the changes come naturally, because of the general ambience and practices of other inhabitants of the city.
Colombians and their sense of safety
Colombians are pretty obsessed with safety and I cannot blame them for that given all the negative experiences they have had. Is Colombia safe for Colombians? Each one of them has had a situation of being robed, pulled out a knife or a gun on. I admit that sometimes I would think that they exaggerated. They spoke about safety absolutely all the time. It was constantly in some way a part of a conversation. I would often feel overwhelmed by all the dos and don’ts. The incredible mental weight I would sometimes feel, came from the unstoppable repetition of the precaution measurements I had to take.
Let me illustrate this idea for you. There was a supermarket right in front of my super secured building apartment. Sometimes, I would go out to buy something I needed for dinner at 8 or 9 pm. The doorman would always ask me: ‘’Señorita, a donde va?’’ – ‘’Miss, where are you going?’’ I know that he meant no harm, that was his way of protecting me. However, it was those kinds of questions that you get asked all day long that remind you absolutely all the time that you need to be careful. That feeling of constant insecurity and some kind of instability is omnipresent. Is Colombia safe is a question as important as the one How dangerous do Colombians think that their country is? In the end, their subjective feeling is also what counts.
Being from a very safe, small town, I have to admit that there were times when I would feel overwhelmed in Colombia because of alarming words of people around me. Also, I would get a lot of questions from back home: Is Colombia safe? But that might have been just me.
Because of the life circumstances, I was always cautious, no matter where I was. Whether it was my super safe home town, the streets of Paris or the capital of Colombia, I was always careful. We, girls, are thought to be on guard and vigilant at all times, to make sure that nobody is following us, that nobody wants to harm us. All of that weight is put on us since our birth, because streets are not as safe for us as they are for men. Having to think about my safety was already an inseparable part of me.
I didn’t feel like Colombia was more dangerous for me because I was a foreigner. People would not look at me more than at other people I was with. That is an amazing thing about Colombia and many other countries of South America. Because of its colonial heritage, the population in Colombia is an incredible mixture of people of all colors! Now, I do understand that colonialism brought a lot of negative things as well, but this is not going to be the subject of this article. Other reason was probably because I was in a capital. Occupied people in big cities with tons of things to do in one day notice much less other people.
Safety measurements when you live in Colombia
Of course, I had to adapt certain behaviors to my new living environment. After all, I was a foreigner coming to a new continent. It is always up to you to adjust certain conducts and practices, not on the country that is generously welcoming you. In Novi Sad, where I had lived in Serbia before going to Colombia, I would take long night walks or I would ride my bike at night. That was something not possible in a busy and chaotic Bogota. I could not decide just like that at 9 pm that I would go for a ride. I guess, you could answer the question is Colombia safe, with yes, but we also need to take into consideration all the circumstances.
On the other hand, in the evening you are preparing to go to bed because, most certainly, you need to wake up before 6 am. The dynamic in the city is such that you don’t really feel the need, desire or strength to hang out outside late at night.
Highly secured apartments
As you could notice, Colombians took safety very seriously. If they could afford it, they would live in super secured buildings. These would have one doorman or few, depending on the size of the building, cameras, even double doors. Doorman would take care of different things in the building.
The compound of buildings where I lived had one secure door at the gate and then the doormen had something like a reception desk, like a passage that you had to go through in order to get to your building. Charges were obviously very high, since they covered doormen’s salaries. Were we safer because we had chosen to live in the north? Probably, but not completely safe. The same doorman that would ask me where I was going at night got robbed in front of our building while going to work.
In 2012, smart phones were just starting to be a thing and I did not have one. Yes, I relied on Skype on my computer. But that was one worry less for me. I didn’t have to check my pockets all the time to see if my phone is still in its place. My phone was cheap, it had very few functions. Even if it had gotten stolen, I would have not lost a valuable object filled with memorable photos like that would be the case today.
Public transportation is another place where additional on guard is needed. I was lucky enough to have a school bus pick me up in the morning and bring me home in the afternoon, so I did not have to deal with overcrowded buses on a daily basis.
The main transportation in Bogota is Transmilenio. Bus stops function in the same way as metro. You need a ticket to get in to the platform where there are few different lines. Since there are guards on every bus stop, it feels safer than the small buses that you catch on the street. These guards are mainly young Colombians on their military service.
However, sometimes, you would not have a choice, because Transmilenio would not get to certain parts of the city and you would need to take other, small buses. They are less safe, because the whole system around them is not controlled by the Colombian government, but rather private companies. These buses do not have official stops, you would have to stop it with your hand in the air, like a cab. Also, they are dangerously fast. There are big signs with the names of the places they are going to written in the front. By the time you read the first two lines and try to figure out where that bus is going, it has already passed. In any case, as a tourist in Colombia, it is not very likely that you will need to use them.
Is Colombia safe for tourists?
Whether you live in Colombia, or you just visit as a tourist, there are certain rules that, if you stick to, the probability is very low that something will happen to you:
• You don’t go out by yourself at night.
• You watch your drink when in a bar or a club.
• You avoid speaking on the phone on the street or simply holding your phone in your hand, especially in certain parts of the city. Also, you would not leave it on the table while you are having coffee in a café, something we, Europeans, are so used to doing.
• You never grab a cab on the street. Always call a cab to a special phone number that gives you a code, that you then give to the driver and that is how he can start a meter in his car.
• If possible, avoid the small buses that you catch on the street. Use rather the official transportation.
• Hold your bag close to you when in crowded places.
• Know which parts of a city are safe and stick to those. The safe ones are usually the ones that are most touristic, so that is where you will hang out anyways.
• Try keeping a low profile.
It seems to me like these precautions are the ones you would take in any case when traveling…
How dangerous is Bogota?
The place in Bogota that felt like dangerous was the city center. Danger is something you can feel in the air. I loved the ambience in the center, especially if the weather was nice. Street vendors were everywhere, streets were packed with people hanging around and watching artistic performance. It was a real delight to watch families walk around while you would be drinking your guanabana juice. Those were the real moments of getting to know Bogota and its inhabitants. Living in a bubble in the north and working in a school that rich kids attended had to be broken on some occasions. That is why I adored going to the city center.
However, sometimes colorful streets, especially under bad weather, felt menacing. When the sun was not shining, there were less people on the streets and beggars were more visible. A surprising thing for me was that you could feel the danger in the air. Over time, you learn to hear the heartbeats of the city and you know when it is not doing well. As you are not a doctor, you would not try to fix it, you would just avoid getting affected by leaving the part of the city in question.
If you came by car, you would even avoid stopping on the traffic lights and you would make sure to lock the doors. I felt like this multiple times and I did not risk it, I would immediately go back to the safer parts of the city, mainly somewhere around my house. Those days, if someone would ask me is Colombia safe, I would not so easily say no.
Dangers of the South of Bogota
As a foreigner, you are always told not to go to the South of Bogota, at least not by yourself. It was a great surprise to me that some of my students had never even been to the city center of the city they were born in, not to mention the South! That is why we organized something like field trips to the Museo del Oro, the most famous museum in Colombia, so that kids could see what the city center looked like.
Since I lived in Bogota for 3 years, I obviously went to the South on various occasions. There were different markets in the South that I was curious to see. I also went wondering around some neighborhoods known as less dangerous, out of curiosity. Of course, I did it with few friends, I was not alone. Some of the parts in the south seemed safe with big houses of Colombians that did not want to pay high rents and expensive bills in the North.
Un techo para mi pais
Then there were times when I volunteered for the organization called Un techo para mi pais, an NGO that builds houses for poor and has different programs through which they legalize illegal parts of Bogota. Those parts are inhabited, but neither have electricity nor water. That is why this NGO wants to make them visible for the local government and allow them to have these, basic necessities for living. I visited many different areas with them, even some that seemed as very dangerous.
What is the point in common to all of these adventurous in the South? The fact that I was always with someone, even if that other person was another girl. With the organization Un techo para mi pais, we would always visit the southern neighborhoods on Saturday or Sunday mornings. I don’t know if it’s because it was on weekends, but I honestly never felt in danger. People were out, families were buying fruits and vegetables, streets seemed like home for many local people that live their usual normal lives just like any of us do. Even though I felt pretty safe, I would never go by myself. Is Colombia safe? Yes, when you respect the reestablished rules.
Is all Colombia equally safe?
Certain parts of the country could not, or should I say, should not be visited. There were simply not flights for deep jungles where most of guerilleros were hidden. Even if you had wanted to go there, it was logistically too complicated. For a tourist, there was nothing to see.
There is a misconception that with Colombian peace process done by the former Colombia’s president – Santos, this country is safe now. There are still a lot of areas through which drug travel and the problems related to it are far from being eradicated.
An example of visiting another beautiful place in Colombia. The river Cano Cristales, known as one of the most beautiful in the world for its magnificent colors during certain seasons. Thanks to its algae, the spectacle is breath taking! You cannot get there by car, it is too dangerous. You need to take a plane even though it is not very far by car from a city Villavicencio. The trip is very expensive.
That is why cousins of a friend of mine decided to go by car. They were convinced that it would not be dangerous if they were many with multiple cars. What a mistake! They were kidnapped and released very quickly after they had paid. Nothing serious happened to any of them, except it was a scary moment. Definitely not worth taking a risk. If you think how much money they had to pay to get out, in the end taking a plane was a cheaper option.
Is it worth taking the risk?
Yes, many decisions in relations to traveling in Colombia will be colored with safety measurements you need to take. Colombia is such a big and diverse country that there will always be places safe enough for tourists. In three years and a lot of school holidays that I had as a teacher, I did not manage to see not even a third of everything I wanted to see. Even though we need to be careful, Colombia is worth it! And in the end, a lot of things are about energy, about how you treat people, the way you respect what you have been offered. I honestly believe that, if you are open, generous and positive, you will come across wonderful experiences and people that will protect you during your travel.