Is it safe to travel to Colombia? Is a common question asked by people all across the world as they hear about the glorious country that is Colombia, but wonder whether the risks are worth it.
Unfortunately, like most things in life, the answer to that question isn’t a simple one. Colombia is a country with an ever-evolving state of affairs, but thankfully, improving in many ways. We could say that yes, it is safe to travel to Colombia, but like in pretty much all of South America, it all comes down to the details and we need to really pay attention to them.
Most visitors to the country won’t have any problems whilst enjoying the beaches in Cartagena and San Andres, or the amazing cities of Bogotá and Medellin to name a few. If getting off the beaten track is what satisfies your travel cravings, then the risks do start to significantly increase. The sight of a foreigner walking the streets or riding the bus will inevitably attract a lot of unwanted attention.
In this post we’ll give you a clearer idea of some important dos and don’ts for travelling safely in Colombia.
What places are safe to visit in Colombia?
The days of drug wars and conflict have largely been left behind in Colombia, but crime still poses a threat to visitors in some areas, especially rural areas and city slums. In most cases, typical tourist destinations tend to have some distance between them and these areas, making them a safer choice.
Cartagena is a good example, where the walled city and stunning beaches are generally considered safe. As you wander around the city, you’ll spot a good number of tourist police officers, however they can only do so much. This means there are still some neighbourhoods to avoid on the outskirts of the city, like La Magdalena. You can expect the safety in Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Popayan or Santa Marta to mention a few, to be similar to Cartagena.
What’s the best way to stay updated on the safe places to travel in Colombia?
To keep travellers informed, many embassies have regular updates on the high conflict areas around the country, so it’s important to look at these before you decide to travel. As of recently, the regions of Cauca (except Popayan), Arauca, Caqueta, Guaviare and areas bordering Ecuador, Panama and Venezuela are probably best to avoid.
To gauge a better idea, we recommend looking at the information provided by the US embassy, UK embassy, and the Spanish embassy (Information in Spanish). Another great way is to ask the locals, like your accommodation staff, for the latest updates on the places to visit and the ones to avoid.
Safety on public transportation in Colombia
Crime onboard public transport is not uncommon, especially around slums and rural areas. The best advice is to avoid flashing valuables like jewellery, laptops, mobile phones, and money.
Pickpockets are also common on big cities’ public transport, so it’s safer to avoid crowded buses, especially during rush hour, and if you do use buses always keep everything in sight.
As for taxis, it’s advisable to book them in advance with a reputable company or through an app like EasyTaxi. In most places it is ok to hail taxis from the street during the day, however this should be avoided at night when most incidences of robbery happen.
A way to make sure you’re in a safe and legitimate taxi is to look for the yellow sheet that all taxi’s must display. This sheet should show the driver’s information, their picture, company name, the taxi license and rates. This is usually attached to the back of the front seat, so make sure to check for it before starting your ride, that way you know the taxi is licensed and it’s ok to take it.
During the early 2000s express kidnappings were a frequent event, but thankfully, nowadays it’s very uncommon. However, hailing a taxi at night can increase the chances of this happening. This is why it’s best to hire them through an app or phone call. If you don’t speak any spanish you can ask in any establishment (hotel, restaurant or bar) and they will do it for you.
Uber is another option that works well in most big cities and locals also use other similar apps called Beat, Cabify and InDriver as alternatives.
It is advisable that you get a Colombian sim card and always have some data to be able to use transport apps and avoid unsafe situations as prevention is the best advice you can follow.
Another way to reduce your chances of being in a dangerous situation is to know your route beforehand to avoid getting lost. Our website has detailed guides on the most popular routes across Cambodia which are worth checking out before you travel.
Safety on the roads
When travelling outside one of the major cities, we recommend sticking to reputable companies. Generally, we recommend taking buses from nationwide carriers like Expreso Bolivariano, Brasilia, Copetran, Berlinas del Fonce, or Rápido Ochoa since they have more reliable and comfortable buses, plus they don’t stop on the side of the road to pick up more passengers.
If you are traveling to small towns, those big companies may not operate there, so you may have to use local smaller companies. This is totally ok but always take buses from main bus stations or authorized bus stops.
Traveling at night
In recent years the situation has improved on the roads and most of the main roads between most cities are no longer considered dangerous. Thanks to the improved situations, overnight buses have now become a popular choice of travel across Colombia.
Still, we recommend taking buses which arrive during the day, to avoid situations like walking alone at night with all your luggage.
Bogotá is a huge city and like any other big city in the world, it has some nice areas and others that you definitely want to avoid. Locals agree that the northern and central neighbourhoods are safer and the best places to stay. Usaquen, Zona Rosa and Chapinero are good starting points.
On the other side, the southern areas of the city have a rather bad reputation and are probably best avoided. A shortlist of neighbourhoods to avoid includes Bosa, Ciudad Bolivar, Tunal, Usme and Fontibon, but luckily no big attractions can be found there.
Downtown or ‘El Centro’ has a mix of both safe and unsafe places. As a general rule stick to the main streets and avoid those that look sketchy. In recent years new buildings and infrastructure are under construction, resulting in an increasing flow of people and safer conditions.
The old town, also known as La Candelaria in general, is a safe neighborhood where most backpacker hostels are located. However, it tends to get pretty deserted at night, so it’s better to avoid walking alone after nightfall.
That’s not to forget the great parts of Bogota. The city is very active during the day, with many stores and businesses being open between 9 am and 6 pm so that tends to be the best time to wander around in most areas. As for the night, avoid lonely places and prefer riding taxis booked over the phone.
If you want to move around like a true local, you can ride the buses from Transmilenio that run throughout the city, but watch out for pickpockets and exercise extra precautions, especially during rush hours.
Medellin is the second biggest city in Colombia and home to many cultural activities, great entertainment and interesting architecture.
The city has now escaped from it’s history of drug lords and cartel terror. Nowadays it’s considered an example of improvement and social innovation in Latin America, meaning it’s safe for visitors. Although, like any big city, it’s not completely free from trouble.
Visitors to the city often prefer to stay in El Poblado as it’s largely considered safe and has a lot to offer for tourists. Also, Laureles and Envigado stand as safe areas away from downtown to stay and enjoy. On the other hand, keep in mind the advice from locals who say that when night falls that you should stay outside of downtown (known as La Candelaria) and Belen areas, especially as they get quite empty after 6 pm.
As for the impoverished neighbourhoods in the mountains, like Comuna 13, it’s better to stay close to the access points (like the electric stairs or the Metrocable stations) and away from empty alleys. Taking a tour is probably a good idea if you want to adventure into these neighbourhoods, especially because they are often run by locals.
Cartagena is one of the top destinations for tourists in Colombia and there is a big probability that you have included it in your travel plans, desperate not to miss the amazing beaches on the surrounding islands.
In general, safety in Cartagena is very good as we already said earlier. Still, always be aware of your surroundings and use common sense at all times. Wandering away from the touristy zones is something you want to avoid.
Cartagena’s old city has a wide offer of activities and services as well as good police coverage. Within walking distance, Getsemaní is another lively neighbourhood to stay in or wander around. On Cartagena’s modern side, Bocagrande, Laguito, Castillo Grande, Manga and Crespo are other safe neighbourhoods with lots of hotels, AirBnBs and restaurants, often very close to the sea.
Do keep in mind that other zones of the city don’t have the same amount of police presence as the previously mentioned. However, it’s unlikely you’ll even visit these areas as they are far from the city’s attractions.
Word of advice – if you’re searching for the iconic panoramic views of Cartagena from Cerro La Popa,the best way to do this is to hire a taxi and ask for them to wait until you’re ready to return back to the city. The access road to the hill isn’t the nicest street to walk down in the dark.
Santa Marta is a small city but with safety concerns that can easily match those of bigger cities like Bogota. Still, tourists flock the city with the encouragement of locals to stay and visit the popular touristy areas whilst completely avoiding the slums.
The areas to stay and visit include Rodadero and the historic city centre, but still, avoid walking alone at night.
Taganga is another popular place to stay, especially amongst backpackers as it’s close to Tayrona Park beaches, and also has very affordable accommodation options. However, locals do report some areas in Taganga to be problematic, especially those located far from the main beach.
How can you stay safe?
Whilst planning your trip, pay close attention to where you’re accommodation is based and where you want to visit. A good rule of thumb is to stay in the more touristy neighbourhoods, but do take into consideration that this usually comes at a higher price.
Once there, it’s good to speak to the locals and find out where the troublesome areas are and the latest tricks for scamming. Again, common sense is your greatest ally here! For example:
Say no to the freebies. Vendors on the beaches and streets use this scam to then overcharge products and harass you until you give in to paying
Hire a reputable tour company when trekking national parks and remote areas
Carry small amounts of money and credit cards with low limits
Try not to leave your valuables unattended when visiting parks and beaches
If you stay at a hostel, make sure to check if there is a safety deposit
If you must travel through known dangerous areas, you might want to keep a second wallet or phone to give away.
Although a bad picture is sometimes painted of Colombia, especially after checking stories from forums or blogs online, the reality is that most visitors have a safe and joyful trip. As long as you follow some of the basic guidelines, the chances are you’ll find yourself enjoying a country that is famous for its kind people, beautiful landscapes and vibrant cities.
Unlike the rest of the world, Colombia uses a singular format for its emergency numbers. The popular 911 is replaced by 123 for general emergencies, but you can also call each dependency directly. See below a list of the most used numbers:
123 – General Emergencies (The one you should remember)
119 – Firefighters
112 – Police
144 – Civilian defense
125 – Medical Emergencies
132 – Red Cross
#767 – Road Police
Remember to always check for the details of your local embassy and keep their contact details handy for any emergency.
COVID-19 safety update in Colombia
As of October 1st 2020 there are no travel restrictions to Colombia, after the country reopened its borders on September 21st. For international visitors, a negative COVID-19 test no older than 72 hours is required to enter the country.
There are certain areas in the country, either the most affected or vulnerable to the virus that remain closed for visitors or have specific restrictions or curfews, so always check on updates from the Ministry of Health (information only available in Spanish).
In some areas there is still a reduced service for buses and flights, with some routes not operating at all. It is expected that most services will gradually return to normal by the beginning of 2021.
Most public places like malls, supermarkets, museums and cinemas will require the mandatory use of facemasks to enter them.