Colombia: danger around every corner?
When I said I was going to Colombia, many people expressed their concerns. Colombia has a frightening reputation for drug wars, kidnappings, and murders. However, it has recently also become an enticing new destination for travelers. Despite the warnings, I decided to travel around the country and witness the situation with my own eyes.
Yes, once Colombia was a big mess. Since the creation of the Republic of Colombia, the country did not enjoy much stability. There were many conflicts between the Liberal and Conservative parties. Also, many problems of corruption and social inequality led to the rise of extreme left wings like the FARC, ELN, and M-19. On top of that, the production and trafficking of drugs by Pablo Escobar’s and other drug cartels poured more gasoline on the fire. The cocaine business was lucrative, but even more destructive. The root of the narco problem, however, was the high demand, mainly coming from Western societies. Violence was taking over the country and lasted for several decades. The drug wars and internal (political) conflicts killed tens of thousands of often innocent people.
In the last decades, Colombia’s situation has improved impressively. With Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, many of the cartels were brought down. Also, the general security in the country was raised. And, in 2016, the government finally signed a peace deal with the left-wing group FARC.
Some scars of the violent past are still visible today. In Medellín, for example, two sculptures of birds can be observed at the San Antonio Plaza. These “Birds of Peace” by the famous sculptor Botero mark the end of the era of war. The left bird is damaged, blasted to pieces by a bombing in 1995; whereas on the right stands an identical, undamaged and cheerful bird which was donated years later as a symbol of peace. The city of Medellín is nowadays considered one of the most innovative and secure cities in South America.
As such, Colombia is not as bad as it once was. Actually, a lot of problems can be avoided by using common sense and caution. Especially the highly tourist-ridden parts of Colombia are usually out of the conflict zones, enjoying increased security. As a female traveler, I never felt unsafe while being there neither did I experience any act of violence. In my opinion, Colombians are probably one of the most friendly, warm-heartedly and cheerful people who live in South America. However, it is still important to take some precautions. This is not only true for Colombia, but for all countries located on the South American continent.
Some safety advice:
- Do some research about the area you will be staying in. The majority of hostels are located in safe neighborhoods (e.g. opt for El Poblado in Medellín). However, this is not always the case. For example, in Bogotá, most travelers stay in the “less safe” touristic area of La Candelaría. When you find yourself in a less secure part of the city, you should try to avoid hitting the streets at night time or in a state of being under influence of alcohol or drugs. Also, as those areas are more prone to robberies and muggings, you should only carry what is necessary (like some cash, a copy of your passport and phone).
- When exploring the city center or touristic attractions, you should put your personal belongings in a closed backpack or purse. In this way you don’t show the valuables you bring along and thus become less of a target.
- In crowded areas, protect your valuables by moving your backpack to your front. As such, you can keep a better eye and have more control over your belongings. Don’t take out your professional camera in the middle of a crowded street!
- Be especially careful in public buses! Always keep your hand luggage with your valuables close to you. Putting it in the luggage storage above the seat may be risky as you have less control. Luggage often gets stolen when you fall asleep.
By keeping the aforementioned cautions in mind, there is only one thing left for you to do: Enjoy your time to the fullest and be prepared to fall in love with Colombia!