One thing that I have been asked a lot is whether or not Colombia is a safe place to be. For sure it does not have a good reputation for safety, and everyone has heard of FARC, Pablo Escobar and the fate of Ingrid Bettancur. So, it has a violent past, does that mean however that it has a violent present or future?
Certainly, if you read the UK Foreign Office page for Colombia you could be forgiven for thinking that it is not the best place for your holidays. The page is full of phrases such as “advises against travel in this region” and “caution must be taken”, not the sort of thing that inspires confidence. Read between the lines however and what it is saying is don’t go to remote, out of the way areas. Over a third of the country is essentially off-limits, an area the size of California, but this also happens to be covered with the Amazon rainforest where there are no roads or towns anyway.
Speak to locals and they will tell you things have got a whole lot safer under President Uribe who has been in power the last 8 years. Whatever they might think of his politics or his close dependence on the US in the fight against drugs, Colombia is a more secure place – there has not been a foreign tourist kidnapped since 2003, and only one tourist killed in the last 5 years (and that was a robbery gone wrong, not political).
The problem faced by tourists here (and although I use the term tourist, we are dealing mostly with backpackers of all ages) is street crime, which is everywhere. The hostel in Bogota had a list of common scams to watch out for, including fake policeman (and therefore fake fines), people trying to give you drugged cigarettes or beer and your common or garden pickpockets. Whilst this is a pain and something you have to be aware of at all times, to be honest it’s no different to Brasil, where the same rules apply. In the 5 days we spent in Bogota I did hear of one fellow traveller getting mugged, although in the end nothing was taken. However, we had been to the same place the day before and the hostel advised us to take a taxi (costing just over a dollar). He had been given the same advice, but decided it didn’t apply yo him so he walked AND took a shortcut down an alley between two houses and he got mugged. I won’t say I told you so, but… No, it’s not the same as a week’s holiday in the Dordogne, but it’s really no worse than anywhere else in South America.
The major difference with Colombia compared to say, Brasil is that there are Police EVERYWHERE, and Real Armed Police, not Fake Police. Laura and I went on a tourist train from Bogota to a town 50k north of the city, and 3 armed police came along for the ride. They’re on the buses, outside banks, on street corners. It does give you a small sense of security, one which you don’t get in Brasil. If that weren’t enough, not only do you get Police guarding major points of interest, but you also get the Army, soldiers with really big guns. This is especially obvious on the main roads between towns, which historically have been areas owned by the guerilla groups, giving them free rein to hijack lorries and the occasional bus. Not so much anymore.
The thing with Colombia is that you need to stay on the beaten track. The government has launched a major, high-profile advertising campaign attempting to lure tourists to the country (it has the rather unfortunate slogan: Colombia – the only risk is that you’ll want to stay, which I always read as: Colombia: the only risk is that you’ll be made to stay) and investment is happening everywhere, and in order for that to work, the country has to be safe. Don’t go off into rural areas, do follow the advice of locals and stay aware of your surroundings – you might get your camera nicked, but apart from that you’ll just have a wonderful time.
But, you don’t have to take my word for it, thoughts on the same subject from a hostel owner who’s been living here six years.