About a month ago to the horror of some family and friends I vacationed in Colombia with my mom.
Inspired by their concerns I knew I wanted to write about this topic, but I didn’t realize the time and research it would take to convince even myself of my answer.
I have a “Pshh, it’ll be fine” approach to traveling. I rolled my eyes to any questions about safety and I was fully expecting to write the classic shallow blog post, “Yes it’s safe, every city has its bad and good areas…” However, I understand that people have real concerns about vacationing in Colombia; it has a history, and both the country and potential tourists deserve a proper, detailed explanation.
In the end, whether you think it’s safe to visit Colombia or not is up to you, what kind of traveler you are and what kind of trip you’re looking for. Colombia appealed greatly to me and I think it’s safe enough for travel, but you may feel differently. What’s important though, is that you’re basing your opinion off of reality.
I’ve done my best to provide an honest look at the current state of tourism safety in Colombia through debunking news organization’s claims, discussing the recent bombing in Bogotá, addressing the biggest threat to travelers, and exploring the ongoing crisis in Venezuela and what it means for Colombia and travelers.
The Low Down:
- Colombia is listed as the most dangerous country to visit in the world. Why?
- Multiple news organizations cite the same source, a study released in 2017 with findings that are a bit misleading
- Current state of tourism safety in Colombia
- A bombing in Bogotá just two weeks after my return home made international headlines
- Petty Crime: American’s biggest threat in Colombia
- Street crime is common in urban areas; be careful which ATMs you use, exercise caution and stay in the popular tourist areas
- Taxi Crime
- Never flag down a taxi in Colombia, always call a legitimate service or book online
- Venezuela Crisis: a potential threat to peace in Colombia?
- While Venezuela heads toward total economic and political collapse and United States embassy staff have had to flee, Colombia’s borders remain open
Blogs from backpackers will tell you it’s completely safe, news organizations warn not to go. So, who to believe?
After visiting the country myself I was shocked to learn where Colombia stands among other tourism destinations regarding safety. How could a place so vibrant, with people so hospitable, be considered the “most dangerous country in the world?”
Looking to confirm what was printed I had to track down who was saying it, and why. Most of the articles cite the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report.”
The study, released every two years, is cited by CBS, Insider, MSN, The Independent and several blogs. Most of them repeat the same information, listing the bottom 10 countries from the report and citing WEF with little to no explanation.
Colombia is listed as the most dangerous country to visit in the world. Why?
Scrolling past Iran, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, past Venezuela, Nigeria, Yemen, countries that are currently experiencing violent conflicts, economic collapse, or famine, I find at the very bottom, Colombia. Out of the 136 countries that the WEF covers, Colombia is listed as the very worst for safety and security in the “Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report” conducted by the WEF in 2017.
In its own words the forum, “engages the foremost political, business and other leaders of society to shape global, regional and industry agendas.” The S.H.I.E.L.D., for the Avengers, the shining Bat Symbol over Gotham. Put plainly, they gather up the big boys: Facebook, BP, Huawei, Google, Microsoft, etc., and bring them together to encourage accountability for their impact on society and general do-gooding for society as a whole.
Going in this knowing nothing about the forum I felt a tinge of distrust, enough for me to dive deep into what they do as an organization, their research and methods, only to still feel skeptical. With exclusive gatherings of “Davos Men and Women” (aka the influential elite) and the company’s impact difficult to identify, the whole thing reads like the ‘good guy might actually be the bad guy’ plot we’ve seen too many times in superhero movies.
Something seems off, but I’m not here to unmask a hero, I’m here to clear Colombia’s bad rap, or at least understand where it got it from.
In its entirety, the study provides a ranking of economies in terms of the strength of their travel and tourism sectors. The WEF explains in their insight report that sustainable development of the travel and tourism sector contributes to the competitiveness of a country.
At its core are four categories: enabling environment, travel and tourism policy and enabling conditions, infrastructure, and natural and cultural resources. Rankings for each are determined by a number of factors like air transport infrastructure, prioritization of travel and tourism, and the factor that initiated this discussion, safety and security. Despite its use by news outlets, this report is not meant to apply to tourists, it’s designed to provide information on the current state of different economies regarding business, to business leaders, politicians and corporations.
Colombia’s low safety and security score of 2.6 out of 7 (Finland is ranked the best at 6.7) is based on homicide rate, index of terrorism incidence, the business costs of terrorism, crime and violence and the reliability of police services, the report says. All but the first two indicators are from the WEF’s “Executive Opinion Survey,” which surveyed 158 Colombian business leaders in 2016 and 134 in 2017 about the subjects, according to the survey breakdown.
Respondents are chosen by the forum’s list of partner institutes: academic institutions, business organizations, national councils, etc. Colombia’s being the National Planning Department and Colombian Private Council on Competitiveness, the survey breakdown says. The institutes provide a list of potential respondents from different sized companies in different sectors of activity: agriculture, manufacturing industry, non-manufacturing industry and services. Their answers are recorded in terms of numbers 1-7, then the data is “edited” and averaged until we’re left with the final scores.
To determine safety and security of a particular country, the report says surveyors were asked, “In your country…” :
- “To what extent the incidence of crime and violence impose costs on businesses?”
- Colombia ranked 125 out of 136.
- “To what extent can police services be relied upon to enforce law and order?”
- Colombia ranked 111 out of 136.
- “To what extent does the threat of terrorism impose costs on businesses?”
- Colombia ranked 131 out of 136.
Results from the survey along with homicide rates (Colombia ranked 129 out of 136) and the number of terrorism-related casualties and attacks (Colombia ranked 126 out of 136), gave Colombia its final safety and security score of 2.6.
Based on the survey questions asked, this report is simply not a ranking of how dangerous a country is for tourists, it’s more of a measure of the risks to businesses. It’s completely irresponsible for news organizations to use this information for their lists of “most dangerous travel destinations.” Even more irresponsible to use it and not be fully transparent about how the forum arrived at their claim.
To rank by homicide rate, by terrorism incidence, by attacks or threats against tourists would be fair, but this ranking doesn’t paint a clear or potentially accurate picture.
Petty crime is also not taken into account by the report. In the 2018 Crime and Safety Report: Bogotá, the U.S. Embassy Bogotá says that street crime like muggings, cell phone theft and credit card fraud are the most prevalent threat to Americans. While visiting myself, that’s the threat I was warned about by locals. Being pickpocketed or robbed is a more realistic danger visitors will face.
Giving weight to these survey answers is a mistake, for my purposes and the purposes used by the news organizations that improperly used the forum’s findings–throwing it in a list with a clickbait title that could alarm or deter potential visitors without further explanation.
It’s not even realistic. The United States Travel Advisory has Colombia listed under a “Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution,” and Yemen, Iran, Mali, Venezuela (all above Colombia in the WEF’s ranking) as, “Level 4: Do not travel.”
The report paints a picture of a different Colombia than people are likely to see. A study meant to assist with business decisions shouldn’t be used in deciding about vacationing in Colombia.
The forum’s methods and validity of the respondents’ survey answers aside, Colombia’s homicide and terrorism rates, and the respondents’ views of their country’s condition, even if it is in terms of business, are alarming.
While 2017 boasted Colombia’s lowest homicide rate in 42 years, 2018 showed a rise in homicide for the first time in seven years, raising from 11,381 to 12,311, report InSight Crime and Radio Nacional de Colombia.
An advisor at the National Network of Regional Peace and Development Programs cites “social leaders that bet on a peace process, which has not brought the expected results,” and a “lack of rule of law that works for the entire territory” as the causes for the rise in homicides, according to Radio Nacional de Colombia.
So far, it looks like the homicide rate in 2019 may be grim, with peace in Colombia tested early into this year.
Current state of tourism safety in Colombia
Bogotá made international headlines on Jan. 17, 2019, a week following my return to the U.S., after a car bomb exploded at a police academy killing 21 people six miles from Hotel de la Opera where my mom and I had stayed.
The attack has forced Colombians to reminisce on violent decades that they thought were behind them. During a tour, our guide Nester told us that in the 80s and 90s his father would see a parked van and automatically cross to the other side of the street in fear that it would contain a bomb. During that time, as civil war raged between leftist rebels and the government and Pablo Escobar’s drug cartel was at the height of its violence, car bombs were common.
Since the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace agreement with the government in 2016, the declining attacks and kidnappings have mostly been carried out by FARC dissidents and the National Liberation Army (ELN), a guerrilla group of which the suspect was a member, said Colombian Defense Minister Guillermo Botero, The New York Times reported.
Nester, who was raised in Cartagena, Colombia, and spent time in the U.S., told us he is not scared of such attacks against civilians, assuring us that the violence in the country anymore is between remaining factions of the guerrilla groups, drug gangs and the government.
It’s easy for someone unacquainted with the city to immediately write off Bogotá as too dangerous to visit with this news. However, upon hearing the news I was shocked and devastated for those affected and Colombia as a whole but didn’t feel at all like I “got out in time” as some people said to me.
As with any place in the world, after being there and getting a feel for a city you learn the “safe” and “unsafe” sections it has. Tourists are most likely to remain in La Candelaria, Zona Rosa and Chapinero neighborhoods in Bogotá. That’s what most of the literature points to online, where the hotels, museums and good restaurants are; they’re the natural places to go.
Balthazar, our guide and Bogotá native, told us to stay to the northeast otherwise we could end up in the “slums.” He explained that he never goes south unless he has a reason.
With colorful and diverse buildings, art and statues as markers, after a few days of walking the Candelaria neighborhood I felt like I had a good hold on the city. Then we went 2,000 feet up Guadalupe Hill and I realized I’d only seen a hilariously tiny fraction of Bogotá.
“Oh,” I thought.
Despite the city’s size, navigating was a breeze and we never faced any issues with getting lost or wandering into a rough area. The streets are numbered, the avenues as well, in a layout resembling that of New York City.
Bogotá is a big city; this recent incident was relatively far from tourist centers and an act of terrorism intended for a specific target, the police academy. The ELN have since released a statement claiming the attack, saying it was in retaliation for the government’s attacks on them, CNN reports. Though it’s terrible and scary for the country to see tragedies like these strike their city after a period of peace, as locals explained to us, the violence is between the government and these groups, not civilians and tourists.
While that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen in the middle of La Candelaria with its government buildings, and prominent museums and statues, I don’t believe it should hold anyone back from making the trip. Instead, be vigilant and prepare as best you can for more likely events, like petty crime.
Petty Crime – American’s biggest threat in Colombia
Petty crime is the most common threat to Americans traveling in Colombia according to the annual “Crime and Safety Report” produced by the U.S. Embassy Bogotá. “The perception of wealth is a primary reason why criminals target Americans and other foreign nationals” the report explained.
As with other big cities throughout the world, street crime is common in the urban areas of Colombia. Scams, armed muggings, cell phone or ATM robberies, are all things to look out for and do your best to prevent.
If you got it, don’t flaunt it
We were encouraged by guides to keep our phones tucked away unless otherwise necessary, and I was told to be careful with my camera. I felt very comfortable in La Candelaria with both my camera and phone but can see where more caution could have been needed in less crowded areas at night.
At the popular Paloquemao Farmer’s Market I didn’t feel comfortable bringing my camera out. It was very crowded, a new place, however I think felt embarrassed and awkward more than I was nervous of being robbed.
We dressed fairly modestly, and my mom didn’t wear jewelry until we were on the Caribbean side in Cartagena, where she felt safer with the vast presence of tourists.
Tourists are going to stick out no matter what we do, but dressing appropriately for the weather and location, and generally avoiding looking less like easy targets could dissuade someone from trying to rob you.
It doesn’t stop with how you present yourselves, travelers should also be very careful with their food and drinks. The “Crime & Safety Report” warns that criminals often put drugs like scopolamine in people’s food and drinks to knock victims unconscious.
They also warn about using ATMs; always ask or look up a country’s history with ATM theft and scams, a general safe bet is to go inside a significant building, like a grocery store or in a bank.
Exercise common sense, walk with caution and not alone at night, do the bare minimum to understand which parts of the city are unsafe for tourists to venture to and the odds will be in your favor.
You’ll notice armed police at what feels like every block in Bogotá, whether that eases any nerves or creates them depends on the person.
I’m familiar with the dangers of taxis after spending a few months in Budapest, Hungary, where taxi-crime was very common.
A taxi is hailed, then the driver will stop somewhere for robbers to enter and rob the passenger, or the taxi driver will be armed themselves. Sometimes they take the passenger to an ATM and make them get money out.
Part of the check-in process at a hostel I was working for in Budapest was to be very clear to the guests to never get in a taxi without calling a reputable one first. There, many taxis are involved with the mob and situations like that happen frequently. I’ve had multiple people tell me they were mugged at gun point. Another common issue in Budapest at least, is the driver will drive you in circles, hiking up the fair.
A few months ago, pro skateboarder and American TV personality Bam Margera posted on his Instagram account that he was robbed at gunpoint in a cab hailed from Cartagena Airport, the same airport my mom and I flew into for the last leg of our trip. “I just arrived in Cartagena alone and I took a taxi—a random one—from the airport to here. And I couldn’t Spanish, they couldn’t speak English, and they translated on their phone for me to read, ‘Empty your wallet,’ as they put a gun on their lap to show it to me,” he said. “So I did, and I had $500. They let me go. That was weird. Welcome to Colombia!”
The best way to avoid situations like these are to follow what we tell guests in Budapest, have the hotel or hostel staff call a taxi for you, order one online, or if you have the resources, set up drivers to take you where you need to go through a travel agency.
Plus, in Bogotá Uber works very well! I didn’t get a chance to try it in Cartagena, but I imagine it would work there as well.
Venezuela crisis: a potential threat to peace in Colombia?
The condition of Venezuela is spiraling, and its relationship with the United States is changing by the day. America’s involvement with the country in crisis and Colombia’s open borders make this an issue potential visitors should be educated about.
The U.S. State Department ordered the departure of non-emergency U.S. government employees and family members from Venezuela on Wednesday, Jan. 24, after President Trump recognized the opposition leader to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, Juan Guaidó, as interim president. The order came after Maduro responded to Trump by giving U.S. diplomatic personnel 72 hours to leave the country, a power Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he doesn’t have, NBC reports.
Juan Guaidó has received global support as protests against Maduro’s regime expand on an international scale. Opposition protestors are asking Maduro, elected for a second six-year term in May 2018, to step down. The United States along with over a dozen other nations denounce the election as a fraud, but Maduro retains the support of Russia and China and the loyalty of the military, CNN reports. With that loyalty he’s recently ordered Venezuelan troops to barricade a bridge to prevent U.S. aid from entering while the country is nearing total economic collapse, The Telegraph reports. Photos can been seen of protestors throwing money in the air, illustrating its worth; children malnutrition and infant mortality rates have skyrocketed, 2016 saw a 30% increase in deaths of children under 1-year-old, New York Times reports.
Letting aid in would mean admitting Venezuela is in crisis, something Maduro denies completely. “Venezuela is a country that has the capacity to satisfy the needs of its people,” Maduro told the BBC in his most recent interview on Feb., 12, 2019. He said the U.S. is creating the humanitarian crisis with Colombia’s compliance to humiliate Venezuela, all while likening President Trump to a white supremacist. “The Ku Klux Klan governing the White House today wants to take possession of Venezuela,” he continued.
Maduro believes that in reality, the U.S. is attempting to intervene to take control of Venezuela’s oil reserves, the largest in the world, replicating the military intervention in Iraq and Libya, Al Jazeera reports.
As a result of the ongoing political crisis and the U.S. government’s current involvement, the U.S. State Department raised the travel advisory for Venezuela to Level 4, warning, “Do not travel to Venezuela due to crime, civil unrest, poor health infrastructure, and arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens.”
What does this have to do with tourism safety in Colombia? Besides that the countries are next to each other, Colombia has decided to open its borders to its “brother country,” allowing all to seek refuge from hyper-inflated Venezuela. When Colombia was experiencing violence in years past, Venezuela did the same for them. However, during my visit multiple residents mentioned the rise in violence and crime since Venezuelans began entering the country, more or less saying it’s wonderful what Colombia is doing for Venezuela, but it has come with a price. The violence had lead previous Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to impose tighter border security and migratory controls last year, Reuters reported.
Now, in another security alert the U.S. Embassy Bogotá warned, “Given the developing situation in Venezuela, criminal or terrorist elements may seek to exploit uncertainty and increased media attention on the Colombia-Venezuela border.” They urge U.S. citizens to be vigilant and avoid the border regions of Colombia.
As the crisis in Venezuela persists it’s unclear how it will continue to affect Colombia and travel. However, with collapse looming, more economic sanctions in place, and more pressure on Maduro to allow aid in and give up his seat, all can hope for positive change in the near future. In the meantime, with geography on tourist’s side, I wouldn’t let the crisis in Venezuela hurt your image of progress Colombia has made in tourism safety. Depending on where you visit, you’ll have entirely different experiences with safety, people, climate, even ecosystem. It helps too, that popular tourism spots including Medellín, Bogota, Cali and Cartagena are all a great distance away from the Venezuela border.
I hope now that you have the information you need to answer the all encompassing question for yourself. Colombia is a wonderful country, a perfect mix of history, art, nature, relaxation and adventure. I can’t recommend it enough.
Check back soon for what our trip looked like, my full itinerary and travel tips for visiting Colombia!