Written by Fidgit
It can be difficult for travelers to get a judicious read on safety in Colombia. The rest of the world tells you it is incredibly dangerous, paramilitary are just waiting to kidnap you, narcos will murder you just as soon as look at you. Meanwhile, locals and people who have been there tell you how wonderful it is, that it is as safe as anywhere, absolutely no reason to be concerned. So, what is the truth?
As usual, it lies somewhere in the middle. And annoyingly enough, I can’t give you a complete answer. Only you can make a safety assessment of any given situations. Everyone travels differently at different times and to different places. I cannot tell you what to do, I can only share our experience and the insights we gleaned from research and preparation.
The Broad Strokes:
The FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) have signed and are largely abiding by a 2016 peace deal. The ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional) are more tenuous. Some members seem open to peace but many cells continue active. Peace talks collapsed in Ecuador this past year for these reasons. The new President, Iván Duque, appears to be taking a hard line against the para-military. He won the election 54% against Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego’s 42%. Urrego being a former paramilitary member and left wing politician. This reflects a country divided within itself.
Colombia is generally as safe as other Latin American countries. The difference is that if things go wrong, they have the potential to go very wrong. Over the last few years of watching the news, the murders we have seen are generally targeted. Military, journalists, politicos, Ecuadorians, and industry members – i.e. people from groups perceived as threats.
“no des papaya.”
As a visitor, this common saying may help you understand something about the attitude here. It means not to make yourself an easy mark by showing off wealth. Feel free to go around giving out papayas (honestly, no one seem to have any idea where the saying comes from), but flashing a large and latest phone, expensive jewelry, visible electronics, an unsecured bag, are understood as invitations to easy cash.
As a visitor, in the unlikely event of your being kidnapped, it would most likely be for quick cash. The intent is not to harm you, it is money. Most convenient for an assailant is to get you alone (such as an unofficial taxi) and late at night. They then drive you to an ATM to withdraw the maximum amount of cash for the day. You will likely be held until just after midnight when you can again make withdraws, then drop you off somewhere remote. They do not want to hold on to you long enough to draw attention, again, they just want money.
Essentially, we planned for the worst and hoped for the best.
Since we travel on foot, we are particularly vulnerable. We are never more than 40 km from where we were the day before, our progress and patterns are predictable and generally visible. While to this point of the hike our goal has been to remain on trails, the photographs I have reviewed show paramilitares sitting on exactly the sorts of herding foot trails we like to walk. So we made the decision to stay on roads, and primary roads at that. The highway police patrol these roads regularly and seeing them pass every half hour or so is a comfort to us.
At the height of our frenzy we were kicking around cover stories, everything from trying to blend in with the Venezuelans walking the roadsides to being two AIDs riddled orphan missionaries. We conducted several safety discussions and sought insights from outside, knowledgeable parties. We put together a Google Drive folder with copies of our passports, head shots, physical descriptions, and an emergency protocol plan with details based off of our inReach and shared that to our response team. We established a series of contacts and designated roles in case of an incident which requires response either from inside or outside of the country.
When we got into Colombia we realized this was generally overkill. There were not the street protests and road closures we witnessed in Bolivia and Peru. One of our commitments had been to read the writing on the walls, literally. Graffiti can be the billboards of the disenfranchised. Also, bullet holes are a big give-away. We saw no signs of such and leaned a bit too far in the opposite direction, traveling as if there were no danger. We promptly came to within a few feet of being jumped.
The Role of Police:
Somewhere in the middle of nowhere Argentina a camper van drove past us. They stopped and we shared a mate. He was a kite surfer who had traveled all over the world and he gave us some of the most salient advice regarding Colombian police. “Always check their shoes. If they are wearing leather boots, they are legitimate and you can trust them.”
There are various branches of personnel active in Colombia, both nationally and some US presence. We have primarily only seen a few different uniforms. The military in fatigues carrying rifles tend to be posted around bridges and the bases. A few times we have seen them patrolling in areas where they were probably looking for Guacho. The highway police patrol designated lengths of highway.
Twice now we have been picked up by the police while walking along the Panamerican highway. The first time, two young men were approaching us with intent to rob at knife point. I don’t know where the police officer appeared from and the timing was unimaginably fortunate, but there they were. We were a few kilometers outside of a city, (the edges of cities are always the sketchiest places). They insisted on taking us about 5 km up the road, then let us get out and resume walking. They then resumed patrolling their length of road.
What we have Learned:
Colombia is incredible. It has a large expat population and places for everyone: outdoors people, those seeking a relaxing countryside or jungle environment, or those who love history, architecture, and city life, medical tourists, the list goes on. I hope to return one day, with the option to travel more freely between these areas.
Crossing the country on foot has exposed us to the pronounced difference between locations. Neighboring cities respond entirely differently to turistas. In one city people are friendly and go about their business. 15 km later everyone stops to stare and scowl. One tree covered valley may be completely safe, but the paramilitary are very territorial and without a long term, inside understanding of which is which, visitors such as ourselves would not know the difference until too late. Visitors such as ourselves may also get lucky and have no issue. For us, this is not a risk we opted to take.
We learned we needed to have heightened situational awareness and be as aware almost everywhere in Colombia a level generally reserved for large cities.
Really, none of these are Colombia specific. They are just general practices every traveler should remember.
– (If a US citizen) Register with STEP program
– Know where you are going. As best you can, determine where you are going ahead of time and spend as little time as possible with maps or your phone out on the streets, looking for directions.
– Keep electronics out of sight. And I don’t just mean out, I mean visible. We have had people ask for money and when I say I don’t have any they reply that yes I do, they can see the outline of the change in my pocket.
– Keep a low withdraw limit on your ATM account and if possible to transfer money easily, keep just under two full daily withdraws in the account.
– When traveling, keep your bag attached to your person. For example, when sitting in a bus station, put your backpack between your legs with one of the shoulder straps around your leg (NOT in the seat next to you). At a restaurant, keep your purse in your lap, or hooked around your leg under the table.
– If you are taken or threatened, comply. Odds are high, they just want cash.
– Do not be out late or alone.
– Avoid unofficial transportation. Only take official taxis. Uber is illegal here but still active. The driver will ask that one of you ride in the front seat to avoid attention. We have generally had decent enough experiences with the service. However: do not accept a ride if they ask you to cancel the ride on the app and for payment in cash. Do not get in if the vehicle does not match the license plate on the app.
– Stick to the areas where there are other travelers. I generally prefer to get away from tourist territory but in Colombia, I would generally make an exception to this rule. Even if it is just a town with a hostel owned by an expat couple is enough. We have always felt most uncomfortable when we are the only foreigners in town.
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