By Patrick Connelly
“You live were!?” is usually the first question I get when I tell North Americans that I live in Colombia. Yes, Colombia, the land of Pablo Escobar, cocaine, bombs, and kidnappings. Yes, Colombia, the land of Marxist guerrillas and right wing death squads. Yes, Colombia, the land that in 1994 had a soccer player shot a dozen times for making a mistake in the World Cup.
But the real Colombia is not like this. It is far from the violent images seen on television around the world.
The last six years have seen a turnaround in public safety that can only be described as remarkable. Conservative president Alvaro Uribe, whose father was murdered by guerrillas, has turned a country that a decade ago was disintegrating into one of relative peace and stability.
But what about travel and living in Colombia? This is a complex question, and since safety is involved, generalizations cannot be made.
The Big Three: Bogotá, Medellin, Cali
Chances are most travellers, and certainly expats and retirees, will end up in one, if not all, of Colombia’s largest three cities at some point. But are they safe?
Bogotá- The largest city at around 8 million, the capital is the business, government, and education heart of the country. If common sense is used, it is no more dangerous than any other large city in North America or Europe. The eastern half of the city, including the main tourist areas, is comfortably safe during the day and common sense will keep the gringo safe at night (stay in groups, no dark alleys, use taxis, etc.). However, the western half of the city – Cuidad Bolivar – is a sprawling mess of flavelas that is certainly not safe. Ever. Luckily, there is not much of interest for the gringo here anyway.
Medellin- The city of eternal spring was not too long ago the city of eternal violence. Murder capital of the world, kidnapping capital of the world, and a host of other accolades no one wants made Medellin (that’s Med-eh-jean) a definite no-go unless you were George Jung, the gringo drug runner played by Johnny Depp in Blow. However, it is now one of the safest cities in South America, with a murder rate of 32 per 100,00 residents. Thats lower than Washington, D.C. and Detriot. Plus paisas are incredible people and Medellin is fast becoming a beautiful place to visit. Again, the same precautions used in any large city apply here.
Cali- The salsa capital of Colombia is, like the other two main cities, a relatively safe and enjoyable place as long as common sense is used. Wallet in the front pocket, no fancy jewelry or watches, stay with groups during the night…you get the picture. Always ask around as well for safe and secure areas to visit.
This, of course, is Colombia’s tourist, retiree, and expat destination of choice. And for good reason; whtie sand beaches, Cartagena, and the carefree attitude of Costeños makes a trip here memorable for years. But where there are tourists, there are most likely pickpocketers..
Cartagena- Widely regarded as South America’s most beautiful city, Carta has been pushed hard as a tourist destination by the Colombian government for some time now. The result is a good tourism infrastructure, security, and enough people to help if trouble does arise. That said, small time thieves do target the gringo crowds, and expensive jewelry and watches, large purses, and the like should be left at home. Also, there are many moneychangers on the streets-its best to avoid them as forgeries are common. The further out of the city’s center one ventures, the more likely he is to run into trouble. Many out of work soldiers (from guerrilla groups and right wing militias) live in the area and some resort to petty crime to make ends meet. That said, Cartagena is a true jewel of the Western hemisphere and with normal precautions is pretty safe.
The rest of the country
Few tourists venture outside the main cities and the Caribbean coast, but those who do are richly rewarded. However, some areas are dangerous for foreigners, and some are downright off limits.
Boyaca- A popular weekend destination for foreigners and Bogota residents alike, the department of Boyaca is called the heart of Colombia. Villa de Leyva is its crown, a perfect Spanish colonial city high in the mountains. And even more, it is a pretty safe place to visit.
The Southern Departments- The mountains give way to pastures and rainforest that stretch beyond the horizon. This is wild Colombia- and part of the country foreigners should ignore or take extreme caution in. Pickpocketing at gunpoint is the least of your problems here, as the rebel groups and drug cartels have been pushed into this region and make money by kidnapping gringos and Colombians alike. If you want rainforest, fly from any major Colombian city to Leticia, on the border with Brazil. The town has a well developed tourism infrastructure. If you want to be brave, go for it, but just about every Colombian I know would think thrice before travelling to departments like Putumayo, Buenaventura, and deep into Meta.
The safety situation in Colombia is very complicated and changes on a daily basis. But it also overblown in many areas – people seem to reiterate the fact that they got mugged in Colombia!, while if it happened in London it would be written off as just a bad apple in the bunch. Keeping to the main tourist areas, remaining alert, and staying in a small group should be more than enough to keep the average foreigner safe in the large cities and along the coast.
Colombia is certainly not without major problems, even though the country has improved drastically. But it is an amazing country with colorful people, top notch attractions, and a real wild side. Don’t let the horror stories or news programs scare you off; while crime does happen, it also happens in every country in the world. True, Colombia is more dangerous than, say, Costa Rica, but on the other hand you aren’t coming into an all out warzone like some people would like to make you believe.
One week in Colombia and you will realize how wrong the stereotype is.
Have a different opinion? Additional safety information or updates? Please post them here, we’d love to hear from you.
photo provided by Rob Raincock at http://www.flickr.com/photos/30853953@N03/3033264799/