How Safe Is Colombia Really?
This is a burning question every foreigner has, no matter if they are thinking of living in Colombia or just want to stay in the country for a couple of days. So how safe is Colombiareally and how does Colombia compare to countries like Panama, Costa Rica or even the United States?
In this article, I want to take a little different approach. The goal is to give you boots on the ground perspective instead of throwing numbers at you. On the other hand, I want to debunk some of the myths about crime statistics.
First of all, we have to define safety. We can think about three things when talking about safety.
- Safety Of Your Life
- Safety Of Your Well-Being
- Safety Of Your Stuff
Safety Of Your Life – How To Not Get Murdered
A lot of people that are planning on traveling are concerned about the safety of their life. We can definitively say this is not a big issue if you follow the easy steps to avoid getting harmed in a way that potentially costs you your life.
These 4 tips will ensure that you will not have a real big issue in Colombia
- DON’T resist a robbery, just give them your stuff
- Be extra careful on the street, traffic can be crazy and pedestrians don’t have right of way.
- Don’t buy/sell/do drugs in Colombia
- Don’t mingle with prostitutes
That’s already it, these 4 tips will ensure to stay safe in Colombia in regards to losing your life. Colombia is not Afghanistan or Syria. It’s not a war zone. You won’t get kidnapped and killed for an iPhone. There are no bombs exploding daily.
To die of heatstroke is a way higher risk than getting murdered by criminals. So try to ignore aunty Williams when she says, you won’t get out alive if you go to Colombia. The times Pablo Escobar was active and horrible things happened is over for more than 25 years.
Safety Of Your Well-Being – The One Everybody Is Talking About
When people are talking about safety in Colombia, they most likely are talking about what we call safety of your well-being.
So if you get robbed at gunpoint you will most likely have a pretty bad time for hours/weeks/months depending on your personality. Safety of your well-being in Colombia is surely a daily issue, but it may not be what you think it is. Read more about it later in this article.
Safety Of Your Stuff – Pick-Pocketing
This is an issue almost everywhere in the world, and in my opinion, is not practiced here in Colombia more than abroad. I almost got pick-pocketed myself a couple of weeks ago in the metro of Medellin, when it was extremely packed.
How I Almost Got Robbed In Medellin
I felt a tug on my wallet in the front pocket of my jeans. I quickly reacted and stuck my hand in my pocket, while moving my hand down, the hand of the thief was already gone while my wallet was in an unnatural position almost out of my pocket.
So Is Colombia Full Of Pick-Pocketers?
In regard to the safety of your stuff in Colombia, the big cities in Colombia have not more pick-pocketers in my opinion than New York, Barcelona or any other big city in the world.
Homicide Rates in Colombia – Is Colombia Safe To Visit?
An article about safety in Colombia would not be complete without talking about the statistics. The favorite statistic of the mainstream media and every other person who has no real boots on the ground experience in Colombia is surely the homicide rate.
I personally want to debunk the myth that the homicide rate has significance in the daily life of a foreigner. But first, let us check the data.
Please be aware that the data on the homicide rate varies extremely. I found more than 30% difference in the numbers when doing research. That’s why the numbers are rounded and are looked at with that in mind.
So you can see that the big cities in Colombia except for Cali have a more or less moderate homicide rate. Actually, the homicide rate of these cities in Colombia is less than Baltimore (40), St. Louis (66), and New Orleans (40). So there are many US cities that have a higher homicide rate than these cities in Colombia.
To put that in perspective, the traffic mortality rate in Colombia is around 17, so just a little less than the homicide rate with 20 (except Cali). Almost nobody talks about traffic safety in Colombia though.
Homicide Rate In Colombia
As I already stated in the section “What Is Safety In Colombia”, the risk of getting killed in Colombia is pretty low if you don’t do stupid things like dealing with drugs.
So why even bother with looking at the homicide in the first place? Only Gang-Members and people who deal with prostitutes should take a look at homicide rates.
It’s as if you would compare the bicycle death rate if you don’t even ride a bike, to compare your hometown with Colombia. It just does not make sense.
So what numbers should you compare when doing research for Colombia? Better would be Robberies of Wallets or Foreigner Murder rate or something like that but, there is another issue.
The Issues With The Numbers
If you really believe that the homicide numbers in Latin America are accurate, I envy your belief, in the good, of Latin American government. If you ever had anything to do with the police here in Colombia or any other country of Latin America, you will quickly realize, trusting them with anything is highly naive.
To trust a government published figure like the homicide rate, from the same government that has deep corruption issues, is not really advisable. From the people I heard had anything to do with the police, just about 50% got taken seriously by the police to the point of a report, which may then would end up in a statistic.
They Don’t Report The Crime
The big majority does not even go to the police when something happens in the first place. Of course, there were no murders, but even with the murder rate, I would highly doubt, that everything gets reported. That the numbers won’t be tweaked substantially by the ones that publish these reports, are highly doubtful.
Count On Boots On The Ground, Not Statistics
So I personally leave out comparing statistics from the “developed world” with Latin America or in this example Colombia. Even though it would be great to compare numbers. But Colombia is not about numbers it’s about boots on the ground. Sorry, Mr/Mrs. Mathematician …
The only thing that you may compare are statistics inside Latin America or in our example inside of Colombia. So for example how many wallets are stolen in Cartagena, vs. how many wallets are stolen in Medellin. But do you really have to go in detail like that? Are these statistics relevant when most crimes are not even reported? Questionable…
So What To Believe Now About Safety In Colombia?
The question arises, how can you prepare your trip to Colombia? How can you get a sense from sitting on your Computer/Cellphone in your hometown, on how the safety in Colombia is really like?
We thought of a different way of showing you how it really is. In our video, we talk with many Expats about what their experience in Colombia is. Here some examples:
Alan: From USA, Lives in Medellin, In Colombia for 9 YearsSecurity in Medellin so here’s how I see it so, so long as you are in specific places and you have specific things that you do, you’re fine. I mean nothing really should happen to you. If you deviate from that, you know something could happen. But basically, as long as you’re not stupid about it you’re perfectly fine and safe in Colombia
Daniel: From Switzerland, Lives in Medellin, In Colombia for 9 YearsIn regards to safety, I consider myself very lucky that I’ve never had any issues so far and I consider the safety situation in Colombia general as not of a major issue anymore. Like in every Latin American city you will have to be careful, but if you do that you will be safe as in any other country in the region
Maria: From Bogota, Lives in Bogota, Born here but lived part time abroadAbout the safety of Bogota, that’s the question everybody makes. So I would say it is getting better and better by the days a government is working really hard to make it a safe place. We are not yet there yet, we still have to do a lot
BertJan: From Netherlands, Lives in Bogota, In Colombia for 1 YearsMy experience is I really feel safe here I can go on the street also in the evening. Of course there will be neighborhoods where you don’t go in the evening but I think that’s everywhere, not just specially here in Bogota.
Vanessa: From Australia, Lives in Cartagena, In Colombia for 2 YearsI feel safe. So in my whole time in Colombia, I’ve never been in an unsafe situation. Maybe I have but I haven’t ever felt unsafe. We’ve had a few incidents in my Café but hey were people that have just taken the opportunity. So I think you just put something tempting in front of someone who is in a difficult situation they’re gonna take advantage. But the majority of people are very honest and lovely. I felt more unsafe in London or Sydney.
I hope this gives you little boots on the ground overview of how safe Colombia really is.
Another interesting fact is that all the Expats we interviewed on our Cons of Colombia video, nobody talked about safety.
My Opinion About Safety In Colombia
I’m from Switzerland, so I have the great opportunity to view the US and Colombia as an outsider. Of course, I come from a country that is one of the safest countries in the world. I traveled to a lot of places (more than 20 countries) and a couple of cities in the US (more than 6). I don’t really feel more unsafe in Colombia than in the US.
Big cities, in general, are not the easiest to navigate in regards to safety. So I was as cautious driving through Compton LA as I am navigating the streets in El Centro Medellin. And I’m as relaxed in Beverly Hills as I am in Poblado (Medellin).
What About The FARC? – Countryside or City?
What a lot of people forget in the discussion of safety in Colombia is the countryside. Everybody talks about Medellin, Bogota, and Cartagena, but nobody talks about the countryside like Gutape, Rionegro…
The FARC is a left-wing group that for many decades fought a hard war against the government (military) and the paramilitary groups in the countryside and the poorest barrios in the cities.
After Pablo Escobar died the cities in Colombia returned to “normal” safety but the Campesinos (farmers) in the countryside had to deal with FARC, ELN, and the paramilitary. Many of the areas outside of the big cities were still very unsafe. In the last 15 years though, the number of these rebels declined and the countryside in Colombia at the moment is a very relaxed place.
One, Boots On The Ground Story About The Countryside
During two weeks we stayed in Guatape, we experienced firsthand how 2 tourists got robbed at gunpoint in the town 45min away from Guatape, called San Rafael. Reportedly this was the only incident in the last 7 months and only the second in the last 2 years, somebody in this area has been robbed.
The other incident was when a couple of bandits robbed a bus.
The two tourists broke the rule of flashing their stuff as they lost their USD 800 camera and USD 2000 of cash they forgot to take out of their backpack. And no, this wasn’t just a thing for the insurance, we saw them right after it happened and I guarantee they were not able to make up a story like that while in shock when we saw them.
BTW we offered them a beer and they were good to go the next day
How Safe Is The Countryside Of Colombia?
So the countryside in Colombia is pretty relaxed and not a lot of violent crime happens there as the Pueblos (small towns) is a tight-knit community and the “bad people” are well-known and put in their place once they do something stupid.
There are still some issues with FARC and drug dealers in remote areas of Colombia where one should not go. Most of those areas though are in very remote areas in the Amazon or deep in the jungle. Another thing also is shady border towns like with his story in Pasto.
So Why People Still Get Into Trouble
It sounds great right? Colombia now is way safer than New Orleans and in the countryside, you can walk back drunk to your hotel at 3:30 AM. Not so fast…
There are still many stories from foreigners that got robbed at gunpoint or at knifepoint. But why?
It’s Risky To Be A Foreigner In Colombia
In my opinion, the issue is not really that Colombia is generally unsafe, I think the issue is, foreigners are a bigger target, plus they don’t know the culture.
I think we leave out that a lot of foreigners get in trouble just because they break one of the 2 rules ( remember: don’t buy/sell/do drugs in Colombia, don’t mingle with prostitutes) and then whine about they got robbed/stabbed/drugged…
Why You And I Get Robbed In Colombia
We focus on responsible foreigners, why do they get in trouble? Foreigners, in my opinion, are a bigger target, why?
- They have way more money than a local (monthly Colombian wage USD 400/m)
- They are easy to spot (bigger, different clothes, loud English)
- They can’t speak the language (or just a little) (generalized)
- They don’t know the culture (gut feeling off)
- They don’t know the area
There are many other reasons why foreigners are a target in Colombia. This is everywhere the same thing, especially tourists. (Most) Expats can cut 3 points out of the 5. But they still have more money than a Colombian and can be spotted easily.
How To Stay Safe In Colombia
So if I would be a “bad guy” I would target somebody that has more money, went into a lonely side street, while potentially can’t even explain to the next policeman what happened.
So be aware that you as a foreigner are a bigger target and act accordingly. Here some quick rules of how to stay safe as a foreigner:
- Don’t flash your stuff
- Dress like the locals
- Lower your voice in public
- Always keep a sense of your surroundings
- Don’t walk on empty streets at night
- Know where you are going
- Stay on the beaten path
- Go out in groups
- Always watch your drink
If you use these tips in Colombia nothing should happen to you. Of course, there is always a risk but, that’s everywhere in the world.
How People Get Robbed In Colombia – Story Time
To give you an idea of how a robbery can look like in Colombia here two stories I have from a primary source.
Getting Robbed On The Street
A guy walked back home from a club in Medellin because he was too lazy to get a taxi. His apartment was just 4 blocks away. Sure enough, he got robbed at knifepoint. The area he was in was safe during the day but during the night the streets get very lonely.
What he did wrong: Not taking a taxi after the club and walking alone at night
How to prevent that: Take a taxi and avoid lonely streets at night
Takeaway: Be Always aware of your surroundings
Getting Robbed In A Cafe
A close friend of mine sat in a little Cafe at 4 PM in Laureles (nice area in Medellin) as suddenly two guys on a motorcycle came up to the Cafe and robbed the place with guns. She just gave her backpack to them. They just took it and got the stuff that was easy to get from the other customers and left.
What she did wrong: Nothing just bad luck
How to prevent that: Don’t put your smartphone on the table
Takeaway: You can do everything right, it still can happen.
3 other stories and much more to learn about safety, in particular, Medellin. Check out our Medellin E-Guide. We talk there about a story of how a friend of ours got drugged with Scopolamine and more advanced tips on how you can stay safe in Medellin.
Conclusion – Colombia Is Safe, But…
The safety issues in Colombia can be compared to any other big city in the Americas. But only if you stick to the rules above and are aware that you are a bigger target as a foreigner.
Know that you have to be more cautious, not because Colombia is generally dangerous, but because you don’t know the area and the culture (and the language).
Tacha and I have traveled to many countries in the Americas and have never had anything stolen from us or have been robbed. Thanks to our understanding of safety and thanks to being lucky.
It’s not that nobody tried something, but we were aware and could protect our stuff.