From guerillas and paramilitaries to narco-traffickers and petty thieves – there’s enough violence in Colombia’s modern history to frighten off even the boldest of travelers.
However, the U.S. Department of State released an updated Travel Warning for Colombia on April 5, 2016 assuring travelers that tens of thousands of U.S. citizens visit Colombia every year without problem, but terrorism by extremist groups in the country is still a danger (as is true around the globe).
Kidnapping has declined sharply in the past decade, but violent street crime remains a persistent problem, especially in Bogotá. Although terrorism and street crime are no laughing matter, they’re certainly not unique problems in a global context – nor do I think they should intimidate travelers from leaving Colombia off their South American itineraries.
The most recent stories from Colombia paint a bright future, but it’s still important to keep your wits about you.
Here are 5 tips for keeping you and your valuables safe in Colombia.
Check ATMs for Tampering
While in Bogotá, a friend used an ATM that had been tampered with. The scam, often called “ATM Skimming,” resulted in her card information and PIN number stolen – and waking up to 3 maximum withdrawals she never made.
Thankfully, after a few phone calls and weeks, her bank refunded the amount.
Avoid the hassle by checking ATMs for tampering. Before you use an ATM ask: Is anything misaligned? Does anything look different (colors, fonts, etc.)? Does anything wiggle (especially the card reader)? If the answer is yes, move along.
Also make a habit of always covering your PIN entry in case of installed cameras.
Order taxis through verified companies
Use an App such as EasyTaxi or ask a restaurant or hotel to call you one; when it arrives, make sure the number of the taxi matches the number you were given.
This small step is not only to avoid being ripped off on a taxi fare but also to safeguard yourself against Paseo Millonario, or Millionaire Ride in English.
This is a brutal con in which you’re driven around the city at gunpoint from ATM to ATM until your bank accounts are empty and your credit cards are maxed out.
Needless to say, the peace of mind that comes from ordering a taxi goes a long way.
Public transportation, like buses, is generally safe in Colombia, but I would recommend traveling during the day if possible.
It’s easier to be alert when it’s bright and early, and bus robberies historically occur on late buses.
Be vigilant with your belongings
Being vigilant means being a little more paranoid than you feel is necessary. For example, if you have a purse on your lap in a cab, keep the windows up and doors locked – especially while stuck in traffic (there are so many stories like these in Bogotá).
If you’re headed out for the evening, only bring what money you need and leave the rest behind locked doors. On a bus? Keep your backpack in your lap or between your legs. Headed to a busy market or square? Skip the jewelry and fancy accessories.
And in case of a robbery…remember, nothing you own is more valuable than your life.
Be informed; stay informed; look informed
Memorize emergency numbers: Colombia’s “911” is 112 or 123, and the U.S. Embassy’s Emergency After-Hours Telephone is +57 (1) 275-2701. Here’s a list of Spanish phrases in case of emergency.
Check the news regularly; you can find news about Colombia in English at ColombiaReports. Ask locals which neighborhoods should be avoided; they know better than any online forum.
It’s also important to look informed; keep alcohol to a minimum, especially if you’re alone. Know where you’re going and study maps ahead of time.
Colombia’s last tourism campaign was based on the idea, “The only risk is wanting to stay.” But risk is everywhere and in everything we do; I could never proclaim there is no risk in Colombia – or anywhere for that matter, even my quaint hometown.
But I can tell you this…the risk is greatly reduced by taking some basic precautions, and yes – you will want to stay. I do!