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After going on quite a few solo trips, I thought I had solo travel nailed.
I felt comfortable going to many countries on my own and had traveled solo in the United States, Europe, Southeast Asia, and South America.
So, when the idea of Colombia travel hit my radar as a great destination for a solo trip, I didn’t hesitate to start planning.
Then the questions started coming and my friends and family expressed consistent concern.
“Is Colombia safe?” they asked.
“Of course”, I replied, feeling less and less confident each time I answered the same question about safety and security and got a blank stare in response. After all, who hasn’t seen Narcos on Netflix?
I was told by other travelers who had been there that Colombia is not the place it once was in the 1980s and 1990s.
Online research showed me the same results: Colombia is a developing country that is generally safe for tourism (if you avoid certain areas in the country). Even the U.S. State Departments travel advisory agreed.
But, how far has it truly come since those dark days?
With a growing sense of concern, I booked my trip to visit Colombia knowing that I’d find out the answer to this very question. And hoping that I would like the answer.
Is it Safe to Travel to Colombia?
Visiting Colombia was one of the most amazing trips I have ever taken. Traveling to a developing country may not be for everyone, but I still look back at my pictures and pinch myself thinking how lucky I am that I went.
And how grateful I am that I didn’t decide to go somewhere else due to the concerns my friends and family expressed.
Now when people ask me, “is Colombia safe to travel?” I’m happy to respond with a resounding “Yes!”
That is not to say that you don’t need to be careful when you visit Colombia. It doesn’t mean that bad things don’t sometimes happen, and there are important things to know before visiting Colombia.
However, I found traveling in Colombia South America as safe as travel in any other developing country that I have visited.
Yes, there are challenges, and places you do not want to go. And there are issues throughout many countries in Latin America.
But, if you are smart about where you go and how you do it, this is one of the great countries to visit in South America.
It is also a great place to travel solo for those with some experience traveling solo. When you travel on your own, you get to see a slice of life you may not when you travel with someone else.
The Fallacy of Safety in Groups
Most people believe we are more at risk when we are traveling alone and I partially agree with that.
We are certainly more approachable when we are traveling on our own and that could make us more of a target.
However, when we travel solo we aren’t distracted by talking with a friend. We don’t have a false sense of security that having another person with us makes us safe.
In fact, when we traveling solo, it’s likely that we are more aware of our surroundings.
In that way, I think we are at less risk while traveling solo than when we travel with others.
Colombia Travel for the Solo Explorer
When I started planning a trip to Colombia, I did a lot of research about safety and security concerns.
Though I felt fairly confident I could safely travel to Colombia, the concerns expressed by those who care about me weighed heavily on my mind.
When they asked me, “Is it safe to travel to Colombia?” I wanted to be absolutely sure of the answer.
The safety cautions I read online were mostly similar to what you see about traveling in Europe: be careful of pickpockets.
My friends and family were so concerned I would be robbed at gunpoint, killed, kidnapped or another violent crime. However, I didn’t read many warnings about those kinds of crimes in the areas I planned to visit.
That is the perception of Colombia, and it’s time to challenge that outdated view.
It’s important for solo travelers to do some homework before traveling and particularly for solo female travelers.
Below is what I learned about Colombia travel before I left and while I was there.
Don’t Zone on Your Phone in Bogotá
One of my top Colombia tips is that safety starts before your Colombia vacation.
It’s important before you travel anywhere to do some research on safety concerns. You’ll want to gather specifics about the country in general, and also about the areas you plan to visit.
A lot of people post warnings online about the risk of getting your cell phone stolen in Bogotá. This was a significant problem for me: I have absolutely no sense of direction so I rely on my phone for navigation.
In the old days, I would carry a map, but nothing screams “tourist!” like carrying a map around. Well, that and wearing white sneakers.
What did I do?
I used my phone very sparingly, and only when I had clear sight around me that it was safe to do so. I made sure my back was against a wall and no one was close to me.
When I used my phone, I made sure to look up to assess my surroundings to be sure it was still safe to have my phone out. If people approached me, I put it away.
I’m happy to say my phone joined me for the flight home from Colombia.
Get Insight from Locals in Medellín
Another great way to learn about safety is by talking with locals.
When you ask where they recommend you go, also ask if there are places where you should not go.
We often focus on the places we want to visit when we travel, but knowing where not to go is just as important.
Medellín is one of the best places to visit in Colombia and there is a lot to do there. You do need to be careful in certain neighborhoods.
Avoid the El Centro Neighborhood at Night
Walking tours are a great way to orient yourself to a new city. I took a walking tour in Medellín and our guide, Juan, gave us some invaluable advice.
He said that we should not go to the downtown area, La Candelaria (locally known as El Centro), at night and to be very careful during the day as well.
The El Centro neighborhood is the area where many of the attractions are in Medellín, and it’s very popular.
By day, it is filled with businesspeople and it’s reasonably safe, though there are pickpockets around.
It’s a good idea to maintain awareness around you at all times and to be sure to have a firm grasp on your belongings. If you are wearing a bag, wear it across your chest or on your chest (for backpacks).
However, after the commuters go home, the downtown area is unsafe and even the locals steer clear of it.
Juan shared the Colombian saying, “dar papaya,” which loosely translated means “you should not put yourself in a position where people can easily take advantage of you.”
So, if an area is the highest risk like El Centro, or “four papayas,” it’s best to avoid.
Beware in San Antonio Square
San Antonio Square (Parque San Antonio) has some beautiful murals that stand out in a city known for its creative street art.
Also, there are two bird sculptures on display created by local artist Fernando Botero. One is intact and the other was mostly destroyed in 1995 by a guerrilla bomb. It serves as a painful reminder of the violent history of Medellín.
Our guide cautioned us to be wary of gang activity in San Antonio Square even during the day and to avoid the park at night.
It’s best to only visit in groups (like a walking tour group) and to be especially cautious of pickpockets.
Visiting Communa 13
Communa 13 is a great example of a neighborhood that was once the poorest and most violent in Medellín. It is now a place that most tourists visit known for its amazing street art.
I took a walking tour of this area with a local guide who grew up there named Sergio. He told us stories from his childhood that were painful to listen to and shared how the community is remembering its history through art.
Sergio shared a wall of small planters painted with names on them symbolizing the life of the people who disappeared in the 1980s and 1990s.
The Colombian people are very aware of their history. They strive to move past it and to move forward in a positive direction so they can continue to be proud of their country and how far it has come.
When people ask, “is it safe to travel to Colombia,” locals will say a resounding, “yes!” because they are proud to be Colombian and of what their beautiful country is today.
Caution When Using Crosswalks
Another Colombia safety tip I learned from Juan is that “crosswalks are art” in Medellín.
Meaning that drivers don’t often yield the right of way to a pedestrian so be very careful when crossing the street.
I learned this the hard way the next day when I found myself in the middle of the street as a car approached and had to dash for the curb as he went racing past me.
It sure got my heart racing and was a good reminder to be careful.
Right after that incident, a moped rode up on the sidewalk and nearly plowed me down, so caution should also extend to walking on the sidewalk as well.
Keep Your Eyes Open in Cartagena
When you’re traveling, you never know where you might end up.
If you’re like me, you plan for a few things every day but leave time to explore if you see something interesting.
Don’t make yourself a target by clearly not paying attention. Or conversely, it’s not a good idea to appear fearful by frantically looking around. Simply take a look around as you walk.
I liken this to driving a car. When we’re driving around, we’re constantly scanning our surroundings to make sure there is nothing in our path so we know it’s safe to continue driving.
At first, this takes some practice. But in time, we can do it without even thinking about it. As you build your solo-traveling muscle, you will find the same.
Old Town Cartagena and Getsemani
The most popular tourist destinations in Cartagena are the old town area and the Getsemani neighborhood.
Old-town Cartagena is the area within the old city walls and it’s stunning to walk around. There are a lot of tourists in this area and it can get very crowded.
Travel to Cartagena Colombia is generally safe. However, whenever you’re in a crowded area, it’s a good idea to be on the lookout for pickpockets and to hold onto your belongings.
Don’t make yourself an easy target for someone to snatch and grab your bag because you aren’t paying attention. Make sure your bag is zipped and you have a hand on it.
Also, it’s a good idea to not be glued to your phone when you’re walking around. If you have your head down and you’re focused on your screen, you are not paying attention to what is going on around you.
That’s not to say you can’t check your phone or use it for navigation, but you should limit your screen time and employ some of the cautions mentioned above.
I met a man in Cartagena who bought something and put the bag down on the sidewalk while on his phone. When he bent down to grab his bag, it was gone.
Being distracted makes you easy prey for an opportunist.
Traveling Solo Doesn’t Mean Always Being Alone
Just because you aren’t traveling with someone doesn’t mean you are always going to be alone.
A great aspect about traveling solo is that you are more approachable to people. It’s nice to make a personal connection with someone, especially a local.
The people of Colombia are generally very friendly and love tourists.
Since the country isn’t heavily touristed in many areas, people are very curious about travelers and want to say hello.
Make New Friends in Salento
It’s a good idea to not go to remote areas on your own.
I visited Salento, nestled in the mountains in the Coffee Triangle (Eje Cafetero) to hike in Cocora Valley.
It’s an amazingly beautiful hike that starts in the cloud forest (high-elevation rainforest) and ends in an area surrounded by wax palm trees.
They are the tallest palms in the world and have a kind of cartoonish quality as they grow as high as 200 feet (60 meters).
I got lucky and met a great group of people at the hostel I stayed at and we hiked Cocora together. There were lots of hikers and had I not met anyone before starting the hike, I could have easily met others.
As we began the hike, two young women from Argentina asked if they could join us and of course we said yes.
Though in the city I believe solo travelers are as safe, and often safer than people who travel with others, in remote areas I believe traveling in groups is best.
Why You Shouldn’t Uber in Colombia
As a solo female traveler, I do try to limit walking around at night and tend to take a cab or an Uber when I go out.
Uber is technically illegal in Colombia (“technically” because you can find Uber drivers in some of the major cities, like Cartagena, however, you may be harassed by taxi drivers or the police if they are caught).
I prefer Uber over a taxi for a few reasons.
First, because no money changes hands during the ride. I don’t have to figure out how much a ride fare is or think about if the driver turned the meter on.
I can also be reasonably sure a driver is legit. Uber tells me the driver’s name, shares a picture, and the vehicle make and license plate.
However, it’s helpful to know that Uber isn’t legal in Colombia, even though you will find some industrious people still driving with them.
I had no idea when I went there and learned from a local I met while in Cartagena after taking Uber from the airport to my apartment.
Other Colombia Safety Tips
There are many other solo travel safety tips that are helpful anywhere else in the world.
These Colombia travel tips are especially useful whether you are a solo traveler or traveling with others.
Be Careful with Alcohol
It’s important to be especially careful when you’re drinking.
You want to be sure you are aware of your surroundings and paying attention, and you simply aren’t as focused when you are drinking alcohol.
That’s not to say you can’t have a drink with dinner, but it’s just not a good idea to drink a lot when you’re traveling solo.
You don’t always make great decisions.
While you’re in the restaurant or bar, be sure to keep an eye on your drink at all times.
Especially when you’re traveling solo and don’t have someone else looking out for you, it’s a really bad time to learn what it’s like to get a “mickey” in your drink.
Keep an Eye or a Hand on Your Belongings
Pickpocketing is a risk for Colombia travel. Don’t make yourself an opportunity for a crime of chance by not keeping your belongings close to you.
Using a cross-body messenger bag is a smart idea to keep your belongings safe and to keep your hand on the bag.
If you carry a backpack, either carry it on the front or make sure you add a lock to it as it’s easy to grab something out of one when on your back.
Carry a minimum of cash in your bag. Though, keep in mind that Colombia is a cash-based society so credit cards aren’t frequently used.
Another suggestion is to use a money belt to make sure you have access to more cash. There are money belts that fasten around your waist, your neck, or even your bra.
There are also creative ones with a zippered pocket inside a belt or a scarf.
Be especially careful when you pull out money. We often leave our bag open and are not paying attention to it while we are making a purchase.
It’s an easy time for someone to help themselves to the content of your bag.
Why a Trip to Colombia is Best as a Solo Adventure
Colombia is a place you want to take the time to really get to know.
It’s important to be knowledgeable of the country’s history to fall in love with the place it is today. The best way to do that is by getting to know the locals.
Traveling solo affords you the best opportunity to meet Colombians to learn who they really are. They aren’t their shadowed past but people who work hard and are proud to be Colombian.
Visiting Colombia solo means you will be more open to the message of the people to learn their true story.
The people are tired of the violence and corruption and want change. The people who are optimistic for a more positive future. That’s the Colombia I fell in love with.
Now when people ask me, “Is Colombia safe?” I’m happy to give them a big smile and share my amazing adventures from this trip and my plans for my next one.
I hope this Colombia travel guide offered some useful Colombia travel safety tips to keep you informed and make your Colombia vacation as stress free and memorable as possible.
Tours of Colombia
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