Stay Safe in Colombia
WARNING: Although security in Colombia has improved considerably, drug-related violence is still evident in some, mainly rural, areas of the country. In particular, the kidnapping of foreigners for ransom – although not as great a problem as at the beginning of the millennium – still occurs from time to time. Visitors are advised to remain vigilant, particularly outside the major cities, and to keep abreast of the latest government travel advice. Updated November 2016.
Colombia suffered from a terrible reputation as a dangerous and violent country, but the situation has improved considerably since the 1980s and 1990s. Colombia is on the mend, and Colombians are very proud of the progress they have made. Today, Colombia is generally a safe country, with a lower violent crime rate than Mexico or Brazil, provided you avoid the poorer parts of the cities at night and do not venture off the main road into the jungle, where guerrillas are likely to be hiding.
The security situation is currently very different throughout the country. Most of the jungle areas are not safe to visit, but the area around Leticia is very safe, and Santa Marta is OK. Do not visit the Darien Gap, on the border with Panama (in northern Chocó), or Putumayo and Caquetá, which are active and very dangerous conflict zones. Other departments with significant rural violence are the Atlantic departments of Chocó, Cauca and Valle del Cauca, the Eastern departments of Meta, Vichada and Arauca in the East, and all the Amazon departments except Amazonas. This does not mean that these departments are completely off limits. Just make sure you travel with locals who know the area or stick to towns and tourist destinations. In general, if you stick to the main roads between the major cities and don’t wander into the remote jungle areas, you are unlikely to run into problems and are much more likely to run into a Colombian army checkpoint than a guerrilla roadblock.
Colombia is currently one of the most mine-affected countries in the world. So don’t walk lightly in the countryside without asking the locals. Landmines exist in 31 of Colombia’s 32 departments, and new ones are being laid every day by guerrillas, paramilitaries and drug traffickers.
In 2005, an agreement with the government disarmed some of the paramilitaries. However, they are still active in the drug trade, extortion and as a political force. They do not specifically target tourists, but it is possible to come across an illegal rural roadblock in more dangerous departments.
At the beginning of the millennium, Colombia had the highest kidnapping rate in the world, as it was one of the cheapest sources of funding for the FARC and ELN guerrillas and other armed groups. Fortunately, the security situation has greatly improved and the groups involved are now much weaker, with the number of kidnappings falling from 3,000 in 2000 to 229 cases in 2011. Today, kidnapping is still a problem in some southern departments, such as Valle del Cauca, Cauca and Caquetá. Under Colombian law, paying ransom is illegal, so the police may not be informed.
Guerrilla movements, which include the FARC and ELN guerrillas, are still active, although they are much weaker than in the 1990s, as the Colombian army has killed most of their leaders. These guerrillas operate mainly in the rural areas of southern, south-eastern and north-western Colombia, although they are present in 30 of the country’s 32 departments. The guerrillas are hardly active in the big cities these days. Even in rural areas, you are much more likely to encounter Colombian army soldiers than guerrillas if you stick to the main roads between the big cities and don’t go off the beaten track. River police, road patrols, newspapers and other travellers can be a useful source of information off the beaten track.
Crime rates in Colombia have declined considerably since their peak in the late 1980s and 1990s, with police arresting or killing many of the major drug cartel leaders. However, Colombia’s major urban centres and rural areas still have very high rates of violent crime, comparable to neglected cities in the United States, and crime has increased in recent years. Violent crime is not uncommon in the urban centres of most cities (which rarely correspond to affluent neighbourhoods); poor neighbourhoods can be quite dangerous for someone unfamiliar with their surroundings. Taxi crime is a very serious risk in big cities, so you should always call a taxi by phone or app rather than hailing it on the street – it costs the same and your call will be answered quickly. Official taxi ranks are also safe (airports, bus terminals, shopping centres).
Local consumption is low and penalties are draconian due to the country’s well-known and largely successful fight against some of the most powerful and dangerous drug traffickers in history. It should be remembered that drug trafficking in Colombia has ruined the lives of many innocent citizens and dragged the country’s reputation into the mud.
Buying and selling marijuana is illegal, although you can officially carry up to 20 grams without being prosecuted. The police tolerate carrying a few grams of the drug, but you are flirting with danger if you carry much more. Especially in small towns, you don’t always have to deal with the police, but with vigilantes. They often keep the peace in the towns and have a very strict way of dealing with problems.
Scopolamine is an extremely dangerous drug made from an Andean flowering tree. It is used almost exclusively for criminal purposes, and almost all such incidents in the world take place in Colombia. It is essentially a mind control drug (which the CIA once experimented with as an interrogation tool). Victims become extremely open to suggestion and are ‘persuaded’ to withdraw bank notes, hand over property, let criminals into their homes, etc., while maintaining an appearance of varying degrees of sobriety. Side effects include near total amnesia of what happened and potentially serious medical problems. The most commonly reported method of getting high on scopolamine is blowing the powder, which involves someone coming up to you (with cotton wools in their nose to prevent blowing) and asking you for help with a card before blowing the drug in your face. But by far the most common method is to drug the drinks in a bar. To be safe, leave the drinks if they have been left unattended. This is a fairly rare but very scary problem, more common in strip clubs or other establishments catering for sex workers.
Stay Healthy in Colombia
Drink only bottled water outside the big cities. Water in big cities is safe. Most people drink water at home, either by boiling it or purifying it in giant, gallon-sized plastic bags (which you can find in any small grocery shop). But coffee is delicious, so why not make it a habit?
Tropical diseases are a problem in the lowlands of the country, especially outside the major cities. Mosquitoes transmit malaria, yellow fever and dengue fever, and infection rates are similar to those in other lowland areas of South America (i.e. much lower than in sub-Saharan Africa). There is a yellow fever vaccine, so get vaccinated – it is a condition of entry to many national parks anyway. Dengue fever is not preventable, except by avoiding mosquito bites. It is therefore advisable to use regular mosquito spray in lowland rural areas.
Malaria being a potential problem, travelling outside Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena and the Andean region justifies the use of anti-malarial drugs, which can be bought very cheaply and without a prescription in a drugguería, and which are available everywhere in all cities of any size in the country. Ask for doxycicline 100 mg tablets, the number being 30 days plus the number of days spent in a malaria area (so you can start 1-2 days in advance and continue to take the drug daily for up to 4 weeks after the end of the trip). The desired formulation is: doxyciclina, cien miligramos, [nombre] pastillas. The use of a mosquito spray in the evening provides additional protection.