Written by El Camino Travel's Colombian-American Founder, Katalina Mayorga.
You probably landed on this page because Colombia has peaked your interest as a travel destination. You had a friend or a Bumble date that just got back and could not stop raving about the people, the nightlife, the food, and the culture. They had a lot to say at happy hour, lots of selfies to share, and they were really excited about it. They were so enthusiastic that now you've got Colombia on the mind and a serious travel itch.
However, you also watched Narco’s and you remember growing up that Colombia was always this scary and dangerous far off place. Is it safe to travel to Colombia? Will I get kidnapped? You ran “Colombia” through a Google Image search and yes, it looks absolutely unreal, but is it worth the risk?
As a Colombian-American who grew up my entire life going back and forth between the USA and Colombia, I am here to tell you that YES, it totally is and that it is completely safe if you practice common sense. Let me give you a little more context to my experience.
Growing up Colombian-American thrusts you into a world of stereotypes that have been glorified by media and shows like Narcos. Many times when someone finds out I am Colombian, they snicker and immediately ask if Pablo Escobar is my uncle. I usually roll me eyes, because you know … 48 million people (the population of Colombia) are destined to be related to a drug kingpin. I will spare you my snarky responses, but I do take the opportunity to educate that individual and tell them why Colombia is much more than Pablo Escobar.
"THE CITY IS MUCH MORE OPEN NOW. YOU CAN TRAVEL AROUND THE CITY. THE GOVERNMENT HAS MADE A BIG EFFORT, BUT THE PEOPLE FROM MEDELLIN ARE MAKING AN ENORMOUS EFFORT TO OPEN THEIR HEARTS." - Photojournalist, Federico Rios Escobar, on La Pina Podcast.
WHY COLOMBIANS DEEPLY CARE ABOUT TOURISM
When Narcos is your primary source of information about the country, I do not blame you if you have a warped view of Colombia’s current political environment. The reality is that this is a very outdated view of Colombia’s security situation. I do not want to undermine the deep pain, loss, and violence that was experienced in the 80’s and 90’s by Colombians, but I do want to recognize that was a long time ago. In the past ten years, drug production has decreased by 60% and crime has dramatically reduced with it. In addition, the Colombian government and the FARC have signed a peace agreement, putting a long standing civil war to rest, and opening up much of the country that was once off limits to exploration.
The Colombia Tourism Board (ProColombia) knows the negative perceptions it is up against and because of that they have worked tirelessly to show off the real Colombia. The Colombia that is full of passion, color, and diversity and the reasons that it is on the New York Times 52 Places to Go in 2018. The campaign video, The Land of Sabrosura, above is an example of ProColombia’s latest efforts, that perfectly encapsulates the pulsating energy ever present throughout the country.
The nation's efforts are paying off. Colombia received around 5 million tourists in 2016 (an increase of 14.5 % compared to 2015) and now tourism has become Colombia’s largest source of foreign revenue generating $5.2 billion in 2015 alone. That means your friend or Bumble date that had the best time EVER in Colombia was part of the five million majority that came back unscathed.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THAT STATE DEPARTMENT WARNING?
While we always advise to check out the State Department warnings and recommendations we also advise to take them with a grain of salt. In the U.S. Department of State Travel Advisory Levels List (updated as of 1/10/18) Colombia is ranked a 2, where Canada is ranked a 1, and Afghanistan a 4. You know what other countries are ranked a 2? UK, Belgium, France, Italy, and Germany. More importantly, did you know that Canada and other countries have a travel warning against the USA, stating that “the possession of firearms and the frequency of violent crime are generally more prevalent in the U.S. than in Canada.” I mention this to put everything into perspective.
The reality is if we based all our travel decisions by following the State Department warnings religiously we would never even leave the country because of unwarranted fear.
TOP TIPS FOR KEEPING SAFE IN COLOMBIA
So what should you do In Colombia to stay smart? We have a few suggestions, but as you will notice lots of these tips will seem familiar because they are common sense and what you should follow going to any country.
Watch your drink and never leave it unattended. The beer and fire water are cheap and always flowing. Don’t risk it and just buy a new drink.
Use Uber or other taxi apps to get around or have the hotel call you a cab. Do not take unmarked cabs and it is not the best to hail one from the street. If you do use Uber (which everyone uses in country including Colombians), understand the risks as it is technically not legal, but it is also not illegal there.
No dar papaya/Don’t give papaya is a phrase you will hear often in Colombia and see even spray painted on the streets. It is a slang phrase that means don’t put yourself in a position where you become vulnerable to be taken advantage of. Basically do not flash your valuables, walk down dark alleys (especially alone!) or do anything else that will obviously put yourself in a risky situation.
Don’t take overland buses at night. If you really need to take evening overland transport, consider buying a domestic ticket. They are really cheap, ranging anywhere from $30 to $80. Check out services like Viva Colombia, Avianca, and Easy Jet. Bonus, this can cut down your transport time from 19 hours to 50 minutes!
Buy comprehensive travel insurance that covers all your bases if something were to happen.
These tips mainly pertain to those traveling solo. Not having to deal with the anxiety that often comes with solo travel (especially as a female) is one of the many reasons we think group travel actually enhances the experience. We have heard over and over again from our travelers, that traveling with El Camino allows them to fully immerse themselves in the destination, enjoy the nightlife, and other activities without having to be constantly watching their back. They also know that traveling with us does not mean they have to sacrifice the quality of the experiences because they chose group travel. They know that we seek out the same boutique experiences they would try to seek out on their own and in many cases would not be able to get themselves.
In the end, always trust your instincts. If something feels not quite right, take steps to get out of the situation. Gut instinct is your best friend as a solo traveler. If you want more tips on solo travel check out our blog post on the Solo Traveler's Guide to Latin America.
WHY NOW IS THE TIME TO VISIT COLOMBIA
“If you want to experience a country you'd never go yourself, to be immersed in both leisure and culture experiences that would have been impossible to navigate and plan on your own, go to Colombia with El Camino. It's the perfect mix of education and vacation; of understanding and enjoyment; of going deeper and having so much fun. Don't be scared to go alone — El Camino attracts some of the coolest humans who want to experience the world together. Go, go, go!” -- Catherine G, Google Review
Let’s get back to why your friend was raving about Colombia in the first place or as a representative from ProColombia perfectly stated, why Colombians themselves are the country’s greatest strength.
Colombians are truly the nicest people and did you know they ranked third on the Happy Planet Index. The USA is ranked 108?! We have a lot to learn from Colombians and the way they live their lives.
Colombians are working tooth and nail to fight the negative stereotypes. The best way to honor and respect that effort is by skipping the cheesy Escobar tours where you get “to meet Escobar’s brother.” Instead, take a tour that shows why the Wall Street Journal named Medellin the Most Innovative City of the Year in 2013. On immersive tours like ours, you can meet the street artist, Chota, from Comuna 13, who provides cultural education through hip-hop, dancing, and art to youth in the community as an alternative to drug dealing and violence.
Or get to know our good friend Maria Paulina, the owner of Makua Jewelry who is working with indigenous communities to preserve their traditional craftsmanship and artisanal techniques by integrating them into more modern designs.
Even Bill Clinton thinks they are pretty great and stopped by and visited both my friends on the SAME day!
Let me leave you with some wise words from one of our favorite explorers, Anthony Bourdain. In true Bourdein style he gets straight to what Colombia is really like..
"If you want to find bad people in Colombia, you can surely find them, as you could in New York or Los Angeles. But nowhere have my crew and I been treated better or with more kindness and generosity. I'd bring my family on vacation there in a heartbeat. And hope to soon. As I said before: Colombians are proud. Let them show you what they are proud of."
Safety is of utmost priority to El Camino Travel and we do not take it lightly. Want to travel to Colombia with us? Click to see our full Colombia itinerary and sign up below to stay up to date with trip availability.