It was 2015, and me and my wife Martha had just gotten married. As a wedding gift, Martha's parents gave us a one week trip to Medellín, Colombia.
You have to understand that prior to meeting Martha, the only two Colombians I'd ever known were Juan Valdez and Juan Pablo Escobar – coffee and cocaine.
Like most North Americans, the only thing I'd ever learned about Colombia came from movies like Clear and Present Danger.
Leading up to our trip, Martha tried to prepare me for my first visit to her home country. She meant well, but what she ended up doing was scaring the beejezus out of me.
You see, Martha left Colombia for Canada over twenty years ago – when Colombia was a very different place than it is now.
Kidnappings, shootings, bombings … they were all a very real part of her childhood.
Both she and her family have been victims of robbery. Her parents have been tied up in their own home, while the invaders ransacked the house for valuables – shooting the family parrot in the process. And Martha narrowly missed being a victim of a bus bombing.
So you can understand why the question, “Is Colombia safe to visit?” ran through my head when we booked the tickets for my first trip to Martha's home country.
As our plane approached El Dorado International Airport, I'm not to proud to admit it…
I was scared!
Visions of rampaging robbers with masks and guns danced through my head like a coked up Salsa dancer.
But during my trip something happened.
I fell in love with Colombia! ❤️
The people were warm, and welcoming. The food was delicious (love my bandeja paisa), and the cities were an incredible mix of centuries old architecture with modern construction.
“But Curtis, is Colombia a safe place to visit?”
The short answer is “YES!”
Colombia is safe to visit. Millions of people do it each year.
Safe compared to what?
Cocaine Kill Zone
During the 70's, 80's and even into the early part of the 21st century, the large cities of Colombia were literal kill zones.
The rural areas weren't much better. With drug cartels battling the rebel FARC for control of the fertile fields used to produce the coca plants, Colombia truly was a scary place to be.
Then Escobar's kingdom crumbled, and his rivals, the Cali cartel, fell. And more recently, the FARC have reduced (not elminated) their operations. Things began to improve. The Colombia of today hardly resembles the Colombia of the past.
As you can see from this graphic, the murder rate in Colombia's largest cities have plummeted.
In Wikipedia's ranking of the top 50 cities by murders per 100,000 people, Colombia has just two cities that make the list:
- Cali, a popular destination for plastic surgery in Colombia, ranks 31st.
- And a small city, just outside of Cali, called Palmira ranks 27th on the list.
Compare that to the United States which appears 5 times:
- St. Louis (15)
- Baltimore (23)
- San Juan (40)
- Detroit (46)
- New Orleans (50)
And then compare that to Brazil, another country famed for its plastic surgery. They have 14 cities in the top 50:
- Natal (8)
- Fortaleza (9)
- Belém (12)
- Feira de Santana (14)
- Maceió (21)
- Vitória da Conquista (22)
- Aracaju (25)
- Salvador (29)
- Macapá (30)
- Campos dos Goytacazes (35)
- Manaus (37)
- Recife (38)
- João Pessoa (44)
- Teresina (48)
What about México – another hotbed of plastic surgery. Well, like Brazil, they too make 14 appearances on the list:
- Tijuana (1)
- Acapulco (2)
- Ciudad Victoria (4)
- Ciudad Juárez (5)
- Irapuato (6)
- Cancun (13)
- Culiacán (16)
- Uruapan (18)
- Coatzacoalcos (26)
- Celaya (32)
- Ensenada (34)
- Tepic (36)
- Reynosa (42)
- Chihuahua (49)
Here's the thing about lists like this…
They don't come close to painting the whole picture. If they did, you couldn't explain why…
Why stats don't fully answer the question – “Is Colombia safe?”
More than 10 MILLION people flock to New Orlean's Mardi Gras celebrations. ()
Nearly 18 MILLION people visit México – many of them to the sand and sun of Acapulco and Cancun.
Here's another personal reason why I don't give lists like this a lot of weight…
I grew up in Winnipeg, Canada – a city of about 800,000 people – in the middle of the Canadian prairies. For years, Winnipeg had the distinction of being named Canada's murder capital.
When I first heard this I was shocked!
The truth behind the stats was that most of the crime occurred in a couple of small areas of the city – the downtown core, and an area known locally as “The North End”.
Living out the suburbs, this violence never affected me or my family.
My point is…
In most big cities (and small ones), there are areas where you don't want to be when the sun goes down. The North End of Winnipeg is one of those areas. Locals know it and they stay away.
Now the cities in Colombia are bigger than most cities in Canada.
- Bogotá is a city of 10.7 million
- Medellin is a city of 2.4 million
- Cali is a city of 2.2 million
So there are more areas that have higher incidences of crime but does that mean the whole city is dangerous? No, not at all.
I don't want you to feel scared about coming to Colombia, but at the same time you need to be aware that while Colombia is a wonderful place to visit, it's not the same as living in a small, quiet Canadian university town.
When people ask me if it's safe to go to Colombia, I say to them…
“Safe” is a relative term. And how safe you are in Colombia depends a lot on you – on whether or not you “dar papaya”.
No Dar Papaya
The locals have a saying… “No dar papaya”. Translated literally, it means “Don't give papaya”.
What they're saying is don't do anything that would make you an appealing target for thieves.
You are far more likely to be the victim of theft while travelling in Colombia than any other type of crime.
In 2019, 75,483 thefts (207 per day) were reported in Bogotá, 14,546 (40 per day) in Cali, and 17,527 (48 per day) in Medellin.
Muggings and thefts top the list of crimes in Colombia
Muggings and cell phone thefts top the list as the two most common form of thefts committed. And the areas with the highest incidents of theft tend to be the upscale neighbourhoods, and areas with high amounts of tourist traffic.
The sad truth is there is a large economic divide in Colombia. The difference between the rich and the poor is more pronounced than what you might find in North America or Europe.
Because of this higher level of poverty, foreigners can find themselves targets for theft, and robbery.
When you ask expats from North America, and Europe “Is Colombia safe?”, they'll respond the same way…
Yes, but it's up to you to make it so. You need to be aware of the possible risks and do what you can to minimize them. Being safe in Colombia isn't too difficult if you follow some simple tips:
10 Tips To Stay Safe In Colombia
Keep your phone out of sight.
Cell phones are high on the list of items stolen in Colombia. That goes for locals and tourists alike.
One of the biggest things I had to get used to when travelling to Colombia was keeping my phone out of sight. Where we live, in Kitchener-Waterloo, everyone's walking around with their phones out, their heads down – often wearing headphones.
In Colombia, you'll see the locals on their phones too. But as a foreigner, you need to be a little more cautious and keep your phone tucked away as much as possible.
When you're in a café, keep your phone in your pocket or purse, and don't leave it on the table. And speaking of purses…
Keep your purse/backpack with you at all times – especially in the airport.
On one trip to visit my wife's family in Bogotá, we took a side trip to Cartagena for some sun and sand.
While waiting for our return flight to Bogotá from Cartagena, I was in the washroom when a small group of young “gringo” men walked in.
They all put their backpacks on a shelf near the sinks and walked over to relieve themselves. Seeing this, I just shook my head and stood near their bags until they returned. When they came back, I offered them the same advice I will give you now…
Never, ever, NEVER leave your bags unattended. 9.5 times out of 10 they will disappear in a heartbeat.
And at the airport, if they don't disappear, someone could slip something (drugs) in your bag to see if you make it through security with it. If you do, they'll simply steal your bag on the other side.
Another quick story…
My wife told me a story of a time when her and her family were in a crowded café. A man, pretending to be a waiter, snatched her mother's purse and made a run for it. Unfortunately for him, he wasn't faster than my brother-in-law. He was caught and gave the purse up.
Most tables in Colombian restaurants have hooks underneath them for you to hang your purse on. Use them to keep your purse out of sight. If the hooks aren't there, you'll see most Colombian women simply sit at the table with their purses worn across their body.
Be aware of your surroundings.
Colombians are taught this from a very young age. As a foreigner you have to be more conscious about it.
As you walk through Colombia, it's important to be conscious of where you are, and who is around you.
First, if you aren't paying attention, it's possible to walk right into the path of traffic. I learned quickly that in Colombia, drivers have the right of way. If you're not paying attention as you walk, you could easily become a Colombian hood ornament.
Never walk the streets with headphones listening to music. I see this all the time – especially with younger people. They put their noise cancelling headphones on and walk around in their own little cone of silence.
In Colombia, this makes it too easy for someone trying to sneak up on you.
Thankfully, I've never been the victim of any type of crime in Colombia, but I can say from firsthand experience that being alert can help prevent that.
Once while walking with my wife – who is Colombian, and looks it – we were walking down the street in a nice area when my wife suggested we cross the street.
What she noticed that I did not was a man who had been following us for some time and had gotten a little too close for her liking.
We crossed the street without incident, but it was a good reminder for me to keep my head on a swivel and to pay attention to what's around me.
And you can't let your guard down in a vehicle either.
When in a taxi, if you must use your phone, keep it low and in your lap, with the window up.
In Colombia, motorcycles are allowed to drive between the lanes of cars. It's not unheard of for thieves to drive around looking for unsuspecting passengers holding electronics. The motorcycle simply drives by and the guy on the back grabs your stuff through the window.
Avoid withdrawing money from automated tellers on the street – especially at night. Whenever possible, use cash machines inside a mall, or one with a security door. And if the keypad seems loose or “strange”, move to another machine, as it may have been tampered with.
Never leave your drink alone.
If you decide to arrive in Colombia a few days prior to having surgery and want to check out the nightlife, it's important to remember:
- Always keep your drink with you.
- Never take a drink from a stranger – no matter how flattering or how good looking he or she* may be.
- If, for some reason, you forget this advice and leave your drink – even for just a few seconds – dump it and get a new one.
Aside from the usual date-rape drugs that could be slipped in your drink, Colombia is home to a nasty drug called “scopolaomine” or “devil's breath”. The reason why thieves and rapists love this drug is it keeps the victim fully conscious but renders them completely helpless to resist any demand.
* Colombians know that thousands of “gringos” come to Colombia looking for “love”. They take advantage of this and work in teams – one or two beautiful women, and at least that many men. The women hook the fish, bring them back to a hotel or apartment where the foreigners are promptly robbed.
Is Colombia safe for walking at night? It's best to ask your hotel or security staff for safe walking routes during the evening and at night.
I love the weather in Bogotá – especially in the evenings. I love to walk through the cool mountain air with a light jacket. But I've come to accept that sometimes it's better to just take a taxi to where I want to go. The good news is, taxis are cheap.
Speaking of taxis…
Avoid flagging down a taxi – especially at night.
One thing you'll notice about Colombia is there are taxis everywhere in the big cities. They're cheap and often the best way to get around town.
Even though it's convenient to just flag down a taxi, it's safest to call for one. Here's why…
When you call for a taxi, you're guaranteed to get a legitimate driver, and have a record of the call. The taxi company will tell you the number of the taxi they're sending. The numbers are actually painted on the side of the car.
If you just flag a taxi down, especially at night, you could get a driver who actually isn't a taxi driver at all but just posing as one. You may wonder what does it matter as long as you get to where you're going. Well that's the thing…
Fake taxis can take you anywhere. Do anything. And no one knows where you are.
This is rare. Me and my wife hail taxis all the time during the day. But when we go out at night, we have the security person at the bar or restaurant call a taxi for us. You can also use an app like Cabify to arrange a ride.
Another alternative is to use Uber. In early 2020, Uber was forced to cease operations in Colombia, but just 3-weeks later, they found a new way to operate (https://www.engadget.com/2020/02/21/uber-back-in-colombia/). This may change, so be sure to check their status before you leave.
Split your cash and cards up.
One way to foil thieves is to split up your cash and cards. Some people will even recommend carrying two wallets – one with a small amount of cash and credit card that can be cancelled easily via app or a phone call.
If you get a prepaid credit card, you limit your losses if it's stolen, and you reduce the risk of losing a big chunk of your cash if robbed.
Don't carry large amounts of cash
In Canada I'm used to using my debit card for absolutely every purchase. So when I go to Colombia and have to carry cash around, I find it really frustrating.
The first couple of times there, I carried way more than I really needed for the day because I didn't want to find myself short of cash far from home. Now though, I carry a smaller amount of cash and a credit card for emergencies.
Never carry your passport with you.
There are times when you need to have your identification with you. To rent a car, boat or even a bike. Instead of carrying your passport, however, carry a photo of it in your phone or even carry a photocopy of it. Leave the original locked in a safe in your hotel room.
If it happens that someone approaches you asking for your valuables, especially if they have a weapon, simply give it to them. I love my Samsung phone, but it's not worth injury or death. In fact, I now do this…
Bring a “burner” phone.
If you decide to get plastic surgery in Colombia, consider bringing a 2nd phone that you don't use often.
I travel to Colombia with two phones – my everyday phone, and an old iPhone I don't use anymore.
When I get to Colombia, I buy a sim card (see below) and put it in my backup phone.
If we're just going out to a restaurant or bar in the evening, I bring my backup phone. It has just enough data to use the map app if I need it and there is unlimited local calling.
When we visit places where I want to take pictures or video, I bring my newer Samsung.
So, is Colombia safe?
I have to tell you, I was worried about writing this article. On the one hand, I know that if you're considering coming to Colombia for plastic surgery, “Is Colombia safe?” is going to be one of the first things you ask yourself.
In 2015, I took my first trip here and fell in love with Colombia and the people who live here.
Years ago, Colombian tourism came up with a tagline that sums it up nicely…
Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay
This video does an excellent job of showing you the beauty of Colombia – its people, it's culture, and landscape.
I hope you'll consider having your plastic surgery in Colombia, and book your trip with confidence. If you have any questions, please don't hesitate to reach out to us.