Paisa Tours: Guide to Medellin and Colombia


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How safe is it to travel to Colombia?


The vast majority of Colombia is perfectly safe to visit. Colombia is 3 times the size of Germany, twice the size of Spain, about 40% larger than France, almost 5 times the size of both Britain and Ecuador and 15 times as large as Panama (according to Wikipedia). Small pockets of Colombia have guerilla problems. However, you wouldn't say "I'm not visiting England because I'm worried about the Northern Irish terrorists" because people would think you were mad. Likewise, you'd be considered way too overly paranoid if you said "I'm not going to Spain on holiday because I'm afraid of those Basque (ETA) separatists. In fact I'll avoid Southern France too". [I don't make this comparisons to trivialize Colombia's problems - merely to make a point]. It's equally irrational to not want to visit Colombia because of similar fears. The problem for Colombia's tourism industry is the mis-representation of the country in the international media.  You can read about how Colombia's image is slowly changing for the better on this recent (Nov 2011) BBC News article

Did you know that Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela all have higher kidnapping rates than Colombia? Probably not - read about kidnapping statistics in Colombia at this link and you'll see that the risk is minimal.

Anyone that tells you not to travel to Colombia for safety reasons is very mis-informed. Colombia is a massive country, and massive sections of it don't see any trouble and haven't done so for many years. Most of Colombia is perfectly safe to visit, though admittedly some parts are not particularly safe to visit. It's easy to get paranoid and not want to visit in the first place, while on the other hand so much of the country is so peaceful that it can be easy to be foolish when you are there and travel to places that you really shouldn't be travelling to. Visit the safe areas, and steer clear of the less safe ones and you'll almost certainly have no problems whatsover. If you're at all concerned, you could always consider arranging an organized tour.

Colombia was a dangerous country in the 1980's and 90's and still suffers from that bad reputation. Most of the press and media have not bothered to report that nowadays (I'm editing this page in 2010) it's very different, and a lot safer. Major cities such as Bogota, Medellin, Cali and Cartagena are considered relatively (by Latin American standards) safe today. Kidnappings in the big cities are very rare these days.

Check out the UK FCO website for authoritative advice on staying safe in Colombia. The FCO suggest that we avoid all the border areas with Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama (unless entering by major highway), in addition to avoiding the Ciudad Perdida trek and visiting much of the Pacific coast. The regions that are dangerous are the remote, off the beaten track rural destinations where coca is grown (see final section). Almost everywhere else is deemed fine to visit.  And this is being overly cautious.

Is bus travel safe in Colombia?

Yes it is, as long as you're not travelling through any "red zones". Routes between major cities such as Bogota, Cali and Medellin are all safe. Most of the major highways are perfectly safe. The overland highway from Cali to Ecuador is not the safest route, and night buses have been robbed there from time to time. If you do take this route it's best to do this during the day rather than at night (indeed it's safest to travel during the day everywhere in Colombia, indeed everywhere in Latin America). The military and police are present along all major roads, but more so during weekends and holiday periods, and as such it's safer to travel during these times.

Is Colombia safe for travel for a solo (female) traveller?

Yes it is. Just be sensible as you would be in any developing country. Don't visit the red / dangerous zones. It's advisable to speak at least some Spanish if you're travelling on your own. There's lots of Spanish schools in Colombia where you can study for a week or two to pick up the language if you don't speak Spanish.

Where are the Dangerous or Red Zones?

The FCO website (see earlier link) suggests that anywhere that illicit drugs are cultivated in Colombia is a dangerous zone. To get to any of these areas, you'll have to go way off the beaten track and avoid everyones local advice to get there - you're extremely unlikely to just stumble across a coca field. So forgot about that point.

More relevant is to pay attention to where the red zones (or "war" zones) are. You'll know about it if you go anywhere near a red zone as the place will be full of the military, and you'll be told you shouldn't be there. Colombia has military checkpoints everywhere. Much of the Pacific coast is a red zone. The area bordering Panama is a red zone. Parts of the areas bordering Ecuador and Venezuela are red zones (that doesn't mean your shouldn't cross over the borders by frequently used land routes though). The area around San Jose del Guaviare and parts of Meta department are also red zones. If one wanted to generalise, you'd say "border areas and parts of Eastern Colombia are less safe than the rest of the country".

On a more positive note

Just about everyone who travels to Colombia for the first time realizes what an amazing country it is and how totally unwarranted it's bad reputation is. Ask anyone who has been and they will tell you this. Many people imagine Colombia to be a poor, developing country - in fact, on the surface at least, Colombia appears just as advanced and modern as Brazil (or parts of Brazil!), Chile or Panama. Other countries in Latin America lag way way behind in terms of development. Colombia is a very pleasant surprise to almost everyone. And the world will learn so in the not too distant future. Visit Colombia before the secret's really out.......


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