my thoughts about safety in Colombia
Earlier today I was looking for upcoming gigs of my favorite Colombian band, Bomba Estereo, to see if I could catch one before the year ends, and ended up - as I usually do - opening a lot of unrelated links and windows in my never ending desire to read EVERYTHING. One of those pages touched the “Safety in Colombia” topic, but what really caught my attention was the outspoken tittle “Why you should ignore everything you’ve heard and go to Colombia”.
OK, this may be a sign of fate, I was avoiding the topic but here it is, in my face....the dreaded question every Colombian is asked about..... “Is it safe to travel to Colombia?”, “Is Colombia Safe?”. Well, a lot of people know now that security in Colombia has improved immensely during the past years, that’s the reason why Colombia has appeared again in travel guides and is slowly but steadily becoming the new and trendy South American travel destination..... which, basically takes us back to the foundations of my travel blog and summarises my main objective: trying to show you Colombia and making you want to come so that you can answer the questions “Is Colombia safe? and “Is it safe to travel to Colombia?” for yourself.
Again, this is a subject I have been somehow delaying to write about, the answer to those questions, my friends, is not a simple one and as almost everything in this world, is relative . In the months I‘ve been writing my Colombia Travel Blog I have received equally praise and criticism for the introduction text in the header that reads “Colombia is now a safe land, unknown to foreign tourists and waiting to blossom as a major touristic destination in Latin America.” People who agree with that statement are mostly foreigners that have actually travelled to Colombia - many of them actually stayed in Colombia - and middle aged Colombians living in Colombia who have an optimistic perspective of whats been going on in the last few years in our country, while the ones who disagree are either people who have personally suffered some sort of violent situation in the past (usually many years ago) or those that honestly believe the - most times exaggerated - warnings and advices given by official government's travel bureaus.
Perception plays a major role here, it all depends on what “safety” means for you. Is Colombia “Reykjavik safe“ or “Brussels safe” ? NO. But in the other hand, is Colombia more dangerous to travel to than to any other South American Country? Categorically: NO, those times have passed.
One would think that I would be biased; but being a Colombian expat for more than 12 years and having experienced travelling from both sides - as a guide and as a normal independent traveller - gives me, I believe, a privileged vision. Unlike many Colombians I met in London, I didn’t leave Colombia because I had to, due to the violence and guerrillas situation; I left because I wanted to study English but I did live in Colombia during some of the worst years of violence. After a few years abroad, having settled in England I, like the whole world suffered from what I call the “Colombia media massacre”.
Although the violence in Colombia was awful indeed, the media did a great job in making things look much worse. There was one time in which I anguishing called my mum from England, almost crying, and asking her what were they going to do, where was my family moving to? (I had just seen on TV that Colombia was being evacuated because it seemed that the guerrilla had taken over the country.. I honestly thought my whole family was going to die! ) “What?” she replied, “Marce, we’re just going out for lunch!”, that's how bad Colombians and Colombia were depicted in the international media.... and don't even get me started with the stereotypical Hollywood depiction of Colombia (I wrote briefly about it in my “Noche de las Velitas” post)
Facts: When I was a kid in Colombia my parents and most of the people I knew would be reluctant to go out of city to their country houses or just to spend the weekend away, because we all were afraid of being stopped by Guerrillas or Paramilitares which implied a high risk of being kidnapped, robbed or even killed. It was also frequent to wake up in the middle of the night by the sound of bombs exploding anywhere in the city. Internal tourism nearly died, and foreign tourism was unheard of.
In Medellin (where most of my family lives), people were killed almost daily by drug cartels, so a phone call to make sure all of them were OK was in order at least once a week. The situation in Cali, were drug lords owned entire towns, was almost the same. Drug cartels were in a bloody and constant war, and it didnt matter who was caught in the middle, anyone could be a victim of violence. During the early 90s some of the main drug barons were either caught, killed or deported, leaving the guerillas a new business to get into and finance their own war against the state of Colombia. In the following years Colombia went from fighting mainly the drug barons to go back fighting the guerrillas and paramilitaries that, amongst other things, were now dealing with drugs and weapons themselves and had taken possession of a huge portion of the country.
And then, in 2002 Alvaro Uribe was elected President. I’m not a political person, on the contrary, politics bore me and I try to stay away from it as much as I can. And Uribe, as all politicians, has supporters and detractors. But there is one thing in which almost all Colombians agree on: with his government we have recovered our country in many aspects. The guerrillas and drug cartels have been mostly cornered to remote areas of the country and for the first time in decades there is a sense of freedom, relieve and prosperity that you can almost breathe when you travel to Colombia.
Starting in 2004, Uribe’s government organised what was the first attempt to massively and pacifically overpower the guerrilla: a convoy of thousand of civilian cars escorted by army vehicles departed from Bogota to Cartagena at the beginning of the summer holidays as an act of symbolic recuperation of the roads. Following that first one, several more convoys where organised regularly in the areas that were perceived most risky to travel to, providing security to travelers while showing the people that things were truly starting to change. This strategy meant the renaissance of local tourism that was followed in the years after with more actions to let the world now that Colombia was changing for good, it also meant, partially thanks to a extensive media campaign supported by deep structural changes, that Colombians now trusted their army and police forces. Currently the presence of army and police patrols on the roads is synonym of safety as opposed other latin countries were seeing them around is a sign of trouble that you should rather avoid.
Later on, with the growing certainty that internal security was improving, a genius campaign with an amazingly spot-on slogan was created capitalizing the fact that Colombia used to be perceived as risky but was now almost virgin territory to be discovered: Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay. Plain genius, because that campaign not only invites travelers to get curious about Colombia, but also empowers Colombians, makes us proud of what we have to show to the world while realizing how privileged we are.
At the end of the day, is all a matter of getting rid of the negative stereotype that Colombia has earned in the past decades. I read this phrase at Bootsnall that expresses exactly the perception we strive to change: “When you spend your entire life hearing horrible things about a group of people, or a country, or a culture, it’s hard not to form an opinion – regardless of whether you’ve met those people, visited that country, or know anything about the culture in question”.
So, after all this ranting ... Is it safe to Travel to Colombia? Well, either if you are a seasoned traveler or a casual one ... heck .. even if you haven't even got out of your home country ever, there’s is one thing that will keep you away from dangerous situations always, everywhere. That thing is called common sense. Unless you’re into a very specific and alternative kind of tourism, you wouldn't advise anyone to visit the unreputable or threatening areas of your city and one should stick to that rule when traveling abroad.
There’s one thing I can say though, having been a tour leader all over South America and traveled this Continent independently for many years now, I can assure you that Colombia is at least equally safe to visit than any other South American country you could travel to. There you have ...I’m not going to say that Colombia is 100% safe, I don’t believe there’s any 100% safe country in the whole world, but I will stress however that it is a much safer country than ever before and that Colombia is now a safe place to travel to if you use your common sense as you would in any other destination.
Here are just a few things that I would like my readers to know/learn/understand about Colombia
- As opposed to other countries in the third world, when you see the army and police on the streets doesn’t mean trouble, it means safety.
- You should be ineligible for kidnapping unless you’re worth at least a couple of million dollars but we’ve had a visit from Billy Gates and he quite liked it! In all seriousness, you won’t get kidnapped just for being a “gringo” or for ideological reasons.
- You can travel by bus or drive all over Colombia. As an advice, stick to driving during the day, is not only safer but would also give you the chance to actually see the beautiful and colourful landscapes.
- Although there are drugs in Colombia, most Colombians do not consume them. More than 90% of whats produced here gets exported.
- If getting drugs is part of your holiday, be aware of the fact that most Colombians get really upset and sometimes offended if they're asked to get them or if you get them involved in any drug related situation. It is a very touchy subject because that's another stereotype we want to get rid of.
Guerrilla and Paramilitary forces
They are secluded to deserted areas some which don’t even have roads. Every day there are more guerrilleros that are leaving the jungle and joining the government re-socializing programs. Obviously, you should avoid those areas.
No matter all of the above, we Colombians are happy and will always be happy to help visitors in any way we can... Colombia the second happiest country in the world!
And just to make sure you have the best time of your life in Colombia, here are some of my tips:
1. DO only listen to the people that have actually been to Colombia.... join as many forums as you can like tripadvisor, askville, etc etc....
2. This is the perfect time to travel. Colombia is ALL an off the beaten path destination. In a few years, I’m afraid, that sense of being a “pioneer” traveler will disappear.
3. Use your common sense, as you do when you travel to any other foreign country. Try to blend in and take care of your personal belongings.
4. It goes for all Latin countries...Learn a bit of Spanish as a sign of respect to the locals and to help you enhance your experience.
5. Relax and enjoy.
And finally here are some links from reliable sources about safety in Colombia and other cool things:
Colombia's Capital Finds New Sense of Optimism
Why we travel?
Above the Clouds in Secret Colombia
For Foodies, Cartagena Is Now on the Map
Villa de Leyva, a Graceful Window on Colonial Colombia
Frothing Over a Starbucks in Little Colombia
Is Colombia safe?
A Cultural Heart Beats Anew
A seasoned Dutch Traveler Discovers Colombia
As always, if you are planning to travel to Colombia just send me a message and I’ll gladly forward all the info I can.
Marcela - Colombia Travel Blog