Is Colombia Safe for Tourists?

When you think of Colombia, there’s a good chance you mentally reference this video clip…

Harrison Ford and his friends may not be typical tourists, but that doesn’t change the main take-away of this movie from being that Colombia is incredibly scary and dangerous – especially for Americans.  For many (myself included), this misconception of what Colombia is like has far outlived 1994’s Clear and Present Danger and the result makes considering visiting Colombia as a tourist kinda daunting.  Despite this, I had wanted to go to Colombia for years and was finally able to talk my two friends into going with me for a long weekend thanks to JetBlue’s new non-stop service from New York JFK to Cartagena.  Something about the idea of JetBlue flying there seemed to make it feel safer for some reason.

The rooftops of Cartagena's Old City offer a beautiful indication of the wonderful city below

The rooftops of Cartagena’s Old City offer a beautiful indication of the wonderful city below

The safety concerns in visiting Colombia revolve mostly around the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the illicit drug trade. But are these real concerns that should keep you away from enjoying such a beautiful country? Is Colombia safe? Seeing as some of my favorite travel experiences have included visiting the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the townships of South Africa, I was definitely not going to let some negative preconceptions get in my way.

I'm pretty sure these are the only guns I saw while in Colombia.  And I don't think they get much use.

I’m pretty sure these are the only guns I saw while in Colombia. And I don’t think they get much use.

Over our five days in Cartagena, we based ourselves within the old city walls in a three bedroom apartment we found on AirBnB.  Not staying in a hotel meant we would be living ever so slightly more like locals.  We came and went from our apartment as if we lived there all the time with no lobby or doorman to protect us.  We shopped for food and ate at restaurants in a slightly more local feeling part of the old city and, most importantly, we walked a lot. In fact, with the exception of coming from and going to the airport, and the non-stop party that is a Cartagena Chiva Tour, we walked absolutely everywhere and never once felt unsafe in doing so.

The mean streets of Cartagena.

The mean streets of Cartagena.

Cartagena By Day

From the moment the sun comes up, the old city of Cartagena is bustling.  Vendors push their carts along the ancient streets, gift stalls pop up in what used to be dungeons and restaurants blast their air conditioning to offset the equatorial climate outside.  Cartagena revolves around tourism, and although most of those tourists aren’t American, that hasn’t stopped the city from shaping itself into the perfect place to spend a vacation.  Walking around the old city offers a fascinating dichotomy of old meets new where medieval ramparts complete with cannons  have become host to kite flying and lunch cafes.  Grab a snack from one of the city’s many food carts or relax at one of the many resort hotels on the beach on Bocagrande.  The people of Cartagena are friendly and welcoming. In fact, one man even invited me to a cock fight he was hosting in the evening and told me he knew a massage parlor that did great happy endings for afterwards.  Although I partook in neither, I appreciated the offers and his eagerness to please!

Ooooo, scary dangerous Colombia!  Complete with 200 children flying kites.

Ooooo, scary dangerous Colombia! Complete with 100 children flying kites.

I would also add that unlike visiting many other cities, nobody in Cartagena was constantly approaching us to ask questions or to try to sell us things.  We were able to walk the streets freely without being bothered. This played a huge part in making the destination feel so comfortable and safe.

Seriously if this place were so dangerous would it have a Hard Rock Cafe?  Colombia has three of them!

Seriously if this place were so dangerous would it have a Hard Rock Cafe? Colombia has three of them!

Cartagena By Night

At night, Cartagena comes alive.  As you walk the streets of the old city, Colombian Vallenato music pours seemingly from every cafe, restaurant and bar filling the air with a joyful exuberance that makes you just want to bailar! On the weekends, cars can barely drive the streets there are so many people out and about. Heaps of tourists visit from elsewhere in South America.  Jump on a passing Chiva tour to experience something really special and afterwards sing and dance into the wee hours while devouring some late-night chorizo kabobs washed down with one last Cerveza Aguila before calling it a night.  At no time, no matter how late it got, did we feel the least bit uneasy or unsafe.

Perch yourself above the ramparts of the Old City and enjoy a drink at Cafe de Mar.

Perch yourself above the ramparts of the Old City and enjoy a drink at Cafe de Mar.

Coming Home

One place you can’t help but be reminded of the criminal history of Colombia is returning to JFK airport in New York.  Here we were greeted by a team of Customs and Border Protection agents that barked orders as us to line up in the jetway and present our bags for inspection by drug sniffing dogs.  I’ve never been accosted by security so soon after walking off a flight, but assuming you aren’t smuggling cocaine, there’s no reason to be concerned.

I would be remiss not to add that although we felt completely safe everywhere we went in Colombia, you still need to exercise caution, be smart, and avoid areas of the cities and country you don’t belong.  Of course that advice isn’t just for Colombia, I would advise people exercise the same caution no matter where they are in the world.

Who would want to commit crimes when this is the view you have every night?

Who would want to commit crimes when this is the view you have every night?

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4 Responses to “Is Colombia Safe for Tourists?”

  1. Colleen Friesen
    October 8, 2013 at 6:16 pm #

    Great post! Thanks for the good info on Colombia. Now I just have to book it!

    • StyleHiClub
      October 9, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

      Thanks Colleen! Make it happen, you won’t regret it!

  2. Laasya Bhagavatula
    October 9, 2013 at 1:59 am #

    Love this article! Studying about Bogota during planning class I’ve always had a desire to visit Colombia, and thanks to your post I’ve bumped it up higher on my list.

    I mean, they elected this guy as mayor, what’s not to love.

    • StyleHiClub
      October 9, 2013 at 10:05 pm #

      Thanks Laasya! Colombia definitely has it’s own special flare. And red cape.

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