Tourism in Colombia: Is it Safe to Go?

Crime in Colombia: Once accurate opinion of safety in Colombia now mostly unfounded

It seems there is no discussing Colombia without the topic of safety coming to the forefront. It's understandable, given Colombia's history as a place where the drug trade ran rampant and guerrillas often wreaked havoc in rural areas and, indeed, even amongst the tourist population. What I must begin this travel report by telling you is that the people of Colombia are generally very friendly and eager to put this no longer accurate reputation behind them.

Despite the US State Department continuing a travel advisory (which I do encourage you to read before visiting), the vast majority of places that might interest tourists are as safe as any other part of the world. In my opinion, as well as the consensus opinion of all the major travel sites and message boards is that even the State Department travel advisory is excessive. My wife Johanna and I visited large cities such as Bogota and Medellin, as well as the smaller towns of Santa Marta and Guatape, with no trouble at all to report.

While I will provide more specific safety advice for each individual city in later parts of my Colombia travel report series, this post should give you the necessary information to decide if you'd be comfortable visiting major destinations in Colombia.

Cautious Behavior: Smart but probably unnecessary

If anything, I would say that in Bogota, the first city we visited, we were overly cautious. It is true that, outside of the two distinctly tourist areas of the city (North: Zona Rosa and Parque 93, and South: El Candelaria and the adjoining neighborhoods directly north) you will see immense poverty and depending on your complexion and language skills, might not want to linger, but this is true of every major US city as well.

By the time we finished our trip in Colombia, the overtly conservative behavior we exhibited in Bogota almost made me feel that we hadn't really given the place its due. However, I want to stress that a conservative, cautious attitude is much preferable to the opposite when visiting a new place (again, think street smarts, not Colombia-specific behavior).

A History of Violence: Where Colombia gets it's mostly inaccurate reputation

In the mid-1800's, while Colombia was still a colony of Spain, the ruling class was split into two parties, with armed conflicts of regional scale occurring at regular intervals. These conflicts were increased in profile, particularly in 1899, when an uprising from the liberal party's devotees fuel the "1000 Day's War," which resulted in over 100,000 casualties.

In the mid-1900's, conflict between liberal and conservative parties spiked again, with several high-profile officials murdered and several hundred-thousand Colombians killed in the ensuing chaos. By 1953, as a result of these conflicts, disillusionment with the current political system reached a boiling point and guerrilla forces began to emerge.

To counteract this insurgency, liberal and conservative political elites backed a military coup that was then supposed to eradicate the growing guerrilla forces. Instead, FARC and ELN guerrilla forces develop and expand from a leftist base, driving anti-Communist citizens to create their own para-military forces in places where the government did not sufficiently protect them.

Today, guerrilla rebel like FARC have been pushed into the most remote jungles of Colombia and even out of former jungle strongholds like Tayrona National Park, which is now a major tourist destination.

Desperation and lack of opportunity that resulted from political instability incubated the drug trade, particularly cocaine, in the early-to-mid 1980's. During this period, much of the armed conflict between guerrillas and para-military forces stemmed from desire to control the profitable drug-trade. One high-profile player in this regard was Pablo Escobar, the famed drug kingpin of Colombia.

Pablo Escobar's Medellin Drug Cartel left in its wake a swath of murders, violence, and intimidation, but for a short time, Escobar managed to elevate himself to an almost Robin Hood status and even held political office. At one time, Escobar's cartel controlled as much as 80% of the global cocaine trade and he amassed a fortune worth more than a billion dollars.

In 1993, Escobar was hunted-down and killed by the Colombian National Police, and the leaders of his rival, the Cali Cartel met a similar fate. Around the same time, several strong political leaders perhaps emboldened by the demise of the major cartels, began to change the country for the better.

Since the extreme poverty of many Colombians was a catalyst for the drug trade and violence, academics in places like Medellin began to call for public works that would benefit the poor, living in barrios on the hillsides surrounding Medellin, cut off from the city's educational and economic opportunities. Cable cars and long lines of escalators were set in place, connecting the poor to the city they had previously only been connected to in name.

A view from the mountain-side in Bogota, shared by many from the poorest barrios (it's easy to see why getting to town to make a living was tough before public transportation serviced these areas)

In the last ten years, Colombia has seen a significant downward trend in violence and the poverty that encourages it. While there have been some recent fluctuations, caused in part by the global financial crisis, Colombia seems on a path to continue this progress and is now receiving the attention of more than 1.5 million tourists per year.

Conclusions about safety in Colombia

Rather than be put off by it's history, we as travelers have the opportunity to be part of Colombia's resurgence. Due in part to the fledgling nature of it's tourism industry, Colombia is very inexpensive to visit, with Los Angeles to Bogota round-trip flights frequently available for as little as $500 and myriad hotel options for about $75 in large cities and $50 or less in smaller cities. While caution and destination-specific research is always advised, there is little reason for travelers to avoid Colombia, and so many reasons to visit.

To see a detailed travel report of our time in Colombia, click here!

Note: This post was first written in 2013, but it's content is still applicable today. While some larger cities have experienced small increases in crime, the general outlook still suggests Colombia is an up-and-coming international destination.