June 29

Is Colombia Safe?

South America

Museum of gold, ColombiaColombia And The C Word

Before I open my eyes, I think I can smell the rain outside. It’s early, very early, but the joy of westward jetlag means that I’m already wide awake. Voices in Spanish that haven’t seen Spain rise up from the courtyard and slip under my door. Outside, I hear footsteps on stone, steadfast and staccato, while the soft twist of cinnamon glides into the room.

I get up and open the shutters and that’s when it hits me. The parched clouds on blue sky canvas, the rain on the flagstones, the dark green mountains overpowering the horizon. The soldiers, the rooftops, the tiles and the domes, the steep narrow streetways, the children, the smells, the blot of new colours, the clamouring quiet sounds, the spirit and the senses that merge before my eyes.

I’m here. In Colombia. And I’ve never felt more alive.

The Power of Perception

Years ago, I travelled to East Africa on a medical school placement. We studied (occasionally,) took safaris into the Serengeti, climbed Kilimanjaro and learned how to cut pineapple into slices in the small town of Moshi.

Our experiences in the hospitals require articles of their own. Yet at this unexpected crossroads, among those we met were a few working Americans.

“My grandma cried when I left,” said one.

“Mom thought I’d never come back,” said another.

They called Africa the “dark continent” and commented on how no-one they knew had come back alive. Largely, it turned out, because no-one they knew had gone there at all.

To young Europeans, who’d grown up on Africa’s doorstep, such hysteria seemed… hysterical.

An Invitation to Colombia

Roll on through the years to 2012 when a message arrived in my inbox, inviting me to Colombia.

Colombia. My heart beat a little faster and that old literary companion, the shiver down my spine, strut its stuff and reminded me why people use it.

I longed to go. I’ve love to go. But was it safe to go?

I’m hardly a timid traveller. I’ve driven in north Africa, caught trains during earthquakes in rural China, scaled walls of ice and jumped out of a plane. I have even visited Manchester on a dark and stormy night. Yet, as my far more adventurous mother is keen to remind me, there’s a difference between adventure and reckless stupidity.

I did a little research.

I checked the travel warnings on the FCO website. I left my wedding rings at home. I spruced up my travel insurance and wrote letters to my family explaining how much I loved them. (Only kidding. But perhaps it crossed my mind.)

I accepted the invitation and I boarded the plane.

Over the week that followed, I had some of the best times of my life.

Sweet seller in Cartagena

I went underground to face giant sculptures carved into the rock. I pressed my face against glass to see gold of Colombian history. I took in Botero, Picasso, Dali and Toulouse-Lautrec in the leafy shaded courtyard of the Museum of Modern Art. I snapped vibrant street art on the concrete walls around the city. I ground coffee and sipped beer, tried clumpy juices with names like Lulada and tucked into arepas and empanadas, fresh avocado and hot ajiaco.

And that was just Bogota.

At the coast in Cartagena, I bathed in the colours of the Caribbean soul and sea. Fresh coconut at sunset, sweet coconut in the day’s sticky humidity and fried coconut at almost any other time. I cycled past fraying churches in dappled colonial colours and hopped onto a catamaran that floated past skyscrapers while the sun melted into orange in the sky. I swam over coral and scrunched sunlight and sand within the gaps between my toes. I danced with hot pirates and got chatting with local vendors. I even joined a stag do.

In short, this place was amazing. What had I been afraid of?

Colombia: An Amazing Travel Destination

“Twenty years ago,” said Pablo, a smooth-voiced guide who led me to the Salt Cathedral near Zipaquira, “we could be eating like this in a family restaurant when they would arrive.

“A convoy of cars, big cars, and a lot, a lot of men. The bodyguards would come in, they’d be very obvious with their guns, big guns, and they’d take over the restaurant.

“Everyone with children, everyone else,” he frowns, “would have to leave immediately.

“Twenty years ago, you couldn’t drive out of Bogota,” he went on. “The roads were not safe, it was better to fly. Now there’s only trouble,” he lifts his arm with a wave as the car moves along “a long way out there in the very rural areas.”

The seemed to match the views held by the local expats too.

“Bogota’s just like any other city,” said one. “You have to be careful.”

“Out of interest,” I replied, forcing my voice to sound casual, “where are you from?”

(A long time ago I heard the same words from an Israeli couple. Just before they said they heard shells exploding each night.)

“Perth,” came the answer, which seemed more than safe enough.

Cartagena at Night, Colombia
Cartagena at Night, Colombia

So now, mainstream life here is safe. That’s quite a journey, given that back in 1987 judges were murdered at a rate of one per month and a number of presidential candidates were slain. Newspaper editors, top police officials and even ambassadors died at the hands of guerrillas and drug cartels.

Those are statistics that rather put into perspective the sacrifices of our current political and editorial leaders. How many of us would volunteer for a life in public service that carried such appalling life expectancy results?

The driving question, of course, as I roamed around the country was what on earth had changed? How had a country so stricken with problems switched from being a shorthand for crime and corruption into a top travel destination?

And as usual with big, overreaching questions, the answer was complex.

Increased military presence, said some sources. The shift of the drugs trade into Mexico. The financial woes of neighbouring Venezuela. The assistance from the US.

I’ll type it out again as it’s not a phrase you hear every day:

“Our country was made better with the help from the US.”

It was a comment that jolted together two memories of mine. One involving talk about “dark continents” from all those years ago. The other from just last week.

I asked Facebook, in the way that only a social media geek can, whether anyone had a photo of Colombia I could use.

I braced myself for tumbleweed; instead, I received a flood.

Email after email, photo after photo, blog post after blog post came shooting across the wires. Colombia was hot property: people had visited the country and loved it – and they wanted to let me know.

And overwhelmingly, these emails came from Americans: people stuck with the stereotype of having so much and knowing so little when it comes to events around the globe.

Stereotypes and the A word

I utterly loathe stereotypes and I like to think I don’t carry many with me, so it’s a juicy, squeezy pleasure to corrode through two in the space of a week.

Yet nothing compares to the pleasure of that first morning in Bogota. The scent of the rain, the shape of the clouds and the rhythm of a heartbeat skipping that little bit faster. The thrill, in short, of reaching a new travel destination for the very first time.

Colombia has a C word and it’s a command instead of a noun.

“Come,” it tells you as it takes you by the hand. “Come and see us – and make sure you come now.”


To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world” – Freya Stark


Cartagena skyline
Cartagena skyline

 Lots more on Colombia is coming to a blog near you soon!

Disclosure & Various Other Dull Stuff

For most of my time in Colombia, I was travelling with local guides and officials who obviously knew the best places in town and understood the lay of the land. However, in Cartagena on the coast, I wandered freely on my own during the day and with friends at night. I was not hassled once. Not at all. Obviously, I can only tell you about my own experiences but they are this: my travels to Colombia to the standard tourist cities felt easier and safer than in many other countries, including parts of the UK, the US, Hungary, Brazil and definitely India.

Is Colombia Safe?

In reality, checking safety advice should be something we all do every time we visit a country. Since I have a British passport, I alwayscheck out this site.You’re probably better served by whatever advice your government issues, since disputes are sometimes nationality-specific and in the unlikely event that you ever need any help abroad, it will be your own embassy you’ll have to turn to.

Is it safe to travel to Colombia? A look at this beautiful South American country

Would you go to Colombia? Have you already been?


  • I got that invitation, too–wish I could have gone, as it would have meant meeting you (finally!) and exploring a city I’m dying to see. From now, I’ll just enjoy it through your lens and words.


    • Yes, it’s surprising we haven’t met by now! Cartagena’s a fascinating place – I’m sure you’ll get there soon to find out for yourself. And when you do, have a sweet coconut fritter on my behalf please!


  • I have a dim memory from more-years-ago-than-I-care-to-remember of someone saying to me that when Colombia got over its problems Cartagena would boom because it was the most perfect place in the Caribbean. Sounds like they were right!

    Gorgeous writing as always.


    • Spot on with regards to the first point. And hopefully correct about the second! ;)


  • I like this post very much; starting from the power of perception and going beyond stereotypes. a beautiful shared experience!


    • Thank you. I was a little nervous about posting this one…


  • Hi Abi,
    YES, I’ve been to Colombia for 3 months exactly 1 year ago, and somehow my hearth is still there…. I LOVED it.
    The nature is amazing, as well as the people that are always in party mood following the Salsa rhythm.
    From beaches to mountains, cities to jungles, hot and cold weather, I never felt endangered, but as everywhere else you need to travel “street smart” :)

    Here is what I wrote to answer the question “Is Colombia Safe?”:

    Hope you like it,
    and viva Colombia! :)


    • At the risk of encouraging a linking spam fest – yes, that’s really useful! Trying to find the appropriate balance between playing safe and playing at all. Cheers!


  • Susan @ Travel Junkette says:

    I absolutely LOVED Colombia. I felt like it was one of the friendliest countries I’ve ever been to, and I never once felt scared. It is now of my favorite countries on earth, and I can’t wait to go back. I’m so glad you had a similar experience. Thanks for letting people know what a wonderful country it is.


    • Well, it’s certainly had its problems but it is, as you say, a wonderful country to explore. I, too, can’t wait to go back!


  • Thank you for your info & posts Abi & all! As a mother of a very adventurous young lady currently in the process of seeking a job teaching english in Columbia or Costa Rica it settles down my cocerns for her safety. She is interested in working in Cali. Has anyone spent time there?


    • I haven’t, I’m afraid – although I do know of some people teaching English in Bogota if that helps at all…


  • Alejandro says:

    Hi Abi! I’m glad you liked Colombia, I’m 12 and I was born in Medellin which is a wonderful city, that you forgot to mention, I now think Colombia is very safe in a lot of aspects, the government is doing what it can to help poor people and break poverty and inequality; even thought I’m only 12 and I am part the wealthy and rich part of Colombia, I know it’s improving every second.

    I loved your article! Stop the stereotypes world!

    Your friend, Alejo


    • Hey Alejo – great to hear from you. I didn’t get the chance to go to Medellin this time, although I certainly met plenty of people who recommended it. Hopefully next time around. I enjoyed Colombia so much – I really hope to get back one day. Cheers, Abi


  • Allensharon says:

    Hi,Abi .I heard about Colombia friendliest country. But i never visit,Iam planning to visit this place soon .


    • Well…it depends where you come from as to what you think is “friendly” I think. I lived in Andalucia for a while and people there tended to think that people from northern Europe and Japan were unfriendly because they held back and didn’t shout. Whereas…lots of people from northern Europe think that those from the south are looking for a fight because they are pushing them and shouting instead of holding back. So it all depends…

      But, yes, in short. I loved my time in Colombia and I would highly recommend it, with the usual sensible precautions. Happy travels!


  • Dana Carmel @ Time Travel Plans says:

    I lived in Panama for several years as a child in the 80s back when going to Colombia was a no-no. But I’ve heard such great things about Colombia recently. I’m planning a family trip to go back to Panama in the next few years and I’m thinking that it would be the perfect time to say “yes” to Colombia as well!


  • I spent 3 months in Colombia from October – December of 1993. If you check your history that was quite a historic/chaotic time in Colombian history. Even at that juncture, I had the most wonderful time of my life exploring that country from North to South and East to West. Stay alert and vigilant as you should at all times when travelling anywhere (even to the supermarket). I plan to return again someday and this from one that experienced the country in some of it’s most turbulent times. The people and place really ARE that great. Viva Colombia!


    • It really is SUCH a beautiful place. And you WERE there at an interesting time…Glad you enjoyed it – and I hope the country keeps going from strength to strength.


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