Adios Colombia – what they say and what we found

Our 3 weeks in Colombia are at an end, we’ve travelled overland from one end of the country to the other – Ipiales on the Ecuadorian border to Maicao on the Venezuelan Caribbean coast border – and stopped off lots on the way.

What they say

Colombia is known for terrorist guerrillas, cocaine and for once being the kidnap capital of the world (Iraq now holds that title), and Bogota as the most dangerous city in the world. Various governments travel advisories still don’t make for pretty reading…

Current NZ travel advisory for Colombia:

There is a high risk to your security in the city of Bogota. You should avoid all government buildings and areas such as shopping centres and malls as well as places of entertainment. Government buildings, public transport and commercial and entertainment centres are potential targets for terrorist attacks and we advise against all visits to such locations.

There is some risk to your security in the cities of Medellin, Barranquilla, Cartagena and Bucaramanga. We recommend that travellers to these cities be vigilant at all times in public places used by foreigners or avoid such areas. There is a strong risk of terrorism, kidnapping and criminal violence. Security for public transport and government buildings has been increased. Travellers are advised to avoid overland transportation.

We advise against all travel for the rest of Colombia, because of the extreme risk to personal security. There is a high risk of terrorism, a serious risk of kidnapping and criminal violence.

Extracts of the current UK travel advisory:

You should be aware that the security situation in Colombia is constantly changing and that you could be at serious risk in all parts of the country. If it is essential for you to travel, you should make arrangements for your security throughout your visit.

There is a high threat of terrorism in Colombia. You should be vigilant, particularly when visiting or staying in public places used by expatriates and foreigner travellers, and in the vicinity of government buildings and military establishments. Roads, bridges and power supplies may also be targeted. There is also a serious risk of kidnapping in many parts of the country, including major cities.

Activity by illegal armed groups in many parts of Colombia remains intense, including in parts of the country we do not advise against all travel to. In addition to the FARC, the ELN (National Liberation Army) is a major illegal armed group active in many parts of Colombia. A large number of new armed criminal groups, many of them involved in the illegal drugs trade, have formed following the demobilisation of the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC).

The Parque Nacional Tayrona is a popular tourist destination for Colombians and foreigners alike. You are advised only to visit beach areas and resorts you are reliably advised are safe and not to venture inland as illegal armed groups are active in the area.

Kidnapping is a serious problem. Colombia continues to have a high rate of kidnapping for ransom. The Vice President’s Human Rights Office recorded 521 kidnappings in 2006. Most foreign nationals are potential targets for kidnapping, including backpackers. In April 2008, a British national was kidnapped near Cali. He was held for almost one week before being rescued by the security forces. You should be aware that the long-standing policy of the British Government is not to make substantive concessions to hostage takers. The British Government considers that paying ransoms and releasing prisoners increases the risk of further hostage taking.

Criminal violence is a serious problem in Colombia. In many cases, it is not possible to separate crime and violence by terrorist groups from crime committed by criminal groups. Both Colombia’s illegal armed groups, and other criminal groups, are heavily involved in the drugs trade and in other serious crime including kidnapping (for ransom and political purposes).

There has been a marked increase in criminal activity in urban areas, including Bogotá. Common crimes such as mugging and pickpocketing are often accompanied by violence. Foreign visitors, present a tempting target to thieves, pickpockets and drug traffickers. When walking in urban areas, you should avoid any unnecessary display of wealth. You should only use pre-booked taxis, where possible.

In 2005, more people were killed or injured in Colombia by landmines than in any other country in the world.

What we found

Colombia is a stunningly beautiful country with amazing Andean scenery in the south and idyllic Caribbean beaches in the north, peppered with small colonial villages and modern cities with a historic colonial heart, like Bogota.

The people are the friendliest you could ever wish to meet and will help you out with anything e.g. flagging buses, where to get off buses, map reading etc, even if sometimes you don’t really need any help!

The locals often look at you like you’re slightly mad if you ask if a particular road is safe or if its safe to travel overnight etc, they simply can’t understand why people say that its not safe there – the fighting is deep in the jungle where people rarely go, the vast majority of the country is perfectly safe.

The borders were really easy, on the way in the guards were the friendliest we have encountered and on the way out it took all of 10 seconds. No questions, no bag checks (locals were being bag checked on the way out of Colombia but we were waved through).

We didn’t feel unsafe anywhere, ok so we landed ourselves in a not very good area in Bucaramanga but it didn’t feel ‘dangerous’ (ironically Bucaramanga is 1 of only 2 places in Colombia that the NZ government does NOT advise against travel to). Armenia was little rough round the edges but not unsafe and sure Bogota has areas that are poor (same as any other capital city in the world) and they’ll rob you without a second thought if you are silly enough to wander into them.

Buses were safe, sellers get on and off and people flag them by the side of the road like anywhere else in South America – the risk of being robbed or hijacked is so tiny that the buses stop and pick people up from anywhere (might not be the same on night buses though). We were confident enough in our safety to take an overnight bus from Bucaramanga to Cartagena.

In hindsight it seems silly that we even considered not going because of safety reasons. You’re much more likely to be in a vehicle accident in Colombia (they drive like nutters) than be kidnapped. The biggest drawback for us was that if the foreign office of the country that issues your travel insurance advises against a) all but essential travel or b) all travel to an area, your travel insurance is not valid. So for us when we were in Bucaramanga and Cartengena they were the only times that our insurance was valid. So it’s best not to get robbed or have health problems there.

Colombia is definitely one of our favourite countries in South America (probably would have been our overall favourite if it was just a bit cheaper..).

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