Is Bogota safe to travel and live in 2020? 16 tips for keeping safe in Colombia
‘Is Bogota safe?’ are three words that fill travel forums and hostel common areas alike. In my view, yes, Bogota is safe. But you need to exercise a certain amount of caution, just as you would visiting Paris or Glasgow or Houston (fun fact: crime rates in Bogota are about on par with Houston, Texas, which came 59th in a list of the USA’s most dangerous cities). This used to be the kidnapping capital of the world, but now that peace is being negotiated with the paramilitary groups and the narco cartels are less open. Either way, it’s unlikely that you’ll be a target as a foreigner.
If you do find yourself in the unfortunate (though still rare!) position of being mugged, please please please just GIVE THEM EVERYTHING. This isn’t about teaching thieves a lesson in morality, they’re desperate and you don’t know how intent they are on harming you if it means they’re able to survive their next day. You also don’t know if they have others waiting in the sidelines to provide back-up if needed. Your life is worth so much more than a phone.
When they find out how long I spent in Colombia’s capital, people’s reaction is usually ‘But is Bogotasafe for foreigners?!’. The city does have a reputation due to its dangerous past, so it’s a fair concern to have. To ease your fears, I’ve put together some tips for staying safe in Bogota, but in general just be alert, be knowledgable about where you are and don’t be stupid. While these may have been written with Bogota in mind, they absolutely apply to other big Colombian cities like Medellín, too.
I was in Bogota, Colombia for a total of 7 months all in all, so if you want to find out all there is to do and eat in and around this buzzing city, I’ve got you covered:
Spanish-speakers, please forgive me for dropping the tilde off Bogotá, it’s only for SEO purposes! [I hate myself.]
So, is Bogota safe? Yes! But here are 16 tips to make your stay safer:
– No Des Papaya
Colombians have a saying, no dar papaya – or no des papaya in the infinitive – which is a sneaky way to put blame on the victim, but it does has some truth to it. The phrase literally translates to ‘don’t give papaya‘, and it essentially means don’t show criminals that you hold an opportunity, or else you can expect them to take it. This might mean flashing your things, or it might mean falling for the classic trick of seduction by a stunner of a woman (we seem to hear of foreign men getting date-drugged more than women here, but maybe they’re just more vocal about it in the expat groups).
– Do not leave your food or drink unattended
For once, this actually applies more to men than to women when it comes to foreigners. I think most women are very used to having to take this precaution wherever they are in the world, but men don’t often have to think about it, so it makes them an easy target for scopolamine. This is not to say that women aren’t targets, they’re just instinctively more alert to the risks, having had it drilled into them since around the time when they bought their first bra.
If you don’t know, scopolamine, or ‘Devil’s Breath’ is a drug made from a plant that can be used to spike someone’s drink/meal or can be blown in their face (though you’d need a huge amount to do this). It’s sometimes referred to as a truth serum, because it makes the victim like a zombie who will do and answer anything you ask. Thieves (usually headed by a beautiful girl) use it to get people to clear out their bank accounts and help them load their own possessions out of their flat and into a van, never to be seen again. To the outside world, you look fine, just a little drunk, but you won’t remember anything when you wake up in an empty apartment the next morning.
Scopolamine does seem more of a risk in the expat areas of Medellin (thanks to ‘love tourism’), but there have been cases in Bogota too. Always have your drink in-hand, don’t accept drinks from people you don’t know well (not just strangers) and for the love of god if she’s a clear 10 and you’re at best a 3, don’t even entertain the thought that this might be your goddamn lucky day.
– Know your barrios
When it comes to everyday life in the city, it isn’t really a question of ‘Is Bogota safe?’ but, ‘Is this particular area of Bogota safe?’. A lot of risk in the capital is linked to your location at the time, and there are Bogota barrios that you categorically should not be going into. There are, however, plenty of perfectly secure barrios, so stick to this ’ere guide on where to stay in Bogota and you’ll reduce your risk enormously.
In general, you can usually get a good feel for the safety of a street as soon as you start to walk down it, so always trust your instincts and turn around if you feel on edge.
Some areas do change between night and day – in particular, the tourist area of La Candelaria is in the south of the city, and borders some very rough barrios. The locale tends to change at night, and it becomes sketchy as hell with much higher risk of robbery or mugging. Though beautiful in hours of light, I usually recommend that tourists do not stay in La Candelaria, and I can’t imagine expats wanting to live there.
– Don’t dress to impress
There’s no need look swanky unless you’re hanging out in bars with the upper echelons of society in the North of the city, so try not to draw attention to yourself as a wealthy-looking person when you’re out and about during the day. Trying to mimic the casual style of the locals (jeans, t-shirt and jacket with boots or trainers) can help you blend in and avoid being targeted as a rich tourist.
On the other end of the scale, a money belt or thief-proof bag is only going to make you stand out as carrying something of value (and they’re also giving us foreigners a bad name for having terrible fashion sense; please stop.).
– Steer clear of protests
Colombia’s current president, Duque, can be pretty polarising, and this has led to lots of protests in recent months. In particular, the students at university in Bogota are regular protesters because it’s not unheard of that universities have to close mid-semester with no refunds because they ran out of government subsidies. It’s actually very rare that protests in Bogota turn violent, but they do tend to amass quite a crowd, so stay well away just in case things do get rowdy. Between Septima (Carrera 7) and Caracas (Carrera 14) in Chapinero is a popular area for protests to march.
– Brush up on your Spanish
This has got us out of so so many sticky situations in Bogota and elsewhere on the continent. Learning Spanish – even just a few basic phrases – can significantly reduce the risks that come with travel in Bogota. You can ask for directions, understand locals’ warnings and call for help if ever necessary. People say Bogota natives are cold and unfriendly, but every time I’ve ever needed to ask for assistance, it’s been met with people bending over backwards to make sure I get to where I want to be.
Here are some useful posts if you’re trying to learn Spanish:
On rare occasions, outdoor ATMs have been targets for robberies. Luckily, there are ATM ‘rooms’ all over where you can withdraw money behind closed doors, and there are lots within shopping centres and banks, too. Still be alert about who’s hanging around outside, of course, and if you need to withdraw a large amount of cash do it during the day, putting the money away before you turn around and exit the room. Check out my list of I found free ATM cash withdrawals in Colombia and the rest of Latin America.
– Carry decoys
I’m a big fan of this tip for Bogota safety, and in fact it’s something that I used throughout Latin America. This involves carrying two wallets and sometimes a shitty spare phone that you can hand over instead of your real ones if you run into trouble. In Bogota, I never really felt unsafe enough to also carry a burner phone (I did in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, for example, and throughout Bolivia I carried an entire extra handbag), but a decoy wallet is always sensible.
– Don’t carry everything on you
In relation to the previous point, keep things in your (real) wallet down to a minimum. Select which card you’re going to take out for the day and leave the rest in a secure place at your accommodation. Carry your drivers license or national identity card if you will need ID, but don’t take your passport out. Only bring as much cash as you’ll need, with a tiny bit extra just in case. If you do run into shit, at least you can limit the damage.
– Print out a copy of your passport
Honestly, in all my 7 months of being in Bogota I was never once asked for it, but police do have the right to request to see your ID if you cross paths. As said previously, you don’t want to be taking out your actual passport when you visit Bogota (or anywhere else in Latin America, really – I still don’t know why people do this when they have lockers in their accommodation). Print a colour copy and stash it in your ‘real’ wallet. If the police requesting your ID do not show their identification first, be alert that they may not be real police. Asking to be taken to the police station (CAI) will soon have them sweating under the collar if they’re not.
– Don’t partake in the white stuff
As I’ve always said, look for trouble in Colombia and it will quickly find you. Though drugs in Colombia (mostly cocaine) can be easy to come by – especially in tourist areas – I would recommend avoiding it for four reasons:
Cocaine is a lot purer in Colombia than elsewhere in the world, so you won’t know your limits
If caught in possession, you will not be let off from fierce penalties just because you’re not a native
Buying drugs the perfect way to let gangs know where the gringo with impaired judgement and money to spare is
You’re perpetuating the problems that Colombia has been working so hard to rid themselves of
Is Bogota safe on public transport?
When it comes to the public bus system, is Bogota safe there, too? For the most part, yes. As long as you’re sticking to travelling between areas I’ve highlighted in my where to stay in Bogota guide, your risk is not high. However, here are some transport-related tips for staying safe in Bogota:
– Don’t take the Transmilenio at rush hour
The Transmilenio (or TransMi) is a bus system that runs all through the city. It’s cheap, and using the TransMi app it’s easy to get to grips with. The bus stations are contained within glass walls and usually well-maintained and manned, but obviously just be alert as you always would. The problem comes when people have to push up close to queue or find a space on the bus, which is when pickpockets have an absolute field day. If you’re just visiting Bogota, it’s unlikely you’ll ever need to travel on the Transmilenio at rush hour, so have a coffee where you are to wait another hour or so to travel, or take other transport options such as a taxi.
– Do not pick up an unlicensed taxi at the airport
Unless you’ve booked a private transfer from the airport, as soon as you exit through the Arrivals door you’ll be bombarded with people shouting ‘taxi taxi!’ or even ‘Uber!’. Obviously, this is not how Uber works, so you won’t fall for that one, but a lot of newbies to Bogota don’t realise that none of the people claiming to be taxi drivers are licensed. If they were, they would be in the well-regulated queue outside Arrivals for yellow taxis.
We got stung by an unlicensed taxi once, we knew as soon as he led us to his car in the car park that he wasn’t a real driver, but we’d negotiated really well so stupidly went ahead with it (is Bogota safe for idiots? Not really). During the journey, the driver kept asking for a tip on top of the price (assuming we were American, lols) and then when we arrived at our apartment he proceeded to lock the doors and DEMAND more because our negotiated price was too low. Andy isn’t one to back down in this situation, and it turned into a spanish shouting match which left me fairly terrified. Getting a metered taxi would have solved all of this! For reference, a taxi from Bogota Airport to the central barrios of the city will cost 25-30,000 COP unless they add a late-night surcharge.
– Always ask for the meter to be put on
In Bogota, taxis won’t necessarily automatically switch on the meter for you, so you could end up reaching your destination and being hit with a number plucked from the driver’s imaginative head. As soon as you get into a taxi, always point at the meter (‘metro’ in spanish) and ask for it until he presses the button – you may have to mention it several times. For non-metered transport like shuttle buses, always ask the total price before you agree to get in.
– Use Uber/Cabify, but still be alert
After much back and forth in Colombia, where Uber was made to leave and then found a legal loophole to allow them to continue operations, Uber in Bogota does work. Cabify also works very well in Bogota. There are a lot of peer economy drivers across the city so you never have to wait too long for one (unless they’re stuck in rush hour traffic!). However, taking an Uber from the Airport and bus terminals poses a risk of being stopped by the police who still try to clamp down on it (with the driver getting fined, not you, but they will take your ID details). This means most Uber drivers will request to pick you up/drop you off a little outside the area.
Also, when getting in an Uber or Cabify, if you don’t have data on your phone, take a screenshot of the quoted price. When going to Andres Carne de Res in Chia, 45 minutes from Bogota’s centre, we picked up an Uber for about 25k and opted to pay cash as there were a few of us. When we got there, the driver showed us his screen which said 45k, but without phone data we couldn’t prove him otherwise. We contacted Uber in the morning when our app was still saying it was 25k, and realised what he’d shown us was a screenshot from another trip. Sneaky!
In other words… get yourself a data sim
Really, it’s best to just buy a sim card if you can – Movistar and Claro are popular in Colombia, but Three UK will give you free data with their Go Roam plans. It’ll help you work out your routes as you go if you run into any change of plans or obstacles while you’re out.
I know that reading through all these Bogota safety tips can make it seem like it’s a really big scary place with danger ready to jump out at every corner, but really relax, it’s fine, and you’re gonna be fine. With the right frame of mind, not only is Bogota safe to visit, it’s safe to live, too. The fact that you’ve even asked The Google ‘Is Bogota safe?’ shows that you’re a safety-conscious, alert kind of person when you travel. So go out there and have fun in one of my favourite cities in the world! Hopefully by the end of the trip you’ll not be asking ‘Is Bogota safe?‘, but instead ‘Can I move to Bogota?‘.
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