Stay safe & healthy
|WARNING: Even though security in Colombia has increased significantly, violence linked to drug trafficking still affects a few, mainly rural, areas of the country. Specifically, kidnapping of foreign nationals for ransom — though nowhere near as major a problem as it was around the turn of the millennium — still occurs from time to time. Visitors are urged to remain vigilant, especially outside major cities, and keep up to date with the latest government travel advisories. Updated November 2016.|
Government travel advisories
Colombia has suffered from a terrible reputation as a dangerous and violent country but the situation has improved dramatically since the 80s and 90s. Colombia is on the path to recovery, and Colombians are very proud of the progress they have made. These days, Colombia is generally safe to visit, with the violent crime rate being lower than that in Mexico or Brazil, as long as you avoid poorer areas of the cities at night, and do not venture off the main road into the jungle where guerrillas are likely to be hiding.
The security situation differs greatly throughout the country currently. Most jungle regions are not safe to visit, but the area around Leticia is very safe, and the areas around Santa Marta are OK. No one should visit the Darien Gap at the border with Panama (in the north of Chocó), as well as Putumayo and Caquetá, which are very dangerous, active conflict zones. Other departments with significant rural violence include the Atlantic departments of Chocó, Cauca, and Valle del Cauca; eastern Meta, Vichada, and Arauca in the east; and all Amazonian departments except for Amazonas. That's not to say that these departments are totally off-limits—just be sure you are either traveling with locals who know the area, or sticking to cities and tourist destinations. In general, if you stick to the main roads between major cities and do not wander off into remote parts of the jungle, you are unlikely to run into trouble, and you are much more likely to encounter a Colombian army checkpoint than an illegal guerrilla roadblock.
Colombia is currently one of the most mine-affected countries in the world. So don't walk around blithely through the countryside without consulting locals. Land mines are found in 31 out of Colombia's 32 departments, and new ones are planted every day by guerrillas, paramilitaries, and drug traffickers.
There was an agreement in 2005 with the government which resulted in the disarmament of some of the paramilitaries. However they are still active in drug business, extortion rackets, and as a political force. They do not target tourists specifically, but running up against an illegal rural roadblock in more dangerous departments is possible.
At the turn of the millenium Colombia has the highest rates of kidnapping in the world, a result of being one of the most cost-effective ways of financing for the guerrillas of the FARC and the ELN and other armed groups. Happily the security situation has much improved and the groups involved are today much weakened, with the number of kidnappings dropped from 3,000 in the year 2000 down to 229 cases in 2011. Today kidnappings are still a problem in some southern departments like Valle del Cauca, Cauca, and Caquetá. Colombian law makes the payment of ransom illegal, therefore the police may not be informed in some circumstances.
The guerrilla movements which include FARC and ELN guerrillas are still operational, though they are greatly weakened compared to the 1990s as the Colombian army has killed most of their leaders. These guerrillas operate mainly in rural parts of southern, southeastern and northwestern Colombia, although they have a presence in 30 out of the country's 32 departments. Big cities hardly ever see guerrilla activity these days. Even in rural areas, if you stick to the main roads between major cities and do not wander off the beaten track, you are far more likely to encounter soldiers from the Colombian army than guerrillas. River police, highway police, newspapers, and fellow travelers can be a useful source of information off-the-beaten-path.
The crime rate in Colombia has been significantly reduced since its peak in the late 1980s and 1990s, with the police having arrested or killed many of the important leaders of the drug cartels. However, major urban centers and the countryside of Colombia still have very high violent crime rates, comparable to blighted cities in the United States, and crime has been on the increase in recent years. In the downtown areas of most cities (which rarely coincide with the wealthy parts of town) violent crime is not rare; poor sections of cities can be quite dangerous for someone unfamiliar with their surroundings. Taxi crime is a very serious danger in major cities, so always request taxis by phone or app, rather than hailing them off the street—it costs the same and your call will be answered rapidly. Official taxi ranks are safe as well (airports, bus terminals, shopping malls).
Local consumption is low, and penalties are draconian, owing to the nation's well-known largely successful fight against some of history's most powerful and dangerous traffickers. Remember that the drug trade in Colombia has ruined many innocent citizens' lives and dragged the country's reputation through the mud.
Marijuana is illegal to buy and sell, although officially you can carry up to 20 grams without being charged for it. Police will tolerate you having a few grams of this drug on your person, but you are flirting with danger if you carry much more. Especially in small towns, it is not always the police you have to deal with, but vigilantes. They often keep the peace in towns, and they have a very severe way of dealing with problems.
Scopolamine is an extremely dangerous drug from an Andean flowering tree, which is almost exclusively used for crime, and nearly all the world's incidents of such use take place in Colombia. Essentially a mind control drug (once experimented with as an interrogation device by the CIA), victims become extremely open to suggestion and are "talked into" ATM withdrawals, turning over belongings, letting criminals into their apartments, etc., all while maintaining an outward appearance of more or less sobriety. After affects include near total amnesia of what happened, as well as potential for serious medical problems. The most talked about method of getting drugged with scopolamine is that of powder blown off paper, e.g., someone walks up to you (with cotton balls in their nose to prevent blowback) and asks for help with a map, before blowing the drugs into your face. But by far the most common method is by drugging drinks at a bar. To be especially safe, abandon drinks if they've been left unattended. While a pretty rare problem, it's an awfully scary one, and happens most often in strip clubs or other establishments involving sex workers.
Drink only bottled water outside the major cities. The water in major cities is safe. Most drinking water in people's homes is either boiled or of the purified variety that comes in huge multi-gallon plastic bags (which you can find at any little grocery store). The coffee's delicious, though, so why not just start that habit!
Tropical diseases are a concern in lowland parts of the country, and more so outside of major cities. Mosquitos carry malaria, Yellow fever, and Dengue, and infection rates are similar to other lowland parts of South America (i.e., much lower than in sub-Saharan Africa). Yellow fever has a vaccine, so get it—it's required for entry to many national parks, anyway. Dengue is not preventable beyond avoiding mosquito bites, so using bug spray regularly in lowland rural areas is good sense.
Malaria is a potential problem, so trips outside Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena, and the Andean region warrant use of antimalarials, which can be bought very cheaply without a prescription from a droguería, which are everywhere in any city of any size throughout the country. Ask for Doxycicline tablets at a dosage of 100 mg, with the number being 30 days plus the number of days in a malarial area (so you can start 1–2 days in advance, and take it daily continuing for 4 weeks past the end of your trip). The phrase you want is: doxyciclina, cien miligramos, [number] pastillas. Using some bug spray in the evening serves as a bit of extra protection.