Young, Free, Single and Traveling Alone in Colombia!

by | Mar 27, 2018

Traveling alone in Colombia can be an exhilarating and life changing experience. Yet, for many it can be a daunting prospect if you don’t know what to expect. Colombia is well-known for its chequered history with many tails of drugs, kidnapping and corruption but behind these headlines awaits a majestic country rich in culture and stunning natural beauty. One of its main attractions is its almost untouched authenticity which hasn’t yet been tarnished by mass tourism. But this can also make it a harder place to travel – especially on your own. It is therefore a good idea to do your research before traveling and so we’ve put together the ultimate guide to getting around and staying safe when traveling alone in Colombia.

You may also want to check out our definitive guide to Colombia Travel, where you can find information about all the best cities, villages, where to stay and what to do when you get there. You can even download our 96 page guide for free.

Why Visit Colombia?

For travelers heading to Colombia you’re in for a real treat. With an infinite amount of natural beauty, gorgeous weather and hugely diverse terrains including tropical jungles, pristine exotic beaches and bustling cultural cities there’s so much to do, see and experience. Although Colombia is fast becoming the ‘must-visit’ South American destination for more adventurous travelers, it hasn’t yet felt the full force of tourism and therefore retains all of it’s authentic charm. Now is the best time to visit Colombia.

El Cabo San Juan beach, Parque Tayrona, pictured while traveling alone in Colombia

A Bit About Us.

As a young 30-something couple (and one half Colombian) we’ve toured, worked and lived in Colombia for many years. We take small groups of travelers to Colombia to visit and experience some of the most gritty, authentic and stunning destinations which can sometimes be trickier to do to by yourself. As self-proclaimed Colombia travel experts we think it’s important to do your research before you come. Staying safe is not just about knowing the places to avoid at night. We believe that knowing more about the culture, and the ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’ will keep you out of trouble and free to immersive yourself into the Colombian way of life at full throttle. If you’re not traveling with us or with others then this is your guide to a hassle-free time.
Steve and Marcela, founders of Other Way Round

Our Guide to Staying Safe in Colombia

Colombia is still a developing country and like most developing countries it faces many challenges. There are of course the well documented issues around the drugs trade but this is only part of the story. With an average minimum wage of around £200 / US$280 per month there is a HUGE disparity between the rich and poor. Colombia is also recovering from a 50 year long civil war which has led to significant internal displacement of its people (people fleeing their homes in the country and heading to the cities without work or places to live), only adding to the levels of poverty. It is always important to keep this context in mind when traveling in Colombia.

Crime

Many travelers worry they’re going to get caught up in some sort of drug cartel shootout or get kidnapped, but these days that’s very unlikely especially in the cities. Colombia has come along way since the days of Pablo Escobar. The biggest threat nowadays is from crimes like robberies which are quite frequent (for Colombians as well as tourists).

Therefore it’s important to be aware of this and understand that as a tourist you really do stand out. Up until recently Colombia hasn’t really had a huge amount of overseas tourists and many locals aren’t really used to seeing foreigners in their country. Now in the tourist zones it is becoming more common, but if you step out of these you are likely to encounter people who are very surprised to see you. For example, in my daily life in Medellin I very rarely encounter any other foreigners.

Streets of Comuna 13 Medellin

TIPS ON STAYING SAFE

Consider traveling in a group: If you really want to get off the beaten track (why wouldn’t you) then the safest way to do this is by sticking together – safety in numbers definitely applies here. If the thought of an organised tour sounds dreadful, don’t despair. We aren’t your typical tour company! As a boutique tour company we place an emphasis on creating trips that are immersive, packed with adventure and above all, sociable. We use our local knowledge to show you the REAL Colombia and create a group atmosphere that’s just like traveling with old friends – people to share all of your new adventures with.

“No Dar Papaya” / Don’t Give Papaya: This is a gem of a Colombian expression which basically means that you shouldn’t draw attention to yourself and make yourself an easy target . As a popular Colombian phrase used by the locals it has been drilled into me over the years. You’ll even see it printed on billboards! If you’ve ever seen this scene from Transpotting you’ll know exactly what we mean about making yourself an easy target, looking like a tourist and putting yourself in a vulnerable situation. The bloke in this scene is targeted by the group because he made himself an easy target and obviously didn’t do his research about the precautions to take and which pubs to avoid. This guy was giving big time papaya!

Our advice would be to dress like the locals and leave your watches and jewellery at home. My wife Marcela never wears her wedding or engagement ring in Colombia and she’s Colombian! This also applies to carrying your phone in your hand or walking around with your camera on your neck. Don’t do it.

Avoid looking too much like a tourist:! In cities like Medellin and Bogota the locals typically wear jeans and a t-shirt/top. Rarely shorts. Or flip-flops. In places like Cartagena, or Parque Tayrona it’s a bit different! Given that it’s the Caribbean it’s just too hot to wear jeans. Our recommendation is to be aware of your surroundings and aim to blend in with the locals where possible, it will make you less vulnerable. If you’ve already planned to come on one of our tours then don’t worry too much about what to wear. Before your trip we’ll send you full details of what to pack! Aren’t we thoughtful?

Take care downtown: In many of the major Colombian cities the downtown area is typically the most dangerous and where you should be particularly on guard. Whether in ‘El Centro’ in Medellin or ‘La Candelaria’ in Bogota, try not to go alone, be extra vigilant and avoid altogether at night.

Research well your hotel: There have been various reports of hotel room burglaries throughout the tourist areas of Colombia (it happened to our own friends while in Taganga) so make sure you do your research and choose accommodation which has a reputation for being secure.

Stay with a trusted local: If you’re venturing away from the tourist areas then it’s always best to travel with a trusted local or tour group. Don’t go wandering off with a someone you’ve just met that day. No matter how nice they seem.

Traditional Antioquian town near Medellin

Criminals in Colombia are an innovative bunch and there’s always some form of new scam on the go. My Colombian family have a Whatsapp group and every other week there’s a new warning shared about a the latest scheme to surface.

Some of the most common incidents include:-

Robberies in the street: These can happen in broad daylight and the robbers are often armed with guns.

Robberies at ATMs: Robbers will target people using ATMs and can sometimes follow victims from an ATM back to their home or hotel (we’ve seen this happen to our neighbour in Medellin). Never use an ATM in the street. Instead use one located in a mall or store.

Attacks on motorbikes: Unfortunately these have become more common. Typically the robbery will take place while the victim is sitting in a car or taxi. The motorbike will pull up alongside your vehicle at the traffic lights or in traffic, rob you and them make a quick get-away. This is why we suggest not having your personal belongings on display even in a taxi or on public transport.

Beware of pretend officials: A common scam taking plage in Bogota at the moment is people pretending to be policeman or other type of official asking to see your passport or currency. Although it isn’t uncommon to be asked for ID, always leave your passport in your hotel and carry a different, less valuable, form of ID with you. A colour copy of your passport will do.

Scopolamine: Also known as Devil’s Breath this is something that many visitors will be less familiar with.  It was my Spanish teacher who first warned me about this after it had happened to a few of his expat friends in Medellin. Scopolamine is a powder that can be applied, slipped in your drink or blown in your face and like the date rape drug rohypnol, it makes you completely suggestible and can even make you lose consciousness.

Although most visits typically pass without incident, we wanted you to be aware of the potential dangers as this is the same advice and precautions that all of our local friends take. After all, knowledge is power. You will no doubt see many tourists who don’t follow these same precuations (we see it every day), but don’t let that sway you. Be vigilant, keep your possessions out of sight, stick together and don’t let your guard down. If you do get robbed, don’t resist. Since a lot of robbers use a weapon it’s always best to hand over anything they want to avoid getting harmed.

Small group tour while traveling alone in Colombia
wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia

Getting Around

Now that you know how not to ‘give Papaya’, you should remember it and apply it in all situations, especially when traveling and getting about. Generally speaking traveling around Colombia can be a bit of a faff. Although this can be a great adventure if you’ve got months of traveling ahead, for those on a shorter vacation you’ll get more out of it by letting someone else take care of the logistics. If you are organising your own trip then here are our tips on travel.

Moving between cities: Internal flights are generally the best option as they are cheap, quick & reliable. There are also buses but be aware that due to the mountainous terrain the roads are very windy and journeys often long.

Moving within cities: Within major cities like Medellin (metro) and Bogota (transmilenio bus) there is good quality public transport available although it is often still easier to get around using taxis. We would suggest sticking to public transport over hiring a car, however if you do plan on this take extra care as the local driving style can be somewhat aggressive and especially look out for the motorbikes weaving in between cars (we’ve seen way too many accidents caused by this)

Don’t flag taxi’s:  Always use Uber or call the taxi company to arrange pick up. Your hotel should have a list of taxi numbers.

Getting from the Airport: Again plan your pick up in advance or always use an official taxi from the airport (they are fairly cheap in Colombia). Avoid using the ‘random’ people offering their services. Instead, walk straight past them and get into the official taxi queue. Or even better, get your hotel/hostel to pick you up.

Walk with purpose: Wandering around aimlessly and looking lost is again ‘giving papaya’ which will likely attract unwanted attention. There are definitely areas where it’s more comfortable to have a leisurely stroll – for example some parts of El Poblado in Medellin, Cartagena Old Town, Guatapé, Santa Fe de Antioquia etc… – but in general its best to plan ahead, know where you’re going and always walk with purpose.

Spanish: It may sound obvious but be aware that there’s not much English spoken in Colombia. It is improving and more of the younger generation are learning but know that the majority of the people you come across will likely speak no English (often even in hotels and other tourist spots). Don’t stress too much about it but if you do have time try to learn the basics before you arrive, it will also make your trip all the more fun!

Amenities: Most people are pleasantly surprised (I admit I was on my first visit) that the major cities in Colombia generally have good infrastructure with modern amenities. This includes plenty of quality supermarkets and pharmacies where you can typically find the same products you would in your home country. Again, this does change when you get into the more rural areas (like in most countries). For example when visiting somewhere remote like Parque Tayrona it’s best to buy your supplies in advance.

Traffic in Medellin, Colombia

Partying

If you’re on holiday you’ll obviously want  to let your hair down but remember that drinking too much alcohol can again leave you in a vulnerable position.

  • Don’t go out to bars alone
  • Never accept a drink from anyone or leave drinks unattended
  • Don’t go off to an after party with people you just met that night, no matter how nice they seem
  • Don’t get ridiculously drunk, always keep your wits about you

Stay away from drugs and prostitutes – the growth in tourism has sadly led to an increase in the availability of drugs and prostitution within the areas frequented by tourists. For ethical reasons alone we strongly recommend not participating in such activities, but also be aware that these will often be used as a way of isolating and attacking you.

Cultural Behaviours

Colombia has such a rich, vibrant and welcoming culture that this alone is often the highlight for most visitors. However, there are also some less favourable cultural aspects that visitors to be aware of.

‘Cultura Machista’: Throughout Latin American there are many men who behave in a manner often referred to as ‘machista’ and Colombia unfortunately is no exception. It is not uncommon for women walking through the streets to be greeted with shouts like ‘my princess’, ‘my queen’ and it can involve leering and taking cat calling to whole new level. The same applies to local women but for foreign tourists this can often be amplified. If you feel vulnerable make sure you walk with someone you know. Most men are pretty harmless but it can feel a little intimidating at first. Just remember to remain cautious and never take unnecessary risks and walk with purpose.

Homosexuality: is legal in Colombia but unfortunately it isn’t so openly accepted, especially in more rural parts. Look for advice from you own country’s foreign office about LGBT communities before you travel.

Sanitary Conditions and Health

In the major cities the toilets and plumbing are as you’d expect although in smaller towns and less built up areas they can become a little more basic.

Drinking the water: Tap water is safe to drink in Medellin and Bogota but everywhere else we recommended bottled water.

Medical Help: If you need medical assistance again the major cities have a high standard of medical provisions (higher than most people expect) and all of our tours are only an hour or two from a major city. As with traveling to any other country it’s a good idea to arrange travel and medical insurance before traveling. The emergency services number in Colombia is 123.

Vaccinations: Although the Travel Health Clinic recommend vaccinations for Yellow Fever, Hep A and Typhoid there aren’t any vaccinations that are mandatory for entry into colombia. However, it’s always best to check the guidelines for your own country before traveling. If you’re planning on visiting Tayrona Nacional Parque you’ll need a certificate to prove that you’ve been vaccinated against Yellow Fever and we’ve known people that have been denied entry without one.

Zika: There is a very low risk of contracting the Zika virus. If you’ve contracted Zika virus symptoms include fever, rash and vomiting but it isn’t life threatening.  However, it can be problematic for pregnant women as it can cause birth defects. Therefore the general advice is don’t come if you’re pregnant and to use contraception during your vacation and for a period of time after. Again, seek medical advice in your own country before traveling or visit the National  Travel Health Network and Centre for more information.

Malaria: You can contract Malaria in Colombia although the risks are low. Again advice on whether you need to take anti-malaria medication while traveling will vary from country to country so it’s always best to check you own country’s advice. However, the best way to prevent Malaria is to avoid getting bitten and there are some great tips here.

Bugs, Creepy Crawlies and Other Pests: As the second largest biodiverse country in the world (Brazil is the biggest), it’s hard to cover every type of insect or animal that you’re likely to encounter. While most critters you’ll encounter are likely to be harmless there are one or two species of snakes and spiders that are venomous but these are largely found in the depth of the jungle. The most annoying thing will be those pesky mosquito bites and there are cases of Malaria so make sure you take the necessary precautions to avoid getting bitten.

Pollution: some cities in Colombia do have issues with pollution. For Medellin in particular this is a challenge, being a valley it makes it difficult for the pollution to escape, especially during the month of March. On occasion restrictions on driving are put in place and outdoor activities (like sports) cancelled. This shouldn’t be a major concern if you’re only visiting for vacation but something to be aware of if you suffer from respiratory conditions or are thinking to stay in Colombia longer term.

Streets of Guatape, Antioquia
wandering the streets of zipaquira, cundinamarca, colombia

Finishing Up

While the dangers presented in this guide may seem a little scary, it’s important to be aware that many of these same issues do exist throughout Latin America (and the wider world). They shouldn’t deter you from traveling alone to Colombia, rather they should arm you with the tools and knowledge to ensure you have a trouble-free trip.

Colombia has moved FAR beyond the negative stereotypes that many people have in their head but we do still feel there are important issues that visitors should be prepared for. As long as you’re aware of the potential risks and take the necessary precautions Colombia is most definitely a safe place to travel alone and the positives greatly outweigh the negatives. Follow our guide to staying safe and you’re sure to have a great time.

Whether you have 1 week or one month in Colombia an organised tour can often be the best way to experience a more authentic trip that provides adventure, culture and hidden gems while keeping you safe. In addition everything is organised for you and you get to meet a bunch of awesome travelers to share all of your crazy adventures with.

Contact us for more information about our tours or check out our itineraries by clicking on the links below.

Want to see an OWR trip in action? Then check out this blog from a recent trip: An Immersive 2 Weeks in Colombia with Other Way Round.