Is Colombia Safe to Visit?

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

Safety is of course a major topic when one discusses Colombia….

My mom wasn’t happy that I decided to come to Colombia. Most people I know told me to be careful. So I had in my mind that there would be people all over with guns, maybe some military, drug dealers coming out of random corners to sell to me, and that I would be robbed my first day. (Thankfully none of that happened!) To be honest, all these fears would have kept me from coming to Colombia, but my Colombian friend, Camacho, was having his birthday party there so I decided to give it a go. Boy am I glad I did. As you can see, I now have friends in the national guard! 😉

Bars in front of residential buildings are common, as are security guards inside.

Photograph by Heather Markel, copyright 2019

The question of safety in Colombia is an interesting one. It’s a bizarre experience of contradictions. Whenever I ask if a place is safe, everyone answers, “all cities have dangerous areas and safe areas,” which is true. But, there’s an important difference between them and Colombia. In most places I’ve been, I get told about specific areas that are unsafe and should be avoided, but I know I can feel safe anyplace else. In Colombia, however, there are random unsafe areas scattered in with the good neighborhoods. In order to get to a safe area, you most likely have to walk, or drive, through a dangerous one. This is because squatters built houses on land they don’t own. Nobody stopped them so now subcultures exist where even the police don’t go. Everyone has a different opinion of whether or not it’s safe to walk around on my own, often pausing before giving me advice, which makes me feel nervous. One of the biggest contradictions is that even in areas I’m told are safe, all buildings have gates and security guards. This is supposedly a remnant of former guerilla days but I wonder why the gates haven’t been removed if the threat no longer exists.

“Safety is a combination of familiarity and common sense”

To be fair, because I’m in Colombia for my friend’s 50th birthday party I’m actually not alone much of the time. That means that while I’ve had my camera and my iPhone out, I’ve been surrounded by a group of men making it unlikely that anyone will approach me or steal from me. But, I have to say that, like many other places in the world, I’m pretty sure that if I were here for a while and got to learn the ropes, made friends with people in local markets and cafes, and felt at home, I believe I would feel safe on my own. At least in the areas I know to be safe! When we drive through a dangerous area I’m told to lock the doors and put valuables on the floor of the car. Though I think I’d lock my doors in dangerous areas in most of the world.

Scallions at a local market in Cali, Colombia.

Photograph by Heather Markel, copyright 2019

In the city of Cali, anyway, walking is not a thing. There are very few traffic lights and not enough pedestrian walkways. In Vietnam I got used to this, but I also knew that when I stepped into traffic, it would slow or weave around me, and I’d be ok. Here, that’s definitely not the case. In fact one evening I began running across the street with plenty of time to make it to the other side, and a fucking car full of people actually sped up so fast I had to stop in-between lanes. Luckily there was enough space in the rest of the traffic I was able to make my way, but I am quite certain that if I couldn’t have, this car would have hit me and continued onwards, laughing. As it was, they shouted at me, I’m not sure what, but I imagined it was definitely not a compliment. I actually feel more unsafe with the traffic than anything else. The main reason I would take taxis as much as possible is literally to avoid being run over. This is no joke.

I went to a nightclub one evening to (try) and dance salsa. The window where I paid was completely boarded up except for a small space at the bottom. It wasn’t even large enough to look in and see who was behind there. I had to stick my hand in with money, and indicate, with fingers, how many entrance bands I wanted, all the while hoping nobody would cut my fingers off! Then I got a pat down by a security guard I would not want to mess with. Now, I appreciate being safe and protected! However, I wondered why all that security was needed, if it was a safe place, or was it the security that made it safe. Either way, I had a fabulous time in the club!!

I’m often stared at as an obvious gringa. When I smile, I don’t always get a smile in return. I was told that drug dealers here actually are not my main problem. They employ poorer people – giving them jobs and a level of security. So, they are well liked by the people they take care of. I would likely be considered a potential future customer, so why give me a problem? The people I’m told to watch out for are the ones who will assess that, because of the way I walk, and the color of my skin, (not the deep brown of the locals) I have more than they do. At night, the streets are empty apart from random security guards and a homeless person trying to make a few pesos. I definitely wouldn’t feel safe walking alone after dark. 

After almost two weeks here, I’m beginning to feel safer. I think part of our natural perception of danger is really about unfamiliarity. Sure, there are many places that really are unsafe, and many things you can do that are stupid and dangerous. However, I waited to cross the street a couple of days ago and a driver actually stopped to let me cross! In fact, that happened twice now. I also saw somoene I presume is from here cross the street, and the car coming towards her did NOT slow down. So, it is what it is. Despite the undercurrent of feeling I have to watch my surroundings, the people I meet that do smile back (and there are many) are lovely. The artwork is amazing and the colors of the buildings inspire joy. Life is slower, people take their time and the blend of city and mountains is beautiful. I mean staggeringly beautiful. From what I understand the quality of life, certainly in the city of Cali, is excellent. People have large homes and servants. Fruit is unusual and there’s lots of it. Birds tweet and chirp all around us. Even sleeping in the middle of a city, there are crickets chirping at night. As always, there is light and darkness and you get to choose your point of view.

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