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COLOMBIA / SOUTH AMERICA / TRAVEL

The question I hear the most: is Colombia safe?

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The question “Is Colombia safe?” has been asked hundreds of times over the last six months by family, friends, and strangers alike as I prepared for my move to Medellín. If you’re interested in statistically speaking, New Orleans, St. Louis, and Detroit are all considered more dangerous than Medellín. In this post, however, I want to focus on safety in daily life and some of the things I do or don’t do as a foreigner, and a single woman, as well as things I’ve observed in others.

Is Colombia safe in daily life?

So technically this is pretty hard to answer for any city, state, or country. We can probably all agree that safety depends on what the heck you’re actually doing as well as how you’re doing it. In addition, there are random acts of violence that can occur anywhere stunning those left in the aftermath.

Both when home and while traveling there are lots of people who have a story of something awful happening but many times it begins along the lines of, “Well it was 3 a.m. and I was really drunk and then…

When I first arrived on the ground here I have to admit I was super nervous all the time. I walked around clutching at my purse, giving everyone the beady eye, and just generally feeling like I was going to get robbed at any given time just for breathing.

That’s the impression that you can get based on some of the Facebook groups that exist or some of the articles on the internet. The reality is that you have to take everything with a grain of salt, watch your surroundings, and be careful but also allow yourself to relax and settle in.

The locals have a saying here: “No dar papaya.

This is local slang and shouldn’t be translated literally but what it basically boils down to is: “Don’t do things that are asking for trouble.

There’s a lot of conversation around this saying in the local Facebook groups, pushing back against the idea of blaming the victim. If someone posts in the group about their experience getting robbed, often people will chime in with things like, “Well you shouldn’t have been doing that …” Then others push back with, “Hey, the robber is at fault here, stop victim-blaming.” Then, as often happens on Facebook, the conversation escalates into each person showing the pure evil inside them and goes to a very ugly place very quickly…

Before coming to the city I thought that the local groups might be a good resource but I quickly muted them as the few nuggets of helpful information are often not worth the ugliness in there.

All that being said, I often see people doing things that attract more attention to themselves than I personally would. It’s hard not to sound judgy as I say that and I don’t mean to be focused on judging, but rather on explaining things that I see and notice and how they draw attention.

Something I miss about the US

One of the things I miss most about living in the United States is the sense of security that I have been privileged enough to enjoy most of my life when it comes to personal possessions. You’re not rich because you have an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy, you’re just regular and I do miss that. I’m also aware that that doesn’t apply everywhere in the US, which I why I use the word privilege. I know it’s something I’ve had, that not everyone does.

I have never previously in my life worried about getting robbed or my computer stolen just because I have a Mac. I’ve never felt like I needed to know where my phone is at all times versus setting it casually on a tabletop while in a cafe or just kind of letting it hang out of my back pocket. There were a lot of behaviors I had to tighten up upon arrival here in Colombia.

Flashing expensive items

I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a woman and traveling solo or just due to my personality, but I’ve always preferred to fly under the radar. Lots of people in my neighborhood of Poblado (especially ex-pats — just because I notice the as they stand out more) walk around with Apple airpods. (NOTE: This post was written in 2019.)

This isn’t something I would ever do. Those airpods are certainly attached to an iPhone and as a personal choice, I’d rather not broadcast “Yo! I have a lot of money. Enough to buy $150 earphones and the $1000 iPhone X they’re likely attached to and by the way, I have it on me right now.”

I went so far as to make the (awful, awful) switch to a cheap Android smartphone before moving to Medellín as I’d rather sacrifice a hundred-dollar phone than my former phone, the iPhone 8. Sorry to all you native Android lovers, but it’s been a brutal switch, and though I’ve heard I’ll get through the transition it just doesn’t seem like it at the moment.

Plenty of other people also use their Macs openly in coffee shops. While I do feel pretty safe in the coffee shops, I realize that someone might see me in a shop and then choose to follow me later (or even on another day). Call me unnecessarily paranoid but I err on the cautious side. I’m also very aware that I haven’t seen a ton of other women who look like me yet — black with a crazy curl ‘do — so I’m certainly recognizable.

Even though my Mac is old I’d like to avoid it being stolen if at all possible. I purchased a plain black cover to help camouflage the fact that it’s a Mac and I tend to sit deeper into coffee shops or upstairs to lessen being noticed by passersby. I’m very aware of the shift in perspective. Getting a Mac some years ago when I was learning to code felt like something of a status symbol, yet now it’s something I’d rather not broadcast, obscuring that big white gleaming Apple with a purple sticky note scribbled with a black sharpie and affixed under the new plain cover.

I also make sure to drop my computer back by the house before dark if I’m out working at a coffee shop. (Due to the location close to the equator, it gets dark around 6 p.m. here year-round.) This level of caution may be quite over the top for some but it feels better to me.

Drinking and nightlife

Drinking and nightlife aren’t much different for me here because I take the same precautions as everywhere when alone. Never leave my drink. Politely decline purchased drinks if I didn’t see them opened/made. I basically act here just like I would at a bar anywhere in America.

Now that the holidays are over I’ll be getting back to my regular schedule and I’m much more of an early to bed sort of gal. Crowds, clubs, and big events aren’t my style so I feel that that helps with safety quite a bit.

Walking at night

This typically depends on the crowds. I’m not usually out late but as it gets dark here around 6, I do find myself walking after dark. If there are still plenty of people on the streets to the point where I feel comfortable walking home I will.

If the streets are deserted — which hasn’t happened yet because Colombians love to party and I’m not often out past midnight, I’ll get a taxi or Uber. New Year’s Eve last night was my latest night out, and I walked home after 3 a.m.

There were other people on the streets, including several couples so I felt comfortable but it’s not something I’d make a habit up. I live quite close to the main street so there are almost always people out.

Walking late at night is not something I like to do anywhere so I feel that I’ll be in at much more reasonable hours 98% of the time. When I first arrived, a classmate from Spanish school Carl (hi Carl! 👋) would walk me home at night any time we were out. Such a gentlemanly thing to do and I was so spoiled then until he left to go back to Canada.

Drugs

They’re certainly available here as they are in many other places. Having just come from Vegas I’m not exactly naive when it comes to drugs being present, though in Vegas I ran in quite different circles. Here in Medellín, I’m around a decent amount of the party set as the majority of students are only here for a little while and their focus seems to be on partying while learning a bit of Spanish on the side.

The very first night I went out here a couple of guys (foreigners) casually pulled out a little baggie and started doing coke on the sidewalk in the middle of our conversation. Basically, I don’t want to be a judgy Judy, but as I wanted no part in that or the trouble that could potentially ensue I distanced myself from that group.

The last thing I want to do is find myself on the wrong side of the law in a foreign country, especially just by association without even doing the deed. I’m often surprised by the lack of consideration of consequences so many people have while traveling in another country. It’s often dismissed as just being young, but there are a good number in their late 20s or early 30s who still display this lack of caring.

Police presence

There’s a pretty heavy police presence in Poblado. The other day, we had a discussion among friends: “Does having a lot of police around make you feel more or less safe?”

It’s a pretty interesting question and varies among respondents but generally, it makes me feel safer. The neighborhood of Poblado is one of the nicest in Medellín and also has the most tourists. It feels like the city wants to present a front at least of ensuring safety so that tourist dollars continue to be spent in the area.

The police officers (often looking barely over 18!) wear green uniforms and ride on bright green motorcycles so they are very visible. They are virtually always in pairs or even groups of three to four and at first, seemed to be standing on every corner. Once I got used to them, they tended to fade into the background but I do feel their visual presence everywhere was a deterrent to things that might have gone on otherwise.

Phone safety

As mentioned before, I bought a cheap Android smartphone before moving to Medellín. When I first got here, I almost always carried it zipped away safely in my purse or backpack but after three weeks here and getting more comfortable I’ll sometimes carry it in my back pocket. This is only at times when I’m on quieter streets without much of a crowd.

Many girls here walk around with it jammed in the front waistband of their jeans which I will do too with my shirt draped over it. This eliminates me having to constantly zip and unzip my purse and keeps it close and accessible in crowded areas.

On the metro, I always put my phone in my purse, zip it, and keep my hand over the zipper closure the entire time. Fortunately, I don’t HAVE to ride the metro for my daily commute so many times it’s not too packed. All locals seem to be very aware of metro safety also and often wear their backpacks in front and keep their phones put away.

Living in Medellín and being more aware of my phone and surroundings has made me spend less time on it. In the US I wouldn’t think twice about texting while walking down the street, sitting on a restaurant patio, or in a taxi. Here, I just try to stay off it in public when it’s not necessary.

I’ve read several accounts online of people having phones stolen at gunpoint while in taxis. A motorcycle will pull up, the person will point a gun, and the tourist caught unawares with their phone in hand, will give it and their wallet over.

Again, it’s a higher level of caution than a lot of people will exercise but I prefer to leave the taxi window up or only cracked a few inches, stay off my phone and leave my purse on the floor or low between my knees. The less attention I attract, the better.

Watching out

Honestly, this is just a good idea all the time. It can range from watching the amount of your alcohol intake to also watching surroundings and making eye contact with shifty ass characters.

Personally, there is always a fine line for me between when to make glancing eye contact and when to stare someone down. But if someone is walking behind me and I don’t like the vibe, I have no problem turning enough to look them straight in the eyes like, “I know you’re behind me and want you to know I’m watching you.

Drawing unnecessary attention

There are certain people who will stand out no matter what here. While there are a number of fair Colombians, they are definitely not the majority. Blond-haired, blue-eyed people are certainly going to stand out which can’t be helped, but there are a couple of other things people do quite often that surprises me.

One is dressing in shorts and flip-flops. While I have seen native Colombian women wearing shorts, it seems to happen more often at night as part of a clubbing outfit.

During the day, most Colombian men and women wear pants, no matter the temperature. It certainly seems like something that may be changing as fashion continues to change, but from my observations, shorts are not anywhere close to the commonality that they are in the US. So far, I have never seen a Colombian wearing flip-flops.

Something else people do that constantly amazes me is speaking English loudly in crowded areas. I’m not suggesting that one must completely abandon their own language in a foreign place, but it has about the same effect as waving a large flag saying, “Hi! I’m a foreigner!” and also gives off the subtext, “I often don’t pay attention to my surroundings and don’t mind being an obvious target.”

I’m not talking about regular conversations here, but the people who sit outside on a patio next to the sidewalk and talk loudly and obliviously in a place that is having otherwise normal-volume conversations.

Watching out for cars

The common joke among those of us who are foreigners here is some variation of: “Everyone back home is worried about me because they’ve watched too many scenes from Narcos but the most likely way I’ll get hurt is being run over by a car!

I haven’t traveled as far and wide as many people but the worst driving I’ve ever encountered so far was San Jose, Costa Rica. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s much more civilized here in Medellín but it’s still a situation where you very much need to be aware.

A good number of streets have posted walk/don’t walk signs for pedestrians to safely cross when the light is turned but the smaller side streets don’t. In this case, it’s super important to be on your toes. A lot of the streets are one way which helps as you get used to which way you should be looking. On the other hand, I’ve also seen cars turning the wrong way down these same one-way streets so …

Basically, at any street crossing, I’ve gotten used to swiveling my head like an owl in all directions and looking alive out there! Jaywalking — in the sense of it being wrong or illegal — is not an issue here. In fact, if you’re not constantly halfway down a block, 3 steps into the street, froggering your way through passing cars, looking for a safe(ish) break to make it to the other side, you’re definitely a foreigner.

I hope this helps to assuage some of the fears of friends and family back home as well as yours if you’re thinking of visiting this amazing country someday. Exercise common sense, caution, and pay attention to your gut feelings and you’ll likely have an incredible time.  If you’ve got more questions about safety in day-to-day life here, follow me on Instagram @liveworktravelig and ask me there.

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