Keep your wits about you, avoid dodgy parts of town and be extravigilant after dark, and Colombia should offer you nothing but good times.
Government websites with useful travel advisories:
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.smartraveller.gov.au)
British Foreign Office (www.fco.gov.uk)
Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs (www.travel.gc.ca)
German Federal Foreign Office (www.auswaertiges-amt.de)
New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs (www.safetravel.govt.nz)
US State Department (www.travel.state.gov)
Despite the peace deal between the government and the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia; FARC), there remain isolated pockets of guerrilla activity in remote parts of Colombia, with dissident FARC soldiers operating in some areas and the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (National Liberation Army; ELN) – who are locked in peace negotiations with the government – yet to disarm.
Of perhaps more concern are neo-paramilitary groups engaged in drug trafficking who have extended their operations around the country following the withdrawal of the FARC, and whose areas of influence are more difficult to identify.
Going off the beaten track should be done with great caution, if at all. While most armed groups no longer specifically target tourists, most are very suspicious of unannounced visitors in their territory – and cases of mistaken identity have led to kidnapping and deaths.
Large swaths of Colombia are not currently covered by Lonely Planet, as the security situation remains dubious and tourist infrastructure simply does not exist: this is the case for much of the west of the country, remote areas bordering Venezuela and chunks of the Amazon region (though the area of the Amazon we cover is extremely safe).
Theft is the most common travelers' danger. In general, the problem is more serious in the largest cities. The most common methods of theft are snatching your day pack, cell phone or camera, pick-pocketing, or taking advantage of a moment's inattention to pick up your gear and run away.
Distraction can often be part of the thieves' strategy. Thieves tend to work in pairs or groups, often on motorcycles; one or more will distract you while an accomplice does the deed. They may begin by making friends with you, or pretend to be the police and demand to check your possessions. Inside banks, pay special attention when withdrawing money from ATMs and be wary of criminals posing as bank employees and offering help – a common robbery tactic.
If you can, leave your money and valuables somewhere safe before walking the streets. In practice, it's good to carry a decoy bundle of small notes, a maximum of COP$50,000 to COP$100,000, ready to hand over in case of an assault; if you really don't have a peso, robbers can become frustrated and, as a consequence, unpredictable.
Armed holdups in the cities can occur even in some more upmarket suburbs. If you are accosted by robbers, it is best to give them what they are after, but try to play it cool and don't rush to hand them all your valuables at once – they may well be satisfied with just your decoy wad. Don't try to escape or struggle – your chances are slim, and people have been murdered for pocket change. Don't count on any help from passersby.
Cocaine and marijuana are cheap and widely available in Colombia's major cities. Purchasing and consuming drugs, however, is not a good idea. Many Colombians find Colombian drug tourism very offensive, especially in smaller towns. It's important to note the majority of Colombians don't consume drugs and many believe the foreign drug trade is responsible for Colombia's decades of violent conflict. So, asking after drugs, or openly using drugs, could land you in a lot of trouble (note: it's illegal to buy or sell drugs in any quantity).
A recent rise in travelers coming to Colombia to use ayahuasca (or yagé as it's often known in Colombia) is another worrying trend. The hallucinogenic drug, derived from various rainforest plants and used by Colombia's indigenous peoples in ceremonies for centuries, causes purging and vomiting alongside incredibly strong hallucinations. In 2014 a 19-year-old British backpacker died near Putumayo while trying the drug, and we strongly recommend that you avoid it.
Sometimes you may be offered drugs on the street, in a bar or at a disco, but never accept these offers. The vendors may well be setting you up for the police, or their accomplices will follow you and stop you later, show you false police documents and threaten you with jail unless you pay them off.
There have been reports of drugs being planted on travelers, so keep your eyes open. Always refuse if a stranger at an airport asks you to take their luggage on board as part of your luggage allowance.
Burundanga is a drug obtained from a species of tree widespread in Colombia and is used by thieves to render a victim unconscious. It can be put into sweets, cigarettes, chewing gum, spirits, beer – virtually any kind of food or drink – and it doesn't have any noticeable taste or odor.
The main effect after a 'normal' dose is the loss of will, even though you remain conscious. The thief can then ask you to hand over your valuables and you will obey without resistance. Cases of rape under the effect of burundanga are known. Other effects are loss of memory and sleepiness, which can last from a few hours to several days. An overdose can be fatal.
While the Colombian military is highly trustworthy and the federal police have a decent reputation, local cops have more of a mixed reputation. They don't get paid a lot of money, and incidents of bribery and bullying of tourists have been reported.
Always carry a photocopy of your passport with you, including your entry stamp (you're more likely to avoid trouble if you keep your papers in order), and never carry drugs of any kind, either on the street or when traveling.
In some areas, there are specialized tourist police; many speak some English. They are uniformed and easily recognizable by the Policía de Turismo labels on their arm bands. At the first hint of trouble, go to them first if you can.
If your passport, valuables or other belongings are stolen, go to the police station and make a denuncia (report). The officers on duty will write a statement according to what you tell them. It should include a description of the events and the list of stolen articles. Pay attention to the wording you use, include every stolen item and document, and carefully check the statement before signing it. Your copy of the statement serves as a temporary identity document and you'll need to present it to your insurer to make a claim.
If you happen to get involved with the police, keep calm and be polite, and always use the formal 'usted' (the word for 'you,' instead of 'tu'). Keep a sharp eye out when they check your gear.
Under no circumstances should you agree to a search by plainclothes police officers asking to inspect your passport and money. Criminals masquerading as plainclothes police may stop you on the street, identify themselves with a fake ID, and then ask to inspect your passport and money. A common scam finds these 'officers' claiming your money is counterfeit, followed by, of course, its confiscation (a variation on this scam involves jewelry as well). Legitimate Colombian police will never make such a request. Call out for uniformed police officers or decent-looking passersby to witness the incident, and insist on phoning a bona fide police station. By that time, the 'officers' will probably have discreetly walked away.
Traveling overland in most parts of Colombia, especially during the day, should present no issues other than which iPod playlist you choose to drown out the bus driver's loud and questionable musical taste. In the past, taking night buses was not a good idea – FARC used to control many of the major highways – but this is no longer the case. Night buses to most destinations are a comfortable way to avoid wasting a day in transit, plus you save the cost of a night's accommodation.
There are no longer any major routes on which you should avoid night travel although some minor routes including the road from Popayán to San Agustín and from Ocaña to Cúcuta are best traveled when it's light.
Few countries in Latin America or elsewhere have done more to turn around their own image than Colombia, which spent most of the 1980s and '90s as a woefully feared tourism black hole, as an intertwined civil military conflict and international drug war wreaked havoc on daily life. Today, most travelers will find Colombia safer on average than all of the country's immediate neighbors – an astonishing turnaround. Problems remain, however. Street crime is still an issue, especially in bigger cities including Bogotá, Cali, Pereira and Medellín, so vigilance and common sense are always required. Guerrillas, paramilitaries and narco-traffickers still linger in some Colombian departments (although the peace deal with the FARC and formal peace talks with the ELN could mean guerrillas will soon be a thing of the past), so forward planning is essential if you are going to get really off the beaten track.
The Colombian government's historic 2016 peace accord with the FARC – and subsequent ceasefire with the ELN in 2017 – ended a five-decade civil war. As a result, the country is dramatically safer than it once was and many previously no-go areas are now safe for travel (though neo-paramilitary groups involved in drug trafficking are still present in many parts of the country and FARC dissidents remain in some jungle areas). All the areas covered by Lonely Planet are generally safe for travel, and providing you do not wander far from recommended locales, you aren’t likely to run into any problems.
Drug tourism is an unfortunate reality in Colombia. And why not? Cocaine is cheap, right? Not exactly.
What may appear a harmless diversion directly contributes to the violence and mayhem that play out in the Colombian countryside every day. People fight and die for control of the cocaine trade. Purchasing and consuming cocaine helps finance that conflict.
Worse still, the byproducts from the production of cocaine are extremely damaging to the environment. The production process requires toxic chemicals such as kerosene, sulfuric acid, acetone and carbide, which are simply dumped afterward on the ground or into streams and rivers. Further, it's estimated that between 500 and 3000 sq km of virgin rainforest are cut down every year for coca production.
Colombia is one of the most beautiful countries in the world. The people, the music, the dancing, the food – these are already enough stimulation to overwhelm the senses.