Is Colombia safe to visit?
Let's be honest. If you're planning a trip to Latin America, you're already a little more adventurous than the average person!
Not because you're some risky adventure seeker, but simply because — you know it’s true! — most people choose more "conventional" travel destinations (think Ireland, Hawaii, Italy… not that there's anything wrong with these wonderful places).
So, you’re planning a trip to South America — woo! — and you’ve landed on this page because someone let you in on the “secret” that Colombia (yes, scary, dangerous Colombia) is actually a beautiful, amazing place to visit.
And even though you’ve seen Narcos, you’re intelligent enough to recognize that it portrays a bygone era from decades ago. Because you’ve also noticed that Colombia has been recommended as a travel destination by fairly mainstream magazines and newspapers like Condé Nast Traveler, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.
These established publications are not in the business of advocating risky travel escapades. So why are they calling Colombia a must-visit Latin American travel destination - and positioning it as the country you need to visit before everyone else discovers it?!
As an experienced traveler, you can probably guess the answer - and it’s not exactly news, either! Travel experts have been recommending Colombia as a destination for several years now, but (perhaps unsurprisingly) it’s taken a while for the country to shed its former reputation.
Colombia (not Columbia) is one of South America’s most misunderstood countries, but for those who have visited it is stunning to see how it has reinvented itself after some of the darkest decades in its history.
But before getting deeper into whether or not Colombia is safe for travelers, let’s begin with some of the most common stereotypes and misconceptions uninformed travelers have about Colombia.
Colombia Stereotypes: Myths & Misconceptions
Once upon a time, the idea of visiting Colombia for fun might have seemed unimaginable.
To be fair, we did visit. After all, our families are Colombian, and while growing up in the US we visited frequently to spend time with relatives. But it was certainly not a destination on the list of most leisure travelers (apart from the hyper adventurous).
Even for us, particularly back in the 1980s and into the 90s, there was always an underlying sense of fear in the air. Fortunately, neither of us ever directly witnessed or experienced any danger, but as soon as we’d land in Colombia from the US, we knew it was time to be on alert, just in case.
But the fear was real, and — when things were at their worst — most Colombians truly did live in fear of the violence associated with the drug wars and civil war, a staggeringly tense atmosphere led many Colombians to leave the country.
Along with the constant violence between the military, various guerrilla groups, and paramilitaries, Colombia was also held hostage by the lethal Pablo Escobar, whose almost limitless power managed to terrorize an entire country.
They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, but we’re not so sure that the popularity of Netflix’s Narcos has helped Colombia’s reputation.
On the one hand, it’s showcased the country and its natural beauty. But, perhaps more than anything, it portrays Colombia as an exceedingly dangerous and lawless place. Of course, to a great extent, this is what Colombia was like in the 80s and 90s - but less “perceptive” viewers fail to realize that the show is based on events that took place decades ago!
Thus, many people who have never visited Colombia have a severely outdated perception of what Colombia is like today. It’s hard to imagine Vogue magazine describing Escobar-era Medellin as anything resembling “cool”!
Beginning in the late 90s, but particularly in the early 2000’s, national security became more of a top priority for the government (for Narcos viewers, this would be post-season 2).
Gradually but steadily, change began to be felt throughout the country in various ways, including ingenuity and unconventional thinking around peacebuilding. Increased levels of safety meant that Colombians were finally able to do “basic” things that hadn’t been possible for years.
This included simply traveling safely throughout the country (a perilous endeavor during the darkest days of the crisis), not to mention visiting Colombian National Parks that had been virtually cut off for decades.
By the late 2000s, things had begun to change so dramatically that Proexport (now ProColombia) — the government agency responsible for promoting exports, foreign investment, and tourism — confronted Colombia’s dark history head-on. In 2008, they launched a prescient tourism campaign, “The Only Risk Is Wanting To Stay” (the video may be a little dated, but the message remains true).
This audacious and pioneering campaign showed off what many travelers around the world are still only beginning to discover: that Colombia is both beautiful and surprisingly safe.
The increased safety is not just anecdotal. Statistics have shown that in the past ten years drug production has decreased by 60%, and crime has dramatically reduced with it. Furthermore, in late 2016 the Colombian government and the FARC (the country’s most powerful guerrilla group) signed a historic peace agreement, putting a long-standing civil war to rest, so that even more of the country has now become open to exploration.
Of course, things are not perfect (are they perfect in the US or Europe?), but thanks to all the positive changes, the word is finally beginning to spread. In 2016, Colombia received nearly 5 million tourists (a significant increase over previous years), and for the first time, tourism has become Colombia’s largest source of foreign revenue.
The State Department’s Colombia Travel Advisory
The United States Department of State tends to be relatively conservative in its travel recommendations, which makes sense - their position errs on the side of “better safe than sorry.”
Even some experienced travelers are surprised to learn that Colombia has the exact same classification as many countries with better historical reputations, such as the UK and Germany.
Per the State Department, Colombia — along with the UK, Germany, and many more — is classified as “Level 2” (1 is considered safest, and 4 most dangerous).
Countries Considered “Level 2” by the US State Department
Here are a handful of countries that the US Department of State classifies as Level 2:
- United Kingdom
- The Bahamas
Quite a scary list! Here is the full list of countries and Travel Advisories.
For North Americans, it’s also amusing (in a tragic way) to note that Canada and other countries have a travel warning against the USA, stating that “the possession of firearms and the frequency of violent crime are generally more prevalent in the U.S. than in Canada.”
Visiting Colombia Today
As you can see from our sample Colombia itineraries, there are some irresistible reasons to visit this picturesque and culturally dynamic country.
While it continues to shed outdated stereotypes, today Colombia is finally being recognized for so many of the things that make it such a special place: