We knew when we arrived in Colombia that it may not be the safest place in the world, but we had been convinced by the travel experts and statistics that it was much safer. The kidnappings were down from around 3000 per year to 200 per year and those were 99% wealthy locals rather than tourists. We were repeatedly told that the Colombians were lovely people who welcomed foreigners to their country. And that really has been our experience. We have had no problems thus far and the people we have met have been friendly, helpful and in the main, are interested in where we are from and pleased to see us in Colombia. We know that it is best to be sensible and avoid quiet places at night, phone for taxis etc, but we have been reassured everywhere we have gone so far.
Despite the reports that Bogota is basically safe though, arriving here was different in two ways. Firstly, I have a friend with a connection to Bogota who had told me about kidnaps, hijackings and robberies, so I knew that there was still a risk here, and secondly, this was the first time that we were travelling on our own rather than as part of a group, so we no longer had that extra feeling of safety in numbers. In fact of course, much of the time with the group we would be walking around on our own anyway, so it wasn’t really any different , but there is a psychological feeling of being safer even if it is just that someone would notice we were missing! So whilst not worried about coming here, we weren’t really sure what to expect.
The area that we are staying in is Candelaria, which is the old part of town. Like most places in South America, the streets are narrow and oddly laid out, and many of the buildings are just on the wrong side of shabby. It is where the museums and old state buildings are, so the tourists often stay here and like any city, where there are tourists there will be people out to make money from you either by begging or by stealing. The advice in the travel guides was to take taxis at night.
We had booked a room in a hostel, and when our taxi from the airport pulled up at about 7:30pm, the first thing we saw was a vigilante patrolling the street. It turned out our room wasn’t in the main hostel, but was actually a small apartment in a building just around the corner. When the lady from the hostel took us there, she brought along one of the guys from the hostel to walk with us – and presumably to accompany her back. Not the most reassuring start. When we went out to get some food, we only went just around the corner, but were followed there by a guy who was begging for money, and he waited outside while we got our takeaway food and started after us again before giving up. He wasn’t a problem, but we made sure to stay aware of what was going on around us.
After that first night though, we felt fairly comfortable. The greater deterrent to walking around was the rain, but we’ll come back to that later. We were still being sensible, but we felt more relaxed and safer than we had expected to. Then a few nights in, we went along to the main hostel to use the internet. We stayed for quite a while and got up to leave at about 11:30pm. It was only about 80 metres round the corner and there were two of us, so we didn’t give it a second thought. But the woman from the hostel saw us about to go and said she would get the local vigilante to accompany us. Apparently when she goes home at night, she walks with a guy from the hostel but they still take a vigilante with them too. She was quite insistent that we should use him, so we let her call him round and he walked back with us. We felt a bit silly, especially when there was no hint of trouble on the way, but he clearly didn’t think it was and so I guess that there is a genuine risk here even on such a short trip.
So is Bogota safe? It is clearly much safer than it used to be, and as a tourist you are much less at risk of being kidnapped than before. Walking around and using public transport during the day seems no less safe than in most big cities; there is a risk of being mugged as there is anywhere else, but generally it felt OK. And there is a strong police presence on the streets, especially in Candelaria, so they obviously do want to keep people safe and secure. But after dark it does seem that the risks are greater here than in some other cities. Doubtless people do walk around at night and nothing happens to them, but the vigilantes wouldn’t be here, and certainly the locals wouldn’t feel the need to use them, if there wasn’t a genuine risk. So overall I don’t feel that this is a city to be avoided, but it probably is one to take a bit of extra care in, especially after dark.