While no one deserves to be a victim of crime, there are several common sense measures that foreigners and citizens alike can take while visiting Colombia, especially large urban areas, or Caribbean vacation spots. Remember, everything starts with situational awareness. Know your surroundings and be alert at all times.
- Don’t wear expensive watches or gold necklaces. In big urban areas, Colombians don’t, and neither should you. You will not see Colombians walking around with expensive jewelry on the street because of the risk of theft. If they are going to attend a formal event, they will go in private vehicles. A pedestrian wearing these expensive items will not look wealthy, he will look clueless.
- Don’t use your high-end smartphone on a busy street. If you must make or take a call, best to duck into a corner store or coffee shop, buy a soft drink and conduct your business there. If you wish to take a photo, that’s fine but just look around and be sure you aren’t the object of anyone’s attention.
- Don’t carry lots of cash. The vast majority of retail establishments and commercial restaurants in Colombia accept bank cards like Visa and Mastercard. Leave your stash in your hotel safe, or a secure area of your apartment, and don’t walk around with more cash than you expect to spend that same day. ATMs, or automated cash machines are widespread in Colombian urban areas, and generally work fine with foreign cards enabled for international transactions. When withdrawing cash or purchasing items with a bank card in Colombia, you may be presented with the option of accepting a conversion from pesos to dollars. Generally you want to decline this, as they are almost certainly offering you an unfavorable rate compared to your own bank or financial services provider. Of course, rural areas and small artisan vendors or “mom & pop” restaurants may not always accept charge cards. Large shopping malls often have options for licensed money exchangers. Be sure to count your money and store it in your wallet or purse before leaving their service counter.
- Be careful partying with strangers. In the US and Europe, we hear about “date rape drugs.” Similar substances are used in Colombia to rob tourists—and Colombians of their belongings. Even when the police investigate, few tourists have the means in time or money to stick around for the prosecution to make its way through the courts, so with no witness, the criminals eventually go unpunished. Some criminals have a modus operandi targeting foreign visitors, using for example, attractive young women or friendly “bros” who know “where the party’s at” as bait. You may notice that when liquor is ordered at most clubs and bars in Colombia (but not in international hotels), the bottle is opened at your table in your presence. This is to show you that the drink is not adulterated, and the bar staff is not “slipping anything into your drink.” When drinking with people you do not know, do not leave your drinks unattended. Drinking a beer and headed to the restroom? Take your beer with you.
- Be prudent about transportation. Taxis in Medellín are generally straightforward, and the price in pesos is whatever is shown on the taxi meter. The official white cars to and from the airport operate at a fixed rate, which you should confirm before leaving. In Bogotá, the taxis have a notoriously bad reputation, and even many Colombians avoid them, using either Über, or InDriver ride hailing apps. InDriver has the advantage of allowing the passenger to “make your own offer” of how much you wish to pay. It also takes a much smaller cut of the fare, so the drivers prefer it. In Cartagena, there are no taxi meters so be sure to agree on a price before entering the taxi. Most hotels also can arrange transportation with providers they trust, but the transportation is more expensive. You can rent a car in Colombia but understand that there is no legal limit for blood alcohol. Driving with any detectable alcohol in your system whatsoever is an arrestable crime.
- Don’t abuse drugs! Not only is it illegal in Colombia, and Colombian prisons are “not pleasant,” illegal narcotics are often a means of delivery of the disabling hallucinogens like Rohypnol or the more common Scopolamine, made from a flowering tree found in Colombia distantly related to the Tomato. Crime victims are often reluctant to report the crime because their drug use will show up in the resultant medical attention. The situation is worse when the victims are not fluent in Spanish, or don’t have resources to pay for medical care. Along with not abusing drugs, public drunkenness is not only ugly, it puts you at risk for victimization by criminals.