[updated July 2019]
After being in the news for so long, many wonder: Is Colombia safe to visit? Today, Colombia is a safe and vibrant country to visit. With so many places to visit in Colombia, its a great choice for a warm and varied vacation.
Bienvenidos a Colombia!
Here I am in the land of Juan Valdez, the homeland of TV’s “Modern Family’s” hot Sofia Vargara, hip-shaking Shakira, coffee beans and coca leaves; hence it being the largest producer of processed cocaine in the world.
But it is also known as one of the friendliest and most beautiful countries in South America. This country of about 40 million people boasts one of the largest middle classes in all of Latin America. But is Colombia safe to travel to? Yes. It is. Places change and Colombia definitely has.
Why Visit Colombia
Colombia seems to have it all: white sandy beaches with Caribbean flair, cities with metros and outdoor cafes, mountain escapes, Amazon jungles, well-preserved Spanish colonial towns, and adrenaline-pumping activities. There are so many great places to visit in Colombia!
And yet, of the main South American countries, Colombia is the most unvisited by outsiders. Second only to Brazil in population, its landscape is variously Andean, Amazonian, Pacific and Caribbean. It can be high, low, hot, cold and steamy.
The local language is Spanish of course, but like most Latin American countries they have some of their own phrases that you may think mean something else. Check out the Bacon is Magic guide to Slang in Colombia.
Places to Visit in Colombia
Beautiful Cartegena is a great place to visit in Colombia. Situated on the Caribbean coast, it definitely has a colorful and laid back, beachy vibe. The heart and soul of Cartagena lies within the walls of the old town. Las Murallas were built in the 1600s after an attack by Francis Drake to protect old Cartagena from enemies. I enjoyed the art of the wander in the old town, just strolling down windy narrow cobblestone streets and taking it all in.
For more, check out these 25 things to do in Cartagena.
Medellin is becoming one of Colombia’s largest cities. After once being known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, it has become much safer since the 1993 death of Cocaine King, Pablo Escobar. Up in the mountains that surround Medellin in every direction, some violence and gang wars still play out, but down in the valley there are some peaceful parks and green spaces amidst some congested street chaos, noise, and grime.
Medellín is the capital of Colombia’s mountainous Antioquia province. Nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring” for its temperate weather, it is a great place to visit.
There are a ton of things to do in Medellin. Modern metrocables link the city to surrounding barrios and offer views of the Aburrá Valley below. Take the metrocable up to Parque Arvi, a large nature reserve in the hills of Medellin.
Don’t miss the whimsical sculptures in Botero Plaza and the Museo de Antioquia and the peaceful botanical gardens, in the heart of the city which are free and home to an lovely variety of flora and fauna. There are many different tours on offer in Medellin including walking tours and, yes, Pablo Escobar tours.
Outside of the old town, venture to the posher neighborhood of El Poblado, which is the home to more affluent locals and many expats. Around Parque Lleras you will find a big mix of restaurants, bars and clubs.
For more on Medellin, check out my detailed post on the top things to do in Medellin.
Colombia’s capital city sits at about 8500 feet high giving it a crisp feel underneath the Andean peaks that surround it. Some of Bogota’s progressiveness may surprise you. Three hundred kilometers (186 miles) of bike lanes criss-cross the city and, even more unique than that is what’s called the Cyclovia. Every Sunday 122km (76 miles) of roads around the city are closed to cars to allow cyclists and pedestrians free reign.
La Candelaria is the lovely cobblestoned old town in the center of the city. It features colonial-era landmarks like Teatro Colón and the 17th-century Iglesia de San Francisco.
Popular museums include the Museo de Oro, which has one of the most spectacular exhibits of pre-Hispanic art, culture and tradition ever. There are more than 55,000 pieces of gold artifacts. Another highly-visited is the Museo de Botero. One of Colombia’s most famous artists, Botero is known for his unique style that depicts people and animals with rotund, exaggerated features.
The Santuario Nuestra Señora del Carmen is one of the most beautiful and historic Catholic churches in Bogotá. Located in La Candelaria, it was consecrated in 1938 and is known for its gothic, Florentine style.
I also enjoyed the northern neighborhoods of Zona Rosa and Parque 93. What I saw: big green parks, cute residential hoods, strollers, hip eateries, business people in suits, a lot of bike lanes and medians with trees.
Villa de Leyva
Villa de Leyva was one of my favorite towns in Colombia. Yes, it can be touristy, but for good reason. Declared a national monument in 1954, this quaint and charming town really felt like a small Spanish village. It reminded me some of Nerja in Andalucia, Spain with its beautifully maintained white washed buildings, clay tile roofs, and cobblestoned streets.
At a three-hour drive north of Bogota, weekends here can get pretty crowded, but if you can linger during the week, you will love it.
For me, it was the perfect respite from Medellin’s noise and pollution. I spent most of my time simply wandering around the cobbled lanes, ducking into cute cafés and old mansions turned into public courtyards with open-air restaurants ringing their perimeter, and just not pressuring myself to see or do too much. Its center is Plaza Mayor, one of the largest plazas in the whole of the Americas.
Is Colombia Safe to Visit?
Not so long ago, Colombia made international headlines time and time again for some major civil troubles – mainly due to the continuing drug trade. What is not continuing is a good part of the violence and chaos, thanks in large part to former president Alvaro Uribe’s security crackdown and several billion dollars in foreign aid from the United States (mostly in the form of U.S. military/counter-narcotics aid).
“Plan Colombia” started with President Clinton and continued through the terms of George Bush. Other aid, focusing mostly on social development, has been provided by international organizations, Europe, Japan, Canada, Latin America, and Colombia itself.
During the late 1990s, Colombia was the leading recipient of US military aid in the Western Hemisphere (lest we forget how much the USA helps other nations – motives can be debated of course), and due to its continuing internal conflict had one of the worst human rights records, with the majority of atrocities attributed to paramilitary forces, insurgent guerrilla groups and elements within the police and armed forces.
On a side note, Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) and other groups were said to have grown in power back in the 60s following a United States CIA-funded and trained Colombian military which dropped napalm on the areas which were inhabited by these splinter groups and possible ‘Communist’ enclaves (lest we forget how much the USA has it’s hand elsewhere, for good and bad depending on your perspective).
While the violence has been somewhat curbed, the cocaine industry has not. Due to demand from the United States and Europe, it continues to operate deep in the heart of the country’s mountains and jungles and unfortunately is the livelihood of many poor farmers.
Nowadays, Colombia is supposedly safer than many of its neighboring Latin American countries. But it’s all relative. I could get mugged in the wrong neighborhood in Chicago just as much as I suppose I could here or really anywhere else I have visited.
Yes, some remote pockets of the country are still controlled by the violent FARC. Am I going there? No.
Chances of any problems are slim to none: unless I’m soccer player Andres Escobar. In the 1994 World Cup, he scored an ‘own goal’ (accidentally putting the ball into his own team’s goal resulting in a point for the opposition—which happened to be the United States), eliminating Colombia from the tournament in the first round.
When he returned to Colombia, he was shot dead in the street outside a bar in Medellin. Yikes. It had been reported that after Escobar was shot, the killer yelled “Goal!” after each of the 12 bullets fired, just like an announcer would during a soccer match. His funeral was attended by more than 120,000 people and a statue was built in his honor.
In researching this, I discovered a documentary called The Two Escobars – showing the parallel yet different lives of Andres and drug-lord, Pablo. And of course, Colombia was made even more famous by the show Narcos.
Want to visit Colombia? Still unsure if Colombia safe to travel to?
The US State Department takes a conservative stance, as it does for most country warnings:
Violent crime, such as homicide, assault, and armed robbery, is common. Organized criminal activities, such as extortion, robbery, and kidnapping for ransom, are widespread.
While the Colombian government signed a peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) terrorist group, some dissident groups refuse to demobilize.
The National Liberation Army (ELN) terrorist organization continues plotting possible attacks in Colombia. They may attack with little or no warning, targeting tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, local government facilities, hotels, clubs, restaurants, places of worship, parks, major sporting and cultural events, educational institutions, airports, and other public areas.
U.S. government personnel cannot travel freely throughout Colombia for security reasons.
Read the Safety and Security section on the country information page.
Of course, some of the same things could be said about Chicago.
Spell it Right: There are Two O’s in Colombia!
Don’t confuse it with Columbia. Just remember the line in Top Gun said by Goose (actor Anthony Edwards): ‘There are two ‘Os’ in Goose, boys.’ It’s a good way to remember that the country is spelled with two Os: Colombia, NOT Columbia.