I’ve been in Colombia a while now and I’ve begun to feel like one of Bogota´s citizens. I ‘uuush’, ‘hijuepucha’ and ‘paila’ with the best of them. When I’m late, I blame it on traffic traffic that is pretty much ever-present. I drink too much coffee, and I drink way too much Aguardiente.
One of the most curious things about my ‘going native’, however, has been my increased fear of Bogotá. My safety concerns have heightened with every month I’ve been here. It’s not because of any particular incident, but more because the longer you spend here, the more stories you hear from people about something that happened to someone at some point. It can lead to your confidence in the city wavering, and certainly at times I feel more worried than is warranted as I wander the streets.
Safety in Colombia is an issue that plagues the country thanks to years of violent conflict in Colombian history and bad international press. It is well documented, however, that the country is making its way out of the cloud of negativity and into the limelight: this is a new dawn for Colombia, and travellers are flocking. Many of them, like I did, arrive with a wide-eyed naivety. They see the modern streets, the cosmopolitan culture and the swarms of tourists and let out a satisfied chuckle at those back home that warned of the danger. No kidnapping in sight whatsoever.
While kidnapping is pretty much out of the question, however, that rookie confidence all too easily changes to carelessness. Many Bogotanos (particularly older ones) warn those who first travel to Bogotá about the city’s dangers. These warnings (“Don’t go there, don’t go here, don’t take the bus, and don’t walk at night…”) often fall on deaf ears as the world-travelled backpacker wonders just why this person is being so overprotective. This is a good attitude, to an extent.
The truth is many Bogotanos have horror stories that they’ve heard from somewhere, and are all too willing to allow these stories to dictate their lives. They won’t venture to the center, despite it being one of the city’s most beautiful areas. They’ll refuse to take buses, despite buses being in many cases preferable to the Transmilenio. It’s an unfortunate but all too understandable reaction to a fairly dark history.
But the backpacker’s reaction often goes too far. Sure, Bogotá is safe and it is improving all the time, but this doesn’t mean you can take your safety for granted. Bogotá is not as safe as Europe, and travellers should exercise sensible caution when arriving. It is, however, more or less as safe as Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Buenos Aires and many major US cities.
This is not to say that people visiting Colombia need to be constantly on edge. Colombians are some of the nicest people in the world and, for the traveller, the country is a veritable paradise. But the longer you spend here and the more stories you hear the more you realize how sensible caution is.
Sure, something hasn’t happened yet. But it could, and why risk it?
This means not waving around your iPod on the street, no matter how many people are around.
It means not wandering around late at night, drunk.
It means phoning for a taxi instead of taking one off the street.
It means watching your pockets when you get off and on busy public transport systems.
It means staying alert, and it means being sensible.
With just a few preliminary safety cautions you can almost guarantee your stay will be a happy and safe one. So while you might not need to take heed of every bit of advice you’re given from your Bogotano friend, don’t discard what they’re saying entirely. Bad stuff, like anywhere, can and does happen.
For people like me that have been here a while, however, at times we need to shake off our Bogotano hats and take a look at the city from the perspective we had when we first got here: this is a city that is confident, and that you can feel confident in.