Now that I’m back to the amusement park called Netherlands, when I tell people I’ve spent almost 3 months in Colombia the first questions I get are about safety.
Did you feel unsafe?
How dangerous really is?
Did you have scary moments?
First of all, I consider myself fortunate as I didn’t had any real bad experience, excluding a mobile phone that had disappear most likely because I lost it rather than got it stolen.
The reason is partially because I look Colombian and I could not be easily identified as a tourist, till I open my mouth and speak a word.
Around me I heard different travelers that got robbed in the most amusing ways, like the dude got surrounded by 20 transvestites padding his butt and bye-bye wallet, but really nothing more serious than petty crime.
The point is that, how do we say if a place is dangerous?
If they tell you that a bridge is about to fall down, you’ll feel in danger crossing it… but are you, really?
If nobody tells you, you may walk on a cracked bridge without noticing it and feeling totally safe even if you’re actually in great danger.
And if you walk on a bridge and you notice a crack… you’ll feel suddenly in danger!
Colombia is considered dangerous because of violence by narco-terrorists, but what did I experience as a backpacker?
There’s no a single and simple answer about all the different places and areas I’ve been, so I rather use few stories from the road…
Story #1: bus trips
FARC, the terrible Colombian guerrilla, still exist but is generally off the main routes used by the travelers, hidden somewhere in the vast jungle areas.
I said generally, because this story is proving the opposite.
When I was in Mompox, along the Magdalena river, I met 2 friendly Israelis continuing their trip to Medellin.
I didn’t manage to convince them to stay one more day in this quiet Colonial town, so they left the day before I did.
But I arrived in Medellin only 4 hours after them… because they got stuck for >12 hours in their bus as the road was completely shutdown.
On the main road the FARC stopped 2 buses, evacuate the people and burned the vehicles down.
Nobody of the passengers was hurt but indeed is not a joke.
To see how active the FARC is, you can check this Wikipedia article titled List of attacks attributed to FARC. - I’m glad I didn’t see this before going there :)
In other areas, like the one around Popayan, in the department of Cauca, taking a night bus is too dangerous to be recommended.
To summarize: better to check with the locals if the bus route is safe and step out of buses if any soldier is asking.
Story #2: that dark road at night
It’s well known to don’t walk around alone at night in dark, empty roads.
But never the less I found myself in the road here in the picture, at 4am, in Barranquilla, alone and tipsy.
It was a stupid idea of course, but I remember at that moment I thought:
“if I see someone, I’m gonna get scared to death. But if someone sees me now, it must get scared too!”.
Then I decided that I would have robbed anyone approaching me.
Robbers don’t rob each others, right??
Story #3: the trick of the empty bottle
I wrote already that the area of Bogota’ where the hostel was, the Candelaria, didn’t make me feel safe at night. The beggars, very insisting in asking money, gave me a feeling I didn’t encounter in any other place around.
So here is the story. I was visiting a Spanish travel-friend in another hostel and I ended up staying there listening guitar till 2am.
When I announced that time arrived for me to leave the gang, the (Colombian) girl working in the hostel said the following:
“oh no! you have to cross the square at this time? Take an empty beer bottle with you, just in case!”
I politely refused: “giving away my fake wallet and my camera” VS “defend them fighting with a broken glass”… I was sober enough to opt for the former.
But I got really scared by the commend and I was freaking out walking alone in the empty little streets.
At day, this is a lovely bohemian barrio.
At night, it’s a desert with only few security guards at some crossings.
I jumped on the first taxi I saw (and I was lucky to see one) and observed from the window the poor beggars in the square…
Story #4: who robbed me in Colombia?
Yes, actually I did got robbed while I was in Colombia.
Not by the beggars, not in the shops, not by the terrorists, not by the police. Actually, not by a Colombian.
I got robbed by my Dutch bank, that charged me 2.5 EUR for each ATM cash withdrawal!!*
*from the bank site: Withdrawing currencies other than the euro: € 2.25 + 1.2% exchange rate surcharge
Don’t give papaya.
Papaya is a fruit, yes.
“Dar papaya” (give papaya) is a Colombian expression that means exactly “don’t give the bad guys any opportunity”.
In Colombia you better don’t give papaya, but it’s appropriate to find a balance between don’t take risks and threat anyone like a thief, or your time there will become a nightmare.
People are fundamentally good, I believe, and following this believe I could enjoy the humanity I met.