There is a significant disconnect between popular perceptions of security and safety in Colombia, and the reality of the situation today. For the most part, those who have never visited the country or who have only limited exposure to its political environment continue to primarily associate it with the trade in illegal drugs and the accompanying violence. This is a largely outdated view of Colombia’s security scenario, and such preconceptions should definitely not put you off discovering all the country has to offer.
Since 2002 there have been dramatic improvements in Colombia’s security environment
It is certainly true that Colombia has had a turbulent past and, especially in the late 1980s and 1990s, was a highly risky place to visit. Yet since this stage, and in particular since 2002, there have been dramatic improvements in the security environment. A large and sustained boost to law enforcement and military agencies over the past decade has permitted the recovery of significant swathes of territory from the illegal armed groups which previously controlled them.
All major transit routes throughout the country have been secured, and many incredible tourist sites have been reclaimed. Tourists can today move between Colombia’s principal attractions, and indeed throughout the vast majority of the national territory, freely and without fear of adverse consequences.
This is not to say that all the country’s various political issues have been resolved over the past few years. Rather, that as a tourist in Colombia today you are highly unlikely to gain any exposure to these (unless you actively seek them out). Indeed, for the majority of visitors the opposite is the case; that they see such little sign of security or political issues that they leave convinced that the negative international perception of the country is entirely unjustified.
Colombians are so keen to show off their country that you will be treated with greater reverence than Colombian nationals
One positive side of this poor image is that international tourism is still in its comparative infancy, and much of the population has only very limited experience in dealing with foreigners. This means that for the most part - and with the possible exception of Cartagena - tourists’ interactions with locals are generally freer from the minor irritations of small-scale rip-offs and scams than is the case in many other South American destinations. Many Colombians are so keen to show off their country to the outside world that as a foreign visitor you will be treated with greater reverence than Colombian nationals.
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Of the several million visitors the country receives each year, only a very small fraction report any kind of difficulties during their stay. Travelers are now, in fact, more likely to get into trouble in neighboring countries, most notably Venezuela, than they are in Colombia. That said, the country is not free from the usual quirks and imperfections evident within any developing country, so standard common sense security and safety precautions still apply.
Some pockets of high crime remain, and it is advisable to avoid wandering into unknown areas at night
In the bigger cities, some pockets of high crime remain and it is certainly advisable to avoid wandering into unknown areas at night as these might not be entirely safe. If you are engaging in unusual travel to more remote and/or jungle areas - outside of the town of Leticia in the south - it is sensible to seek on the ground advice regarding the current security situation.
Drug trafficking and other armed groups, though much diminished from their former levels, continue to operate in some of the more difficult to access areas of the country. This includes parts of the pacific coast, northern Antioquia and rural areas of the border provinces. That said, the overwhelming majority of tourists however, would have no reason to visit such areas.
As with trips to any foreign country, visitors are advised to purchase comprehensive insurance before arrival. Medical bills can rapidly mount up should something untoward happen. If engaging in any extreme sports or any other special activities in Colombia, you may wish to first check with your insurance company whether this will be covered by your policy.