I’ve been to Bogotá, Colombia quite a few times so far this year. Next week, I will go for my 10th time in 2011, so I feel that I can speak rather confidently about the question that seems to be on the forefront of most people’s minds when discussing this amazing city: Is it safe to travel to Bogotá?
We’ve all heard the rumors about Colombia; there is violence that rivals the Middle East, and a drug trade that rivals the South Bronx’, per square mile. Corruption seems to be the standard operating procedure. Bombs have been planted several times over the last few years. From the ultra-leftist FARC rebels to the über-right death squads. It certainly doesn’t sound very safe.
Frankly, there is no simple answer. Colombia is a pretty vast country, and it shouldn’t be generalized like a small neighborhood. Colombia has been working very hard over the last decade or so to erase the dreadful memory of their past. Colombia as a whole is by no means safe yet. However, if we break the country up into smaller regions and ask the same question about just Bogotá, the answer may appear more positive.
The largest city, and likewise the most visited, is Bogotá. Hosting 52.5% of the total yearly visitors to Colombia, the numbers should put you more at ease already. Bogotá is the capital of the country, situated way up in the mountains, and is the third highest capital city in the world, in terms of elevation. The city is about as big as New York City, and most parts are fairly safe. A traveler using appropriate caution and discretion like they would in most American cities will most likely not find trouble. No nighttime exploration into the city’s alleys and other seedy spots.
The main thing that can provoke violence in Bogotá, as well as in all other Colombian cities, is disparity in money earned. The city seems conspicuously black and white, as far as wealth goes; there is the middle and upper classes, and there appears to be a great gulf between them and the poor. Bogotá has an abundance of homeless people, some of whom can be dangerous if you look vulnerable and like you may have something to offer of value. Again, common sense and a trustworthy sixth sense should see you through just fine.
The most important area to stay away from in Bogotá is the far-southern regions of the city. Downtown is where all the big buildings are, such as the Torre Colpatria, but anything more than 20 or 25 blocks further south could get you into trouble. The neighborhoods down there are quite dangerous, especially areas such as Ciudad Bolivar. As you go north of downtown, especially far north, there reside the wealthier people in much safer neighborhoods. Again, the black and white polarization appears. Also, as you are going north, you will see many picturesque shacks looking east that seem to be stacked on top of each other going up the mountains, similar to the favelas of Brazil. Though they look cute and quaint, I have gotten nothing but negative reviews, and most people tell me that if I want to live, I will keep off that mountain!
The Downtown area of Bogotá is very safe during the day, as it is the center of commerce, and quite a bustling little hub. However, the area becomes pretty deserted at night, especially after one. The only signs of life in the area are the holdouts at some of the seedier clubs and bars in the city. Prostitution finds a stronghold here at night.
Drugs do not appear to be a problem in this city any longer. Most of the Colombian drug operations take place well outside of city limits, near the Amazonian region and other rural hamlets. Purely for educational purposes, I asked around to see if I could locate cocaine or other various controlled substances. No one that I asked had any idea where to find these things, and I offended many of the people by simply asking. Colombians have a lot of national pride; it really hurts most of them to hear these accusations being resurrected long after the problem was widespread.
The general consensus of most people who visit Bogotá is that it is very safe. It is certainly not a utopian city rid of all earthly woes, but the city’s people and the warmth and friendliness amongst them, once experienced, will ease your fears and allow you to make up your mind like I did that Bogotá is indeed safe. If you just give the city a chance, it will more than likely surprise you and exceed your expectations.