In a country like Colombia, safety is a common consideration for travellers. Certain parts of the country have a reputation for being a little rough and ready; Bogota being the area of most concern. When it all comes down to it though, is Bogota safe?
We enjoyed our time in Bogota, though I must admit, it felt the least safe of any of the places we visited whilst in the Colombia. To help you prepare for your trip, here’s Anca with a cautionary tale (and some worthwhile suggestions).
So, Is Bogota Safe? Getting Mugged on My First Day in Colombia
Meeting new people, exploring new cities and discovering new cultures is why most travel lovers will take off to another country or even continent.
However, while all of that may seem quite romantic at first, you should always keep in mind that big unknown cities hide many traps within their busy streets. If you get cocky and start thinking that you can handle that with ease, you can end up in trouble very easily, as the following story will demonstrate.
Do not underestimate pickpockets anywhere – they are very skilled and can take your stuff in a blink of an eye!
Here’s what happened to me on my trip to Bogota. It’s a cautionary tale that will have you reflecting on not only whether Bogota is safe, but on your personal safety whenever you travel.
Why We Chose Bogota
A few of my friends and I decided to go and visit Colombia. Sure, we were aware of the not-so-brilliant reputation the country has in terms of safety, but we were also quite aware that Colombia is exceptionally beautiful and full of that South American charm. In our minds, the pros outweighed the cons by a lot and we couldn’t wait to go and experience that lively vibe.
The destination we decided on was Bogota.
It just so happened that a few days later we stumbled upon the Netflix movie Pickpockets about aspiring teen thieves on the streets of Bogota. Well, I wouldn’t call the movie a masterpiece, I won’t even say it’s very good, but it does prepare you for loads of situations on the streets of Bogota.
Plus, my friend had just spent 6 months in Colombia briefly before our trip there and she also had loads of advice regarding Bogota safety.
With all of that in mind, we thought were ready to take on the city.
How wrong we were…
Is Bogota Safe? Letting our Guard Down, We Found Out Firsthand
Keen to protect ourselves, we purchased a belt pouches at the airport upon our arrival and split our cash. We knew that we wanted to stay as a group of four most of the time and we were sure not to take our phones out to take photos.
We did everything we could to prevent any mishaps.
Even with all of these precautions in action, unfortunately, on our very first day in Bogota, we got robbed.
How We Were Robbed: Personal Theft and Safety in Bogota
Thieves there are masters of distraction. And once you’re distracted – well, they can just take whatever they want.
We’d just been sharing our initial impressions among ourselves. We were surprised by how the city felt like a fairly safe place to visit and that the streets weren’t as crowded as we imagined they’d be.
Once we felt a bit safer, we were more relaxed, and once we were relaxed we decided it would be okay to head off of the route we planned and check out some small markets across the street. After all, they looked appealing and we felt positive with our newfound confidence.
As it turned out, that was a huge mistake.
The Bird Poo Scam in Action – So, Is Bogota Safe?
Crossing the street, we realised we had been surrounded by the crowd, but not a regular market crowd…
We could immediately feel we were being watched.
We were just about to leave that street when one of my friends screamed out that she could feel something on her neck – maybe bird droppings?
One local lady approached her and said “Si, paloma” Since my friend didn’t speak any Spanish, I translated for her – pigeon was exactly what this lady confirmed.
My friend immediately started washing the poo off her neck and the lady helped her with the cleaning.
Of course, that was the moment of distraction the thieves were looking for – someone else took the iPhone from my friend’s pouch.
The crazy thing was that she didn’t even feel it.
Before we knew it, the interaction was over.
We continued walking for a few seconds when another friend exclaimed “Oh my god, some lady spat on my back.“
She turned around and almost instantaneously started screaming – “She stole the phone from my pouch!”
Quickly, we tried to figure out which direction she ran and were pleasantly surprised to find a local seller point us in right direction (or at least what we thought was the right direction). We couldn’t see much in the crowd but then we realised – it wasn’t even the right direction. He was also in on the act.
Shaken, we moved out of the crowd when another of our friends realised that she was missing her phone, too.
We were shocked.
Safety in Botoga: How can it go so wrong, so quickly?
As I said before – distraction.
Even though they might catch you off-guard for only a few seconds, it’s all it takes. When you get lulled into a sense of security, that’s when you become the most vulnerable.
In a crowded place, you always have to be on your toes.
We spent the rest of the day with two police officers who couldn’t help us even when we tracked our iPhones. They said that the area where the signal was showing was just too dangerous. They did, however, say that we were lucky not to lose our passports and not to be threatened with a knife.
Now there’s a silver lining for you, right?!
We read later that day that the bird poo scam is carried out right across Latin America; sometimes it’s spit, other times ketchup or mustard, but the idea is always the same. They distract you whilst they rob you.
From that moment on, we carried all our valuable things in a thick pouch under our clothes and only ever had a few pesos in our pockets.
Is Bogota Safe to Visit?
After a story like this, you may be wondering is Bogota safe to visit at all?
Don’t worry, it’s not like the whole city is out to get you!
If you stick to the touristy areas, you’ll be just fine. We made the mistake of wandering off and we paid the price.
Situations like this happen all over the world, all the time, so your safety in Bogota is not necessarily bad when compared to many other cities.
Simply put, you should be on your guard and thoroughly prepared yourself when heading out to any unknown city.
Besides, the policemen we asked for help were indeed very kind to us and provided us with some very useful tips. So don’t let stories like this to scare you – it’s just a cautionary tale meant to help you learn from my mistakes.
The Bottom Line Regarding Safety in Bogota (and Everywhere!)
If you’re going somewhere for the first time, do not allow yourself to become careless. Stick to the main touristy areas and main streets (as they’re usually also the safest areas in a city).
Pickpockets are a universal threat, no matter where you go. They are professional in the way the operate and almost always go unobserved. They know what they’re doing.
In addition, as you can see from the example described here, they often work as a group and sometimes even have help from locals. With that kind of network of associates, even the police can be helpless.
With all of that said though, this is not to say that Bogota is not safe to visit or that it’s not worth your time. Quite the contrary!
Even after this incident, we were still impressed by what the city had to offer and we had a wonderful time there.
We’d learned our lesson and stuck to the places recommended for tourists and everything went absolutely perfectly.
Keep your wits about you and you’ll be just fine.
Visiting a place you’ve never visited before is an absolutely magical experience. Just do yourself a favour and be prepared!
Guest Post: Anca is the founder and chief editor of One Day Itinerary, a travel blog dedicated to those who want to make the most of their time in a new city, even if they only have only one day there. Thanks to the fact that she has traveled literally all over the world, she can tell you the dos and don’ts of pretty much every major city in the world. As a matter of fact, she’s already done so in her blog posts.