More than twenty years ago, a man named Pablo Escobar became infamous for repeatedly asking the question: “Plata o plomo?”
Translated colloquially, it means “do you want to accept my bribe, or my bullets?” This single question eventually cost thousands their lives, in the process making his small South American country, Colombia, the murder capital of the world.
At the peak of Escobar’s cartel they were profiting roughly $60 million dollars per day, while delivering an estimated 80% of the world’s cocaine supply.
And what was the side-effect of all that wealth?
Beautiful Colombia paid the price in blood, with hundreds of violent deaths during Escobar’s reign. Then, in 1993, when things looked like they couldn’t get any worse, Pablo Escobar was added to that list of deceased.
Ever since then, Colombians–and specifically inhabitants of Escobar’s hometown Medellin–are eager to put this sordid chapter behind them.
Trouble is, once you’ve held the title of murder capital of the world, it’s hard to make everyone forget. Add to that the popularization of Pablo’s mythic status as a hero and villain, coupled with the continuing popularity carried on with popular shows, as in the recent Netflix hit, Narcos.
So is Colombia safe, and more specifically, what’s it really like on the ground, in our favorite city, Medellin?
The short answer is YES, Medellin is safe, provided you follow basic security precautions much like you would in any large city. Staying in these beautiful apartments short or long term delivers added security. Check them out here.
What follows are our best tips on how to keep yourself safe and happy while visiting this awesome town. Keep in mind, the list of things you’re about to read are worst case scenarios, and if you apply a basic common sense approach while you’re here in Medellin, your chances of danger are highly improbable.
(Our goal is simply to keep you vigilant and let you know what to watch for.)
Pickpockets operate in crowded areas, such as downtown Medellín (Centro), street parades, and concerts. Leave your valuables at home, keep them in your front pockets, and/or don’t flash them a lot in public.
Let’s say you’re in a car or taxi, or even on a motorbike. It’s not unheard of for a thief to pull up behind or next to you at a red light. One of them could simply walk up and demand your valuables.
Anything from a gold necklace to a smartphone can draw their attention. Early in 2011, a 20-something British man was shot and killed resisting a robbery of this nature.
This drug might be used in either powder form—blown into a victim’s face on the street or in a taxi—or in liquid form, to spike someone’s drink. Victims remain conscious, but will become highly susceptible to others, and will have little to no memory of what happened after the drug wears off.
Scopolamine is used by both sexes to rob people, either by taking them to an ATM, or in the case of female perpetrators, getting the guy back to his hotel room or apartment and robbing him. In high doses (i.e., used improperly), it’s fatal.
Get more tips and information on Medellin, with our Medellin Mini Guide, right here.
Seven Tips For Staying Safe
- Know your surroundings. Until you’ve familiarized yourself with the neighborhood where you’re staying, and the city, ask hostel/hotel staf or locals about where it’s safe to go, and which areas to avoid.
- Avoid walking around alone at night, and especially late. Take a taxi, especially if you’ve been drinking.
- When you’re in that taxi, stay in the back seat, with the taxi windows rolled up, and the doors locked. Don’t flash expensive belongings like smartphones and cameras while you’re riding.
- On the metro and local buses, keep your bag or handbag in front of you or on your lap. Be aware of who’s around you.
- When drinking at a bar or discoteca, especially in Parque Lleras, always watch your drink to make sure nobody spikes it. If going to the bathroom, take it with you, unless you have a friend there to watch it.
- Don’t wander around discotecas alone, especially if you’re really intoxicated. Even more important, do not hang around outside these venues (on the sidewalk or street) alone when drunk. If you have to go outside for a smoke, bring a friend.
- Leave valuables you don’t need in your room when you’re out on the town, especially at night. Any robbery which occurs, you won’t want to lose all your credit cards and cash at once!
What Happens if You’re Robbed?
We just heard an entertaining story about a magician who responded to a knife robbery (in New York) by speaking gibberish sentences, as in “my father had a wall built to keep the egg-eaters in…” with a few more sentences like this, the robber was thrown off his game, thinking he’d happened upon someone even crazier than he, and he ran away!
Look at some of the best places to stay, in the safest parts of Medellin right here.
We do not recommend this. Instead, follow these directives and above all else, stay SAFE.
- Remain calm. The robber is nervous, and you don’t want to make the situation worse, especially if there’s a weapon pointed at you.
- Do not resist. Hand over your valuables. Whatever you’ve got, just hand it over, and extract yourself from the situation as quickly and safely as possible. Always assume an assailant is armed with a gun, even if he or she is not showing it at the time. In the vast majority of stories where a tourist is harmed in the course of a robbery, it’s because he or she resisted. Possessions can be replaced, and nothing—absolutely nothing is worth risking your only life. Back in April 2012, an American man was shot and killed in a hostel, when, according to the police report, he attempted to disrupt or resist a robbery taking place.
- Get a police report. Find help close to the scene of the crime, right away, and get a local to call the police. Filing a report is important for insurance purposes, as well as alerting the police to crime.
- Travel Insurance. Given the potential for crime in any foreign city, travel insurance is a good idea. For full travel insurance, including emergency medical care and property coverage. Always elect for the optional rider to ensure you’re fully are covered.
Again, we want to stress that this information must not let this section scare you from visiting Medellín, or Colombia. There are travel risks traveling anywhere in the world. While there are risks, there are also many things you can do to stay safe. When in doubt, trust your instincts and you’ll have a blast down here!