Ah, visiting Colombia. A place of beautiful mountains. A place of happy people. A place of adventures. A place where you could lose yourself. (…This could be a good thing or a bad thing.)
Colombia is a country that has risen on the radar of many travelers because the situation in the country is much different than it was 20 years ago.
The armed conflict between the FARC fighters and the Colombian government has “officially” drawn to a close.
Infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar is long gone. And numerous areas of the country have become hot spots of tourism.
It doesn't mean that everything is peachy, though, especially as the troubles of neighboring Venezuela have caused instability on the border and a massive influx of migrants fleeing into Colombia.
Colombia itself still has an edge to it in terms of safety, as Dave himself could attest, and so it is crucial to get a solid grasp on a few things before you go.
Understand The Reality Of Petty Theft
Unfortunately, the heightened potential for petty theft is just a reality in most areas of Colombia.
It's not something that should prevent you from visiting the country, but it is just part of the picture that any traveler needs to take into account.
One of the ways to deal with this is to minimize what you have on you at any given time.
This means that you don't carry around all your money, credit cards, passport, camera, nice watch, and phone all at once.
If you go out for the day exploring, just take what you need, like your phone and only enough Colombian pesos to last the day. That way, if you are ever robbed, the perpetrators won't wipe you out of everything.
The other side to this, of course, is making sure to have your things secured at the place you are staying. Make sure you bring several locks to put stuff in lockers or lock your backpack if there are no lockers available.
If you are staying in a hotel, don't forget to lock up your things there as well. I've sometimes used the Pacsafe traveling safe to store my credit cards and passport out of sight and under the bed, for example.
I'd say the most commonly stolen item in Colombia is phones.
On the street, thieves can swoop in and swipe the phones out of people's hands before they know what happened. It's likely the most identifiable value target these days as well because everyone loves being on their phones.
So how do you prepare for this?
Well, it's rather simple. Have backups (see below) of the data on your phone so that it is not the end of the world if it is stolen, and try not to take out your phone in areas where there a lot of people.
Wait to step into a coffee shop or cafe or mall before you whip out your phone.
It's also a good idea to not take out your phone when someone could come up behind you. Try to be leaning up against a wall, for example. Always be aware of your surroundings.
I have heard of numerous cases of people being robbed as they walked through a park at night. This is because thieves can hide out of sight and ambush their victims. Try to keep your distance from shady characters whenever possible.
It may be hard to get used to these practices, but if you incorporate them into your travel, you minimize the chances of anything terrible happening.
Also, in the event you do get ambushed, give up your phone, even though it may be hard to do at the moment. Stories abound of victims in Colombia getting hurt or killed if they resist an attempted robbery.
Your life is more important than your phone, and if you have backups and travel insurance, it will all be restored anyway. Which brings us to our second point.
Have Backups Ready
In the software world, there is a constant refrain about making backups.
In traveling safely (and wisely), I think there should be the same refrain. It's a good idea to have a backup of not only your data and belongings but also a backup plan in case something happens.
One backup that is a good idea is to make electronic copies of the ATM cards and credit cards that you are taking with you and store them in your email.
That way, even if you lose the cards or they are stolen, you know what numbers were on the cards, and can quickly call to report them lost or stolen.
You could also freeze the accounts without delay so that unauthorized transactions have a lower chance of happening.
Then, once you have your digital copies, make sure you travel with more than one ATM card. Thus if you lose one, you still have the other to rely on, and you won't have to wait anxiously while the bank mails you one.
See the idea? Backups.
It's also a good idea to make several color copies of your passport, and keep them in various parts of your backpack or travel gear.
I make it a point not to go out with my passport (as I don't want it stolen), but I always carry a copy of my passport as it is a general Colombian rule to be able to show your ID if asked.
In situations where I've been asked for my ID (except official visits to the migrations office), I've never had a problem showing a copy of my passport instead of the real thing.
Make sure you backup all of your digital life as well.
It's a good idea to have one or more external hard drives like these on which you back up your computer and phone. That way, again, if anything happens, you still have your data.
Finally, it is an excellent idea to have travel insurance. If your phone is stolen, the right travel insurance can help cover your loss. It is a solid plan to have it just in case something happens.
The benefit of having backups for everything, including a backup plan in case something goes wrong, is that it enables your mind to be freer, and to focus more on enjoying the fantastic country of Colombia.
You might have some hiccups during your trip, but with backups in place, you won't be so drastically affected.
Prepare Yourself for a No-English Experience
While the Colombian government is promoting English-learning programs across the country, Colombia still lacks English in most parts.
If you are traveling to Colombia, especially if you will go off the beaten track to smaller pueblos, you need to plan to do so without any English.
This means that taxi drivers won't speak much English (although I've found some Uber drivers do).
The hotel front desk probably won't speak good English.
Hostel workers probably will speak a little English.
Bus drivers, bus ticket operators, and random people along your routes probably won't speak English.
There are many ways to prepare for this, but the best way would be to learn Spanish before you go.
Learning Spanish could be an excellent life-long goal, after all. Developing fluency in a foreign language is a handy skill.
Also, Spanish is one of the top-five most utilized languages in the world.
So if you were going to pick a language to learn that would enable you to communicate with a lot of people, Spanish is a great choice.
Short of fluency, it's essential to be able to say the survival phrases such as:
- Where is the restroom (donde esta el baño?)
- Where is the bus station (donde esta el terminal de autobús?)
- How much does it cost (cuanto cuesta?)
- More beer please (mas cerveza por favor!)
Even if you don't have time to learn Spanish, you still have to prepare for a no-English experience.
So, make sure you have downloaded the Google Translator app and have downloaded the offline dictionary for Spanish.
That way, you won't even need an internet connection on your phone to translate words or phrases.
It is one of the most useful apps and makes communication in foreign languages a hundred times easier than it used to be.
I would personally recommend it if you are going to a foreign country without knowing the language.
Of course, above I wrote that you shouldn't take out your phone, so you will have to be wise about where and when you use the app!
Colombia is a beautiful place to visit, but it can have its challenges.
If you take the steps I've listed above, it will enable you to better enjoy your trip more by relieving your mind of genuine concerns.
Then you can let go, and lose yourself in a fantastic country.