Safety and security
Despite improvements in security, crime rates remain high in Colombia. Illegal armed groups and other criminal groups are heavily involved in the drugs trade and serious crime including kidnapping (for ransom and political purposes), money laundering and running extortion and prostitution rackets.
Street crime is a problem in major cities, including Bogota, Medellin, Cali and the Caribbean coast. Mugging and pickpocketing can be accompanied by violence. British nationals have been robbed at gun point in the Candelaria area of Bogotá. Be vigilant, particularly if you are in public places used by foreigners, or near official buildings. Avoid deprived areas of cities. Take care on city streets, especially after dark or if you are on your own. Don’t carry large amounts of money or wear valuable watches or jewellery. Avoid using your mobile phone in the street.
The British Embassy has received reports of criminals in Colombia using drugs to subdue their victims. This includes the use of scopolamine, which temporarily incapacitates unsuspecting victims. Drugs can be administered through food, drinks, cigarettes, aerosols and even paper flyers. Victims become disoriented quickly and are vulnerable to robbery, sexual assault, rape and other crimes. Avoid leaving food or drinks unattended and don’t take anything from strangers.
Where possible, plan how you will travel to and from your destination. Only use pre-booked taxis. Be wary if you are approached by a stranger.
Fake police are known to operate in Bogota and elsewhere to conduct scams, eg, asking to inspect money to see if it is counterfeit. If approached, you should ask to be escorted to the nearest CAI (‘Centro de Atencion Inmediata’ – local police station).
Express kidnappings - short-term opportunistic abductions, aimed at extracting cash from the victim - also occur. Victims can be targeted or selected at random and held while criminals empty their bank accounts with stolen cash cards. Most cases in major cities involve victims that have been picked up by taxis hailed from the street. There have been incidents where those who have resisted the kidnappers’ demands have been killed.
Drugs, organised crime and terrorism are inextricably linked. Control of the drugs trade is a major driver of much of the armed conflict. In July 2017 the UN reported that coca cultivation in Colombia had increased by 50% between 2015-16. There’s evidence of high levels of coca cultivation in the following Departments in Colombia: Nariño, Cauca, Putumayo, Caquetá, Meta,Guaviare, the Catatumbo region in the Norte de Santander department, northern Antioquia, and southern Bolivar. There’s a risk to your safety in any area where coca, marijuana or opium poppies are cultivated and near to cocaine processing labs.
Illegal armed groups and criminal gangs are active in all of the Departments where coca is cultivated, processed or transported, as well as in many cities. The risk is particularly significant in rural areas near to the borders with Panama, Venezuela and Ecuador; in the Parque Nacional Natural de La Macarena in the Department of Meta; and the port towns of Buenaventura in the Department of Valle de Cauca, Turbo in the Department of Antioquia and Tumaco in the Department of Nariño.
In many rural areas the authority of the Colombian state is limited, and the British Embassy’s ability to help British nationals in trouble in these areas will also be limited. If you travel to remote or dangerous areas, seek professional security advice and make arrangements for your security throughout your visit. You should also seek up-to-date advice from the local authorities before each stage of your journey. Mobile and internet connection in rural areas is often limited.
The Pacific coast of Chocó is a popular eco-tourist destination. However, much of Chocó is remote and unsafe. Illegal armed groups are active and involved in the drugs trade throughout the department and particularly near the border with Panama. On the coast, the towns of Bahia Solano and Nuquí are considered less dangerous and are well known for whale-watching. If you intend to travel to these towns, only do so by air and don’t travel inland or along the coast out of town.
If you travel to the ‘Lost City’ in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, you should only do so as part of an organised tour.
The archaeological park at San Agustin is located in the department of Huila. The FCO doesn’t advise against travel to this department, but the department is known for activity by illegal armed groups. You should enter and leave the park on the main road through Neiva or Popayán.
The tourist site of Caño Cristales is located in the department of Meta, in the Parque Nacional Natural de la Macarena. If you’re travelling to Caño Cristales, only do so with a reputable tour company, and travel by air to and from the town of La Macarena.
You should exercise caution when taking public transport in Colombia. Do not hail taxis on the street. There have been reports of express kidnappings, assaults and robberies in unlicensed taxis. Use licensed telephone or internet-based taxi services whenever possible or book through your hotel. Many restaurants in Colombia will book a taxi for you.
El Dorado International Airport in Bogotá only allows authorised taxis to pick up passengers at their terminals. Authorised taxi booths are present in El Dorado and most airports in Colombia.
Buses and coach services
There have been several recent incidents of armed robberies on buses. Avoid displaying valuable items like laptops, cameras and mobile phones. Don’t wear jewellery and only carry minimal amounts of cash. Avoid travelling on your own or at night, especially at border crossings or areas where there are few other people around. When travelling to remote areas it may be safer to travel with others or take part in a tour with a reputable company.
To drive in Colombia, you will need a valid UK or other recognised driving licence and car insurance. Driving standards are poor and traffic accidents are common. Avoid driving at night, which can be particularly hazardous. Don’t hitch-hike. The risk of violence and kidnapping is higher in some rural areas, and there is a risk of being caught in roadblocks set up by illegal armed groups. Main roads are generally safe during daylight hours.
Although the FCO advise against travel to the rural areas of some departments through which the Pan-American Highway passes, the road itself is generally well guarded. Always seek up-to-date advice from the local authorities before each stage of your journey.
The departmental capitals of Amazonas, Vaupes and Guainía are only accessible by air due to the lack of road infrastructure in these departments.
Land border crossings
The FCO currently advise against all travel to Venezuela’s border regions with Colombia. You should not use any of the Colombia-Venezuelan land crossings
To cross by land between Colombia and Ecuador, you should only use the crossing on the Pan-American Highway, at Ipiales. Don’t stop en route between the border and Pasto.
Avoid crossing between Panama and Colombia by land. The ‘Darien Gap’ is a dangerous area renowned for the presence of several illegal armed groups, illegal migration, and drugs trafficking. There’s no road crossing between Colombia and Panama.
Colombia is affected by land mines and unexploded ordnance. Mined areas are often unmarked. Be vigilant when visiting remote areas or travelling off the main roads.
You can find a list of recent incidents and accidents on the website of the Aviation Safety network.
The FCO can’t offer advice on the safety of individual airlines. However, the International Air Transport Association publishes lists of registered airlines that have been audited and found to meet a number of operational safety standards and recommended practices – IATA Operational Safety Audit and IATA Standard Safety Assessment. These lists aren’t exhaustive and the absence of an airline from this list doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s unsafe.
Colombia is a presidential republic with separation of powers. Since 1990 Colombia has had a multi-party system. Colombia’s last Presidential elections took place in June 2018.
Colombia has suffered from internal armed conflict for over 50 years. On 24 November 2016, Colombia’s President Santos signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla movement to end the internal armed conflict.
This peace agreement comes after four years of negotiations. On the 1 September 2017 the FARC announced the launch of their new Political party, officially ending their status as an armed group.
The Colombian constitution guarantees extensive rights to indigenous and Afro-Colombian groups over their traditional territories and to protect their culture. Indigenous communities have special jurisdiction within their territories within the bounds of the national judicial system.
Political demonstrations can occur in the capital city of Bogota and throughout the country. These can be confrontational and occasionally turn violent. You should monitor local media and avoid all demonstrations.