This is a guest post written by US travel writer Kim Merritt…
“Are you crazy?”
That was the usual reaction after telling my family and friends I would be spending a month traveling through Colombia. But as a girl who almost always travels alone I’m used to people thinking I’m nuts.
“What if you get kidnapped?” “I have a friend whose bus was held up and everyone was robbed, one guy was even stabbed!” “Don’t get into any taxis, we don’t have enough money to pay your ransom.”
In a foolish attempt to ease their fears, I turned to the internet. Two thousand horror stories later I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being naive. Was Colombia really as dangerous as everyone thought? Or was this all just a lingering hangover from the Pablo Escobar days? I needed to find out for myself…
I learned all about the possible dangers and scams and was borderline crazy cautious once I arrived. But after thirty days of traveling alone from the Caribbean to the Amazon on planes, buses, taxis, vans, and boats, I’m happy to say that I left Colombia with all of my stuff, a ton of new friends, and zero stab wounds.
[Editor’s Note: the issue of solo female travel in Colombia has been raised recently by the ‘disappearance’ of Swedish solo female traveller Julia Wendt, who was declared missing by her family, who noted that Medellin is ‘not a nice city’ in the process – Julia turned out to be ‘meditating’ with no internet! YOU CAN READ OUR TAKE ON THIS CASE OF ‘MODERN MISSING TRAVELLER SYNDROME HERE…’]
It’s impossible not to notice the heavy military and police presence throughout the country. Groups of camouflaged men stand on street corners and roadside checkpoints clutching machine guns and grenade launchers. At first it was kind of intimidating to see so many young guys with such massive weaponry, but before long I was casually greeting them (okay, flirting with them) at every passing.
As cliched as it sounds, the Colombians I met were some of the warmest, most inviting people I’ve met in all of my travels. Not only were they proud to share their country’s history and culture, they also seemed genuinely welcoming and intrigued as to why a woman was out traveling on her own.
One evening I stopped by a pizza shop in Salento run by a young couple who were clearly drowning in takeout orders. Despite being ‘hangry’ I started conversing with a two-year-old while waiting to place my order. I’m usually painfully awkward with kids, but since we were both pretty much at the same level of Spanish, the conversation involved lots of shouting random nouns while pointing and making faces. Once her parents (who also spoke zero English) realized I was alone, they insisted I join them for a slice, and offered to walk me back to my hotel so that I wouldn’t be alone after dark.
At first I worried that stuttering my way through my high school level Spanish vocabulary would make me an easy target (as if my pasty skin and blondish hair didn’t already) but it ended up being a great way to learn the language. Everyone seemed open for a conversation, and unlike other countries where they’d switch to English the second they heard me struggle, Colombians were incredibly patient in teaching me. Sure they laughed when I messed up—like the time I tried to tell a woman I liked her shirt but ended up saying I liked her chest—but they’d always teach me the proper way to say whatever I was trying to say.
Another good thing about traveling alone in Colombia is that there are plenty of other travelers to meet and hang out with, but there aren’t so many that it feels touristy. In Medellín I met up with two other Americans to find the house where Pablo Escobar was killed. When we asked a guy on the train for directions I figured he’d shrug us off as some dumb American tourists trying to seek out the violent past that Colombians are trying to shake off. But he ended up taking us to the house and on a short walking tour around the neighborhood himself, telling us all kinds of stories about its history. I challenge anyone to get this kind of treatment from a stranger on a New York subway.
Another concern for a lot of female travelers is street harassment. Maybe living in New York has desensitized me a bit, but aside from the occasional kissy noise this was a total non-issue for me in Colombia. It could also be that my language skills left me blissfully oblivious, or the fact that I’m older and no longer in my prime, but I dealt with more harassment on the streets of Manhattan in one day than I did during my entire month in Colombia.
Unfortunately I did meet a few people who’d been robbed, but the locals didn’t hesitate to swoop in and act like real life superheroes. A girl in Cartagena had her purse stolen from a restaurant in Plaza de la Trinidad after she pulled a rookie mistake and slung it over the back of her chair while eating. The staff quickly pulled up the surveillance video which led to an arrest just a few hours later when the thieves returned for another victim. One server explained his actions perfectly when he said “Colombia has come a long way and is just starting to gain a reputation as a tourist destination. We work way too hard to let one bad guy ruin that.”
I also saw a local man get robbed on a busy street in Bogotá. Just as quickly as it happened an entire city block of people started shouting while at least 20 men ran after the thief. They chased him right across the street where a police officer was waiting to tackle and arrest him. So while there were definitely acts of petty crime, they certainly weren’t targeted towards solo women.
It’s clear that there are still many problems throughout the developing country so it doesn’t hurt to be a little extra cautious. But as a woman traveling alone, I didn’t feel any less safe being a female in Colombia than I would in any other place I’m unfamiliar with. I’d definitely go back on my own – in fact I’m already planning my next trip!