Isn’t Colombia a dangerous place?
It was not too long ago that the mere mention of going to Colombia would raise more than a few eyebrows due to safety concerns and even today it is likely to at least elicit the good-intentioned question “is it safe?” Bogotá's reputation as the kidnapping capital of the world dies hard and though the country has gone through many changes in the last two decades, it is not easy to shed such a strong aura of danger that has pervaded the country since the days of wanton drug lord wars.
One of the big problems is misinformation or old information. The truth is the average person was probably very unlikely to be kidnapped even in kidnapping of foreigners heyday. Such crimes were generally reserved for political figures, their families or at least the known wealthy. Still, when the country was under siege it was not wise to venture into areas disputed by guerrillas and paramilitaries. Just where those areas were or more importantly are is what has kept travellers to Colombia at bay for so long. For instance, the simple bus trip from Bogotá to the charming colonial town of Villa de Leyva was considered questionable in guidebooks as recently as 2005 and it was suggested to fly the short route rather than take any chances. This is certainly not the case now and probably it was already fine to do in 2005. Ten years prior might have been a different story.
Here are some tips from an American living in Bogota. Many of these precautions would apply in any city in the world and amount to common sense:
1. Pickpockets: You should be wary of crowded places and keep your valuables in a safe place
2. Dangerous Areas: In any city, there are great safe areas, and also lonely ones. If you plan to walk anywhere, check with your hotel staff about which areas to avoid, particularly at night.
3. Don’t be conspicuous: You make yourself more of a target showing cameras or expensive items - put them in a bag.
4. Don’t get ripped off: Before you’re are going to request a service, such as a taxi, no matter what the place, ask a Colombian how much it should cost. Make sure you ask the price before accepting the service. In Bogota, it is advised that you order a cab, don’t hail one. When you order the cab, or someone does it for you, you must give the cab driver the last 4 digits of the phone used to call for the cab otherwise, the driver is unable to start the meter.
5. Travelling outside of Bogota: Most of Colombia has been cleared of guerrillas and paramilitaries but there are still a few areas which are active in the drug trade. The Pacific Coast is the gateway for the drug trade and cocaine production still takes place in the jungle regions.
6. Violent Crimes: You are not going to be kidnapped, raped or killed in any city just because you are a foreigner. There are still people with guns in Colombia, but crime has decreased every year since the mid-2000s.
These are just precautions – Colombia is trying hard to improve their reputation. They want to see tourists enjoy 100% the trip.
7. And the most important: Enjoy Colombia and the incredible people, music and food. People are very friendly and helpful.
What will the temperatures be like?
Bogota is at an elevation of 2600 metres, so it is cooler than one would expect. Bogota has a Mediterranean climate with dry warm summers and mild winters. The warm/dry season lasts from December to March. In January/February, you can expect temperatures to be around the 20 C mark with lows of 7 - 10 C.
Precipitation is least likely in mid-January, steadily increasing until the middle of May through October when it gets drier again until January. Colombia is very green and lush, so you can expect some rain. It is rare that the rain lasts all day.
Being close to the equator, daylight lasts for approximately 12 hours a day all year long.
The coffee region is at a lower elevation, approximately 1500 metres. This means that the temperatures are a little warmer, likely in the mid-20s in January and February, a little warmer in August and September, with a higher humidity, and more sun than Bogota. Rain in this area is more likely to occur in the form of drizzle, or a short, intense storm later in the day.
The Boyaca Region is at a higher elevation and north of Bogota. It is likely to be a high teens or low 20s. In February, much like Canada, one can encounter lovely spring days with cool nights. There is always the threat of a little precipitation but it is rare to have rain that last all day.
What is the terrain like?
In general, Colombia has 3 mountain ranges that run north to south, joining in the south. Bogota is on the western flank of the eastern range and the coffee region is in the valley between the western range and the middle range.
You can expect a lot of hills, long hills that aren’t too steep. The coffee region is centred around the Cauca and Magdalena rivers, but coffee grows best on hillsides so as we go east and north, the terrain gets hillier.
In the Boyaca Region, the terrain has more ups and downs and being at a higher altitude, can be a bit more challenging. Of course, what goes up, usually comes down, so we are once again treated to some spectacular downhills.
What should I expect culturally?
Many aspects of Colombian culture can be traced back to the early culture of Spain and its collision with Colombia’s native civilizations. The Spanish introduced Catholicism, African slaves and a caste system that favours European born whites. This mix also created a fusion of cultures fostering a plethora of Carnivals, and music.
All Colombians are bound by strong family ties and in the family home, the women rule the roost. Colombian women are appreciated by men and it is not considered rude for men to stare at women.
Football (soccer) and cycling are the most popular sports in Colombia. Bogota hosts the largest and longest running recreational cycling event in the world, held every Sunday and holiday, called Ciclovia. This is an event where up to 2 Million people take to the car-less streets and every park is filled with physical activities, and entertainers.
There is also a healthy cycle racing culture and you will see many competitive cyclists out training every morning, evening and on weekends.
Colombia is famous for its music and silence is a rare commodity. Dance music is very popular from Bachata to Salsa, you will experience a variety of rhythms from the fusion of Afro-Caribbean and Spanish influences.
Bogota has a large number of museums, most famous among them are the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) and Museo Botero featuring the art of Fernando Botero.