A big concern for many travelling to Bogotá and within Colombia is safety. Is Bogotá safe? How do I stay safe? This was a big concern for me before moving to Bogotá. But in my three years living here, I was not robbed or harmed in any way.
As a woman, you often get called out by men while on the street. This was not something new to me as this was common in my hometown as well. Simply ignore. And from my experience, I can tell you what else has worked for me.
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This post is not intended to offend anyone but rather to keep anyone safe in Bogotá and Colombia (even if it may seem a bit much for some). There are some of these things you will see the locals do but better to be safe and avoid these.
If you want to go exploring, you can also book a tour so you have someone’s help.
Table of Contents
1. No Dar Papaya – Colombian Saying
This is a saying in Colombia about staying safe, it literally translates to “don’t give papaya”. What does that even mean? It actually is a really good saying relating to safety basically meaning do not show what you have, or it can be taken from you.
For example, if you are holding a block of gold or have it in your back pocket, it will most likely be taken from you. This is an extreme example because generally, no one walks around with gold, but the more practical examples will be saved for later.
People worry about safety especially given the protests that occur, and it is still possible.
2. Being Safe with Your Phone in Bogotá
We have to be extra careful with using our phones in public, on the roadside, and even in cars. This is the same concept of safety as no dar papaya just specific to phone use. We are so attached to our phones and end up walking around holding them, but this is not safe to do in Bogotá.
It is likely that you will not be holding it for long. Even if you are in a car with your window down, there is a risk as someone can easily pass and stick their hand in to grab your phone.
One time in an Uber, I didn’t notice that my window was a bit too open, and the driver actually told me to be careful. He would know! So I rolled it up so that there was only a crack that a hand could not reach through.
This is also the case if you are standing close to the roadway or waiting for transport close to the roadway. A motorcycle can very easily pass and swipe it out of your hand.
I have had this happen to a friend. He was standing at the side of the road waiting for a bus but with the traffic, he decided to check his phone to see if Uber would be quicker. A motorcycle passed and someone tried to grab the phone from him but fortunately did not get the phone.
Unfortunately, the phone still catapulted out of his hand and into the road, which was then run over by cars. She ran into the road to retrieve it, but it was damaged beyond repair, so she had to buy a new one. The broken phone still haunted her with his alarm going off every day until it eventually died.
This warning goes for anything you may be holding as it can easily be stolen by these methods.
3. Being Safe in Busy Areas
When you are in busy areas like Plaza Bolivar, Bogotá on a Sunday afternoon, this is a prime time and location for pick pocketing because there is so much going on. This is when you’ll have to pay extra attention to make sure you and those you’re with are safe. I will split this into 2 because there are 2 recommendations:
I took some friends to Plaza Bolivar and advised them on the precautions, however, one of them still had his wallet in his back pocket. I was walking a distance behind him with another friend when I noticed someone creeping up to him with his hand stretched out and his eyes were on his pocket.
It was almost as if I was watching it in slow motion. I quickly rushed to him, blocking his body with mine, and pulled him another direction. Fortunately, nothing happened and by the time we looked back, the guy had disappeared. This warning applies to anything in your back pockets.
If going into a crowded place with a backpack, wear it to the front. I would do this for somewhere like Plaza Bolivar or on the bus. If you’re not in a busy place, it’s ok to wear normally. I usually walk around with either a cross body bag or a backpack as they are not as easy to steal as the typical one shoulder handbag.
4. Be Safe When Taking Rideshare
In Colombia there is something called “pico y placa” where different plated cars can drive on different days. Therefore, when using rideshare apps, it is especially important to make sure and check the number plate as some drivers change it depending on the day.
This only happened to me once, so I don’t think it is extremely common but definitely something to look out for. When the driver arrived, he called my name as proof that he was using the app and he was the person that I was supposed to be meeting.
But to me, if the app didn’t have the number plate registered then this guy could take me anywhere and they’d have no way to track it. I said to him that I would not get into the car because the number plate was different. He started arguing but I was not going to engage. I simply approached the security of my building and stood with him. Thankfully, the car left.
5. Be Safe with Taxis
For me, I would only take a taxi from the airport. This may sound a bit harsh as I know there are people who take taxis, but as a woman travelling alone, I would not take a taxi just to be extra cautious. My husband took a taxi with a co-worker so he was able to see how it was done.
From there, he knew how to handle himself and the average cost. If you do not speak Spanish, I would not recommend it. Unfortunately, foreigners in Bogotá stand out so it’s much easier to be taken advantage of.
6. Being Safe at Night
Like I’ve said about taxis, I’d only take them from Bogotá’s airport. So, when you go for a night out, I’d definitely recommend going home in a rideshare as opposed to a taxi. Although a taxi may be easier and more common to get. Rideshare may also be a little harder to get at this time since there are less working if it’s late at night.
If going out at night, I’d highly recommend moving in a group to make yourself less of a target. However, even this can be tricky as a group of myself and 3 guys were walking on a side street (not recommended) to get to their hotel, and we noticed someone following us (explained in point below).
7. Walk on Major Roads
To be safe while you’re walking, especially at night, make sure and walk on major roads so as to avoid any back roads that may not be well lit. I’ve had 2 incidences where I was walking with some friends to drop them at their hotel/Airbnb.
The accommodation was not on major roads, so we had no choice but to walk on the smaller roads. One was close to Parque 93, and the other close to Zona T, which are considered some of the safer areas to stay in Bogotá. However, because we were on the back roads, we noticed that someone was following us.
So, I advised the group to walk more quickly as we were very close to the accommodation. We made it to the accommodation safely fortunately and waited inside until my rideshare had arrived so I could go home. Fortunately, where I live, the roads were more major, so it felt a lot safer to walk at night.
8. Do Not Leave Belongings Unattended
This is a safety precaution for many, but some people take this for granted. I have seen so many people complain about having their laptop or bag stolen when they go to the bathroom at a coffee shop. This would be a case of “no dar papaya”. If you leave something unattended, it is an easy target and a lot easier to be taken.
9. Careful with Your Passport
In Colombia, you should have an official form of identification with you at all times. If you’re a foreigner, you may only have your passport. It is very risky to walk around with your passport. Most people either use a photocopy or a photo on their phone to prove ID. However, there are times where I’ve had to walk around with passport for official paperwork. I was extra cautious about it and nothing bad happened.
10. Pay Attention to the Area
The differences in the types of areas are very easy to see based on the type of buildings. Be aware of where you are and the risk you are putting yourself in.
People who visit or expats who live in Bogotá may have both good and bad stories about safety. But once you take the precautions, you should be one with good stories. I think the term “dar a papaya” is a great guide to know if you’re putting yourself at risk or not.