Held at Gun Point: Is Colombia Safe to Travel?

Story of the time I was held up in a small Colombian town at night and why I still think travel in Colombia, South America is safe {Big World Small Pockets}

Suddenly everything was moving in slow motion. There were hands. Pairs of hands. Hands that were patting me down. Hands that were in my pockets. That were in my friend’s pockets. That were round his phone. And his wallet. That were across his mouth. Hands that were holding a gun. That were pointing the gun at my face. That allowed me to feel the cool tip of it against my forehead. Hands that were warning us, hands that were silencing us, hands that were disabling us. Then there were hands waving guns in the air as they moved away from us. Hands that were down as they ran. And finally hands that were gone. No hands… We dared to take a breath… To look around… And then…we reached for each other’s hands.

I always thought I would be terrified the first time I found myself in a really scary and dangerous situation while travelling.

I mean I’d been on the road for years, so the odds were strong that something was going to happen at some time. I guess I’m lucky enough to say this is probably the closest I’ve got. Sure there’s been a few hairy bus-rides, a few crazy hitching hiking experiences, a few car crashes and a few stormy-sea boat rides, but being held up and robbed in Colombia was probably the most obviously life-threatening scenario I’ve found myself in. Naturally it led me to ask the question is Colombia safe to travel?

Strangely, however, I didn’t find the situation terrifying at all. I don’t even know if I found it that scary. I actually remember feeling strangely detached from the whole affair; like I was playing a role in a film, a film that I knew had a happy ending, a film that was safely being edited in slow motion.

Accion Social

My friend, however, did not feel like this.

On the contrary, he was very emotional and agitated afterwards, a state I apparently made worse for him by being so calm. He simply couldn’t understand why the incident hadn’t moved me that much, why I wasn’t reacting as I apparently should. So like the process of film editing, I began to break down the scene; why hadn’t I felt as afraid and unnerved as the dangerous event seemingly warranted?

I think the first reason was down to a sense of rational, namely that the robbers appeared to be inexperienced young boys.

Sure we couldn’t really see their faces as they were wearing balaclavas and hoodies at the time, but you could tell from their gait, their voice and their manner they weren’t very old, maybe late teenagers or boys in their early 20’s. Their hands fumbled clumsily in our pockets when searching for possessions, their voices wavered when they demanded our money and their steps were hasty and unsure of themselves when they pulled the gun. It felt to me like they didn’t really know what they were doing. This made me less afraid. To be honest, I remembering feeling the gun against me and wondering if it was even real. Sure, I’m not accustomed to feeling firearms and knowing whether they’re authentic or not, but I do vividly remember a thought striking me during one of those drawn-out slow motion minutes, that the gun in front of me could very well be a toy replica.

Welcome to Colombia

Why, in that moment, I would doubt the authenticity of a gun in a country like Colombia would seem unfathomable to many I know.

Situated between Central and South America, Colombia occupies a part of the globe not known for its safety and low crime rates. In addition, the country’s strong reputation for violence and danger made it a strict no-go area on the world travel map for decades. Run by narco traffickers and paramilitaries, all clawing for a slice of it’s illegal drug trade, Colombia’s international image was diabolical, and rightly so. Many parts of the country were off-limits even for locals, crime was high, many motorways impossible to travel on, homicides a daily occurrence and a mafia-like milieu penetrated the entire land. Needless to say, guns were commonplace and many people, including young boys, certainly knew how to use them.

Yet since around 2008 the country’s internal security has dramatically improved, due largely to tough new policies that started taking a hard stance against the guerrilla groups as early as 2002. Things, it seems, have only gone from strength to strength, and Colombia is now well and truly on the travel map, with over 2 million people visiting last year. So is Colombia safe to travel?

Classic Colombia

I first travelled to Colombia in 2012 and can certainly vouch for how safe and welcome I felt.

Even as a woman travelling by herself, I slept in tents, caught night buses, strolled round cities and wandered off on hikes. In fact I found I was far more likely to be helped than harassed as a single lady and for this reason I was actually glad, overall, to be there by myself. In saying this however, I actually think the second reason I didn’t feel as scared as I should have during the robbery, was because for once, I wasn’t alone.

Accustomed as I am to voyaging round the globe by myself, I am still well versed in the concerns that many people have about women travelling alone, primarily that it’s more likely something untoward will happen.

It is indeed a little ironic therefore, that during the one time I was actually traveling with someone else in Colombia – namely a male friend who I’d met on Corn Island, Nicaragua – the most dangerous thing to date happens. Add to the mix that this friend was a fairly big bloke, and all the fears people have about solo women being unable to defend themselves and therefore being at a greater risk of danger, are seemingly turned on their head! Now, I’m no classic damsel in distress and I fulfil very few girly stereotypes, but I can’t help shake the feeling that having a man there with me did help me feel less threatened. Shocking as that is even to my own independent-woman, feminine principles, I can’t deny the fact that having someone who was bigger and stronger and caring there when we got robbed, ultimately made me feel less terrified. Deep down, I knew that, when push came to shove, I was going to be the one being protected and not the other way round.

Indeed, when the robbers first held us up, they instantly pointed the gun at my male friend and I was really just left to stand next to him and watch.

It sounds bizarre now and certainly explains something about my filmic sense of the whole incident, but at the time it really just imparted a feeling that they weren’t interested in me, he was the target. Despite his protests, the robbers rifled through both his jeans and jumper pockets snatching his wallet and phone. Then the attention, and the gun, came to me. Time was ticking slowly on, but somewhere else I knew it was running at normal speed and that these guys would want to get out of here as fast as possible. Perhaps it was for that reason that I proceeded to tell the man holding a gun in my face that I had nothing valuable on me. Or perhaps it was because I really couldn’t afford to lose the wallet that was tucked just inside my hoodie front pocket inches away from him. Whatever the reason, miraculously, the robber seemed to believe my story, because after quickly tapping me down and hastily, too hastily obviously, checking my pockets, he seemed satisfied I was telling the truth. So with just my friend’s iphone and wallet the robbers escaped into the night.

This meant that despite having had a gun on my face and not following the accepted protocol in which you are always just advised to hand over everything during a robbery, I actually lost nothing.

That’s right, not a cent! The robbers went into my pockets, but brushed straight past the wallet seemingly without realising it was there. It seems totally unbelievable, but its true. A fact made even more poignant when you consider that, due to some miscalculated judgement that evening, the wallet I had on me actually contained every card I owed and cent I possessed. In a way therefore, it seems plausible that I was actually more pleased not to have lost everything than I was saddened by the act of being robbed. In a way, I wasn’t actually even robbed. Nor were either of us physically hurt or harmed. Perhaps, therefore, the third reason I didn’t feel so scared by the mugging was because I actually ended up feeling lucky, rather than violated.

This, of course, was not true of my poor friend and I wonder if it accounts, at least on some level, for the different responses we had to the incident.

Indeed, it is a strange thing when our own self-interest at not having lost anything blocks our natural emotions. Ostensibly, the only situational difference that contributed to my friend’s sense of fear and my absence of it, were that the things that got stolen were not mine. The taken possessions were his and his alone and I had no attachment to them; nor did I have to deal with the unhelpful Colombian police or even more unhelpful insurance companies at home to try and retrieve them. The stolen things did not belong to me, were not mine or my responsibility and were, therefore, essentially not my problem. Is it this that really contributed to the lack of distress I had around the mugging?

Policia

Such questions made me think a lot about the danger we face as travellers, and people, and about how our perception changes depending on how we, as individuals, are personally affected.

A situation may be life threatening, but if it does not inconvenience us greatly, doesn’t impinge on our lives to any major extent, is it rendered less scary? If yes, it would suggest that the pegging of an emotion, say fear, onto a specific happening, is not so much a reaction to the objective event itself, but to the concept of my and mine and how that is affected. The emotion is actually dictated by the reaction to what we lose or how we are damaged. If these things are low, even if the situation sounds very dangerous, is it possible that our sense of being affected by it is much less? Is it possible therefore that I was not so scared by the mugging, because I was not greatly inconvenienced by it?

Indeed, the greatest inconvenience for me was probably that we missed dinner that evening!

To fill in the details somewhat, the mugging took place in the early evening as my friend and I were leaving to go out for food. It was just getting dark, but the street lights were on as we made our way slowly along the dirt track that led from the hostel to the town about a 5 minute walk away. This is a journey I had made many times, even by myself, because the hostel in question happened to be the one I was working at. I’d been there almost 2 months by this point and because the hostel, where I lived, sat at the edge of town, I’d made the journey along this dirt track almost everyday to buy food, get a coffee, withdraw money or wander to the market. The town down the road was a gorgeous little place, full of character, very typically Colombian and so a popular destination for local as well as foreign tourists. I’m hesitant to relay its name, scared that my experience might put visitors off, but suffice to say it’s a very small, quiet and supposedly safe area. There had never been any reports of violence against tourists at all, Even within a few days, I knew the people at the local supermarket, was saying hello to the street sellers and been invited out to the bars by Colombian colleagues. Needless to say, I knew the area and felt at home there. There was no sense that working in the evening was dangerous and I maintain our act of doing so was not unwise or naïve. As such, I think another major reason why I was less distressed by the gun incident had to do with where it took place. Because I’d spent time working in that town, because I was familiar with the place and its people, because I knew we hadn’t taken unnecessary risks in a dodgy area, I felt less scared and unsettled by the whole affair.

My friend on the other hand, had only been in town a few days and did not know the place well.

View from the Hostel

In fact, he had only just flown into Colombia, so did not even know the country well and his initial reaction was to get the hell out. After the robbers fled and we walked the remainder of the journey into town he actually started ranting about booking a plane ticket for the very next day. He didn’t see the incident as just bad luck, he took it as a sign that he was in a dangerous country. Conversely, I had been in Colombia a while and all those things I said earlier about feeling safe both in the country and that town still stood. Colombia is an incredibly warm and tourist-friendly place; indeed many people I have met during my global wanderings have actually described it as their favourite country to travel in, with the majority citing the friendliness of the people as the reason. Sure there are no-go zones, but that is true of the world over, particularly of countries in Latin America. In Colombia, areas of cities like Medellin and Bogota, as well as parts of the Pacific Coast are key examples of such places, but if you listen to locals, act wisely and, if necessary, don’t visit there it really is a very hospitable country.

Before the robbery, I myself had spent time in some of the places with the highest crimes rates throughout Latin America – Guatemala City and Managua to name two – and nothing untoward had occurred there.

Indeed, this incident in countryside Colombia was really the only thing that had happened to me in the whole 2+ years I had travelled by myself in Latin America, supposedly one of the most violent places in the world. With that perspective, therefore, I think probably the major reason I wasn’t that fearful during or after the robbery was because I realised this was just a chance happening. Like any fluke occurrence, it could have taken place anywhere and was nothing to do with us having made unwise, risky decisions in a dangerous country. So, is Colombia Safe to Travel? Overall, I think I wasn’t that scared by the event because I still believe, to this day, that Colombia is actually a very safe country to travel in.

Then again, however, it could just be because I don’t take anything too seriously!

Suddenly we heard the sound of someone running behind us. I turned around, genuinely thinking it was strange someone was hurrying anywhere in Colombia, and suddenly the man was next to us, then in front of us, then pulling a gun at us and shouting at us in Spanish to put our hands in the air.
“Manos arriba, manos arriba,” he yelled.
“What did he say?” I asked my friend.
“Put your hands in the air,” he hissed back at me, “We’re being robbed.”
“Oh I wish my Spanish was better!” I replied.

Town Church

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About the Author

About the Author: Creator of Big World Small Pockets, Stephanie Parker is a budget travel addict! Originally from Jersey in the Channel Islands, Stephanie backpacks the world collecting tips, advice and stories, to share with a smile .

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There Are 12 Brilliant Comments

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  1. Haha what a great time to lament your lack of language 🙂 It’s a real shame your friend had only just arrived in Colombia, it’s true first impressions do last! We loved Colombia and spent 3 months there – it is in our top 3 places we want to live. But we came from the madness of Venezuela so Colombia seemed like a kindergarten playdate by comparison… then again we didn’t get robbed at gun point!

    • Steph says:

      I loved Colombia too and actually found it really safe. Just this one incident was a bit of a negative, but it didn’t put me off! Such a great country – I know many who want to live there like you!

  2. Nadeen says:

    So sorry that this happened to you!! I’m glad you are OK. Interesting as you said that it happened when you were with a male travel companion vs solo. I am familiar with Colombia’s history but have never been there. Hope to visit Cartegena. I think you have to keep your eyes open and use safety measures anywhere you are!

    • Steph says:

      Absolutely Nadeen – I think my experience just goes to show that untoward things can happen anywhere at anytime, so using appropriate safety measures wherever you are is a good idea

  3. Maya says:

    Although this sounds scary for me, I haven’t been to Colombia yet (will go in 2016), I admire your attitude. Such calmness in a situation like this..hopefully your friend had many other good memories to outweigh the robbery.

    • Steph says:

      I definitely think that now his good memories outweigh this negative, which is what you want! Enjoy Colombia, I’m sure you will have a great (and safe!) time!

  4. Gemma says:

    Wow, what a story! I’m glad that both you and your friend came to no harm, but it still sounds like a pretty scary experience. It’s good to know that one bad experience hasn’t put you off a country, although I can also understand why you’re friend was so keen to leave. I guess being as calm as possible in those circumstances is the best thing to do, but being in that situation is completely different to imagining it! Well done for how you reacted, and for staying calm.

    • Steph says:

      Thanks Gemma, yes it was amazing to feel so relaxed about it all – but I guess that’s what 2 years in Latin America does to you! Colombia really is a wonderful country and I still encourage people to travel there 🙂

  5. I’m in Medellin, Colombia now and can day that yeah, there are definitely areas that are more dangerous than others and maybe you should steer clear (especially if you’re lighter skinned and may come off as a rich tourist) but I honestly believe that the good of the country outweighs the danger. Wouldn’t you agree? I mean, there is bad people and danger in every country, right? Loved this article. Thanks for your honesty!

    • Steph says:

      I certainly think most people are good people Heliana and danger can happen anywhere – we got stuff stolen from our car in suburban Australia last night so just goes to show! Colombia is certainly a great country and I’d still encourage anyone to go there. Hope you’re enjoying Medellin

  6. I have loved our month in Colombia and felt incredibly safe here. I have to agree with your conclusion that this was bad luck rather than a sign of a dangerous country – I’ve felt far more safe wandering in my own neighborhood at home in the states than I have in Colombia, where everyone is friendly and helpful and tranquilo. I feel it’s fairly inevitable that at some point on our travel, we’ll probably be robbed, which is why I always take steps to separate our cards and cash and hide them away in various places. Whoever robbed you – and whoever will probably eventually rob us – probably needs that money very badly, and we have enough privilege to recover from the incident. We’ll lose no more than some money and the few months of effort it will take us to replace our belongings. What’s important is our health and happiness, not our possessions, which are replaceable! (What this should really be is a lesson in always having travel insurance!)

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