''Wait you did what??? You went to Colombia alone?? Are you insane?''
That has been lately the reply I've gotten from people when they found out I just spent a month travelling alone around Colombia.
And my answer goes; '' Ah, nothing happened, it was completely fine and I really enjoyed it! ''
''So you did cocaine, right?'' * insert some lame jokes about drugs and Pablo Escobar*
No, I didn't. It makes me just so sad and frustrated to hear this because I feel bad for Colombia and I feel bad for Colombians. I have come to a conclusion that Colombia must be one of the most misunderstood countries out there. I was aware of it before I went there because I did a proper research about the current situation in Colombia. I wrote an analysis about the best things to do in Cartagena and on the other hand I spent 2 weeks binge watching the Netflix series Narcos, telling quite truthfully about the time of the drug lord Pablo Escobar and about the effects of the drug war in Colombia, and yes, that happened. But Colombia has managed to leave this horrible time period far behind and the situation is a whole lot better these days. Sometimes it was hard to imagine that all that had happened there, in that beautiful and peaceful place that it is nowadays.
I talked to many locals about the current situation and yes, there are problems, but so there is in Europe. I'd be more concerned about my safety in big European cities than in Colombia - as while I was exploring Colombia I heard these unfortunate news about another terrorist attack in Berlin.
So to return back to my original topic; How is it to travel Colombia alone as a woman?
Before my trip, I went through several blog posts and Facebook group conversations of how to stay safe and what are the biggest risks that I possibly could face. Ok, express kidnapping, robbing, robbing with a knife, robbing with a gun, sexual harassment, getting drugged... ok so you get the idea.
So basically sounded like what the internet told me about Peru, Bolivia and Mexico as well. So I already heard it all.
The first stop in Colombia was Bogota where I arrived around midnight. (WAIT WHAT?) Yes, but I was lucky enough to get a ride from my Couchsurfing friend who was sweet enough to bring me to my hostel. I only had a day to explore the city so he kindly marked all the places I should visit on the map and gave a list of neighbourhoods to avoid.
I spent the next day exploring the old town of Bogota. People were very helpful and respectful and the overall mood was very nice. It was hard to believe so many of the backpackers I met last summer in Peru had told me that if there's one city in the world where you would most likely get robbed in, it would be Bogota. Some of the neighbourhoods on the outskirts of the city indeed looked a little shady and I would not go explore them by myself for sure, but the center and the old town, La Candelaria were generally very nice.
I spent the rest of my trip on the northern coast of Colombia; Riohacha, Santa Marta, Barranquilla and Cartagena to be precise. First stop was Riohacha, which is probably the least known place of the places I've visited. It is a small city of around 140 000 inhabitants just outside the desert of La Guajira.
Obviously, staying in places that are less touristic means that your appearance will wake curiosity and you'll most likely look like an alien to them and you'll be getting more attention from the locals.
However, the attention was mainly friendly greetings on the streets and generally curious smiley faces and looks. Walking around the city always included cat calling, but as I understand some Spanish it was mainly just men yelling comments like ''beautiful'' or ''pretty'', so nothing too disturbing. I've only had a few not so pleasant incidents when someone started following me but with a firm '' leave me alone'' in Spanish they eventually gave up.
I never felt threatened or endangered at any point of my trip. I never witnessed anyone getting in danger during my trip.
A lot of people had told me to pay attention to taxis as there are fake taxis that might bring tourists to a dark alley and rob you violently. So I always made sure I took a legal taxi, preferably ordered it from the place I was staying at or asked a local to order one for me. Taking a taxi from the street should be fine but it is naturally riskier.
I seriously had been reading so many horror stories about taxi kidnappings that I made quite an episode one time, but later learnt my lesson. I wanted to take a taxi from my hostel in Santa Marta to a bus station where I'd catch a bus to Riohacha. So I asked the approximate price from the reception of my hostel and caught a taxi in front of the hostel. The receptionist had told me to pay 8000 pesos and that the trip would take around 10 minutes. Once I got in the taxi the driver asked if I knew the price and I told him what I just heard
''oh no senorita, it's at least 25 000, it's far'' - I told him I won't be paying that much and we ended up setting the price to 15 000 pesos. He was very curious and asked a lot of questions and we had a nice conversation but then I started to doubt his intentions as we had been driving for a good while already and we were in a sketchy area outside the city. Aren't bus stations usually located in the center of the city? - I asked, he insisted that no. So we kept driving and I started to doubt even more as we entered a road to the mountains. I asked three times if we were really going to the bus station and he answered ''tranquilaaaa senoritaa (calm down)''. I thought if the bus station doesn't magically appear from the forest in 3 minutes, I'll start to scream and insist to go back to the city. He agreed, ''just 5 minutes'' and I start to prepare for my own death.
This is exactly what I have read from the internet, this can't be happening. I can't just sit here. So I start to scream that I want him to turn back right now. He keep insisting that he swear the bus station is 2 minutes away and that he is a good man. I'm near to break in tears, and then finally he drives in front of a small old gas station. The door opens and there's a man asking ''Riohacha?'' - I almost screamed ''Sí!''. Well turns out that this taxi driver brought me to a ''buss station'' of locals, where the transportation to Riohacha is at least half the price comparing to the ones leaving from the center. I felt guilty as all this guy had been doing was to help me. Later I found out that the taxi usually costs around 20 000 pesos, so I had also gotten a very cheap ride and that he used a road outside the city to avoid traffic on the main road. So I apologised the driver and I still feel bad for being such a horrible customer. But you never know. I would still say, always trust your instincts.
I dressed rather normally, in summer clothes but I decided to not wear any jewellery, also because it was super humid and hot. I always carried just a small amount of cash and kept my credit card inside my bra.
I walked in the dark but I always made sure I used streets with a proper lighting and punch of people there. I even walked around the centre after midnight. As long as you are aware of your surroundings and you know the place, you should be fine, though I don't recommend doing it on daily basis. I'd also not enter clubs or bars alone. Most likely nothing will happen but it's just a lot safer to find a fellow traveler or a local friend to join the party with you. I mean it's also a lot more fun when you are not just standing awkwardly there. If you decide to go though, never accept drinks from strangers and always always keep eye on your drink!
After all, there's only so much you can do and then the rest is about the luck. I'd say, you will be just fine as long as you use common sense, don't do anything you wouldn't do at your hometown and pay extra attention to your surroundings. And like I said, always trust your instincts. If you have a feeling that something is off, it's very likely true.
But according to my experience, I didn't feel any less safe than I'd feel in my hometown. I had an amazing trip and I would highly recommend Colombia as a solo travel destination for anyone who has basic Spanish skills and is familiar with Latin Culture. Just do your research and you are good to go!
Honestly, Colombians are one of the most cheerful and relaxed people I have gotten to know. They are open-minded, positive and very generous and fun! My last piece of advice is that get to know the locals, they know the best when it comes to what to do and where to go!