BOGOTA, Colombia- “Is traveling to Bogota safe?” This is a common question that I’ve heard asked by various people throughout my travels in Latin America and the world. But to anyone who has ever walked down the streets of this city, a quick laugh followed by an exasperated “Are you kidding me?” may be an appropriate response to this question. Bogota is by far among the safest seeming capital cities in Latin America. For any traveler who has been through Guayaquil, San Jose, Managua, Tegucigalpa, or Guatemala City, Bogota is a stroll in a park — a true load off the shoulders.
You can walk through the streets of many parts of Bogota in the day time — and some at night — and thoughts of being mugged, attacked, shook down, or pick pocketed simply do not come to mind.
What do I mean by “safe” and “dangerous”?
All places are, literally, safe until an incident happens to you or someone you know which proves that they are dangerous. In this light, anywhere in the world can be safe, just as anywhere can be dangerous. But there is a measure of probability and possibility that allows the use of words such as “safe” or “dangerous” to describe a place.
It is possible to be attacked, robbed, or otherwise harmed anywhere in the world, but it is the probability of these events occurring that positions a place on one side of the safe/ dangerous line or the other. It is not probable that you will be harmed when traveling to Bogota — it is a generally safe city.
For most travelers with their heads on straight, who act there like a responsible local, Bogota will prove safe. The safe/ dangerous ratio in travel often has far more to do with your behavior than with the ebbs and flows of any place in and of itself.
Why do I call Bogota safe?
Though a recent tourist focused crime wave was said to have hit the Candelaria district of Bogota earlier this year, I felt that the district was pretty secure during the daylight hours. The Zona Rosa, Parque 93, and Zona G districts of Bogota felt overwhelmingly safe as well. I attribute this apparent felling of safety for two reasons: 1) There are people everywhere, and 2) There is a massive presence of police officers and auxiliary conscripts.
Walking down the streets in these districts of Bogota is to be in a critical mass of thousands — literally. Generally, the safety in numbers theory works when determining the safety level of cities in this world. Only in truly heinous places like Costa Rica or Managua is it common for people to be mugged or otherwise assaulted in the middle of a crowded street in broad daylight. In both cities, I have jumped to a start multiple times upon realizing that I was the only person around anywhere when walking down the streets in the middle of the day. But having people in the streets is only an effective measure against crime if there is a police presence that is effectual.
Now, I will often say that the police are the worst enemy of the traveler, but a high police presence in the streets does help to prevent crime. Mexico City is a virtual police state, as is Bogota, and downtown areas of both cities seem incredibly secure. Costa Rica is a very dangerous country because the police force is ineffectual — locals and tourists alike are mugged there regularly, but nobody goes to the police. Why? Because they don’t do anything, and will, occasionally, only make your situation worse. The criminals seem to know this, and they take advantage. The police in Bogota do something: they stand all over the streets wearing bright green florescent vests as a physical deterrent of crime. If something happens to you in a downtown area of Bogota during the day, I can almost guarantee that a police representative will be within ear shot: the place is on lock down.
Though nighttime Bogota may be a different story. There are some upper crust districts where it is pretty much safe to be in the streets at any time of night, and on Friday and Saturday nights the party districts are booming and there is not too much to worry about. But during the week, the old town of Bogota is virtually deserted late at night: almost no pedestrians, few cars, and very few cops. I rode though it in a taxi at 11PM when I first arrived in Bogota, and it did not appear to be a place that I would want to go for a leisurely stroll.
As far as my safety/ danger ratings of a Latin American city, Bogota tilts very much to the side of safe. If you are stumbling around late at night all by yourself drunk, well, you may get mugged; if you get into a car with people you just met at a bar, well, your fate may momentarily look a little bleak — but this is more the rule of the planet than the exception. A sense of self-preservation and responsibility is necessary anywhere in the world regardless if you are in a place that is deemed “safe” or one that has a reputation for being “dangerous.” With a proper bout of stupidity the safest place in the world can be made very dangerous, just as a tactical use of caution can make a statistically dangerous place as safe as it can be. My rating of Bogota as safe city for travel is based upon someone complying with the patterns of the locals: you go to your hotel at night, party with the masses on the weekend, don’t trust people you just meet with your safety, and don’t take action that puts yourself at undue risk.
Latin American Capital City Safety Rating
I have been to 15 countries in Latin America, and out of these I’ve visited 13 capital cities. Below is how I would rate the downtown areas of these cities in terms of safety, starting with the most secure:
1. Mexico City
2. Panama City
4. Buenos Aires
5. Santiago, Chile
9. San Salvador
10. San Jose
11. Guatemala City
This is just a list that takes into account the downtown areas and the places that most travelers are going to go to. Comparing the slums of the above cities in terms of safety is like trying to compare who has the larger phallus: Priapus or Min? It’s a moot comparison, they are both ridiculously armed. Just as the outskirts and slums of all of the above cities fall into the pretty f’cking bad category, and I’m not sure of any one stands out as being worse than the next — or at least I am not the person to do the analysis.
Bogota Safety/ Danger Conclusion
I wrote terms such as “safe” and “dangerous” throughout this story, and, occasionally, throughout this travelogue. These are terms of degree rather than absolute measurement; they are meant to show patterns, not concrete realities; my experience and observations, not statistical analysis. But, as with every pattern, it is possible to run into an errant snag. These safe/ dangerous value judgements are thrown out here to provide bearings within the rough seas of travel, and to share an impression of a place at a certain point in time from the perspective of a traveler.
I do not believe that safety, in travel and in other aspects of life, is akin to holiness or that someone should never do something just because it may be a little dangerous. Many very good and intelligent travelers do dangerous things all the time — it is part of the profession — but their potentially risky moves are often done with an assessment and acceptance of risk. Just because I deem an action to be dangerous does not mean that I never do it, and just because I call a place dangerous doesn’t mean that I won’t go there. “Safe” is not necessarily a green light and “dangerous” is not always a red light. Travel planing should never be this simple and straight forward: the benefit/ risk ratio often takes precedence over safety/ danger.
Though in my assessment of Bogota I cannot say that I observed or experienced much to raise my blood pressure: my experience of the city, and that of many other travelers, is that it is a relatively safe place to visit. Seriously, even though your mom may start biting her fingernails at your announcement that you are going to Bogota, the reality of the traveler’s experience in this city does not match its rather scathing international reputation. According to Maplecroft, Colombia has the tenth highest risk for terrorism, but you wouldn’t know this by strolling through the streets of its capital city.