When we announced to our family and friends that we were moving to Colombia for a new job posting, almost everybody´s reaction was: “Isn’t it dangerous?”, or “Be careful you don´t get kidnapped”. I can see why people say these things. Colombia is officially still a conflict zone and has been so for the almost 70 years. In fact, Colombia´s conflict has been the longest running internal conflict in the world. It has displaced over 6 million people and killed over 200,000 people to date.

So if there is a conflict, is Colombia safe or does this mean travellers shouldn’t visit? In my experience, yes and no. Certain parts of Colombia are definitely absolute no-go areas, as I will come to later. The majority of tourist attractions are in perfectly safe areas though, and I personally feel much safer here than in other countries I have lived in or travelled to since leaving Europe in 2011. This is my attempt to summarise Colombia´s very complex history that shaped its bad reputation, in the hope that you will still give this beautiful country a chance.

What caused the conflict

Although the current conflict with armed guerrilla groups dates to the mid-1960s, its origins actually go back to the 40s when Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, the leader of the Liberal Party, was assassinated. It is believed that he was assassinated as he was a candidate of the opposing party in the presidential election. He probably would have won the election due to his large support among the working class.

gaitan is colombia safe

Gaitán memorial in Bogota

Shortly after his assassination a local radio station that supported Gaitán blamed the opposing party for the killing and called on people to riot in protest: “Latest news. Conservatives and the Ospina Pérez government have just killed Dr. Gaitán. People: To arms! Charge! To the streets with clubs, stones, shotguns, or whatever is at hand! Break into the hardware stores and take the dynamite, gunpowder, tools, machetes…”. People from across the city rushed downtown. The riots that followed, also known as Bogotazo, lasted for ten hours and killed 5,000 people.

bogotazo is colombia safe

The destroyed city center after the Bogotazo

But the problem wasn´t over and what followed was a 10-year period of civil war between the Colombian Conservative Party and the Colombian Liberal Party. Battles were mostly fought in the countryside, and the chaos and the lack of security in rural areas caused millions of people to abandon their homes and properties. The civil war was referred to as La Violencia. People were thrown from airplanes, infants were bayoneted, schoolgirls were raped en masse, unborn infants were removed by crude caesarean section and replaced by roosters, and bodies were mutilated and tortured.

The birth of the guerrilla and paramilitary movement

During this 10-year period, some peasants organised themselves into communities with the support of the Communist Party. La Violencia came to an end through a constitutionally sanctioned power-sharing agreement between the Liberal and Conservative parties. However, the accord also eliminated any political competition, including that of the Communist Party. This led to attacks on communist enclaves which in turn led to the transformation of the peasant communities into guerrilla groups. By the late 1970s there were about a dozen guerrilla groups, the most significant two being the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas, FARC) and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional, ELN).

The activities of the guerrillas in turn prompted the formation of right-wing paramilitary organisations, i.e. the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia, AUC), as a means of protecting landowners, drug lords, and local businessmen from attacks and kidnappings by guerrilla forces.

FARC is colombia safe

Photo by Rodrigo Abd/AP

To finance their operations, both guerrilla and paramilitary forces became involved in criminal activities, including kidnapping, extortion, bombings, murder, and drug trafficking in the 80s. They supported drug cartels such as the one led by Pablo Escobar in Medellín.

narcos is colombia safe

The film set of the popular Netflix series about Escobar

The Peace talks

In 2010, shortly after President Juan Manuel Santos was elected, he initiated a peace process with the FARC. At this stage, three attempts had already been made to end the conflict. The last one fell apart in 2002, three years after it began.

Yesterday however, the FARC and the Colombian government have finally come to an agreement. The next step is a referendum for the Colombian people to decide if they accept the peace deal. Although nothing can be taken for granted, there are high hopes among the population that the current peace process could be the one that finally holds, and brings lasting peace to Colombia.

Is Colombia safe

Where can you travel in Colombia?

Through my work in international development I usually get to travel to remote destinations that can be risky for unaccompanied tourists. On a recent trip in Colombia for example, I was helpfully persuaded by my driver to stay in the car when we stopped at a street-side café to buy some drinks. It turned out the heavily armed guys in the cafe were paramilitaries who might not react well to a foreigner appearing in their territory. As such, I would suggest all travellers stay clear of remote areas in Colombia, no matter how tempting it may be to get off the beaten track.

So where exactly should you avoid? Until the peace deal has (hopefully) been approved by the public, the FARC are still operating in 25 of Colombia’s 32 provinces, with a particularly strong presence in the country’s Eastern Plains region near the border with Venezuela, in the southwestern provinces of Cauca, Valle del Cauca, and Nariño, as well as in some municipalities in the Western provinces of Choco and Antioquia. If the peace deal gets approved, the FARC will move into so-called transitional zones, hand in all of their weapons to the United Nations, and begin the transition from rebel fighters into reintegrating into Colombian society. The transitional zones will be off-limits to civilians and travelers alike.

is colombia safe map

Transitional zones for FARC members

Is Colombia safe?

So where can you travel to? Even if the peace deal between the FARC and the Colombian government gets signed, there are still paramilitary groups operating in certain parts of the country. As long as travellers stick to the regular tourist routes of Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Cartagena, Salento, Tayrona etc., they should be safe. But just like in any country, travellers should of course exercise certain precautions, such as not flashing valuables, which is hopefully pointing out the very obvious.

bogota is colombia safe

Bogota’s tourist hot spot La Candelaria

Generally speaking though, in the five months I have been living in Bogota, I have been positively surprised at how completely safe I feel here. Colombians are some of the friendliest people I have ever met, and in my experience they welcome foreigners with open arms, and are proud to show off their wonderful country. I can´t wait to explore more of Colombia in the coming months, so I will start sharing more and more posts here on the blog in the hope that you will feel inspired to travel to this misunderstood yet stunning country.

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Me with a lovely Colombian during a work trip in the countryside – Photo by the talented Colombian photographer Fernanda Pineda

But in the meantime and in summary, I would say that if there’s one thing that defines Colombia, it’s change. It’s not a scary place, the people are not all drug dealers or guerrilla fighters. Outsiders are warmly welcomed by fantastically friendly locals. It is totally unfair to judge Colombia solely on the negative things we sometimes hear in the media. This is a country with a rich history, stunning landscapes, and a country that takes great pride in preserving old arts, literature, and national treasures. As I fully intend to further explore and share over the coming months!

About Tammyonthemove

Tammy & Chris are a couple hailing from Germany and England, meaning between them they are efficient and polite, but unable to talk about football. Find out why they stopped pushing pens around the British civil service to travel the world on their blog.

52 Thoughts on “Living in a conflict zone – Misconceptions about life and travel in Colombia

  1. I like how this post wasn’t another one of those “I felt safe, don’t listen to the media, you should definitely go!” posts. While the media generally exaggerates dangers abroad, it is important to make readers aware that dangers still do exist. You did a good job of explaining the root of the Colombian conflict and giving a more in-depth answer to the question by stating the areas that should be avoided and those that are generally safer for tourists.
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    • Tammyonthemove on August 27, 2016 at 12:18 pm said:

      Thanks Erika. I think it is important for tourists to know a little bit about the history, as so many media outlets just talk about the drugs-yet there is so much more to it. So I’m glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. I love your insight, as I often think of danger when I hear Colombia mentioned. People make up the places we visit, not the media.

  3. I had no idea of the fascinating (and graphic) history of Colombia, sounds fascinating

  4. That’s good news, I’m looking forward to visiting in the new year, just not sure if the local transport is safer on buses? Or is flying the preferred way in the country?

    • Tammyonthemove on August 27, 2016 at 12:13 pm said:

      I think buses between the normal tourist routes are fine. Not sure about night buses though. Flying is quite cheap though and much quicker of course.

  5. Very thoughtful post. You are advocating safe and well informed travel. For my part- a trip to Cartagena is VERY high on my to do list.

  6. I liked how you described Columbia as change. I think thats a very powerful word. Thanks for clearing this up and encouraging people to venture out.
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  7. Firstly what an amazing life experience you are having living in Bogota. I have always wanted to visit Colombia but extremely hesitant. You have given me some food for thought, and some very welcomed advice and point of views to start to think again about visiting.
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  8. Thank you so much for summarizing such a complicated history in such an accessible way. While I’ve always been willing to go to Columbia despite its reputation, it’s a relief to know exactly what’s going on. Super helpful post! I’ve stumbled it and pinned it for my someday Columbia trip! Thanks again!

    • Tammyonthemove on August 28, 2016 at 8:44 pm said:

      Thanks Jema. It took me a while to understand the complex history, that’s why I thought it would be good to share it here.

  9. I know that, until recently, I was in the camp of “wait, isn’t it dangerous there!?’ But, I actually have a co-worker from Columbia that has offered similar insight and the things he says about Columbia actually make me want to visit more than ever!
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  10. I was planning on visiting Colombia a couple of years ago and couldn’t make it due to work commitments. But to be honest, my family was really worried about whether or not it was safe. How long will you be living in Colombia?

  11. Your advice and point of view about visiting Colombia is very helpful. From an outsider, who has never been there, this info is crucial to assess what one can do and what it is a no-go when travelling to Colombia.
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  12. Fantastic post! I like how you’ve laid out both sides of the argument. My other half visited Colombia a couple years ago and all he has done is sing praises about the country, but I’m not so sure. Something to ponder over that’s for sure.
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    • Tammyonthemove on August 28, 2016 at 8:51 pm said:

      Thanks so much Adelina. I think the latest tourism ministry slogan is “the only risk is not wanting to leave”, and I think that happens to a lot of people.

  13. What a timely post, as I am considering a trip to Columbia early in the new year. Thank you for including some background history, the media always focuses on the drug problems and of course it runs much deeper than just that issue. I look forward to reading more of your life down there. Enjoy your discoveries and stay safe!

  14. Bell | Wanderlust Marriage on August 28, 2016 at 2:03 pm said:

    This is a really interesting and great post explaining a bit about the situation in Columbia! It seems that it is often the minority that ruin things for the majority… As with travel to most places, common sense plays a big factor.

  15. This is a great post and perfect for me as I want to venture over to Colombia in early spring. Many of my friends from Panama are already going there and love it. They mostly go to Medellin and Bogota so those will be my first stops. Speaking of Pablo Escobar, did you ever watch Narcos on Netflix? Oh, I cannot wait for the next season.

  16. I would like to see more of Colombia. I liked Cartagena. it was a very cool city.
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  17. Its a shame when an entire country is vetoed due to some areas being dangerous. Its wonderful to hear that you can feel very safe there as well! Thank you for explaining why its dangerous too, what happened at the civil war sounds horrible.

    • Tammyonthemove on September 15, 2016 at 6:27 pm said:

      Yes, I can’t believe that the conflict has been going on for so long. So many people have suffered, so let’s hope peace will eventually win.

  18. Love this post! Fear stops people from exploring amazing places. As you stated there are some places you don’t go but if you can avoid those and be smart you can experience amazing people and locations!

    • Tammyonthemove on September 15, 2016 at 6:28 pm said:

      Thank you Bryanna. People have so many misconceptions about so many wonderful countries due to the media. Colombia is definitely well worth the visit.

  19. Thanks for such a wonderful breakdown on the history of Columbia and glad to hear you’ve felt safe living there. It’s always nice to get first hand accounts from people on the ground since the media always seems to exaggerate situations. Columbia looks like a fantastic country–I would love to visit sometime soon!

  20. Love how candid this post is. Thank you for writing it. I’d love to visit Colombia one day.
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  21. I think it’s good for tourists to be educated about the situation and to understand where they can and can’t, or shouldn’t, be going. It’s always good to be safe. It’s great to you were able to go with work and to see what the country is like from a different perspective

    • Tammyonthemove on September 15, 2016 at 6:31 pm said:

      I love have been an expat in so many different wonderful countries over the years. You get to know a country so much better than through a short holiday.

  22. Very interesting post. I didn’t know about the history of Colombia and how the conflict originally started. Very good tips on how to visit the country as well and what to avoid.
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    • Tammyonthemove on September 15, 2016 at 6:32 pm said:

      Thanks very much. Most people think the conflict started in the 90ies through the drug cartels. I didn’t know how complicated the history is either until I got here.

  23. I’ve met many travelers that traveled through Colombia and loved it – many solo females too! I admittingly don’t know much about the history, but would still love to visit eventually.

    • Tammyonthemove on September 15, 2016 at 6:33 pm said:

      Colombia has become more and more popular for tourists over the past few years. The reason we came here was because we heard so many good things about this country.

  24. Great post, Tammy. I also visited Colombia an year ago and I do share your optimism about that beautiful place. Things are changing – the government will soon prevail and peace will reign throughout Colombia. The locals are indeed friendly and truly deserve to live in a nicer place. God bless Colombia!

  25. Useful information about Colombia, for tourists.
    It is particularly important that the author was an eyewitness to the events.
    Thanks for the tips tourist groups!

  26. Misconceptions are sometimes dangerous, isn’t it?
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  27. Great article and i hope conflict will end soon. Even so i had heard some travelers can visit there without doubt but sometime i hesitate to go there too

    • Tammyonthemove on October 26, 2016 at 8:27 am said:

      Thanks Steven! If you stay on the tourist track you should be perfectly safe. I just would recommend venturing off the beaten path just yet.

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