Solo Female Travel in Colombia..
I wrote this in my journal, following a month of solo female travel in Colombia:
“Never have I felt the comfort of strangers more so than in Colombia, a place once known as the ‘Murder Capital of the World.’ Never have I ever encountered more people who went out of their way to help me: not in England or France, Croatia or Peru, not in Turkey or Thailand ~ & certainly not in my home country of the United States.
Odd, the paradoxes we come across in travel.”
Solo Female Travel in Colombia
Originally, Colombia wasn’t on my South America travel itinerary. The plan was to cover Peru, Chile, Argentina, & Ecuador. My friend, however, was dying to visit Colombia. But I was highly skeptical. Colombia’s “bad” reputation concerned me, and I did NOT want to tell my family (who were already concerned about my travels), that I was starting my trip in Colombia, the “Murder & Cocaine Capital of the World.”
Clearly, Colombia’s reputation had gotten to me.
If I’d given in to my initial fears about Colombia, & skipped traveling there ~ it saddens me to think of all the beauty I would have missed, & the people I never would have met, whose warmth & kindness I can still feel long after I’ve left.
And that’s why I’m writing this piece: to offer my perspective on solo female travel in Colombia. Though I wouldn’t recommend Colombia to a first-time solo traveler ~ I simply think you need more life experience & street-smarts under your belt before tackling Colombia alone ~ I DO want to offer encouragement for others who wish to travel there, whether solo or with friends.
Map of Colombia
Top Tips for Safe Travel in Colombia!
After more than a month of solo female travel in Colombia, here are my best tips for staying safe in this beautiful country.
- Put Your Phone Away = In Medellin, several people advised me how NOT to get my phone stolen. First, DON’T keep it in a back pocket ~ especially on the metro or in crowded places. While in taxis, DON’T hold your phone next to an open window! A guy on a motorcycle explained how thieves can come by & swipe it right out of your hands ~ through an open window! Keep your phone in your purse ~ ideally, a theft-proof purse like this one.
- Leave Phone at Hotel on First City Walk = I do this every time I get to a new city: I walk around my hotel, WITHOUT my phone. Basically, I’m “taking the temperature” of the city & getting a feel for it. I may talk to guides about tours, chat with other hotel guests, or check out cool restaurants ~ ALL without my phone. After doing this, I have a much better idea how safe I feel walking around, & how safe my device(s) will be.
- Get Advice from Your Hotel Concierge or Airbnb Host = Getting travel tips from locals is one of the best things you can do in any country. And there’s no better place to start than with your own host. Ask them which areas to avoid, which are must-sees, & for any general safety tips they can offer. TELL THEM where you’re going on your first few outings, so that someone knows when to expect you back at the hotel. If you’re worried, also text a friend back home & let them know exactly where you are.
- DON’T Make Colombia Your First Solo Travel Experience = Though I’m a huge fan of solo travel, I don’t think Colombia is ideal for first-time solo travel. Colombia is still a dangerous country, mainly with drug-related crimes. I think solo female travel in Colombia is better-suited for more experienced, confident travelers, who have several countries & STREET SMARTS under their belts. For first-time solo travel, consider countries like Iceland, Austria, or Ireland ~ all of which are among the safest countries in the world.
- DON’T TAKE DRUGS!! + Watch Your Drinks = I get it ~ Colombia is the cocaine capital of the world. If that’s why you’re visiting, then I wish you the best of luck. But I DON’T recommend sampling the country’s most famous export unless you’re looking for trouble. Some guys I met were raided by police in their Medellin hostel: this is not uncommon. I’ve also heard accounts of drinks in Colombia being laced with drugs ~ even by bartenders! I never experienced this, but take note, & don’t leave your drink unattended.
- NEVER Drape Your Purse Behind Your Chair!! = In crowded outdoor plazas (like the many in Cartagena), you’re just asking for that lovely little purse to get swiped. Crowded plazas are a pick-pocket’s dream. I keep my purse in my lap, or even better ~ I don’t bring one at all. In Colombia, all I brought out was one credit card & the cash I needed, keeping them on the inside pockets of my jacket.
- Spend a Little More ~ & Stay in Nice Neighborhoods = In Cartagena, this means staying in the high-rise Boca Grande district (about a mile from Old Town), or right in Old Town itself. In Medellin, this means staying in or around the El Poblado district. Note ~ it’s FANCY!! People dress to impress, & there are plenty of great mid & high-end hotel options. I found the entire town of Guatape to be lovely, colorful, & safe (I stayed at the Rock & Roll hostel), & met some great people.
- Make Friends via Spanish Classes or Volunteering = The best way to feel safe in ANY country is to create a small network of friends. The easiest, fastest way to accomplish this is by taking Spanish classes or by volunteering (IVHQ offers great volunteer opportunities in Colombia & all over Latin America ~ & they’ll even pick you up from the airport, making it a great option for solo travelers).
- Read Other Travelers’ Accounts = Here are other blogs specifically discussing solo female travel in Colombia: check out this excellent post by travel writer Kim Merritt, on her solo travels in Colombia. And this interview-style post offers two, totally different opinions of solo female travel in Colombia: one girl loved it, the other hated it. Do your research, then make up your own mind.
- FINALLY, Don’t Plan to Stay a Month ~ Buy a One-Way Ticket & Leave if You Feel Unsafe = Everyone’s experience of Colombia will be different. My great experience could be someone else’s nightmare. For that reason, if you’ve never been to Colombia: don’t plan an extended stay. If you like it, STAY. If you don’t, LEAVE. Check Viva Colombia airline for great last-minute deals to neighboring countries like Ecuador or Peru.
So Why Colombia?
So why did I change my mind & decide to visit Colombia, instead of pursuing my original itinerary of Chile & Argentina?
At the time, a flight from Peru (where I was) to Santiago, Chile (where I was supposed to meet a friend) cost about $800. INSANE!! Flights to Cartagena, Colombia, however, were about $150.
Getting to Colombia
Step 1 = $150 flight from Lima to Cartagena on Viva Colombia, versus $800 from Lima to Santiago.
**Step 2 = (VERY IMPORTANT!!) Call friends who’d traveled to Colombia. Get advice, ask about potential dangers or problems, & basically get reassurance that it’s “okay” to travel there. Check with the State Department for up-to-date Colombia travel advisories.
Step 3 = Find a killer place to stay in Cartagena. My friend gladly took on this job & found us an insane penthouse apartment for $60 US per night ~ complete with rooftop pool. Any worries we had about Colombia dissolved when we saw this view.
Solo Female Travel in Colombia
And so, that’s how I found myself in Colombia.
Was I nervous to travel solo in Colombia now ~ as a blonde American? The truthful answer is: no.
Why not? After spending time in Colombia, & getting my own feel for it: I simply didn’t feel afraid. People in Cartagena were laid-back, friendly, & funny. We walked at all hours of the night & day with no problems. Three different friends of mine had recently traveled to Medellin & Guatape, raving about both places. So my concern for solo female travel in Colombia simply lessened just by being in the country.
Here are some examples of what I encountered, during my solo female travel in Colombia:
- A man running after me through the streets of Guatape, yelling, “Senora! Senora!” I accidentally left my bank card in the ATM, & this man who spoke no English ran until he caught up with me, just to return my card. I wondered if someone would’ve done this for me in America.
- An invitation to join a 30+ person conga line at a popular Guatape hotel. I’d accidentally crashed a 40th wedding anniversary. Instead of being upset ~ they urged me to join them!
- The funniest, most welcoming taxi drivers I’ve found anywhere in the world. With excitement in their voice, they’d ask something like, “So, what do you think of our country?” Their passion for their country shined.
- Great bull-shitters. I bought a fantastic turquoise necklace from a gregarious man in Cartagena. Every time we went to Old Town, I looked forward to seeing him & getting the latest gossip. There’s something about finding people to bullshit with that makes a place feel like home real quick.
- Helpful concierges. In particular, the gentleman at Casa Pestagua Hotel & Spa in Cartagena not only gave us a grand tour of the hotel, but then spent 20+ minutes creating an impromptu photo session with us on the rooftop. He captured some of the most spontaneous & glorious shots of our trip.
My take-away? It felt as if people everywhere, all over the country, were going out of their way to change my mind about their country. As if to say, “These are your expectations of Colombia ~ but let me show you what we’re really like.” And they don’t just tell you how great their country is. They show you.
Solo Female Travel in Colombia…
Perhaps one day, you’ll see for yourself how Colombia is reinventing herself. When you do: tell me all about it. For I love this country, & wish more people could experience their culture, & fall in love with it as I did.
For in this way, we can begin to change the narrative for this country. We can begin to change the conversation, from one of violence & mistrust, to one of music & beauty, of laughter & dancing, curiosity & passion.
Because that ~ that is the real Colombia.