“It is just as safe for a woman to backpack around the world as any man!” – Some Travel Blog Written By A Man
Not to sound like a cynic or anything, but I just don’t believe this idea to be true.
In fact, I think it’s total bullsh*t.
As a solo female traveler, safety is always top of mind; it’s just an unfortunate reality that more risks exist for the female traveler. I don’t consider myself paranoid by any means; in fact, I still manage to put myself in questionable situations from time to time (hey, nobody’s perfect). Generally speaking, though, I’ve figured out a good balance of vigilance and nonchalance that allows me to travel alone quite comfortably while keeping myself out of harm’s way. It’s not so hard to do so long as you’re armed with the right knowledge heading into your trip.
With each new destination come new challenges. I’ve always been grateful for insider knowledge that allows me to know what to expect before I even arrive, so I thought I’d offer up some of my best advice for staying safe in my favorite Latin American city, Medellín, Colombia.
As a disclaimer, I don’t believe Medellín to be a particularly dangerous place and my intention here is not to dissuade anyone from traveling there. In fact, there are a number of reasons I’m certain you’ll love it.
These tips are certainly applicable to both sexes, but my main goal here is to equip my fellow lady travelers with the knowledge they need to feel confident and secure when traveling in Colombia.
How to Stay Safe in Medellín, Colombia
This isn’t so much a suggestion meant to deter unwanted catcalls or sexual advances (but it is good for that, too) but to keep you from standing out as a tourist, in general. Paisa women tend not to wear shorts or tiny skirts during the day OR when out at night, and it’s always a good idea to try to blend in with locals as much as possible.
Late at night, have someone call you a taxi or order one with Easy Taxi or Uber
During the day, hailing a taxi on the street will likely be just fine. At night, however, the best way to ensure you’re getting a legit taxi driver who’s affiliated with a local company and has all the appropriate legal documents to prove it is to call a taxi service directly or order one using the Easy Taxi app. The company will give you a number that you can compare with the taxi that arrives to ensure it’s the right car. If the numbers don’t match, do not get in. Although rare, robberies and express kidnappings are a real possibility. Most importantly, stay vigilant–if you feel uncomfortable, wait for another taxi. Conversely, if you like your experience, ask for your driver’s business card so you can call them again in the future.
Finally, if you’d rather, you can now order an Uber ride in Medellín! The San Francisco-based startup launched service in January of this year, and although it’s slightly more expensive than a yellow cab, it provides a safe, convenient alternative (and bells and whistles like water bottles and a driver who’s actually interested in chatting with you).
No matter the time of day, keep taxi windows rolled up and doors locked
Stories abound of passengers being robbed by drivers on motorbikes while waiting in stopped traffic. Even a few inches of space can be enough for a thief to reach an arm into the car, so I recommend keeping it all the way closed, or open just a crack. Keeping your doors locked is important as well. Furthermore, avoid making yourself a target in the first place–try not to display phones or other expensive goods during your ride.
Stay in groups at night
Know the risks
In all honesty, the biggest risks for visiting tourists are non-violent crimes such as pickpocketing and robbery. There is a more dangerous risk, though, that I would be neglectful not to mention.
Colombia has earned a bad reputation for the prevalence of a powerful drug known as Scopolamine being used as an aid in robberies and even rape. A prescription drug used as an anesthetic or to treat nausea from motion sickness, Scopolamine administered in large quantities can cause a person to lose all sense of free will; victims becomes docile and submissive, and have been known to aid thieves in burgling their own homes or emptying the entire contents of their bank accounts willingly. The effects on the memory are incredibly damaging as well, and victims may not fully be aware of anything that happens while affected or be able to identify their aggressors after the fact. Scopolamine is colorless, odorless and tasteless, and can be sprinkled into food or drinks, or blown into a person’s face (for that reason, it is also known colloquially as Devil’s Breath).
Reduce the risk of falling victim to this dangerous scam by staying in a group when out at night and by never leaving a drink unattended, even for a moment.
It seems Scopolamine use is more common in Bogota and other parts of Colombia than Medellín and I don’t personally know anyone who’s ever been a victim, but it’s important to be aware of the risk. Click here to read more about Scopolamine use in Colombia.
Don’t bring all your valuables out with you–leave a stash of cash and extra cards at home
This should be pretty self-explanatory; in the event of a robbery, you’ll be thankful to have as little on you as possible to minimize your losses. I never took my dSLR out with me at night and would typically only bring the cash I needed for the evening.
Don’t display expensive electronics in public places
Again, avoid making yourself a target by keeping your valuables out of sight the majority of the time. You can certainly take photos from time to time, but I recommend keeping your things tucked away whenever you’re not using them. This is especially important in crowded areas such as downtown or on the metro during rush hour. If you’re working on your laptop at a cafe, sit inside, or at least away from the street.
Don’t get too comfortable
Some neighborhoods in Medellín (El Poblado and Laureles, for example) are often touted as being the safest parts of the city. This may be true in relative terms, but the truth is, bad things can happen anywhere. Plenty of robberies have been known to take place even in the “safest” of neighborhoods; it’s important to remember this and to exercise caution at all times.
Have you traveled in Medellín? What safety tips would you add to this list?