32 Most Common Tourist Scams in Colombia

Safety at Bogotá, Barranquilla, Cali, Cartagena, Manizales, Medellín, Pereira, Popayán, Santa Marta
Note: If you can't afford travel insurance, you can't afford to travel. World Nomads Travel Insurance, backed by Lonely Planet & National Geographic, is one we recommend. Check it out before your adventure.

 

Coast of Colombia

Coast of Colombia. Source: Flickr – Luciano

 

Colombia once had a difficult reputation as a result of its drugs trade, but in recent times has changed to become one of the most enjoyable countries to visit in South America.

This country has a great mix of sceneries and attractions.

You can spend time in gleaming cities like Bogota, wander the streets of gorgeous enclaves like scenic Cartagena, explore the colorful street culture in Cali, head for a tour of the Amazon jungle or trek to tombs that pre-date the Inca period!

However, you have to remain vigilant as scams and pretty crime are common. Some violent crime is also prevalent after dark and in remote areas.

So read on to learn how you can protect yourself here!

 

 

A. TOURIST ACTIVITIES

1. Pickpocket

 

How it works:

These thieves work in gangs, and will hang around to spot anyone carrying an expensive or neglected valuable / bag and where it is stored.

Once they mark a target, they will surround you and work like this:

  • One keeps a lookout and blocks passer-bys from seeing the scene.
  • Another blocks, pushes or distracts you (e.g. ask you a question / drop something).
  • A third steals your valuable / slashes your bag and then passes it on.
  • The last hides the loot under a jacket / coat / newspaper and then escapes.

A non-exhaustive list of hotspots:

  • Major cities, crowded streets: Bogota, Medellin, Cali, Caribbean coast.
  • Public transportation: buses, TransMilenio, Montserrate cable car.
  • Markets, shopping malls
  • Restaurants, hotels: Calle Media Luna in Cartagena (backpackers’ hostels area), hostel area in Candalaria, parks near hotel (El Poblado, Laureles).
  • Tourist attractions:
    • Cartagena: historical center (El Centro, San Diego), Getsemani, Bocagrande, El Laguito, Castillogrande
    • Candalaria: Bogota historical district
    • Bogota: Cerro de Monteserrate
  • Nightspots: Parque 93, Zona T, Zona Rosa
  • Festivals: Festival de Flores (August), Reinada Parade

 

What to do:

Stay alert and watch out for suspicious characters, though that is easier said than done.

The best solution is still, to not make yourself look like a target. 

Make it impossible for thieves to steal from you:

  • Carry around a photocopy of your passport instead of the actual one.
  • Carry small amounts of cash in a cheap spare wallet that you wouldn’t mind losing. Do not leave it in your back pocket.
  • Conceal small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch, large valuables in a slash-resistant and lockable anti-theft bag.
  • Leave most valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe, secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) which covers loss of valuables.

 

2. Spilling scam

Image source: gadventures.com

 

How it works:

This is a common scam globally (e.g. Chile, Costa Rica, Thailand).

Someone will spill something on you such as a drink or a substance that looks like bird droppings on your clothes.

While you are get flustered discovering the stain, a group of people will try to wipe you are down and use the opportunity to pick your pockets.

 

What to do:

Stay alert of your surroundings. If someone tries to help, push them away and get to a safe space.

Ideally, you should have concealed your valuables in an anti-theft bag or a money belt or hidden pouch to make it impossible to steal from you.

 

3. Magazine and sticker scams

Image source: thecitypaperbogota.com

 

How it works:

This scam usually takes place in restaurants or cafes at Bogota.

A magazine or sticker seller will come up to you and hold the magazines over your table.

As you are distracted, they will use the cover of the magazine to take items from your table such as a mobile phone.

 

What to do:

Stay alert, and shoo these sellers away if you see them approaching.

Avoid laying your valuables out on the table unnecessarily, as all it takes, is a few seconds for a thief to steal or snatch and run away with it.

Also, avoid leaving your bags lying around / slung behind you.

Ideally, conceal your small valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch and use an anti-theft bag that can be locked down onto your chair / table.

 

4. Snatch thefts and armed robberies

 

How it works:

Generally, there are two versions of snatch thefts – strike and run, or distract and grab, in many possible contexts:

  • Bikes / mopeds riding past, with a pillion rider doing the snatch.
  • Snatching from behind you, then running into a getaway car to escape.
  • At restaurants, stealing unattended bags / valuables on the chair or table.
  • Hotels airports, where distracted / tired tourists carry all their valuables out.
  • The beach where tourists are relaxed, or when they head to the water.
  • Nightclubs, where “prostitutes” pretend to proposition tourists by grabbing them but are really trying to steal your valuables.
  • Seats beside a train’s doors where a thief gets out just before the doors close.
  • Stealing of bags on overnight trains / buses.
  • Valuables snatched through a car / bus window.
  • Thefts around ATMs.

A non-exhaustive list of hotspots:

  • Bogotá:
    • Neighbourhoods of Ciudad Bolivar.
    • El Codito (between calles (streets) 174 and 182 from Carrera 7 to Carrera 1 and in the northeastern hills from calle 182 to 200).
    • Kennedy and Soacha.
    • Monserrate and its surroundings.
    • Downtown area of Candelaria and surrounding neighbourhoods.
    • Hiking trails.
  • Medellín
    • City centre and areas not covered by the metro system.
    • Areas outside of the Santo Domingo Metrocable station.
    • Road from José María Córdova International Airport to the city.
    • Parks in El Poblado and Laureles.
  • Cali
    • Anywhere outside the hotel zone and the south of the city
    • Backstreet of El Centro and Sucre neighborhoods.
    • Avenida Sexta at night.
  • Popayan
    • Barrio Anfonso Lopez

 

What to do:

At crowded places, even seemingly safe places like at a restaurant or hotel:

While out walking / on transport:

  • Use a cross body anti-theft bag facing away from the road / windows of your vehicle.
  • Do not carry valuables in your hands when walking by the road or when beside a vehicle window / train door.
  • Avoid wearing obvious jewelry which can be easily ripped off.

Other protection measures:

  • Leave valuables in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe secured with hotel safety tools.
  • Get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) which covers loss of valuables).

 

5. Fraudulent hiking tours

Image source: sarepa.com

 

How it works:

Many travelers to Colombia want to sign up to a hiking tour but some of these can be scams.

The tour guides will take you out into a remote area and will then rob you of your valuables or will threaten to leave you in the middle of nowhere unless you pay them more money for the tour.

 

What to do:

Only book a tour with a reputable operator which you can find through these channels:

  • TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.
  • Viator: largest platform of day tours globally and in Colombia with low price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

As for your personal safety:

  • If possible, avoid taking a tour alone as this can increase your chances of being robbed.
  • Make sure to get travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) which covers hiking related activities.

 

6. Fraudulent tour guides

Image source: cruisemapper.com

 

How it works:

Often these scam artists can be found in Bogota or at the cruise ship docks in Cartagena.

They will offer you a tour at an inflated price and a set period of time but will usually be unclear about the exact details.

Once you pay them upfront, they will take you straight to a range of shops where they will get commission on any items you purchase.

They will also neglect to take you to any of the attractions you want to see.

As the tour will be timed, they will waste most of it at venues where they will get commission and you won’t get to see much of what you want to see.

 

What to do:

Engage a licensed, reputable tours and activities operator which you can find via:

  • TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.
  • Viator: largest platform of day tours globally and in Colombia with low price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

To determine if an operator is legitimate, ask these questions:

  • Is the operator licensed and is there a professional website, physical office, business email and working telephone number?
  • Are there online reviews? Do they sound legitimate?
  • Is the price too low to be true? What does it cover (vehicles, guides, safety, insurance, hidden fees, etc)?

When paying:

  • Avoid paying in full upfront unless through a reputable platform / operator.
  • If using an online platform, do not make payment off the platform.

 

7. Unsolicited tours

Image source: alongdustyroads.com

 

How it works:

When walking around cities such as Cartagena and Bogota you may be approached by a friendly local.

They will use an excuse to engage you in conversation, such as asking where you are from, and will then begin to follow you.

As you walk they will start to show you points of interest or take you to a cafe or restaurant.

When it comes time for the tour to end, they will ask for money even though you did not agree to this.

A twist on this is that they will also deliberately take you to shops, cafes, or restaurants where they will receive a commission if you buy something.

Often the price will be inflated with this in mind.

 

What to do:

Should you find someone following you on the streets then make it clear that you don’t want a tour.

If you do want to take a tour of a city in Colombia then book through a professional tour company.

You can find one through:

  • TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.
  • Viator: largest platform of day tours globally and in Colombia with low price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

 

8. Beach free food and service scam

Image source: getyourguide.com

 

How it works:

Playa de Bocagrande is packed with vendors selling diverse wares but in their midst are also con artists who lure you with offers of “free” samples and other scams.

Some examples include:

  • Letting you eat lots of oysters and later insist that only the first oyster was free.
  • Masseurs will give you a massage even if you say no.
  • You will be shown nice looking fish on a tray but what you get served is actually different.

 

What to do:

If you don’t want something, you have to be very firm about it as these pushy vendors do not take “no” for an answer.

Similarly, if you do want a product or service, be very firm over the price negotiation right at the start.

 

9. Fake towel charge

 

How it works:

At the Playa de las Americas, people may try and charge you for placing your towels on the beach

 

What to do:

Refuse to pay as there are no such charges.

 

10. Gold / emerald shop price scam

 

How it works:

If you order custom jewellery pieces, you may fall for this scam.

There are shops which try to confuse tourists by using the term “Bono” instead of “Deposito”.

The day you come to pick your item, you will be informed that what you initially paid for was just the deposit for the materials, not the full price which is what you thought.

Now, you need to pay for the labour which is likely to be very inflated. Should you refuse, your deposit will be forfeited.

 

What to do:

For big ticket items, only buy at reputable places. Check with your hotel / hostel staff or do some online research.

 

11. Inflated tourist prices

Image source: uncovercolombia.com

 

How it works:

When you are buying gifts or souvenirs in big cities such as Bogota bear in mind that the price is usually inflated beforehand.

This is due to the fact that the seller expects you to haggle.

 

What to do:

It is normal for sellers to overprice their items when you start negotiating with them, so bargain hard.

Else, a few other options are to:

  • Use local connections: get a local to bring you around.
  • Fixed price shops: slightly higher prices than average, but you won’t be ripped off.
  • Shopping tour through Viator (largest platform of day tours globally and in Colombia): get a professional guide to bring you around.

 

12. Item swap scam

 

How it works:

Like in Hong Kong and Morocco, this scam happens when you are in a shop and a server is packing your items.

Often when you unpack your items when you get home you will find that some of them have mysteriously gone missing.

 

What to do:

If someone offers to pack your purchases for you then make sure that you watch the process and check that you have everything before you leave the store.

 

13. Fake goods

 

How it works:

Colombia produces a huge number of fake goods.

In places such as Cartagena fake Cuban cigars are often sold on the street although these usually contain tobacco waste or grass clippings.

Other common fake items include “locally made” handicraft, pottery antiques (illegal to bring this out if it’s real), organic coffee, gold, emeralds, perfume, electronics, etc.

Watch out for gold / emerald shops which try to pass off as “museums” with the posters “Museo de Oro” – there is only one real gold museum in Cartagena which is Plaza Bolivar.

 

What to do:

If you wish to buy, learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff, or only visit licensed, reputable shops.

You can find these by doing some online research or by asking your hotel / hostel staff.

If you find researching too time-consuming, other options available include:

  • Using local connections: get a local to bring you around.
  • Shopping tour through Viator (largest platform of day tours globally and in Colombia): get a professional guide to bring you around.

 

14. Drink or food spiking

Image source: viahero.com

 

How it works:

One of the most common ways robbers use to rob people in Colombia is to drug victims using food, drink, aerosols, chewing gum, cigarettes or even flyers tainted with drugs.

The drug of choice here is scopolamine (also known which as the “devil’s breath” which acts quickly and causes victims to feel incapacitated.

Once you are unaware of your surroundings the scammers will take the opportunity to rob you.

 

What to do:

Do not accept food, drinks, or cigarettes from strangers, be it in a bar or on the bus.

If you are in a bar or club then don’t take any drinks that you haven’t seen made in front of you and if possible stick to bottles which are harder for scammers to tamper with.

Finally, do not flaunt your valuables. Leave them in your hotel / hostel / apartment safe which you can further secure with hotel safety tools.

 

15. Overcharging restaurants

Image source: landlopers.com

 

How it works:

There are a couple of ways restaurants can overcharge:

  • No menu: be prepared to be ripped off as prices can be made up on the spot.
  • Tourist menu: a number of restaurants have two sets of menus: one for locals and the “Gringo menu”, the latter often priced higher. The tourist menu will often lack cheaper items like comida correinte with other meals set at exorbitant prices.
  • Note switching: claiming you paid with a 1,000 peso instead of a 10,000 note, as they look similar due to being of the same colour; it can also work in the reverse when they return change to you.
  • Propina voluntaria: a voluntary tip that automatically gets added to your bill at some restaurants.

 

What to do:

Do some online research or check with your hotel / hostel staff on recommended places locals go to eat at.

If researching is too much of a hassle, you can also consider joining a fun local food tour!

  • Viator: largest platform of day tours globally and in Colombia.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

When at a restaurant / food establishment:

  • Walk off if a waiter tells you “hay menu” – they don’t have a menu.
  • Make sure to get an itemized bill and check it carefully.
  • Count your money before paying and check the change given to you.
  • As for the “propina voluntaria”, you can decline to pay this tip and instead opt to tip the waiter serving you directly.

 

B. TRANSPORT

1. The millionaire drive

 

How it works:

This is also known as El Paseo Millionaire, or express kidnappings, which also happens in places like Mexico and Peru.

If you try hailing a taxi in areas such as Candelaria in Bogota at night, you can be a potential target. Though it also happens in Cali and Medellin.

When you get onto the taxi (an unlicensed one), you will be driven to a secluded area and threatened by a gang of knife wielding thugs working with the taxi driver.

Usually, you will be cuffed and blindfolded. They will then drive you to an ATM to withdraw everything until it hits the daily limit, wait for the limit to reset at midnight and then withdraw again.

 

What to do:

Getting a cab:

  • Avoid traveling in unlicensed taxis and taxis with someone inside other than the driver.
  • Avoid hailing one off the streets and in remote areas outside the central tourist hubs at night.
  • If possible travel in a group after dark.
  • Call or get a hotel / restaurant to call a taxi for you.
  • An alternative is to use taxi booking apps like Tappsi, Cabify or Uber.

Getting into a cab:

  • Look out for the license plate, company, ID, inside handles and latches of the taxi.
  • Take a picture of the taxi and send it to someone in case anything goes wrong

Keep a separate bank account just for traveling:

  • Do not keep too much cash in there.
  • Only carry a bank card of that account so that even if kidnapped, you would not have much to lose.

Further, get travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) for two key purposes:

  • Monetary compensation for any loss of valuables.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

 

2. Airport unofficial taxi robbery

Image source: medellinguru.com

 

How it works:

When arriving at major airports in Colombia, tourists have occasionally fallen victim to unofficial taxi drivers who bring them to armed robbers instead of their intended destination.

 

What to do:

The safest way is to use the taxi booths that are available at the airports, where the person managing the booth will issue you a ticket indicating both your destination and amount paid.

Airports like Puente Aereo (domestic) and El Dorado (international) have dispatchers who will guide you to your authorized taxi located near the booth.

Retain one part of the ticket for your own record and give the other part to the taxi driver

Other options also include:

  • Pre-arrange vehicle pick up through your hotel / hostel or through day tour platforms like Viator (largest globally and in Colombia).
  • Get a rental car via AutoEurope – over 60 years of industry experience, super reliable with best price guarantee.
  • Use a taxi booking app like Tappsi, Cabify or Uber.

 

3. Overcharging taxi drivers

Image source: thecitypaperbogota.com

 

How it works:

There are a couple of ways taxi drivers can overcharge you:

  • Currency swap: you pay with a 20,000 Colombian pesos note, they distract you and then switch it to a 2,000 Colombian pesos note and ask you to top up the difference.
  • Not using the meter and charging inflated flat fare: taxi touts at airports and the taxi cartel at the Cartagena cruise ship docks employ such a practice.
  • Rigged taxi meter: jumping too much or too fast.

 

What to do:

Solution to currency swap:

  • Familiarize yourself with the Colombia pesos.
  • When handing over the money, mention the notes aloud to the driver.

Solution to not using the meter:

  • Estimate a fair price by checking with your hotel / hostel staff, using an online taxi fare estimator, or using a taxi booking app like Tappsi, Cabify or Uber.
  • At the airport, you can get a radio taxi at the official counter or taxi stand outside.
  • For the ports in Cartagena, head out of the terminal instead of engaging the taxi cartel.

Solution to rigged meter:

  • Watch the meter, it should only go up by a single digit for every 100 meters.

 

4. Taxi card swipe

 

How it works:

In Bogota, if a taxi driver claims that cash is not accepted and that you have to pay by card, then that is definitely a scam.

This is because he is going to swipe your card with a fake card machine to capture your card details.

As the machine is fake, the transaction will fail and he will eventually ask you for cash anyway.

However, he would have gotten your card details, and if you are required to type in your PIN, he would have captured that as well.

 

What to do:

If you encounter this, insist you don’t have a card, or use a debit card but enter a wrong PIN.

 

5. Long taxi routes

Image source: mikesbogotablog.blogspot.com

 

How it works:

If you find a taxi who will agree to use a meter then they may drive you all over town in order to inflate the fare.

In cities like Cali and Medellin the fare price is clearly displayed on the meter and drivers are less likely to scam you.

In Bogota however they use a confusing tariff / pay band system (laminated sheet is provided) which you then need to convert to get the final fare.

As the fare in Bogota is far less clear however, drivers often take you on a long route to keep pushing the pay bands up.

An observation is that this is more likely to happen on Sundays where there is less demand for taxis and tariffs are higher.

 

What to do:

First, especially for long routes, make sure to estimate the fair price by checking:

  • With your hotel / hostel staff.
  • An online taxi fare estimator / online travel forums.
  • Taxi booking apps like Tappsi, Cabify or Uber.

In the cab, be very clear when communicating the destination you are heading to. You can also mention the more prominent landmarks around your destination.

During the route, you can check your phone’s GPS at intervals to make sure you are headed in the correct direction.

Note that sometimes though, drivers do take detours to avoid traffic jams, but that should not detract from the correct general direction.

In Bogota, besides using the laminated sheet, you can also download the Calculadora de Tarifas app and check using that.

 

6. Boat tour scam

Lighthouse in Cartagena

Lighthouse in Cartagena

 

How it works:

This scam is prevalent when it comes to boat tours to the outlying islands around Cartagena.

When you sign up for a tour with a tout, they will tell you that you need to pay the full fee upfront as they need to buy gasoline in advance of the trip.

They will then take you out to an island and threaten to leave you there if you don’t pay them an additional fee.

Worse, they may not even turn up or turn up much later for the return trip.

 

What to do:

Avoid paying a tour operator upfront, or at least not in full. The rest should be paid when you return to your point of origin.

In the first place, engage only legitimatereputable tour operators, as safety is another issue poorly addressed by shady tour operators

You can find them via:

  • TourRadar: all the best multi-day tours by established names like Intrepid Travel, G Adventures, Trafalgar, etc can be found here with best price guarantee.
  • Viator: largest platform of day tours globally and in Colombia with low price guarantee.
  • Your hotel / hostel affiliated tour operators: reliable but generally not the best or cheapest.

 

7. Overnight cross border bus thefts

Aquitania

Aquitania

 

How it works:

There have been reports of thieves operating on tourist buses in Colombia, particularly those that service border crossings.

As many of these are night buses, thieves will wait for you to fall asleep and then steal your possessions.

 

What to do:

To make it impossible for thieves to steal your bags, here are some steps you can take:

  • Keep your bag on your lap / beside you instead of in the overhead compartment.
  • Should you wish to take a nap, make sure to use a TSA lock / cable lock / cable ties to lock your bag and to lock the bag to yourself / your seat.
  • Or simply get a lockable anti-theft bag that comes with a mechanism to lock to yourself / your seat.
  • Hide small valuables in a money belt / hidden pouch.
  • Finally, get a good travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) to cover loss of bags / valuables within.

 

8. Carjacking

 

How it works:

Some areas where carjacking is prevalent include Choco, Bahia Solano, and Nuqui as well as the border areas between Ecuador, Venezuela and Panama.

Criminals also operate on the road from Jose Maria Cordova Airport in Medellin.

These criminals regularly hold up cars or buses in these areas and rob passengers of all their possessions.

They can do so by pretending to have a problem with their car to beckon you to stop, set up debris in the middle road block, set up a fake police roadblock and what have you.

 

What to do:

It is best to fly rather than travel overland if you want to travel to these areas, though when traveling from Jose Maria Cordova Airport in Medellin, try to do so during the day time.

If someone tries to stop you, do not stop. Should you want to check if there is any damage to your car, stop a distance away, or only step out in full view of traffic and others.

Do not leave any valuables exposed in the car:

Also, get travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads, trusted by Lonely Planet and National Geographic – check our review) for two key purposes:

  • Monetary compensation for any loss of valuables.
  • Medical coverage in case you are assaulted.

 

9. Rental car damage

 

How it works:

Unfortunately, rental car companies such as Vis, Hertz, Enterprise and others have a rather infamous reputation in Colombia.

They are known to look for even the smallest scratches on the car and force you to pay for the repair or damages when you bring the car back, even if the scratches were there before you rented the car.

 

What to do:

Inspect thoroughly before signing. If in doubt, take photos and check with the staff.

 

C. MISCELLANEOUS

1. Drug set-up

Salento

Salento

 

How it works:

Like in Tunisia, If you meet an overly friendly local stranger who asks you to join him for a drink, beware.

There have been reports where after the ice has been broken and you get a bit tipsy, drugs are planted on you and cops (could be real or fake) will then arrive on the scene.

These police officers will then accuse you of being a drug smuggler and threaten to throw you into jail, unless you pay them an insane amount of money as bribe.

 

What to do:

Always be wary when you are approached by an overly friendly local stranger to hang out.

If you are caught in such a trap and have not obviously broken the law, be very skeptical when a “police officer” approaches you.

Three steps you can use to shake them off:

  • Verify badges and identification. Threaten to call the police hotline (end of this article).
  • Never give your passport if asked. Show only a photocopy of it.
  • If they want to fine you or check your bags, insist to only do so at a police station (use your GPS to find it or check with a local) with a lawyer or someone from your embassy.

Next, you should have hidden your valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch and use a cheap spare wallet with not much cash inside.

This way, the scammers may simply let you go since you do not seem to have much cash.

 

2. Fake police

 

How it works:

You may encounter this scam at the La Candaleria district in Bogota. Generally, there are three possible variations.

First variation: counterfeit money

  • Scammers posing as police officers demand to check your money to see if it is counterfeit.
  • Once you hand it over they will accuse it of being fake.
  • They confiscate it and give you a fake receipt which they claim you need to change at a police station for real currency.

Second variation: passport as hostage

  • This time, scammers ask for your passport.
  • Once you hand it over, they will refuse to give it back until you pay a fine for some made up offence.

Third variation: tag team

  • Another scammer poses as a businessman from Venezuela or Bolivia / local / tourist and engages you.
  • Fake police officers appear and accuse you both of engaging in illegal activity.
  • They demand to check your identification, wallet and bag, which the other scammer will comply and encourage you to do so.

 

What to do:

If you have not obviously broken the law, be very skeptical when a “police officer” approaches you.

Three steps you can use:

  • Verify badges and identification. Threaten to call the police hotline (end of this article).
  • Never give your passport if asked. Show only a photocopy of it.
  • If they want to fine you or check your bags, insist to only do so at a police station (use your GPS to find it or check with a local) with a lawyer or someone from your embassy.

Next, you should have hidden your valuables in a money belt or hidden pouch and use a cheap spare wallet with not much cash inside.

This way, the scammers may simply let you go since you do not seem to have much cash.

 

3. Hostel attacks

Candelaria

Candelaria

 

How it works:

Due to many recent attacks, the Tourist Police has been warning visitors about the possibility of crime and assault in the backpacker hostels located in the Candelaria area of Bogota.

 

What to do:

When booking your accommodation, do it through legitimate platforms such as:

  • Booking.com: Frommer’s tests have found the site to offer the best selection and rates amongst competing sites most of the time.
  • Homestay: if you are up for gaining genuine insights of Colombia by staying with a local host!

Check out the area’s general safety and check other user reviews as well.

 

4. Shoe shine scam

Image source: hiveminer.com – hectoriust

 

How it works:

There are plenty of shoe shiners in the city.

If you enquire about the prices, you will be told that it is $3,000 COP (USD $1).

However, after both of your shoes are cleaned, you will be told that it is actually $13,000 COP per shoe, therefore $26,000 COP for both shoes or USD $8.50.

 

What to do:

Avoid these shoes shiners as they will simply charge you more for being a foreigner.

If you want to engage them, put the negotiated price (for both shoes) down on paper.

 

5. Fraudulent money changers

Image source: farmfolio.net

 

How it works:

Like in Indonesia and Czech Republic, money changers are notoriously fraudulent in Colombia, particularly those who work from small booths in the street.

Not only will they give you a bad rate of exchange or charge a hidden commission, but the currency that they give you may be fake.

 

What to do:

It is best to only change money at legitimate casas de cambios, banks, ATMs or hotels in Colombia.

 

6. Fake currency swap

 

How it works:

Fake currency is a big problem in Colombia and you will often have issues with counterfeit money in tourist shops or taxis.

When you give the seller or driver a 50,000 Colombian peso note they will take the note and say that they need to look for some change.

Once the note is out of sight they will switch it for a counterfeit bill and will hand it back to you insisting they don’t have any change. You will then have to pay the bill with smaller notes.

When you try to use the 50,000 peso bill that they gave back to you in another establishment you will find out that it is fake.

 

What to do:

If you hand money to a seller or driver then make sure that you always keep it in your line of sight so that they can’t exchange it.

For big notes, you can also make it a point to take a photo or try to commit the serial number of the note to memory.

Alternatively, avoid carrying large denominations around.

To identify if a note is real, observe if:

  • It has a watermark and a metallic thread that runs through it.
  • Another trick locals use for coins is to bounce them off pavements – they should.

 

7. Rigged ATMs

 

How it works:

ATM scams are prevalent in big cities such as Medellin and Bogota. Generally, ATMs can be rigged in two ways.

First, the card skimmer and pinhole camera / keypad overlay set up:

  • A card skimmer is installed over the card slot to capture your card details.
  • As for the pinhole camera / keypad overlay, it is used to capture your PIN but in different ways.

Second, the card trap:

  • Scammers can use cheap tools to rig the card slot to trap your card.
  • When you find your card stuck, they will come over and act as a helpful soul, and ask you to retype your PIN to make the card come out.
  • Obviously, your card will still be trapped, but the scammer will have now seen your PIN.
  • Should you head into the bank or somewhere else to seek help, the scammer will unblock your card and escape.

 

What to do:

Avoid using ATMs at dark, secluded areas. Use only those in controlled environments such as in banks.

Scan the area for suspicious looking characters, look out for red flags of a rigged ATM and cover your PIN when typing it in.

Also, although not directly relevant, consider using a RFID blocking wallet.

That will prevent your cards’ details from being skimmed by thieves with a mobile RFID reader / scanner.

 

8. Fake beggars

Medellin

Medellin

 

How it works:

In Medellin, you may encounter a beggar saying he is hungry and request for a sandwich.

To prove his genuineness, he will even let you do the ordering to show you that the money is not for drugs. Once you part, he sells the sandwich and still buys drugs.

Another spotted incident is that of a young man carrying his drink in a cup and a sandwich who stumbles while trying to catch a bus.

With the spilled drink and sandwich, he will kick up a scene and look devastated, hoping to earn some change from kind-hearted passerbys.

 

What to do:

Ignore.

 

D. KEY SAFETY ISSUES

This is not a fear mongering exercise, as most visits are trouble free as long as you exercise some common sense.

However, it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Information below has been compiled from:

                                                     

1. Violent crime, hazards, hotspots, terrorism, civil unrest

Image source: smartraveller.gov.au

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Violent crime: significantly reduced since 1990s but still high.
  • Hazards: landmines in the countryside due to past conflicts with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).
  • Hotspots: criminal groups around Mozambique border.
  • Terrorism: presence of terrorist groups (National Liberation Army (ELN), dissidents of the FARC, illegal armed groups.
  • Civil unrest: demonstrations as government clamps down on unlicensed street vendors in the Harare central business district (September 2018).

 

What to do:

Stay alert, avoid secluded areas, travelling alone at night, and don’t look like an easy victim (e.g. looking like a tourist / flaunting valuables).

Monitor local media in case of any terrorist threats, and avoid participating in demonstrations.

Definitely avoid these areas:

  • Arauca
  • Cauca (except Popayan)
  • Chocó (except Nuquí)
  • Nariño
  • Norte de Santander (except Cucuta)
  • Venezuela border (within 20 km)
  • Panama border (within 20 km)
  • Ecuador border (within 20 km, except Pan-American highway)
  • Ports of Buenaventura and Tumaco

Reconsider traveling to these areas:

  • Antioquia (excluding Medellín, Carmen de Viboral, José María Córdova International Airport and airport road);
  • Arauca
  • Cauca
  • Caquetá
  • Chocó
  • Cordoba (excluding Monteria)
  • La Guajira (excluding area north of Highway 90 between Riohacha and Paraguachón)
  • Guaviare
  • Huila (excluding Neiva)
  • Meta (excluding Villavicencio)
  • Nariño (excluding Pasto)
  • Norte de Santander
  • Putumayo
  • Santander (excluding Bucaramanga, Barichara, Socorro, San Gil, Girón)
  • Tolima (excluding Ibagué)
  • Valle del Cauca (excluding Cali)
  • Vichada

 

2. Medical care

Image source: misviajeskamilokardona.blogspot.com

 

How it works:

Medical care is adequate in cities and state capitals, but poor elsewhere.

Diseases to vaccinate against / watch out for include:

  • Insect borne diseases: zika, dengue, chikungunya, malaria, yellow fever, leishmaniasis.
  • Food and water borne diseases: travellers’ diarrhoea, tuberculosis, typhoid, hepatitis.
  • Animal borne disease: rabies.

 

What to do:

If you can’t afford travel insurance (e.g. World Nomads – our review), you can’t afford to travel, as:

  • Emergency health services can cost a bomb.
  • Insurance providers can make complex logistical arrangements to get you the best medical treatment fast.

Vaccinations to consider:

  • All travellers: measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine, diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine, varicella (chickenpox) vaccine, polio vaccine, flu shot.
  • Most travellers: Hepatitis A, typhoid.
  • Some travellers: Hepatitis B, malaria, rabies, yellow fever.

Prevent insect bites:

  • Protective clothing.
  • Insect repellents.
  • Insecticide treated bed / cot nets.
  • Plug-in insecticides.
  • Avoid wooded and bushy areas with high grass.

Food safety:

  • Practise safe hygiene such as washing hands with soap.
  • Only drink bottled water or water that has been boiled.
  • Avoid unpasteurized dairy products, ice cubes, uncooked and undercooked food.

 

3. Natural disasters

 

How it works:

A brief summary:

  • Earthquakes: occur regularly.
  • Floods and landslides: rainy season in April to May and October to November.
  • Volcanoes: the last major eruption was Nevado Del Ruiz in June 2012.

 

What to do:

Effective preparation and prevention involves staying at the “right” place, travelling at the “right” time and getting travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) that covers natural disasters.

Check the latest media reportsweather forecasts and sources such as

Reacting to one:

  • Earthquakes: drop (to hands and knees), cover (head and neck with arms), hold on (to sturdy furniture); expect aftershocks.
  • Volcanic eruption: avoid areas downwind and river valleys downstream of the volcano, do not drive in heavy ash fall, seek shelter (if no need to evacuate) or high ground if no shelter (crouch down away from volcano, cover head with arms).

 

4. Transport safety

 

How it works:

Accidents are common due to:

  • Poor driving standards.
  • Roads in poor condition.
  • Difficult to see road signs.
  • Traffic laws not being adhered to or enforced.

 

What to do:

Make sure your travel insurance (e.g. World Nomadsour review) covers travel accidents.

Driving:

  • Get a rental car via legitimate platforms (e.g. AutoEurope – over 60 years of industry experience, super reliable with best price guarantee).
  • Check latest media reports and weather forecast.
  • Stay alert, wear seatbelts, keep doors locked and windows up.

 

E. GETTING HELP

Image source: todaycolombia.com

 

  • General emergency hotline: 123
  • Police: 112
  • Fire brigade: 119
  • Medical emergencies: 125
  • Tourist Police: (1) 3374413

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