Colombia has recently seen digital nomads and backpackers flooding back to Medellin. While the city of eternal spring and affordable living is attracting many travelers, new safety concerns have emerged as tourism restarts. We recently spent a month on the ground in Medellin, Colombia to witness firsthand the safety in the city. Here is everything travelers need to know about staying safe while visiting and the latest trending crimes that are targeting tourists.
While Medellin is generally safe for travelers in terms of violent crime, a recent string of armed robberies, druggings and petty crimes against tourists are occurring as of 2022.
Current Crime Wave That Is Targeted At Tourists
This isn’t to scare away tourists but travelers need to know that there is currently a string of crime that is directly affecting tourists in the city. The pandemic and strict lockdowns in Medellin hit the economy so hard that much of the once middle class is now back living in poverty.
Due to the pandemic, Colombia now has the highest poverty rate in all of Latin American estimated at 45% by the World Bank. To put that in perspective, an estimated 18.9 to 23.9 million Colombians were living off less than $91 (USD) per month at the start of 2022.
The Venezuelan refugee crisis has also introduced over 1.75 million Venezuelans into Colombia, many of whom many are unable to work legally and are also living in extreme poverty.
The poverty is leading to a high number of armed robberies directly targeted at the affluent and touristic neighborhoods of Poblado and Laureles. These are the two most common areas of Medellin that travelers stay while visiting. While we were in the city for one month, we first hand knew of 5 armed robberies on tourists including 2 guests that were sitting on the patio of the hostel at which we were staying.
According to Medellin Advisors, an average of 6 people in Laureles and 5 people in El Poblado were robbed per day in 2019. This was before the pandemic hit the economy hard and the number of robberies are estimated to be much higher in tourists areas as of August, 2022.
Other Crimes Targeted At Tourists and Expats
Along with pickpocketing, there is a far more sinister crime currently being targeted at tourists. The use of Scopolamine (devil’s breath) is a drug being used in drinks to heavily sedate unsuspecting tourists and then rob them while they are unaware. This crime is usually targeted at foreign men while they are in bars or clubs but could even happen in a restaurant. Tourists are being directly targeted by girls on dating apps that work for dangerous organized crime groups. Some perpetrators that have used scopolamine in the past have accidentally overdosed their victim resulting in death.
Scams, Stories And Beggars
Right now in Medellin’s busy tourist areas, you can’t walk more than half a block without being asked for money or being approached for a conversation that will inevitably leave a tourist with less cash in their pocket. The poverty has lead to a high number of street vendors, beggars, hustlers, homeless and pickpockets.
Medellin, Colombia is not for first time travelers and visitors to the city should have a strong understanding of what they need to do in order to stay safe while in Latin America.
While Medellin does have its fair share of petty crime and armed robberies, violent crimes against tourists are rare.
Top 9 Tips To Help Keep Travelers Safe While Visiting Medellin
‘No Dar Papaya’ Which translates to ‘don’t give papaya’ it essentially means to not make yourself a target for crime. Follow these 9 tips for staying safe in Medellin.
Leave Your Cell Phone In Your Pocket or Get a Second Phone
The most common crime against tourists in Medellin is cell phone theft. Most of the time the theft will come at gunpoint. Do no take your phone out. Do not take a selfie. Do not use your phone for directions and do not leave your phone on the table while dining on patios or in restaurants. After a few days you may see others do it and get tempted, but this is the very definition of making yourself a target.
Many expats and long term travelers in Medellin have a second cheap cell phone for when they are out and about in the city. That way if you are robbed, it’s not such a big deal to just let it go.
Do Not Fight Back
If you are robbed, do not fight back. Do not give it a second thought and just hand everything over. Violence is most likely to occur during a robbery when the victim refuses to comply with the robber. Another travel blogger Nomadic Matt was stabbed in Bogotá when he refused to hand over his cell phone.
The Decoy Wallet
Get a cheap decoy wallet and put a small amount of money in it. Then using a hidden RFID wallet, keep your credit card and main cash safe. When you are robbed, your wallet and your phone will be the main targets of the thief who will want to be out of there fast. Be ready to hand over your decoy wallet and cheap cell phone. Leave everything else of value at your hotel in the safe including secondary credit cards, banks cards and your primary cell phone. It’s a better idea to carry a small amount of money in and a cell phone then nothing at all. A robber may become frustrated and impatient with a tourist who says they have nothing on them.
Never Leave Your Drink Alone
Make sure you never leave your drink alone or even out of your sight for a moment. There are countless stories of foreigners being drugged by women in Medellin and waking up with absolutely nothing left. Many of these crimes go unreported due to embarrassment of the tourist. The target of this crime is usually men. Using dating apps such as Tinder in Medellin can be very dangerous and a recent undercover video actually caught some of the girls that work for these gangs in action.
Don’t Look Like A Gringo
For guys that are over 6 feet with blonde hair and blue eyes, this may prove a little difficult. This doesn’t mean you should add flip flops, shorts and a tank top into the mix. There is nothing that quite says ‘I’m a tourist’ like flip flops. The more you can blend in, the better off you are. The most common outfit for Colombian men is a pair of jeans, a t-shirt and sneakers. This isn’t saying you can’t wear what you want but the more you blend in and the less your are noticed, the better off you’ll be.
Don’t Go Alone At Night
This one especially applies to the ladies and once again the most common crime will be robbery. Many solo female travel blogs state Medellin is safe for solo female backpackers. While that may be true during the day, I didn’t spot one female walking alone at night. Walking around by yourself after dark is making yourself a target for petty crime. A female walking alone is much more likely to be robbed than one with a group of people. For the men as well, you’ll be much safer in a group then by yourself.
Getting wasted on your first few nights in Medellin is a very bad idea. Unless you are staying at your own hostel or going out on an organized pub crawl like the one run by Los Patios Hostel, your chances of something bad happening are high. Guys most often fall prey in clubs after a few too many drinks. Clubs are filled with local women that know how easy it is to prey on drunk foreigners that are not used to the attention. These women may be prostitutes or even worse, are getting ready to drug and rob you. Walking alone at night while intoxicated is just another way to make yourself an easy target.
Being The Tough Guy
Lets just say the bogans that one sees in Bali won’t last 5 minutes in Medellin. Tattoo’s, muscles and tank tops don’t intimidate the criminals, gangs or guys with guns. Show respect for the Colombian culture, traditions and don’t even think about being the tough guy at the bar. Colombian men and women have grown up knowing how to survive in tough conditions. Gringos in a Colombian prison or dealing with Colombian gangs don’t stand a chance.
Leave Your Gold Rings and Lacoste Sneakers At Home
While dressing nice is part of the Colombian culture, dressing rich is not. Nothing says rob me like your Lacoste sneakers, gold jewelry and Rolex. Seriously leave the bling at home.
While the Medellin expat community groups may be a little cranky on Facebook, they tend to offer some good insights into what is going on in the city in terms of crime and scams. Make sure to keep an eye on them before arriving to stay up to date on current happenings in the city.
Is Medellin Worth The Risk?
Absolutely! While petty crime and robberies do occur, this growing city has made huge strides in becoming safer over the last decade. If you use your head and ‘don’t give papaya‘ your likely to have the time of your life. From the very affordable cost of living, beautiful weather and amazing infrastructure for a trendy nomad life, Medellin is a city with the potential to become the next big thing in tourism.
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This article originally appeared on TravelOffPath.com