Whilst it is fair to say that Bogotá’s reputation as a ‘dangerous’ city is not entirely undeserved, there is also a great deal of scaremongering and ignorance with regard to this matter, particularly online. It often ‘ranks’ within the top 10/25/50 most dangerous/violent cities in the world in online blogs; in this blog post, for example, Bogotá erroneously features as the number one most dangerous city in the world (and this is given as a ‘fact’), followed by a recommendation to think twice before booking a flight there. In the same blog post, the city is unfairly ranked alongside war zones such as Kabul, Mogadishu and Baghdad. This, as well as many other rankings, is not based on official statistics regarding homicide rates and portray a completely unfair and largely inaccurate image of Bogotá.
Cities are only as dangerous as the behaviour of the people who live therein, and this applies as much to the behaviour of potential victims as it does to the criminals themselves. For example, why do many tourists flash their iPhone, Canon DSLR camera and Omega watch on the street in a foreign city, when they wouldn’t dream of doing it in certain areas of their own city (for example, Tottenham, Bermondsey, Lewisham in London, UK)? If you wouldn’t take an unlicensed cab to get home at 3am in London, why would you take the risk in Bogotá?
Every incident that I have heard about where people were robbed or subjected to threats of violence in other countries could have been avoided if people hadn’t been doing things that they just shouldn’t have been doing. So, is Bogotá safe? Well, if you are alert and street-wise, take a normal amount of precaution and use your common sense, there is no reason why you should experience any problems in Bogotá, beyond being short-changed or overcharged – again, this comes back to being alert to such things.
Here are some safety tips on how to be safe in Bogotá:
1) Don’t wear expensive-looking jewellery unless you are travelling to and from a private function/nice restaurant in a pre-booked taxi or private car. If you wear it walking down the street, you are asking for unwanted attention, at best.
2) If you are unfamiliar with the city and need to go somewhere, plan your journey before you leave so that you won’t be walking around with a map (or worse, with your iPhone trying to use Google maps) looking distracted and lost. In some cases, you might be lucky and be approached by someone willing to help; at other times, you will have your iPhone stolen or be targeted as someone looking vulnerable. Always be prepared!
3) Book taxis using Tappsi or EasyTaxi apps on your Apple/Android/Blackberry phone. Alternatively, if you are at a bar, restaurant, hotel or in a building with a doorman, ask a member of staff to help you book a taxi. This is safer than hailing one from the street; however, if you find you have no other option but to do this, text to a friend or post to Facebook the name of the driver and number plate of the taxi you’re in (which are given on the tariff on the back of the passenger seat).
4) Let friends or flatmates know where you are going and more or less when you think you’ll be back so that they’ll know if something’s up.
5) Be vigilant at TransMilenio stations Calle 22 and Avenida Jímenez, which are notorious hangouts for pickpockets and other dodgy types.
6) Avoid walking through the streets between carrera 7 and Calle 22 Transmilenio station. These streets are known for prostitutes and attract people you wouldn’t necessarily want to be walking down the street with. In fact avoid the whole of calle 22, the neighborhood ‘7 de agosto’, and try to avoid being out on the streets late in the evening in the centre (downtown).
7) Avoid taking busetas (the small, worse-for-wear looking buses) if possible, as these are hot-spots for muggers, and maniac drivers. If you must take one, hold on tight and stand or sit near the front of the bus, close to the driver. A common tactic for muggers is to sit at the back of the bus near the exit door, so that they can mug a few people and then quickly jump off the bus before anyone can do anything.
8) If you have a backpack/rucksack, wear it so that you carry it at the front of your body (kangaroo-style), so that pickpockets won’t be able to help themselves to the contents of your bag in a crowded TransMilenio station, for example.
9) If you are in an open restaurant, or one which has its doors wide open, sit somewhere within the restaurant away from the street if possible, and don’t place your mobile phone or wallet on the table. It is common practice for thieves to grab valuables on the tables close to the restaurant entrance and then make a run for it, or jump onto a nearby waiting motorbike.
10) If you need to withdraw or take a significant amount of money out with you, disperse this money throughout your person, carrying smaller amounts of money in different pockets/shoes/socks/your bra/underwear/bag etc. This way, if you are mugged, you don’t necessarily lose all your money. (But never resist muggers – they won’t be afraid to use weapons. Just hand over your bag and empty your pockets; their contents is worth less than your well-being).
11) Go into a shop, discreet doorway or somewhere away from the street to make a phone call or send a text, so that you minimise the risk of having your phone stolen.
12) Before taking out your phone or camera, look and see who’s around you first to see if it seems safe, and keep looking around as you use it, or ask a friend to keep watch.
13) Don’t do anything that you wouldn’t do in your home town!
If you’d like to read some anecdotes on how various people have been screwed over in Bogotá (including some from myself!) pop over to ‘Bogotá for Dummies‘. You might pick up some useful tips!