Medellín… is it safe for tourists?

Home to the infamous Pablo Escobar and once considered one of the most dangerous cities on the planet, Medellín has in recent years become increasingly popular with tourists and digital nomads, now often cited as a top city to visit in South America.

Medellin - a safe tourist destination? Colombia

My wife and I recently rented an apartment there for a month, during which time we spent a total of 17 days in Medellín. I’d heard a lot about the crime in Medellín before going, since my wife is paisa and grew up there. However, it’s become a lot safer since she lived there and she hadn’t been back in over a decade, so I did a lot of blog-reading before we went to see what people had to say about safety more recently. The bottom line: it’s perfectly safe if you take precautions.

Let me be clear here, if you want a holiday where you can be 100% care-free and can stroll around in a tourist bubble and drink cocktails, Medellín isn’t for you. However, if you want to get to know this infamous city, are curious to experience Colombian culture and don’t mind a bit of planning and precaution in order to do so, then read on for some more advice.

In our case, we didn’t have any negative experiences in the time we were there, though I would be lying if I were to say we felt safe the whole time. Being a blonde, long-haired, blue-eyed guy in Medellín kind of made me hyper-visible everywhere I went, despite my attempt to fit in by popping on a baseball cap (lol).

At the end of the day, the best way to avoid worrying was to not have anything to worry about, so we both dressed simply, took second-hand iPhone 5s and only ever carried a maximum of £25’s worth of pesos. I guess you could say the saying “don’t gamble anything you’re not willing to lose” applies here. That said, we also took our Nikon SLR camera with us to a few places in Medellín. The key is in the planning and execution of your days out, as I’ll detail below.

Here are my tips for having a safe trip to Medellín:

  • Don’t carry unnecessary valuables around with you. Don’t carry five credit cards around with three days’ worth of cash. Plan your day start to finish and take what you need.
  • Conceal your valuables. Purchase a travel money belt you can wear under your clothes for keeping your cards, ID and any bigger notes. Just keep some change in your pockets for whatever you might need (transport, coffee), and when that runs low you can always pop to the toilet and take out some more cash. Be mindful of pick-pocketing, keeping your phone in your most secure pocket.
  • Avoid drawing attention to yourself. This goes from when you’re packing your suitcase. If you’re walking around in trainers that cost a month’s wages in Colombia, you’re perhaps placing a target on your back. Play it cool, leave your best gear at home. The same goes with your phone. Take your last model if you still have it laying around, if only as a secondary one to use when you’re not on organized tourist excursions or in safer parts of town (El Poblado for example, which is like a tourist haven in Medellín). And whichever phone you’re using, you don’t need to have it in your hand when you’re walking down the street!
  • Plan your trips and take only the essentials. If you’re going in a taxi to the botanical gardens then going back to the hotel, by all means pack your camera into your backpack. But if you’re going to take the metro to the centre to go shopping, leave your camera at the room. It’s planning your day that enables you to avoid carrying extra valuables. Imagine having your backpack stolen with your camera in it on a day when you didn’t even plan to use it. If it’s avoidable, avoid it.
  • Choose to be safe after dark. Now Medellín is apparently great for partying… I don’t like partying so I wouldn’t know, but if you plan to go clubbing my advice would be to take taxis, stay in a group, don’t have too much drink or drugs and keep an eye on your drink. This is pretty sound practice wherever you are in the world, but even more so in Colombia. If you’re not clubbing, my advice is to aim to be off the streets by dark, unless you’re in the touristic barrio of El Poblado. Medellín has plenty of really nice centros comerciales, indoor shopping centres where you can eat, shop, drink coffee and even go to the cinema. They’re secure, open until late and easy to grab a cab from when you want to back to your hotel or apartment. We spent quite a few evenings in various different shopping centres and I’d say we probably felt safest when there.

The last thing I would want to do is put anyone off going to Medellín, but my aim here has been to be realistic and focus on the negative – in a way – so that you can focus on the positives when you’re there. And there are lots of positives… Medellín has museums, culture, great food, beautiful mountain scenery, modern infrastructure, friendly and hospitable people, nearby nature reserves and amazing street art. Not to mention it is known as the city of eternal spring, with (what I would consider) the perfect temperature all year long! If you want some information on getting around safely in Medellín, read this blog post here.

James Sturt-Schmidt - Millennianaire

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