Advice for Staying Safe in Medellín

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Calle 10
Calle 10 by Parque Poblado (photo: David Lee)
Calle 10
Calle 10 by Parque Poblado (photo: David Lee)

Dave received an email recently from a foreigner who was robbed at his hotel in Parque Lleras after he was drugged, another incident that made me think about staying safe in Medellín. We both felt really bad about it.

The gentleman wanted us to write about his particular case, in detail I believe, here on this blog but we both decided that’s not the voice of this forum. We understand that Medellín has its warts, but so does any big city such as this metropolitan area of 4 million.

We focus on the positive, and there are many, and leave the hard news to Colombia Reports, including updated violent crime statistics.

We do believe in helping people, though, so here is a story on some tips to protect yourself in a city that is starting to teem with tourism all year round.

1. Don’t leave your drink unattended, even for a minute.

It only takes a second for someone to drop something in your beer that will leave you at their mercy. You could lose your wallet, credit cards and passport, and that might be the best-case scenario.

If you’re going to the bathroom, either leave it a friend you trust or just take it with you.

On the rare occasions that I do go out, I always keep my beer with me or ask a friend to guard it if I have to step away for a moment to use the baño or make/take a phone call outside where I can hear better.

2. Don’t walk home by yourself after midnight.

There are exceptions but for the most part, you’re better off just taking a taxi, preferably one the bar or restaurant calls for you so there’s a record of the taxi number.

If not, have a friend wait with you to write the number down.

Chances are, you’ll be fine in a taxi. They have meters and after living here more than three years, I can attest that the drivers typically take the fastest route. Only once have they taken me the long way.

That means the 10,000 pesos you spend on the ride home can save you a lot of grief in the long run.

I know someone who decided to walk home, drunk, from a salsa club one night, and the route included a long, lonely stretch that makes robbery easy. He wasn’t robbed, but the guy in the car did point a gun at him.

He said the guy’s girlfriend begged him to stop, then they drove off.

3. Don’t flash your cameras, cell phones or money.

This means even when you’re in a taxi. Dave wrote about his experience getting robbed at gunpoint when he was using his phone while at a stop light.

It can be even worse if you’re walking down the street, especially at night. A friend got robbed near his house on his way to meet us.

I met another idiot, a guy from Louisiana, who was quick to pull out his wad of 50,000-peso bills when pretty girls walked by. No word yet if he’s been robbed, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Being conservative with your valuables is also a sign of humility here and that can go a long way.

4. Don’t be fooled by Poblado.

It is the most popular area of the city for a reason: great restaurants, fun nightlife, lots of hotels and hostels, highest income. But to think you’re in some kind of safety bubble is a mistake.

The thieves are smart. They know the money and tourism is in Poblado so they descend on that part of the city.

You should have the mindset that crime can happen anywhere so just don’t let your guard down.

Follow these tips and staying safe in Medellín should be a lot easier.

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29 COMMENTS

  1. “The gentleman wanted us to write about his particular case, in detail I believe, here on this blog but we both decided that’s not the voice of this forum.” I disagree with your policy. I think us readers deserve to know about the bad things about Medellin, especially those bad things that the victims want to be disclosed. For some of us, Medelliinliving is the primary source of information about the city. It’s in English, and it hasn’t been filtered by corporate mainstream media.

    • Agree, the policy, while understandable, creates a false rosy picture about Medellin. It wouldn’t surprise me if the website was sponsored by a Medellin tourism bureau.

      • For the record, Medellín Living is an independent website, and in reality, has done very little in partnership with the official tourism organization of Colombia.

        We keep the conversation and topics on the positive side because that’s what people want to read. There are other news-oriented outlets where people can read about crime, politics, the FARC, etc.

    • I understand your perspective, which is why we’ve written about safety on several occasions, as far back as 2010.

      I opened myself up to a lot of criticism when I shared my honest experience of being robbed in 2011. I closed the comments on that article earlier this year as I was tired of people blaming me (the victim) for what happened. But, at the time, I knew I needed to write about it as a public service of sorts.

      I had also asked Ryan to report on the hostel robbery attempt at Tiger Paw.

      So we’re not against writing about the criminality that can affect tourists (and Colombians for that matter), but I also don’t think we should be reporting on every robbery and theft that we hear about, because over the years, I’ve heard A LOT of stories.

    • Hey Mike, gotta say I disagree but I’m guessing you already knew that. That’s why I linked to Colombia Reports…they handle the hard news. We’re not trying to pretend these things don’t happen. We’re just not the medium to write about it.

    • The website is a good source of info and I have noticed the occcasional report warning of dangers while still keeping in line with the policy of wanting to focus on the better things about the city. So fair enough.

    • As someone who grew up in the S.F. Bay Area and lived around a few seedy places in Southern California, as well as many nice places, the advice about not walking home after midnight alone stands for anywhere. But, what many people don’t want to face up to here, is that going out and drinking at night is a possible, and likely, major source of problems in and of itself because of what happens when you drink. You basically become a walking victim. Try enjoying life without being intoxicated to start.

      My girlfriend just moved back to Medellin three weeks ago after living here in Southern California 12 years. She is an M.D., her father a university professor, and her sister an engineer who owns and builds high rise apartment complexes. She tells me her sister and brother-in-law have been robbed in Poblado during the day time. While crime in a major city is expected, it is much more prevalent in Medellin because of the attitude of the people in general about it.

      In other words, nobody wants to talk about the crime, nobody wants to do anything about the crime, and nobody wants to get involved. It really is a situation where people allow the predators to roam freely among them. They have the power to curb the problem, but most people don’t have the ethical and moral impetus to do anything. That is a reflection on the culture as a whole.

      Now where I live in South Orange County, CA, the riffraff out for trouble are easy to spot. Nobody lets them just walk about doing their business without putting them in check…especially the police. The riffraff know they will go down if they pull something here so they don’t come, or don’t stay long if they do. But, I here the police in Medellin are extremely underpaid and highly corrupt. They often work alongside the criminals and share the haul.

      My girlfriend wants me to move to Medellin because she is setting up a practice in the Munipal of Saboneta I believe.

      • I was robbed in broad daylight, completely sober, meanwhile I’ve been out drinking countless times since 2009 in all parts of the city and valley and never had a problem (knock on wood).

        I agree it’s important to keep your wits about you and not drink beyond your limits, but it’s unrealistic to suggest people leave the bars and clubs by midnight. I think it creates a false sense of security.

        There are a lot of little things people can do, habits they can adopt, that will make them less of a target. Walking back to an apartment, hotel or hostel alone, even if it’s only a few blocks away, late at night is a bad idea. Go with a group, or take a taxi. I don’t hesitate to take a taxi a few blocks if I need to and taxi drivers understand and agree it’s safer. Certainly worth the base fare of $2.

        “….nobody wants to do anything about the crime, and nobody wants to get involved. It really is a situation where people allow the predators to roam freely among them. They have the power to curb the problem, but most people don’t have the ethical and moral impetus to do anything. That is a reflection on the culture as a whole.”

        I think it’s easy for us foreigners to criticize things in Colombia, but you have to put the idea that people don’t want to get involved into context.

        Even today, forced displacement… people displaced from their homes by gangs and paramilitaries under threats of violence against them, their children, their families… is a reality in Medellín. I can’t even fathom someone having knocked on my house when I was growing up and telling my parents we had to leave immediately, with none of our possessions, or we’d be killed.

        Go further back to the Escobar days and it was even worse. Escobar’s war escalated from the police and government to the general public. The population was traumatized.

        The legacy of that era remains. People are AFRAID to report crimes, and with good reason. If they don’t have the confidence that the police can and will protect them, it’s self-preservation not to say anything.

        It’s easy to generalize that people don’t have the “ethical and moral impetus to do anything” if you’ve never stood in their shoes, in the exact same situation.

        I do think it’s fair game to be critical of the city’s leadership, both political and within the police/security forces. Residents can and should hold them to a higher standard of security.

  2. Great advise; the people there take pride in their appearance so blend in with them. Shorts with sandles no, nice shirt with blue jeans or slacks yes. Blend in as best you can; no gold chain or watch. I walked around a lot during the day hours, but never at night. I kept my wallet in my front pocket that had a zipper. Stay away from “shady” people and places; Shady = robbery, kidnapped, etc,etc.

  3. I would add another safety measure to this list: beware of the street vendors, especially homeless people trying to sell you things in restaurants. I got robbed while having dinner in a café in Parque Poblado with my phone on the table, next to my plate, when a homeless tried to sell me something.

    This is a common situation in other parts of the world as well, not only in Medellín, so lesson learned: adjust your habits to the culture that adopted you and always keep your valuables safe! (I was used to having my phone on the table in restaurants/cafes, not anymore.)

    As for the blog’s policy, I agree with it, this is an informative blog, not a complaints forum. What can be done in this kind of situations is to take out the main idea and share it with the public, not to specifically write about every single bad thing that happens around here. Medellín Living has been and continues to be a source of information regarding this city for me too, but there are other sources of information for the negative news aficionados.
    What I would suggest is to keep this article open and update it whenever a new safety measure recommended by the public appears.

    Remember you live in a city that has its own problems as other cities have theirs, what your problem should be is to keep yourself safe as you would in any other part of the world.

    Cheers!

  4. I am often spending extra time with people I meet because they really do believe nothing will happen here. I understand your side about not discussing it and am not bashing it. And I have heard all the other people say the stuff like this happens in Miami all the time. And it is true. But it is worth recognizing that never mentioning it can cause people to lower their guard (admittedly this article proves that you may have recognized this). But my gf won’t let me take my phone out in a taxi and we are constantly approached at lights by guys pretending to beg for money but are really looking for low hanging fruit (or papaya if you will) to rob when we are in her car. Considering just last week, acouple (Italian wall street guy and his wife) who were killed and tortured in Poblado in a robbery in their apartment in Las Palmas, the El Savladorian who was attacked in Laureles, and the shoot out on Calle 33 by two motos trying to rob a car (turned out to be a cop who killed one in broad daylight), it is definitely worth mentioning that Medellin is not without problems. You have a good site. And I admittedly don’t know where the balance is. But as the cliche goes todas las rosas tienen sus espinas.

    • I learned about the couple killed in Las Palmas last week. One of the criminals stole their car and later crashed it, which is how he was caught.

      I remember reading here that the couple having a HUGE sum of money in their apartment, 500 million pesos or $250,000 USD.

      Why the hell anyone would keep that kind of cash on hand is beyond me. Maybe to buy an apartment? Who knows, but if that was true, it appears to be a targeted incident, not a random act that could happen to your typical tourist.

      The reason I wrote about my robbery in 2011 at the hands of two men on a moto was to highlight this technique and threat. It’s not going away anytime soon, so it’s important to build awareness.

      Earlier in 2011, a British man was killed in the western part of the city when he resisted a robbery by men on a moto. I knew about that story at the time I was robbed, which is why, obviously, I didn’t resist.

  5. I have to express that in my opinion, the policy not to publish the details of every petty crime that goes on is a very good one. This is not a crime report, nor would I be interested in it becoming one. The blog’s goal, in my view, is not or should not be that of a newspaper. It’s function is to help those interested in Medellin life to explore and experience it in a more enlightened way.

    If the blog did not address this issue at all, THAT would be painting a false, rosy picture of Medellin. The publishers did not do that. In fact, they addressed the issue head on by cutting right to the heart of the matter with constructive tips to help minimize the possibility of these incidents occurring, which happen in every metropolitan city in the world.

    As a native New Yorker who has lived in Medellin for 3 years, I can attest that the very basic, common sense tips provided here, along with the other poster’s excellent advice to dress up a bit, will practically eliminate all the petty crimes that tend to happen to visiting “gringos.”

    The city is growing, in every way. That will always come with the same price that every city faces with economic and touristic growth. Being conscious and not oblivious, respectful of the culture and not dismissive of it is always the key to minimizing incidents for tourists, no matter what the locale. Being rude, disrespectful, careless, mind-numbingly drunk, loud, obnoxious, condescending and poorly dressed (which is another form of disrespect in Latin communities) outside of your country will surely only increase the odds of negative incidents happening.

    That’s my 2 cents.

  6. If I take a taxi in the city, I take a picture of the cab’s license on the door and email it to myself. I then make sure the driver knows I did that. Even if you don’t have a smartphone and/or data connectivity, you can still take the picture and tell the driver you emailed. it.

    • Smart move. I’ve started using Easy Taxi instead of hailing random taxis as it automatically keeps an electronic record of this information. And the taxi drivers know that, of course, so I feel a bit more comfortable.

  7. I agree that Medellin is safe as long as you have some basic street smarts. Bad things can happen anywhere, you just need is to be aware of your surroundings and don’t let your guard down. I do have a question in regards to the taxi’s there. Are there any Taxi companies that you would personally recommend foreigners to use? My parcera told me Flota Bernal is legit. Is it also a good idea to have a designated taxi driver? Let me know your thoughts. Thanks.

    • I made a friendship with a taxi driver there that I use all the time that speaks half way decent english. His name is Robinson Alberto 301 614 1183

  8. If taxi safety is a concern, the very best option is to use the app called Easy Taxi there. It is the safest way to order a taxi in any city it is available. Everything from the name of the driver, his cell number, the taxi cab number, the make and model of the taxi he’s driving, to a picture of the driver is provided to you. Even the estimated time of arrival and a live GPS map displaying at every moment the location of your driver is made available.

    Almost everyone I know in Medellin orders taxis this way, including residents born in the region. Just make sure the picture of the driver and the registered taxi cab number match before you get in the car. Most will address you by name before you enter the taxi as in, “Buenas noches, Don Oliver” which let’s you know, they got your order from the apps system.

    So, keep in mind that by using this app, the driver gets access to your details as well. He will know your name, of course your location and will be able to call you directly via the application, just in case he’s late and wants to inform you that he is still in route or lost and needs more info from you.

    It truly is the best and is preferred to the offensive, adversarial act of taking a picture and telling the driver you emailed it. I’d be offended by that act if I were a taxi driver, in any city. You want your driver to be a helpful friend, not a reluctant servant who can’t wait to get you out of his car. I hope this helps.

    • Hey Oliver, thanks a lot for this information! This is exactly what I needed to know. One question, is the logo of the application a taxi with wifi signals going upwards?Thank you.

  9. Another tip: Be especially wary during the November-December timeframe. There are more parties during this time of the year. People are out spending money on Christmas gifts.

  10. When riding in a taxi, I always sat in the back seat with my window most of the way up and kept a low profile. It has happened where two guys will ride a motorcycle in between cars at a stop light looking for a victim to rob. It is mostly about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The bottom line to all of this is want/risk. If the reason you want to go to Medellin outweighs the risk; then go.

      • Hi Dave,

        Airbnb for taxis. They got a lot of bad press lately for being “big brother”, but people in Mexico City like them because the ARE big brother. All run by smart phones, they have lots of info on the drivers, the passengers, the routes, and probably everything else on earth. Fathers like their daughters to use it. You rate the service like eBay. They’re making a ton of money, they’re hiring the best and brightest, they’re spreading money to celebrities and to “libertarian” politicians like Mark Rubio. I don’t think they’re going away, and I think it’s making life much more relaxed for people who can afford a couple extra bucks for the service; especially in developing countries. Just my opinion.

  11. Very good tips and common sense, as a retired police detective and a security consultant I am more alert than most in September I was in the bathroom in premium plaza when 2 young guys were sizing me up for a robbery , instead of leaving the bathroom after recognizing there intentions, I forced a conversation with them and showed them no fear, while at the urininal one started to walk behind me with what looked like a knife, I didn’t give him my back and he was too scared to stab me in the front while I looked into his eyes, he walked into a stall, and I walked out. I do not recommend anyone who is not armed or trained do this, the smart thing would of been just to exit upon getting that uncomfortable feeling. But as the blog said it the least likely places you would expect trouble you will get it, most gringos or expats have more money in there pocket then someone can make in a month or more. Use the buddy system especially when drinking Good luck enjoy life and stay safe.

    Pete

  12. Hey guys,

    I’ve been a long-time reader, though this is my first post, so I just wanted to start by thanking you for all the great work you’ve done, as I’ve found it very informative. I’m planning to move to Medellin in three years, though I need to complete a year of school and have a couple of years experience to get a hospital-type lab job at the places I’ve looked at. In the summer of 2013, I traveled around South America for a couple of months and fell in love with Medellin, though I was, unfortunately, only there about four days. All the information regarding safety, keeping a low profile, keeping your guard up, etc. is very reasonable. I was just wondering if you could elaborate a little on how this affects your daily lives, as you may be less concerned with certain issues as others, since you actually live in the city, as opposed to just being visitors for a week or two. On my summer trip, I, unfortunately, got mugged in Rio, so I’m trying not to let it bias me more than necessary to another fairly large city like Medellin. I speak Spanish fairly well, so communication isn’t really an issue, but I’m just wondering how much of your attention is used up with safety issues in the back of your mind. For example, if you’re out at night, how often are you consciously looking over your shoulder or wondering if it’s safe to pull out your phone? As I said, I’ve traveled in the past, so I understand that certain precautions need to be taken. I guess I’m just wondering, as someone actually living in the city, where do you draw the line between reasonable safety and being robbed of a certain degree of happiness/peacefulness because of the fear in the back of your mind of criminal activity taking place around you? Thanks again for all the great information you provide and I apologize for the lengthy post (brevity has never been one of my strong suits).

    • Peter –

      First, sorry to hear you were mugged in Rio. Having gone through the experience in Medellin, I know how it can affect your view and comfort in an entire city. It gets easier with time. I had the benefit of leaving a few months later and traveling outside of Colombia for a year. I found that physical distance helped me psychologically as well.

      In terms of day to day live in Medellín, I feel I’m more careful than in a U.S. city like NYC or Washington, DC, in that I’m less likely to take my smartphone out on the sidewalk. I also don’t wear a watch, which would be nice at times (I’m sold on the new Apple watches, but won’t buy one as I’m sure it’ll attract unwanted attention in Latin America).

      I’ve started using Uber whenever possible as they’re unmarked cars, and most of the 30 or so rides I’ve taken, the cars/SUVs have had darkly tinted windows.

      I wouldn’t continue to live in Medellín if I felt the need to look over my shoulder all the time.