Solo Female Going to Colombia? Just Don’t.

Jan 11, 2016    /    most popular posts, stories & photos

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It was 6:00 a.m. and I was laying in bed reading when the low hum of voices from the next room over started to rise.

“You coke whore…you fuckin’ coke whore! Where’s my money?” Screamed a male voice.

A female voice answered in high pitched Spanish.

“You whore. You stole my money. You whore!” the man spat.

I lay there paralyzed for a few moments, waiting for it to stop, unsure what to do.

But it kept going, the screaming, the insults, the rage. And then there were muffled noises—booming and shaking. I wondered if he was hurting her. And I climbed out of bed and into my clothes and shoes, running down the hall and downstairs.

It was early, so only a few people were awake in the hostel. An Australian nurse, an Australian handyman who had been working at the hostel that week, a tall American man, and me.

I could still hear the fight from downstairs and now there were loud slapping noises. Someone was definitely being hit.

“There’s a violent argument going on in the room next to mine,” I said. “I think someone’s being hit.”

I asked the handyman if he had the owner’s phone number. He said he didn’t.

I think I asked if anyone knew the number of the police. No one did.

The nurse suggested we go upstairs as a group and try to get the woman out of there.

I was scared to confront the loud, angry, possibly-high man, but I also couldn’t let him keep hurting the woman in his room (who later turned out to be his wife and not, as he so delicately put it during the argument, a coke whore). So I agreed with the tall nurse and we all went upstairs, her and I, not comfortingly, in the lead.

The man—a loud, fat, stout, ugly American without a shirt on—answered the door and yelled at us to mind our own business. We tried to invite the woman to come downstairs with us. She was speaking in fast-paced, high-pitched Spanish, so it’s hard to be sure, but I think she said he hit her. Then he defended himself to us, screaming that she hit him with a belt.

We asked them to calm down. We asked her to come downstairs. And he told us to mind our own fucking business, then shut the door in our faces.

The commotion had drawn two of the South American boys who were working at reception out of their room and into the hall. I ran to them and asked for the owner’s phone number.

“Oh, this happens all the time,” they said, shrugging off the smacking noises as if someone’s well-being weren’t in danger. “We’re used to it.”

“I don’t care if it happens all the time. We’re not letting it happen here and now,” I said. “Do you have the owner’s phone number?”

The boys danced around the question, not wanting to give me the number, repeating that this happens all the time. I don’t know if they thought they’d get in trouble for calling the owner before 7 a.m. or what, but they kept changing the subject over and over, trying to explain to me that domestic violence wasn’t a big deal.

Shocked and furious, I kept at it: “You don’t have to call the owner. You won’t be the one bothering him at 6:00 a.m.,” I said. “I will call him. Just give me the number.”

Finally, they acquiesced and handed me a phone. I quickly explained everything to the owner and he said he was calling the police and coming over.

He arrived soon thereafter and the police weren’t far behind.

We led them up to the room and then retreated back downstairs. I sat at the kitchen table, humming with anxiety, and waited.

In the end, they took her and her things out of the room and away with them. I don’t know where. And I don’t know why they took her instead of him.

Whatever their reasons, the abusive asshole was left behind to gather up his things and check out. He took his sweet time and, not feeling comfortable returning to my room beside his, I sat in the kitchen for a long time, drinking coffee and feeling unsettled, thoughts circling:

Why would they leave the aggressor behind with the people who confronted him? Were we in danger? How could those South American boys think this is okay?  And, worst of all, if I were in danger, screaming for my life, here in Colombia, would everyone shrug and say “it happens all the time” and leave me to my fate?

* * * * *

A few weeks later, in the larger city of Medellin, I met a Colombian American woman who had just moved to Colombia from the States to work on development projects with a particular focus on women.

I asked her about the harassment. I told her about the indifferent boys. I told her that the violence scared me, yes, but the indifference was worse. How can a woman feel safe in a country where no one would come to her rescue?

She said she didn’t think it was indifference that held them back.

Things are better now, she said, but not so long ago there was so little value on human life that if you interfered, if you knocked on the door, if you tried to help, the abusive man might just shoot you in the head. It’s fear, she said, fear that holds them back.

Perhaps that’s part of it. Or perhaps what used to be fear has become apathy over time.

Because it wasn’t fear I saw from those boys that day. They didn’t warn us of the danger. They didn’t call the police. They just shrugged it off, quite literally shrugging their shoulders when I asked over and over again for the owner’s phone number.

*  *  *  *  *

One scary experience isn’t enough to sour me on a whole country. But a scary experience almost every time I left the house? That’s damn sure enough.

When I moved to Medellin, a large man who must live near my apartment would frequently stop on the corner and stare at me intently while I let the dog out. Once he walked past me and stopped only a foot or two away, partly blocking my way back into the building, staring silently and forcing me to go around him in order to get back into my apartment building, my entire body tense, hoping to god he wouldn’t touch me.

Another time, I was sitting on a hotel terrace having a coffee and Skype date with a friend when a man leaned over the railing, staring at me and muttering to himself and then screaming “I love you. I love you!” aggressively.

It would be funny, except that I was terrified. Except that if he did try to hurt me, I didn’t know if anyone would intervene. Or if it would just be another thing that “happens all the time” here.

A few days later, I walked a few blocks to the grocery store and stopped into the ATM on my way home. As I stepped into line, the man ahead of me turned around and reached out to grab me. I stepped back and he smiled, thinking my discomfort was funny, I guess.

He turned back to the ATM and collected his money, then stepped out of line and out the door. But he didn’t leave. Instead, he stood at the window, his face near the glass, staring at me until I left. Then he got on his motorcycle and proceeded to follow me down the block.

*  *  *  *  *

It’s hard to describe how the harassment here feels if you haven’t felt it yourself.

I’ve had men shout at me or approach me in other places around the globe, including the US. I’ve been honked at and touched. And I’ve certainly been stared at creepily. I think most women have.

But there’s something different about it here, something that makes it more frightening, more intense.

Most of the harassment I’ve experienced in my life has felt like posturing…just some guy puffing out his chest, showing off for his friends, something like that. It was something I could ignore, could shuffle past, could walk away from and try to forget.

But here…the screaming, the grabbing, the staring…it has intent. It feels dangerous. It’s not just posturing. It’s not just one idiot here or there behaving badly. It’s an entire culture of men without boundaries, who see women as something for the taking.

I’ve felt this scared a few times before, but these were always isolated incidents. Here the sheer volume of predators is overwhelming and terrifying.

*  *  *  *  *

I tried to be invisible.

I stopped wearing makeup or leaving my hair down. I stopped wearing dresses. I never wore jewelry, even the cheap stuff. I never looked a man in the eyes, since they seemed to take that as an invitation. I barely left the house and when I did, I was on guard.

It didn’t work, of course.

* * * * *

I talked to a few other women about their experiences.

One told me, via Twitter, that she was walking down the street in Medellin when a construction crew started shouting at her. As so many of us do, she ignored them. This pissed them off, so they drenched her with a hose.

Pause there and take that in: they hosed her down for not responding to their cat-calling.

Another woman told me she has to wear long sleeves even on hot days. It doesn’t stop the harassment, but she thinks maybe it slows them down.

Still others reported being followed, having their space invaded, and, of course, being relentlessly stared at.

*  *  *  *  *

Harassment isn’t the only problem.

I spoke to another woman who doesn’t remember the harassment, but is in therapy after being the victim of an armed robbery.

Like me, she felt that the actual violence was almost less shocking than the apathy of the people around her. She was stuck here for three days after the robbery, waiting for an emergency passport so that she could get the hell out, and where she expected to find compassion, or at least acknowledgement from the Colombians around her, she found only denial, apathy, and blame.

In Colombia, it seems, they think you get what you ask for. Being western, being wealthier than your average Colombian, wearing a pair of earrings, checking your phone…that’s just asking to be robbed. They call it “dar papaya,” a Colombian slang phrase that means putting yourself in a bad situation.

It’s victim blaming and its rampant.

She also found out she’d been lied to.

“This never happens here,” people said. But some research online showed her that the bus she’d been on when she was held at gun-point and robbed had been a target multiple times before, as far back as 2011. This supposedly safe place, raved about by all the tourist websites and blogs, actually had a long history of unsafe bus rides.

*  *  *  *  *

I know four other travelers who were robbed here.

Two were robbed in northern Colombia near Santa Marta, one at knife-point, one at gun-point.

The third was robbed and stabbed in Cali and ended up wandering the streets bleeding from the chest and begging for help.

The fourth, a young solo female traveler, has been robbed five times since entering Colombia a couple months ago. Yes, five times.

It’s not unusual, I’m told. Robbery is something everyone seems to shrug off.

And, frankly, it’s that apathetic attitude that’s keeping the rest of us in the dark. Because all we hear about is how far Colombia has come from its terrifying drug-trafficking past. We don’t hear about the fact that street crime in a city like Medellin is up 300%.

By the way, robbers here will shoot you if you don’t hand over the goods, so you better not try to negotiate or fight back. Like this fall, when that tourist was shot because he gave up his wallet, but refused to take off his necklace.

* * * * *

And so I spent most of my time in Colombia counting down the days until I could leave, staying in my apartment, double bolting the door.

I’m not a person who is easily spooked. I’m cautious and aware of my surroundings. I try to pick safe neighborhoods and research countries I’m going to. But I don’t see threats around every corner. I don’t assume different means dangerous. And I try to take dangerous reputations with a grain of salt.

But here in Colombia, the threats really are around every corner. They peeked their heads out almost every time I left the house.

Before I came, I was told that Colombia is safer now. It’s making top travel destination lists and is being touted as a great retirement destination.

I came because I heard so many rave about how much it has changed.

And I suppose that’s true. It’s safer because there’s less crime than 10 years ago. Safer because so much of the drug trafficking has moved to Venezuela. Safer because 10 years ago it was scary-ass place that nobody–including men–wanted to visit.

But here’s the problem: safer doesn’t always mean safe. And safer for a man doesn’t always mean safer for a woman. And when a destination feels truly unsafe, we travel writers have a responsibility to say something. Because I listen to you, People Who Make Those Top Destination Lists. We listen to you. And we owe it to each other to tell the truth.

The truth is that while homicides are down, street crime has gone way up.

The truth is that I couldn’t leave my apartment without being stared at, screamed at, grabbed at, followed, or intimidated.

The truth is that robbery is commonplace, bus rides are particularly dangerous, and robbers will shoot or stab you without a second thought.

The truth is that the culture here will shrug off your trauma as something that “happens all the time” or will pretend it doesn’t happen at all.

The truth is that I beg you, lady readers, skip Colombia and get your Latin America fix from somewhere like Sayulita, Mexico, instead.

Every time I write about a place I didn’t love, the hate mail comes rolling in. If you’re feeling outraged, please keep a few things in mind before you leave a comment:

1. We don’t all love the same places (and that’s okay). My experience doesn’t erase yours and yours doesn’t erase mine. Me disliking a place you love isn’t a personal attack on you or your taste.

2. There are lots of complicated reasons a place is the way it is. I don’t always get into those because all I’m doing here is telling you about my personal experience. History texts are a great place to dive in if you want to try and understand where mindsets, patterns, and context come into play.

3. A three-day vacation spent in the nicest part of town is different than a two-month stay in a local neighborhood. A few days in Poblado, a neighborhood full of tourists, would likely have felt very different than a long stay in Laureles (a neighborhood I was told was safe but much less touristy). 

4. Disliking a place isn’t the same as hating its people. Calling out a male sub-culture in a place isn’t the same as saying all men or even all Colombian men (not all of the men mentioned were Colombian; foreign men attracted to this place appear to be a huge part of the problem as well). Do I think every Colombian man is a harasser? Of course not. I’m talking about a toxic, dangerous sub-culture I personally encountered that made me afraid for my safety in a way I’ve never been anywhere else in the world, despite extensive travels on every continent except Antarctica. Anything else is putting words in my mouth.

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  • Lynda
    January 11, 2016

    Wow! I am so sorry that this was your experience. I travelled to Medellin with my husband and perhaps that made a difference but we had a very different experience. We loved it! There is so much wonderful art, culture and nature there to be enjoyed. We became very aware of the poverty in some quarters though which may explain the reason for some of the street crime, although thankfully we didn’t exoerience this either. Medellin has come along way and most people we met expressed a real pride in the fact that city had overcome its violent past. Hopefully that memory will help them continue to move towards an even better future for all its people.

    • gigigriffis
      January 11, 2016

      Yep, the women traveling with men that I met along the way often had much better experiences. Glad you didn’t have to experience the worst!

      • Mary
        May 12, 2017

        Hi Gigi

        I stumbled upon your blog and story of Colombia after researching solo travelling as I’m thinking of booking a trip there in November. Your story along has definitely opened up my eyes about the lack of safety in Colombia and the dangers for female solo travellers. I’ve enjoyed discovering South America and Colombia has always been on my destination list. I’m now looking into tours etc and I have a friend who lives in Medellin however, I also would like to travel to Bogota, Cali and San Andrés. Apart from Medellin, which other cities did you have a negative experience in?

        • gigigriffis
          May 12, 2017

          Hey Mary,

          I was based in Medellin and Guatape. The other stories from my post came from all over the country, so I seems that it’s a widespread problem.

  • Kathryn
    January 11, 2016

    What a horrible experience. While it’d be great to say I should be able to travel anywhere or do anything, its not worth putting yourself in danger just to prove a point.
    Kathryn recently posted…This Week: Chiba/TokyoMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      January 11, 2016

      Agreed! I wish the whole world was safe for us all, but it just isn’t.

  • Lynne Nieman
    January 11, 2016

    Thanks for sharing Gigi. You’re right in that you do hear about Colombia being safer and, judging from the comments, it looks as though if you are a woman traveling with a man, things are great. But, from your scary experiences, it is not a place for solo female travelers. I’m glad you are okay. I think what strikes me is that in so many of these places where women are treated badly or where violence is simply accepted, it’s such a cultural attitude. And, until those attitudes change (hopefully in younger generations) then the society will remain the same. *Sigh* We can only hope…

    • Gigi
      January 12, 2016

      Agreed. I sincerely hope that Colombia continues to change for the better.

  • Anne
    January 11, 2016

    Thank you for bravely telling the truth about your experience there. Unfortunately, when it comes to travel (especially in Colombia, with its reputation) many just don’t want to hear the negative. But it is so, so important.

    I, too, have traveled widely and extensively solo in “dangerous” parts of the world and feel Colombia is a different beast. There is a travel warning for Colombia, in large part because tourists are specifically targeted there (a fact I wish I had known before choosing to go.) A friend also made this point: “safe” and “there’s a chance you can travel there and make it out unharmed” are very different concepts.

    I believe presently travel bloggers and the travel community are NOT recognizing the difference. I think we are doing a huge injustice to paint over the reality of what is STILL happening in Colombia. Travelers have a right to the information so that can be aware and make informed decisions about their safety. If I could do it over again, I’d go only on an organized tour, as I did in Egypt.

    People need to stop calling Colombia safe, because it’s just not.

    • gigigriffis
      January 12, 2016

      Thanks for all your support and for sharing your own story! I think your point – that tourists are specifically targeted – is an important one for people to note. And I love the idea of doing a tour. If someone is going to go to a place with a higher level of danger, a tour with a reputable company would probably help a lot.

    • Shannon Lee Gilstad
      July 5, 2016

      I think safety is a relative term. A lot of people in the travel community seem to forget or conveniently overlook that Colombia is still a developing country that has been in civil war for 68 years. If you are a tourist, especially an American, European, or Australian, it is assumed that you have money (you were able t afford the ticket and a condition, right?) The political situation is such that you cannot just walk around carefree and most have your wits about you.
      Shannon Lee Gilstad recently posted…30 Things Travelers Must See and Do Before They’re 30: My ScoreMy Profile

  • Valeria
    January 11, 2016

    I am really sorry you had to weather such horrible experiences, thank you for the honest heads up.. I am a generation older than you and want to travel like I did at your age, I circled the globe.. So I follow your posts with great interest.
    Back then I was traveling with a male partner and felt it necessary if I was going to be able to enjoy myself and not worry about my safety.
    It is great to hear how you navigated so well on your own. And am taking note, being on my own now and considering traveling on my own.. thank you gain..
    Back then even Mexico was scary by oneself, and so I was wondering besides Mexico, do you think Argentina would be a good place to travel solo? or any South American country?

    • gigigriffis
      January 12, 2016

      Thank you.

      My experiences of Mexico in the past few years have been good ones. I particularly liked Sayulita – a small colorful coastal town full of surfers and artsy types. I haven’t been to Argentina, but I’ve heard good things.

      I’ve also only heard good things (safety wise) about Costa Rica and I felt safe in Belize as well (though the capitol has a rough reputation and I’d suggest sticking to the coastal cities and getting out of Belize City asap).

      My only other South America experience was in Peru about 10+ years ago. Since it was so long ago, I don’ think I could speak to how it is now (and I’ve heard that it’s got a reputation for being another tough place for harassment now), but back then and with a group I enjoyed it, especially Cuzco and the ruins.

  • hsofia
    January 11, 2016

    I’m so sorry you had these horrifying experiences in Colombia. I spent two months traveling around the country two years ago … it was just me and my then-five year old daughter. I experienced nothing like these things (although my l luggage was stolen by my taxi driver, who drove away with it), nor did I witness anything like these events you’ve recounted. I would never tell someone to avoid traveling to Colombia, but now I am thinking hard about the differences between my experiences and yours, and why there is so much difference. Wishing you safe travels for the future.

    • gigigriffis
      January 12, 2016

      I’m so glad to hear you didn’t have those same experiences! It’s such a shame that there is such a high percentage of crime, violence, and harassment, particularly against women. Glad you got through unscathed.

      • Vane B
        June 23, 2016

        Hey. As a Venezuelan, I empathize. Our countries in S.America must do better.

        FYI: While I agree with you, this article was shared snarkily in a Bitch Media post about “decolonizing travel”.. It’s very frustrating. You don’t have to hide your experiences because of fear of being culturally insensitive. Men there could choose not to be shitty.

        I will say try to extend some empathy to the nice people who are numb to violence. It is a culture of fear, not a deliberate attempt to make you feel crappy or like you don’t matter; they just don’t have the energy to be upset anymore, and normalizing it and moving on is the only thing they can do.

        • gigigriffis
          June 24, 2016

          Thanks, Vane. And I agree – compassion should always rule the day. My only goal in writing this was to warn other solo female travelers. I know the reasons people normalize and stay out of things are complex and often deserve our empathy.

        • Ann
          May 9, 2018

          Agreed, it’s a culture of fear what makes people act indifferent to violence. I grew up in dangerous country and only realized about culture of fear and indifference towards horrible acts after I moved to the US. Back home violence was a normal thing for me.

  • isabella
    January 11, 2016

    hello gigi,
    I am so sorry about your bad adventures in colombia! wow! all in one trip! I personally can say that I travelled for 3 weeks by myself all over Colombia and didn’t have any issue at all and met many fellow travellers with the same awesome experience. I was in cartagena, bogota’, santa marta and medellin and i was a bit anxious because everybody was telling me to be careful but was walking along almost all the time and nothing happens. I need to reckon i met a lot of beautiful people and the country is amazing for its nature and culture. too bad things like that happen. I would still recommend women to go, just with more precautions. happy travels.

    • gigigriffis
      January 12, 2016

      So glad to hear that you had a better experience in Colombia. I don’t know if you saw Anne’s comment above, but I think her suggestion (going with a tour group if you’re dead set on going) is probably a good one. And also just going in with eyes wide open – knowing the risks, knowing people’s stories of harassment and such – probably helps a little. Still, so many of these stories weren’t things that could have been prevented even by being careful. So anyone who goes should recognize that they are assuming some risk that even careful planning can’t circumvent.

  • Monique
    January 12, 2016

    I’m so sorry for you,
    Maybe you had the bad luck, I have no idea,

    I never experienced something like that at all, absolutely the opposite, people were increible welcome and warm, actually one on the warmest countries I have been so far!

    I ever hitchhiked alone half of the way and had never the feeling of being in danger, there were sometimes some unnecessary looks but not more the ones I could feel in germany.

    Of course Colombia has a complicated and recent history none of us should forget but I would never say is not a country to travel alone as a girl. I need wonderful people there and I’m planning to be back soon.
    I spent around 3 months travelling, the only place I did not like was Cartagena and… surprisingly because of tourism, tourist being drunk and on drugs and dealing with colombian misery and prostitutes all around. That was absolutely disturbing.

    I was in big cities such as Bogota, Medellín and Cali and small little towns in the middle of nowhere where I was even invited to eat with families and stay for days.

    Lovely country, lovely people.

    • gigigriffis
      January 12, 2016

      Glad you had a good experience.

      If only one or two bad things happened in my two months there, I’d agree with you. I would think I’d been unlucky and I’d move on. Unfortunately, it was all he time and then when I started researching a bit more on crime in Colombia, I found that the crime and harassment levels are shockingly high.

      The important thing is to make sure people are aware of the risks. If a woman wants to go to Colombia and travel solo, more power to her. But as a woman who did just that, I really really really wish that someone had pointed me toward the real statistics on crime. I wish I’d known that street crime in Medellin is up 300% and that tourists are prime targets. I wish I’d known that the harassment levels are high and Colombia is considered one of he worst countries for women to travel to.

      If someone wants to travel somewhere despite the danger, that’s fine. The problem is when we all pretend the danger doesn’t exist. And just because some female tourists go to Colombia and have a fine time doesn’t mean the danger doesn’t exist.

  • Flora Baker
    January 12, 2016

    I’m really sorry you had so many bad experiences in Colombia, but I do feel compelled to defend the country as a wonderful place to travel through, as other commenters have. I lived in Medellin for three months, visited Bogota on a regular basis and spent many more months travelling solo all around Colombia – not once did I feel like I was in actual danger (although the piropos/catcalls I received on a regular basis were certainly annoying!) and I made wonderful friendships with many fantastic people.

    Yes, the crime rates are still high and yes, I would never suggest that anyone treat Colombia like it had the safety levels of somewhere like Iceland, for instance – but nowadays there are so many countries labelled as no-go zones that it’s difficult to justify exactly why. I can say I never felt unsafe in Colombia: you can say you felt the complete opposite. But surely it’s not up to us to instruct people on how to behave because of our own differing experiences?
    Flora Baker recently posted…Kindness and Community on the CaminoMy Profile

    • gigigriffis
      January 12, 2016

      I disagree. I think that travel bloggers have a responsibility to tell their readers if and when a country, city, or region feels unsafe, especially if that experience is backed up with the data. Does it mean I’ll be pissed at anyone who reads this and decides to travel to Colombia? Or course not. Do I think I have the final say over people’s travel plans? Of course not. But do I think that it’s vitally important that people, especially solo women, know that a place has higher levels of crime and violence and danger? Absolutely! I think it would be irresponsible of me to not bring it up. I’ve been all over the world and I have never, not once, met five people who had been robbed at gun or knife-point in the same country. That’s a massive jump from the possible dangers of other travel destinations and it’s important that people know about it. Not discouraging people from traveling to Colombia after what I witnessed and subsequently learned from the crime data would be irresponsible.

      I think my readers are smart, independent thinkers and will travel to Colombia if that is what they want to do. But if they do, I want them to have both sides of the story before they go. I want them to understand the dangers. I want them to weigh their options and make decisions based on real danger, not the skirting around it that I’ve seen most other places.

  • Sarepa
    January 12, 2016

    Gigi, I’m so sorry to hear you had such unfortunate experiences in Colombia. That sounds horrifying. I have been travelling to the country for 10 years, most of that time as a solo female traveller, and I have never, not once, had any bad experiences there (I’ve felt unsafe at times, sure, but I have never experienced anything in the face of that fear).

    I think in terms of Colombia’s issues with domestic violence and violence against women, there is still so far the country needs to come. Hundreds of women each year report violence at the hands of their husbands, partners and ex-boyfriends, just imagine how many incidences aren’t being reported?

    But in saying that, I’m from Australia and one woman each week is killed here because of domestic violence. Something I doubt is thought much about while tourists come to surf the waves on our beautiful beaches.

    This is an issue that we women face the world over. I think your friend in Medellin was right about why people don’t get involved when someone calls for help, intervening in someone else’s battle could ultimately get you killed, or that could have been the case during much more violent times. Memories of that time still linger.

    But in terms of feeling safe in Colombia as a solo female traveller, I think it comes down to commonsense. Colombia is a beautiful country but it’s not safe, it’s just not, not in a lot of parts of the country. You need to know where to go and where not to go, what to do and how to do it, what parts of town to walk alone, and when.

    Yes, it would be wonderful if we women could walk through a country like Colombia and feel safe and secure all of the time, not be harassed by men as we walk down the street, and not robbed by night wanderers, but we really have to assume that that could happen at any time, all the time. Because it could. I think that’s maybe why I’ve never had any issues in Colombia, I’ve always acted as if I had to be on high alert, even to the point that people around me thought I was over-reacting.

    Would I encourage women to travel alone to Colombia? Yes, absolutely. It taught me to trust my instincts and step into my feminine power like I had never done before. Again, it truly sucks to hear you had such horrible experiences. I hope you haven’t written the country off entirely, though.

    Yours in travel,

    Sarepa recently posted…Expats in Colombia: Meet engineer turned English teacher Anna Trigellis-SmithMy Profile

  • Paulo
    January 12, 2016

    I’ve never been to Colombia, but I am Brazilian (living in the UK), and Brazil is not far off from this reality, even though in their national pride many won’t admit it (and to be honest from your account it is probably not as bad).
    South America as a all requires that visitors be aware of their surroundings, but then that would probably be true even in well developed places these days (I was robbed in NYC 23 years ago).
    I am not saying that you shouldn’t go, as there are fantastic destinations, things to see and do and you will find many friendly people, but don’t go looking as a complete outsider, with an expensive camera hanging around your neck, floral shirts, shorts and a sun burn as you WILL attract attention you won’t like and that is not a “dar papaya,” attitude, just common sense. Make sure you know where to go and where not to. Blend in with the locals or go on guided tours (there is safety in the numbers). As for the harassment, I don’t think there is an easy way to avoid it (as a man I can only imagine how it feels), except as to try not to be alone. Predators like to corner and isolate their prey… and yes, fear will prevent other people from interfering even if you are crying for help, so don’t count with anyone else from start.
    Oh, make sure you memorize key emergency numbers like the police, know where you are (street name) and have you own means to contact them, if possible (in case it hasn’t been stolen, I mean). Even though the police may take a while to arrive and their level of professionalism may not be what you would expect in other well developed nations, their presence is always generally better than their absence.
    The main person responsible for your safety is yourself, especially when traveling alone (obvious, but some people still ignore it when looking for holiday bargains).
    Be safe and be happy Gigi.

  • Marie
    January 13, 2016

    Hi there.

    I lived in Colombia for almost 2 years and blog about it myself, and I have to say it is refreshing to see another blogger being honest about Colombia. It is an incredibly dangerous country, yet the images and stories we read online are completely romanticised and do little to help other expats, or the Colombian people themselves.

    Although nothing violent has happened to me, your stories are absolutely not a surprise to me at all. My female german housemate years back was attacked and dragged up our street by her hair in broad daylight, I witnessed various robberies, and I myself was sexually harassed by my boss at the time which led to me having to quit my job as not ICETEX nor British Council Colombia were willing to step in. Women are treated dreadfully and men seem indifferent. It is just the ‘normal’ way. And the commodification of women with surgery, sexist language, and widespread adultery are symptoms of this gender inequality.

    My blog actually focuses on highlighting the objective side of life in Colombia, with its ups and downs, and I invite you to take a look. I have a gender post which I am working on at the moment.

  • Jade
    January 13, 2016

    I am so sorry about your experience. I am an expat living in Bogotá and use the bus and local transportation to travel for over a year and half now and have never encountered trouble.

    Maybe it’s because I look like a local :/

  • Rebecca
    January 13, 2016

    Scary, scary, stuff. I am glad you are safe and ok now. No worries here I dont plan on going south of the border any time soon. Men can be such a**h***s. Not all but, a lot need to learn how to treat women better. Just because they see us as the weaker sex. I would love to see a man give birth without any drugs and be in labor for 8+ hours and see who is crying like a little baby then. Stay safe.

    January 13, 2016

    We just finished six weeks touring Colombia as a 50’s male/female couple.

    Based on our experience, you have to be *very* careful in the big cities. We didn’t like Bogota for that reason, Medellin was a little better, and in fact we avoided Cali all together (other than transferring at the bus station) because even the locals were telling us it was not safe. And we are experienced travelers.

    Outside of the big cities however, we felt perfectly safe.

  • Nohelia
    January 14, 2016

    So sad to hear that you had such a experience in Colombia. I´m Colombian living abroad for more than a decade. I keep visiting my country every year, and I can agree that the publicity about Colombia is a bit romantic because we still have many social problems to face. Yes, sadly, we do have a problem of violence and especially against woman, but, unfortunately, this is not a problem exclusive of Colombia. It is a reality in all South America and furthermore, all over the world!! . Argentina is living for more than a decade a terrible situation of female kidnapping for slavery, and all their culture including the tango itself seems to validate the male power upon females. While traveling to Brazil, 5 days by myself in Rio and felt that a male presence was needed to justify that I was just walking through Copacabana and not in a “working shift”. Mexico is not better, neither Chile, a conservative country where is inappropriate to go out to have a drink without male company. Have you traveled to the middle east? The modern, cosmopolitan and fun Tel Aviv? My mom, a decent woman 50 years old suffered sexual harassment from some european apparently “decent” guy just because her indian look seemed so sexy to him. Traveling in Egypt with male company can be even worse, they will try to buy you or exchange you for goods! . And let me tell you, being a latin woman, specially Colombian, can be even worse… The stereotype when you mention that you’re Colombian can play against you..many times, I don’t think that I have to explain you why.

    So yes, traveling female solo in today’s world is challenging, but not because of that we should stop discovering the world. As someone related with travel industry, I think our work is to inform travelers about the situation of each destination, but not to spread fear. There is danger everywhere, it seems today that you just need to jump out of bed to be in danger. Did travelers stopped visiting Paris because of the latest events? There are horror stories everywhere, but should we stop traveling and private ourselves of all the beauty and kindness around the world because of a bunch of idiots ruining the party? Giving advice is different than spreading fear.

    We, female, are more powerful than we think and we shouldn’t get intimidated by other people stories or even worse, by the men we procreated ourselves! We have to learn how to deal with it and take measures to keep our safety to always return home with a big smile and many stories to tell. The world need us to be brave and fearless for the sake of our descendants and the sake of ourselves.

    I can understand you perfectly. Colombia is not an easy destination, but is not the worse one either. As travelers, we have to adapt to the destination and not to expect the destination to adapt for ourselves, Still, there are tones of nice things to do, and millions of nice decent Colombian that respect travelers, women, man, children and we deserve to be acknowledge and respected of that.

    Happy Travels!

  • Leah MAnning
    January 25, 2016

    I rode a bicycle theough 13 latin american countries as a solo female. In the 6 months I rode Colombia almost in it’s entirety I found it to be the warmest, most welcoming and the people incredibly helpful. I am saddened and surprised to hear of these experiences and my heart goes out to any woman who feels threatened and unsupported.

    In my experience most cyclists I met, many of whom are women, had safe and spectacular journeys in Colombia. I did have a fictional husband that I would mention to ward off annoyances and consistently checked in with locals about security in particular areas and people were tremendously helpful. I truly think no one wants something bad to happen to you in their country & Colombians take great pride in where they’re from.

    Get off the beaten path of cities and highly touristic places in Colombia and you will be rewarded with stunning rural beauty and people who treat you like family. Just outside Medellin lies San Antonio de Prado- a different world of lush mountains and tranquil communities. Mompos is like stepping back hundreds of years, so dreamy. Zona Cafeta ,Boquia and Parque los nevados are true treasures. Small towns like Barichara and Zapatoca brimming with charm, and fascinating ruins of San Agustin.

    I could go on as it was one of my favorite countries AND I was robbed there (I may even be the mentioned santa marta incident). It happened en route to a beach, Taganga, in the north and several families ran out to assist me with genuine concern. Of course it wasn’t my fault but I was riding with a bicycle and equipment valued several times the salary of this very poor area. In retrospect if I had simply asked about this road I would have learned it was notorious for theft and I could have taken a bus. It was one really shitty experience among countless amazing experiences.

    I feel compelled to encourage women to give Colombia a chance. I am so happy I did as I met some of the most unforgettable, extraordinary folks. In the campos I camped alone in a tent and rode desolate dirt backroads and found these farmlands very safe. My advice for solo women is to check out some of the more rural mountainous places where often you are looked after by local families and don’t feel like just another tourist. If you would like any specific tips on traveling in Colombia feel free to email me

  • Shannon Lee Gilstad
    July 5, 2016

    Overall, I would say that regarding the opinion that travel bloggers have a responsibility to be honest about the safety of a place. I think that’s way too much of a black and white statement. Safety is going to depend on many factors, such as age, gender, race, sexual orientation, ability, nationality, language skills, and more, to name some.

    I have personally read guides of the Rough Guides and Lonely Planet variety that suggested locations and neighborhoods that I would never recommend that a first time tourist with no command of Spanish or acculturation go to alone. I have also read a lot of blogs by American, European, and Australian travelers who paint a place as “perfectly safe,” “overrated,” “dangerous,” “authentic,” or “a paradise” with little attention to economic, racial, cultural, and other factors. Had these reviews been written by a person of color, somebody who is not from a so-called “First World” nation, an LGBT person, or a handicapped traveler, the information and tone might be quite different. I think these are the type of tone deaf generalizations that are being referred to in the Bitch Media articles. We have to be aware.

    During my time living in Colombia, I had various instances of being seen as obviously a foreigner—usually assumed to be European—and a run of the mill Colombian, depending on where I was. Tourists often didn’t pay me any mind, so I was able to observe. And I did observe many speaking English loudly in the streets and other public places, using expensive phones and devices where people could watch them, wearing weather inappropriate clothing, becoming visibly intoxicated, and walking around looking confused. The point is, Medellín is not Dublin or Tokyo. Bogotá is not Copenhagen or Prague. These are cities with a small upper class, small middle class, and many people who are just trying to get by.

    Bloggers depicting Colombia to be a paradise or a dream is not realistic and avoids talking about some of the more sombering topics, like poverty, colonialism, and imperialism. However, depicting it to be a crime ridden hellhole or the so-called Third Workd is also not accurate. As a person from the US or Europe, it’s easy to fall into the trap of coloring places like Colombia as wild and exotic. But you know what? Most of these individuals are relatively affluent or at least middle class and educated, often from suburbs and small cities, so their world view is very skewed. From some blogs I’ve read, I don’t think many of them are aware of some of the potential dangerous situations they’ve put themselves into as the my type “I’ve never had any problems there…” into their travel essay.
    Shannon Lee Gilstad recently posted…30 Things Travelers Must See and Do Before They’re 30: My ScoreMy Profile

  • Melissa McCutcheon
    September 2, 2016

    I am a 45 year old female, and I have spent time in Colombia as a resident artist at two foundations; one in Medellin in Prado for a month, and another on Cali, a few weeks ago for a month as well as travelling back to Medellin. I travelled alone, I received no help from the first foundation, no directions, no map, no info whatsoever and was alone in the foundation house every night. I am a careful traveler, I’m always aware and alert, and never went out at night alone. The only times I went out in Colombia at night were with another female friend, and occasionally alone in a very safe neighborhood in Cali, but only to get water or some food. I also traveled to the slums, not alone, but during the day. I didn’t have problems, I didn’t feel safe, but I understood this going in to the situation in the first place; I was always on guard, but again, I planned for this, very thoroughly. I travelled by foot and by train (Medellin) never taxi, unless I called an ordered one myself. If you are a woman, stay on your guard at all times, don’t go out at night, wear a money belt under your clothing, or a bra pouch (the best) and stuff some money in both pockets, enough to satisfy a mugger, and some emergency cash in your sock and/or bra pouch and bring an unlocked phone with a Colombian SIM card and taxi numbers preprogrammed into your contacts. Every single day alone in Colombia, walking the streets, I did these things. I never got mugged. I never used the phone, but I knew I was prepared if anything were to go wrong. It’s a different kind of trip – as a woman, we are forced to make certain compromises to ensure our safety, but that’s just the way it is – have reasonable expectations going in, and you will have an experience you’ll never forget, hopefully sans a mugging. But this happens, and I sure it was extremely frightening, and I have had some very close calls myself in Medellin, so this is a very real risk. I wouldn’t say “don’t go” however, because I have found that the people do generally look out for visitors – they always told me to never take photos outside, which was difficult since my entire purpose as an artist was to document and develop work based on images. So I did take photos, but very carefully, discretely and with a disguised iPod touch (covered in masking tape to look like a piece of crap) attached by lanyard and carabiner to my bag at all times. The people are wonderful, genuine, smart, polite and hard working and very aware of their reputation abroad and very much want to see this change.

  • Amalee
    December 8, 2016

    I’m currently in Colombia and had a couple of bad experiences since arriving a day ago. It does seem that most blogs do not really stress the importance of safety for solo female travellers so I’m glad I came across yours, (after googling ‘I don’t like Colombia’) I feel like a walking target here.
    At Bogota airport, I was pickpocketed and my travel wallet was taken, the thiefs where caught but I had to miss my domestic flight and spent the next 8hrs going back and forth to file a criminal report, the whole process pissed me off, it felt like the it was just for show because the thieves were free to go whereas I lost an entire day. What really took the biscuit was when I was taken outside the police station by one cop and was told I had to pay $70 for filing a report! The police are inept. How can you feel safe if even the law won’t help you? All the travellers I’ve met in other South American countries seem to rave about Colombia but they are guys. After my incident I was seriously considering diverting to Ecuador but hope it’s just a one off and that nothing else happens to me within the 2 weeks I’m here. I agree that there is an intensity here that I hadn’t felt in Peru or Bolivia.

  • Lola
    January 28, 2017

    I enjoyed your post. I’m a solo woman traveler living in Cartagena for over a year, and leaving in a month (yay!). I haven’t really enjoyed my time here, in large part due to constant concerns about my security and being unable to walk freely in the city.
    I live in a very upscale community after a short time living in an Estrato 3 neighbourhood where I was threatened by a homeless man with a knife in broad daylight. For security reasons, I only go out in the day and need to stick to certain areas of the city.
    It’s been a very constricting year, and I’ve often wondered if I’m being overly paranoid about the safety issue, but after hearing countless stories of violence and crime against foreigners, even here in this super-touristy part of Ctga, and enduring constant harassment in the streets, I have come to accept that it’s just the way things are here.
    I believe the word “intensity” is a good descriptor for the vibe in the street, and although certainly there are wonderful Colombians, largely I have found people to be very turned inward, very self-interested, and the men incredibly macho.
    I hope things change for the better here, but I have encountered quite a dysfunctional and sick society where other’s rights don’t matter, and a generalized climate of fear and blaming the victim. To be honest, I’ll be glad to leave.

  • Silvia
    March 7, 2018

    Hi Gigi,

    thank you for your writing.

    My husband is going to Medellín on a business trip for two weeks. He asked me to go with him, so I started reading about visiting Medellín. After reading some sweeping reviews written by men I decided to look up the female perspective, which was, overall, less enthusiastic – with yours being the most negative one I have come across.

    I have lived in Costa Rica for almost two decades, so I am not coming at the issue from a “spoiled rich gringo chick” angle. However, your description of Colombia makes it sound like a whole different ball game.

    The problem is, my husband will be working, and I would be exploring Medellín on my own, except for the last couple of days, when he will be available. Is going with him at all a good idea, or basically a waste of money?

    It’s difficult to gauge this, especially with some bloggers insisting they “never encountered any problems”, and that Colombians are “the most wonderful people on earth” – while other bloggers basically describe a gateway to hell.

    Yours sincerely,

    • gigigriffis
      March 7, 2018

      Hi Silvia,

      Great questions. I’m also coming at this from the perspective of someone who has traveled widely (Peru, Costa Rica, Mexico, etc. etc.) and I’ve never encountered what I ran into in Colombia in any other place I’ve been.

      But at the end of the day, probably the most helpful thing is just data.

      The most recent data I’ve seen shows that street crime numbers are still significantly up in Medellin. Unfortunately, there isn’t reliable data on street harassment or assault, as those are underreported pretty much everywhere in the world, but I tend to think the stats on increased street crime are probably in line with the issues women experience on the streets.

      Personally, I would never go back. I was pretty traumatized after the whole thing and ended up back on anti-anxiety meds for awhile. But for people who are set on going, what I usually say is to make sure to stay in Poblado (the touristy spot) – this isn’t a place to get off the beaten track – and I’d probably just plan on doing group tour stuff and not exploring much solo. There was a significant drop in harassment when I was out with a guy and I didn’t experience any issues at all when I was with a group.

  • K
    August 1, 2018

    I am so sorry to hear this Silvia. I have experienced this is many SA countries…Columbia and Ecuador were, by far, the worst, as in those places I was followed, groped, drugged, robbed and beaten. No one cared a single Iota in the end. In the expat community it is VERY well known about kidnappings, murders, robberies, rapes, etc., that are carried out on tourists. However, the ones that own property there or businesses get online and attack people like you (and me), saying that this does not exist. Especially when they start comparing what can happen to women in the Middle East? Lol well this is a pretty darned low bar because this is where I am from and I can tell you first hand women there are completely useless to most. It is a very sad state of affairs.

    Pay no attention to these types. They have a fiscal interest in their investment and this is all. They are all trying to unload the huge plots of land or the beachside restaurants that they were swindled into buying years ago. And also “robbery tourism” is a big business in these areas and travel agents, business owners and even the Police want this to keep up as even one single robbery can set them up for years easily. Women are easy targets to them.

    When my husband and I were in Panama, the expat community was eerily happy and blissful seeming about how they loved it there….until we got behind closed doors and they admitted to us that almost all of them had been at LEAST robbed and many were murdered and still missing. And not surprisingly most of them are women. You can just google the missing persons expat community and you will see swaths of people who have been victims. It is horrendous.

    We already knew these people who were saying how wonderful it is were lying because almost ALL of their houses were listed for sale on expat sites!

    I, too, am scarred from what happened to me and will not go to any other country where 1) the wealth gap is so large that it is just too tempting for locals to rob tourists 2) women have no rights or 3) insurgent groups or narco-traffickers are at large and running the show (there is absolutely NO WAY to protect yourself from these very powerful and violent groups as even the government cannot – if they themselves are not in on it that is).

    I used to listen to these people who rave about these places in CA and SA and so I went there, only to find out the truth. And the times I went alone as a women, REALLY bad things happened. I am lucky to be alive. But the truth is is that people like you need to warn people about this. It’s plain dangerous no matter how you slice it. Someone tried to drug me while my husband was standing right next to me in the middle of the city center in Bogota during a festival! We simply out ran them!

    I realized then that no one would even care if they did. They would just look on a they did with the other tourists that were killed in plain sight. If they interfered they knew they would suffer the same fate, as Columbians have absolutely NO ISSUE with gunning down even their own local residents to get what they want. Our tour guide told us to our face that the going rate to kill a Gringo was 100 USD. The chilling effect I had in my body did not leave me for a year afterwards.

    Yes, yes, there is crime everywhere blah blah. But you are right. Just look at the data, the online groups of people who have had family missing and killed. It’s there and it is real. The prevalence of this in most CA and SA countries is exponentially higher than most places in the world (sans Iran, Syria and the ilk….duh). Anyone who says different is flat lying.

    I am glad you are still here to tell this sad tale but thank God for people like you. I am sure you have saved the lives of many women just posting this.

    I’m also sure that someone who is either Columbian or has money tied there or some other SA nation will come behind me and rip me a new one. I don’t care. I lived and so did you and so did at least 50 of our friends, some diplomats, missionaries and volunteers who only tried to help – 12 of which are dead.

    Best of Luck.


    • katz
      December 25, 2018

      Couldn’t say it better. Keep up telling the truth! The ones who’re lying about “safe” South/Central America are trying to lure naive dummies to sell them real estate and “services”. There’s a reason there’re bars on windows everywhere in CA/SA. I guess people live like in prison because it’s “fun”. I grew up in a 3rd world hell that also got “reconsider travel/Level 3” warning….LOL, I’ve learned that even people from my home country consider Latin America too dangerous to visit. And a lot of these countries only got “Level 1/normal precautions” – mind boggling…. these are corrupt political agenda PC lies by State Department, to call them “safe” in any way, shape or form.

  • Michele Levings
    January 24, 2019

    Hi Gigi
    Thanks for your article and help me decided that i won’t go to Columbia with my girlfriend after all. I kept on thinking about it and after hearing some great stories of friends which travelled with their husbands. I was worried about two female travellers and beeing to SA before, you bascially wrote about the things i was worried about!
    Safe travels, saludos Michèle

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