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Is Medellín Safe?

If you’ve seen Netflix or have not been hiding under a rock, you probably know that Medellín has a reputation for not being safe. The former home and base for Pablo Escobar was full of bombs, major violence, and drug production. Medellín, the capital of the department of Antioquia, was the focal point in giving Colombia a bad name.

Are you wondering if Medellín is safe? #

So, is Medellín safe now? The short answer: absolutely, yes! When you visit Medellín you should feel comfortable and happy. Medellín is a changed and beautiful city and one of the most exciting major cities in South America. It is often called “The City of Eternal Spring,” for it’s almost perfect climate.

The crime rate in Medellín is better than cities like London and Chicago, and the El Poblado area has a better crime rate than Boston. Even still, it is a large city (estimates between 3 and 5 million people) and guests should avoid wearing flashy jewelry, cash, or avoid walking with their cellular phones out if they are tourists and/or not speaking Spanish.

In fact, 2013, the Urban Land Institute named Medellín the Most Innovative City in the world. There is often confusion about this award with foreigners believing the city must be ultra-high-tech, research-oriented, and a Latin American version of Tokyo. While some of this exists, the award is in fact oriented towards Medellín’s clever public policy, which helped turn the city from the most dangerous city in the world into one of the safest in Latin America.

Why does Medellín have such a bad reputation? #

In the early 90s, Pablo Escobar led the rise of the Medellín cartel, locally known as La Oficina de Envigado (Envigado is the name of the municipality where Pablo Escobar grew up). However, Colombia was no stranger to violence before then. Starting in the 1950s, internal political conflict between the left and the right led to the creation of the left wing guerilla groups and their nemesis, the right wing paramilitaries. These groups engaged in armed conflict on the countryside of Colombia, which led to large diasporas of Colombians into the cities.

The war on the countryside was the result of almost 50 years of conflict that began with an earlier civil war at the beginning of the century. This conflict created large pockets of poverty in the country as people began to create “barrios populares,” or poor districts on the outskirts of the city. This poverty in turn led to increases in both petty crimes as well as bigger issues like armed robberies.

In the late 1980s, the Chilean dictator Pinochet worked to extinguish any elements that challenged his power, which also led to an expulsion of the criminal underbelly. Some of those criminals introduced cocaine to Colombian smugglers, and cartels began to form in Colombia like the Cali cartel and the aforementioned Medellín cartel.

Once the United States declared a war on drugs, the country began to get involved in internal affairs in Colombia, offering weapons, money, and military training to the Colombians to fight against the cartels. Once this happened, the cartels turned to the guerilla groups to join forces. As the cartels began to fight against each other for turf in the United States, things spun out of control: the guerrillas were fighting the paramilitaries and the government; the paramilitaries were fighting the guerillas and the cartels; the cartels were fighting with each other, the paramilitaries, and the government; the government began to fight with everyone! This is without even mentioning gangs, local crime syndicates, etc…

Needless to say, the violence got out of control, especially as the cartels took control of local gangs. In some cities like Medellín, Bogotá, and Cali, car bombs were a weekly occurrence.

Was violence the same in all regions? #

In short, no, although the whole country experienced problems, violence was not equally allocated throughout the country. Medellín and Cali were the epicenters of the urban violence as they were the locations of the two most powerful drug cartels, which happened to be at war with each other, and which drew the most international resources to combat.

The countryside of Colombia, and especially the coasts were a hotbed of territorial warfare between the paramilitary and guerrilla groups.

Although Bogotá was dangerous, it was not on the same level as Medellín.

How did things change? #

There is not an easy or short answer to this question, change was a combination of factors that had to do with war, public policy, and Colombians themselves.

From about 2000 to 2010, the Colombian government waged an all-out, and controversial war against the guerilla groups in the country. Many innocent people were killed (somewhere in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands), but the amount of guerilla fights lowered to its smallest numbers since the 1950s. The government then stationed military at various checkpoints throughout the country in order to secure safety.

This was especially the case and still is the case in Antioquia. Nowadays, the guerillas groups still exist but by and large operate in very remote and difficult to reach regions. The same is true of the paramilitary groups.

In Medellín itself, change occurred thanks to four main actions:

  1. The installation of Medellín’s mass transit system allowed people who were once stuck in certain areas of the city or behind invisible borders (uncrossable streets controlled by violent gangs) to be able to easily cross the city for new jobs and education. In particular, the city installed a system of “metro cable” gondolas as a form of mass transport. The gondola system generated minimal displacement, is quiet and efficient to operate, and most importantly allowed residents to float over previously off-limit “invisible borders” between neighborhoods. Once integrated with the city’s metro and light rail systems, residents of previously isolated neighborhoods of Medellín could now easily move to seek jobs, life, and homes in other parts of the city. This created economic prosperity and allowed new monies to enter the most dangerous barrios of the city. In fact, Medellín specifically installed metro stations in the most dangerous parts of the city with the understanding that these regions most needed help.;
  2. The city placed a much bigger emphasis on education, giving people access to newly built libraries and tech centers;
  3. The government increase its reach to give people a much bigger voice in participation.
  4. The “Paísas” themselves (the people of Antioquia) demanded change and social leaders worked from within communities in order to stem of violence.

The city changed very fast, and experienced significant decrease in violent crimes especially between 2007 and 2014.

How are these same neighborhoods today? #

Nowadays, several of the previously violent neighborhoods offer tourist attractions. The most famous and most commonly visited is the Comuna 13 neighborhood near San Javier. In 2014 the city installed a series of escalators in the neighborhood to help residents transit the steep hills and to attract tourism. The mayor’s office also funded local artists to paint intricate murals throughout the neighborhood, and massive projects have been launched to hire locals to care for the area and become guides. The success of Comuna 13 has inspired other communities to try to replicate these projects, especially as 13 is often at visitor capacity.

But this is by no means the only part of the city to offer attractions. In parts of the city’s Manrique neighborhood, community gardens and other graffiti murals offer a bright contrast to the city’s prior dark landscape.

In the Comuna 1, Santo Domingo, the Urban Museum of Memories uses murals as a form of telling the history of the city, much in the same way that early rap did in the United States. In fact, a large part of urban culture in Colombia is heavily influenced by hip-hop culture in North America.

These projects are what earned Medellín its award, and thanks to these projects the city has enjoyed drastic improvements in its crime rate. Visitors should feel safe going out at night in the south side of the city including El Poblado, Laureles, Envigado, and Sabaneta. There are other safe parts of the city but it is advisable to experience nightlife in the rest of the city with a local or guide. At night, like in any big city, it’s always better to walk in groups or pairs instead of by yourself.

Is Medellín safe for tourists? #

Again, yes, absolutely, but like most big cities, there are things that you should be aware about. A common phrase that is used here (that we absolutely hate) is “no dar papaya.” Literally, it means “don’t give papaya,” a very popular tropical fruit in Colombia. Why? Because obviously, if you offer someone papaya they will take it from you.

In other words, “no dar papaya” means making yourself an easy target. That might mean wearing flashy jewelry, having your cellular phone out in public while speaking a foreign language and being dressed quite differently, flashing cash around, etc. Anything that would make you stand out as different and or wealthy will make you a target for pickpockets or other criminals looking for petty theft.

We don’t like the phrase because it is essentially blaming the victim for actions of others, but the spirit of the phrase is powerful: don’t make yourself an easy target.

How to dress in Medellín #

Today, Medellín is the fashion capital of Colombia, highlighted each year by the Colombian fashion show, Colombia Moda.

In general, paísas care about their appearance and while they will not dress in suits, will have their clothes well planned. Women will often time be very fashionable, and as the weather is constantly between 75 and 85 degrees, generally with a relaxed look. Men will almost always wear jeans, a colored shirt, close-toed tennis or dress shoes, and many will also have manicures.

In Medellín, it’s a big “no no” to try and wear shorts and flip flops, regardless of the weather. In fact, many local women will very crudely refer to this (politely) as the “gringo uniform” or (not politely) as “the pussy dryer.” This type of dress sticks out like a sore thumb, which most Colombians will immediately identify. This is bad news for the traveler as they will draw the attention of pick pockets and repel the interest of locals.

In general, it’s wise to stick to jeans, a polo shirt, and comfortable close-toed shoes.

Is Medellín Safe for Tourists? #

In short: absolutely! Again, this is mostly a question of big city rules: Medellín is a city with somewhere between 3.5-5 million residents (actual census numbers are hard to predict especially with migrant movements the last couple of years). But please use common sense big city practices. As long as you are not making yourself a target in the wrong places you’ll be alright. Not all areas of Medellín are the same. Neighborhoods like El Poblado, Laureles, Belén, Envigado and Sabaneta regularly receive tourists. Even surrounding towns and villages like Rionego, El Retiro, Marinilla, and Guatape are receiving growing numbers of tourists, and the southwestern region of Antioquia is growing exponentially with coffee tourism. To the west, the historic town of Santa Fe de Antioquia is beautiful, protected, and totally safe as well.

El centro #

One interesting part of the city is the center or “el centro.” During the day, the center is a thriving, lively, and bustling collection of locals and tourists. Plaza Botero is among the most popular and visited destinations in the country. The plaza is adorned with 23 sculptures made and donated by Fernando Botero himself, and the plaza is sandwiched by the Museo de Antioquia (curated by Botero) and the Cultural Palace. Nearby attractions include the lights plaza and the government center, “El Hueco” shopping district, and Parque Bolívar. These areas are very dense, and while safe, they are also known for having pickpockets and other petty crime.

Travelers are encouraged in these districts to use secondary or fake wallets, to consider second cell phones or less expensive phones, and to keep their valuables in their front pockets. With these small common-sense practices, travelers should feel totally comfortable walking around, including through el hueco (a dense, street shopping, and knock-off product district).

That said, the center is not safe to walk around at night. Travelers, especially if they do not speak good Spanish, should avoid walking around the center after nightfall. If you want to get to know downtown / el centro, the best thing to do is to sign up for a local walking tour. Real City Walking tours are probably the most famous, but do be aware, although the tour is free, they will ask for hefty tips at the end, which feels a little bit like a scam.

El Poblado and Laureles #

Two of the most exciting and tourist-friendly neighborhoods and tourist areas in Medellín are El Poblado and Laureles. El Poblado is the trendiest and considered to be one of the most beautiful sectors of town. Laureles was El Poblado before El Poblado became popular. Laureles is now having its own resurgence. Both neighborhoods are very popular for everyone from backpackers to luxury travelers heading to hotels like El Cielo and 23. While El Poblado is full of hostals like Casa Kiwi, Selina, and more, making it a backpacker haven, Laureles is quickly becoming the cheaper alternative as El Poblado continues to fill with high-end restaurants and expensive hotels. Laureles also has the advantage of being flat, a great feature while carrying a backpack!

Both of these neighborhoods have large concentrations of expats living there, dominated by the presence of digital nomads. Colombia’s new digital nomad visa has made it easier than ever for foreigners to plant roots in Medellín, and these areas are definitely the most popular. Because of this, you’re likely to encounter fellow English speakers, find someone to help you get around, and for solo travelers, they are great areas to make friends.

In general, both of these neighborhoods are totally safe to walk around both during the day and at night. Again, common sense is the rule, travelers should avoid flashing wealth and avoid any dark and isolated areas, especially if walking alone. But in these areas, Medellín is definitely safe to walk around at night.

One of the most popular parts of the city is Parque Lleras, one of the two main parks of El Poblado. Lleras is currently undergoing a remodeling, but it has long been a popular area for nightlife for both foreigners and Colombians. However, while Lleras is a safe place, there have been various safety concerns in the park. Years ago, open bottle laws allowed for drinking in the park, and many people would gather nightly in Lleras to mingle between foreigners and locals, while the nearby Parque El Poblado was dominated by Colombian partygoers.

However, liquor laws have changed, and as people moved in to the bars and restaurants to drink, night workers and drug dealers moved in to the area. While prostitution is legal in Colombia as long as the prostitute is self-employed, the sale of drugs is not legal and is largely reserved to sell to foreigners.

Is Medellín safe for solo female travelers? #

Traveling alone as a female is unfortunately always a concern. While Colombia is safe, solo female travelers should take extra precaution to care for their safety. This definitely includes avoiding walking alone at night in vulnerable or isolated areas. In general, women should feel safe alone and in groups, but of course when alone the key is to not make yourself a target. One of the simple ways to do so is just to not wear flip flops. Like we mentioned, most Colombian women dress very sharply, so if travelers look like they don’t know what they are doing, thieves or other criminals will home in on those targets.

One of the biggest safety tips to keep in mind is that all travelers should be extra careful with their drinks. One of the most well-known dangers in Colombia is scopolamine, a drug derived from the flower of a native tree known as the “borrachero,” or drunk-maker. Pharmaceuticals use the derivative to make medicines that fight stomach aches and cramps, but criminals use it to create scopolamine, or “the zombie drug.” There are rumors that scopolamine comes in spray, or dust, but the drug must be consumed, and is most often done so through spiking drinks.

Although homicide rates have gone way down in Medellín, homicides do exist and accidental scopolamine overdoses are responsible for the death of some tourists. Once consumed, the victim continues to seem coherent, but in reality they are completely drugged and will listen to all commands of their attacker. The criminal will then instruct the victim to let them in to wherever they are staying, at which point the enter and rob the victim.

Solo women travelers at bars can be easy targets for criminals and for that reason in order to stay safe they should take care with their drinks. Of course, the best way to stay safe is to make friends and travel in groups, especially if they are backpackers and meeting at a hostel.

Is Medellín safe for children? #

Medellín is definitely safe for children, families travel here all of the time. In fact, many families come for extended stays to put their children in Spanish schools, to take sports lessons or just for tourism.

Children are relatively sacred in Colombia and Colombians will bend over backwards to help and save them. That said, there are two leftover reputations from decades past that linger with Colombians themselves:

  1. During the height of the violence, the paramilitary, the guerrillas, the cartels, and the gangs would often recruit or kidnap children to join their ranks.
  2. Colombia lingers with a reputation for partygoers, and there are massive campaigns against the exploitation of minors. There is no worry that your child will be kidnapped or subjected to this. Prostitution in Colombia is legal as long as the sex-worker is self-employed. In the major cities there are sectors where this is more common than others, but the campaigns are aimed toward avoiding the inclusion of minors in this industry and combatting sex-tourism.

In Medellín, there are very popular places for children to visit including Parque Explora, which the local science museum and aquarium. Right next door people can find the Botanic Gardens, which is full of several types of animals including iguanas, exotic birds, and for the discerning eyes, monkeys and sloths. Another fun activity with kids is taking them to a ceramic workshop in El Carmen de Viboral, a town that makes all of the ceramics featured throughout the movie Encanto. Kids also really enjoy visiting the nearby town of Guatape where they can wander the colorful and enchanting streets, take a boat ride on the lakes, or climb the town’s giant monolith. We also recommend a visit to the countryside lodge, Cannúa, where you can plant a tree together, make Colombian farmer’s cheese, do a chocolate tasting, and more!

Is Medellín a safe place to live? #

Medellín has become one of the world’s hotspots for expats and retirees alike, thanks to its low-cost and high-quality level of living, it’s beautiful scenery, and it’s ideal – some would say, perfect weather. The government has made it easy to acquire property and this year’s addition of the new “digital nomad” visa makes staying in Medellín easier than ever.

Crime rate among foreigners is exceptionally low, except for those who tend to get tangled up in drugs and other undesirable activities. The city features high-end shopping, furniture, and architecture, all signs of safety in the region.

It’s advisable not to purchase a motorcycle – although they are very convenient and weave around traffic, the vast majority of traffic incidents involve motorized bikes.

The vast majority of foreigners concentrate in the neighborhoods of El Poblado and Laureles, which are very safe and full of restaurants and high-end nightlife. Some ex-pats that prefer to be a little more immersed in Colombian culture head 15 to 20 minutes south to the attached municipalities of Envigado and Sabaneta, a quick taxi or ride share from El Poblado. Those with more funds and whom wish to purchase large homes and cars are moving outside of the city to Rionegro/Llanogrande, and El Retiro. The municipality of Santa Elena, connected by the metro cable to Parque Arví has become popular as well.

Some foreigners are attempting to live in less-developed areas of the city like Manrique, San Javier, and more. These neighborhoods are for the advanced Spanish speakers and cultural immersionists. If you have not been in Colombia for a while, we do not recommend trying to stay in these neighborhoods.

Is it safe to take public transport? #

Medellín has the best public transport and mass transit system of any big city in South America. The “metro” as locals refer to it, is both very safe and extraordinarily clean. The system is a point of pride for the people from Medellín who keep it free of trash, gum, and more, and which is patrolled by police and local workers.

The city has grown in population faster than the city anticipated and for that reason the metro system can be quite congested during peak hours. Especially during this time, travelers should use practical sense practices to avoid petty theft and pickpockets including: keeping your cell phone and wallet in your front pocket and covered by your hands. Consider placing backpacks in front of you and valuable goods deep inside, consider using a cheaper or temporary phone, and/or wallet, and in general take care of your valuables.

The metro system is quite convenient and most areas of the city are connected vía one of the arteries:

What to avoid in Medellín #

In general, Medellín has developed from the center toward the south, and stayed less developed from the center toward the North. Travelers should feel totally fine in the south side of the city and certain areas near mass transit in the north, or with a guide. They should feel fine traveling to the Comuna 13, to Santo Domingo, and to Parque Arví, but unaccompanied travelers should avoid the areas surrounding those zones if not very familiar with the city. Tourists should also avoid the northern municipality of Bello as well unless accompanied, as Bello is still somewhat active with gangs, especially first time travelers to Colombia.

At night, travelers should avoid being by themselves in dark or unfamiliar places, much like and big city. If going to an event like a soccer/football match or a concert, it’s best to go in groups and be weary of pickpockets. In addition, there are two main soccer/football teams in Medellín: Atletico Nacional, which wears white and green and Deportivo Independiente Medellín, which wears red and blue. In general, there are no issues and games are safe (alcohol is prohibited in the stadiums), but the over conscious traveler might avoid wearing the wrong colors.

Here are a couple of general tips:

When going out in Medellín, please always care for your drink, don’t accept from strangers, and don’t drink anything that has weird or unfamiliar powders. Scopalamine is a common drug amongst criminals to dope people. It’s sometimes called the zombie drug because the victim appears conscious though they are not. The victim allows the criminal into their apartment in order to be robbed. Travelers should feel safe, this is not a common practice, but it is always wise to be on the lookout.

Don’t flash around a lot of cash or jewelry, speak loud in foreign languages, or otherwise make yourself a target for petty theft.

Here is a great company: True Colombia Travel

Are taxis safe? #

Taxis are safe but taxi drivers often rip off tourists by lying about fares or taking longer routes. Be clear about where you are going, ask the driver the expected price, and make sure they are using their taximeter. Don’t get in any taxi that already has a passenger in it.

Are ubers safe? #

Yes, in general ride share is much more preferable to taxis. Some uber drivers will ask you to pay cash for a toll or to go from the airport. Don’t let them or offer to call another car, this is a scam. Uber falls in a legal gray area in Colombia. In general, the police don’t care anymore, but many drivers will ask you to sit up front to not call unwanted attention from the authorities. Ubers may be a bit more expensive than taxis but it’s worth the extra cost for comfort, service, and the quality of the vehicles.

Is it safe to travel overland in Colombia? #

It is very safe to travel overland in Colombia, but travelers are NOT encouraged to rent their own cars to get around – not. Because of safety concern but because it is quite difficult! Signage in Colombia is not great, driving is difficult in the mountains, and while driving apps like Waze and Google Maps help, it is easy to get lost. Although the US State Department does not encourage overland travel, tourists should feel safe in most areas. In general, the extremes of the country (the southern pacific coast for example), the border with Venezuela, and some of the most remote and difficult to reach places are the areas to only visit with caution.

Is Medellín or Bogotá safer? What are the safer cities in Colombia? #

Medellín is definitely safer than Bogotá, with about a third of the inhabitants in Medellín than Bogotá, less traffic, and far less crime. In Bogotá, it is very common to experience small theft, especially of the mirrors on your rental car, as well as other petty crimes. It is advisable to avoid the transmillenial bus system in Bogotá. Pereira and Cali are other cities with much higher crime rates than Medellín, as is Santa Marta (although the tourist districts of Santa Marta are quite safe) and Buenaventura.

Colombia is very safe and the safest Colombian cities for travelers to visit in Colombia include Medellín, the walled city of Cartagena, Manizales, many of the small towns like Salento, Villa de Leyva, Barichara, and more. In general, travelers should feel save traveling in Colombia.

Do I need vaccines for Medellín and should I be afraid of tropical disease? #

You do not need any vaccines to enter Colombia. If you are going to the Amazon, where you should feel very safe, it is strongly recommended that you get vaccinated against yellow fever, the same if you are planning the hike to the Lost City near Santa Marta. For the rest of the country, vaccines are not totally necessary.

Medellín is at a great elevation where tropical diseases don’t really spread.

How is Covid-19 in Medellín? #

The pandemic hit Colombia hard as initially everyone was placed in lockdown and then all restrictions were lifted and the virus spread very rapidly.

Today, Covid-19 is very well controlled in Colombia and less common than the United States. In April of 2023 there were no deaths reported. There have been less than a thousand cases in the country of 50 million inhabitants and over 90 million vaccines have been administered, enough for more than 85% of the population.

Should I get Travel Insurance before going to Medellín? #

If it's within your financial means, you should always get travel insurance before travel. The medical care in Medellín in particular is excellent, and you should feel comfortable at clinics and hospitals like San Vicente, Pablo Tabón, Clinica del Rosario, and Clinica Medellín in El Poblado. Your travel insurance will cover most issues as care in Colombia is relatively cheap, and in the worst case scenario, clinics in the city will allow you to pay out of pocket and with credit card.

Keep in mind that travel insurance is different than trip insurance. Travel insurance covers you for medical issues and some limited luggage issues, trip insurance covers you if you have to cancel your trip for any reason. Here are some recommended insurance companies: