I’ve been living in Medellin for about 9 years now. In those 9 years I’ve been robbed zero times. I’ve lived in 7 different neighborhoods, including downtown (centro), where I worked at a private English institution.
Although petty crime in Medellin has risen in the last couple years, there are certain precautions you can take to limit your chances of being robbed.
In this guest blog post my good friend Nathan French from PorQueNo goes over 11 suggestions on how to be less vulnerable to robbery in Medellin.
I have lived off and on in Medellin for the past two years. I love this city. There is a reason I continue to come back. The people, the weather, the dancing… the list goes on and on.
Yet life in Medellin is far from perfect. Over the past two years, crime city-wide has steadily risen. And while most of the serious crimes (murder, extortion, human trafficking) are not of any real concern to tourists and expats, armed robbery is. This report from Colombia Reports has shown that armed robberies have increased more than five times since 2013.
This is no real surprise. Crime is equal parts motive and opportunity. Anyone who has visited Medellin and ventured outside of Poblado or Laureles has seen first hand the poverty that exists. The motive for people to steal in order to survive is real.
There is also no shortage of opportunity. Medellin has rapidly become a major hot-spot for tourists, digital nomads and expats looking to relocate. In many respects, Medellin is in the middle of an economic boom.
So, what to do if you are a tourist or wandering expat looking to make Medellin your next home? Here are some tips on how to avoid being robbed in Medellin.
1. Don’t take Uber.
The foreigner Facebook groups are going to go crazy over this one. I am not saying to never use Uber. I have used it in Medellin and I know that it is cheaper and oftentimes safer than taxis. I will certainly use Uber in the future in Medellin.
But I also know, from experience, that Uber drivers in Medellin can be some of the most incompetent drivers in the city. They are usually late and often get lost without a functioning GPS. Most of them also biff it on the little unspoken street rules of the city, such as rolling through any red light at any roundabout anytime after 2AM.
Medellin’s taxi drivers, on the other hand, know the streets well. They are usually pretty nifty behind the wheel and most carry some form of protection. They know where to go, and where not to go. Granted, there are some who are scumbags. But the majority of them are friendly Paisas who have been doing this their whole life. If you are concerned about safety, this can be easily avoided.
You can download a couple of the widely used taxi apps such as Easy Taxi or Tappsi. These apps allows you to book a taxi in the almost exact same way that you book an Uber. Except you’ll have a competent local taxi driver instead of a middle aged Colombian woman.
When you get in the taxi, be sure make sure to check that the taxi meter is on when you get in the cab. The fare should start at $3,500 pesos. And the minimum fare for any trip is $5,500 pesos.
As a rule of thumb I always take a taxi whenever I don’t know where I’m going (and am in a hurry), and I take Uber whenever I do know where I’m going (and am not in a hurry).
2. Limit your vulnerability.
In Colombia the expression you will hear from locals on this is “no dar papaya,” which translates to “don’t give papaya.” It basically means to not give would-be criminals the chance to rob you. Do not leave your computer or phone out in the open. Keep your electronics tucked away whenever possible. Don’t walk around at night by yourself.
Limiting your vulnerability can also mean limiting your potential losses. It is a reality of being in Medellin that you might get robbed. So many good things, one little bad thing.
Once you accept this, it’s important to try to limit the amount of damage that you might incur should you be robbed. Do not walk around at night with your computer in your backpack. Take it home before you go out. When you go out at night, why bring your entire wallet or purse. You can take cash, one card and your ID and you are good. If you are going out for a quick run to a market, why bring your phone?? Do you really need it?
When I go out, I will almost always just bring cash and my ID. Bars prefer cash and this way, if I am one of the unlucky ones who does get held up, I will only lose about $100 and a driver’s license instead of my entire wallet.
If you’re a digital nomad and like to work from cafes make sure that you’re not sitting outside. You can also vary your daily routine. Instead of going to the same cafe every day, go to various ones around the city. Cafes in shopping malls are way safer than cafes on the street.
Additionally, there are many co-working offices around town. Namely in the Poblado area. It might be a better idea to just rent a desk for the day/week/month, instead of walking around with your laptop.
Some of the more well known coworking spaces are:
- Cowork Selina – this is actually a big, beautiful hostel in el poblado. It has a really nice coworking space. Desk rental starts at $5 US per day to $158 US per month.
- Seedstars – This place used to be Atomhouse. It’s also located in El Poblado and it’s very cozy. Their rates start at about $10 US for a day pass. They also offer private offices.
- Global Express – This place is a bit more professional than the two above, yet affordable. Rates start about $8 US per day.
- Frenda Colectivo – If you’re looking to get away from El Poblado, this place is located in Laureles. It’s definitely way more “Colombian” than the aforementioned spots. Day rates start about $8 US as well.
You make your own luck in life. Limit your vulnerability and you will limit the chance of having a catastrophic loss.
3. Make eye contact and smile at people.
Have you ever committed a crime that could have landed you in jail? I have. I am not proud of this, but I have. Thankfully, I didn’t get caught. Want to know how your average criminal (petty thieves) feels prior to committing a crime? They’re nervous. They do not want to get caught and they are hyper-aware of any signs that something might go wrong.
Remember that thieves in general want an easy job. By making eye-contact with people as you pass them on the street, you are letting them know “Hey, I see you.” At times, this brief bit acknowledgment can be enough to spook a would-be thief and deter them elsewhere. A criminal’s wet dream is a drunken tourist at 2AM who has no idea of their surroundings and who can easily be surprised.
Making eye contact also gives you an opportunity to evaluate people. Most of the time you will be able to feel if someone is about to do something shady. Most people, aside from sociopaths, tense up when they do something they know is wrong. You’ll feel it.
A good way to make eye-contact with strangers in Medellin without coming off as a complete creep is to smile and say “buenas” to people as you pass them. It is common here for people to give strangers a smile and a “buenas” as they pass each other on the sidewalk. It’s actually polite to do so. So, do the same. Sighty smile, make your eyes feel kind and say “buenas.”
Last year I wrote a post on the importance of being first. The main idea is that if you are the first to smile, first to say hello etc.. most people will respond very positively. This idea applies to criminals as well. If you are the first to acknowledge them, you have shown confidence and awareness that most thieves do not want to deal with.
This newfound friendliness will a) teach you to be friendlier b) give you a chance to evaluate the person you say hello to and c) subtly alert strangers to the fact that you “see them.”
4. Mind your routines.
This rule is more for anyone who calls Medellin home or who is looking to make Medellin their next home. Armed robberies are not as random as you might think. Anyone who has been robbed was probably being scoped out for a spell before actually being robbed.
A Colombian friend told me that what a lot of thieves will do is stash their gun someplace safe, ride around in search of a potential target, put a spotter on the target, go back for the gun and then return to rob their mark.
You see, in Colombia there are no laws limiting when the police can pull someone over. There is no need for “probable cause.” If two police officers see two young guys cruising around on a motorbike, they can pull them over no questions asked. Obviously, getting caught on a motorbike with an unregistered gun is something most criminals would rather avoid. So they wait, take their time and hid the gun while they find their next mark.
Thus, it is important to not make yourself a predictable target. Change your routines whenever possible. Do not go to the same place for lunch every day. Do not work at the same cafe at the same times every day. Do not take the same route when you walk home. Remember that most criminals are searching for a quick and easy job. Altering your routines is a good way to make yourself less predictable, which means less vulnerable and thus more difficult to rob.
5. Try to stay where the people are.
A good friend of mine once told me that if you walk down a street that has a good amount of people, particularly local Colombian people, you’re probably all good in terms of safety. The problems come when you find yourself on quiet streets where there aren’t many people.
Paisas (Colombians from Antioquia) hate thieves. In fact, since the legal punishment for those caught stealing is so light, if a group of local paisas catch a thief, they will often chase the thief and beat the shit out of them before they call the cops. Taxi drivers will chase down motorbikes and random strangers will get in on the act. Most local thieves know this. As a result, they look for times when they can catch you in a place without many people.
Go out in groups when you go out to party and keep to the major streets at night. Pretty simple.
6. Go out in groups.
This should go without saying, but you are almost always safer in a larger group than you are if you are walking by yourself or even with 2-3 friends. When you go out at night, try to stick with a large group and be sure to make sure everyone in the group stays together.
7. Know where the fisherman fish.
If you were given an assignment to make $1,000 through armed robbery, where would you start first?
Would you go to a neighborhood that is across town from where you lived and that basically has one major way out? Would you try your neighborhood, where there is a good chance your neighbors will collectively kill you if they catch you stealing?
Or, would you go to a neighborhood that is close by, full of tourists & expats and that is smack-dab in the middle of a maze of escape routes.
That’s what I thought. You would obviously choose #3.
This is Laureles.
I need to make it clear that I like Laureles. I really do. I go there often. I love gettin’ sweaty while dancing at Tibiri and Son Havana. I am a big fan of Salud Pan. I like Barrio Central’s trivia night and I like going out to drop the hammer on La 70 from time to time. My happy place in Medellin is Encuadrarte.
But facts are facts. Laureles is neighbored by parts of barrio Belen, barrio San Javier and barrio Robledo, all of which are known to have some very rough areas. Laureles, with all of its circulars, is a labyrinth of ways to escape. It is easily accessible for criminals (less time riding around with a gun) and easy to get out of. Local criminals know this.
I am not saying to avoid Laureles or to even not live there. I am just saying that when you are in Laureles, be aware that you are at a higher risk of being robbed. Act accordingly.
8. Walk in an irregular manner.
If you must walk by yourself at night, please at least do it in a way that is odd or irregular. Cross the street multiple times for no reason at all. If the street is quiet enough, you can walk down the middle of the road. You can even try walking against traffic. This way no motorbike can sneak up behind you.
Walking in an irregular fashion will allow you to quickly identify anyone that might be looking to rob you. If they make the same strange moves you do, you know something is up.
9. Don’t get too wasted.
You are going to party in Medellin. You are going to get drunk. You’ll probably take some drugs. That’s fine. The nightlife in Medellin is great and you should enjoy it. Colombians know how to get down. They are very social people and will stay out until the wee hours dancing and drinking.
That being said, you need to mind yourself. This isn’t your cozy college campus or your local tavern. This is the second biggest city in a developing country. There are people who are looking to take advantage of you. If you get hammered in unfamiliar bars and walk around white-girl wasted at 3AM, there is a good chance bad things will happen.
Check yourself and your partying. You are not invincible. You are not so special that what has happened to so many people before can not happen to you. If you get too fucked up, ask a friend to stay with you and don’t go wandering off by yourself.
10. Don’t go looking for prostitutes.
Lots of foreign men like to come to Colombia for prostitutes. Prostitution is legal and is common in most major cities.
Aside from it being morally wrong, soliciting prostitution is a great way to put yourself into an intimate situation with someone who will likely take advantage of you. Are you so naive to think that these girls want to sleep with random men? Is the fact that she is a prostitute not an indicator that she is in a desperate situation? Maybe you think she loves you… Maybe you think you’re special…
Whatever the case, if you are trolling Parque Lleras in search of prostitutes you are increasing your chances of being drugged or robbed by about 7,000%. You’ve been warned.
11. Always have ID and be careful where you buy your drugs.
There is more than one type of criminal in Medellin. If given the opportunity, local police officers will leverage their power for a little slice of the tourist pie too. Do not go out without an ID (you can be extorted into paying a “fine” for not having identification as a foreigner) and be careful about purchasing drugs and walking around with them on you at night.
If you go to Barrio Antioquia to buy a bag of coke, be warned that the police will usually wait on the edges of the neighborhood to stop any taxi with gringos in it. I have been stopped randomly by police officers in Poblado and Laureles numerous times solely because they were looking to see if I had drugs so that I could be coaxed into paying a “fine.” This piece of advice is doubly true for any white males out there. You
BONUS – Don’t resist.
The maximum prison sentence in Colombia is 40 years. For. Any. Crime.
And that’s usually reduced to about 10 to 15 years. So if a mugger kills you and gets caught (it’s very likely that he/she will not) they’ll only serve about 10 to 15 years, max.
There is no reason to lose your life over a phone or a couple hundred dollars. If you get held up, give whatever you can and do everything in your power to make sure you live to see another day.
Medellin is great. It has great weather, a great culture and great people. I cannot recommend this city highly enough. 90% of the tourists and digital nomads I meet talk about how they love the city and want to come back. Enjoy your time in Medellin but remember to keep your radar on. Small changes to your behavior can make a big difference in terms of your safety.
About The Author
Nathan French is a freelance writer and digital marketing consultant living in Medellin. He is the creator of PorQueNo?, a blog that combines traveling stories with alternative ideas on how to approach life.