Tips for Traveling in “Dangerous” Places

ColombiaAs I get ready for a trip to Colombia, lots of people have been quick to greet the news of my latest travels with a well-meaning, “Be careful; it’s dangerous there!”

But is it really any more dangerous than anywhere else I’ve traveled or lived?

Our perceptions of what make a place seem dangerous are shaped by many factors—the hyper-dramatic media more interested in getting a quick and juicy story than sticking around to figure out the complicated dynamics of a place; government agencies driving their own political and economic agendas; and rumors that have taken on a life of their own. All of these are dubious sources of useful information for the traveler getting ready to depart for a place that’s perceived as having a high danger factor.

While common sense should be the traveler’s golden rule no matter where he or she roams, there are a few other tips that you can take along when planning to travel to “dangerous” places.

Before Your Trip

10. Check your facts…and your fears. Sit down and make a quick inventory. What have you heard about the country you’ll be visiting? What do you actually know about the country? Where did you get this information? How accurate and reliable is the source? How is danger defined? Is danger calculated in terms of actual, measurable risk?

For instance, though Puerto Rico is not perceived as a dangerous tourist destination, I lived there for 2.5 years and during that time learned that it was the fifth most violent country in the world (per capita) due to the rate of gun deaths. While most of the deaths occur between people who know each other, innocent bystanders have been injured…so often, in fact, that the Puerto Rico Police Department has an annual campaign to combat the errant bullets of people who fire guns into the air to welcome the new year. This is a kind of danger that can be substantiated and avoided.

9. Read advisories and travel warnings and put them into perspective. By all means, visit the State Department’s website and review the travel warnings if you must. But then read more about the country and learn about aspects of its history and present that don’t come across in warnings or the news. Check out blogs, travel forums, local newspapers and magazines, and books written IN the country you’ll be visiting. Often, locals have a much different—and more valuable—perspective of themselves than outsiders. For my upcoming trip to Colombia, for instance, I found a great web portal that has introduced me to dozens of blogs about everything from the popular music of the moment to youth political movements.

During Your Trip

8. Look at the locals. That old saying about doing as the Romans do has lasted as long as it has because it works. Do you see people on the street wearing flashy jewelry? No? Then don’t wear flashy jewelry!

7. Let people know your plans. This may sound a bit fatalistic or too Type A for some folks, but telling trusted people what your plans are will help you get tracked down if something horrible does happen to you. For instance, when traveling alone, I send my husband or my mom an email to say what my plans for the day are. It’s always a simple message. Here’s one I sent yesterday: “Hi! Taking the Metro to the Lagunilla Market today and then to see the bulls at Plaza Mexico at 4pm. Be home around 8pm; talk to you then!”

6. Keep an emergency contact card in your pocket, wallet, or bag. Your passport and driver’s license are of little use for helping people know who to contact if you have an emergency. Here’s what I keep on my person: “My name is Julie Schwietert Collazo. My blood type is O+. I have no known allergies, do not take medication, and have no illnesses. In case of an emergency, please contact my husband, Francisco Collazo, at 001-123-456-7890.” Two important tips: (1) Be sure to put the country code of your emergency contact in the phone number. The United States is not the center of the universe. (2) Write the card in English and in the language of the country where you’ll be traveling. Update the card as needed. I can’t emphasize this tip enough; a friend recently fainted on the metro in Mexico City, and this type of card helped her get medical attention right away.

5. Use authorized taxi services. If there’s a tip I’m prone to ignore, it’s this one, because following it requires that I call a taxi service in advance. But it’s worth doing. If you’re going to be traveling in a city or country for a longer period of time, keep some transportation contact information in your wallet and call for authorized service rather than sticking your hand out for ad hoc service. This applies as much in New York as it does outside the U.S.

4. Drink in moderation. Really. This is a tip I NEVER violate. Even if you have a high tolerance for alcohol, people under the influence are targets for criminals anywhere in the world. Also, when you drink excessively, your judgment and ability to make decisions are severely compromised. Be judicious in your use of alcohol.

After Your Trip

3. Spread the word. You came back alive!! Let people know about your trip. When you’re asked, “Was it dangerous?” answer honestly based on your own experiences. A great way to begin contesting the image of certain countries as dangerous is to share our travels there through blogs or slideshows. Start speaking out against stereotypes of people and places that deserve a closer look.

2. Keep learning more. You’ve just had an amazing experience in a country or culture that most of the world considers dangerous, but it’s likely that you’ve just scratched the surface of all that there is to learn about that place. Keep connected to the country via blogs and newspapers, just as you did before the trip. Sign up for an RSS feed for sites that you find particularly interesting.

1. Keep traveling. The world is a big, beautiful place. Get out there and experience it. And come back and tell us about it. The world doesn’t have as many dangerous places as you may think.

Julie Schwietert Collazo is the editor of Matador Pulse as well as a regular contributor to the Matador Community. She runs her own website, Collazo Projects, which she updates daily. She calls Mexico City and New York home but will be soon be running a hostel in Colombia.

  1. Nice guest post!

    I agree with the comment about travel advisories in particular. There was one issued for here (I live in Germany) for the soccer finals. The locals may get rowdy!

    But really, we camped wild throughout South America with no problems. It is just like you said, stay sober, stay respectful, and meet all the wonderful people out there in this world!

  2. Thanks, Sherrie- Glad you liked the post, and thanks so much for sharing your experiences. Rowdy crowds, eh? Scary!! 😉 Those crazy football fans!

  3. Nice post. I was in Israel and West Bank recently and many people were worried. I have blogged extensively about that experience, which is infact one of your suggestions;)

  4. I have spent the last month working at a hostel called El Diablo Tranquilo that is owned by a friend of mine. I have heard plenty of stories from Colombia and all were in praise of the country.

    Most travelers that I have discussed Colombia with have told be that they felt safer there than anywhere else in S. America. I have never been there myself, but from what I have heard most of the fear is unfounded.

    Like anywhere you need to watch out for yourself, but most of that is common sense. From what I have heard the punishment for many crimes in Colombia are swift and harsh. This prevents most kinds of casual crime. Unless you are connected with organized crime or a political movement I don’t think you have anything to worry about in Colombia as a traveler.

  5. Thanks, Priyank and Sand.
    Sand, you didn’t happen to cross paths with our friend Tim Patterson at El Diablo Tranquilo, did you?
    Uruguay is hot on my to-go list.

    Priyank- Could you post the link to your blogs? I’d love to read them.


  6. I expected Bogota to be very dangerous but it was actually very safe.
    Most of the tourist areas and business district have a lot of security, police and army protection.

    Since they don’t get many tourists, they are extremely friendly to the ones that do venture there. The north coast of colombia has some beautiful beaches too! – Enjoy!

  7. NomadicMatt

    Thanks everyone for the lovely comments. Julie’s an excellent writer and I encourage you to check out her work.

    I find that places are usually the exact opposite of what the media makes them out to be. I went to Cambodia thinking it was going to this hell hole filled with abject poverty and that the only thing good there was Angkor Wat. I was totally wrong. While it was a poor place, the people were amazing, there was so much to do, it was beautiful…..and it was not that scary as long as you played it smart like julie said!

    just goes to show, never judge a book by the reviews!

  8. Great advice! Thanks for sharing on Matt’s travel blog! Your number 1 point is the best by far! One of my favorite aspects of traveling is the constant rediscovery of the good in people that has no borders.

  9. haha, i guess i skipped the “guest post” disclaimer when i started reading this. i had to go back to clarify when i saw the word “husband”. haha.

  10. Thanks again for all the great comments! I’m not worried about Colombia in the least, but reading your experiences–of Colombia and other “dangerous” places– brings me so much joy! Happy travels,


  11. Mats

    Good post and good tips, but I think it should be pointed out that even if nothing happened to you, that doesn’t mean it’s not a dangerous place. If the rate of tourists getting into trouble is 2% rather than 0.001%, that still means the odds are that you will get away harmlessly – however, a lot more people will get into trouble.

    I love Colombia and nothing happened to me while I was there, but I also did take a lot more safety precautions than usual. Someone did attempt to rob me the first morning after arrival (they were from the secret police and wanted me to come with them to the secret police station :) ), and the locals I got to know was at times amazed at the risks we would take as tourists – such as going alone to the ATM. Stopping along the road when driving between the cities we also found that out of sight from the road, behind buildings and bushes, there would often be soldiers guarding the transport routes – which probably means they are safe, but it’s also a result of extraordinary precautions.

    I also noticed that the place I stayed in Bogota (the amazingly great Hostel Platypus) sometimes would discretely ignore shady-looking people ringing the doorbell.

    And more.. but that does not mean Colombia isn’t a great country! It is probably the most amazing place I’ve been. However, don’t underplay the risks even if you visited without trouble. It is safe because you are more careful there than other places.

    I want to add one piece of advice of your advice 8: Talk with and listen to trustworthy locals. The security situation may change fast, and the locals will usually be the best source of updated information.

  12. Cristina

    Hi Julie, congratulations for the post.
    I am a Brazilian living in New Zealand, and my Kiwi friends here always ask me about “how to keep safe” in Brazil.
    Now I just have to send them this link! hehehe
    I agree with Mats: no one can be a better advisor then a trustworthy (!!) local.

  13. I agree.

    Hong Kongers think my city, Shenzhen (China) is incredibly unsafe, with a criminal on every corner waiting to prey on the innocent. The Shenzhen people think the same about Hong Kong. In reality both cities aren’t any different than a big city anywhere in the world.

    It’s all about perceptions.

  14. Katie

    I am traveling to puerto rico soon but i just recently became very nervous when a friend told me it was really dangerous. any tips?

  15. NomadicMatt

    @katie: PR is very safe! I don’t know what your friend was talking about. I’ve never heard bad things about PR.

  16. I just wanted to let you know that I just returned back from South America and my last country was Colombia. I just as safe as i did any where else and it is by far the most amazing country I have ever been.
    Their Spanish is polite and a majority Colombians love travelers.
    I am female, traveled alone AND made it home all in one piece! Good luck!

  17. Katie:

    I lived in PR for 2.5 years and actually, it’s ranked as the fifth most violent country in the world per capita. In addition to the advice I shared in the article, I would strongly recommend NOT traveling to PR around New Year’s. There’s a tradition in some communities of firing off guns into the air and people have been killed by errant bullets. This isn’t just hearsay– the PR police department actually has an annual campaign against this kind of gun happy ringing in of the new year.

  18. Mario


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  19. Babs

    Great travel tips! I’ll do the emergency card thing. I just bring my driver’s license whenever I travel and I agree that the emergency card details would be more helpful just in case.

  20. Great Post!

    Colombian here, I like how you think and its awesome that you are visiting Colombia. I think that as long as you hang around with a group of people there and don’t go anywhere by yourself you will be fine. Enjoy!

  21. Great post julie.. I’ve been to a few places where everyone beforehand thought I’m crazy and loved every moment of it – less crowds, friendly locals wanting visitors to come back..etc. I agree most places are usually better than the media/advisory services make them out to be and as long as people follow your tips any problems are reduced. It goes with out saying if you travel more like a local and keep don’t be stupid that problems are unlikely…

  22. Daniela

    I’m colombian and I came here looking for advices on where to go in Colombia as any other turist, I have been traveling a lot but sometimes it is just incredible how we leave our home countries at the bottom of the list. I’m really glad of hearing all the positive comments :) For sure it is worth to visit Colombia and I wouldn’t be as naive to say “the only risk is wanting to stay” for sure the precautions are the same taken in any other place in the world; don’t visit some places, ask to the locals and compare with the research…. Locals can certainly overreact sometimes, I was told in Israel not to go to Ashkelon and I would have missed a beautiful beach or not to go to West Bank and I would have missed the chance to listen the other side of the story, I love politics, etc… The chances are you will have a great time, meet beautiful women (please guys, be careful on this one, don’t be naive! for sure most of us are very good persons but many foreigns that come looking for sex are the easiest targets) whatever you choose keep this in mind:

    1. Go to Guatape, for me it is one of the most breathtaking places I have been in and I’ve been going since I’m a child.
    2. Be clever when you pack, we have all kind of weather.
    3. If you can, go to Caño Cristal (it is the most beautiful river in the world, but it is not open all year long and you cannot go by car or bus so make sure you do the research)
    4. Go to the pacific but try not going by yourself in a fancy car.
    5. Ride horses!!!
    6. Make at least 3 days in Medellin, I can be partial on this one because is my hometown but you need to see at least 3 things for a full day:
    – The city itself and you can go out on Rio Sur at night (be properly dressed!)
    – Vuelta a oriente (locals call like this to visit all the close towns at the east), ride horses and eat a Bandeja Paisa and go to have a traditional night out in any fonda
    – Go to another close towns, now heading to the north as Santa Fe de Antioquia (a beautiful colonial town)

    Sorry for the long post but changing minds about Colombia is one of my passions :)

  23. Oli Boots

    Could you post/send a link to your blog/s about israel and the west bank please, I’m planning on travelling there and would love to get some first hand knowledge from someone who has been on the ground there 😀

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