On the Road – Colombia: Safety—Highways & Papaya

The rains and adventures continue in Colombia. Reportedly, the journey between Medellín and Mutatá is now taking 17-18 hours. Buses must go by way of Montería, as a bridge near Mutatá is out. Travelers coming to Cartagena from Medellín say trips are taking several hours longer than usual.

The images flashed across TV screens and splashed upon newspaper front pages show the situation to be quite desperate in some parts of the country. But how much is just hype?

Last week a couple traveling from Alaska to Ushuaia on bikes left Cartagena with hopes of getting to Mompós. They were a bit concerned about what Invías (the highway department) and newspapers were reporting. Nonetheless, they made it in a few days.

Richard McColl, owner of Casa Amarilla hostel in Mompós, reports that in recent weeks neither Mompós nor Magangué have been totally isolated. The Cartagena-Magangué road is fine; work is being done between Bodega and Mompós. Even though the road isn’t good, Unitransco’s direct Cartagena-Mompós and other transport continue.

Richard says, “Mompós never can be isolated … as it is a riverside town so can always reach here by boat. When there are problems, chalupas are put on from Magangué. The conditions may not be great, but it’s all in the spirit of adventure and travel and we must always remember that it has never been straightforward getting to Mompós, and it is this issue that has protected the town and for this reason remains an unspoiled corner of Colombia.” If you have any concerns about the road conditions to Mompós, contact Richard.

Indeed—Mompós is one of those many corners of Colombia that is difficult to get to even in the best of times, but well worth the adventure. Others are the Guajira, Llanos and Putumayo.  And with these La Niña rains, such adventures are presented to travelers wending through most of the country.

Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But there’s another facet of safety that visitors need to keep in mind as well, that has nothing to do with physical or political climate.

Colombians warn travelers, “No dar papaya.” Literally this means, “Don’t give papaya”—a strange way, perhaps to advise you: Don’t make yourself a mark for thieves.

Does this mean Colombia is a Den of Thieves? No, far from it. But as any place in the world, foreigners are an easy and logical mark for robbers. We either physically stand out from the local crowd—or do so once we open our mouths and our thickly accented Spanish comes stumbling out. Some would-be thieves believe if we’re traveling we must be rich. And often we are. Passports, bank and credit cards, travelers checks and cash. Laptops, cameras, iPods and other gadgets. Anything is easy to get rid of on the black market. Thieves around the world know this.

V!VA Colombia and other guidebooks warn about Colombian thieves’ tricks of the trade. When you meet travelers who have fallen into the same ol’ familiar traps, you can’t help but ask, “But didn’t you read …” “Yeh, I did, but I never …” is often the response.

Here are some real-life Colombian experiences of travelers from all over the world and of all ages. Some are seasoned journeyers, others are green on the road. Only the names have been changed to protect the identities of these people who gave papaya.

Magdalena, a retired travel consultant from Buenos Aires, was walking through Bogotá’s Candelaria neighborhood. While listening to her iPod music, she admired the colonial architecture and Jorge Olave’s statues of daily Bogotanos perched atop buildings. Suddenly she felt something wet hit the top of her head. “Oh,” a woman passing by told her, “a pigeon just shat on you.” Before Magdalena knew it, the woman was gone—and her iPod, too.

Swedish Per was sitting in Parque de los Periodistas, people watching. A plainclothes “police officer” came up to him and demanded to see his identification and proof that he had sufficient funds to be in the country. The “officer” also requested the same from another Latino “foreigner” sitting next to Per. He thought, well he’s complying, so should I. He told the officer his passport and such was at his hostel. While they walked back to the hostel, the “officer” kept hold of Per’s wallet. Per entered, turned around—and the cop was gone. (Note: There are no plain clothes police in Colombia.)

Young Australians Jenny and Bill, and their friend Mary couldn’t resist nightclubbing their last evening in Bogotá. A group of friendly, chatty Colombians sat down at their table. Jenny and Bill got up to dance. After a while, Mary began to feel “strange.” The three of them decided to go back to the hostel straight away. Mary began fainting away. An emergency visit to the hospital confirmed her drink had been drugged.

Sarah (UK) was sitting on Cartagena’s fortress walls, writing in her journal. She felt something hit her leg. As she looked down to see what it was (a soccer ball), her daypack (along with her guidebook, camera, passport and credit cards) disappeared from here other side. The same trick happened to Charles (US) while sitting in Plaza San Pedro Claver in the same city.

This is an unfortunate thing to say, but in my over 20 years traveling in Latin America, I have learned that much thieving isn’t done by locals at all. Rather, it’s a traveler-on-traveler crime. Too many tourists come to places like Colombia and get involved in taking cocaine or crack. The money runs out and the easiest mark is other foreigners. They’re in the same hostel, and of course they have passports, bank and credit cards, travelers checks and cash. Laptops, cameras, iPods and other gadgets. (Anything is easy to get rid of on the black market, after all.) And who would ever suspect that the culprit is another foreigner just like you? Never!

To keep from giving papaya to these would-be-thieves, take care about where you are staying. Avoid hotels that have a reputation for drugs (they’re illegal anyways). Choose hostels with personal safes or lockers, and use a good-quality lock. Be sure to keep all valuables locked away.

For more security tips, check out V!VA’s Safety in Colombia.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA Colombia. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

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