Safety in Medellín
Medellin with a population of nearly 3 million people is Colombia’s second-largest city. Most people have a 20-year outdated idea of what life is like in Medellín. They think back to the dark days of Pablo Escobar and the drug cartels. Well, a lot has changed since Pablo was killed in 1993. Medellín has experienced a rebirth and is now a major tourist spot, a center for conventions and a thriving hub for commerce, excellent healthcare, and festivals.
Colombia’s former President Juan Manuel Santos and Rodrigo Londoño, the leader of the paramilitary group known as the FARC, signed a peace agreement in November 2016, ending a 52-year civil war. The disarmament process and the implementation of the details of the agreement will take several more years to complete but the country continues on the path of peace.
But questions still persist. When I speak at IL conferences, attendees come up to my table and ask “so, is it really safe to live there? I´ve heard stories…” As someone who has been living full time in Medellín since 2012, let me answer some of the burning questions.
Is Medellín a Safe Place to Live?
Any large city around the world has crime. However, in the expat-centric areas, it tends to be crimes of opportunity such as pickpocketing in crowds and theft of unattended items (cellphones, backpacks, handbags). The local expression “no dar papaya,” which loosely translates to “don’t make yourself a target.” Therefore, it is best not to wear expensive jewelry or watches or flash large amounts of cash or expensive cameras. Don’t carry lots of cash or credit/debit cards with you. Only carry what you will need for the day or night.
Some times you neeed to beware of motorcycles or “motos” as we call them. Besides bobbing and weaving in and around cars when you are trying to cross the street, a significant number of robberies are carried out by people on motorcycles. They can quickly get to you, take you purse, backpack, or phone and then drive away quickly. Having your phone out and visible in taxis or on the street falls into the “no dar papaya” category and may attract unwanted attention from a criminal on a motorcycle.
When you are living in a place for more than just a couple of months, always change the locks. There is no way of knowing how many people have had keys to your apartment before you. So best to start fresh.
Is Medellín Safe for Expats and Tourists?
The paisas (locals from Medellín) are proud of their city and are genuinely thrilled when foreigners come to visit or live there. While it isn’t necessary to completely blend in with the crowd, try not to be an obvious tourist. Even though the Medellín weather is warm, locals do not wear shorts in public unless they are out running. Jeans, chinos, or other long pants are best. Women can wear pants, skirts, or dresses. Wearing flip-flops is a sure sign you are a backpacker or tourist. Sneakers, comfortable walking shoes, or sandals are fine. The best advice is to spend a day or two in the mall, grocery store, or just walking around the street, and pay attention to what the locals are wearing and adjust your wardrobe accordingly. The vast majority of expats go about their day with nothing but positive experiences and interactions with paisas and don’t attract much-unwanted attention.
Over the past several years, Medellín has become a mecca for digital nomads. Coworking spaces and internet cafés are all over the city and there are more popping up every year. With digital nomads come laptops, cellphones, and other portable electronic devices. Keep a vigilant eye on your devices. Turning your back for a short period of time while paying for your coffee or stepping away to talk to a fellow nomad could easily mean the loss of your devices.
El Poblado is considered by many as the safest part of the city. However, robbery statistics have been increasing there. This is likely due to criminals targeting the wealthiest area of Medellín where most foreign tourists stay. Street crime is possible even in these areas, so always be aware of your surroundings.
If you are a tourist, carry a copy of your passport when you are out and about. Leave the original in the hotel or apartment safe. Use ATMs in malls and grocery stores. Avoid ATMs on the street or in areas with few people around. And be conscious of who might be watching you.
Is Medellín Safe at Night?
Darkness falls at around 6 p.m. every evening in Medellín. At that time, the streets are filled with locals returning from work and heading back home and there is no issue being out at that time. I consider night anything after 9.30 p.m. After this time, it is best to avoid walking in infrequently traveled or unlit areas. Certain areas of the city such as El Centro should really be avoided at night.
Areas to Avoid in Medellín
As I mentioned, El Centro is one of the areas to avoid. Going during the daytime and with other people you know is safe, but be cautious. It has some of the highest crime rates in the city and petty street crime in El Centro is quite common. There are areas in El Centro that are magnets for drunks, drug dealers, and the homeless. After dark, El Centro becomes even more dangerous.
The poorest neighborhoods in Medellín such as Robledo, Popular, Santa Cruz, Manrique, San Javier, and 12 de Octubre are not really places for expats, even during the day unless you are part of an organized tour like a graffiti tour.
Solo Travel in Medellín
Traveling by yourself in Medellín is not much different than in any large city. Personal awareness and creating a contact plan with family or friends back in your home country is a good idea no matter where you are traveling. Facebook has several groups you can join to meet up with other expats in Medellín. If you decide to meet someone always do this in a public area like a mall, restaurant, or café.
Other common-sense things to consider include keeping a low profile, never giving out information about where you live to strangers, and not inviting strangers into your home or hotel. It is best not to walk alone at night. If you must, stay on well-lit streets where there are plenty of people.
Do They Speak English in Medellín?
Spanish is the national language in Colombia. Other than the signs and announcements on the Metro being in both English and Spanish, the city in not very bi-lingual. In the El Poblado and Laureles areas, you can find physicians, accountants, investment advisors, lawyers and other professionals who speak English. But your day to day interactions with store clerks, taxi drivers, hairdressers, and people on the street will most likely be in Spanish.
Some bi-lingual Colombians have created concierge-style businesses to help expats navigate the banking, medical, insurance, and real estate rental processes. I have seen the number of these services grow quite rapidly in the nearly eight years I have lived in Medellín.
You will need to speak a basic level of Spanish to be able to get around the city independently.
Transport in Medellín
Within the city, the buses, taxis, Uber, and the metro system are reliable especially in daylight. At night, avoid hailing a taxi on the street unless you are in an area you are familiar with. It is much better to call a taxi or use one of the many apps such as Easy Taxi, InDriver, or Uber as there will be a record of who picked you up. The yellow taxis in the Medellín metro area are metered.
In general, the metro is very safe. There are auxiliary police patrolling all the stations. But you need to be careful when the trains are full, especially during rush hour for the morning and evening commutes. The cars can be jam-packed with people and pickpockets will be out in full force. Put your bag, purse, or backpack in front of you and your wallet and cellphone in a front pants pocket. You may not even realize they are missing until you arrive at your destination.
Can You Drink the Water in Medellín? The water in Medellin is perfectly safe to drink right out of the tap. There is no need to buy bottled water or worry about the ice in your drink or eating salads or fruit that has been washed in tap water. Some people use filtration systems to improve the taste as the water might taste a little chlorinated from time to time, but it’s convenient to know that you always have a free and safe option for water anywhere in the city.