Safety in Colombia: The Motorcycle Touring Edition
Is Colombia safe? This is the single most frequently asked question about travel to Colombia. Bring up your plans to travel to Colombian in conversation and the response may well be “are you crazy?”
Mention planning to travel Colombia on a motorcycle? You’re now considered certifiably insane.
Here’s where a dose of reality comes in handy.
Colombia of course has an incredibly bleak history of violence. But with the collapse of the major crime syndicates over a decade ago, and now, the ongoing peace process between FARC and the Colombian government, the country has been undergoing a massive transformation, resulting in an incomparably safer environment for all.
Beginning in the early 2000s, Colombia’s government substantially boosted law enforcement. Military agencies succeeded in drastically improving the overall security situation, clearing out thousands of armed rebels occupying swathes of rural Colombia. Dozens of incredible tourist sites once sealed off in remote parts of the country have been reclaimed.
The cities are also faring better. A case in point – at the time of Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, Medellin had one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the world. By the mid-2000s, this ugly statistic had fallen by 86%.
As a visitor, it’s probably best to look at it this way. More tourists than ever are visiting Colombia. The vast majority of them come back alive. Lonely Planet ranked Colombia 2nd in their 2017 “Best in Travel” list. Hardly the kind of accolade you would bestow on a war zone.
Certainly, poverty and violence are still issues for many people living in Colombia. However, there’s nothing uniquely or worryingly dangerous about today’s Colombia from a tourist’s perspective. Visitors can travel around the country freely, by any means they wish. Motorcycles included.
General Safety in Colombia
Only a handful of the millions of tourists who visit Colombia every year fall victim to crime, and most are non-violent street crimes. On rare occasions, tourists have been targeted by armed robbers, but being pickpocketed is a far more likely scenario, particularly in crowded public places.
We won’t go into how to be street wise and avoid crime in Colombia, as there’s plenty of advice out there already – mostly basic, common-sense rules that should apply when exploring any unfamiliar city.
The best advice is to heed the popular Colombian saying, ‘no dar papaya’ (literally, don’t give papaya). In a nutshell, it means don’t make yourself an easy target, and it’s the best advice on being street wise anyone can give.
Motorcycle Travel Safety in Colombia
Twenty years ago, touring Colombia by motorcycle was definitely not recommended.
These days, with the massively improved security situation, riding Colombia’s highways and backroads is nothing like the risky game of ‘try not to get kidnapped’ it once was. While it’s wrong to say roadside incidents have been eliminated altogether, they are extremely rare, and tourists are not the targets of these organised plots.
Despite the threat to tourists being vastly downgraded, some governments still have travel warnings in place for parts of rural Colombia. In our view, the official travel advice issued by many governments doesn’t always apply the latest data and often exaggerates the dangers, if only to cover their own backsides in the event that you do run into trouble. Take note of their advice, but do your own research.
You should however check with your insurer to make sure you are covered in places with travel warnings against them.
Planning a Safe Route
Road conditions, and your experience level are the main limiting factors when it comes to planning routes and ride destinations in Colombia. If you don’t have much off-road experience, stick to the many beautiful sealed roads the country has to offer. The challenge of learning to handle a bike on dirt, combined with oblivious drivers, crazy truckers and all sorts of hazards you might not be used to at home can result in an unpleasant, if not downright dangerous experience.
Many rural parts of the country have poorly developed infrastructure. Even a place with some semblance of a ‘road’ can be difficult or impossible to reach by bike at certain times of the year. Heavy rain, combined with damage from trucks can turn dirt roads into impassable muddy tracks. Help can be hard to find if you end up stuck on a particularly remote stretch of road.
If you’re not sure about a particular route, ask around for advice before setting off, The knowledgeable folk at Motolombia, as well as adventure riding forums like advrider are excellent sources of first-hand information pre-trip.
Rider Safety Tips on Colombian Roads
- Many Colombian drivers consider following road rules optional, so be ready for anything, anywhere, anytime. Trucks and buses careening around blind corners, animals wandering freely on highways and sections of road that drop away suddenly by 20cm or more. Your hazard perception skills will be tested.
- The state of secondary roads can vary from one kilometre to the next, so using distance alone (or Google Maps) isn’t an accurate way of calculating travel times. 50km on a windy, gravelly stretch of mountain road could take 3 hours. More if you have to wait for roadworks or a landslip to be cleared. Always factor in extra time to reach your intended destination.
- Colombian roads are notorious for excessive speed bumps. They’re especially prevalent at the entrance and exists of towns along the highways. The whereabouts of these evil harbingers of discomfort is not always signposted, and if hit at speed, can cause damage to bike and rider. The same holds true for potholes, so on poorly maintained roads, slow down, and if it’s safe to do so, manoeuvre around them to avoid potentially destroying a rim.
- Signage varies from excellent to non-existent. Beware of painted road markings that become slippery when wet.
- Watch for smaller bikes while waiting to pass vehicles. You might be trailing a truck waiting for a clear view before overtaking, when a 125cc appears on your tail, ready to pass on a blind corner. Colombian riders in general are not particularly risk averse and so not great examples to follow!
- Don’t leave without basic equipment including a tool kit, puncture repair kit, first aid supplies and wet weather gear. Particularly in the mountains, the weather can change in an instant. A satellite GPS messenger like the Spot personal tracker is an excellent idea in case of emergency.
- There are speed cameras, particularly at major intersections in town, and in tunnels. If do get done, expect to receive a bill of around $150US in the post about a month later.
- Between 6PM and 6AM, riders are required to wear a fluorescent vest with reflectors and your license plate number displayed. If you rent a bike from Motolombia, this vest will be supplied. It’s not a bad idea to wear it at all times for a bit of added safety.
- There are three types of police who can stop passers-by – military, National Police and el Transito, although big bikes are rarely stopped. If you do get waved over, you’ll usually experience nothing more than a brief, polite exchange. Nearly everyone is friendly and considerate of foreign guests, all part of why motorcycle travel in Colombia is so rewarding.
(extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)