Is Cartagena safe to visit? Cartagena is generally safe to visit if you follow some basic safety tips, as you will reduce your risk of being a victim of crime. However, security in Cartagena is still a major concern for tourists visiting and expats living in Cartagena.
Cartagena and Colombia still have a reputation of violence and drugs to overcome that hasn’t been helped by the popular Narcos series. What many people don’t realize is the timeframe depicted in Narcos was well over 25 years ago and that Pablo Escobar is long dead and buried.
I have seen many inaccurate posts on the Internet about safety in Cartagena. For example, I have seen posts claiming that “Cartagena is the safest metropolis in Colombia” (but that isn’t statistically true).
I have lived in Medellín for over eight years and I have traveled to Cartagena over 15 times and spent several months in Cartagena. And probably the most common questions I get from friends and relatives in the U.S. are still related to the security and safety in Colombia.
I frequently hear questions like “Is Medellín safe?”, “Is Cartagena safe?”, “Aren’t you scared living there?”, “What is the chance I will be kidnapped when I visit?”
In this article, we look at some up-to-date Cartagena crime statistics and 20 recommended expat safety tips. Crime and safety is a major concern of expats and was included in our list of 11 downsides to living in Cartagena.
Everyone’s experiences and perceptions about security and safety differ. Obviously if you or a family member or close friend have been victim of a crime your perceptions about security and safety will be different than someone that hasn’t experienced a problem.
We previously looked at security in Medellín and also looked at the safest neighborhoods in Medellín. Also, we looked at safety in Bogotá and safety in Cali. And several Medellin Guru readers asked about safety in Cartagena so we now look at the crime rates and safety in Cartagena. in addition, we previously compared Medellín vs Cartagena as a place to live.
Note the above photos of Colombian police are by the National Police of Colombia.
Is Cartagena Safe? Cartagena Homicide Statistics
The homicide rate in Cartagena in 2018 was 22.20 per 100,000, which was lower than in 2017. The following chart shows the homicide rate in Cartagena from 2008 to 2018 according to COSED.
I have seen several posts on the Internet that have claimed that Cartagena is the safest city in Colombia. However, based on homicide statistics this isn’t accurate.
For example, the following table shows the homicide rates in several Colombian cities in 2018. In 2018, Bogotá, Bucaramanga and Santa Marta are three cities in Colombia that had lower homicide rates than in Cartagena.
Also, according to preliminary figures from the National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, in the first 120 days of 2019 (January to April 2019), there were 138 violent deaths in Cartagena including 73 people killed in homicides, 30 died in traffic accidents, 20 were accidental and 15 committed suicide. According to this agency, these figures in so far in 2019 increased compared to the same period in 2018.
Also, according to National Institute of Legal Medicine and Forensic Sciences, in the first 120 days of 2019, Cartagena had the sixth highest homicide rate out of Colombia’s 30+ capital cities of departments (states).
Is Cartagena Safe? Homicide Statistics by Comuna in Cartagena in 2018
Cartagena has over 200 barrios that are located in 30 comunas. 15 of the comunas in Cartagena are urban and are labeled UCG1 to UCG15. Cartagena uses numbers for comunas instead of names used in other cities in Colombia.
UCG1 is the comuna in Cartagena of most interest to foreigners, as it includes the historical El Centro (walled city), the beach barrios of Castillogrande, Bocagrande and El Laguito plus Manga, Crespo and Getsemaní.
The following table shows the 2018 counts of homicides per comuna in Cartagena as well as the calculated rate of homicides per 100,000 residents in each comuna:
The UCG1 comuna has one of the lowest homicide rates out of the comunas in Cartagena. UCG1 is where almost all tourists visiting Cartagena stay or where foreigners living in the city live.
The UCG4, UCG5 and UCG6 comunas in Cartagena historically have the highest homicide rates in Cartagena. For the period of 2008 to 2018, 38.2 percent of all the homicides in Cartagena occurred in these three comunas (1,020 out of 2,671 homicides from 2008 to 2018).
The UCG4, UCG5 and UCG6 comunas in Cartagena are located to the east of UCG1. And these are poor neighborhoods where foreigners rarely go.
Is Cartagena Safe? Robberies in Cartagena
According to COSED, during 2018, 7,803 robberies were reported in the city of Cartagena, a figure which was three times higher than in 2017. All types of robberies experienced a significant increase in 2018 in Cartagena including robberies of people, businesses, homes and motorcycles.
The following table shows the reported counts of robberies of people in Cartagena by comuna as well as the calculated rate of robberies of people per 100,000 residents in each comuna:
The UCG1 comuna had the highest robbery rate of people in Cartagena in 2018. UCG1 is the wealthiest area of Cartagena with many estrato 5 and 6 homes. UCG1 includes the historical El Centro (walled city), the beach barrios of Castillogrande, Bocagrande and El Laguito plus Manga, Crespo and Getsemaní.
This was similar to our finding about safety in Medellín where the wealthy comunas of El Poblado and Laureles-Estadio were two of the top three comunas in terms of robberies. And this matches our finding about safety in Bogotá where the wealthy Chapinero localidad had the highest rate of robberies.
My Safety Experiences in Medellín, Cartagena and Colombia
I have lived in the Medellín metro area for over eight years in five different neighborhoods. And I have been traveling to Colombia since late 2006, when I first discovered Colombia. The first city I visited in Colombia was Cartagena in 2006.
During all this time living in Medellín and traveling in Colombia including many trips to Cartagena, I have generally felt safe. But I am security conscious and use common sense plus take some safety precautions outlined in our 20 safety tips below.
In all this time traveling to Colombia and living in Medellín for over eight years, I only experienced two problems. And both were on the Medellín metro.
Once was a few years ago when I was traveling on the metro with a backpack during rush hour. And a small camera was in the small pocket in the backpack.
When I arrived at my destination, I later discovered the camera was gone. Someone had taken the camera while I was on the metro that was packed during rush hour. And I didn’t notice anything.
Also, I was a victim of a pickpocket on the metro in August 2018. I normally try to avoid rush hour on the metro when people are packed like sardines.
I had my cell phone in one front pocket and my wallet in the other. I had one hand on my pocket with my wallet and my other hand was holding on. When I arrived at my destination, I realized someone had taken the cell phone from my pocket. And I didn’t notice or feel anything. Note that cell phones are the most commonly stolen items in Colombia.
I have not encountered any other security problems while living in Medellín and traveling throughout Colombia. But I am safety cautious and normally take taxis at night and don’t go to certain parts of cities in Colombia.
20 Cartagena Safety Tips for Expats for 2019
Cartagena is generally considered safe to visit if you use common sense and take some precautions. There are a number of basic precautions you can take to be vigilant about your personal safety and improve your security while in Cartagena and Colombia.
Here are 20 safety tips in no particular order that should improve your security and greatly reduce your risk of being a crime victim in Cartagena:
1. Don’t flash your cellphones, cameras, jewelry or money around. In addition, pickpocketing and purse snatching is common in some public places. Distraction is frequently the strategy, so be alert and keep an eye on your belongings. Also, be aware of your surroundings when using your cellphone, as cellphones are the most commonly stolen items in the city.
2. Never resist if you are a robbery victim. Many homicide victims in Cartagena resisted robberies. It’s not worth risking your life for some money and/or possessions. Don’t try to be a hero.
3. Take care even in upscale El Centro, Bocagrande, Castillogrande and El Laguito. Street crime is possible everywhere in Cartagena. El Centro, Bocagrande, Castillogrande and El Laguito have been touted by some as the safest parts of the city. But the comuna UCG1 where these neighborhoods are located actually has the highest robbery rate in the city. This is likely due to criminals targeting the wealthiest areas of Cartagena where many foreign tourists stay.
4. Watch your possessions at the beaches. Robberies are common on the beaches in Cartagena, particularly when people leave things to go in the water. Also, be careful of touts at the beaches trying to sell many things including drinks and food, which are frequently overpriced.
5. Stay away from drugs, sex tourism and illegal activities. Participating in shady activities increases your likelihood of becoming a crime victim and historically many of the foreigner homicides in Cartagena have been related to these activities.
6. Be especially careful with your cell phone. Try not to be such an obvious foreigner tourist that can make you a target. An expat in shorts and flip-flops in Cartagena speaking English loudly on an iPhone is likely to attract some unwanted attention. Cell phones are the most commonly stolen item in Cartagena.
7. 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.
8. Avoid bad neighborhoods. The poorest neighborhoods in Cartagena are in the east of the city are not really places for expats, even during the day. You aren’t missing anything – there is nothing for tourists to see in these neighborhoods.
9. Never leave your drink unattended. It takes almost no time for someone to drug your drink with something like Scopolamine (aka Devil’s Breath), which can wipe the memory of its victims and can affect the ability to resist criminal aggression.
10. Be careful of fake police asking to check your money for counterfeits. This is obviously a scam and sometimes happens in Cartagena. Real police will never do this.
11. Don’t carry lots of cash with you. Only carry what you need for the day or night with you.
12. Put your bag, purse or backpack in front of you.In busy areas it’s common for snatching of bags, purses or backpacks.
13. Late at night call for a taxi. During the day, hailing a taxi on the street will usually be fine. But at night calling for a taxi or using an app like EasyTaxi or Uber are safer and will ensure you are getting a legitimate driver. Also, be careful of the unmetered taxis in Cartagena overcharging tourists – ask the fare before you get in the taxi.
14. Don’t walk alone at night. It’s safer in groups. And if walking alone, stick to well-lit streets where there are plenty of people.
15. Try to keep a low profile. If you keep a low profile you are less likely to become a target. And never give out information about where you live to strangers.
16. Watch out for motorcycles. A disproportionate number of robberies and crimes in Cartagena and other cities in Colombia take place by criminals on motorcycles due to the ability for a quick getaway. So, take care brandishing phones in taxis or on the street as you may attract unwanted attention from a criminal on a motorcycle.
17. Don’t carry your passport with you. Carry a copy of your passport with another ID like a driver’s license. Only bring ATM and credit cards which you plan to use. Leave your passport and other cards locked up in a safe location.
18. Don’t invite strangers to your home or hotel. And if you are meeting someone you don’t know, always do this in a public area like a mall, restaurant or café.
19. Change locks and buy a security door. When you are living in a place long-term in Colombia always change the locks. No telling who else will have keys. And for even better piece of mind change the door to a security door reinforced with steel inside and around the frame. But make sure to get permission from the owner if you rent before replacing a door.
I travel often so I bought security doors for two apartments I have lived in. Thieves are looking for doors that are easy to break into and many apartments in Colombia have front doors that are quite easy to break into.
20. No Dar Paypaya. Don’t give papaya. This is a famous quote in Colombia, which means essentially don’t put yourself in a position where you become vulnerable to be taken advantage of. Many of the above tips are ways to “No Dar Paypaya”.
These common-sense safety tips apply not only to Cartagena but also generally apply to other cities in Colombia and other countries in Latin America.
Is Cartagena Safe? Reporting Crimes in Cartagena
If you are a victim of crime in Cartagena you can report this. A police report, known as a denuncia, may be filed at the nearest Unidad de Reacción Inmediata (URI) of the Colombian judicial authorities.
You may also file a report at a police station but it will not have the same validity for legal process. So, it is recommended that victims of a crime go to the nearest URI to file a formal report. And be sure to get a copy of the report.
In addition, Guala is a special division of the police that handles cases involving extortion and kidnapping. They can be reached via phone at 165.
Colombia Travel Warning or Advisories
Several countries provide a Colombia travel warning or Colombia travel advisory.
For example, the U.S. Department of State has a Colombia Travel Advisory that is currently at Level 2 – exercise increased caution. In this travel advisory, it is advised to reconsider travel to several departments in Colombia including Arauca, Cauca, Chocó, Nariño and Norte de Santander Departments, with the exceptions of the cities of Popayan (capital of Cauca) and Nuqui by air.
Also, Canada has travel advice and advisories for Colombia that says to “exercise a high degree of caution”. It also recommends avoiding all travel within 20 km of the border with Venezuela, within 20 km of the border with Panama and the ports of Buenaventura and Tumaco.
In addition, the UK has UK foreign travel advice for Colombia that advises avoiding all travel to the ports of Buenaventura and Tumaco. And Australia also has its Australian travel advice for Colombia that recommends avoiding all travel within 20 km of the borders with Venezuela and Ecuador except the Pan American Highway crossing at Ipiales and avoiding all travel to the ports of Buenaventura and Tumaco.
The Bottom Line: Is Cartagena Safe? Security in Cartagena and Safety Tips
The biggest question I have received since living in Colombia has been “Is Colombia Safe ?” And my answer has been “yes”, as long as you follow some common-sense guidelines.
Colombia unfortunately still has a bad security reputation to overcome that is for the most part undeserved. The reality in Colombia is that the security situation has improved dramatically over the past couple of decades. But many foreigners still ask “Is Colombia safe?” or “Is Cartagena safe?”
This biggest concern of expats visiting or planning to move to Cartagena is typically security and safety. But once they start living in the city, security becomes less of a concern once they realize that the reality doesn’t match the perception many foreigners have.
In addition, I have seen several posts on the Internet claim that El Centro (the historical walled area) and Bocagrande are two of the safest barrios in Cartagena. But in reality, these barrios are part of UCG1, which is the comuna with the highest robbery rate in Cartagena. So, take care while in the tourist areas of Cartagena.
The bottom line is if you take the precautions we recommend above with our safety tips, your risk of being a victim of crime should be greatly reduced.
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