Is Santa Marta safe to visit? Santa Marta, Colombia 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 Santa Marta is still a major concern for tourists visiting and expats living in Santa Marta.
Santa Marta and the rest of 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 several inaccurate posts on the Internet about safety in Santa Marta. I have lived in Medellín for over eight years and I have traveled to Santa Marta several times and even worked remotely from Santa Marta for over a month.
Santa Marta is a popular vacation city in Colombia with beaches and many things to do. We previously looked at 16 top things to do in Santa Marta.
However, probably the most common questions I still 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 Santa Marta 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 Santa Marta crime statistics and 20 recommended expat safety tips. Crime and safety are major concerns of expats visiting Santa Marta or planning to move there.
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.
Several Medellin Guru readers asked about safety in Santa Marta so we now look at the crime rates and safety in Santa Marta. in addition, we previously compared Medellín vs Santa Marta as a place to live.
Note the above photos of Colombian police in Santa Marta are by the National Police of Colombia.
Is Santa Marta Safe? Santa Marta Homicide Statistics
The homicide rate in Santa Marta in 2018 was 21.2 per 100,000, which was higher than 18.8 per 100,000 in 2017. The following chart shows the homicide rate in Santa Marta from 2012 to 2018 according to Santa Marta Como Vamos.
The barrios in Santa Marta with the most homicides in 2018 were Vista Hermosa, Cerro de las Tres Cruces, Mamatoco and Once de Noviembre. And the most violent quarter of 2018 was October to December with 31 percent of homicides in 2018.
In July 2019, Camilo George Díaz, Secretary of Security, reported that there were 64 homicides in Santa Marta for the first part of the year. This is the highest count of homicides for this period in the last five years. According to Fuerza Pública, the homicides in Santa Marta increased by 42 percent in the first part of 2019 compared to the same period in 2018.
Is Santa Marta Safe? Robberies in Santa Marta
According to Santa Marta Como Vamos, the rate of reported robberies of people decreased slightly in 2018 compared to 2017, as seen in the following chart:
Note that Colombia reports hurtos, which means robberies and thefts. So, the robberies statistics in Colombia actually include both robberies and thefts. Robbery in English involves force or the threat of force. While theft is a broad term that can cover a wide variety of criminal offenses including pickpocketing.
The barrios in Santa Marta with more cases of robberies of people in 2018 were Centro, Rodadero, Mamatoco, Jardín, Centro Historico and Taganga. Rodadero is a wealthy beach neighborhood with many hotels, hostels and furnished apartments.
In addition, the days of the week in 2018 with the most robberies of people were on Friday and Saturday with 43 percent of cases. In addition, there were 110 cases of robberies of foreigners in Santa Marta in 2018.
In 2019, according to an article in Hoy Diario del Magdalena in June 2019, the rate of robberies of people in Santa Marta had increased in 2019 by 9 percent compared to the same period in 2018 (1,562 cases compared to 1,435 cases in the same period in 2018).
My Safety Experiences in Medellín, Santa Marta 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.
During all this time living in Medellín and traveling in Colombia including several trips to Santa Marta, 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 including Santa Marta But I am safety cautious and normally take taxis at night and don’t go to certain parts of cities in Colombia.
20 Santa Marta Safety Tips for Expats for 2019
Santa Marta 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 Santa Marta 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 Santa Marta:
- 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.
- Never resist if you are a robbery victim. Many homicide victims in Santa Marta resisted robberies. It’s not worth risking your life for some money and/or possessions. Don’t try to be a hero.
- Take care even in upscale neighborhoods. Take care even in upscale neighborhoods like Rodadero. Street crime is possible everywhere in Santa Marta.
- Watch your possessions at the beaches. Robberies are common on the beaches in Santa Marta, 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.
- 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 Santa Marta have been related to these activities.
- 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 Santa Marta speaking English loudly on an iPhone is likely to attract some unwanted attention. Cell phones are the most commonly stolen item in Santa Marta and the rest of Colombia.
- 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.
- Avoid bad neighborhoods. The poorest neighborhoods in Santa Marta 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. For example, stay away from barrios including María Eugenia, Pastrana, Tayrona, Once de Noviembre, María Cecilia, Ciudad Equidad, Los Fundadores, Altos de Bahía Concha, Nueva Betel, San Martín, Chimila 1, Pescaito, 20 de Julio, Corea, Ensenada de Juan XXIII and Cerro de las Tres Cruces in Santa Marta where even taxi drivers won’t go after 8 pm.
- 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.
- Be careful of fake police asking to check your money for counterfeits. This is obviously a scam and sometimes happens in Santa Marta. Real police will never do this.
- Don’t carry lots of cash with you. Only carry what you need for the day or night with you.
- Put your bag, purse or backpack in front of you. In busy areas it’s common for snatching of bags, purses or backpacks.
- 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 Cabify or Uber are safer and will ensure you are getting a legitimate driver.
- 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.
- 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.
- Watch out for motorcycles. A disproportionate number of robberies and crimes in Santa Marta 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- No Dar Papaya. 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 Papaya”.
These common-sense safety tips apply not only to Santa Marta but also generally apply to other cities in Colombia and other countries in Latin America.
Is Santa Marta Safe? Reporting Crimes in Santa Marta
If you are a victim of crime in Santa Marta, 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.
Furthermore, 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.
Medellin Guru’s Safety and Security Series
Since safety is the biggest concern of foreigners visiting Colombia or planning to move to Colombia. So, we have a series of articles about safety and security in Colombia:
- Is Colombia Safe? Colombia Security and Safety Tips
- Is Medellín Safe? Medellín Security and Safety Tips
- Is Bogotá Safe? Bogotá Security and Safety Tips
- Is Cartagena Safe? Cartagena Security and Safety Tips
- Is Cali Safe? Cali, Colombia Security and Safety Tips
- Is Santa Marta Safe? Santa Marta Security and Safety Tips
- What are the Safest Neighborhoods in Medellín and the Aburrá Valley
- Scopolamine: The Realities of Devil’s Breath in Colombia
The Bottom Line: Is Santa Marta Safe? Security in Santa Marta 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 Santa Marta safe?”
This biggest concern of expats visiting or planning to move to Santa Marta is typically security and safety. But once expats start living in Santa Marta, security becomes less of a concern once they realize that the reality doesn’t match the perception many foreigners have.
The bottom line is if you take the precautions we recommend above with our safety tips, your risk of being a victim of crime in Santa Marta should be greatly reduced.
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