Travel Consideration: Columbia

Contributed By RealAdventures

Colombia is a medium-income country with a diverse economy. Travelers to the capital city of Bogota may require some time to adjust to the altitude (8,600 feet), which can adversely affect blood pressure, digestion and energy level. Tourist facilities vary in quality, according to price and location.

A valid U.S. passport is required to enter and depart Colombia. Tourists must also provide evidence of return or onward travel. U.S. citizens do not need a visa for a stay of 60 days or less. Stiff fines are imposed if passports are not stamped on arrival and if stays exceeding 60 days are not authorized by the Colombian Immigration Agency (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, Jefatura de Extranjeria, "DAS Extranjeria"). U.S. citizens whose passports are lost or stolen in Colombia must obtain a new passport and present it, together with a police report of the loss or theft, to the main immigration office in Bogota to obtain permission to depart. An exit tax must be paid at the airport when departing Colombia. For further information regarding entry and customs requirements, travelers should contact the Colombian Embassy at 2118 Leroy Place, N.W., Washington, DC 20008; telephone (202) 387-8338; Internet web site -; or the Colombian Consulate in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, New York, San Francisco or San Juan.

The security situation in Colombia is volatile. Violence by narcotraffickers, paramilitary groups, guerrilla and terrorist organizations, and other criminal elements is widespread and increasing. Travel by road outside the major cities is especially dangerous because of guerrilla activity in rural areas.

Some terrorist groups have targeted foreigners, multinational companies and other foreign interests, and this pattern is expected to continue in the future. Random bombings have occurred in and around major urban areas. Public facilities and modes of transportation may also be targeted.

Kidnapping for ransom occurs throughout Colombia. Since 1980, the U.S. Embassy in Bogota has learned of 112 U.S. citizens kidnapped in Colombia and adjacent border areas. Although the majority were released, 14 were murdered, one died from malnutrition during captivity, and the whereabouts of several others remain unknown. U.S. citizens of all age groups and occupations have been kidnapped, and kidnappings have occurred in all major regions of Colombia. Because of widespread guerrilla activity and U.S. policy that opposes concessions to terrorists, including payment of ransom in kidnapping cases, the U.S. government can provide only limited assistance in these cases. Under Colombian law, those who fail to coordinate their efforts to resolve kidnapping cases with the Office of the Anti-Kidnapping Director (Presidencia de la Republica/Programa para la Defensa de la Libertad Personal) could face criminal prosecution.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN), have been designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the Secretary of State. Both organizations have kidnapped foreigners, including U.S. citizens. Three U.S. citizens kidnapped by the FARC were killed in March 1999, and three other U.S. citizens kidnapped by the FARC have been missing since January 1993. All U.S. citizens in Colombia, either residing there or visiting, should consider themselves potential targets.

All in-country travel, both official and private, to all destinations by U.S. Embassy employees, is restricted. Bus transportation is off-limits to U.S. Embassy personnel. U.S. Embassy personnel are advised to use caution if remaining after midnight in the Zona Rosa or Parque 93, Bogota's principal nightclub/entertainment districts, due to the possibility that they could be the targets of criminal or other violence.

The official travel of all U.S. Government personnel to Colombia must be approved in advance by the U.S. Embassy. Such travel is approved only for essential business and/or under extraordinary circumstances. Private travel by U.S. military personnel to Colombia also requires advance approval by the U.S. Embassy. Non-military employees of the U.S. Government do not need Embassy approval for private travel, but such employees are strongly urged to avoid all non-essential travel to Colombia.

Colombia is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Based on Colombian government statistics, Colombia's per capita murder rate of 77.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants is more than eight times higher than that of the United States. While narcotics and guerrilla-related violence account for part of this, common criminals are responsible for an estimated 75 percent of the reported murders.

Minor crime is prevalent in cities, especially in the vicinity of hotels and airports. Theft of hand luggage and travel documents at airports is common, particularly at El Dorado Airport in Bogota. Taking illegal taxis, which are sometimes characterized by a driver and a companion and irregular markings, is dangerous. Getting into a taxi that already has one or more passengers is not advisable. Travel by bus is risky. Attempts at extortion and kidnappings on rural buses are not unusual. Violence occurs frequently in bars and nightclubs. Visitors are urged to exercise caution as they would in any large city in the United States.

Criminals sometimes use the drug "scopolamine" to incapacitate tourists in order to rob them. The drug is administered in drinks (in bars), through cigarettes and gum (in taxis), and in powder form (tourists are approached by someone asking directions, with the drug concealed in a piece of paper). The drug renders the person disoriented and can cause prolonged unconsciousness and serious medical problems.

Another common scam is an approach to an obvious tourist by an alleged "policeman," who says he wants to "check" the foreigner's money for counterfeit U.S. dollars. The person gives the criminal money, receives a receipt, and the "policeman" disappears.

Medical care is adequate in major cities, but it varies in quality elsewhere. Serious medical problems requiring hospitalization and/or medical evacuation to the United States can cost thousands of dollars or more. Doctors and hospitals often expect immediate cash payment for health services, although many hospitals in major cities accept major U.S. credit cards.

U.S. medical insurance is not always valid outside the United States. U.S. Medicare and Medicaid programs do not provide payment for medical services outside the United States. Uninsured travelers who require medical care overseas may face extreme difficulties. Please check with your own insurance company to confirm whether your policy applies overseas, including provision for medical evacuation.

While in a foreign country, U.S. citizens may encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. The information below concerning Colombia is provided for general reference only, and it may not be totally accurate in a particular location or circumstance.

Safety of Public Transportation: Poor
Urban Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor
Rural Road Conditions/Maintenance: Poor
Availability of Roadside Assistance: Poor

Road travel is hazardous throughout Colombia and is especially dangerous outside the major cities because of guerrilla activity in the countryside. At a typical guerrilla roadblock, victims may be forced to pay a "war tax," vehicles may be torched or stolen, and victims may be assaulted or even kidnapped. As noted previously in the section on safety and security, guerrilla activity is increasing. Guerrillas also sometimes take advantage of periods of increased travel, such as three-day weekends and the traditional seasonal vacation travel weeks of Holy Week (Easter) and Christmas, to set up roadblocks and otherwise disrupt travel.

Traffic laws and lights are often ignored, particularly during late night and early morning hours, and speed limits are usually non-existent. Pedestrians generally are not given the right-of-way. Carjackings have occurred on urban streets. Road travel at night is dangerous due to poor illumination and other road hazards, such as potholes, unmarked roadwork, wandering livestock, stalled vehicles and vehicles without lights. Many bridges are believed to be inadequate for the traffic they carry and are in danger of collapsing, particularly during Colombia's rainy season.

While in a foreign country, a U.S. citizen is subject to that country’s laws and regulations, which sometimes differ significantly from those in the United States and may not afford the protections available to the individual under U.S. law. Penalties for breaking the law can be more severe than in the United States for similar offenses. Persons violating Colombian laws, even unknowingly, may be expelled, arrested or imprisoned.

Penalties for possession, use, or trafficking in illegal drugs in Colombia are strict, and convicted offenders can expect long jail sentences and fines. U.S. citizens arrested in Colombia for drug-related offenses may experience several months’ detention in jail before their cases are processed. Prison conditions are sub-standard.

U.S. citizens living in or visiting Colombia are encouraged to register at the Consular Section of the U.S. Embassy in Bogota and obtain updated information on travel and security in Colombia. The Consular Section is open for citizen services, including registration, from 8:30 a.m. to 12:00 noon Monday through Thursday, excluding U.S. and Colombian holidays. The U.S. Embassy is located at Avenida El Dorado and Carrera 50; telephone (011-57-1) 315-0811 during business hours (8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.), or 315-2109/2110 for emergencies during non-business hours; fax (011-57-1) 315-2196/2197; Internet web site - The Consular Agency in Barranquilla is located at Calle 77, No. 68-15; telephone (011-57-5) 353-2001; fax (011-57-5) 353-5216.

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