Your heels clack from paved sidewalks to tarmac, then to cobbled roads. One quaint block gives way to another and it is difficult to envisage the dangers hidden under the skin of La Candelaria. The warm colourful buildings and friendly locals transcend any pre-existing fears I had of Colombia, as I pull my suitcase out of the back of the yellow taxi that drove me from El Dorado airport to the solid oak door of a hostel. The airport’s name already filled me with excitement.
Crime casts a shadow over every major city and with nine million inhabitants, Bogotá is no exception. At the heart of capital, with its many picture postcard views, tourists flock La Candelaria, and so too, thieves. Although the risk of robbery is a lot more prevalent than anything more serious, even homicide rates in the capital are amongst the lowest of major cities in the country.
I asked several locals and a police officer about the risk of getting mugged in La Candelaria and help build up a image of the problem. I was told that most assailants are male, usually under 27 in age, from troubled back grounds (frequently without one or both of their parents), and usually associated with a gang. This blueprint of the usual suspect was put into practice, and confirmed only days later, when I was jumped for the first time.
I was walking from a friend’s hostel back to mine at around 3am. I was well aware that this city is dangerous at night, but our hostels were a mere three blocks apart and down a straight well-lit road. Taking this into consideration, I thought the risks would be negligible. I walked at a brisk pace, not wanting to be exposed for longer than I possibly needed to. I was one street down and fine. A second street and still unrobbed.
Then, out of the corner of my eye I saw two black figures hidden in a door’s alcove. My heart skipped a beat and my pace increased, but they had noticed me. I kept focused on the end of the road and sped up more. The man called out to me again and stepped out from his hiding place in my direction. Closer and closer he got still vocally demanding my attention. He was now two feet away, and I broke into a run. Just as I started to sprint he lashed out and smacked me in the face thinking it would bring to me to a stand still, but knowing the inevitable outcome if he caught up to me, I continued. He chased my to the end of the road where seemingly he decided that I was not worth the energy and slithered back to his alcove. I got back to my hostel with the feeling of relief still descending on me.
When coming to Colombia as a foreign national one is bombarded with propaganda contributing to its image as a habitually violent nation. Whether this is from guide books to official government websites, they should be taken with a pinch of salt, or flatly ignored. You are not going to touch down in Medellín and develop a drug addiction during your two week stay, not will you arrive in Cali and be held for ransom. However, be aware of the low level crime, the kind that will not turn heads or make front page headlines. Sadly, La Candelaria’s lax hostel culture makes curbside theft far too common, and larceny lining these streets is as innate as the sun on Santa Marta’s golden shores.