When it comes to teaching English in Colombia, the first concern that always pops up in all the discussions is safety. Is it even possible to stay out of trouble in such a dangerous country? Won´t you get robbed immediately after you step out of the plane? Can you even take photos there without getting threatened? How come you decided to work there in spite of the alarming crime rates?
I got asked these questions so many times when I decided to teach English in Colombia that I decided to put my experiences and tips together and create this article. I hope it will help you to stay safe and still make the most of your visit – be it short or long term – in this beautiful South American country. Let´s start right away!
Is it dangerous to travel to Colombia?
Yes and no.
While the violence in Colombia culminated in the 90´s and early 2000´s (and it was very dangerous to travel there in those times), the situation has changed completely since. At the moment, the peace is solidly established and in 2016 the government finally a formal peace treaty with one of the main actors of the armed conflict, the FARC. The statistics for the crime rate in Colombia are considered moderate, according to Numbeo.com, with similar numbers as cities like New York City and Paris, where tourists often travel! This puts things in a different perspective, don´t you think?
However, statistics are a tricky business, as you surely know. Safety mostly depends on the zone you are within and as a matter of fact, the touristy zones are always guarded by police and therefore are very safe everywhere in Colombia. As with traveling anywhere, be a smart traveler and watch out for your self and your personal belongings.
The downtown of Bogotá at daytime is fine as long as you stick to the tourist spots like La Candelaria or 7th Avenue. As always, you have to be more careful by night. When in doubt, ALWAYS listen to the advice of the local people. They know what they are talking about.
Safety tips for travelers in Colombia
The armed conflict in the past has created a lot of inequality among the people in Colombia; therefore your biggest risk is getting your things stolen. Even articles that don´t seem very fancy where you come from (such as your basic softshell jacket) might be luxurious items here. These are some quick points to keep you safe:
- avoid wearing golden, expensive or flashy jewellery
- dress smart and efficient; it is better not to attract attention so avoid luxury outfits, especially if you are venturing into less fancy zones
- Don´t take out your shiny smartphone in the street in the big cities if you don´t have to. Look around well.
- Watch your drink! Don´t let anyone touch your beer.
- Don´t talk about money or show off money or expensive items in a taxi
- Learn some basic Spanish! Many locals who don´t speak English will happily assist and advise you as much as they can, in their own language.
- Find some local friends and ask them for safety recommendations and tips. Most importantly, ask which places of the city you should avoid.
- It’s usually safer to hang out with a group than alone – however, I have traveled alone and never ran into problems.
If you feel a little bit daunted after reading these tips, don´t worry – I was too! When I packed my bags to leave for Colombia, I was hearing gloomy rumors from all sides – mostly from people who have never been there. On the other hand, after more than a year of living in Bogotá and traveling around the country, I have never had a single problem. I haven’t been mugged, stabbed, beaten up, or (mind you!) raped, but I have found a good job where I enjoy working with likeminded people.
While I have seen some rather unpleasant scenes when I wandered off to less fancy neighborhoods, I have never run into trouble myself. From my experience, keeping a low profile helps a lot.
Is it safe to teach English in Colombia?
As the number of tourists, expats and foreign investors grows bigger every year in Colombia, the need for English speakers is more and more urgent in the country. If you are good at languages, a native speaker and have a bachelors degree, you have a good chance at finding a decent job in one of the many language or bilingual schools. Especially private schools are always looking for foreigners with or without teaching experience to enrich their students’ curriculum with language skills and cultural insights from all around the world.
Watch out for the scam!
However, you can sometimes run a risk of getting scammed. Avoid working without a contract and try to inquire with the employees of the company you are dealing with whether the salary payments are regular. My first job teaching English in Colombia was for a local language school – however, the company had long term problems and went bankrupt within a month after I got my working visa. This caused me a loss of a lot of money and time and obviously, I have never gotten my salary from them. I was lucky to quickly find a solid teaching job with a private school where they helped me to solve my not-so-common visa situation and you can imagine how happy I was to finally receive my first salary on time!
Working for a government sponsored program can certainly take away these frustrations and concerns since the Ministry of Education and National Training Service (SENA) are very well known and efficiently run. Signing up with them means you know exactly what you’re getting into, and ensures timely payments!
In short, be careful who you choose to work with. Investigate a bit about them. If you worry about finding a job on your own after arrival, try to find a project prior to moving in.
Key points on safety in Colombia
As I have already written in the first part of this article, the safety situation got dramatically better in Colombia in recent years. While engaging in typical tourist activities, you are not likely to run into problems. Avoiding ghettos and some risky remote areas (always ask locals!) your biggest risk will be getting fat after eating all the delicious dishes.
For the record, I am a short blonde girl from an incredibly safe country in Eastern Europe so it took me some serious getting used to and training my gut in order to spot risky people and situations! If I could make it in Bogotá, you can too. Your instinct might be sleepy, but I am sure it will wake up quickly.
Learning the basic phrases in Spanish, trusting your instinct and being respectful towards the locals is the best you can do to have the greatest experience. Colombia is a wonderful country full of natural gems and undiscovered beauty on every corner and you would be doing yourself a huge disservice by crossing it out of your bucket list because of safety concerns. Use your common sense and you will most probably end up falling in love and never wanting to leave!
Words and images by Karin Ardila.