Being faithful to my love of exploring the world means that sometimes I must travel solo. As a freelance journalist and digital nomad, I am lucky to be able to work from anywhere, but my friends with traditional 9-5 jobs can rarely afford this time off. Plus, I am often drawn to destinations that others avoid, labeling them too dangerous. For these reasons, Colombia offered the perfect opportunity for solo travel.
Over a month and a half, I ended up traveling almost the entire country: from the northernmost point of South America, where hostile clans still rule over the Caribbean desert, to the southernmost parts of Colombia, where another desert, the Tatacoa, attracts stargazers. I visited ancient tombs, saw the world’s biggest gold treasure, stayed with local families, partied with the local LGBTQ community, slept in tents, hammocks, and home-stays, fell in love, and learned about the drug trade. At times, solo travel in Colombia was unnerving, yet the journey was tremendously rewarding.
Is Colombia Really Dangerous?
As the local driver blazed a trail through the sand dunes with his Jeep, I wondered how anyone could find their way around this seemingly endless, monotonous desert landscape. I had taken a ride from Cabo de La Vela, a beautiful secluded beach village located at the northernmost point of Colombia’s Guajira Peninsula. This was a place where you sleep in hammocks near the water and buy fish straight from the morning boats. I was heading to the northernmost point of the continent, called Punta Gallinas.
Across from me sat a Colombian family of four. They had left their rented car in the nearest city because driving here is best left to the locals.
“Ten years ago, it was impossible to just get a car and go exploring,” the father, Miguel, tells me. “We wouldn’t even consider visiting many of the cities that are on our list now— let alone in a car by ourselves.”
Until recently, guerrilla warfare and drug cartels rendered Colombia one of the most dangerous places in the world. In past few years, however, the country’s efforts to control criminality and transform itself into a tourist-friendly destination have paid off. Although crime hasn’t disappeared completely, the locals tell me that most of it has gone underground.
So, while some areas still have pickpockets and scam artists who target foreigners, most of the country is fairly safe as long as you use your common sense. Which brings me to my next point:
Listen to the Locals
When I arrived in a Bogota hostel at about 8 p.m., I wanted to take the five minute walk to the nearest supermarket. When I casually mentioned this to the group of travelers chilling in the common room, everyone screamed, “No!” together as though they were on a 90s sitcom. They thought it would be too dangerous to walk alone in Bogota after dark, even just around the corner.
Throughout my two-week stay in Colombia’s capital, this became a recurring theme. After visiting the Gold Museum — the world’s biggest collection of indigenous treasure — I had to walk home after sunset. The museum curator said, “If someone tries to rob you, just make sure you give them everything right away.” Another person told me not to use my phone on the street unless standing next to a police officer.
Gradually, I realized these cautious locals are simply trying to heal Colombia’s bad reputation by keeping tourists, especially young females, safe: like a sweet but overprotective grandmother who would rather have you tucked away in your room forever than risk you getting the sniffles. The local experience is invaluable for a solo traveler, but I learned it is always good to ask several people before writing off a destination. Instead of avoiding some of these places, I would try to find other people to go with, or only visit during daylight hours.
Still, some things are not worth the risk. If more people than usual are advising against something, such as leaving a club with strangers or visiting the jungle alone, take heed.
Por Que Solita? Why Are You Alone?
In Bulgaria, where I come from, it’s rare for someone to take a solo trip to the next town over, let alone thousands of miles away. This made me feel at home in Colombia, where every local was shocked to discover I was traveling solo. “Solita? Por que solita?” they asked. “Why are you alone?” Once, a big family insisted I join them for their entire vacation. Another time, a stylish old gentleman took me on an architectural tour of the town’s churches and invited me to dinner with his wife.
It seems that everyone who has been to Colombia agrees on one thing: the local people are extremely warm and hospitable. I found this to be especially true in regions with a dangerous population. There, people would go out of their way to take care of me if I was lost or needed help. While solo travel as a female has its obvious dangers, in Colombia it brought a lot of affection.
From Desert to Desert
The only place in Colombia that was an exception to this hospitality rule was also the wildest — the desert, La Guajira, which is home to the northernmost point of South America. Here, you can run up 200-foot dunes and slide down into clear, turquoise Caribbean waters. It is a stunning landscape, untouched by globalization.
The few buildings are fenced with cacti. While you won’t find any towns, there are makeshift shelters consisting of hammocks strung together. The Wayuu people run these shelters and welcome tourists. The Wayuu are tough. After all, as beautiful as La Guajira is, living there cannot be easy. There are little resources and the nearest towns are days away. Because of this, few tourists come this far. Still, I felt completely safe. In these parts, travelers use “colectivos” jeeps or other large vehicles that do not leave until all the seats are full. Although this may mean waiting around in the heat for half a day, it also provides travel companions and a sense of security.
Near the end of my trip, I ended up in Colombia’s other end — the southern desert Tatacoa. The landscape is made from eroded soil in brick-red or grey, so it looks more like a museum of earthen sculptures than barren land. There are tropical trees, bushes, and even desert flowers hidden in canyons and the base of pyramids. Besides the exceptional landscape, tourists visit Tatacoa for the stars. This desert is much easier to reach than La Guajira, but there is still no light pollution. Visitors can gaze at the Milky Way all night or visit an observatory.
Even though Tatacoa is not the most touristy spot, there are some international visitors and a friendly vibe. Since it is fairly close to some small sleepy towns with little crime, I felt safe as a solo traveler.
Discovering Colombia’s Greatest Gems — Solo
Although it seems impossible to rank Colombia’s best spots, there were a few that stood out as particularly safe, female-friendly destinations.
I visited Salento, a mountain town west of the capital Bogota, with small colorful houses and extraordinary nature all around. In the Cocora Valley, rolling green hills and tall palm trees frame picturesque walking routes. You can even see hummingbirds up-close, a childhood dream of mine.
In the north of the country, Minca offers a perfect starting point for hikes through the jungle to gushing waterfalls. There is also the mountaintop hostel Casa Elemento, which claims to have the biggest hammock in the world.
To challenge your inner Indiana Jones, head to the National Archeological Park of Tierradentro. The tombs are painted in ancient symbols that scientists do not fully understand and date somewhere between the sixth and 10th century.
Some of the tombs are only accessible through narrow mountain paths. On my way to the last path to the peak, the only other person I met within several hours carried a machete. As a solo traveler, I would recommend bringing someone with you.
Solo travel in Colombia can be challenging — especially as a female. But if you have some experience and are willing to look beyond Colombia’s reputation, there is plenty to discover.
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