Beware on the Streets of Bogotá

Wandering Aimlessly Along Cobblestone Streets

After getting my Yellow Fever vaccination, I ventured out to find a place to scan the certificate to have a backup.  In order to enter the Amazon region, or leave it, one must have a valid yellow fever immunization record.

After easily finding a place that scanned, I thought I’d look for a place that has wifi, with the hopes of eating and drinking coffee with a connection, so  I had my laptop.

Drifting aimlessly, I somehow found myself in the upper part of Bogota’s La Candalaria zone.

While walking through these lovely cobblestoned streets, I became mesmerized by their colonial urban beauty.  I was snapping as I felt that these Candalarian streets were gently saying: “Shoot me! Photograph me!”

I also had my passport, as I need to be in the habit of keeping the immunization card in it.  In a front pocket was my wallet, as I’d planned to withdraw money.  I almost never carry any of these valuables around in huge Latin American cities. This typically happens only when I arrive and leave a place.

The nine photos you see in this post were taken with my Android that retails for around $700 in Colombia.  It’s something that only the rich and upper middle class have.  A local told me that 70% of the people in Bogotá are poor.  

I had all of my valuables.  It was the middle of the day.   I wasn’t yet concerned.

A Cityscape of Graffiti and CobblestonesThe streets were mostly desolate.   In a city of 9 million people, I found this odd. I thought: This is a stunning section of town.  These photos are taking themselves. 

Graffiti in Upper Candelaria BogotáThe street art reminded me of Cali and how Colombian and other Latin American cities can have sections that represent a graffiti museum.   

Shantytown Behind Athletic ComplexI still couldn’t get over how quiet things were for an early Saturday afternoon.  I’d heard music coming from homes but had barely seen anyone up to this point.  Looking at the impoverished neighborhood above the sporting area, I envisioned three or four guys coming up to rob me.  That’s when I stopped walking uphill towards the shantytown and started to the left, figuring that I’d walk across a little bit before cutting back down.

A Wide Alley Where I Almost Got MuggedI found myself in this wide alleyway.  After snapping this photo, I put the Galaxy in my pocket and started walking in the opposite direction.    A boy who I’d noticed a block or two up the road was walking towards me.  He looked to be around 17 or 18.  I was ready to throw out a cordial Buenas Tardes when my instinct told me not to.

The next thing I knew the kid was coming at me with a tiny knife that I could barely see, maybe it was a switchblade.  I felt Déjà vu from seeing something very similar back when I used to watch movies.  Maybe this is why I instantly knew what was  going on.

Thinking back, I felt that the scene was happening in slow motion.  One second feels like four or five in my memory.

I’m pretty sure that I did two things simultaneously.  In one movement, I did a 180 degree turn while instantly sprinting away.

I heard the lunatic say something in frustration, probably a Colombian slang word I’d never heard.  I can’t recall it.

The photo you see is the route I took to elude the sociopath.  When I got to the street I stopped and looked back.  He had vanished.

A little girl was walking along the sidewalk and saw me sprinting out of the alley.  She may have seen a look of horror in my face.  I’ll never know.

In shock, I hung an instant left, back down in the direction of the crowds that remind me of New York City.

Heading Back Down Towards the City's CenterThis is just a couple of blocks down from the alleyway. Traumatized, I was still taking pictures.

I realized that I need to be aware of my surroundings, that I can’t underestimate the human race.  I also understood that I was lucky to have dealt with an amateur.  He came at me too soon, giving me the opportunity to avoid him. 

Another Stellar Street ShotBy now I’d gotten much closer to the center of the city and my hotel in lower colonial Candalaria.     I couldn’t resist pulling out the phone to capture this vintage looking street scene.  However, by now, still perplexed, I was aware that after I snap a picture, I must put the device away and keep my eyes peeled to all angles.  Had I been more  mindful that he had been walking in an opposite direction minutes before, I could have turned around and gotten away before he’d even come at me.

Big Open AreaI’ made it down to the center and close to my hotel. Here I sat and tried to make more sense of what had happened.    

Since this incident,  I’ve kept my wanderings to areas where there are people.  I’m much more vigilant of who is around when I’m snapping photos, and even when I’m not. 

I’ve told around ten locals about it.   None of them were remotely surprised.  The bottom line is, you better be real careful when walking around with any kind of digital equipment, especially near shantytowns and in desolate areas.

PataconAlmost back at my hotel, I stopped at the Vegetarian restaurant a block away.  Here I had this delicious patacon or flattened plantain, topped with mushrooms, onions, tomatoes and cheese.  The meal also included another salad (on top of the one you see), a soup and a jugo natural de maracuya or passion fruit juice.  The set meal cost 8,500 Pesos or $4.51.

After a nice meal, still mesmerized, dumbfounded and shocked, as I’d feel until the next day, I went back to my hotel and collapsed into a long nap.

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Have you ever been mugged, almost mugged or attacked while wandering in a big city? Will you be more vigilant after reading this article?

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27 Responses to Beware on the Streets of Bogotá

  1. traveladdict says:

    It looks like you really ventured into the slums. Colombia can be very dangerous, but they say the Caribbean areas aren’t that dangerous.

    • Mike says:

      TRAVEL ADDICT: I was too close to the slums but not in them. Hopefully it was a good lesson learned.

      The Santa Marta area seemed quite safe. Although I think that you have to be street wise in most cities. Where there is extreme poverty there will be crime.

  2. Adam P. says:

    Colombia definitely has travel warnings posted for a reason. A friend of mine who is quite an experienced traveler (fifteen years experienced to be more precise) without any major incidents got mugged just couple of hours after landing in Bogota. Broad daylight, two or three in the afternoon and here comes the best part – it happened just half a block from a busy square with several security guards who obviously chose to ignore the screams for help – in Spanish, let me add..

    • Mike says:

      ADAM: In Bogotá we must be aware of what’s around us and keep our awareness at all times. I learned it the traumatic way but with no harm done. It’s a shame because most of the Colombian people I came across were quite nice, like people anywhere.

  3. Agness says:

    I must admit that the graffiti art is so impressive in Bogota, nothing like ugly Berlin :) .

    • Mike says:

      AGNESS: I’ve found that the three biggest cities in Colombia: Bogota, Medellin and Cali all have impressive graffiti. I’ve yet to visit Berlin but know that it has to be a fascinating city, maybe with some decent street art. :-)

  4. So glad you came out unscathed! Thanks for sharing, we get very complacent since everywhere we have been so far has always felt safe. But it’s a good lesson, especially since the locals weren’t surprised. Again, glad you out-ran him! Loving reading about your adventures!

    • Mike says:

      SARAH: Thanks! YES! Things almost always feel super safe, however, that experience made me realize that life will never be perfect. We must always be aware of our surroundings. I just arrived in Lima and it feels so safe but again, every local tells me: Cuidadate or something to that extent. :-)

  5. Anwesha says:

    Glad you got away with just a scare. I like carrying my valuables in my money belt and just a few bucks in cash in my purse for expenses of the day… but you are right, while arriving in a new city, this is difficult, since you need passports/ cash on hand to settle initial payments…
    I suppose staying alert is the only way out.

    • Mike says:

      ANWESHA: Thanks! I was fortunate. From that experience I learned to be more vigilant. I must be more aware of my surroundings and avoid wandering around in vacant areas. Also, now, when I take photos, I’m fast. I snap one or two, then put the camera away and move on while paying close attention to who’s around me.

  6. MAMMA says:

    Very scary Michael but a good lesson learned. I agree with Sean; a wallet with an expired credit card, minimum cash and money in your socks, like Maria.
    Be safe!

    • Mike says:

      MAMMA: Yes! Now when locals tell me something’s dangerous I pay attention to them. And the biggest thing, I’m very quick when I take photos while I try to remain very aware of who’s around me.

  7. Sean G says:

    one idea i read a long time ago is to keep a dummy wallet on you…keep maybe a tiny bit of cash, some old expired credit cards in it…if you have to you can hand that over

    • Mike says:

      SEAN: Yes! Great advice. I actually do that more often than not. The little photo holder has in it some cash and a credit card that expired in 2010. Nevertheless, this kid wanted to put me down so he could take my stuff, mainly my phone. He would have struck gold.

  8. Al says:

    Whoa! Now that´s a sure way to add some color to your travelling… good thing it was just a scare, now you are a little wiser and also have an interesting experience to add to your memoirs… and most importantly you´re in one piece, with no missing valuables. Well, at least that´s easy to say from the comfort of one´s home. Looking forward to more -and safer- earthdrifting adventures.

    • Mike says:

      AL! Thanks! I’ve become wiser in that I realize that not to trust street people, that evil exists, as it was right in front of me. The experience also created a bit of paranoia. You’re right. The best thing is that there was no contact made.

  9. [...] Beware on the Streets of Bogotá ( [...]

  10. Lesley Peterson says:

    A cautionary tale that could take place in many cities. I was robbed in London long ago by two boys who cut my purse strap with a knife. They were caught but police advised i was lucky they were so young–the older thieves know to put you down in a blitz assault that slams you to the pavement. Ultimately i think most thieves are really lazy and if they have to run after you, won’t bother. Good reason to take up running!

    • Mike says:

      LESLEY: Thanks! Good point and example that it can happen anywhere! I was fortunate to learn my lesson the easy way. Hopefully I can be vigilant enough going forward.

  11. TheTuscan says:

    Definitely an amateur. Years ago a colleague of mine noticed a man with a knife on his hand when he was only one step away from him. On top of that, the thief had chosen to leap out at him while he was crossing a narrow bridge over a pond. And of course, behind my colleague there was another one, again come out of nowhere. Those are professionals!
    Glad you had presence of mind.

    • Mike says:

      TUSCAN: Thanks! I think fleeing is the best option, if possible. Otherwise you just have to hand over something. Yes, if the boy had waited maybe another second or two then he would have had a better chance of getting me.

  12. Annie says:

    Glad you are okay. Scary situation. Glad you were aware something was up and was able to run away unharmed!!

    When i was in Australia and leaving my group to continue on my own, my tour guide was concerned about my safety etc. I said don’t worry i’m from NYC, after all i was the only person who kept checking to feel if her camera was still slung over her shoulder while hiking through a rain forest. lol

    Glad you had a good meal to end your scary day…i would have had chocolate!

    Be careful and take care!! Annie

    • Mike says:

      ANNIE: Thanks! Of course I knew about these possibilities but until it actually happens you don’t take it so seriously. Good that you learned early that streets can be mean. Had you been in Bogota you would have stuck to crowded areas and kept your eyes peeled around you.

  13. Yikes, close call….. glad you weren’t mugged or harmed – especially of your passport and cash. Have you ever considered traveling with something for protection, such as your own blade? Per your parting question, I’ve never been mugged or attacked, but a couple of weeks ago in San Francisco a mentally disturbed and possibly drugged man chased me for 2 blocks at around 4:30 a.m., yelling incoherent things at me, until I ducked into the hotel. Fun times.

    • Mike says:

      ADIRONDACKER: The worst thing would have been an actual stabbing. Luckily, the best scenario happened, except for the mental trauma. I have a little Swiss army knife for raw garlic. Although, I don’t think a knife battle with someone on the street is smart, better to be careful where I walk and not pull out the camera so often. :-)
      4.30 am being chased, my goodness, good thing you got into the hotel, lots of homeless in San Fran from what I gather. Perhaps a self-defense class is the way to go for both of us. :-)

  14. Maria says:

    Mike so glad to read it was an “almost” event (rather than, you know) and I agree… don’t get complacent and underestimate anything/place/one.

    Never been mugged (bite my tongue) but have lived in cities where it was a regular occurrence and with only 5 blocks between me and my employer when I waited tables, I never walked to or from work in my black and whites so I wouldn’t be pegged as a waiter and thus holding tip $.

    Only ever take enough cash to cover my outing and then I distribute it amongst my pockets and socks. That way I can pull out a 5 or 10, toss it on the ground for the thief and like you did… run like hell.

    Kudos on your instincts and reflexes.

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