No Dar Papaya: Safety in Medellín

Safety in Medellin

While we were sitting on the patio of a Mexican restaurant in the Laureles neighborhood in Medellín, something told me to take my phone off of the table. If you’re well-traveled, you would’ve laughed at the statement above because—in reality, my phone should have never been out in the open in the first place. This is a story about what happened to me and a group of travelers and how you can use our experience to help ensure safety in Medellín. 

My friends and I were deep in conversation, when suddenly a hand comes out of nowhere and tries to snag my friend’s phone by reaching over her left shoulder. To give you context, Tanner and I were facing each other; Suchi was sitting between us with her back to the street. This hand belonged to a thief or ladrón that was determined to not only steal our phones and wallets, but the phones and wallets of the restaurant-goers sitting at the other patio tables.

Knowing that your options are fight or flight—what would you do?

It was at that moment when my friend Suchi fought back—all hell broke loose. Her going into fight mode not only deterred the robber, but it inspired the masses of Colombians and other locals at the restaurant to also fight for what was theirs. If this was a movie scene, we were the main characters. Two gringos and one Indian girl (also basically a gringa) go Vin Diesel on every human who got in their way. 

When Suchi ran after the robber who snatched her phone and our belongings, Tanner followed. I had never seen him like this before—the revenge of the tech bro who wasn’t going to back down. While my friends were on the battlefield, I quickly grabbed the rest of our belongings left on the table. All I could think about was chugging my margarita out of sheer panic!

Now there’s an important detail that shouldn’t be left out: While Medellín has gone through a revolution of sorts to make their city a safe place for travelers, it was clear that this city was still running rampant with gang activity. When the ladrón reached his hand over my friend’s shoulder to steal her phone, in his right hand he had a gun, or pistola. 

Once Tanner ran after the ladrón to try and get our belongings, he realized one thing about the man’s pistola: it was fake. Between this realization and the arrival of the Medellín police brigade, this was the climax of our film. They took a few of the robbers into custody, and although we didn’t get to see it happen, Tanner was injured from knocking the robber with the fake pistola off his motorcycle.

He really took one for the team.

A slew of Colombians and police officers ran up to us and Tanner, who was seated with his injury. He was the hero of this night and he had the battle wound to prove it. While we were all too hysteric to speak Spanish, there happened to be a Colombian or two in the crowd who spoke our language: inglés. We told them what happened—they looked shocked. 

We spent the rest of our night in the back of a police car, a local emergency room, and then the Colombian FBI station. Talk about getting the local experience. We were all so astounded this incident occurred, but also felt a sense of relief knowing that justice was being served to this gang of robbers. The silver lining to this story is that we befriended the Colombian police and they ensured that we enjoyed the rest of our trip in Medellín. 

Now there’s another Spanish phrase that is critical to this story while traveling abroad in Latin America, and especially when visiting Colombia. That phrase is No Dar Papaya—in inglés that means ‘don’t give away your papaya’. Think of your papaya as your phone, your jewelry, and any other valuables that may catch the eye of an eager ladrón. Don’t make it easy for them to steal from you and sour your entire experience in Colombia when it could be much sweeter.

Before we talk safety in Medellín tips, know that we spent much of this evening with the Colombian police and I can’t speak highly enough of the officers we met. They are proud to protect the beautiful city of Medellín, the locals who inhabit it, and travelers passing through. While the city has invested much into the local police force, the cops here have experienced it all, and make many sacrifices daily to protect this adventurous city.

Now…those tips. Here are some carefully curated tips for your next escape to Colombia. I ask that you please don’t let my article deter you from visiting when what it should do is empower you, and open your mind to the realities of travel and the unexpected things that could happen to you anytime, anywhere. Based on my own experiences, that of other travelers, and personal research, here’s what you can do to ensure safety in Medellín.

  1. No Dar Papaya: don’t make yourself a target for crime. Avoid using your phone in open areas, wearing flashy jewelry, or carrying valuable items with you. 
  1. No Seas Ingenua: don’t be naive and think that nothing bad could happen. Know that it is entirely possible and stay alert and on guard while out in public areas.
  1. No Te Defiendas: if someone steals something from you, do not, I repeat, do not fight back. We were lucky that our thief had a fake gun, but normally, this isn’t the case.
  1. Considere Su Experiencia: do you have experience traveling to other international countries? Assess your abilities and experience before visiting Latin America.
  1. Menos es más: the less important valuable items you bring out in public with you, the better off you will be. Think in terms of carrying minimal cash, no passport, and even a cheap backup phone.
  1. No Te Quedes Hasta Tarde: if you are a solo female, don’t roam the streets of Medellín at night, unless you know the Colombian police personally 😉
  1. No Hay Bebidas de Extrañas: strangers are not your friends in Colombia. If they offer you a free drink, do not accept it or let them bring a drink close to your nose.
  1. Practica Tu Español: don’t expect that everyone will speak English. Be prepared to communicate in Spanish to the best of your abilities, and have fun practicing!

  2. Investiga Antes de Viajar: Always, always, ALWAYS research a country before visiting. Having known “these safety in Medellín tips” sooner could have prevented us from having this crazy experience. Maybe the most important tip of them all.

Bonus Tip for Fun

10. Practica tu Baile de Salsa: the locals love salsa dancing! If you know a thing or two about two-stepping, the Colombians will like you.

These tips sum up ways to accomplish safety in Medellín with this goal in mind: you enjoying your vacation without any worries! Over 555,000 ex-pats, nomads, and other international travelers make a point to visit Colombia every year—speaking to just how much culture and beauty this country has to offer. If there are any Spanish words to keep in mind when visiting these international waters, now you know your first three: No Dar Papaya.