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Colombia - Health and safety
Healthcare in Colombia is reasonably good, especially in cities where getting modern medical treatment fairly fast poses little problem. In rural areas, however, don’t rely on finding any medical care. Arrive prepared with any medicines that might be needed and a first-aid kit, and plan for unforeseen emergencies. Health centres in most towns should be able to treat minor ailments and costs are usually very low. However, treatment is paid for at the time it is administered so it is important to have access to cash. Ask for a receipt if you intend to claim on your health insurance and be prepared to pay upfront if an ambulance is required. Medical staff in towns or rural areas may not speak English, so it may pay to look up some useful Spanish phrases beforehand, such as the names of allergies to medicines or words about pregnancy, etc. Take out health insurance before your visit to Colombia, and if you intend to trek or hike – a policy should cover every eventuality, including being evacuated for more advanced hospital care.
Although conflicting stories abound about safety in Colombia, the issue of travelling without incident here remains an important consideration. Those planning to criss-cross the country should do plenty of thorough research – whilst remaining mindful that Colombia thrives on urban myth and is prone to circulating safety information that is out of date. This country remains a place where there is danger, although the present security situation is much improved. Today, it offers the safest travel conditions for many decades and visitors who apply common sense should expect an incident-free stay. Take safety warnings extremely seriously and stay away from regions that are totally out of bounds. Red Zones under the control of warring factions are found in the south of the country, while some city slum areas are highly dangerous no-go areas where violence is rife.
Colombian women are highly politically active and appear extremely confident in social situations. However, machismo still plays a large role in Colombia and female travellers may feel less vulnerable in a group. Those travelling alone should be prepared for the occasional come-on, flirty comment and wolf-whistle from Colombian men – it is part of the culture and something that is best accepted with good grace. Expect it to happen wherever you are, be it a city or rural village – react without hostility but firmly ignore the attention. Avoid acting coy, shy or giggly as this may be misinterpreted as interest. Dressing in short skirts or revealing tops will only exacerbate the situation so stick to conservative clothing – even if the local girls are flaunting their bodies. Some travellers resort to wearing a wedding ring in order to put off male advances – it may work but will rarely stop a persistent suitor. Women who plan to party or drink in bars should remember that dancing with men or accepting drinks may also be construed as interest. Avoid drinking to excess as this will make you vulnerable and when leaving a bar or party make sure you are in a group. Never accept a lift, or walk home, with someone you don’t know, or have just met. Attacks on female tourists are rare with robbery a more common motivation than sex crimes. However, if anyone you don’t know approaches you on the street or on the beach, offering tours (or anything else) don’t wait to hear his patter – walk away.
Travellers with a disability
Colombia isn’t the easiest place for travellers with a disability, especially those keen to leave the major cities behind. Provincial roads tend to be unpaved, pot-holed and are often little more than dirt tracks. Although wheelchairs and mobility aids are available in large malls and shopping centres, they are rare in rural areas. Adaptations and amenities also vary from place to place. This inconsistency makes planning ahead difficult. However, Colombia’s National Institute for the Blind (Instituto Nacional para Ciegos, INCI) has made considerable inroads in campaigning for public information to be available in Braille. There are just over two million deaf people in Colombia, according to Federación Nacional de Sordos de Colombia, an organisation established to promote sign language (known as LSC) in 1984. Two constitutional laws for deaf people passed in 1996 recognise Colombian sign language and requires captioning or sign language on television.
Wheelchair ramps are also mandatory in new public buildings, although compliance is poor in this respect outside of urban centres. The Murillo Toro post office building in Bogotá has an entrance ramp, as does the Ministry of Education, but older buildings are rarely modified for disabled access and usually contain steep flights of steps. Much of Colombia’s public transportation system is also inaccessible, impairing the free movement of people with disabilities countrywide. The exception to this is the TransMilenio in Bogotá and Medellín’s Metro system, both of which have special facilities for disabled passengers and wheelchair users.
Colombia has a relatively small gay scene confined to its major cities but has witnessed significant improvements in gay and lesbian rights in recent years. However, discrimination remains rife, despite Colombia’s increasingly liberal social attitudes. Today, it may be easier to be openly homosexual in major cities but in rural areas the attitude towards gays and lesbians shows little sign of softening. Dozens of groups in Colombia have conducted anti-gay campaigns under such names as ‘Death to Homosexuals’. Even a human rights ombudsman once described homosexuals in a television interview as ‘abnormal faggots’ that should be subject to ‘social control’.
However, Colombia does have openly gay politicians, an active gay and lesbian information network and an active gay rights group – Bogotá-based Colombia Diversa, founded in 2004. Consensual homosexual activity was decriminalised in 1980 with amendments to the Criminal Code so there is a single age of consent of 14. In 2003, following strong opposition from the Catholic Church, an extremely progressive bill to give legal recognition to lesbian and gay partnerships was shelved. However, in February 2007 the Colombian Constitutional Court ruled that same-sex couples are entitled to the same inheritance rights as heterosexuals in common-law marriages. Even Colombia’s powerful Catholic hierarchy backed the bill on the basis that it didn’t include same-sex marriage or adoption. According to Colombia Diversa at least 100,000 couples will benefit from the new legislation, which is one of the most progressive gay rights reforms in Latin America. In 2010, gay rights advocates gathered in protest in Bogotá after Colombia’s Constitutional Court voted five to four to dismiss a lawsuit arguing for a change in the country’s civil code that would allow same-sex marriage.