Contributed Story: Hangin’ Tough in La Candelaria

Before concluding anything negative about La Candelaria, read my recent post Life is But a Dream in La Candelaria.

This piece was contributed by Christopher K, a Bogota blogger locked up in a Brazilian penitentiary. We have a correspondence and he sent this story. In my opinion, this piece exaggerates the situation in La Candelaria. But he moved to Bogota in 2004, when the crime situation was very different than it is today. Here’s his piece:

I also stayed on the 3rd floor of Aragon and walked to the Platypus to use the internet. I made the Plat-to-Aragon walk at all hours: day, night, 3am, whenever, and always with my laptop. Of course, locals say this is crazy stupid, but there’s a knack to it.

The first skill you need is to read body language on the street, and I mean from two blocks away. I can tell an armed thief from a harmless bum in La Candelaria from at least one block away. What’s he doing, where’s he looking, how’s he carry himself?

A bum shuffles. He looks aimless. He might hang around a certain spot, but he doesn’t own it. He’s always looking around, but not in a predatory fashion, and often looks at the ground, keeping an eye out for coins or food or whatever.

A thief moves like a shark on land. Either it’s an unusually confident casualness, or a direct hunting posture, or if they’re fucked up, spastic aggression. The first is most common. Sometimes they work in pairs, but the second man usually walks some distance behind – moving at exactly the same speed and direction. They look like two idiots trying to look like they’re not together.

Here’s where you develop the hyper-vigilant state: you should be constantly scanning 180 degrees in front and on the sides. At night, you should know exactly who’s on the streets around you. You don’t want to be looking behind you – that shows fear – so you listen carefully for footsteps or anything unusual from the rear. During the day, you look for breaks in the pattern of how people move, and use glass windows to see who’s behind you.

Obviously, at night you walk in the middle of the street.

The second skill is to develop your own body language. I’m 5’10” and maybe 130lbs if I drink a lot of water – dangerously underweight. I’m a scrawny geek, and I’m not a scrapper. But I’ve seen thieves cross the street to avoid me. Once, in front of Aragon, an older man set down his shopping bag and crossed himself as I approached. Bums would usually avoid me, and in 2.5 years of living in La Candelaria, I was hardly ever offered drugs.

I would go into shark-mode myself. I put myself into the frame of mind that every time I walked out the door, I was going into combat. And I was the baddest motherfucker of all. I walked like I had a purpose, and that purpose was to tear out your jugular with my teeth. Chest puffed, arms out, chin pointed slightly down, and stay the fuck back, Jack. Normally, this would be comical on a guy like me. But in Bogota, it worked.

Sometimes a thief would get close enough to where he was thinking about having a go. I’d glare at him and subtly shake my head ‘no’. You could not be retarded enough to make me snap your spine. And that’s all it took. Like everything in Colombia, appearance is everything. Substance is nothing.

There were times on Carrera 3 between Calle 15 and 16, the Platypus-to-Aragon route, when there were muggings every day at any time, day or night. I can’t count how many thieves I put off like this. Once there was a gang of five waiting to rob people. The scowl and head-shake put them off. Incredible.

The only time I got mugged was at that same intersection. It was 3 am and three teenagers came from behind on Calle 15. I heard them, turned to look, and dismissed them as just kids. I could’ve easily run but thought, “Nah, they’re no threat to me.” Fucking stupid. I had just passed two bums squaring off with knives over a pile of garbage and chuckled that I was so accustomed to this, I didn’t even give them a second glance. My mistake was believing my own hype. You need to know when to stop believing and fuckin’ run. Those teenagers were the ones to finally get my ancient, busted laptop.

But generally, this approach is how you keep Bogota thieves away.

The problem is this wears you down. Frequent trips out of the city – Villa de Leyva was always my favorite – are extremely important. And going back to the US or somewhere civilized is a good way to recharge and remind yourself why you live in Colombia.

OK, the shark walk, scowl, and head-shake aren’t as effective for bums. What works is the ‘Fuck-Off’ wave. When they approach, give a passing glance and an aristocratic ‘shoo’ motion with your hand. It may feel like a dick move, but don’t be shy.

If that doesn’t work, talk to them. Pretend you’re a parent talking to a bratty child. This may feel condescending, but it’s better than beating them. Tone is everything. Don’t swear, call names, or show anger. You’re the parent, you’re in charge. They need to shape up and stop bothering you. Try it and see.

I think bums and thieves are so effective and aggressive with foreigners because we’re either easily spooked or too nice. Don’t be shy about being a dick. It’s the only way to get by in La Candelaria.



  1. Good story.

    So true what he says about how you carry yourself. I think we’ve all come across guys smaller than ourselves that we wouldn’t mess with (based on the way they carry themself) and we’ve all come across those who are bigger who are so mellow that no-one is afraid of them..


  2. I just don’t understand why we expats stubbornly stay in the most difficult parts of a city. I’m colombia and lived in england for 10 years and thought that places like Kilburn where Ok but they are not. These kind fo things happend everywhere in the world. Do you want to know why crime has increased in la Candelaria??? well, because is full of foreigners getting wasted and walking home totally drunk at 3 am … I’m not saying you (and I mean everyone) should stop having fun but take the precautions you would anywhere in the world. I invite you to try La Macarena, La Soledad, even Modelia there are cool and not so expensive hoods to live.


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