Wed 19 Aug 09
I bet you're wondering, "How does she know how NOT to get robbed?" Well, I'll be honest with you. I've gotten robbed plenty of times, enough to know exactly what I did wrong and how I could have avoided being robbed from the get-go!
Good example; my sister-in-law and I went to the coastal areas of Guatemala. I had my little purse on me and pants with many pockets. My sister-in-law, said, "Marina, I really recommend you put your credit cards and money in your pants pockets." I listened to her very carefully and didn't do a thing about it.
It took us three hours to arrive. Five minutes after we got off the bus and started headed in the direction of the hotels, two teenage boys on a bike came booking at me and -guess what - ripped my purse right off my shoulders. Thirty minutes after hunting them done and being left with nothing, we were right back on the same bus going back to the house. Let's just say it wasn't a very successful trip!
So, after all the wonderful lessons I've been given, I hope I am qualified to share with you what I have learned, so that you can learn vicariously through me and NOT do what I did!
Do you know how hot an American, Canadian, European or Australian passport is in Central American countries? So hot that the black markets can't get enough of them! With the economy in the pits, more and more people are becoming unemployed and thinking that these nations have the answers to the good life and buy stolen passports with their life savings to leave.
To protect your passport it is completely acceptable to have a copy with you instead of an ID. Even most banks are OK with a copy these days. To secure the legitimacy of your copy you can get a notary public to stamp it before you leave for your trip.
Note: You still need the real deal when entering the country and leaving. Just leave it in the hotel for safety.
Take What You Need
I used to carry a full backpack with me on day trips or a purse when going out. After having sneaky professionals slyly reach in and clean out my backpack without me feeling a thing, or having my purse snatched off my shoulders, I decided it was time for a change.
I have always had the habit of carrying my backpack on my back. You know, the normal place for it. On multiple occasions I have had someone very quietly reach in and take my wallet, money and camera. So it took me a few times around to learn that one, but after those episodes, I had a long hard think and realized that I didn't need 90% of the stuff in my bags. For one, these days cameras are so small they can fit into your pockets. Money should always be kept close to your body and there's no need for bulky wallets. A jacket or a long sleeve shirt could be hung around your waist giving you extra security for your money and camera. If you have a guide book, it may be a good idea to simply rip out the pages for that particular day trip rather than lugging around the whole book.(Editor's note: I agree with this wholeheartedly, unless you are thinking to trade for a book from another area somewhere down the road.) You can buy a comfortable water holder which also has a safe pocket for a cell phone.
If you do need to carry a backpack, wear it facing front. Even in the safest of cities, you just never know.
Chances are you are not walking down the red carpet showing off your most precious possessions. There really isn't any reason at all to wear anything of value while traveling to these countries. It's one thing to buy some locally made jewelry but completely another when your engagement ring is worth more than some local person will make in five years.
At one point I was guilty of this, or maybe just plain stupid. Granted, it was one of my first trips out and I wanted to be 'stylish'. Before my trip, I bought a very pretty jewelry holder bag and stuffed all my most precious wares inside. Within two days of my trip, while sitting on a bus dozing off, I awoke to my bag wide open and my jewelry holder gone. That was enough to teach me that it's such a bad idea to do that.
So, leave them at home and you'll appreciate them that much more when you return.
Some of the most common robberies happen on public buses. Since thieving is practically a profession in most towns, they have it down to a science. There are now many affordable options to public transport systems. You can either take a private shuttle like Grayline or Interbus from one location to the next. Most hotels have shuttle services to and from the airport. If you can splurge, there are tons of private drivers that work for reputable companies and taxis.
If you do take the public bus, it's best if you can take your bag with you in the cabin and keep it by your side. The pros lurk around buses watching where you stick your bag and where you end up sitting. Since most public buses fill up fast and have plenty of stops along the way, they make sure to hear where you are getting off and slyly help themselves to your bags. Keep the bags close, and if you must put them below, sit in the seat that overlooks the compartment. And always look out for shady characters.
I had actually started in the right direction when this happened to me. I took my backpack into the compartment with me. It was a small bag, and since I was a newbie traveler and very naive, I placed the bag above my head. Not once did I think that the bus would fill up till you couldn't see in front of you, nor did I think that the nice people piling on the bus would want MY BAG. At one point I remember my friend yelling to me from the other side, "Marina, where's your bag?" To answer, I got up to look for it and, miraculously, someone just happened to hear the conversation and hand it back to me, right as they were getting off the bus. So what do you think I found? An empty bag!
As I mentioned earlier, keep your money as close to your skin as possible. I have seen plenty of amazing pickpocketing moves that are so well orchestrated that you don't have any idea what is happening until you are left with nothing. Spread your riches around. Don't congregate all your money in one place. Put it in your pockets, in your bras, in your socks, in your underpants and always try to have a money belt secured around your waist.
My final example actually didn't happen to me, but to a friend of mine. We went to a local fair that was packed with people. As my friend started turning the corner he kind of got jammed between people. After watching the scene unfold in slow motion, I realized that it was three guys who had him cornered and were reaching into his pockets while the others were pushing as though he was stuck in the crowd. By the time I realized what was happening and started yelling, "They're robbing you!" They were long gone in three directions with his wallet and Ipod.
These five simple rules have made my life so much easier. I walk with more confidence knowing that there is nothing to steal. And, even though I'm a blonde amidst the masses, I don't have anything that is screaming come and rob me.
Marina has been living in Central America for over 7 years and her site Travel Experta is all about traveling in Central America. Marina loves to help people plan the perfect vacation to this amazing part of the world! You can sign up for her RSS feed and join the fun on her facebook fan page and follow her on Twitter at @MarinaVillatoro.