After 62 Countries in 5 Years, We Were Robbed

Posted By Jeremy in Planning, South America | 15 comments


It Almost Was Like ThisAs most long-term travelers and nomads will say, it is only a matter of time before you are a victim of theft while traveling.  No matter how skilled you are at keeping your gear safe and how cautious you are about protecting your valuables, one day someone will get the better of you.

After 550+ days of travel since 2008, being gone for almost a whole year on this trip, and visiting hundreds of cities in 62 countries, our day finally happened in Puno, Peru.

And we nearly lost everything.

Getting Robbed in Puno’s Bus Station

As we were in the bus station getting ready to leave for Cusco, I looked down and noticed something odd.  My bag containing a computer, expensive SLR, camera gear, passports, and emergency money was nowhere to be found. (Photo “Bank Robbery” by reverte)

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In a flurry of emotions and panic, we realized we were robbed.

It didn’t take long to figure out what happened and we soon determined that we were victims to one of the oldest techniques in the book: the diversion.

A man came up to us in the bus station asking if we wanted tickets and we said no.  In that instant someone came up from behind, grabbed our bag, and was out of a nearby side door without a noise. 

If this sounds silly, it shouldn’t.  This tactic has gone on for so long for a simple reason – it works.  And we were its latest victims.

After crying, almost passing out, yelling for the cops, and their “patrol” all turning up empty, we found ourselves sitting in the tourist police office at the bus station wondering how it could have happened to us.  Then, the most unsettling thing happened: 3 more groups came in who were robbed within the same hour– two local, two tourist, all devastated.

This station was clearly a hotbed of activity, and our headache was just beginning.

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The Tourist Police Were The Worst Part!

The scariest part of it all was definitely having to deal with the tourist police.  Rather than helping right away, they told us to leave Puno!  Somehow they thought it was a good idea for us to get on the 9 hour bus to Cusco (which we already missed) and file a police report there over 10 hours after the theft occurred!

Yes, that really happened.  

After they got our itemized list with pricing, and asked us if we had insurance over and over, all they could say was that we should leave.

Thankfully we refused, because odds are we would have never got our police report if we left and then would have been out of luck in filing an insurance claim.  (Not to mention be traveling around Peru without any acceptable legal documents).

It only took a lot of prodding in Spanish and conversations via Google Translate to finally get them to produce the report, and after about 3 hours of going between police stations, internet cafes to cancel credit cards and change passwords (while Angie was alone in a police station crying uncontrollably), and ultimately returning to the bus station- were we finally on our way to Cusco with a police report.

In any case, the biggest relief of the day was getting away from the station and leaving Puno for good.

Lessons Learned

This post is, unfortunately, going to be the first part in a larger series about our stolen gear.  The next entries will be focused on our insurance company, how we filed a claim, and the results as well as getting our replacement passports while abroad. 

Instead of featuring it here, we are going to focus on the lessons learned from this event that we must impress upon every single reader of this site.  If we can help prevent at least one theft from this post then the whole experience will not have been a complete disaster.

1) Never take your eyes off your bags when someone is talking to you.  Easier said than done, but worth being said again.

2) Never keep your duplicate copies of emergency info, photos, and videos in one bag.  Triplicate backups are great, but not if they go running off in the same bag.  (Back up on one, or maybe even two, of these in a separate bag).

3) Be sure to have someone at home that has copies of everything that is important.  Send it via email rather than a USB transfer to be sure you have it too.   If they forget where they put it, well, you’d really be out of luck then.

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4) Online backups of your computers are your friend.  Upload all your data as often as possible and set your computer to be backed up on the cloud quite frequently.  We lost our videos and a few hi-res photos purely because our internet was so bad in South America we never had a chance to back them up.  If our computer could have done this automatically it is quite possible they would have been saved.  (Or, if you really want to have some fun, install this software like Expert Vagabond did before his computer was stolen).

5) Always buy insurance.  Seriously.  Our $3,000+ loss was covered almost in-full by our travel insurance.  The only headache is having to wait and finding all the receipts (which luckily Amazon does a great job of storing). 

6) Do not leave the scene of the crime or city without a police report!  Period.  You will be completely screwed on insurance claims and other paperwork later on without it.

7) Do not trust other tourists in a group.  There were at least 10 travelers and another 10 locals right by our bag when it happened and no one said a word.  Not. One. Word.   If anyone saw it and didn’t say anything I hope karma has something in store for them one day.

8) If it can happen to the “experts” it can happen to anyone.  Within minutes of posting our story on Facebook, most travel writers I know who are far more seasoned related a similar incident that happened at one point in time.  If it can happen to us, and happen to them, it can happen to you.

The Fundamental Rule

What is the moral of this story?  It can happen to anyone.  It is because of this that our original motto that was formed from my first vacation rings true – Never take anything you wouldn’t be too upset losing.

There is a reason we left our wedding rings at home, never carry around huge wads of cash, wear clothes to make us look like poor college students, and only buy cheaper equipment to use when traveling.  First is to not look like rich, but the second is the most important.  It hurts less when they’re gone!

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As we found out, even though our big ticket items like the SLR don’t really matter in the end, it is still upsetting to be robbed all the same.  The only thing I can only say is that I really wouldn’t want to know the pain if I had lost all my photos from not backing them up online in the meantime.  I always say those are the only things that matter to me, and as it turns out, it is still true.

Our total losses from this fiasco were a few hi-res photos (we still have lo-res copies from Facebook), the passport stamps, some work files that were not backed up, all our videos from the trip (not that we ever watch those anyway), and a few souvenirs- and even those trinkets are replaceable with enough effort.

For that, I am thankful.

Have you been a victim of theft on the road?  What happened and what did you lose?  Feel free to rant as much as you like in the comment section because we truly feel your pain!

Jeremy

Jeremy founded Living the Dream in 2008 to chronicle his long-term trip around Asia. Since then he has been on two long-term trips, visited 68 countries, and is just getting started. He is now on a Lifestyle Design quest to build businesses to pursue a life of travel.

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15 Comments

  1. I appreciate your story, as I’ve been tempted to travel to Puno to see Titicaca. I was also planning on the overnight from Puerto Maldonado (Cruz de Sur,) but decided to simply fly instead, which is pretty inexpensive, aside from what I”m assuming is still the $25 airport fee, if it hasn’t gone up, for gringos.

    My insurance cover everything I’m bringing, I’m clearing all sensitive data from the laptop, clearing the DSLR cards, and backing up in several places as I go. I’m also staying with friends who live there, which adds a degree of security… though some of my travel between destinations will be alone.

    I grew up in New Orleans, and did a lot of work down in the French Quarter, which has areas known for panhandlers, pickpockets, ect., and have backpacked around South America to a degree, so I felt like I knew what I was doing.

    What got me was one morning, walking to an internet cafe while I had some type of sinus infection, in Lima, with the dust laden garua mist that happens in winter. All of a sudden a car swerved around the corner ahead of me and a woman came up to me and pointed out that they had splashed mustard all over my jeans. (I know, oldest, if not the second oldest trick in the book…)

    She and her friend quickly helped wipe it off while I was still confused about the whole matter and said there, all clean. I said “Voy a regressar en mi casa,” which kind of freaked them out. I was staying with friends in the neighborhood and they no doubt took me for someone who would not be around any longer.

    As they left I noticed them getting into the same car, which had stopped down the other block. I put my hand reflexively into my back pocket to keep my thumb on my wallet…. and sure enough it wasn’t there.

    They only got about $20, an ATM card that I immediately phoned in and stopped, and my driver’s license. So while I felt like an idiot, I took some satisfaction in knowing they were no doubt miffed at their poor haul.

    A similar trick was tried in several other countries but I had no time for it. I just said NO, backed off and stayed away from all involved.

    I love Peru, but I do recall that when I first got back from there after a 2.5 month trip, I was exhausted from constantly watching my stuff. Bolivia, on the other hand, was completely the opposite. While I exercised care, the national pastime is not theft. It’s laid back and delightful.

    We’ll see how this one goes. The only major change I’ve made to my plans is regarding the nighttime bus trip via Cruz del Sur from Puerto Maldonado to Cuzco. Who needs the worry?

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  2. Thanks for sharing your experience. I was oddly comforted by reading it as basically the same thing has happened to me and my partner just four days ago, just hours after arriving in Ecuador. We were on the bus between Tulcan and Quito. Some passengers getting off the bus created a diversion by spilling coins on the ground at our feet, we of course bent over to help them pick the coins up only to realise after that my “cabin” bag with all my valuables was gone. This happened within seconds. Laptop, phone, ipod, passport, cards, journals, cash, gone forever. What made the event even more nasty, was that in the fuss created by me realising that my bag was gone, another passenger on the bus took advantage of our distressed state and stole Alex’s camera. I’m pretty sure that everyone else on the bus saw exactly what was happening. Like you guys, we are experienced backpackers on an RTW, country number 24, and this is the first time anything so sh*tty has happened. We also have a blog, so there was a huge amount of work files on my laptop. Luckily all our photos were backed-up, but there was a lot of irreplaceables taken, like my journals, design work, research. I guess we became a bit too relaxed and trusting, which is sad because you want to be trusting and engage with locals to really get the most out of a trip. But I’ve spent the last three days crying, beating myself up, and not wanting to leave the hostel, other than the trips to the Honorary Consulate. What’s happened has left a really bitter taste. We’ve sadly decided to cut Peru and Bolivia out of the trip completely and head back to Colombia. We’re travelling overland, so buses are the only option for SA. After weighing up all the pros and cons, we are just not willing to take the risk again.

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    • Oh no, I am so sorry to hear that. That is one of the worst feelings imaginable and I can totally understand what you’re going through :(. Sucks when something like that makes you want to change your travel plans but I fully support your decision. As much as we loved Bolivia (and were indifferent on Peru– obviously), we can see going back to Colombia to enjoy that country more (hey if you haven’t been yet make your way to Salento, it is great). If you have any questions or need help in the next few days feel free to email me at jeremy@livingthedreamrtw.com and I’ll see what I can do!

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  3. i was robbed in peru also. our cruz del ser bus going from nazca to cusco was forced off the road by armed bandits, i had a gun pressed against my head and one girl was pistol whipped. like you we had problems with the police and they just wanted rid of us. but cruz del ser have been even worse. they’re attitude has been ‘nothing to do with us’. it seems their buses are being targeted on that route and all robberies are hushed up. i’ve even had locals tell me that it doesn’t happen anymore because the bus companies and the police have cleared it up. my tip, be careful when travelling in the south or peru especially around cusco. don’t have anything in the cabin with you apart from a warm top or stuff you don’t mind loosing.

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    • Oh my God. That is awful. Angie and I agreed that if that ever happened to us we would’ve packed up and gone home because we wouldn’t have been able to take it. I hope everyone was okay afterwards and didn’t lose too many precious belongings.

      Guaranteed next time I go to Peru I’m going to fly between cities that would require an overnight bus otherwise.

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    • Hi there – I’m going to Peru for 3 weeks soon and reading this has made me kinda nervous!

      Can I ask – was this a night-time bus or daytime? I’m planning to fly where I can but will have to take some buses for certain parts….

      Want to try and plan it as safely as I can!

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      • It was in the station for a day time bus. Night time buses has been known to be hijacked though. We took one or two night buses in Peru but if you have the budget I would fly instead.

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  4. Sorry to hear, but I’m glad you put it out there and I will be taking all this advice on board when we travel again.

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  5. Really sorry to hear what happened man – we will have to be extra careful the next few months too – touring Central and South America again for a while. What’s more surprising is that I have never seen your website before, yet we have both been travelling and blogging for years! Glad to come across your site and hope you recover from this. Best wishes. Jonny

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    • Welcome to our site! Always good to discover new sites even though we’ve all been around for a while. Looking forward to checking your page out!

      I think these experiences are reminders for everyone to be extra vigilant no matter where they are. Although, judging from the number of people we’ve met this week who were victims in Peru, it does seem oddly high here over other places (but perhaps that is just because of the situation we were put in).

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  6. Welcome. To the club of mortals. You’re not the first and won’t be the last seasoned traveller to experience these kind annoying episodes. I’ve had a couple such experiences myself, fortunately not robbed (which I define as being threatened at gunpoint or with a knife). Petty theft is, after all, not that scary.

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    • I won’t argue with that. Perhaps my terminology was a bit on the extreme side but I think it is worth it to emphasize the point. I would thoroughly agree that any violent and direct robbery would be far more traumatizing than straight up theft. The resulting headache afterwards, well, everyone who gets items stolen from them go through that regardless of the method.

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  7. Really great tips, but so sorry for what you experienced! I had my purse snatched in Thailand 2 weeks after we arrived. Luckily it was just money and our apartment key – no credit cards, passport, etc. I can only imagine the headache that caused you! Glad you are safe and thanks for the great advice. Can’t believe they tried to send you away!!

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  8. Sorry to hear about your experience. Your tips about not “looking rich” are good. We try to do the same. My wedding band is stainless steel and rubber (it doesn’t look as bad it is sounds…).

    A few years ago Dena and I were robbed at gunpoint in front of our house in Cuenca. The confrontation / gun to the stomach / knife to the face is something that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It’s great that you both are okay – aside from the shock and loss.

    Thanks for sharing your experience.

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    • Oh no! That is absolutely awful! We’re heading to Cuenca in a few weeks (I’m assuming the one in Ecuador?) and will be extra vigilant.

      I can only imagine how much worse an actual gun/knife-point robbery would be! I’m so glad to know you’re alright.

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