One of my goals with this blog is to convince people that international travel is not only within financial and temporal reach but that it’s also generally safe. It’s truly my belief that if you take proper precautions and stay aware of your surroundings you can travel to places that may seem a bit dangerous. This level of danger adds to the sense of excitement and adventure just like the perceived danger you experience when riding a motorcycle or bungee jumping. And as it is with those activities, simple precautions will ensure that you benefit from the excitement without actually experiencing negative consequences.
It’s in the interest of full disclosure and awareness of mistakes that I made that I write about a mugging that occurred to me in Taganga, Colombia. I would hate to scare anyone away from international travel to some of these less traveled places – just know that I think this situation could have been avoided had I been more aware of my surroundings, and know that I came out of it unharmed and smarter for the experience (although very slightly financially poorer).
Taganga is a small beach town on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. I have seen beautiful, clean, secluded beaches all over North America, Hawaii and Central America, and Taganga is nothing to write home about. However, it does have a couple of draws – it’s a good jumping off point if you want to do the (highly recommended) jungle trek to La Ciudad Perdida, it is close to the very popular Tayrona national park and diving here is very cheap so it’s a good place to get your PADI open water certificate. But – it’s a bit of a dodgy town. There are a lot of drug dealers roaming the streets (as is the case in many touristy places in Central and South America), there is rampant petty theft, and it feels as if you just can’t trust any of the locals, even the people working the hostel. One morning I wondered why the police were at the hostel. I found out later that someone had broken into the lobby in the middle of the night, snapped all the locks on the small lockers in the lobby there, and stole whatever they found. I had to hear this from another traveler – there was no warning from the people running the hostel. To them, it’s “pretty safe”.
When I first get to a town I always ask around to fellow travellers to find out where the dangerous areas are, and steer clear. In this case my friends and I met a lady on the bus to Taganga that had lived there for two months so we picked her brain about apparent dangers. She wanted to know which hostel we were staying at. When we told her Casa Felipe, she warned that the hostel is a nice place to stay but that it is a bit remote from town and that you’d have to walk down a particularly dark road around a football field to get to town. This was warning number one.
So Sunday night rolls around and my friend and I are hungry for a late night meal around midnight. Monday is a Colombian Holiday so music is still blaring everywhere but we already had a big Friday and Saturday so we just want to get some food and go to bed. We had already been in town for three days so we are feeling confident in our orientation with the town and with general navigation. As we walk down the dark road to town we encounter a pack of Colombian street dogs in front of us. One of the dogs has his body turned towards us but he is looking back over his right shoulder, barking at a small Colombian man who appears to be pissing on a wall in the shadows on the side of the road. I honestly think this dog was trying to tell us something. This is warning number two.
My friend and I pass this gentleman and not 20 feet beyond he begins to follow us. I can hear his strides- they sound deliberately intense, as if his shorter legs are trying to match pace with ours. This is warning number three.
At this point my spider sense is slightly peaked but I ignore it as I have become complacent in my travels after a month of generally safe interactions with the local environment. I should have listened to my instinct and turned around to watch this guy and let him pass. Instead, I hear three or four quick, running steps and before I know it he has tackled me from behind. We roll to the ground together and I feel a stabbing pain in my side. Later I realize it was probably a rock in the road but in the moment I couldn’t tell if it was from the assailant’s weapon.
In an instant I am lying on my back looking up at a drug wired Colombian man waving a glass bottle over my head screaming at me to give him “lina, lina!”, “Bills, bills!”. I yell for him to “tranquilo!” as I reach my left hand into my pocket and pull out about 80,000 Colombian Pesos (apprx. $40 USD). My adrenaline is pumping as I tell him “es todo”, “that’s all”, knowing full well in another pocket there is a debit card and on my wrist sits a large G-shock watch. But I know he just wants money and wants to get the hell out of there fast. My friend Jack also hands over 10,000 pesos, and Jack and I run one way while the assailant runs in another direction.
Jack and I run all the way back up to the hostel, our adrenaline pumping, our appetites gone. When we arrive there I inform the guard on duty that we had just been mugged and that he should call the police. Shortly thereafter two police officers sharing a single motorcycle approach the hostel via a rutted, washed out dirt rode. Just as they approach the gate they lose speed and fall sideways in a giggling pile of motorcycle and automatic weapons. The teenage officers take the report with an embarrassed smirk on their face, both parties aware that no crack detective work is going to take place on this night.
After a glass of water our heartbeat slows and Jack and I are able to talk about the experience. I kept reliving the robbery, wishing we had somehow got the upper hand with this guy. In my ideal scenario Jack grabs the robber, controlling the bottle, while I hop up, put this guy in a Muay Thai clinch and pummel him with knees until he falls to the ground and we can finish the job. I ask Jack why he didn’t grab the guy and he tells me he has been hit in the head with a glass bottle and that he “Didn’t want to feel that again.” It’s totally understandable and I feel guilty for implying to Jack that he did anything wrong. In fact, I think we did exactly the right thing – giving away our money and maintaining our health. If we did fight, what happens next? Does he have friends? Does he have another, more sinister weapon hidden somewhere? Does he seek revenge? Better to hand over the money and be done with it.
And Jack had done something very smart before leaving the hostel. He handed over 10,000 pesos, but he actually had over 300,000 pesos and a debit card in another pocket. Considering lockers had been robbed recently at the hostel Jack had opted to carry his cash with him, but he separated it into two pockets – one with a small amount to quickly pay off a robber and the rest in a separate, less accessible pocket.
I chalk the $40 up to a valuable lesson learned. The fact is, if you travel to any populated area of the world where other tourists exist (including some US cities) there are people that prey on travelers. It could be pickpocketing or minor theft from your hostel or hotel room, or something more violent like my experience, but travel long enough and you are bound to run into a situation where someone gets the better of you. I want people to travel but I want them to be aware of the dangers. Most travelers I meet understand this – that shit happens. Like water off a ducks back, these experiences roll right off. They don’t ruin your trip; they barely even ruin your day. As long as your life is intact little else matters.
This is something I’ve come to respect greatly about people I meet on the road. They endure things like mosquitoes, sand flies, bed bugs, diseases, broken bones, violent robberies, foreign languages, questionable food, bitter cold, intense heat, long treks at high altitudes, rabid dogs, unscrupulous locals and various other dangers and annoyances to have great adventures. All those apparent negatives are like small building blocks in the pyramid of experience.
So travel more, be aware, stay safe, and when shit happens learn from it and let it go!
If you have any questions about travel safety or an experience of your own to share, please post in the comments below, I would really appreciate hearing from you. Also, sign up in the form below to receive email updates.