Travelling with the best thieves in South America.
The pitfalls of travel among some of the best ladrones in the Andes.
The South American Handbook seems loaded with warnings about
pick-pockets, muggers, drugged sweets being offered to travellers, break-ins to hotel
rooms, and lawlessness on the roads; a minefield of opportunists competing for the
belongings of the unwary traveller.
No wonder the American Foreign Office warns its citizens against
back-packing around Colombia and Peru.
Ever since Pizarro tricked the Inca, Atahualpa, into capture;
slaughtered him, and looted the City of Cuzco, this Andean country has become synonymous
Unlike Brazil, a gun is rarely used - the Peruvians are too
professional. Their art is well crafted, and the sneak thieves are very nimble.
If you give them the slightest hint of an opportunity, they will
relieve you of your possessions quicker than an armed mugger could even produce a weapon.
The tourist police, noticeable by their white armbands, or braiding,
are friendly enough, and often warn you when known thieves have had their eye on you. They
will tell you where the tourist police-station is located, should you need them, but they
are too overworked to be your guardian angel.
You can usually tell the watch snatcher as he homes in on your
glittering wrist. This person runs at you from a distance greater than the visibility of
the watch could possibly be, slips two fingers under the back of the watch face, and jerks
the timepiece from its strap.
Fluidly, the stranger then speeds up faster than Carl Lewis running
for home; after receiving the baton, on the anchor leg, in a 4x100 relay.
As an experienced traveller I was taken by surprise when this happened
to me one night in Lima; especially as the watch was a cheap, plastic affair and hardly a
joy to look at.
I'm sure the watch-thief didn't expect me to give him the time of day,
or night, and take up the chase. Once I did, he must have looked at what was in his hand,
saw the lack of value in its face, and dropped it to the floor before the next second
If you have no time for that sort of hassle, and you still insist on
wearing a watch, then long sleeves at night is an advisable cover up. You will also notice
how often you are asked the time, because the locals are street-wise and seldom wear
On The Beach
A few days later, after taking some pictures around Miraflores, I made
my way down to the beach. I locked the zip on the bag and set up my pitch close to the
water's edge. After a quick look around, I went to cool off my feet in the shallow surf.
The first wave had hardly touched my ankles when I saw a small group of people around my
shoes - waving and pointing to a couple of youths running towards the main road.
I was out of the sea quicker than a torpedo and hardly realised that I
was soon running barefoot across boiling hot tarmac and up a stony path.
My whole identity was in that bag and I was determined to get it back.
It was heavy for the thieves and I was gaining on them. I even scooped up a couple of
stones and almost hit one of the lads on the head. The bag was dropped and rolled down
towards me, as the two young men disappeared in a trail of dust.
Back in the capital, the crowded Lima buses would be an ideal hunting
ground for rear-pocket wallets if more tourists squeezed their way onto them, but thieves
also move with the times. Now they wait patiently near the better hotels and strike when
you think you have made it safely through another day.
It's enough trouble trying to get your own money out of your front
pockets when wearing a tight pair of jeans, but again there is a knack. Lima youths have a
way of ramming their hand in your pocket and pulling everything out, to leave just the
cotton lining dangling down your front. If the first strike is unsuccessful, another
partner in crime attacks the other pocket before you even have a chance to regain your
Then there is the travelling. To prevent large backpacks loaded onto
the roof of a bus immediately disappearing down the other side, the wise traveller might
carry bags small enough to fit under the seat. But unless the zips are padlocked, be
prepared to find them opened by the person who sat behind you.
If all this sounds unlikely, how about the two rucksacks that were
tied to the overhead luggage rack on the Cuzco to Puno train. It was daylight on the
Andean plain, and at one of the many stops one of the travellers left the train to take
some pictures, while his friend thumbed through the pages of the South American Handbook.
So deeply engrossed was the reader (many have likened the travel
publication to a novel) that he did not notice his friend's return. There was something
else he missed too; but his photographer friend was more observant..... one of their packs
had been stolen!
Trains are terrible for theft, night travel is notorious for nocturnal
nickers, and stations are seldom safe either. Casualties are common during the early
morning rush for the Machu Picchu train at Cuzco. Nylon day-packs are too easy to slash
with a razor blade, so many are hugged tight against the body. But still there are
A local boy stroked the fleshy thigh of a Swedish girl, and when she
turned around to burn the pervert with a cold blue stare, his accomplice opened the zipper
of the bag across her chest and melted into the sleepy crowd with a Scandinavian passport
and two hundred American dollars.
I felt as though I had survived as the relatively, trouble-free towns
I'd passed through had been notched up like medals for every fresh story I heard. I hadn't
even left a bar of soap in the shower. I was enjoying South America and had forty rolls of
exposed film (those were the days) to show for it. But as a photographer, I could never be
truly satisfied until I saw the processed results.
I focused my attention on the train to Arequipa. The Puno station,
with its small overcrowded waiting-room, where Indians sat on the floor with their
woolens-for-sale, and opportunist robbers waited for travellers to relax, was only across
the street. I had a quarter of an hour before the train's departure.
To try and confuse possible thieves, I travelled with my clothes in a
Billingham canvas camera bag and carried my cameras in a tattier-looking, shoulder bag. I
was sat facing the door, to keep an eye on the dubious types walking in and out.
The modest restaurant bill was paid and while I waited for the change,
a man at the table behind me tapped my shoulder to ask if I wanted to buy a ticket to
Cuzco. Queuing up for tickets can be quite an ordeal in Peru, so it's not uncommon for
entrepeneurs to sell tickets to travellers at a slightly inflated price.
This simple act of turning around briefly meant that I had been
distracted long enough for the Billingham to walk.
It was already dark outside, and the robbery might as well have taken
place the previous week; even the taxi-drivers waiting to fill their cars with passengers
to Juliaca shook their heads. They had seen nothing: "Nada!"
Along With The Bag
Unfortunately, along with my clothes the Billingham bag also contained
a polythene bag with forty rolls of exposed film in it.
The local police wanted a payment just to start an investigation and
for all I knew the bag of (worthless to the robbers) film might have already been sitting
on the bottom of Lake Titicaca.
Luckily I still had some film in two camera bodies. Five pictures that
survived made it into the APA
Insight Guide: Peru.
Advice to Other Travellers
I wouldn't advise anyone to confront the robbers, but sometimes
instinct does get the better of you and adrenaline takes over.
General advice to try and avoid robbery is not to display your
valuables nor take your eyes off your bag(s) and travel as light as you can. If you have
camera equipment you will always be at risk.
Unfortunately, taking all the best precautions can not insure our
security, so be sure that if things do take a turn for the worse you have adequate
insurance to cover your loss.
A good insurance policy covers most eventualities, but even the best travel insurance
can't bring back the pictures.
As almost everything is digital these days, make sure to invest in
some unlimited online storage
and upload your best travel photographs as
often as you can. You might even sell some of your images to help pay for your travel and
maybe even make a name for yourself.
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