Travelling with the best thieves in South
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
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 with robbery.
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
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 ticked.
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 watches.
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
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 composure.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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