A French couple, friends of ours, left the campsite at 8.30pm to catch a night bus from the nearest town Trujillo. Three or four hours later they returned with bruises on the man's face and having lost almost everything they owned. The story unfolded like this...
They caught a surprisingly cheap taxi from just outside the campsite, but only a short distance away the driver said that there were problems with the car. A "friend" came to help, but once they had transferred over to another taxi, several men broke into the car and began to rob them at gun point. They were driven to an abandoned house where they were made to sit and wait while all their stuff was searched and looted for several hours. They were made to give their pin codes for the cash machine and when it didn't work, our friend was kicked in the face.
Eventually they were released with their passports, S50 (about £10), their tent, one sleeping bag and most of their clothes. Everything valuable was taken and they were threatened not to go to the police. We're all just happy that they are together and alive.
Worst of all, this is not an isolated incident. We've heard several other stories since. The criminals told them that tonight it was them, but tomorrow it would be a different car.
Huanchaco feels like a relatively safe place in the daytime, but these are my tips to prevent anything like this happening to you:
- First and most obviously try and avoid travelling at night all together.
- If possible, take the local bus- they are crowded so there is always the possibility of pickpockets, but I would much rather stay under the protection of many normal people than take my
chances with one man in a taxi.
- If you must take a taxi, check the normal rate for your journey. If you're being offered something surprisingly low, don't take the cab.
- Check the taxi number- if you are already inside and worried pretend to make a phone call. Explain, preferably in Spanish, to a friend that you have just left and will be at your destination
in 20 minutes.
- If you are robbed in this way don't put up any resistance. Money and stuff can be replaced, people will help you and you will be ok. Nothing is worth being hurt for.
Although this kind of thing is frightening, it's important to remember violent robberies are unusual in most places. Our most effective way of avoiding trouble is simply to limit our time in cities and the kind of tourist destinations with attract preying "malos" (bad eggs). People will look after you in small villages and with everybody knowing each-others business it's more difficult to get away with crime.
If you meet a traveller who has had this kind of problem, it is always better to lend them money and risk it not being returned than have their fate on your conscience. Share your food, offer them a drink and try and help them sort their life out. You never know, it could be you one day.
If you are robbed, remember the most important thing is to contact your bank as soon as possible. Borrow a phone or computer and call over Skype.
General, probably obvious, safety advice for South American cities and touristy destinations:
- Don't walk anywhere at night with your valuables on your person and try to avoid it in the day when possible.
- Don't leave your expensive things unattended in Dorm rooms and judge the security of a hotel before trusting a locked private room. It is often better to leave your things with the reception
desk where at least somebody can be held accountable if they disappear.
- Don't walk around drunk, especially not alone or with your valuables on you.
- Get your hostel, campsite, hotel or a trusted person to call you a taxi if you need one.
- Don't use mototaxis (motorbikes who will take you on the back for money) if you can possibly avoid it. Not only do they often drive like maniacs, they might also ask to carry your bag in
front for balance and rob you while riding along.
- If you need help on the street talk to older couples, families and tenders in shops.
- Don't spend time in deserted parts of the city- there might be a reason why nobody is out on the streets and although you can still be robbed in a crowd, it is less likely to be violent. This
also applies to beaches at night.
- It hardly needs saying, but keep your camera and other valuables out of sight at any time of day.
This advice applies to everyone, but single people should be particularly cautious.
Don't worry families, we are safe, sensible and not hitchhiking in this area, but I think it's important to warn others to try and stop it happening again.
Please share this with anyone who might be in the area. Thank-you!