Travel Smarter: 5 Ways to Stay Safe in a Dangerous Place

Xela, Guatemala. I awake in an enormous room filled with dozens of beds. A third are structurally sound, and half of those are devoid of any unsettling stains or crusty spots. In short, it’s the kind of place you’d expect to pay three dollars to crash in. But I’d come to Xela to climb a gigantic volcano so comfort was far from the top of my list of priorities.

Volcan Tajumulco is 13,845 feet high – measured by topographical prominence, it’s the 24th highest mountain climb on earth. Despite that, it has a reputation as a fairly easy hike for folks in good physical shape. No crampons or belaying, just me, three friends and a guide from Quetzaltrekkers.

But of course it wouldn’t work out that simple. As we awoke from our questionably hygienic berths we were met by the pale-faced young Minnesotan guide we’d met last night.

“There’s a problem,” said he.

“Oh no there isn’t,” said my girlfriend, Magenta. “We’re going to climb that volcano today and everything is just. Fine.”

Firm as she was, the guide wasn’t having it.

“There was a bandit attack on the mountain yesterday. Some hikers were held at gunpoint for an hour or two, they lost their cameras and cash … the women with them were threatened. I just don’t feel comfortable going up there.”

So we struck a deal with our guide. He’d refund most of our money, save a little we used to rent some equipment, and we’d set out to hike Tajumulco on our own. He scrawled out a crude map on the back of a brochure and, just like that, we were off to climb Bandit Mountain.

Shady Character
Shady Character © Hermés

When I tell that story to my friends and family members they either look shocked or angry. They don’t understand that risk is often a necessary component of exploration. Unless you’re a little unsure or a little threatened, any trip you take is unlikely to have a deep and lasting impact on your psyche.

But, of course, there’s a fine line between healthy risk-taking and a death wish. Here’s a short primer on walking that line:

#1: Don’t Look Like a Victim

In the field of economics there’s something called Rational Choice Theory (pdf link) which states the vast majority of humans are rational actors. We consider the costs and benefits of an action before taking it, to ensure the former doesn’t outweigh the latter.

This theory holds as true with customers in a supermarket as it does with criminals. Your average robber or bandito wants to expend his energy on targets he knows are high value … and unlikely to fight back.

Keeping this in mind, we see that the path to avoiding violence is twofold. Don’t look like you are worth robbing, while simultaneously looking like you can mess up anyone who tries. That second part can be achieved by being big and imposing, visibly armed, or simply traveling in a large group wherever you go.

My friends and I hid our cameras deep in our bags. We left our electronics locked up at the hostel and were all strapped with enormous machetes and a handful of tomahawks. We showed no signs of wealth and we looked like trouble. Comparing us to a gaggle of tourists flashing big cameras and MP3 players, it’s clear who the profitable target would be.

#2: Always Have a Plan

I know a lady who makes a point of never going out at night in a strange town without a sealed bottle of wine in her hands. It’s innocuous enough that no one will question it, useful at any destination she might find herself, and an effective tool for immediate self defense. Few people are in the mood to give chase after taking a wine bottle to the face.

Obviously, being “armed” is the smallest aspect of any effective harm avoidance plan. It’s more crucial to be aware of your surroundings and always know the fastest way to get back to your ‘home base’.

And don’t think geographic know-how is all you need. If you are traveling somewhere potentially dangerous, pay careful attention to your clothing. Women, don’t wear high heels or anything that will impede your running. Men, don’t make that rookie traveler’s mistake and carry so much gear that you can barely break a shuffle with your pack on.

Sketchy Car Park in Sydney, Australia
Not a place to run into a mugger © Nagarjun Kandukuru

#3: Bring a Decoy

A bulging wallet or a thick roll of cash is the universal sign for “rob me blind, please”. If possible, keep two wallets at all times: one with your crucial ID, your cards and the bulk of the cash. The other should have no less than $20 but no more than $50 in it. If you have an expired card or two, put it in there as well.

Making purchases with this “decoy” wallet won’t arouse undue attention or make you look like a desirable target. And, if you are accosted, it means you have something you can give the robber without much headache for yourself.

#4: Don’t Get Hammered

Honestly, I love to get pissed. One of my favorite aspects of world travel is the opportunity to get inebriated in new ways, in new places surrounded by new people.

But there’s a difference between pulling up the covers and getting three sheets to the wind. Drunk people are considered an ideal target by robbers. Boozehounds are famously terrible at paying attention to the world, which makes them easy to ambush and easier still to scare into compliance.

So if you’re going to drink in a new and (slightly scary) town, make sure you walk home sober enough that you’d trust yourself to drive … or travel with a group of people. And if you do feel the urge to tie too many on, remember: that last shot could end up costing you a wallet, a smartphone, or even something much more valuable.

cafe
Cafe, Iran © Shahram Sharif

#5: Conflict Avoidance Beats Conflict 100% of the Time

So, back to my volcano adventure. We were an hour into our ascent when we met up with the folks I suspect were the banditos our guide was so frightened of. They were six men, with no tools, huddled around a house that had been gutted by fire some time ago.

As we approached, one of them came towards us and attempted to get us to sign a log book. He claimed to be a sort of park ranger on official Guatemalan business. I doubted this as his “log book” was the sort a waitress might use to keep track of tips and receipts. His lack of a uniform and the stares from his compatriots might have had something to do with my doubt.

He wanted us to pay a small fee – a pittance, but the fee wasn’t the point. This guy was hoping one of us would flash a wad of cash and prove we were worth robbing.

So we refused to pay, and explained to him that we’d heard the volcano was infested with bandits and opted not to bring any money. We were polite and firm, but we refused to put ourselves in a position of vulnerability. And, as a result, we passed onto the volcano without incident. Conflict avoidance is always easier than conflict.

13 Responses

  1. Nyle Walton

    In my travels I had several traumatic experiences. One was being nearly choked and robbed in Georgetown, Guayana. Another was an attempt at robbery while I sat in the backseat of a car whose occupants offered me a ride late at night in Tijuana. Mexico. I managed to escape by putting my legs against the front seat and pushing both men againsst the dashboard while I fell out of the car on the passenger side. I got up and fled. One chased me for a while and finally threw the wrench he was welding at me. I picked it up and he retreated to get back in the car. It tried to run me down while I scrambled up a wired fence. The car skidded to a halt ahead of me. I fell of the fence and ran into an arroyo and up the other side to a lighted street where I hailed a taxi.
    Another time in downtown Rio I had a new camera snatched from my shoulder as the strap broke. I chased the young culprit for some distince before he escaped. Rio can be a dangerous place.

    Reply
  2. Shalu Sharma

    Very good tips to stay out of trouble in any dangerous place. Also I would like to say that, pretend you’ve been there before and act like a pro. Local people then get the impression that you know about the place. Also learning a little about the place and the local language could help tremendously.

    Reply
  3. Tim

    Always look like you know where you are going – even if that confident stride only takes you round the corner to check your map out of sight. Even better, actually know where you are going.

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  4. Josh

    Ah, that was a great trip. Any bandito who attempted to fuck around was sure to get about 4 tomahawks to the dome.

    Reply
  5. J. Thal

    In long traveling it pays to be paranoid. If you enter notorious zone and you aware of the risks you are taken, in almost all cases – nothing bad happens, unless you pray for it.
    But if you enter some bad neighbourhood and you convince yourself, it will never happend to me – because me, then all chances you are going to get it.
    Apart of this accidents happens without warning and the way to survive them – gives traveling all its glamoure.

    Apart of this accidents do happens without warning, and the way to survive them give to traveling all its glamoure

    Reply
  6. Nyle Walton

    When you are experiencing the nittygritty of travel on a shoestring, it doesn’t feel very glamorous. Only after you have experienced it and looked back at it does it seem somewhat glamorous. The way the rich and famous travel seems far more glamorous.

    Reply
  7. Francois

    Another tip: When in the Middle East, carry an Arabic newspaper to make potential kidnappers/killers think you’re an Arab, not a Western imperialist pig just waiting to be abducted or murdered. The more local you look the more confident you look and the less like a potential victim.

    Also, taxi drivers and the like will ask “Where are you from?” Most of the time this is an innocent question, but sometimes it’s an attempt to estimate how much you’re worth. Just say “Slobovia…” some tiny impoverished hole in the wall not worth bothering about.

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  8. Ryan Elwood

    No way. Been reading your stuff here and on cracked…and you spin fire? No wonder I clicked with your writing. I spin several props, travel and teach at festivals; am also a writer. Ever done a piece on firespinning? Really like your writing style and good pointers.

    Reply
  9. Jason

    This quote cracked me up, lol: “Honestly, I love to get pissed. One of my favorite aspects of world travel is the opportunity to get inebriated in new ways, in new places surrounded by new people.”
    Sounded like my first night in Bangkok a few years back: lost the wallet, forgot where my hotel was, good times!

    Reply
  10. Alex

    when I was in a both N and S Ossetia… during the 1996 to 1998 war it was very tough and I never knew what part of town was safe and what part of town could get me into some dangerous trouble… I had some distant relatives they were in the Village mountain areas tho….not in the central city and there is a high and ethnic tension ratio so there was a division between a lot of the ethnicities…..my one adventure was trusting my now EX GF…..THAT it would be safe to go to Iran. .. for a day or two by Crossing to Armenia and down to the Iranian border. .. however little did I know that Americans are not allowed into the country WHATSOEVER ON THEIR OWN…without a guided government escort 24 hours a day to “mind them” from the moment they arrive at the airport until the moment they leave the airport so she tricked m

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  11. Oscar Leon

    Agree with your comments about self protection, mostly. And although it is correct that “the vast majority of humans are rational actors”, not in Guatemala. Not in Guatemala. I lived there. I know people who live there. I know people who have been robbed, kidnapped, raped and killed. Well, obviously I don’t “know” the people killed; I “knew” them. There are some countries in the world where the people do not have a fear of consequence. They commit crimes that they cannot possibly get away with and yet they do it, with impunity. I say impunity because in addition to the missing “fear of consequence” gene there is no effective law enforcement. Especially in relation to crimes against women – for which Guatemala has one of highest levels in the world. So when you discarded an experienced guide’s advice you put yourself and all your friends lives in danger. Not just of robbery but of rape and murder. They may have only set out to rob you, but hey, cute gringo, let’s gang rape her. Shit, if we let them live they will tell the authorities and we won’t be able to steal any more. We had better kill them. You only need to look at UK or US travel advisories – they are super accurate. I rarely comment on blogs – but for people reading this, I don’t want them to be under the illusion that dressing down and acting poor is getting to help them in that part of the world in such a secluded spot. It’s not a street in a bad neighbourhood that you need to get through.

    Reply

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