Last month I celebrated the anniversary of an event that made a significant impact on my life and molded me into a more savvy, independent, and conscientious traveler.
I was mugged by three individuals on a sunny afternoon while I was walking around in Valparaiso, located around 2 hours away from Santiago de Chile.
After the event, I recounted my story to numerous eager ears only to be welcomed with blank expressions coupled with snide remarks that my actions had made me an easy target.
They were, in part, right. Before reaching Valparaiso I had not bothered to research the dangers of the area and I was walking along with all my gear, including my expensive DSLR camera, on full display. The experience itself was terrifying but it also forced me to analyze my traveling habits.
What to do When Mugged Abroad
In my 10 + years of traveling abroad, I have had my butt handed to me dozens and dozens of times but thankfully escaped rather unscathed. These close calls fed into the growing travel ego that made me believe that I was a smidge more enlightened than other travelers.
I had been there, done it, and knew it all. But as my confidence grew, I succumbed to travel sloppiness and more risky behavior, thus elevating my chances of falling into trouble.
Before embarking on any adventure, travelers must first overcome their travel ego and understand that there is always room to grow. There are over 150 different countries in the world, which means that no one can truly be a travel expert.
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Accept the fact that traveling can be dangerous and evolve to become a knowledgeable traveler by preparing yourself before your trip and taking precautions overseas so that you can recognize red flags and always react appropriately.
Tips to Stay Safe When Traveling
My experiences (I was robbed not once, but TWICE in Chile), along with the plethora of stories I’ve heard from people I’ve met when traveling, have also taught me several other travel tips. Please excuse the “duh” factors, but some things do need to be repeated:
1. Research the area/city/country before arriving at the destination.
My number one mistake when going to Valparaiso was not to research the dangers or warnings of that city. If I had, I would have read that travelers are not advised to climb the hills and instead should stay on the plateau.
I never read the warning and was mugged while climbing the hill. WikiTravel is an excellent resource as it has information about places to drink, sleep, work and also sections about staying safe/healthy and the cultural customs of the country/city.
2. Pack Smart!
First of all, leave all your jewelry and expensive clothing at home. The more flashy it is, the more you become a target. One horror story I heard in Santiago was about thieves who would rip off women’s earrings if they thought they were valuable.
Secondly, never EVER bring a clutch. Bad idea. No matter how secure you feel it is, clutches are the easiest things to steal (that’s how I got robbed the second time in Chile!). Instead, opt for a cross-body bag with a zipper.
3. Don’t rush out of the airport.
Many times travelers are so excited to get out of the airport that they just jump into the next available airport taxi. Be aware that unofficial airport taxi drivers often have a bad reputation. As a result, be extremely wary of the way your taxi driver acts and watch the meter for any suspicious activity.
I often stop off at an information kiosk and ask how much a “fair” taxi price should be before hailing one down. I also ask the driver in advance approximately how much the ride will cost. On the other hand, instead of grabbing your bag and sprinting out the door, take some extra time to ask and look around for different and cheaper options into the city that can ultimately save you time and money.
For example, Chile has two extremely economical options: a bus (USD$4 / one way) or a shared van called Transvip that will drop you off in front of your hostel/hotel for only USD$12 / one way.
4. Once checked into your room, lock up all your OWN stuff.
Never trust lockers/safes in hostels and hotels. They are not reliable because it is possible that other unknown individuals may also have copies of the keys.
Use personal locks and never leave any valuables out in the open (even if they are “cleverly” placed under your pillow). For added safety when I am abroad, I lock my valuables in my luggage and I also use a retractable cable lock to secure my luggage to the bedpost.
5. Blend in.
Your chance of being robbed decreases if you blend in. Even if you stick out like a sore thumb (like I did in Chile), there are certain steps that can be taken to enhance your safety. The ultimate goal is not to look/sound like a tourist.
Stopping, glancing around with a confused gaze, and/or pulling out a map does attract too much attention. If you are lost just keep walking with a purpose and enter into a café or shop to ask for directions or pull out a map.
To physically blend in wear hoodies/hats that can cover your head or put on a pair of oversized sunglasses. And if you want to pass for a local, keep foreign languages (like English) at a minimum. Do not announce that you are foreign by speaking loudly in English.
6. If getting robbed, DO NOT fight back.
When faced with these types of scenarios, many of us will try our hardest to salvage our beloved items. In Brazil a friend told me a story of a girl that was walking back to the hostel in the afternoon only to be met by a man with a knife.
He grabbed her purse and she started to fight back. He then stabbed her, nearly missing her heart. She spent the next three weeks of her vacation in critical condition in a hospital in Rio de Janeiro. Is that camera really worth it? I don’t think so.
All in all traveling around the world has been the BEST experience and I do not regret anything. These rules are not meant to scare you or try to discourage anyone from traveling. Just use your best judgment and never think that you are invincible. The second you let your guard down, you become susceptible. Be aware, be cautious but most importantly HAVE FUN!
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45 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Being Mugged Abroad”
Need to be safe at all times.
We know that living like the locals is cheap, but not worth the risk of getting mugged. IMO it is better to spend a little more for safety.
We agree. When we stayed in cheap places in India, we made sure to lock our stuff on the bed or whatever we could with our packsafe. But we feel better when we spend more money on a secure room.
I was walking back to my hotel drunk and alone in Thailand, when a motorcycle pulled up and a tranny hopped off and took my wallet. So yeah I guess drinking doesn’t help, nor does being alone late at night.
Oh no, that’s a horrible experience 🙁 I’ve just started living in Barcelona and I’ve heard so many horror stories of things being stolen. Thankfully, it’s a city with pretty low rates of violent crime on the whole. Still, your tips have been a great help to put my mind at rest! There’s quite a lot you can do to prevent being robbed, it seems, although at times you can just be simply be unlucky.
Thanks, Lucy (Tripobox)
Thanks for the tips and explaining what had happened with you in your years of travelling. I will be following these advices in my every visit rather alone or with my family, friends.
I almost got robbed by a gang (using distraction techniques) in Athens for which I wrote a few tips as well, but getting mugged is far worse. With a backpack or trolley on public transport to/from airport is difficult not to stick out. The only chance is to blend in with other travellers, but eventually they’ll go their own routes. I always keep being robbed/mugged/distracted, etc… at the back of the mind whenever I’m in a public area. I hope it never happens to any of us!
Good reminders, especially the one about not fighting back. My biggest fear is getting mugged while traveling. Mostly because I worry about my camera being stolen and losing all my pictures from the trip. Should probably worry more about my safety…
I am the same! I take so many pictures and I clutched on to that camera for my dear life when I was being mugged.
It’s extremely hard to just let your stuff go when you are being robbed/mugged but you have to remind yourself that those pictures are totally replaceable but you aren’t!
Thanks for the comment 🙂
Wow, intense experience and I am happy you are okay! Even though I am so very new to traveling, I think I’ve been overly cautious when it comes to certain areas, which may have helped me out.
While wandering, I do not have my iPhone out in plain site. I don not keep my wallet in plain site. Most of my money is in another part if the area is really rough (socks, tattered hat I’ve sewn a pocket into, etc.)
I also wear clothes that aren’t bright our flashy or nice looking, but ones that are faded and well worn. And definitely my “shit kickers” aka combat boots.
Also, when I am exploring an area I don’t know much about, I take my Nikon AW100, an adventure point and shoot, and not my DSLR.
When I was traveling through Haiti filming a documentary, though I had someone with me who grew up in Haiti, I was always observing my surrounding and conscious of what was going on in the area.
Obviously you can’t prevent something fully if someone is going to mug you, but you can try to deter that from happening.
I do agree with being cautious but I would say that you should try not to be overly cautious.
In some situations, individuals that are overly cautious might act like they are nervous, which can make them stand out. I remember a friend of mine went to a club and brought her Iphone. She said she would bring it and be extra cautious so as not to loose it. The whole night she clutched that purse to make sure no one would rob her. But her over protective gesture towards her purse tipped off a thief. She let go of her purse for 5 minutes (when dancing with a guy) and her Iphone disappeared.
I always tell people that they should always leave the expensive stuff at home and to NEVER bring large amounts of cash or their passport when sightseeing. But if you do bring along something expensive, don’t act in a way that might draw attention to you.
Remember people are always watching you and if you are clutching your purse or constantly checking if your passport is in your pocket – then those thieves are probably catching on to where your expensive stuff may be!
P.S. LOVE your website Ryan 🙂
I've been living in South America for almost twenty years, and know the many dangers involved. I've rarely been robbed, but it's because I do follow all those tips you give. It is the down-side of travel, but all the enriching experiences make up for the occasional negative ones. Thanks for spreading these good suggestions!
Where do you live in South America?
Do you have any other tips that you live by?
Thanks for the advice but actually I know that already. I lived in the relative slum of Cebu City a couple of years (with my family who was local but not from actual Cebu City) but I was never afraid in my own area, Sambag Uno, I did get robbed when I was drunk once and wandered astray. Four young methheads (shabuheads..) wanted to deliver me from my money so they got it and I ran.
I also been to so called bad areas in these countries: Brazil, Latvija, Russia, Great Britain but never experienced even a threatening situation. I did get robbed another time though. In my hometown, near the city centre around twenty years ago. I dont consider Gohtenburg a dangerous place bec of that.
Thanks for the great tips and glad you are okay!
I love your recommendation of locking your suitcase up to the bed post. We are traveling to Peru in the near future and are going to put that one to use!
Thanks for the reply and I’m glad you will be using one of my tips!
Good post, on a crappy subject 🙁 I’ve had it happen twice, not fun!
I also had an incident in New Orleans where I wandered into an unsavoury neighbourhood by mistake. I walked into a bakery to ask for directions and the look on everyones face told me I shouldn’t be there. I will say it was in the early hours of the morning and i might have had a little to drink. 🙂 They called the police to escort me to my hotel. How nice was that !
Aw, that’s so nice. What I find is that most people in the world are good. And when they see you in a situation that you shouldn’t be in, their first instinct is to help. I’m glad that you were helped out in New Orleans. I think a lot of incidents in travel happen when people have had too much to drink. A good rule is to have a safe way home.
Yes, absolutely true about too much to drink. I was in my 20’s then and on my way home from 3 years living in the UK, and yes that was the lifestyle I’d been living. Now, in my 40’s, I’m much more aware of safety! 🙂
I think we’ve all been there at one point or another. You meet new people, have some fun and then realize that you don’t have a way home. Dave and I were in Belize years ago and went out to a local party with a fellow Canadian we just met. Everything turned out ok, (although apparently the guy I ended up singing a karaoke duet with was the local mafia boss) but it certainly have gone bad. We shouldn’t have gone out there without a way home. Same thing happened to us as you, some nice locals gave us a lift back, but it could have gone the other way and we could have ended up in hot water.
In about 90% of the stories I hear about bad things happening to travelers the things happened because the travelers were drunk and/or stupid. My standard advice, when asked, for how to stay safe while traveling: don’t do stupid shit – like wandering alone in an unknown city while booozed up. If people would stick to that, they’d have fewer problems. 🙂
And I am not judging you (or anyone else), I have done it too and I have been lucky. But things have changed. With the current world economy people are more desperate and are stooping to things they wouldn’t have considered a decade ago.
You are a very judgemental person going on the 2 comments you’ve made. You sound like you have a god complex and are the best traveller ever. Grow up
Hi Mandy, you are right, a lot of things happen when people drink too much and stay out way too late. Travel or no travel, you are more at risk in the wee hours of the morning after having a few drinks.
Hi Roz, I’m not sure that Mandy is being judgemental, I think that she is just a little blunt in her comments. The advice is sound, it’s just a little rough around the edges.
I completely agree. Problems do tend to arise when an individual tends to drink a little too much. I think the biggest problem is that when someone is a little (or very) drunk, the alarm bells and red signs don’t seem to start flashing as quickly as if you were sober.
I remember a friend of mine got super drunk once at a club. She lost her brother, her friend and jacket and didn’t really realize what was happening. Half an hour later, she was seen being led to a car by three random guys. Thankfully my friend interjected and took her back inside. But overall in Santiago (especially in Bellavist where all the tourists would go partying), thieves would anxiously wait outside of clubs. They would often target smaller groups and people who were intoxicated, as they were easier to rob.
Absolutely true Mandy.
I had an earring ripped out of my ear in Nairobi. I thought I’d just been struck by a street kid, but his intention was to get my earring. It was so cheap, but you’re right, if it looks like it might be valuable it attracts attention.
Very true. Also, some people will do something to distract you and use the earring as a distraction to keep you occupied while they take something else. how was your ear?
That sounds awful!
When I was traveling in Chile I was often told to not wear ANY dangly earrings, even if they were cheap. People don’t know if they are cheap and if they look “somewhat” valuable, then there is a greater chance that they will try to snag them.
A lot of travelers I have met on my travels said that they now dress “hobo-chic” so that they don’t attract to much attention. Haha. I personally would’t go that far but I have learned to dress down and avoid wearing anything remotely flashy, just in case.
I have been robbed in a number of different parts of the world during my work as a freelance travel photographer: Palm Springs, Havana and Barcelona come to mind, but the worst occasion was in Gambia, in West Africa.
Seated on the beach, far away from bathers, I was resting after taking pictures when two men crept up behind me. One stuck a knife in my ribs while the other swept up everything I had: cameras, jacket, watch, money. I was left far from my hotel with no means of getting back and two English tourists, whom I told what had happened, didn’t want to know about it. In the end, I hitched a ride with a kindly African couple and although the experience was unpleasant, I was not hurt, like you were.
Travellers must remain vigilant at all times, especially when visiting developing countries where people are poor and see tourists as easy pickings.
Oh my God! That sounds terrible. I’m so glad that you lived to tell about the day. That must have been terrifying. It sounds like you are one hard core travel photographer. I can’t believe that the tour English tourists wouldn’t help you. What’s wrong with people?
You are so right, sometimes we can all become too complacent and let our guards down. Unfortunately nothing in life is all roses.
Regarding no. 3: Another thing about catching a cab at an airport is that some airports have official, licensed taxi dispatching kiosks where they will direct you to a legitimate driver who works for that company. And you often pay in advance at the kiosk, too, preventing you from being ripped off when you get to your destination. In most cities, I would never accept a ride from a driver who merely approaches me at the ground transportation area; they could be a rogue driver, and the rates they will quote you are often substantially higher than the rates you’ll get from a reputable company.
For taxis in general, you should also pay attention to warnings from the U.S. State Department and the like, where applicable. For example, here’s what they say about Mexico: “U.S. citizens visiting Mexico should avoid taking any taxi not summoned by telephone or contacted in advance. When in need of a taxi, telephone a radio taxi or ‘sitio’ (regulated taxi stand – pronounced ‘C-T-O’), and ask the dispatcher for the driver’s name and the taxi’s license plate number. Ask the hotel concierge or other responsible individual to write down the license plate number of the cab that you entered. Avoid ‘libre’ taxis and the Volkswagen beetle taxis altogether.”
One thing that’s tough is what to do with a DSLR; the whole point of bringing it is to take pictures that you can’t get with other equipment; but when you’re taking those photos, you will inevitably have the DSLR out, and will therefore be telegraphing that you are holding this expensive object that it probably wouldn’t be too difficult to liberate from you.
Thanks for the great advice. We appreciate you contributing. Very true about the DSLR. We feel more comfortable because there are two of us, but I’m sure that a solo traveler would feel more exposed indeed.
I completely agree with the taxi comment. I have heard a lot of horror stories about taxis in Peru, Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador. In fact, a friend of mine was told that she should NEVER take a taxi off the street when she was living in Ecuador (I don’t remember the city). The ONE time that she took a taxi off the street she got held up at gun point, robbed and then dumped in a sketchy part of the city. I always tell travelers to never, EVER risk it, even once, because the risk is never worth the worst case scenario.
In the end, if possible it is best just to avoid taking a rogue taxi from the airport and look at different options. Most airports have a bus shuttle or even a shared van that is much more safer.
And I have learned to only pull out the DSLR camera when I am in bigger groups of people or if I am in a very remote area (say for example the Uyni Salt Flats).
I never read the state department warnings. If I did, I would never leave the country. Talk about a bunch of chicken littles! I often wonder what warnings other countries issue about the USA…
Anyway, about the taxi thing, it’s best to ask the locals (this is true with pretty much all safety questions). In my more than 4 years living in Mexico I flagged down dozens of cabs in the street and never had a problem. I never heard of *anyone* having a problem and I met thousands of other travelers most of whom were happy to share their stories of bad stuff that has happened.
With regards to the equipment thing, that is one reason I went with a mirrorless DSLR. I can still get great quality photos with a fraction of the cost, weight and space. Mine fits in my purse, along with a water bottle and my nexus. When using it in more ‘remote’ places I take a good look around before taking it out. When using it in busy places, I always keep it around my neck as it is less likely to be grabbed.
“I’m not judging you ….. BUT” … Yeah, right !. I don’t care if you are judging me, i don’t need or seek your approval (whoever you are) ,I was merely contributing my experience about a situation I found myself in. I don’t need you to tell me ‘things have changed’, you’ll see it was 20 years ago and yes I am older and wiser now. I also found myself in a situation in Uganda where ‘drunk’ militia came into our camp demanding money. They were given a small amount and 2 weeks later we heard a grenade had been thrown into the same camp killing 2. I guess that was our fault as well cause we had been drinking , in the camp, and gave them money ?? I hope I don’t come across you in this big, wide world and your negative outlook and judgements.
Hi Mandy, It’s true, we can’t let media and warnings get in the way of traveling, but we do have to be aware of our surroundings and understand that some places are more dangerous than others. I don’t think it is fair to call people chicken littles. Yvonne is giving advice on how to stay safe from an experience when she was mugged. And others are giving advice or input on their experiences. I don’t think that anyone is saying “Don’t Travel.” They are just saying be aware.
I think that if people choose to read the government warnings, that is a smart thing to do. They can read them and then make their own judgement, but to go into a country blind and not have a clue as to what is going on in irresponsible. That doesn’t say you shouldn’t go, but you should do your due diligence.
As far as the mirrorless DSLR, that’s great that it’s more lightweight and can fit in your purse. Thanks for letting us know what you do with your cameras, super advice.
We take taxis all the time everywhere and also don’t worry too much about them, but we also travel a lot and feel that we can read a situation. We feel that we can distinguish the legitimate taxis from the scammers.(that doesn’t mean that something still can’t happen to us, but we fell confident getting into a cab) People who are new to travel or not a confident may definitely want to take the precautions that Harvey mentioned above, there is nothing wrong with that.
We’ve met people in our travels who have been mugged, and seen guys beat up and recovering from a mugging the night before, and even another who was taken out of town in a taxi and robbed, so we know that the risks are there and think that it is a good thing to be aware.
Thanks for the comment and so glad that you are a positive voice coming from Mexico, it gets so much bad publicity and it truly is one of our favourite countries on earth.
We feel that good advice for everyone is “Just because you are on vacation, doesn’t mean you should let your guard down, but also, you shouldn’t be too afraid to travel.”
Hey there! Thank you for the comment.
I don’t like the idea of keeping the DSLR around the next when in busy places. It defeats the purpose of “blending in” – instead you are kind of announcing that you are a tourist. When I was mugged, my DSLR was around my neck and it only took one strong tug to break off the straps of the camera. Thankfully, I reacted quickly enough and was able to save it.
And sorry, I meant “remote” as in places where there is very little chance of being mugged like the Uyuni Salt Flats, in the middle of jungles or hiking.
That’s horrible about the earrings! I’ve heard a similar story about rings being ripped off fingers so I always leave my jewelry at home. I also try not to travel with anything I’d be upset about losing. Less stressful that way.
Me too. I never wear jewelry. Just my wedding band which is very simple. Nobody would be tempted to take that. Unfortunately we travel with so many electronics and camera gear that we’d be very sad to lose that. I remember packing as a minimalist…oh how I miss those days.
Thanks for the tips. Sometimes we get too excited for our upcoming trips that we forget about safety precautions when traveling.
Isn’t that the truth. One time we were taking photographs in a rural part of Peru and everyone kept telling us that we shouldn’t be here. One woman decided to escort us out of the area. And then a security guard came along and started blowing his whistle. We didn’t know what was going on, but he followed us all the way back to our guesthouse blowing his whistle to keep people away. We didn’t know what he was doing until they told us at the hotel that he was keeping criminal from robbing us! Whew, dodged a bullet there.