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Tourists and Touts in Guatemala

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Tourists go with touts, Wade sticks his neck out to keep them from being ripped off

LIVINGSTON, Guatemala- I was standing in the restaurant Buga Mama which sits above the dock where we pick up passengers for the Finca Tatin in Livingston. I was looking out over the junction of the Rio Dulce meeting the Caribbean Sea, I was saying goodbye to another beautiful place of planet earth that I have taken the pleasure of making a travel hub. A heavy set man walked up behind me, ruining my solitary goodbye to Livingston.

“I am taking four passengers to the Finca Tatin,” he told me boldly.

He knew I worked there, even though I was not wearing my Finca Tatin t-shirt. He also knew that I was taking a load of passengers back to the finca. He told me not to tell the tourists when they arrived that I work for the finca, he told me not to talk with them, that HE was going to drive them to the hotel. He was acting secretive, as though we were entering into some sort of conspiracy:

Tourists would soon arrive wanting to go to the hotel that I work at and I would not say nothing to them so that this guy could charge them double the price for the ride.

Ok, savvy.

This guy was trying to intimidate me.

As a matter of principle I would not let it work.

I turned my back with a huff and walked away from him. He tried to grab me with a new tactic — a friendly pat on the back — I shrugged him off and walked away.

If he had said nothing, if he had not tried to commandeer me into a shady seeming deal, I would have been the wiser when the tourists showed up. I would have watched them board his boat without a second thought, I would have completed my meditations on the sea, and gave Livingston a proper goodbye.

But this guy was trying to railroad me.

Don’t talk to the tourists, don’t tell them that you work at the finca.

His smile was that of a fat faced, small town crook.

When the tourists walked into the restaurant and made for the dock I noticed that they were accompanied by three rough looking touts, the usual suspects of Livingston. The tourists were four young, tall, dainty Spanish girls in stretch pants. I watched the girls walk towards me with a big, black rasta man storming through, leading the way, along with two other rough looking men on their flanks. The girls were hemmed between the touts like cattle being lead into a corral.

The rasta man who was leading the group of girls makes his living by booking passages from Livingston to Fronteras at hours of the day too late for the regular boat companies to take passengers, as they deem the golf too rough and far too dangerous to cross in the evening. But the rasta man seems to have few qualms with passenger safety, he takes something like 10 Q a head for each person he sets on lancha bound for the high sea evening crossing of el Golfete.

The fattish lanchero was still standing behind me as I watched the entrance of the entourage.

Don’t talk to them, don’t tell them you work at the finca.

Was I going to watch these tourists bound for my hotel be railroaded?

Nope.

I welcomed the entourage with a gregarious, polite greeting. Hello, my name is Wade, I work at the Finca Tatin. Are you going to the finca? Yes. We have a boat leaving soon if you want to ride with us. 35 Quetzales. The girls quickly shod off their dubious looking escorts. Yes, we will go with you.

I stuck my neck out for these girls. It matters little to the finca if these girls ride with us or with someone else — this was not a matter of me trying to get a little more money for my employers. It was a matter of principle: these young girls were being railroaded by a gang of crooks. They tried to intimidate me — it would not work. Now that I knew the game, I could not help but to intervene — I could not sit back and watch these girls board the boat with these men.

The men were enraged. I now had one scumbag lanchero, one large black rasta man, and two other rough looking Latino men coming after me.

They rasta man yelled in a triumbrant of Spanish, English, and Garifuna. He seemed to be trying to look as big, bad, and black as possible. He flared his nostrils.

He informed me that he was going to get me.

He called me the devil with the beard and tattoos.

I looked at him calmly. I crossed my arms and just stared. I figured that if he was not going to get me when I was standing right in front of him that he probably never would. I waited for a while for the impending getting to ensue.

It didn’t. After a few minutes it became apparent that I would not be gotten, so I walked by the rasta man and the rest of his gang down to the dock, not breaking eye contact. The men leaned on the railing, perhaps trying to look fearsome. I walked passed them, I wished them farewell — ciao. The black guy stopped yelling at me, they all watched us pass.

The gang then began yelling at a bystander who they saw me talking with, the poor guy was just a doctor at a clinic near the finca, he has nothing to do with me or the hotel I work for. But I suppose the men grew tired of yelling at me, they sought a new target — a skinny Argentine doctor proved an adequate substitute.

The men continued yelling at everyone they could find until the boat for the Finca Tatin arrived. I told the driver the specs of the mess, he looked at the gang of me leaning over the rail of the restaurant. They began yelling at him. The situation was not too good. We laughed a little. We waited for more clients to arrive. The gang remained in the restaurant, hanging over the rails. They yelled at us until we left.

“Hombres bravos.”

We arrived back to the finca. I told the owner. He laughed. He said that he would toss the men 10 Q each the following day as a commission. No problem.

I rejoined my wife, who had assisted me through the entire endeavor, though did not fully know what she was getting into.

“Do you think I should not have said anything?” I asked her, questioning my actions.

My wife looked up at me with an askance sort of face, she shrugged as if you say yes, but then she responded smoothly:

“Not saying something is just not the way that you are.”

—————–

I have no idea why tourists or travelers — anywhere — use the services of touts or street urchins. If someone leads you to a hotel, a boat, a bus, anywhere, you will pay more for it. Touts do not operate for free, they are working, they expect to be paid, and you will be the one doing the paying. These Spanish girls were commandeered by three men as they entered Livingston and they were corralled like cattle through the streets, pressured into taking an overpriced boat.

It is often easy to follow along when in unfamiliar circumstances, when someone urges you to follow you, when they say that they are your friend, when they say that they are going to give you what you want, it is sometimes difficult to turn them away.

I want to go to the Finca Tatin.

OK, come this way, I will show you how to get there.

How do you say no without telling the person to scram?

You are now riding a wave out to sea.

This is the game of the tout. They get confirmation on what you want and then they act like they are helping you get it. Once it is established what you are after the tout then has you locked in, and it often becomes difficult to shoe him away. The trick, as far as I can tell, is to never confirm your intentions to a tout, to never show your cards. It is difficult to lock a person in when their intentions are overtly ambiguous, when they tell you to scram.

The trick of traveling through the tourist regions of the world is to make yourself a more difficult target to hit. If your bull’s eye is in the clear on a shooting range, the touts will nail you; if you remain under cover, not disclosing your intentions, not taking any lock in prop, only telling the tout to scram, you will show yourself to be too difficult of a target to hit — the tout will generally go away to find an easier mark, as there are many.

I stuck my neck out for a group of Spanish girls being railroaded, I got myself into trouble. When on our boat I turned to the girls:

“How long have you been in Guatemala?” I barked.

Three weeks.

“Never talk to the men in the streets. Never. They are bad.”

The men in the streets that I meant were those who walk up to tourists pretending to offer them what they are after — the touts.

This advice will save you money. It will keep you off the wave.

Read more about dealing with touts at Travel Dangers Happen Riding Waves | Touts not your friend travel tip

Guatemala Travelogue Entries | Guatemala Travel Guide | Guatemala Photos

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Filed under: Central America, Danger, Guatemala, Intercultural Conflict

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 76 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3048 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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