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Preventing Theft While Traveling

Theft in Zipolite, lessons on how to prevent theft when traveling ZIPOLITE, Mexico- “Everybody steals in Zipolite,” the guesthouse owner informed me almost immediately upon my entering her establishment. “So be very careful with any computers or electronics if you have them, don’t use your computer in the street or at the restaurants. The people [...]

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Theft in Zipolite, lessons on how to prevent theft when traveling

ZIPOLITE, Mexico- “Everybody steals in Zipolite,” the guesthouse owner informed me almost immediately upon my entering her establishment. “So be very careful with any computers or electronics if you have them, don’t use your computer in the street or at the restaurants. The people will watch you and follow back to the hostel.”

Hearing this come from the owner of a hippie hostel impressed me — normally the establishment of these places are far more prone to tell you to not worry about a thing, not to safeguard your worldly possessions. I was in a hippie hostel, it is true, but I choose one that at least sought to function well. My wife had also tipped off the owner that I was a traveling webmaster, so this warning was spoken particularly for my benefit: the owner did not want me luring any thieves into her den with my computer.

“Right now, they are going after computers,” owner continued. “Lots of people are traveling with computers now and many are being stolen.”

She then told me a couple of stories about how computers have been recently liberated from the rooms of guests in other hotels. One situation involved a hotel that had some sort of yoga session that most of the guests were attending — it is my impression that there was a tour group of yoga people or something — and while this bunch were contorting their bodies and pawing at the mystical world, their possessions were being pilfered from their rooms in the real world. Three computers went missing. Another incident of theft happened in a hippie eco-resort at the end of the beach. Some thieves found out that a guest had stored a sack of valuables in the hotel safe, they popped it open, removing everything.

Both of the above stories involved a network of knowledge which allowed the thieves to strike the opportune people at the opportune time. “They watch you,” the guest house owner told me. She went on to imply that the thieves here seem to know the schedules of the staff of various hotels, and they are tipped off when there is a good heist to be had.

It is easy to see how this knowledge is collected here. In the streets of Zipolite there is a collection of friendly locals who speak English, they go around befriending tourists. They are the cool dude type, tattoos, dreadlocks, some probably pretend to be rasta men. They befriend the foreign hippies, smoke them up, act real cool, and probably find out everything they can about their new foreign friends. It is easy to make the connection between these guys and the ones behind the scenes who break into the hotel rooms and do the dirty work.

Sunset on Zipolite beach

A common lock in prop seems to be as such:

A cool looking local walks up to you on the beach. He opens up his hand to reveal the joint of marijuana that he has tucked into his palm. He asks you for a lite. I imagine that after you pass over your lighter and the drug is set ablaze, the first thing that is handed back is not your lighter, but the joint itself. The guy has your lighter, so you can’t just walk away — you are locked in. So you take the joint, smoke it, talk with your new friend, dropping your guard and thinking how cool and free life is on the beach of Mexico. What happens next is pure conjecture.

But I imagine that many people who are robbed here leave thinking that the guys who smoked them up on the beach were really their friends.

I have had this lock in prop tried on me too many times over a few day period to deem it a simple benevolent coincidence: if this were so, there are far too many people on this beach with joints and no lighters than probability would allow for. It is is a lock-in prop, but it is one that I am comfortable leaving the end results open to conjecture: I don’t light the joints. But a simple walk down the beach reveals many tourists who do.

Perhaps this is love the world benevolence, but it seems more like a set up to me.


“Don’t leave any valuables in view” the guesthouse owner began, indicating the common area which can be clearly viewed from the street. “The ladies here, if they see something, they come up to the gate and call my name. If I don’t come and the door is unlocked they come in.”

She then told me about how a European girl lost her camera in this way. The girl did not heed the guesthouse owner’s warnings and left her camera sitting out on a table when she went to the beach. She then returned, made dinner, and then grabbed for her camera. By this time it was just a case, the camera inside was gone.

“People come in here, smoke a joint, and then fall asleep leaving their things on the table,” the owner continued, and then told me a story of one stoner who left his computer out in plain view over night in the common room so its battery could charge. The owner herself — who lived the bulk of her life on this beach — seemed to think this was a very poor decision. It was clear that she did not want people inviting thieves to rob them in her guesthouse.

Beach hotels have to be the most insecure class of accommodation that I have observed in the world, and beach towns are the most prone places in the world for theft. Beach hotels are often constructed in an open style, people walk through them, people use them as hang out pads rather than just boarding houses, they are often party places, and it is easy to bring your new friends inside to join the party. This is just the way this type of hotel is, it is just the way these towns are. The guesthouse that I am staying at is probably one of the more secure places on the beach — there is a gate and fence enclosing the place, the rooms can be firmly locked — but this does not say too much: things can still be stolen rather easily if you do not take precautions, as the camera-less European girl found out the hard way.

I wondered what the police did in such circumstances, and the owner of the guesthouse told me simply: “They take money.” She said this while rubbing her fingers together. Of course, the police are in on the action, and they take their cut.

It has been four days since I came to Zipolite, and I have not seen ANY semblance or sign of law enforcement — not even a police truck driving through town. “It is lawless here, you can do anything” an expat friend told me who has been living on this beach told me a couple days ago. It is my impression — open drug sale and use is so common here as to be rendered a normal part of the scenery, and stories of theft are common — that he is correct.

I can’t say that I am complaining, as it has not been my observation that the police in Latin America do much to curb theft anyway — and they often do a lot to aid it. This place is probably better off without them.


“If an American is robbed they can just buy new things,” a guy on a beach in Costa Rica once said to me years ago. He was cocksure in his assumption, so much so that he spoke it openly to me, an American, without the intention of offending. Everybody knows this here: Americans are rich and can just replace anything stolen from them.

The American who whines about being robbed here is a nonsensical self pitier– Why don’t you just go buy new things?

The logic is clear, but its foundations are fictitious. But unfortunately, this is the position that many people take here, and it serves as justification of theft. Who weeps when a rich guy gets robbed? Robin Hood sentiments are in the literary foundations of many cultures, but in Latin America I find myself the Prince John. Knowing this is the first step towards preventing theft: I am not a cool, working class bohemian here, I am a rich white dude.

I can just buy new things.

But to prevent myself from having to buy new things, I follow the follow standard operating procedure:

1. I don’t show my valuables. Thieves try to steal what they know you have.

2. I need to work on this website and need access to the internet, so that means that I need to leave my room with my computer. The first day that I arrived in town I did not take out my computer, rather, I cased the town for the most secure looking places with WIFI. I found a secure internet cafe and a decent cafe with WIFI. Both establishments don’t have a street view into them.

3. When I leave my room I make sure that all windows and doors are locked.

4. When I leave the room I lock up my computer and all valuables into a sturdy messenger bag. I then lock this bag to the bed or another unmovable object  in the room.

5. I don’t tell anyone who comes up to me in the streets or in the beach where I am staying, what I do for work, or that I have a computer. I do not want to seem any more worth robbing than any other hippie.

6. I try to stay out of bars late at night.

7. Don’t do, take, buy, carry, have anything to do with drugs.

8. I use caution as to who I enter into private circumstances with. This means getting into private cars, houses, walking down dark streets. Now, these private circumstances often lead to the sweetest moments in travel — there is no reason to travel if you are not going to make any friends and learn from people — but there is a line between being overly trusting and not trusting enough: finding this line is one of the true skills of travel.

None of these procedures will outrightly prevent theft — this is not really possible — but they will inhibit theft. It is my strategy to lower my chances of being robbed down to the point that a thief will choose an easier target and leave me alone.


Places often seem secure until you are robbed.This is one of the great paradoxes of world travel. You can easily walk around a place freely for a week or two, proclaim it safe, and then get a knife to your throat. I know that it is possible that I could walk up and down beach of Zipolite for ten years and have nothing happen to me — many people do. But many are also robbed, and knowing that this potential always exists is a major part of preventing it from happening. Few places in the world are secure, and all should be approached as I do Zipolite.


Added on January 1, 2011

I greeted an acquaintance from the USA  in the street yesterday in Zipolite. She is of solid stock, but is fully gunning for the “Zipolite experience” while on vacation. She is exploring the boundaries of spirituality, intoxicants, campfires on the beach, Mexican boys too, perhaps  — having the typical run through this town.

She told me that she lost her camera.

“How did you lose it?” I asked.

“Oh, I was clumsy and left it sitting by a fire.”

This was all that needed to be said. She lost all the photos from her trip to Mexico, lost her camera.

It is a real buzz kill to worry about being robbed when having fun, but I am sure that it is even more of a buzz kill to BE robbed.

It is my impression that 90% of tourism theft is “by opportunity.” If you give someone the opportunity to steal from you, they will often do it. It is easy to prevent 90% of theft when traveling.

Filed under: Travel Safe, Travel Tips

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3705 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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19 comments… add one

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  • Bob L December 24, 2010, 4:16 pm

    I received some of the same advice from the place I stayed at when I was there many years ago. The American owning the place told me all the stories, including his observations of individuals that he had known since they were boys. Saying basically, that when they were young, they would be carrying stolen stuff, but as they got older they were more likely to be seen carrying cases of oranges for a real job. Of course, they were replaced with a new generation of lowlifes. I was also warned not to walk out on the highway, as if there was no one around that theft was highly likely.

    I tried leaving my motorcycle in the courtyard with the metal side bags on. He did not want me leaving them on the bike, even if they were empty, as it would invite undesirables into the courtyard to check them out. He felt the locked up motorcycle was safe enough though. Thieves generally go after what is both easy to get, and easy to sell. A big motorcycle in an area where there are few of them is neither easy to steel nor easy to sell. I read a story of a rider that had his bike stolen, I think it was in Central America. The thief did not know what to do with it, so he rode it around and to the next town. A local who is known to everyone as a low life riding a $10,000 bike kinda stands out. The police tracked him down in a couple of days.

    Often, when out in a city I have to keep reminding my girlfriend not to leave anything out on the table that she is not willing to have stolen, especially when sitting at a cafe table right on the sidewalk. It is far too easy to feel comfortable about a place when you are having fun.

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 25, 2010, 12:36 pm

      Very true, it IS far too easy to feel comfortable when you are having fun. This is the turn key of beach towns, and why I have found them to be exceedingly insecure and sometimes dangerous. But if someone keeps their head on their bodies, Zipolite or most other beach towns like it become as safe as anywhere else. I don’t feel threatened at all here, and it is my impression that most people who have problems just do not want to concern themselves with such worldly things as safeguarding their possessions enough to bother.

      It is my impression that 80% of theft is invited. The other 20% there are ways to try to minimize.

      It is funny what you wrote about thieves becoming regular workers when they grow older, it is true.

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  • craig | travelvice.com December 24, 2010, 4:19 pm

    there are far too many people on this beach with joints and no lighters than probability would allow for.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 25, 2010, 12:30 pm

      It is funny, they just walk up and down the beach looking for people to smoke up. I guess this is great for some tourists, but experience has taught me to view patterns like this with suspicion.

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  • Andy Graham December 25, 2010, 1:57 am

    Well Wade, somebody needs to go to Ziplite. I was in Puerto Escondido, my German girlfriend at the time “needed” to go to Zipolite so she separated from me and visited. There is a voyeur attraction to seeing the more wild people on the planet in action. I have no desire to participate, although I enjoy observing.

    I have heard many travelers talk of the Burning Man Festival, and I think to myself, are they going to become the person to watch, or are they going to the person who watches the extreme behaviors.

    Are you the one who says, “She me your T—i—ts?”
    Are you the girls showing?

    I am not comfortable when I am surrounded by scoundrels who say they are like me or my friend, now I do truly enjoy being in chaos, the feeling of being out of control is where I become a natural. However, the idea of searching for proactive idiot is not my desire, there are people who want to become idiots, and there are people born that way. I hate to use the word, but there is deviant behavior, or people who are outside the norm, within this group theft and anti-social behavior thrives. The number of tattoos on your body Wade qualifies you as a person who is outside the norm, however amazingly you do not fit into any easy to define stereotype that normally accompanies the tattoo crowd. And for sure your wife feels to me very conservative.

    Have fun in Zipolite, take care not to use word of about how they dress or the lack of bathing suits, google keys in on these words an adsense will not show.

    Living outside the fire, I have been writing often about human violence on my sub-category Adventure Blog.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 25, 2010, 12:22 pm

      Yes, this Zipolite place is interesting. Truly is not too bad on the beach during the day — lots of families, normal vacationers — and I usually go in relatively early at night. I have seen this scene so many times before that I know that I don’t really enjoy sitting idly on a beach at night listening to people playing drums. But a lot of people here seem to be in a different persuasion than I: they have not seen this before, and they want to watch, feel part of a group, feel as if they are pushing their personal boundaries.

      Ultimately, it seems as if most are having some kind of life experience before they go home, back to the “real” world — though some stay to become scoundrels.

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  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell December 26, 2010, 6:38 am

    Hi Wade. You’re right. Way too many sifters in these places. I stayed a few amazing, wasted days with my Mexican girlfriend in 2009 and had great, romantic holiday within our CAm journey. Recommend the front rooms of a multi-storied guesthouse run by old American, Daniel. Secure. Free number and cookies. Amazing balcony hammocks, view, and wi-fi in room. Might be worth your while checking it out.

    the candy trail … nomadic across the planet, since 1988

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 26, 2010, 2:31 pm

      Yeah, this place is really beautiful, but, man, just too many deep inner urges coming to the surface for me haha.

      Do you remember the name to that guest house? I’ve been sort of hearing about this old American’s hotel from many people but nobody has yet pointed out what one it is. I thought I’d cased all of these places, but I think maybe this one got away from me.

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  • Bob L December 26, 2010, 11:03 pm

    I suppose there is a reason I keep personal notes. Here you go, from my personal notes from 2003. Daniel was in some ways a lunatic, a likable lunatic. I really liked how he handled a few locals that were bothering his guests. Just enough macho to show them he meant it, just enough uhhh brotherhood????? to let them save face. His baseball bat was not used, nor was the locals broken bottle. Everyone left smiling, like crocodiles. I felt like I was getting the straight shit from him. He gave me all the advice that I considered proper, such as DO NOT accept pot from anyone on the beach ( not my thing, but it still helps with security to know such things) and where to go, what to watch out for and what was OK.

    The Brisa Marina, Playa Zipolite, Brisamarina@prodigy.net.mx 958-58-43193 Daniel Wiener, owner.

    Not sure if this is the place, or if the same guy owns it, but a google search will bring up his name. Not sure how current that info, or my info is or how relevant.

    I would not consider him OLD though. 8^)

    It’s been 7 years, and I did not scope out any other place other than asking a few Q’s about a resort hotel, but from my limited research, this place was a good deal. There were some very long term travelers there (longer than you Wade) which made me think that at the time it was a good deal (what they paid, not necessarily what I paid)

    Bob Old L

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    • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell December 27, 2010, 7:26 am

      Yeah Bob, that is the one! My info valid as of Sept 2009

      – MRP

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 27, 2010, 1:33 pm

      Haha, yes, we have been looking at this place for the past two weeks asking each other, “Did we check this place out?” “I’m not sure, I thought so.” I think this place slid between our fingers in our hotel search haha.

      Yes, it does seem like a long term traveler’s haunt, and, from the clientele we see going in and out of there, does not look too expensive. Funny, will head over there today.

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      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 30, 2010, 9:31 pm

        Just move into Brisa Marina, met Daniel, drank coffee. This place is truly excellent. .

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  • Dave from The Longest Way Home December 27, 2010, 1:33 am

    Best way to avoid the stoners, don’t smoke. I have about as much interest in conversing with a stoned would be hippie on a beach as a rock. Listen to them cuss you afterwords but your gear is safe as is the cleanliness of your hands.

    Good advice about the room. I double check windows and doors all the time. You wouldn’t believe the amount of windows I have found “stuck” or broken etc. A hotel offering you a room on the cheap with a broken door is not worth it.

    Sadly the only solution to all this is to carry a bad around all the time. Which is in itself a bad idea. Either that or stay at the ritz.

    I’m kinda happy to see drunk, stoned and new backpackers though. Because they do leave all their gear out and on show. Cameras, laptops, phones the list goes on. I’m the angry looking guy glaring at anyone eyeing me up and down for more than a second. The eyes soon make there way over to the prizes of the people ignoring the eyes.

    Unsociable no. I call it selective social-ability.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 27, 2010, 1:41 pm

      Good advice here — look for those looking you up, shut them down, show that you are not an easy fix. It is rather simple to stay in tact when in the smokescreen of so many others who are all over the place.

      Selective social-ability is a good way to put it.

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      • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 30, 2010, 9:33 pm

        Also well put about how other travelers who are not so careful with their belongings creates a smokescreen of theft that allows other travelers to not be robbed. It is my impression that thieves select the easiest targets.

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        • Bob L December 31, 2010, 9:56 am

          But doesn’t that also encourage more thieves to visit the area making theft more likely, even if you are careful?

          Bob L

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          • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 31, 2010, 10:08 am

            Perhaps — I am sure the rate of success calculates into how many thieves there are in a given area — but where there are tourists there will always be people looking to give away their things. It seems to me as if there are natural limits on things like theft: if there were too many thieves they would be in competition with each other, the police would have to up their presence of too many people were being robbed, the bottom of the market would fall out. Haha, it is funny to talk about theft as if it is a business, but I suppose it is.

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          • Bob L December 31, 2010, 11:17 am

            The Laws of Supply and Demand, when free trade is left alone to find it’s natural balance. I suppose if the cops did not show up to lessen the amount of theft, then fewer people would go there, and those that did would be more careful, and the thieves would starve.

            An interesting concept.

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            • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com December 31, 2010, 12:09 pm

              Right on, if almost everything within reason is left to its own devices it will eventually default to some sort of balance. Problems come when people think they can restack the cards of natural law. There are some good lessons to be learned in Zipolite haha.

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