≡ Menu

Tourist Attacked by Canoe Pirate in Guatemala

Tourist Attacked by Canoe Pirate in Guatemala Places often seem safe until they are suddenly proven to be dangerous. You could probably walk through the world with your head in the clouds for a couple of years, proclaim it a safe place, call the news media or anybody else that says different naysayers, think yourself [...]

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

Tourist Attacked by Canoe Pirate in Guatemala

Places often seem safe until they are suddenly proven to be dangerous. You could probably walk through the world with your head in the clouds for a couple of years, proclaim it a safe place, call the news media or anybody else that says different naysayers, think yourself invincible — then you get a knife to your throat.

It is the places that seem safe that often prove to be the most dangerous. In a place that seems sketchy, your guard is up, you do not trust easily. I places where the local people look at you sideways, where they tell you at every turn to be careful, these places can often be traveled without incident: as you are ready for anything.

It is the places where the locals smile, where there are plenty of tourists, where you feel a sense of comfort and security — this is the kind of place where you are ripe to be railroaded.

Many travelers who come through the hotel where I am working in eastern Guatemala often remark as to how safe the country really is. They tell me how they were scared of coming after reading their guidebooks but now that they are here they realize that it is oh so safe. They laugh at the guidebook warnings. They are 99% justified in doing so, nothing will probably happen to them on their trip to Guatemala, but 1% will leave the country with a different impression.

Speaking relatively, speaking in accordance with statistics, Guatemala is not a safe country. Without including extreme exceptions, Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries in the world for foreign travelers. But it seems very safe, and it is easy to find yourself basking in the security of a zebra herd of other tourists.

Everything in Guatemala seems normal and friendly on the surface, but the underbelly of the country is very tumultuous: a sunny day kayak ride can turn into armed robbery in a flash.


A group of American girls left the finca this morning on kayaks. They were going to Livingston. Two of them were tall and blonde, the third was likewise branch-like but brunette. They appeared in everyway to be standard fare, sitcom worthy, young American women.

They paddled through the river together. But after setting out, one girl realized that she forgot her wallet. She returned to get it while the other girls paddled on ahead. Now alone, this girl returned to the finca, got her wallet, and then began the journey a second time towards Livingston.

This was not an extreme thing to do, many tourists, including tall, skinny, wimpy looking blonde girls kayak alone on this river every day. It seems very safe here, this place is proven safe for 99% of the tourists who come through here. I watch daily as people kayak to Livingston, kayak everywhere on the river without guides, alone. There is nothing to really fear, there are usually not any problems, the locals are friendly, tourists come her to play in the jungle, this place is safe.

But yesterday proved different for the blonde American girl kayaking alone. She rounded a bend that enters into the canyon, waved to a local boy in a small dugout canoe, and took out her camera to photograph an egret. She found herself being chased. The local boy in the canoe was after her.

The boy overtook her easily, grabbed her kayak, and pulled his canoe up flush as he began forcefully grabbing at the American girl’s possessions that were clutched between her legs. The assailant was armed with a knife, though he rendered it useless by holding it in the same hand as his oar. The girl tried to fight off the attack. The assailant tried to capsize her kayak. The girl grabbed onto the assailant’s small canoe for support, and as she struggled she noticed that the more she pushed down on it the more it would go beneath the river’s surface — the more it would fill with water. Thinking quick, the blonde American applied a big downward thrust to the nose of the assailant’s small canoe, and down it went.

The canoe pirate’s ship was sunk. The American girl got away.

“I looked back and saw him pouring water out of his canoe with a small cup.”

She later told me that a little farther down the river she passed by a group of boys in their early 20’s — the assailant’s peers — who called out to her. She added that one grabbed his crotch in her direction.

To the girl’s credit, she completed her kayaking trip, and she admitted that she was very scared during the attack but she would not hesitate to go kayaking again the next day. She recognized that she experienced an incident that was not really representational of the experience of most tourists here. She kept an even head throughout.


When you come to Guatemala you do not expect to be robbed — most people travel through here without incident — but it is something that you are generally prepared for. The kayaking girl did not take the event as being a complete travesty that shook up her conception of the country. It seemed as if she realized the risks of traveling here and evaluated them keenly. The next day she went hiking through the jungle, unshaken, unfazed. Maybe she learned something from the attack, maybe not.

It is my impression that I am not in a particularly dangerous part of the world. I feel as if I could kayak, hike, or swim anywhere here without incident. Almost everybody feels this way. The vibe here is not one of fear, it is not one of pensiveness, security questions are very rarely ever raised. It is not even a question if it is safe to kayak on the river, it is more than applied that it is. But this is what makes this place more dangerous.

There is very little rule of law in Guatemala. There are police but it is not my impression that they do much more than take bribes. They are essentially inconsequent. Worse yet, is that everybody knows this. Security in this country is actually maintained by community militias — I mean, “community organizations” — who take care of their own concerns. You do not call the police here and tell them that you were attacked — they would probably just find some way to extort money from you or prove themselves to be as useless as they really are — no, you call the community leaders.

Lynch mobs are the rule of justice here. Sometimes the police themselves are even lynched.

Guatemala is a crazy country beneath the surface. It is so easy to feel yourself secured from the lions in the midst of the zebra herd, there are many tourists and the chances of any one of them being attacked is slim. But tourists are attacked all the time here, the smiling and friendly locals are all too often counterbalanced with bandits with machine guns and boys in canoes armed with knives.

But it does not seem this way on the surface — if you walk through the streets of this country you rarely ever feel threatened, you feel safe until the moment something happens. Places are often safe until they are suddenly proven dangerous.

A standard operating procedure for travel security should never be breached, regardless of how secure and safe your surroundings appear to be. There is no such thing as dangerous and safe places — this is a dichotomy that just does not exist. All places are safe until proven dangerous. Some places have a tendency to be more dangerous than others, it cannot be denied that there is more of a chance of having security problems in Afghanistan than in Japan, but incidents can happen anywhere.

Hundreds of tourists have kayaked down the river to Livingston without ANY problems from the locals. They row by and everybody smiles and waves. But one tourists, at a certain time, found the river dangerous. The next day tourists went out in kayaks and found the river safe.

As usual.

Places are safe until they are shown to be dangerous.

Tourist attacked by canoe pirate in Guatemala

Guatemala Travelogue Entries | Guatemala Travel Guide | Guatemala Photos


The only way I can continue my travels and publishing this blog is by generous contributions from readers. If you can, please subscribe for just $5 per month:


If you like what you just read, please sign up for our newsletter!
* indicates required
Filed under: Central America, Danger, Guatemala, Intercultural Conflict, Rain Forests, Tourism

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 3717 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: New York City

4 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • craig | travelvice.com July 3, 2010, 9:14 pm

    I always carry a big shiny knife of my own.

    Link Reply
    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 4, 2010, 11:18 am

      Never know when a canoe pirate is going to come after you! Good move.

      Link Reply
  • The Longest Way Home July 4, 2010, 12:39 pm

    I like to make the first move. Usually puts them off. There’s times when you have to know how to react.

    20+ aged local guys are really annoying. If alone I usually walk right up to them and clear the stomping ground rules first. It’s their turf, I’m just the Alpha Male walking through, no territorial rights wanted.

    Only problem is if they have been drinking, then I don’t bother.

    But yes, a gawky American blond tourist may not be able to do that … though I do know a few dutch girls who have no problems asserting their Alpha female rights onto the local hoodlums.

    Link Reply
    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com July 4, 2010, 3:53 pm

      This is a perfect description of what I, too, have found is best to do. In this simple passage, you have compiled all the necessary information on dealing with aggression when traveling. If you act like the alpha-male often times you are not worth the challenge, it is when people think that you are weak and they can take whatever they want from you that problems arise. The girl did well, she sunk the pirate’s ship, she proved herself strong, she got away.

      Link Reply