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Tourists and Touts in Guatemala

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 [...]

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

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 88 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3443 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech Republic

19 comments… add one

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  • craig | travelvice.com August 20, 2010, 3:51 pm

    I can’t recommend enough to people arriving in cities to push past all the BS upon arrival and move away from the transport area as fast as possible – don’t answer any questions – opening your mouth even to say ‘no’ is engaging them in conversation.

    The ideal person to ask for help/directions is a neutral individual that stands no way to profit from the advice they’re giving you. Ask the bus driver. Ask the clerk who issues tickets. …walk down the street and buy a sweet for few cents and ask the woman vending them out of her cart. These are the people you want to speak with.

    Take note, however, that face-saving is omnipresent around the world, and many folks would rather point you in the wrong direction than say they don’t know the answer.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 20, 2010, 11:45 pm

      This is good advice, and is usually the best thing to do. Sometimes you have to tell them to f’ck off though. It is unbelievable how many tourist use these touts though. I watch the touts leading their catch through the streets all the time — and this is in Livingston, a city that only has two main streets and for anyone with a half hour to spare would never require the use of a guide in any manner,

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  • Caitlin August 20, 2010, 10:20 pm

    Man, I think that Eastern Guatemala is tons different than Xela… I never really had any problems with touts where I was. Even Lake Atitlan and Antigua aren’t that bad – there certainly people on the street that want to give you tours, but they will never follow you around and intimidate/hassle you.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 20, 2010, 11:37 pm

      The ways are a little different here. I agree with you about never being hassled anywhere else in Guatemala. If you tell someone to leave you alone they tend to look at you with big eyes and split. In Livingston, the culture is a little different — we are just a tick from Belize and the people are completely different than the rest of Guatemala. They keep you on your toes, but, in the end, are not too scary.

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  • Paulo Martins August 20, 2010, 11:54 pm

    ...I was saying goodbye to another beautiful place...

    It seems that the Shepard entourage is leaving soon.

    I was looking forward to see you again before you guys fled Livingston, but it will be another 4 weeks in Mexico before I head back, so I just want to bid you adieu and wish you good luck on your onward journey.

    As Vera Lynn used to sing:


    We'll meet again, I don't know where and I don't know when.
    But I KNOW we'll meet again one of these good ole sunshiny days. Ya know, all ya gotta
    do is just keep on smilin' through you know just like you ALWAYS do, until the blue skies
    chase the dark clouds far, far, far away.
    I wantcha to do me a favor, please say "Hello" to all the folks that I know.
    Well, just tell 'em it won't be long. They'd be happy to know that I was standin' right here, singin' this song.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 21, 2010, 10:46 am

      Yeah, we will probably be moving on soon. We told Carlos that we were ready to go almost three weeks ago, and he seemed to have taken measures for it. Our visas are up in six days, so I suppose we need to split before then. Life is still good here though — overall — and I find myself hesitating to walk out the door.

      We should be going to Mexico — San Cristobal — so maybe we should meet up as we cross paths.

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      • Caitlin August 21, 2010, 10:58 am

        Oh man you are going to San Cristobal?
        I can’t wait to see what you write about it. I love San Cristobal – it’s lovely and I’ve been four times – but I’ve never seen more full-of-shit foreigners concentrated in one place before.

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 21, 2010, 1:54 pm

          You mean the “I wanna be a revolutionary when I grow up” sect? I’m ready for them.

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          • Caitlin August 21, 2010, 3:40 pm

            How long are you going to be til you pass through Mexico City? Or are you going to make San Cristobal a hub for awhile?

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            • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 21, 2010, 10:36 pm

              Don’t know yet. Right now I just need a WIFI connection to work on Vagabond Journey full time for a month. Don’t really care where I am at haha. Do you know of an apartment in Mexico City for around 300 USD a month with WIFI? This may be pushing it haha. If you answer in the affirmative you wil be seeing us soon.

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              • Caitlin August 22, 2010, 11:40 am

                I guess that depends… do you need a whole apartment to yourself or are you willing to live in a room and share other facilities with other people?
                I know there’s a place called Hostal Virreyes that rents rooms from about 250 dollars a month… it’s not in the nicest area of town but it’s supposed to be a nice place to stay. You’d get your own bathroom but not your own kitchen.

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              • Caitlin August 22, 2010, 11:42 am

                I’ll ask around though…

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      • Paulo Martins August 21, 2010, 12:39 pm

        Hmmm. I guess I can pop down to San Cristobal en route to Guatemala…:-D

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  • Chris August 24, 2010, 4:20 pm

    Hi Wade,

    I’m living in northern Baja Calif, Mexico where the family has offered me my pick of a couple beach houses in a gated community. Thirty min drive past the Frontera with San Diego, just past Rosarito Beach about 20 kliks @ K42. Kind of just fell into it and it’s gr8. Got a gym, sauna, jacuzzi and pool, good surf and a fully equipped house rent free. Extremely beautiful and will probably stay here several months and return whenever I need to escape hurricanes and erupting volcanoes. You know the drill. I’ll try and run by y’all in another space. Don’t know where I’m going maybe come October but the southern hemisphere starts to get nice then and they tell me there’s a little beach town in Brazil near Uruguay that’s got my number.

    Have fun in Chiapas

    :-] Chris

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 24, 2010, 11:01 pm

      That sounds great. Would really like some of the luxury life now. Good on ya. Should be in Mexico for the next month or two. If we cross paths let’s meet up.

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      • Chris August 26, 2010, 5:31 pm

        You can be my guest up here in northern Baja for a week or two. Offer good at least through October.

        You still have my email addy? “hotspringfreak…” Same handle on Skype.

        – Chris

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        • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com August 26, 2010, 9:04 pm

          Sounds good! We are not moving too fast these days though. We will have a turtle chasing turtle match around this hemisphere haha.

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  • Robert D'Avanzo May 27, 2012, 5:42 pm

    I stayed at the beautiful Finca Tatin several months ago and was picked up at the Buga Mama like you mentioned. (Paulo was really helpful). Although I had been to Guatemala before, it was my first visit to Livingston and I was a little nervous after all I had heard. So when I arrived in Livingston by boat from Puerto Barrios I ignored anyone trying to “welcome” me to town. I felt sort of badly ignoring someone making a friendly greeting. But, lets face it, chances are good they want your money.

    Normally I would not use a tout, although the one time I made an exception it worked out OK. I had arrived in a town in Guatemala near nightfall and didn’t know of any hotels or hospedajes. I was tired and the bus station area looked like the pits with no hotels in sight. So when I got off the bus and someone asked “Hotel?” I said yes and he brought me to a nice place a few blocks away. I wound up paying a little more because I used the tout’s services. I think it was just a dollar or so above the normal price. I am NOT suggesting people use touts!!!! Thanks for the article! I think you and your family are wonderful!

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    • Wade Shepard May 29, 2012, 7:04 am

      Thanks for this comment (and all the others)! Pretty much I just tried to learn as much as I could about the area and the people and animals there. But this sort of takes much more time than anybody who’s going to be there on vacation is going to have, so I understand your position.

      Right on, in a tight bind touts can be helpful. But when the sun is shining in the sky and you have a game plan for a place it’s best to do what you did in Livingston and just walk right by. Sometimes their service is worth paying for, most of the time it’s not.

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