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Travelers Invite Theft

FINCA TATIN, Rio Dulce jungle, Guatemala- The below photo is of an unattended money belt left sitting out in the common area of a hotel. Its owner is on the other side of the room, playing ping pong in a place where she does not have a clear view of her valuable possessions.

I stood there looking at the unattended money belt, and had no idea what its owner was thinking. No, I know exactly what she was thinking: nothing.

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FINCA TATIN, Rio Dulce jungle, Guatemala– The below photo is of an unattended money belt left sitting out in the common area of a hotel. Its owner is on the other side of the room, playing ping pong in a place where she does not have a clear view of her valuable possessions.

I stood there looking at the unattended money belt, and had no idea what its owner was thinking. No, I know exactly what she was thinking: nothing.

Unattended money belt in a hotel common room

.It is amazing to me how many travelers invite theft and then blame the thieves, or the cultures, countries, establishments they were robbed in. Many travelers, apparently,  expect that they will not be robbed so they make few preparations to prevent theft. In fact, they seem to invite it. When they are finally robbed they gasp in shock:

“How  could someone do this to me?”

They seem surprised when their number is called.

This girl who left her money belt sitting out at the Finca Tatin was not robbed, nobody touched her unattended valuables. My wife, Chaya, breast fed next to the money belt, I took a photo of it, and many people walked by without giving the apparatus that was probably full of money, credit cards, and passports nothing more than a passing glance.

The Finca Tatin is a relatively secure place, it is not the kind of place where you expect to have things stolen from you, so, it is the kind of place where you can become a little lax with safe guarding your own security.

It is simple to prevent 90% of all theft when traveling. A few simple procedures removes the necessity to tax your mind with security questions. I never ask myself: “Do I think this place is secure?” “Do I need to lock up my bag here?” “Should I make sure that all of my valuables cannot easily be stolen?”

No, I don’t ask these questions. I want to travel to enjoy myself, I don’t want to think about being robbed all of the time. So I have a standard operating procedure that I do in all circumstances — both secure seeming and sketchy.

  1. I lock my valuables into my messenger bag with a padlock, affix the bag to an unmovable object with a bike lock, and make sure that my hotel room door is always locked when I am not in it.

The Finca Tatin is a pretty secure, safe seeming hotel. I did not think for a minute that anyone was going to break into my room and steal from me. The thought did not even cross my mind:

But I still locked up my valuables.

The military invented something called a standard operating procedure for a reason, and it is because they know that people cannot be relied upon to see the future. Safe seeming situations only seem as such until you find yourself in danger, a place is secure all the way up until the point that you are robbed.

I do not want to worry about being robbed, so I prevent against it in all circumstances: I treat safe situations as I would sketchy ones, I do the same procedure, go through the same routine all the time. I lock up my passport, money, debit cards, computer in my room.

I can still be robbed, of course — it would only take a minimum amount of effort to break into my hotel room, slice my bag open with a knife, and take everything. But I can only do what I can do, I am not going to travel in an armored car, I am not going to worry about my possessions — to do so would ruin the travel experience.

I was called out on my standard operating procedure against theft by my friend, Pablo, at the Finca Tatin. We were talking about riding a bicycle across Central America and camping on the sly.

I found myself saying, “You have to be careful where you camp here.”

He called me out, “Why do you have to be careful here, shouldn’t you be careful everywhere?”

I did conversational battle and backed up my point, but I knew that he was correct. I was acting like I could size up a place, I was acting like I could tell the future. A safe place only seems safe until it is proven to be dangerous, a dangerous place only seems dangerous until nothing happens to you there.

When I was in Livingston, a girl staying in a dorm room had her money belt stolen (Read Hotel Theft in Guatemala). She probably left it out unattended or unlocked in her bag. She was very upset with the hotel: how dare they trick her by making their hotel seem so secure that she feels free to leave her valuables laying around to be stolen?

Theft is often 90% the traveler’s fault.

I was robbed once in Santiago, Chile. It was in 2002, I was young, and a touch thick headed. I had yet to learn a few of the important lessons of travel. I was comfortable in the Santiago, I had been there for an extended period of time, I had friends there, I thought that I could walk through a park in the middle of the night and not be robbed. I thought wrong. A safe seeming place all of a sudden became dangerous when a knife was put to my throat.

It is my impression that it is often vastly easier to be robbed in a safe seeming place than it is a dangerous one. I have heard of more travelers being robbed in Costa Rica than in the whole of Central America put together.

Follow your standard operating procedures, safety and danger are only illusions until something happens to prove your circumstances otherwise. The girl who left her money belt sitting out at the Finca Tatin was not robbed, and, apparently, her illusion still stands that she can leave her valuables sitting out and nobody will steal from her. Luckily for her, she is 95% correct. But that 5% chance is ever looming on the horizon.

The girl in the hotel in Livingston ran out of chances. Hopefully the girl that left her money belt sitting out in the common room will run out of chances as well. Lessons can only be learned through mistakes, and knowledge gained from mistakes often are worth more than the immediate loss.

I am a lucky man that I was robbed in that park in Santiago.


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Filed under: Central America, Danger, Guatemala, 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 3720 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

6 comments… add one

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  • Mike Crosby April 7, 2010, 10:24 pm

    “I am a lucky man that I was robbed in that park in Santiago.”

    Good point Wade. It wasn’t good at the time, but you learned. And you’re teaching me.

    When I go places I realize (after reading your post) how lax I am at times. I’ll take what you say to heart.

    I was wondering. What do people do, when travelling by themselves, and don’t know anyone, and their possessions are stolen?

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 7, 2010, 11:10 pm

      I really have no idea what people do when traveling alone who have most of their money and identification stolen. I assume they spend their last pennies on a phone call home.

      It does happen that people do loose everything sometimes when traveling. It can happen at any time. The best a traveler can do is to prevent easy theft, but stout, overpowering theft can sometimes be almost unavoidable.

      If it happens, I guess you just call home for a plane ticket and a Western Union transfer.

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  • Sam April 8, 2010, 12:29 pm

    I was recently in a situation where I had lost everything while traveling. I was traveling in the US but I had lost all forms of ID, credit\debit cards, money, keys (house & car keys). Wade is right in that it was huge learning experience in how to keep a standard operating procedure whenever you travel.

    In such a situation where you are hundreds or thousands of miles from home you will be amazed at your own resourcefulness and the genrosity of others. In my experience I found it relatively easy to get help from others. To do this I simply stated that my current misfortune were due to my own actions and not because of the person who stole from me. All forms of money and ID would never have been stolen from me if I didn’t set-up the opportunity for it to occur. By being honest to yourself and others in this type of situation I believe others can see that you are an honest person who is not trying to scam then that has realized the error of your actions and they will try to help you in any way they can. In my circumstance I had a flight out of town that same day I lost everything. I gave up trying to get anything back and figured that was a lost cause. I moved on with my life and hitched a ride back to the airport. At the airport I was able to get through security without an ID. Once in my home city I made some phone calls to get a ride home and had my landlord waiting for me with a spare key. It was a huge hassle and a day\experience I won’t soon forget. Thanks for the daily posts Wade! I enjoy them all.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 8, 2010, 5:30 pm

      Thanks for sharing your experience. It is often the stories that you will never forget that become the most valuable — way more so than anything you can loose.

      The times where you have had nothing are often those where you stand the gain the most haha.

      Thanks for sharing,


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  • Nath April 14, 2010, 5:48 am

    Its true, dude. I bet a healthy proportion the folks who get robbed or scammed abroad could have done more to safegaurd themselves or their valuables -im not saying that it would never happen to the most careful, or that it wouldnt have still happened to these guys had they taken more care, but there is generally always something more we can do.

    Leaving a money belt/wallet/shiny electricals etc out or leaving your door unlocked (some folks really do do that!) or not stashing your gear when you leave and lock your room is really upping the stakes bigtime. Its not a matter of if yr gonna lose something, its a matter of when.

    Its a fine line though, you can’t be too cautious and untrusting either – cos thats just gonna impinge on your enjoyment. Tricky one.

    Cracking post Wade

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com April 15, 2010, 12:09 am

      Right on, Nath,

      Much theft, in my opinion, can be simply avoided, but your point stands: you can’t be too cautious or else you stand to miss part of the great affair of traveling: meeting people, doing new things, and stepping outside of your comfort zone.



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