We wrote before about our top 10 travel scams in South-East Asia and although many of them weren’t particularly dangerous, they were all quite annoying and had the potential to lose you some money.
Some of these occur worldwide and also applied to our trip in Latin America, but there were also other scams we’d heard of or experienced and the threat of much more dangerous situations.
1. The mustard/bird poo scam
You’re walking along happily when out of nowhere a kind stranger informs you that you have something on your jacket that looks like bird poo. They happen to have tissues on hand and offer to help clean it off. Before you realise what has happened they have either removed your bag or gone through your pockets and they are off while you are still checking for remnants of poo.
We had a variation of this scam pulled on us in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil. We were walking along Copacabana beach when a shifty looking guy starts pointing at Seth’s shoe saying “Look, shit! Shit!” We look down and his brand new trainers are covered in a yellow looking liquid. Since we’d read about the scam we just ignored him and carried on walking to a nearby cafe to get some tissues. The guy had a shoe-cleaning kit and had obviously thrown the liquid (it was mustard) himself to get money for cleaning it off.
It’s horrible having something like that happen to you, sometimes it’s mustard, sometimes they spit, sometimes is it actual bird-poo. The best thing is to ignore the ‘kind helpers’ and walk away as quickly as possible.
2. The taxi meter scam
We wrote about this in Asia, taxis are notorious for ripping off tourists. From claiming the meter doesn’t work so they can charge a higher fixed fee, to rigging the meter so that the price rises at a much more rapid rate.
On this trip we finally experienced the rigged meter scam. We arrived by bus to San Jose in Costa Rica and were inundated with taxi touts at the bus station. Not knowing where we were, we went into the station for a few minutes before deciding on a driver that seemed ok. He was very talkative and distracting, but I noticed him press a button on the side of the meter and the fare started rising rapidly. I pointed and shouted in Spanish that the meter was going too fast and he started to panic, telling us an inflated fixed price to pay instead. We refused and told him to let us out but he said he would take us back to the bus station. Eventually we agreed on a lower price, as we were in a big city and didn’t want to be out the street in an area we didn’t know.
Just keep an eye on the meter at all times and if you notice something is up then call the driver out on it. Here it helps to know some Spanish, as English isn’t as widely spoken as it is in Asia. Another good tip for Latin America is Uber! Once we discovered that they operated in certain countries, we used nothing else and always had good experiences.
3. Express kidnapping
This is slightly more dangerous than your average scam and often involves fake taxis. You hail a taxi on the street in a city you don’t know and the driver drives you off to a remote part of town, pulls a gun and robs you of all your belongings. In another, more sinister version, somebody else gets into the taxi with a gun and they take you to an ATM to withdraw all of your money. They then hold you hostage for days while you systematically withdraw all of your savings. If you’re lucky you will get released at the end.
We were fortunate not to experience anything like this on our trip but it does come down to a lot of common sense. There are certain cities that you just cannot hail taxis in the street. A lot of drivers are unlicensed and work with criminals to target and rob not only tourists but locals as well. The best thing to do is either get your hotel to call you a taxi or use Uber.
4. The bus hijacking
You’re travelling by bus overnight, half asleep at 1am when the bus suddenly stops. Armed men board the bus demanding all of your belongings.
We’d heard stories of this happening in both Peru and Mexico. You can avoid certain routes that have had more cases of hijackings, but all it really comes down to is a case of bad luck. We took many overnight buses and each one was perfectly fine, the only time we felt slightly nervous was in Mexico. The buses stopped many times during the night but it was for police to get on and check the bus and its passengers.
If you research different bus routes, some experience more robberies due to mountainous terrain when the buses lose GPS signal, so try to choose another one. When a hijacking of a tourist bus happens people tend to panic, but if you consider the amount of buses that go overnight every day, there really is a low chance of this happening to your bus.
5. Scopolamine “Devil’s Breath”
A drug particularly common in Colombia, scopolamine is a powder either placed in your drink or blown into your face. We’d read some really scary stories about this drug, how it turns you into a zombie and you lose all your free-will, complicit with anything anyone suggests. People have woken up days later with no memory and empty apartments..only to be told they removed everything themselves.
We never saw anything like this nor met anyone on our travels that had experienced it. We found Colombia to be an incredibly safe and welcoming country.
Although it always pays to be careful with your drinks and not take anything from someone you don’t know.
Common sense goes a long way, but sometimes you just get dealt a dose of bad luck. Always take more precautions in the big cities.
Try not to walk around flashing your valuables and don’t carry large amounts of cash. Do your research about what areas to avoid
Don’t let the worry of being scammed or robbed take over your trip, you will meet some amazing, friendly and caring people in this incredible part of the world.
Have you ever been victim to one of these or have you come across any others? Let us know!