How I was robbed in Guatemala and the lessons I learned

How I was robbed in Guatemala
The lessons I learned

By Bob Hansen

In Antigua, Guatemala, on January 13th ( my second day of a 17 day birding vacation to Guatemala and Belize), I was assaulted and robbed of my binoculars, digital camera, guidebooks, passport and money. Total value lost in about 40 seconds was $2,800. I was relatively lucky, as a British- American birder near Tikal a week earlier tried to flee a robbery and was shot and paralyzed.

As a result of this event and other events like it that were related to me, I decided to convey my story to others, particularly those birders who are considering a birding trip such as I planned to Guatemala. I had heard that going to the volcanos near Antigua, whether alone or in groups, was unsafe. I had not heard that birding in Antigua in daylight hours was unsafe. In talking to others since, I have heard mixed reports...some saying it is commonly known to be unsafe in this particular park, others saying it is unusual for a male to be attacked in daylight so close to residential area. As it turns out, it is recommended you arrange a police escort while birding the Candelaria Park on your way to the hill with the cross (Cerro de la Cruz).

It is not my intent to:

I am interested in sharing information, but I am not interested in getting into a debate with those who once went to Antigua 20 years ago, and found it safe then, have not been back since, but are sure nothing has changed. People who live there will tell you differently.

And finally, this was not my first trip to a foreign country. I was robbed in Costa Rica, at the Carara Reserve and I did not feel a need to alert others to the danger. I have spent more than two years travelling outside the United States, alone, much of the time in 3rd world countries from Bali to Nepal and India. I am familiar with how to survive alone on the road on the cheap. This was by far the worst experience I have had. With all this said, here is my account.

On January 12th, 2001, I arrived in Guatemala to start a two phase vacation. The first phase included evaluating various Spanish immersion programs, particularly in Antigua, Guatemala and leaving open the option of evaluating other areas as well. This trip was intended to scout the feasibility of taking a multi-week Spanish immersion program for half a day and then bird (or eco-tour) the rest of the day and on the weekends in the surrounding areas. The second phase of the trip included a return to Belize, specifically to experience the Coxcomb Basin Wildlife (Jaguar) Sanctuary, the coral reefs and wind surfing on the Caribbean (Caye Caulker and/or Placencia), and the Pine Ridge area.

On the day following my arrival in Guatemala, Saturday, the 13th, I decided to go birding and headed toward the northeast part of the Antigua where the map showed a river at the edge of town. Arriving at the river, I discovered a dry, concrete-lined LA style canal. Noticing a forested area nearby, I headed toward it going through an exclusive residential neighborhood on the way (and seeing Townsends Warblers, Blue-headed Vireos, Golden-cheeked Woodpeckers, Baltimore Orioles, Clay-colored Robins, Vaux Swift, and Black Vultures...all over high concrete walls protecting the residences).

Arriving at the forest I found an entrance to a natural park, with pine trees on both sides of the park entrance road. This is the type of birding experience I had planned to be a part of my Spanish immersion program . The sign near the beginning of the road read the Spanish equivalent of Candelaria Park, Welcome. I began walking up this road when a boy (12-14 years old) asked me in English "What time is it?". I responded in Spanish, " 8:38" and we smiled at each other. A few minutes and about 300 feet later, after watching a Black Vulture through my binoculars, I turned in the direction from which I had just come (which was down hill) and here were two Hispanic men about two feet from me, walking toward me, and one saying "dinero" (money), but not giving me a chance to offer them anything. They lunged at me and started attacking me and attempting to rip off my gear. I was wearing:

My first reaction was to breakaway by trying to run between the two of them. This resulted in a wrestling match, first on the road, then in the ditch, then back on the road. I thought I had seen a knife in the left hand of the person on the left, and I kept waiting to feel it enter my body, or hear a gun shot. It was really non-stop, topsy-turvy for about a minute as I clung to my gear out of instinct, and they attacked me and wrestled my gear from me. When they had the gear listed, they ran down the road about 20 feet, then over the bank and down the hillside to a residential area below. A car showed up just as they were leaving and attempted to help me locate the robbers, but to no avail. I was left to walk back to the police station at the Central Plaza and report the incident. My face was bleeding from several superficial abrasions. The robbers had their hands full with my property, so they really didn't have room (or time) for my wallet, especially given the car that was approaching the scene.

After reporting the incident to the police (who did not speak English, so we used the services of the next door Office of Tourism to make sure the details were understood), I attempted without luck to get a cash advance using my VISA card. The first bank I visited would not give me money without a passport.

Thinking that the dirt and blood on my face may cast some doubt on my use of a credit card with out a passport ( after all, I may have just robbed someone else of the card), I thought I might have better luck, cleaning up before going to another bank. As I looked into the mirror and turned the water faucet on, the room started moving and I feared I was going into shock from the incident. Then I realized there was an earthquake taking place, so without washing my face, I exited the hotel to join others on the street. This was about 11 am, and the 7.6 earthquake was centered off the coast of El Salvador, killing more that 400 people, 7 in Guatemala.

After cleaning up, I attempted to use either my debit card or VISA to withdraw money from an ATM, but the PINs are exclusively in numbers, whereas for my PIN in the states, I use a word. I did not know how to convert my alphabetic PIN to a numeric PIN. Calling VISA in the states did not help, as all they could suggest was canceling my old PIN and creating a new one. Finally, I found a bank that would give me a $100 VISA cash advance using my driver's license for photo identification, and providing them with my passport number. The passport I no longer possessed.

I also called the US Embassy in Guatemala City, and received support and instructions on how to proceed with getting my passport re-issued. The embassy staff was very helpful and supportive, given it was Saturday morning, and they had other incidents they were also addressing.

Monday was Martin Luther King, Jr holiday, so I had to wait until Tuesday to get my passport reissued. Wednesday I caught the daily United flight out of Guatemala and arrived in Los Angeles and finally Portland, Oregon. I probably would have continued my journey to Belize, however I was having a hard time finding binoculars ( I was willing to buy a good pair of used Swarovskis had I been able to find them).

Lessons learned:

  1. I don't think it is safe to bird alone in the tourist areas of Guatemala ( Antigua, Peten, etc). I have birded alone in Costa Rica, Belize, England, Southeast Arizona, Texas, Missouri as well as the Pacific Northwest and have never had problems. However, given the economic disparity, the value of birding equipment, and the history of violence (atrocities of civil war, abundance of guns in Guatemala, etc.), I simply think the odds are against escaping without being robbed. The week before, near Tikal, a British-American birder who was being robbed attempted to run, was shot and is now paralyzed.
  2. It is safer to bird in groups, but even groups are vulnerable. Buses going into Tikal have been shot at and hit, and public buses in other areas of the country have been stopped, the riders ordered off the bus and robbed. It is safer than birding alone, but still unsafe compared to other areas in the world.
  3. If you are going to go to Guatemala, I recommend the following:
    • carry no more money than you need for the day. Leave your credit cards, most of your cash, and passport in the hotel safe.
    • do not take expensive birding equipment, unless you can afford to replace the equipment. I have always taken my second scope to foreign countries, because it is easier to travel with, but now I will also take a less expensive pair of binoculars to 3rd world countries.
    • make a digital copy of your passport (scan it), and send it as an attachment to yourself before you leave the States. That way, if you have your passport stolen, you can go into a US Embassy open up your e-mail and the attachment (the scanned passport) on their internet access and print it out for their use.
    • check out your home owners insurance policy and determine if it covers stolen property and the deductable. Even though the loss of the robbery was about $2800, all but $750 of that loss is covered by my insurance. Had I only had $200 of cash lost, my total loss would have been $250.
    • Here are some additional, more comprehensive suggestions provided by Emile Combe ...who has traveled much more extensively and has proportionately more robbery experience and advice than I.
  4. It is true that one can be robbed anywhere in the world. The issue is one of probability. I had most the variables working against me.
    • I was alone.
    • I was a tourist visibly carrying optical equipment and other items which could be assumed to have significant value. I only reinforced that perception for the robbers and those with whom the robbers talked after they tallied up their take for the day.
    • I was in an area frequented by tourists ( in other words there is a steady "market" of folks, from all over the world with assets worth taking, visiting certain areas in Guatemala)
    • I was on foot. I also have heard at least one account of a driver ( someone living in Guatemala) car being stopped, removed from his car and executed, and the car then stripped and set on fire.

    It is my sense that whether you analyze my experience mathematically, or philosophically, it was either highly probable or destined.

  5. Before going anyplace else in the world, particularly 3rd world countries, I will look at the United States Department of State web site for country specific reports on travel conditions. That web site is

Twenty years ago I traveled around the world alone for nearly two years, and had no problems. In most areas in the world, I think that is still possible. However, in some areas, I think the rules (of engagement or travel) have changed, and one must be cognizant of those rules if one is to continue the journey safely.

I hope this information has been useful to you. It would have been helpful to me.

Please let me know if you have additional questions or comments at