Getting Mugged While Hitchhiking in Peru
I'd been in northern Peru the past couple days recovering from altitude sickness in a little touristy beach town called Máncora, now I was waking up ready to head south on the long road to Lima, eager to see what would come along the way. Despite this eagerness and the enlightening way in which I woke up, I was about to experience the most unfortunate day of hitchhiking of all of my travels.
I checked out of the hostel which was coincidentally owned by a Couchsurfing host, Carlos, saying goodbye and thanks to him and goodbye to the Swiss girl I'd met at the Ecuadorian border getting into Peru. I then trekked the short way across town and over the bridge where my hitchhiking day began.
I stuck my thumb out and quickly yielded a ride from a pickup truck with a few guys inside, the one in the backseat next to me spoke the best English and we carried on for a while as we climbed the stretching desert that veered away from the ocean. They dropped me off up the road, but soon it was them again who picked me up along with another friend they'd picked up. We laughed and carried on until the next junction where they dropped me off for good this time.
As I waited for my next ride I could see a couple girls just down the road hitchhiking the opposite direction, likely to Máncora where I just came from. I watched as the cars and trucks passed them by heading north as other cars passed me heading south. I saw one van heading their way and guessed that would be their ride, sure enough it stopped and I watched them happily jump in and speed away.
My ride also came along shortly after, a guy saying he was going to Piura, the next big town, however he ended up dropping me off just south of it. Feeling a bit thirsty I paused in a small shop to rest with a juice, then walked back up to the main road to keep thumbing.
A taxi stopped for me, looking for money which sometimes happens while hitching, I explained that I was hitchhiking and didn't have money to go towards taxi rides. Right as he drove off another car pulled up behind him, I went to check out where this car might be going.
Three guys were inside, I asked if they were heading towards Piura and they said they were, so I hopped in the backseat on the passenger side. We chatted for a sentence or two and then it went quiet, sometimes that's the case with people who don't speak English and realize that my Spanish isn't stellar.
Well, about five minutes into the ride, as I was staring out the window lost in my thoughts, suddenly the guy who'd been sitting up front in the passenger seat had leapt into the back, sandwiching me in the middle between him and the larger guy to my left and the struggle began.
They were trying to hold me down, the guy who'd jumped from the front seat was pulling my hat over my eyes as I tried to squirm from their grasp.
"What the fuck?!", I shouted, still squirming and trying to think. I tried to lunge for the door handle to my left across the larger guy. Realizing how useless that would be I then thought to reach towards the front for the parking brake, by this point they were punching me in the torso whilst still trying to corral me.
I was pissed, in my head thinking of all the times I'd been asked about hitchhiking and how safe it was and how many times I'd responded that I'd had some weird rides and some border-line rides, but nothing truly aggressive or crazy throughout some five thousand plus rides around the world.
"Fuck, can't make that blanket statement anymore", I thought amidst the frantic turmoil.
I never reached the parking brake, instead the larger guy grabbed my neck, holding tight and choking me in a way that brought me back to childhood fights with my older brother.
I relaxed, they had me, he felt my surrender and released his grip.
"Que quieres?", I let out, finally thinking in Spanish again instead of the slew of "fucks" and "motherfucks" I'd been uttering previously.
They went for my short pockets first, literally ripping the pockets open as they grabbed my wallet and phone from each. The guy to my right kept pulling my hat brim back down over my eyes while the other looked through the wallet.
I didn't have much in there, I had less than ten dollars worth of soles (Peruvian money). In that moment I was obviously mostly upset about losing the expensive and useful phone and actually the wallet itself. It was just cheap silnylon, but I'd made it myself just a month earlier while working on my backpack prototype. I struggled to think of a phrase in Spanish to ask for it back.
They were chattering back and forth and began slugging me around the chest more frequently shouting "visa" along with other words I wasn't processing. Finally they ripped open the zipper fly in my shorts and I realized they were looking for a secret pocket. In the moment I thought by "visa" they were looking for my passport since it wasn't with my wallet, later I realized they likely meant credit card, since that too was absent from my wallet.
"Passporte?", I asked.
"Si!", they chorused.
I told them it was in my backpack and they began to dig through it. Now is when the biggest bummer of it went down.
The reason I didn't have any kind of credit or bank card was because I didn't have any credit or bank account. Usually, though, I would have had a debit looking card that was attached to my PayPal account (which worked in stores and ATMs like anything else), but the card expired just before I left the US and I wasn't able to coordinate getting a new one before I left.
This posed a problem, as I had just made a bunch of cash from the previous harvest season (actually the most I'd ever made), and while usually I would have put all that cash into my PayPal account, I instead held on to around $2,000 in cash so I could actually use it in South America and beyond.
This big stack twenties and hundreds, wrapped in various bags towards the bottom of my backpack, was all that was on my mind now as these bastards began rifling through. First they found my phone charger and cheap pair of ear bud headphones which seemed to excite them, fine. Next he found my passport and simply flipped through the pages, I guess just looking for any cards or cash I might have left between the pages, then he put it back. I hoped it would stay in the pack, I was nearly certain they'd take it and this was my other concern.
Then he kept digging and pulled out the plastic shopping bag... I hoped he'd dismiss it as trash, but no, he unwrapped and unwrapped until revealing the big stack and quickly slid it in his pocket, I'm not even sure if the others saw him.
We took a left turn down a bumpier road off the highway, then another turn, I kept trying to peek and the guy to my right kept angrily pulling my hat back down, rubbing the brim on my sun burnt nose. In Spanish I did my best to say, "You motherfuckers, you took so much from me, you gotta leave me with something. Something man, I gotta eat".
The guy to my left took some of the Peruvian bills from the wallet and slipped them in my left pocket. At least I wold have something.
Finally the car stopped and the guy to my right hopped out, I was told to follow. I grabbed my backpack and jumped out, that guy was was now in the back with the tailgate up. They quickly backed up and sped away laughing, hooting and hollering all the way.
I had some instinct to check the licence plate, but of course the tailgate was up and I couldn't see it. There'd be no going to the police or anything anyway, it would have been a waste of time.
I dug through my pack and sure enough my passport was still with me, some kind of relief amidst the rest of. My pocket was empty, though, he'd only pretended to slip some bills in. Greedy bastards. In one small pocket in my shorts I had two US silver dollars they'd somehow missed. That was it. No other cash, no cards, no phone, but I had my passport, so... cool.
A bus rolled up on the dirt road and I tried to flag him down to reorient myself as to where the main road was. He rolled by at first, but then stopped behind me and reversed back. I told the driver I'd just been mugged and asked where the main road was, he pointed the way he'd come from and actually gave me 5 soles in pity (just over a $1).
I walked back to the highway starting to process what had just happened. When I reached the road I by default crossed it and started walking south again, the direction I'd been going, but with my back to the traffic and thumb dragging along with lack of conviction. After a minute I realized I should stop and think about what I was doing.
I climbed up on the embankment, off the road; I was in the middle of nowhere at this point and the sun was setting. I thought about what it would be like continuing on to Lima as I was doing, continuing down to Chile, Argentina and the rest of it. Then I thought of Marilyn, splitting up with her in Ecuador, how she was supposed to be part of this southbound journey with me.
In the week since parting with her I'd gotten the sickest I'd ever been and now this, mugged for the first time in a fairly significant way. I felt like the universe was calling me an idiot, punishing me for being a fool. I'd had an electric blue eyed girl that loved me to death and I broke away from her out of bored frustration, now I was sitting in the Peruvian desert with two dollars, five soles, a teary eyed sunset and head full of indecision.
I had "digital" money, much more than usual actually, my PayPal money, but no way to access it. Conceivably I could transfer money to a friend or family member and then have them wire me money, I thought, but this would still involve getting online somehow as well as being creative with finding food in the meantime.
I didn't have my phone to poach WIFI, I didn't have money for an internet cafe either. I didn't have enough money to eat, I didn't have enough money to sleep. It wasn't gonna do me any good just sitting there whining about it. I was in a hole, I was just gonna have to dig myself out.
I came up with a better idea, which was to head back north to where I'd just come from. The hope was that I could get back to the hostel owned by Carlos the Couchsurfer and just hope that he'd be cool with me staying there a couple nights while I could come up with the best solution.
Without wasting anymore time I hopped back down to the road, now with my thumb pointing back north. I got a ride pretty quickly from a guy just heading to the past little town I'd been in, where the now-rich dickheads had picked me up, he dropped me there, but pointed me in a wrong direction which I walked in for only about a kilometer before asking a guy on a motorbike for directions again. He gave me a ride back on the right track, dropping me at the start of a tunnel he said was too long to walk through.
By this point it was dark. The entrance to the tunnel was not ideal, as there wasn't exactly room for any cars to pull over, the darkness wasn't helping either. I was starting to think maybe I could leverage my 5 soles and two dollars to get a ride somehow the extra 150km or so up the road to Máncora.
A car pulled over in the parking lot where I was pondering my situation and said he could take me to Máncora, but when I hopped in he said he would want 30 soles, I told him I had 5 and that was the end of that interaction.
So I just stood in front of the unlikely tunnel with my thumb out hoping for the best.
After several minutes a van stopped traffic and motioned for me to quickly hop in saying "Máncora, Máncora!".
I happily ran over and jumped in without hesitation. I had to find a seat, as the van was packed with other people... it didn't take long for me to realize this was clearly a paid passenger van. I was ignored by everyone and never explicitly told a price, I figured I'd just let it ride.
Sure enough, a couple hours later or so, after dropping people off along the way, we pulled off in Máncora while me and a couple other people got out. I was all "gracias gracias" as I stumbled out of the van, then promptly began walking off as the driver started helping the others with their luggage. It didn't take but a few seconds until he was shouting and crossing the street after me.
I told him the story of the "banditos" and showed him my torn shorts and empty pockets. He wasn't happy, but there wasn't much he could do. He stormed off back to the van, I turned and started heading for the hostel.
I arrived there and someone let me in, but Carlos wasn't there, he'd popped out for a minute, so I made my way up to the rooftop terrace to wait for him and see what would happen.
Finally he arrived, popping his head up the stairs smiling, but confused to see me again.
"You were right", I told him with a slight smile.
With him was a tall French girl staying there as well, I began to tell them the whole story of the day and what had happened. He had told me Peru was full of thieves before I left, that hitchhiking wasn't common, but I'd brushed it off like so many others warnings over the years.
Without hesitation he said I was free to stay as long as I needed, said there was a laptop I could use to get online and that the freezer was full of fish. For that he only asked if I'd help clean some rooms and serve some people breakfast, too easy.
I went to my room, alone with my thoughts, shocked and grateful all at once. Now I just had to think of what my next move would be. I didn't want to alert a bunch of friends or family until I had some kind of plan in place, an idea at least. The paypal to western union thing still seemed like a decent option, except not that sustainable. I thought a better idea would just be to find a way to get back to the US quickly and more easily remedy my PayPal and phone situation there.
I messaged Marilyn, I had to tell someone the story and she was the closest person to me. I told her what happened, that I loved her and how I figured the universe was laughing at me. She agreed.
In the morning I had to run to the bakery for bread and prepare a boring breakfast for some German couple staying at the hostel, after that Carlos had me sweeping and turning over a couple rooms, sorting laundry and a slew of other chores. His staff had flaked out and I guess I was doing everything now.
Once done with that I got back online to discover a message back from Marilyn with some good news.
There was an Australian staying at the hostel she was working at, six hours north in Ecuador, and he was taking a bus down to where I was. She was going to give him $80 to pass on to me, which would be more than enough to get by for a while. By this point I'd looked at flights and figured I could get a cheap one from Cartagena, Colombia up to Florida (as I still had digital money to arrange that). It was a long way away by land still, but I could make it easily on the $80 she was sending via Aussie-backpacker-mail.
I spent the next two days eating fish and rice, cleaning rooms, making breakfast and playing hostel tag with the Australian until finally tracking him down and grabbing the bills Marilyn had given him. By this point my next move had become clear and it would bring Marilyn back into the fold for a bit.
The idea was to head up to Cartagena where I could get the cheapest possible flight. It turned out that Marilyn had met a girl to trip around with for a bit who also wanted to meet in Cartagena, so we decided that we'd rendezvous again for one last blast together coming up through Ecuador and Colombia to the northern coastal city together.
It would turn into a mini-adventure of it's own, and also give us a chance to finally part on a slightly better note than we had on the Ecuador coast only a week earlier. I was excited to see her again, excited to get out of Peru, excited to move on.
I'd been mugged, lost my phone and thousands of dollars, but the adventure goes on. It always goes on.
March 4, 2015 to March 7, 2015