Warning: this is a long article. I wanted to write about what happened when my wife and I were victims of distraction theft in Buenos Aires, the consequences of it, and how we’ve been trying to get past it. There was a lot to cover. But if you’re a traveller and don’t have the time or stomach to get to the end, I would say that the most important piece of advice I can give is to make sure you have a photocopy of your passport and a spare bank card stashed away somewhere safe. We did, and it saved our trip.
We were only planning to be in BA for one day, and our mind was in other places. We were ten weeks into our travels, and had already visited several cities, some with worse reputations for petty crime than the Argentine capital – Lima and Cusco in Peru, La Paz in Bolivia, Santiago and Valparaiso in Chile. We had read a lot about scams against tourists and were well aware of the tricks that can be played, and how careful you need to be in some parts of South America, and indeed many cities of the world. In La Paz, we were told about the very scam that eventually befell us in BA. The fact we still became victims shows just how professional these criminals are.
Our plan was to have a 24-hour stop in BA before getting a bus up to Iguassu Falls and heading into Brazil. We were nervous about Brazil – talk in travel circles was that violent crime was on the rise, and it might not be safe.
This was the setting as we arrived at the Retiro bus terminal at 9am on a Sunday morning, absolutely shattered after a long overnight bus journey from Mendoza. There was a light drizzle and we pondered getting a taxi to the hostel, but decided to walk seeing as it was only half an hour away.
Emerging from the station we started walking along the edge of Plaza San Martin, a large park. It was busy, there were lots of people around and we felt safe. Our guard was completely down.
I was walking in front of Lisa, and suddenly she exclaimed: “Alex, you’ve got bird shit all over your bag”. We stopped a second, and sure enough, there was a foul substance down the back of my rucksack. It was on Lisa’s, too. I looked up and saw that we were beneath trees.
We wondered what to do and walked on a few steps. Suddenly a woman appeared alongside us, saying she had seen what had happened. She seemed very sympathetic and helpful. I pointed to the trees and said “pajaros” (birds). She made a sympathetic gesture and fished a bottle of water out of her bag and some tissues.
Conveniently we were next to a bus shelter, where we could stop and deal with the situation. Then, everything happened in a matter of seconds.
Our big rucksacks were on our backs, and our small day bags, in which we kept our valuables, were on our fronts, as usual. In order to get to the rucksacks to clean them, we had to take the small bags off. The moment we did that, the woman made her move to distract our attention.
Passing me a tissue, she grabbed hold of me and pulled me around to clean Lisa’s bag, spinning Lisa around at the same time. In that brief moment we weren’t looking, somebody grabbed our day bags, ran to a taxi and sped away. We didn’t even see it happen.
Suddenly a man was tapping me on the shoulder and pointing to where my day bag had been. I realised instantly what was happening, and panic struck. I hadn’t seen the snatch, so I asked where the perpetrators had gone. He pointed down the road.
We realised afterwards that this man was also in on the scam. While I chased down the road trying to see someone with our bags, someone else was trying to get Lisa to go in the opposite direction. They were trying to get our big rucksacks too. Thank the stars that Lisa was savvy enough in the moment to refuse and stay with the bags.
After a couple of minutes I realised it was hopeless and went back over to the bus station. Lisa was in tears. I was completely numb, frozen.
The gravity of the situation quickly dawned on us. EVERYTHING was in those bags. Lisa’s Macbook (with all of the photos from our travels so far). Both of our cameras. Our fucking passports. Our Kindles. The poem that had been written for us in Miami. The artwork we had bought from a local street artist in Valparaiso. Our bus tickets for the next day. Our bank cards, driving licences and ISIC cards. Quite a bit of cash. Our yellow fever certificates, which we needed to enter countries later on. Our travel sketchbooks. All of our remaining photo memory cards. Lisa’s bracelet from the tribe we met in the Amazon. Our security locks. Our plug adaptors and all of our charger wires. My water dispenser. Lisa’s coffee flask. Our sunglasses. And plenty more.
A couple of guys who had seen the situation unfold called some police over, who were stationed nearby in the park. The police asked what had happened and we did our best to explain with our limited Spanish and my translation app (my phone was in my pocket and so luckily didn’t get taken – it’s a survivor, that phone).
One of the policemen in particular was very good with us. He showed compassion and tried to calm us, telling us that everything would be ok. Another of the policemen told me that “you have to be careful in Buenos Aires”. Not so helpful. Anyhow, after 15 minutes or so a car arrived to take us to the station.
Our experience in the police station wasn’t great. We were asked to write down everything that had been taken. Still in shock, we did our best to remember what we could. We asked to use a mobile phone in the police station to cancel our bank cards. Then the long wait began.
“The worse thing is that they got my cigarettes”, said Lisa, breaking our heartbroken silence. We both burst out laughing.
An hour or so passed. No word from the police on what was happening. We felt scared and alone and trapped in a strange, unwelcoming city. Inevitably, I broke down into tears. It had to happen sometime. We had saved and planned for five years for this trip, and we chose to do it instead of the usual things people our age do – buy a house, have kids. I had quit a job I loved for it. Now the trip looked in ruins.
We decided that we were not going to let this break our resolve, come between us in any way or ruin our trip. Most importantly we vowed not to blame each other in any way for the incident.
After about two and a half hours in the station, the policeman who had been vigorously typing and making calls beckoned us over. He gave us a single A4 sheet, and told us we were free to leave. That was it. They had produced a report so we could make an insurance claim. We had to check it and sign, which wasn’t easy as it was in Spanish, and later we discovered that they had missed some items from the list we gave them.
We thought in the least that they might take us to our hostel or to the British Embassy, but no – we were told to make our own way. My phone battery was almost dead and we couldn’t access the internet anyway without wifi. After some pleading, they gave us some vague directions back to the bus station, and so off we went.
While in the station, we had checked what we had in the rucksacks that might be of help. Vitally, we found a plastic wallet with some important documents – including a photocopy of our passports – and an emergency credit card. It soon became clear that without these, we would have been utterly screwed.
Back at the bus station, we used the credit card to withdraw some cash. Scandalously, all bank machines in Argentina charge about £5 on every withdrawal for foreigners (something we haven’t encountered anywhere else), and impose a maximum limit of about £100. On top of this we had our credit card fees.
We went back to the kiosk where we had bought our bus tickets to Puerto Iguazu for the next day. Thankfully, they were very understanding and reissued us tickets for four weeks later, saying we could change the date if we were able to leave earlier.
As it was a Sunday the British Embassy was closed, and so we took a taxi to Rayuela Hostel, where we had booked to stay the night. This was where we met the hostel manager Rhys, from Wales, and the team of volunteers. We would not have been able to get through the weeks that followed without the help and support of these guys.
So there we were, at 1pm, unable to do anything to sort the situation until the next day. We dealt with it in the only way we know how: we got totally, utterly, mesmerisingly drunk. We started in a nearby burger bar recommended by Rhys, and then bought some cheap Argentinian wine to take back to the hostel.
During our binge we encountered one of the many problems that we were to face while waiting for our documents to be replaced. By law in Argentina, you cannot pay by card in shops without showing ID. Some places accepted our passport photocopies, but not all, and so we suffered frustrations such as filling a shopping trolley with food only to find we could not pay for it. This could have been avoided if we had kept some backup ID in our rucksacks (or even better, if we had just kept our passports in waistbelts).
I don’t think I have ever felt worse than I did when I woke up the next morning. The combination of paralysing hangover and resurfacing to the reality of the situation was soul-crushing. But now we had to get ourselves going.
We caught a bus to the embassy, which we hoped would be a welcoming experience that would quickly put us back on track. As it turned out, we were in for a long and frustrating day, and we were about to find out what an absolute mare of a shipwreck it is to lose your passport when abroad.
After lots of waiting, a consul came to the desk and presented three options to us. It was not the news we had hoped for – we had naively expected we would be able to have new passports issued at the embassy.
One option was to pay £100 each for an emergency travel document. This could not work for us as it could carry a maximum of five countries with specified dates. We still had 13 countries left to visit.
The second option was to order replacement passports from the UK, which we were advised would take about seven weeks. We were exactly seven weeks away from the next major flight on our itinerary, and in the time in between we were supposed to be travelling through Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.
The third option was to simply fly home and sort everything out in the UK. This was tempting, not least because we would be able to bask in the comfort of family and friends while sorting things out on familiar territory in our own language, but we quickly found out that it would be ruinous for our trip. The flights would cost thousands.
Thus, we decided to go ahead and order replacement passports, and wait it out in Argentina. With our police statement and passport photocopies we would be able to travel around the country if we wanted.
So we set about the mountain of admin required to get our lives and travels back in order. We spent all day in the embassy filling out forms, making payments and seeking clarifications. We traipsed to DHL and paid a fortune to have the passport applications shipped to the UK. They told us it was a two-day service – it took a week.
We re-ordered our driving licences (£20 each). Both of us had old addresses on our lost licences, and so we had to contact new occupants and old landlords to arrange for the replacements to be forwarded. We re-ordered bank cards and ISIC cards.
With the documentation admin out of the way, we turned our attention to the electronics we’d lost. Here we faced a dilemma. To our dismay, we discovered that Argentina is notoriously expensive for electronics due to heavy import taxes. Photography and blogging were among the biggest joys of our travel experiences. Should we pay a fortune for replacements now, or wait weeks, maybe months, until we reached somewhere cheaper? We decided that for our sanity, and a much-needed mental boost, we would go shopping.
Over several days, we slowly began replacing our valuables, lucky to be in a position to be able to do so having saved enough contingency budget in case of situations like this. It wasn’t only electronics that were expensive. We bought new day bags, a security lock and some sunglasses, paying over the odds for all of them. We found a laptop for £300 that wasn’t the best, but would serve for what we needed.
Finding a camera was tough. It seemed everything was at least double the price we would pay in the UK. Finally, we found a Nikon D5500 for £850, a similar model to Lisa’s that was lost. We looked online and found they cost £500–600 back home. Spending this much would mean we would need to significantly tighten our knuckles on the budget later on in our travels. We would need to learn to share a camera too, not easy when we’re both precious about our own photos! But it would also mean we could truly begin to move on. We forked out the cash.
The next issue to deal with was insurance. We were covered to some extent, but not a lot: the travel insurance package we bought was primarily to make sure we would be covered for any health issues, and so we could only reclaim for a small proportion of our cash, valuables and passport replacements. Luckily, Lisa had a separate policy for her camera that covered it in full.
Unsurprisingly, dealing with the insurance companies was a nightmare. Lots of small print. Ridiculous requirements. Endless forms. Terrible communications and customer service. We nearly caved in and gave up on the whole thing, but eventually we managed to put the claims in, with some vital help from our parents in handling correspondence and postage over in the UK. (We’re now a lot more picky when it comes to travel insurance – check out our recommendations here.)
Lisa’s parents were also an incredible help with getting our replacement cards and bits and bobs sent out to us. They dealt with all the shipments on the UK side and paid the exorbitant amounts for international postage.
It was the process of international postage that most grossly exposed how ridiculously bureaucratic many of Argentina’s systems are. I could write an article longer than this one describing the hoops we had to jump through in order to collect the packages in BA. After much time form-filling, chasing around town, waiting in queues, paying taxes and begging for sympathy, and with invaluable help from one of the hostel volunteers, we finally managed to receive everything. With hindsight, the best option would have been to send everything via DHL with receipts for all the items enclosed in the package, to make sure the taxes would be accurate.
Another matter to deal with was our yellow fever certificates. Rhys told us that there was a clinic in BA that gave the vaccination for free – Sanidad De Fronteras. Great news, as we had paid £85 each in the UK! At the clinic, our hearts dropped for a few moments when they told us we could not be vaccinated so soon after having it done back home. Amazingly, though, they just gave us new certificates.
We did our best to enjoy Buenos Aires. It was not easy to have fun in a city that had dealt us such a huge blow, but thanks to a great hostel, generous friends and a bit of will power, we did alright. In between the sorting we explored La Boca, Palermo and San Telmo. We went to a football match. We had some Argentinian steak. We played with the new camera. We saw great local live music. Best of all, one of our amazing friends paid for us to stay for two nights in a posh apartment. Slowly, our spirit was coming back.
Through all of this, though, was the constant feeling of paranoia, shame and dread. We both struggled to sleep and when we did, we had nightmares about what had happened. The panic attacks I started getting two years ago and had gotten under control through counselling returned. We were always looking over our shoulder and found it hard to trust anyone. We felt stupid. And we still faced the uncertainty of whether or not our passports would arrive in time to continue with our travels.
After a couple of weeks in the city, and with everything sorted that could be sorted on our side, we decided to head for a week-long escape in the lakes and mountains of Bariloche, in Argentinian Patagonia. This did wonders to clear our heads and help us feel like we were travelling again. Best of all, while we were away, we received the fantastic news that our passports had arrived at the embassy back in BA. It had taken just one week from when the applications arrived at HM Passport Office in London – this was after yet more help from some excellent friends, who sorted our photo varication and delivery to the office back home. With our new passports, we could truly, literally and figuratively move on.
I write this at the end of a whistle-stop tour of Brazil, three weeks after collecting our passports and reworking our travel plan. We managed a couple of days in Paraguay where we picked up a few more replacement items in the cheap shopping city of Ciudad Del Este, and we’re heading for two days in Uruguay en route back to BA for that next flight. We have been very lucky – things could’ve worked out much worse.
Unavoidably, since the robbery we have spoken about it with people we’ve met in hostels. This has often led to an exchange of stories about other crimes against tourists that people have either experienced or heard about on the road. Some of these stories sounded a lot worse than ours (I am planning to compile a few examples into a separate article later).
We are still not completely over it and probably won’t be until we fly away from South America to New Zealand next month. We’re still paranoid, nervous, and struggling to enjoy travelling as much as we were before. We now have a palpable sense of the violence and corruption that you hear so much about in South American countries, something we had not felt before the robbery. But every day we get stronger and things get better.
Above all, it was human kindness that dragged us through the whole sorry episode. The help from our parents and friends. The hostel staff. The travellers we met who helped out. The doctor who gave us the yellow fever certificate. And of course, our love and support for each other.
It’s hard to get away from the feeling that we were stupid. But this really can happen to anyone. All it takes is a moment off guard. In that long, frustrating day in the embassy, we met a guy from Scotland who had fallen victim to exactly the same crime. His friend had managed to take a picture of the woman who had duped them, and he showed it to me. Incredibly, it was the same woman from our encounter. This scam happens to people every single day in the city.
One final thought – it may be a good thing that we didn’t realise what was happening to us until our bags were gone, lest we might have resisted in some way. The strong advice for travellers is that if you do find yourself being robbed, do not attempt to put up any physical resistance: many perpetrators will not hesitate to get violent. One tragic example of this was a traveller from New Zealand in Mendoza, who held on when robbers on a motorbike tried to take his bag. They shot and killed him.
If you spot that you are being targeted with a distraction theft (e.g. you are splashed with some muck and someone is offering to help), the best thing is to just walk on and ignore it. But once you’re in a situation where you are actively being robbed or threatened, just let the stuff go. Your safety is more important than your things.
Hopefully this article will help people to spot the tell-tale signs, or to navigate the repercussions should the situation come about. If you are reading this and you do have any similar problems to deal with in Argentina, please feel free to get in touch with me via the contact page, and if there is anything I can do to help, I will.
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