In the realm of all possible experiences that a traveler abroad might have, being robbed at gunpoint is one of the least appealing. Nonetheless, armed robberies, although somewhat rare, are real possibilities just about everywhere on the planet. Whether you find yourself in a modern highly developed country such as the United States, or in a poor, violent, developing country such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, robberies can occur. No matter how prepared you may be, being in the wrong place at the wrong time can often be unpreventable. During our ongoing travels around the South American continent, we became the unfortunate victims of an armed bus hijacking. It happened on the dreadful night of June 6th, 2018 in the Andahuaylas region of Perú, as our long-distance bus was en route to world-renowned Incan city of Cusco. Months later it is still a bit hard to talk about, as is talking any traumatic experience one has endured, however sharing all of the details is a necessary part of the healing process and will help bring us closure. In addition, sharing our experience might help others to avoid ending up in a similar situation, or might advise them should they have the great misfortune of being the victim of a bus hijacking. So, here is how it all went down:
BUS TRIP FROM AYACUCHO, PERÚ TO CUSCO, PERÚ
Back in November of 2017 we booked a four-day hike on the Inca Trail, an excursion that would require us to first make our way to the city of Cusco, Perú. After our month long stay in Perú’s capital, Lima, we were left with two full weeks before the start of the hike. So, that gave us with about a week to make it to Cusco in order to allow for us to have one full week to acclimate our bodies to the altitude and be as prepared as possible for our challenging excursion to Machu Picchu. The distance is quite vast from Lima to Cusco so we decided to break up the journey into three segments. We reasoned that it would be beneficial to stop in large cities as our options for both lodging and long-distance buses would be significantly greater than those of smaller towns. Following that logic, we chose to stop in two of the largest cities in the eastward trajectory towards Cusco, Huancayo and Ayacucho. I had previously taught some Spanish courses in an elementary school and, as the theme-based curriculum was centered around different Peruvian cities, I recognized these interesting destinations to visit.
We had already been traveling around South America for five months, spending seven weeks in Colombia, two months in Ecuador, and at that point two months in Perú, taking many long-distance buses, all without incident. Our luck, however, was about change. After we had arrived in Ayacucho, we took a brief glance around the bus terminal and saw that there was a bus company called Expreso Los Chankas that had an overnight bus from Ayacucho to Cusco. We didn’t notice any other bus companies that showed Cusco as a destination, but it was already pretty late when our bus from Huancayo arrived in Ayacucho, so we decided to head straight to our Airbnb and research our options further the next day.
We spoke with our Airbnb host about finding a bus to Cusco and he recommended the company MovilTours that had an office right in the center of town. We had heard of MovilTours and had previously seen several of their buses during our travels in Perú. In fact, there were a few occasions in which MovilTours was one of our options but we had chosen other companies because of their lower prices and scheduled arrival times that better suited our needs for those particular trips. Their fleet of buses appeared to be pretty modern and the company seemed to have a really good reputation so we decided to give them a try this time. The next day, we made our way to the MovilTours ticket sales office at Manco Capac 270, a short 15 block walk from where we were staying in Ayacucho, to see what options they offered for traveling to Cusco. Like Expreso Los Chankas, they only offered an overnight bus to Cusco, a trip they said would take between 13 and 15 hours, possibly 17 hours if the road conditions were poor.
We always prefer day buses because they are much safer than night buses and we enjoy looking at the marvelous landscapes that we would otherwise miss out on if traveling in the dark. The night buses tend to be more dangerous for a variety of reasons. First of all, the driver’s visibility is greatly reduced in the darkness leading to an increased risk of a collision or possibly even plummeting off the edge of a steep cliff (Perú has no shortage of these). Secondly, on an overnight bus the driver is much more susceptible to fatigue and falling asleep, possibly leading to a fatal accident. Lastly, the vast majority of robberies occur during the night as would-be assailants find great comfort in the cover of darkness. This time however, the only two options for arriving to Cusco from Ayacucho without having to backtrack all the way to Lima were overnight buses. This didn’t leave us much of an option. We decided to choose the MovilTours bus over the Los Chankas bus because it seemed like a more reputable company with more comfortable buses, even though the fare was a little bit more costly. We purchased our tickets for 80 Peruvian Soles (approximately 25 US dollars) each, which was a little more expensive than we were used to paying, but it was also going to be a longer ride than others we had taken. Little did we know that our choice of MovilTours would end up costing us much much more, and add many more hours to our trip, by the time we actually set foot in Cusco.
THE HIJACKING OF OUR BUS
Our MovilTours bus headed for Cusco left the bus terminal in Ayacucho, Perú at 8:03 PM on Wednesday, June 6, 2018. Shortly after 9:30pm, a group of individuals had placed several large rocks on the road, completely blocking the path of our bus and that of a small truck that was traveling in front of us. I was seated on the right side of the bus and as our bus was slowing to a halt to avoid the obstacles, I began to hear banging and crackling noises. I looked out the window to my right and saw a two men coming down the hill from the right side of the road with small guns in their hands, firing into the air. I heard the noises and I saw quick fiery discharge coming from the barrels of the guns. I immediately knew that we were being hijacked. I turned to Sally who was sitting to my left and told her, “We are being hijacked! Stash whatever you can!” She seemed to think I was joking, giggled a little bit and responded in a calm voice, “We are not being hijacked.” My face turned quite serious and with a steady gaze, I looked right into her eyes and said with a gentle sternness, “Yes, we are being hijacked. Start hiding whatever you can.” Sally’s attitude changed to a state of panic instantly as she began to realize the severity and true nature of the situation at hand.
Several men began approaching the bus, coming from the nearby fields and descending from the nearby hills. They were all firing guns into the air and there were a few shots fired at the bus, shattering some of the rear windows. All of the passengers of the bus, including Sally and I, crouched down as low as possible to avoid being hit by a stray bullet. After the bus came to a complete halt, the gunmen approached the front of the bus and ordered the driver of our bus, and the driver of the truck that was in front of us, to drive down a very rough rocky road to the left of the main road. Later on we learned that there were between 14 and 16 gunmen although at the time we had no idea how many there were. Several of the assailants, guns outstretched, followed the truck and our bus down the road while the other gunmen returned to the main road in order to remove the rocks and ensure that there remained no evidence that would indicate that there was a hijacking in progress.
As our bus was escorted slowly down the rocky road by the armed hijackers, I was trying to gather and hide all of our most important items. I was wearing a money belt around my chest which had a zipper pocket that sat in the middle of my back. It contained some leftover US dollars and I decided that it would be a good a spot to hide our passports. I quickly slid the belt around to my front so I could access it, I unzipped it and put our passports inside. I then decided that our next most important item was our old unlocked iPhone that was our main form of communicating with our hosts in different cities. I put the phone in the pocket as well, zipped it up, then slid it back around to the middle of my back. I was worried that the large lump on my back would easily be spotted through my t-shirt so I hurriedly threw on my baggy hooded sweatshirt in order to help conceal the bulge that was our phone and passports. I hiked the money belt much further up my back than where I normally wear it. The straps were just under my armpits and the pocket sat nicely between the lower area of my shoulder blades. After our passports and phone were securely stashed, I immediately thought of our yellow vaccination books. They are irreplaceable and without them it would be difficult for us to get back into the United States without having to be quarantined for a lengthy period of time. I didn’t know how much time I had and considered it to be too risky to try to get them into the money belt, knowing that at any moment the hijackers could board the bus; after all, I didn’t want to jeopardize the phone and passports that were already hidden. At the time I was wearing compression stockings on my legs because I have a blood-clotting condition. I stuffed the yellow books into my left stocking and slid them down until they were just above my ankle.
While I was taking care of our passports, the phone and our yellow vaccination books, Sally was busy panicking and trying to get some of her own belongings hidden as best she could. She stuffed her wallet and iPad mini in the pocket on the rear of the seat in front of her and flipped up her leg rest to partially cover the pocket. Sally then grabbed her small backpack and shoved it under one of the seats. She draped a blanket over the opening underneath the seat and then tossed our water bottle bag on top of the blanket. I pulled my computer sleeve containing my macbook out of my backpack and kicked it under the seat in front of me to at least get it out of sight, hoping that it would be overlooked. We then sat huddled in each other’s arms and hoped for the best.
We traveled about 2km down the rocky road before the gunmen had the truck and our bus halt. The gunmen then opened the side door of the bus and ordered all of the passengers to exit the bus with their hands on their necks, shouting “manos en la nuca!” (hands on your necks). We were then all ordered to lay face down on the on the extremely rocky road and to maintain our hands on our necks. I laid down on the ground quickly and repositioned my hands on the back of my neck. Sally laid down to my left side and I whispered to her to keep her hands on her neck and remain calm. The passengers who did not get on the ground quickly enough were shoved forcefully to the ground by our attackers. The second bus driver (there are usually two bus drivers for long distance trips of over five hours), who was asleep in the cabin underneath the bus, was woken up and pulled out of the bus to join the rest of us. All of the 21 bus passengers, the two drivers, the bus assistant and the driver of the small pickup truck were lined up face down on the ground, side by side, with our hands still on our the backs of our necks, in two rows to keep us contained in a small area. The calmest of us urged the others to remain calm and reassured everyone that the gunmen were only after money. I kept gently rubbing my left elbow to Sally’s right elbow, whispering to her that everything was going to be alright. The gentleman to Sally’s left also whispered reassuring words to her in a slightly broken English. Sally did not think to grab a jacket and had to stay on the ground just wearing jeans and a t-shirt in the brisk mountain air of the Peruvian evening.
One by one we were ordered to stand up so the assailants could rummage through our pockets and check our bodies for any money or valuables that we might have, then forced us back to the ground so they could search the next person. When it was my turn to stand up, I quickly reached into my pocket, grabbed my wallet and coin pouch and handed them to one of the gunmen. I figured that they would find it anyway and I wanted to show them that I was willing to cooperate without any resistance. While I was standing, they quickly rummaged through my pockets and felt the small passport pouch that I had draped around my neck. The gunman who was searching me seemed excited to find it and quickly opened it up. Inside there nothing more than a solar battery packed used for charging USB devices. I told the assailant that it was just a battery and he grabbed it out of the pouch and put it in his pocket, leaving the pouch dangling around my neck. Then, one of the gunmen lifted up my sweatshirt and t-shirt that I was wearing underneath. It was lifted up pretty high, exposing much of my back and chest, but not quite high enough to find the money belt that was riding between my trembling shoulder blades. I was then ordered to get back on the ground and given a gentle push. Suprisingly, they did not find my iPhone 5c that was in my back pocket…yet.
The robbers then ordered Sally to get up. A few of the other passengers pleaded with the gunmen to be easy with Sally, explaining that she didn’t speak Spanish and couldn’t understand what they were saying. A couple of the other passengers and I quickly and calmly told her in English what they were asking her to do, stand up and keep your hands on your neck. Sally stood up, still grasping a roll of toilet paper in her hand that she had grabbed in a panic when we were being ordered to get off of the bus. They asked her what she had in her hand and she showed them and replied, “papel” (paper). They grabbed the roll of toilet paper thinking that she had something hidden inside. To their dismay, it was just a roll of toilet paper. Angry that they didn’t come across something valuable, they indiscriminately threw the toilet paper at the hostages on the ground, hitting me in the head with the roll. I remained motionless. They then searched Sally’s front pants pockets and even went so far as to remove her breasts from her bra to make sure she hadn’t stashed anything there. They did, however, fail to notice the black money belt (which contained $500 USD and one of our credit cards) that she had strapped around her in the same area as I had stashed mine, perhaps mistaking it for a back brace or just another one of her bra straps. She was then ordered back to ground, with a little shove. To her surprise, they did not find her iPhone 5s that was in the back pocket of her jeans…yet.
While we were being searched by a handful of attackers, several of the other gunmen entered the bus and went through all of our belongings, taking what they wanted and tossing what they didn’t want anywhere they felt like, absolutely thrashing everything they came across. The whole time this was happening we were being screamed at by some of the gunmen “nadie se mueva!” (don’t move). Throughout the entire course of the hijacking the attackers were in constant radio communication with other members of their group who posted all around the zone. They used walkie-talkie like radios for keeping themselves aware of what was going on in the surrounding area. The location of the hijacking was chosen specifically because it was in an isolated mountainous region which was a dead spot for any cell phone, thereby rendering the victims unable to send any type of distress signal and allowing for the attackers to be the only ones able to communicate. The one who seemed to be in command of the group was frequently talking on the radio, shouting “habla, habla” to get reports from his lookouts posted near the main road.
While were were all face down on the ground, being searched one by one, one of the only comical moments of the terrifying ordeal took place. One of the hostages was an older indigenous woman, wearing traditional clothing consisting of a derby-style hat and many layers of thick skirts. We were all lying with our faces buried in the ground, our hands on the back of our necks and guns pointed at our backs, when she suddenly had the strong urge to go to the bathroom. She told the attackers that she had to pee and they yelled back at her not to move. She responded to them saying in Spanish that she had to go urgently and she slowly stood up, walked a couple of feet, hiked up her skirts, pulled down her panties, squatted down and peed, much to the shock of the assailants who did not know what to do. They weren’t about to shoot an old woman so they just let her pee. When she was finished, she pulled her up panties, fixed her skirts and reassumed her position on the ground. What a brave soul!
After the last person was searched, the gunmen began removing the shoes of several of the passengers as they were face-down on the ground, either keeping them, tossing them into the adjacent fields, or into the runoff ditch alongside the rocky road. While this was happening, I felt a hand go into my back pocket and snatch my phone, never to be seen again. A few seconds later I felt my shoes get pulled off of my feet, leaving just my socks, and compression stockings underneath of them, to navigate the rocky terrain. The men attempted to remove Sally’s hiking boots from her feet but they were unsuccessful; she had them laced up high and tight and she curled up her toes when she felt the attackers tugging at them. They did however notice the phone in her back pocket and promptly grabbed it.
After we had all been searched and the bus had been thoroughly ransacked, the assailants hovered over our trembling bodies. Since they were done going through people’s bags on the inside of the bus, they wanted to load all of the hostages back onto the bus to maintain control of us more easily. So, in a mocking tone, they asked the group of victims if we were cold, as if they could give a shit. None of the shivering bodies on the ground responded. They then ordered everyone to get back on the bus and the bus driver was instructed to open the bodegas (the under-bus storage compartments). After being on the ground for an hour or more, we filed onto the bus in single file, hands still on our necks, still trembling, and with guns still pointed at us. We all sat in terror on the bus while the assailants went through our bags under the bus, keeping what they wanted and tossing the rest into the field or the water-filled ditch alongside the road. Sally and I were hunched down together in our seats, holding each other tightly. With every violent movement of the gunmen in the bodegas, the bus shook and more glass fell from the already busted out windows, adding to our terror.
It was very tense in the bus as we all huddled in our seats in the bus hoping that the ordeal would be over soon. What was left of our belongings was strewn about the bus in a very haphazard manner. The aisle was filled with dirt, trash and crumbs of food that had been rummaged through, thrown on the floor and trampled over. All of us wanted desperately to search through the bus and what was left of our bags to see if we could find any of our belongings that had been spared by the attackers, but we all remained crouched down in our seats and remain motionless. This is, all of us except for one foolish gentlemen who decided to stand up and start looking through his bag and his belongings that were strewn about the bus. He did this despite the repeated pleas from the other passengers for the man to just stay down and wait until later to search for his stuff. He should have listened. One of the hijackers noticed him wandering around on the bus and fired a bullet at him, perhaps an attempt to scare him into cooperating. The bullet grazed the man’s cheek and that was sufficient to finally get the man to get down and take cover with all of the other hostages. We all remained silent, listening to the noises of the attackers tossing around our bags in the bodega, shouting at each other, communicating with their lookouts by radio, and the intermittent sound of shattered glass falling with each jarring movement of the bus.
After 40 minutes of the robbers going through our belongings under the bus, luck struck. It had become strangely quiet and we did not know what was happening. We remained crouched down in fear of the unknown. Was this a possible trap? One of the passengers whispered to the others that he thought the police had arrived, but he cautioned everyone to keep down and silent until we knew what was actually going on. A glimmer of hope pulsed through my body as I held Sally tighter and closer to me. There was a little bit of shuffling amongst the hostages, with others pleading for them to keep still. Hundreds of different possible scenarios went through our minds and our anxiety continued to increase. After all, we had no idea if the hijackers were hiding in the darkness ready to confront the police in a bloody shootout or if the police were in cahoots with the attackers and they were finally ready to do away us all.
After about 15 minutes of antagonizing silence, one of the passengers who was sneaking a peek out of one of the windows noticed the arrival of a second police vehicle. A minute or two after the arrival of the back-up unit, two officers approached. One of them entered the bus and asked if everyone was okay. At that moment we knew that the horrifying ordeal was finally coming to an end, although we were all still very tense and sufficiently traumatized. The officers assured all of us hostages that the assailants had fled. The hijackers had been forewarned of the police presence by radio communications from their lookouts, so they had already fled the scene by the time the police vehicle reached us.
We were all permitted to exit the bus to try and gather any belongings we were able to find. It was quite dark and the area had very rough terrain, making the search extremely difficult. The robbers had done a good job of strewing our possessions over a large area, many ending up in the water-filled ditch. I found my maleta (large Osprey suitcase/backpack) still underneath the bus in the bodega. I noticed that although the top and back pockets had been opened up and completely emptied, the main compartment, which was held shut by a small TSA padlock through the zipper ends, remained intact. Sally’s maleta, also with a TSA lock on the main compartment, was completely untouched. That was nothing short of a miracle. Apparently those small locks presented the robbers with sufficient enough difficulty to save our bags for last as they pillaged the other bags that were more easily accessible.
The terrain of the area was unforgiving; it was rocky, mountainous and covered with a lot of small shrubbery. There was a ditch along side the road which was filled with mud and pools of water, and now also contained remnants of the belongings of the hostages. Looking around the area in the darkness I was able to find the rain cover for my bag and one of my flip-flops. I put on the flip-flop as walking around with one flip-flop was slightly less painful than walking around the rocky terrain in just socks. It was dark and the landscape presented many challenges for the victims who attempted to recover any of their belongings. After about 20 minutes we were forced to give up the search. We re-boarded the bus and were escorted by the police back to the comisaría (police station) in Ayacucho to file denuncias (police reports).
I recorded this video after we re-boarded the bus:
It took about two hours to get back to Ayacucho and was a very tense bus ride to say the least. Riding back to town in a trashed bus with several broken windows and glass fragments everywhere was surreal. The bathroom on the bus was destroyed. The remainder of people’s belongings were scattered about the bus as if a tornado had passed through. There was an incredible amount of trash and destroyed food everywhere. The passengers helped each other go through bus to find any belongings that might be salvageable. The camaraderie among the victims was profound and quite impressive. One of the victims, Victor, a 17 year old soccer player from Ayacucho, lost two very expensive iPhones during the ordeal. After seeing that I only had on one flip-flop, he gave me a pair of his flip-flops so I didn’t have to walk around with just one. I was very touched by his generosity. Others would call out items that they found that someone else might be looking for, a pair of blue earrings for example. So many people lost so many of their personal items it was agonizing. People shared food that hadn’t been destroyed and genuinely attempted to comfort each other. The kindness among the fellow victims was heart-warming. It’s amazing to see the way people bond after suffering a common tragedy.
LA COMISARÍA (POLICE STATION)
When we finally arrived at the comisaría we were all thoroughly exhausted and frustrated by the whole ordeal. We filed into the station and spent a lot of time telling the officers about what had happened and the traumatic events that we had just experienced. It was then that we learned more details about what had happened. The older indigenous woman provided a lot of information as she seemed to be quite observant during the hijacking. She insisted that there were 16 assailants involved and that some of them spoke to each other in Quechua, the principal indigenous language of the region. Sally had seen one of the gunmen when she was being searched and tried to give one of the officers the best description of his face and what he wore. He was young and had a smoothly shaven face. The officer jotted down some notes but didn’t seem to be too interested about compiling the information. He might have thought that the vagueness of the descriptions would prove of little use. Most of the hijackers wore bandanas or masks to cover their faces during the entire operation.
While we were all exchanging information with the police, I asked one of the bus drivers how the police had found out about the hijacking in progress. He explained to me that the police have a checkpoint a couple hours outside of Ayacucho and they also have a list of all of the long-distance buses and approximate times that are supposed to come down that stretch of road. The police had not seen our bus pass through by a certain time so they sent police vehicles up and down all of the secondary roads to search for our bus. It seems that bus hijackings have been known to happen in the region so this procedure has become commonplace. One of the other passengers from the bus, a friendly Peruvian writer named Iván, also confessed to us that hijackings have unfortunately become an all too common occurrence in Perú.
After receiving brief descriptions of the events that transpired, the officers then called us one by one into their offices to make the official denuncias. Sally and I went in together as they didn’t have any English speaking officers. The officer that was in charge of taking our information was very young and extremely tired. I think they had called him in just to help out with large number of victims that arrived at the comisaría that evening. He asked us for a lot of general information, such as full names and passport numbers, and typed it into his laptop very slowly. He then wrote a brief description of the incident before asking us to tell him what was stolen from us. We went through everything we could think of, making sure to give detailed descriptions of our phones, ipad and computer. After he finished keying in all of the necessary information he told us that we could come back to the station to follow up on our case. We told him that we were on our way to Cusco and had no plans or intentions to return to Ayacucho. He thought for a minute and then wrote his full name, officer number and his cell phone number on a small piece of paper and gave it to us. He said that we could contact him if we needed any additional information or if we needed to get a certified copy of the denuncia. We took the paper, thanked the officer and went back into the lobby where the other victims were waiting.
In an attempt to get our travel insurance to cover some of our losses, we needed to obtain a certified copy of the police report. We made several attempts to acquire a “copia certificada de la denuncia” in Cusco, which proved to be a bit more difficult than it should have been, despite the assistance provided to us by the incredibly kind and helpful officers at the comisaría there. The problem turned out to be the result of the misspelling of the bus driver’s name in the official denuncia, spelled with a “b” instead of a “v”, because the sounds of those two letters are are virtually indistinguishable in spoken Spanish. That is another story entirely, but feel free to message us if you’d like more details of the process we went through.
OUR SECOND ATTEMPT TO TRAVEL TO CUSCO
After spending about 4 hours at the comisaría, we re-boarded the trashed bus and were taken back to the bus station in Ayacucho, where they were getting another MovilTours bus ready for us.
After the traumatic experience on our first bus, some of the passengers decided to find other means to get Cusco and not have to relive the bus experience. We, however, didn’t have an option as we had no place to go to in Ayacucho and we had already made lodging plans in Cusco. This is not to mention we had no other way to arrive to Cusco without having to spend a few days and a small fortune on bus tickets to return to Lima and then on a direct bus (via a safer but considerably longer route) or flight to Cusco. So, around 6:30am on Thursday, June 7th we headed out for Cusco once again. This time however, our trip through the dangerous Andahuaylas region of Perú would take place during daytime hours, and with different MovilTours crew members.
After such a traumatizing ordeal that we had all endured, heading out of the same town, on the same type of bus, with the same bus company, with many of the same passengers, and on the very same route, was a very tense and uneasy experience. Every time the bus slowed down to a stop we feared for the worst as flashbacks of the previous night’s events repeated in our minds. Several of the passengers pleaded for the new bus driver to revisit the scene of the hijacking so that they may continue to search the immediate area for any of their belongings that were tossed aside by the assailants. The driver granted their request and for a period of time many of the passengers stared out of the bus windows trying to recognize the rocky secondary road where the hijacking had taken place. There was much discussion of where the road was and whether it was to the left or right of the principal highway. I was certain that we were directed off of the road towards the left and I shared my recollection with the other passengers. We eventually arrived at the location where we were stopped by the hijackers and detoured down the rocky road to the left of the main road. The passengers who recognized the place called for the driver to pull the bus over and he obliged.
Almost all of the passengers got out of the bus and began the two kilometer walk down the road to the scene of where the robbery transpired. Arriving at the exact location where we forced out of the bus and onto the rocky terrain the night before was surreal and terrifying. We noticed a lot of trash and clothing strewn about the unforgiving landscape and in the ditch alongside of the road. We searched as well as we could through the ditch and the surrounding fields.
There was little to be found, although some of the victims were able to recover a few small items that were of little or no value to the robbers. It seemed as if the hijackers had returned to the scene, after the bus and the police units had departed, to pick up the loot that they had abandoned while fleeing the scene. One lady was able to find her wallet with credit cards still inside although the cash had been removed. Sally was able to find the OtterBox case for her iPhone, in two different pieces that were scattered hundreds of meters from where the robbery took place. Her phone of course was never to be found. I was hoping to find at least my raincoat or shoes, but I left the scene empty-handed. Overall the victims had very little luck in recovering any of their belongings. Judging by the scattered trash and debris in the immediate area, it was quite obvious that our bus was certainly not the only hijacking that had occurred on that particular road. After about 30 minutes of searching, we resigned to fact that most of our lost personal possessions would never be recovered. So, we began the slow and disheartening walk back down the rough road to where our bus was waiting.
On the long ride to Cusco many of the passengers bonded with each other, sharing stories, food and in some instances money. Most of the public bathrooms in Perú charge for their use, and since some of the passengers were left without a centavo (cent), other generous passengers were more than willing to pay for their bathroom fees. Others offered to pay for food or drinks for those fellows passengers who were left with nothing. It was very endearing to see the humanity that people are capable of in a time of need. A few gentlemen offered to purchase a bottle of water for me, but I politely refused as I did still have a couple of Peruvian Soles that were stashed well enough to not be stolen. Touched by the generosity of these strangers, I offered to buy a drink for anyone who was thirsty and without means.
We kept on traveling and we were even able to relax a little bit. However, once night had fallen our anxiety was once again on the rise. Every time the bus started to slow, even if for a speed bump, our hearts began to race as we thought to ourselves, “here we go again!” Luckily, we did not encounter any further problems.
We finally arrived to Cusco around midnight. A trip that should have taken us 13-15 hours ended up taking 28 hours. We wound up losing a lot of money and many of our valuable, and some not-so-valuable, possessions. However, we are extremely fortunate to be alive and to only have suffered slight injuries from being forced to the ground. Things could have ended up much worse for us, especially if the police had not arrived when they did. We had no idea what the endgame of the hijackers was. They could have flattened the tires on the bus or damaged the engine. We all could have been tortured or killed. The women could have been raped. We could have been locked inside of the bodegas under the bus to prevent us from going to the police and eventually starve to death. Only the hijackers knew what they planning to do, if they had even thought that far ahead. We consider ourselves very lucky to have survived. It was a very traumatic experience for us and even to this day we are still a little bit on edge, especially when a night bus is our only option for arriving at our next destination.
ADVICE FOR LONG DISTANCE BUS TRAVEL IN SOUTH AMERICA
I will leave you with a some advice for traveling via long distance bus that we have compiled in order to reduce the risk of being the victim of a hijacking, or what do if you have the unfortunate luck of becoming a victim.
1. DAYTIME TRAVEL – Try to travel by bus only during daytime hours. The vast majority of hijackings occur during night. Not only does the darkness provide the perfect cover for would-be hijackers, but it also makes it a lot less likely for other vehicles to witness the hijacking and call for help. While daytime buses aren’t always available, seeking them out can significantly reduce your risk of being hijacked.
2. AVOID SELDOM TRAVELED ROUTES IF POSSIBLE – Routes that are seldom traveled are more likely to be targeted for hijackings, especially at night. If there are no witnesses around, the would-be robbers can act more easily without fear of being caught by police. If you are traveling in remote areas it can be quite difficult to find well-traveled roads, so you might not have an option. Do some research if possible to see if there are any alternative routes. If we had skipped visiting Huancayo and Ayacucho, and had opted for the longer and safer route from Lima to Cusco that goes through Arequipa, our chances of being hijacked would have been minimal. When we did some research and read that hijackings had been known to occur on the route we had chosen, it was already too late to change our plans. Searching the web we had only found a few reports of hijackings in the region, one about every two or three years, so we thought that the odds of it happening to us were pretty low. We were wrong. Although there were only a handful of cases that we found on the internet, we soon learned that most of the hijackings simply go unreported. It has now been many months since our hijacking and we are still unable to find anything about it anywhere on the web. Hopefully this post will shed some more light on our situation and that of bus hijackings in general.
3. LUGGAGE LOCKS – I can’t stress enough how important our luggage locks were for us during the hijacking. Sally and I each had a small red TSA approved key padlock that we put through the zippers on the main compartments of our maletas (suitcase backpack bags). While I am sure they are quite ineffective against thieves with proper tools, they did quite a good job at stalling the robbers that hijacked our bus. Given enough time I’m sure they would have eventually found a way to get into our bags, but these small luggage locks caused them to go for other more easily accessible bags first and save our bags for last. The delay caused by our padlocks postponed the opening of our bags just long enough for the police to arrive. The hijackers had only accessed and looted the top and back unlocked pockets of my bag, leaving the locked main compartment still intact. Sally’s bag, with a padlock on the main compartment, was left completely untouched. Without these cheap, small padlocks we would have surely lost almost everything inside our bags, as was the fate of most of the other bus passengers. Two padlocks that we purchased for $4.99 USD saved us from losing of hundreds of dollars of clothing and equipment.
4. CARRY FEW VALUABLES – This piece of advice is pretty straightforward. The fewer valuable items you bring with you, the less you stand to lose should a hijacking occur. It is impossible to bring nothing of value, so just try to minimize what you do bring and don’t bring sentimental objects that are irreplaceable.
5. MONEY BELTS – Our money belts proved to be invaluable for us during the robbery. Thanks to our money belts we were able to walk away from the hijacking with our passports, over $500 USD in cash, emergency credit cards and an old but useable cell phone. Money belts are not foolproof and as such they cannot guarantee the safety of your items. They are however a great idea for long-distance bus travel. If you should fall asleep on the bus, which is often unavoidable on overnight buses, another passenger or unscrupulous bus employee could go through your bags or even your pockets to steal your money or valuables. Wearing a money belt hidden under your shirt can prevent this and keep your money and/or your passports safe. When we knew that our bus was being hijacked we hiked up our money belts very high on our backs. It was a good thing that we did. Even though the robbers lifted up our shirts to check for hidden objects, they did not raise them high enough to notice the money belts. Things could have ended up differently, of course, if we had been forced to remove our shirts. However the small action that we took prevented us from losing our passports and a significant amount of cash.
6. STASH MONEY IN VARIOUS PLACES – The hijackers that robbed us had to act fast as they wanted to steal as much money and valuable possessions as they could get away with before police arrived. This meant that they were not able to be extremely thorough and careful with their searching. They did after all completely miss our money belts as well as the yellow immunization books that I had hidden in my compression stockings. I could have hidden cash there too I suppose. Suspecting the remote possibility of a hijacking, I had hidden 400 Peruvian Soles (approximate 130 USD) in the frame of my suitcase/backpack. It was a good thing that I did as it came in quite handy when we finally arrived in Cusco. As I am a collector of foreign currency I had also kept a few Colombian Pesos and Peruvian Soles stashed in an envelope with other souvenirs that we had acquired. This envelope was not found by the robbers. The only actual cash that was stolen was the money in my wallet and coin pouch, as well as the Venezuelan Bolivares that I had tucked into a fold-up map. The Venezuelan money was practically worthless and only of sentimental value to us as it had been given to us by a Venezuelan refugee we had met in Quito, Ecuador. The money in our money belts, the money I had stashed in the frame area of my bag, and the foreign currency I had stashed in an envelope, remained undiscovered by the thieves. The more places you have money stashed, the less chance you have of losing it all.
7. KEEP COLOR PHOTOCOPIES OF PASSPORTS IN VARIOUS PLACES – We were lucky enough to not have our passports stolen during the hijacking. If they were stolen, photocopies of our passports would have been invaluable. Most places we’ve encountered in South America accept copies of passports in lieu of the actual passports. This is true for purchasing bus tickets, entering museums or national parks, and even for making purchases using credit cards at supermarkets or other locations. However photocopies of your passport will NOT work when entering or exiting a country. You will need your actual passport when passing through the migraciones offices when entering or leaving a country. That said, having a photocopy of your passport can help expedite the process of getting a lost or stolen passport replaced at an embassy. I recommend carrying at least five color photocopies of your passport if you are planning any sort of extended traveling abroad. Keep a couple of them in different locations of you luggage. I always have a copy of my passport and Sally’s passport in my wallet to use for credit card purchases or entrances to parks or museums. We only bring our actual passports with us if we are crossing an international boarder or if we are moving to another city, and in the latter case we bring everything we have. When purchasing long distance bus tickets we are usually asked for our passports, but in most cases they accept our photocopies as they are only looking for the information to enter into their system.
8. DON’T RESIST – This is so important that perhaps it should be number one. If you are the unfortunate victim of a hijacking, do not resist and follow all of the assailants instructions. Your life is far more valuable that any of your possessions, even the sentimental ones. If you are dead, they won’t matter to you anyway. In almost all hijacking cases the robbers only want money, valuables or other things that they might need. If you let them take whatever they want without putting up any resistance you are very unlikely to get seriously hurt. They are going after your stuff and not you. If you don’t obey however, you may end up wounded or killed, as happened to the foolish passenger on our bus who had a bullet graze his face all because he got up to start looking for his stuff when the hijackers had warned us all to stay down. Don’t play the fool. Your life is the most important thing you possess.
9. CANCEL CREDIT CARDS IMMEDIATELY AFTER A ROBBERY – This is probably common sense for most people, but can easily be forgotten after such a traumatic experience. In most cases the thieves won’t even try to use the stolen cards as it greatly increases their odds of getting caught, but if they feel that they can get away with making a few purchases they will surely give it a try.
10. MAKE BACKUPS TO A CLOUD – Photos and other documents can be irreplaceable. Make sure to keep everything backed up so you don’t risk suffering an irrecoverable loss. I strongly recommend using a cloud service to back up all of your photos and important documents. We have an external hard drive for backups but we also back up all of our photos regularly to iCloud. Without using a cloud backup we could have lost everything if our external hard drive had been stolen along with our phones and computer. Storing photos and important documents on a cloud backup keeps them out of the reach of potential hijackers. If you value your photos, which I’m sure you do, cloud backups can be a lifesaver.
11. USE APPLE PRODUCTS – This may not be practical for everyone, but in our case it helped us out significantly. While Apple products tend to be more expensive, and I’ve already warned about keeping valuables to a minimum, they do offer some invaluable features that I am not sure if other companies offer. We had four Apple products stolen from us, two iPhones, an iPad mini and a MacBook Pro. Apple has a feature that allowed us to remotely lock out both of our iPhones and the iPad. They won’t be able to be unlocked or accessed unless the thieves have some serious technical expertise. Government officials are not even able to crack iPhones without help from Apple. This feature greatly helps to protect your personal information from falling into the hands of would-be thieves. While we were unable to completely lock the MacBook so it could never be used again, we were able to completely erase the hard drive remotely and protect all of our personal data.
WHAT DID WE LOSE? WHAT DID WE WALK AWAY WITH?
We walked away from the hijacking with our lives. We were safe and that was, and is, all that really matters. What follows is a list of what was taken by the hijackers and a list of things that they either overlooked or had chosen not to steal. Some of the items that were stolen such as winter hats, duct tape, raincoat and shoes seem to indicate that the thieves lived in considerable poverty, not only taking money and electronics but things that they needed in everyday life.
Items stolen from us:
2013 Macbook Pro in sleeve
Solar USB power bank
2 winter hats
Leatherman multi-function pocket knife
Wallet with credit card, USB flash stick and 300 Peruvian Soles (approx. 100 USD)
Change pouch with about 30 Peruvian Soles (approx. 10 USD)
About 250 Venezuelan Bolivares (less than 1 USD, but high sentimental value)
2 Transmilenio cards for riding city buses in Bogotá
Items found in my backpack but surprisingly not taken:
Nikon Coolpix 12 megapixel camera
Small Vivitar gopro style camera
2 iPod minis
2 SteriPen ultraviolet water sterilizers
Items Sally stashed on the bus that were not found:
In backpack, hidden under seat, covered with blanket that was covered by water bottle bag:
-Canon GX9 camera
Tucked into seat pocket:
-Wallet with credit card and some US dollars
Items stashed in money belts worn very high up on our backs and not found:
20 Peruvian Soles
2 Minnesota driver licenses
2 debit cards
We were very lucky to have survived the hijacking unharmed. We hope that this blogpost can be useful for anyone planning to take long-distance buses abroad, particularly in South America. I certainly don’t wish this awful experience on anyone. I hope that what I’ve written here can help you to avoid such an incident or possibly even help you stay calm and focused if you should become the victim of a hijacking. Don’t stop traveling. Life experiences that travel provides are worth far more than personal belongings. Experiences are what makes a person, not what they own. I hope that you never have to suffer through a bus hijacking, but if you do have that unfortunate luck as we did, please don’t resist. Your life is the most important thing that you possess and I would much rather have you alive to share your story.
Sally and I wish you safe and adventurous travels! Please feel free to contact us if you have any questions or comments. We would love to hear from you!
José(ph), the JAC of SAK and JAC
Here are some screenshots that provide the exact location of hijacking and robbery, and its location relative to major Peruvian cities I have mentioned in this post. I used the GPS location from the photo of the robbery scene to pinpoint the area.