Category Archives: Travel Advisories

Breaking news of interest for those traveling in Latin America.

UPDATE: Torres del Paine National Park Wildfire

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine: Before the fire

Last Friday evening, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced that Parque Nacional Torres del Paine will remain closed through January 2012.

 

As of this morning (Monday), the fire has consumed almost 13,000 hectares (32,423 acres) of the national park. Seven hundred and fifty firefighters from all over Chile, as well as from Argentina, Uruguay and the US, have joined efforts to bring the blaze under control. The entire area has been declared a disaster area.

 

Winds as high as 120 kilometers per hour (73 mph) hampered efforts on Friday. Saturday, a light rain began falling and winds calmed, allowing six helicopters to join in the fight. Three of the six foci of the wildfire were extinguished.

 

Also on Saturday, Israeli citizen Rotem Singer was arrested on charges for starting the blaze. News reports stated he confessed to authorities, which Singer now denies, blaming bad translations. He is on conditional freedom for 41-61 days until investigations are completed.

 

The government has been criticized for its slow response to the unfolding disaster. In the national legislature, Representative Carlos Recondo of X Región de los Lagos is proposing to privatize the park, which he believes will improve its administration.

 

Patagon Journal posts that volunteers for the recovery of Torres del Paine may now sign up. Send your name, age, profession, city and dates available to voluntarios@torresdelpaine.com. The program, which start date is yet to be set, is being organized by Conaf (national park service) and local operators.

 

The park closure is expected to have a tremendous impact on Puerto Natales’ economy. In one season, the tourism sector generates $200 million dollars, as well as 8,000 direct and 24,000 associated jobs.

 

Puerto Natales, though, has much more to offer tourists than just Torres del Paine. For those needing to get out into nature, another reserve may be accessed from this coastal village: Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins. This is Chile’s largest national park, covering 3,525,091 hectares (8,710,689 acres). A boat treads across Seno de Última Esperanza to the foot of Glaciar Balmaceda to the ranger station at Sector Balmaceda. During the voyage, dolphins, sea lions, fur seals and a variety of waterfowl can be spotted, as well as. Although this park doesn’t offer multi-day treks like Torres del Paine, it does have several short hikes into the stunningly beautiful landscape. From the ranger post, trails lead to the foot of the glacier and to a lookout point. Other activities in this part of the park are rappelling and kayaking, though the paddle down the Río Serrano from PN Torres del Paine not possible at this time.

 

Another nature reserve you can visit from Puerto Natales is Monumento Nacional Cueva del Milodón, a massive cave where the remains of a three meter ground sloth were discovered. Posada Hostería Río Verde on Skyring Fiord is not only a lodge at a working ranch, but also offers day packages that includes horseback riding, sailing and trout fishing. Río Verde village also has a small historical museum. Río Rubens is another place with terrific trout fishing.

 

The Museo Histórico Municipal in Puerto Natales.

When the much-needed rains arrive, you can seek refuge in one of Puerto Natales’ museums. The Museo Histórico Municipal features archaeological artifacts and historical photographs, as well as an exhibit on the 19th century European settlement of the town. The Museo de Fauna Patagónica has a collection of over 350 taxidermied animals from around the area.  Just five kilometers (3 miles) north of town, Museo Frigorífico Puerto Bories offers interesting guided tours of the old meatpacking factory, which was awarded Monument status by the Chilean government. Out in Puerto Bories, you can also go horseback riding.

 

Puerto Natales is also the southern port for the Navemag ferry to Puerto Montt. The five-day north-bound journey goes through fiords, and past glaciers of the Southern and Northern ice fields (Campos del Hielo).

 

Turismo Aónikenk, a Punta Arenas-based tour operator, lists other things to see and do in the Puerto Natales area.

 

The famous Navimag ferry.

 

The US Embassy in Santiago has issued a travel advisory for its citizens planning to go to the region. If you are planning to visit the area, keep up-to-date with the news. Check the websites of the various national agencies: Conaf (park service), Onemi (emergency management) and Sernatur (tourism board). These media outlets are also dependable: Prensa Austral, Radio Polar and Cooperativa. Another excellent source is erratic rock in Puerto Natales.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

 

CLOSED: Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

Into the Fire. Photo by Claudia Saunders.

Because of a wildfire that began last Tuesday, the Oficina Nacional de Emergencia (Onemi) has closed Parque Nacional Torres del Paine until further notice.

 

As of this morning, the fire has consumed up to 5,700 hectares (14,085 acres) of land in the western sector of the park. Rugged terrain and strong winds (up to 95 kilometers / 59 miles per hour) are hampering efforts to bring it under control. In a press conference yesterday, Rodrigo Hinzpeter of the Ministro del Interior y Seguridad Pública stated, “We are confronted with an extremely dangerous and complex fire; in the zone, we have very adverse climatic conditions today and the forecast indicates the weather will be adverse tomorrow. Furthermore, the topography of the place makes it difficult for the brigades to fight the fire, along with highly combustible vegetation.”

 

The weather forecast calls for high winds again today (Friday), with a chance of showers Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

 

On the ground are over 150 firefighters from the national forest service Conaf, the Chilean military and Argentina. Three helicopters are also being employed. Private entities, like Fantástico Sur, which operates several refuges in the park, are asking for volunteers with experience fighting forest fires in mountainous terrain to help preserve their properties. Interested individuals should contact Katherine MacCormick at 61-614184.

 

According to La Prensa Austral, a foreign tourist is suspected of starting the fire. This is the third time in less than a decade that the 227,298-hectare (561,665-acre) park has been hit by a man-made forest fire. In 2005, about 15,000 hectares (37,065 acres) were destroyed and another 10 square meters (108 square feet) were burnt in February 2011. In both cases, foreign trekkers were responsible.

 

Unconfirmed reports say that the fire, which began near the Río Olguín, between Glaciar Gray and Pehoé, has spread past the Valle del Francés and Salto Grande. The wharf in Paine Grande is destroyed. Hotel Explora and el Hotel Grey are threatened. Approximately 1,000 people have been evacuated from the park. According to another source, the Cuernos and Torres sectors have not been evacuated yet. Evacuations are expected to continue this morning. Thus far, no injuries or deaths have occurred.

 

News of the extent of the fire remain sketchy. Visitors to the reserve are advised to keep up on the news with the above agencies, Sernatur, Prensa Austral or Radio Polar. Another excellent source is erratic rock in Puerto Natales. Bill Penhollow, owner of erratic rock, recommends tourists come back in a week.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

 

Residents of Puerto Natales will be having a demonstration Friday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. at the Plaza de Armas, to call on the government to bring in more reinforcements to combat the blaze. The environmental groups Frente Defensa Ecologico Austral and Frente Defensa Ecológico Austral II in Punta Arenas will have a candlelight rally Friday evening (6:30 p.m. Colón and Bories streets, Punta Arenas). Another demonstration is planned at La Moneda at 6 p.m., in the nation’s capital, Santiago.

 

RED ALERT: Wildfire in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park

Since Tuesday, a wildfire in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine has consumed at least 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of forest and forced the evacuation of 400 tourists from the Western sector of the park.

 

The fire began near the Río Olguín, between Glaciar Gray and Pehoé.

 

Conaf, Chile’s national park administration, has declared a red alert in that area of Torres del Paine. Over 100 firefighters from Chile and Argentina are on the ground battling the blaze, and helicopters have been called in. High winds, registering up to 95 kilometers per hour (59 mph), are exacerbating the situation.

 

According to Chile’s tourism board, Sernatur, the popular W Circuit is within the affected area. Hikers are to avoid the Pehoé, Grey and Campamento Italiano trails. The old Pehoé refuge has burned and Lodge Paine Grande is threatened.

 

The Eastern sector of Torres del Paine National Park remains open. However, visitors to the reserve are advised to keep up on the news with the above agencies, Radio Polar or La Prensa Austral. Erratic rock in Puerto Natales is also an excellent source.

 

The cause of the fire is not immediately known, though it was not caused by lightning strike, as lightening does not occur in those latitudes. In recent weeks, the region has had warm, dry weather. There have been no injuries or deaths related to the fire.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

South American Freeze Out

While North America is experiencing an infernal summer, with temperatures in the upper 30s and even 40ºs C (90s-100ºs F) with severe droughts, it’s hard to believe that South America is suffering through the other version of Hades: It has frozen over there.

Since late June, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia have been having their worst cold spell in 16 years. Border crossings between the countries are more frequently closed than usual.

Winter began with a bang, when Volcán Puyehue and the Cordón de Caulle erupted June 4. Flights in Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay were canceled because of volcanic ash.

Then it went from fire to ice. A polar front moved into Argentina the end of June. Heavy snows fell in the mountain areas of Patagonia, Cuyo and the Northwest. Snow and sleet were common in Buenos Aires. Many parts of the country experienced below-freezing temperatures.

Ever since, other polar fronts have crept up from Antarctica, affecting South America.

In mid-July, the Uyuni salt flats and southwest Bolivia were slammed with unusual snows and temperatures. Local residents and tourists were stranded for days until rescue teams could arrive. Alpacas, llamas and other livestock suffered from food shortages. Even the super-dry Atacama Desert in northern Chile and western Bolivia received over 80 centimeters (32 inches) of the white stuff.

On July 21, Chile’s Lake District was whacked with a blizzard. Over two meters (7 feet) of snow was dumped was dumped over the region. More than 12,000 people in Curacautín, Lonquimay and other villages were isolated, and left without electricity and communications. The Chilean government declared the region a disaster area, and had to airdrop food supplies until roads and passes could be cleared. Chillán received three meters (10 feet) of snow in four days. Even temperatures in Santiago, the nation’s capital, plummeted to -4ºC (25ºF).

The storms continue. This past weekend, Paso Internacional Los Libertadores, the major border crossing between Mendoza, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile, was closed to snows. To keep up-to-date on the latest border crossing closures between the two countries, click here.

The upside to all this? Snow bunnies are guaranteed prime skiing and snowboarding conditions throughout the region, including Bariloche. Just be sure to bundle up tight!

And according to Pilar Cereceda, professor of bio-geography at the University of Chile, the Atacama Desert will begin blooming between August and September, and last until November.

Chilean Ash Cloud Continues Its Circuit Around the Globe, Grounding Travelers

Since Southern Chile’s Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano complex erupted on June 4, its ash cloud has accomplished a feat many travelers daydream about: Circling the globe. And it didn’t even have to buy a round-the-world ticket.

On its leisurely cruise around the Earth, the cloud first grounded flights in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. It blanketed Bariloche with ash and cinder, and closed the Cardenal Samoré border crossing. After drifting over the Atlantic Ocean, South Africa and other countries on that continent were affected. Across the Indian Ocean, then, to cause Qantas and other airlines to cancel flights in Australia and New Zealand last week.

Within two weeks, Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s ash cloud made full circle, re-entering South America near Coyhaique, Chile. Once again, South American air traffic was affected.


As if never ceasing on its enviable journey, the ashes arrived once again to Africa and Asia, causing the full moon to appear blood red during the June 15 lunar eclipse.

This past Monday, Virgin Australia, Qantas and other air lines once more canceled over 200 flights, affecting the travel plans of more than 40,000 passengers.

According to Australia’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Center, the ash cloud is traveling some 4,000 kilometers (2,400 mi) per 24 hours, pushed on by strong winds. Satellite images still clearly show the plume, and pilots have reported seeing it.

In the meantime, Puyehue Volcano’s eruption continued to pump out more smoke. Yesterday morning, fine ash fell upon Villarrica, Pucón and the Ranco Lake area. Northwesternly winds pushed the cloud towards Valdivia.

It appears, though, that Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s cloud will be running its course soon. Chile’s Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (Sernageomin) announced yesterday that the volcano has had a significant lava flow, which should stop the volcano from pumping out more ash. Nonetheless, the Puyehue and Ranco Lake districts are still under red alert.

Hopefully as Puyehue-Cordón Caulle settles down and unpacks its bags, human travelers will be able to get one with their journeys around the globe.

On the Road—Colombia: Crooked Cops

CCs, DPs, lawless blue boys, gun slingers, bent coppers, crooked cops—call them what you will. They exist in many countries, even in most of ours. It’s a topic, though, few want to talk about. People will look away, tugging at collars. And then, as if the room was wiretapped, in hushed voices they will tell what has happened to him, or to her, or a relative, a friend.

We feel uncomfortable, even paranoid, talking about it. But we must—if for nothing else but to warn others.

All in all, Colombian police are very friendly and helpful. Even Jack and Russell, two bikers from the US, attest to that. While in Cartagena, they were leaving a nightclub at 3 a.m. Four officers stopped them, to counsel them on returning to their hotel at that late hour. In the course of the friendly chat, the tourists were asked to see their IDs, so they handed over their wallets. Everything fine, everything in order. Be safe going back, the officers told the foreigners. But when they got back to their room, one discovered $80 had been lifted from his wallet. “But it was okay,” he said. “They were so kind and friendly. Never met nicer cops in my life.”

Indeed, like elsewhere, there are a few bad apples. Ask Colombians about it and the reaction is the same as anywhere: They look away, tug on collars and speak in low voices. Hostel owners say, “Yes, we warn foreigners about it.” Stories abound of “on-the-spot fines,” drugs being planted and other shady acts. The worst areas are where the foreigners go most: Bogotá, Cali, Medellín and Caribbean coast destinations like Cartagena, Santa Marta and Taganga.

On the beach at Taganga, it is common to see police officers stopping young travelers, searching through their day packs and sometimes even frisking them.

Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Colombians have a saying, “No dar papaya.” Literally it means, “Don’t give papaya”—advising you: Don’t make yourself a mark. A while back, On the Road—Colombia took on this topic, in the sense of how people set themselves up as a target for thieves. But it also can apply to dealings with officials. Maggie (also from the US) and Daaf (Holland) are perfect examples of this.

I met Daaf in Bogotá. He had been traveling throughout Colombia, taking in the country’s natural beauty—and products. Three times police had stopped and searched him. And three times, he had to pay $200 “on-the-spot fines” because he had marijuana on him. Daaf was a bit down. He was having to end his trip earlier than planned because he had run out of money.

Maggie and her boyfriend, Mike, also “gave papaya.” One evening in Cartagena, they went and to get a small bag from a dealer from whom they’d bought several times previously. She took it and returned to their hostel. A few minutes later, Mike was stopped by a uniformed officer who frisked him—and found a small bag of weed in Mike’s back pocket. The policeman hauled Mike off to the police station and left. For hours Mike insisted the bag was not his and that he was set up. After several hours of complaining, he was released. (Luckily Mike is fluent is Spanish.)

I told Maggie that perhaps the dealer had set them up with the police. “But we had bought from him several times before!” she insisted. Yes, but that could have been to gain your confidence, or perhaps he had to cut a deal with the police to save his own neck. “You think?” she asked me.

When I asked locals about how travelers can lessen there chance of these kinds of encounters, or what they should do if approached, Colombians were at a loss. Really, there is nothing much that you can do. If approached by a police officer, be courteous. Try to have a reliable person witness the encounter. Be aware of the image you are projecting: Do you look like a “hippie” or a drunken tourist that can easily be taken advantage of? Do you look like someone rolling in money? Also, no matter how often we say it, it cannot hurt to say it again: Don’t mess with drugs while on vacation in a foreign land. It’s the perfect way of setting yourself up for “fines” or worse.

The majority of police in Colombia are very friends and helpful, though. So don’t be too paranoid about them on your explorations of this wonderfully diverse and fascinating country.

Editor’s note: All names have been changed to protect identities.

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA COLOMBIA. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

Volcanic Eruption Continues to Affect Travel

As reported last week, on June 4, Southern Chile’s Cordón Caulle on Puyehue Volcano’s slopes erupted for the first time in 51 years. Across the entire Southern Hemisphere, the eruption has been causing travel nightmares not only for common journeyers, but also for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who is on a regional tour. He had to bus to Buenos Aires and boat to Uruguay.

This past week, flights were canceled in Chile and Patagonian Argentina, as well as southern Brazil. On Monday another column of ash, shooting eight kilometers (5 mi) into the atmosphere, forced the closures of airports across the Southern Cone, from Santiago to Buenos Aires to Montevideo.

But South America isn’t the only place being affected by Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s fallout. When winds shifted to the West over the weekend, the ash forced Qantas and other airlines to cancel flights in New Zealand and Australia.

Both Chile and Argentina have declared agricultural emergencies in their Lake and Patagonia regions. Lava flows have oozed down the Nilahue River valley. Over five million salmon were relocated when rising river temperatures caused fishkills.

Friday, rain and ash from the eruption caused an avalanche near the (closed) Cardenal Samoré border crossing road, which remains closed. To handle border traffic, the Chilean government has increased the number of ferries on Lago Pirehueico at the Hua Hum pass and has reopened Paso Pino Hinchado. Snows may force the re-closure of these crossings.

Chile’s Emergency Management Agency (Onemi) maintains a red alert for the Lago Ranco and Puyehue areas. Travelers are advised to watch the news for further developments. To keep up on Volcán Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s activity, check Chile’s Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (Sernageomin) website. Earthquake Report publishes an up-to-date chronicle of reports of Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s effects in the region.

Volcanic Eruption Disrupts Travel in Chile & Argentina

Travelers in Chile and Argentina’s Lake Districts are finding their journeys disrupted by a volcanic eruption.

After a series of small earthquakes, southern Chile’s Volcán Puyehue-Cordón Caulle re-awoke last Saturday (June 4) with a 10,000-meter (32,600-ft) high column of smoke and ash. The eruptions are occurring on Puyehue’s (2,236 meters / 7,267 feet) slopes. The present activity is northeast of the vents triggered by the 1960 earthquake, which was the largest in modern history.

Over 3,500 people have been evacuated from the Puyehue region and Lago Ranco. Parque Nacional Puyehue has been declared a red zone, and is closed from the customs complex to Hotel Termas Puyehue. Paso Cardenal Samoré, the region’s major border crossing between Chile and Argentina, is closed.

The ash stream of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano. Photo by NASA Goddard Photo/ Jeff Schmaltz

Heavy ash and softball-ball size pumice fell on Bariloche. The fallout drifted eastward over Puerto Madryn. Argentine airports from Bariloche to Trelew will be closed until at least Wednesday.

Early Monday winds shifted to the northwest, blowing ash over Osorno.  The Oficina Nacional de Emergencia (Onemi) director of the Los Lagos Region, Andrés Ibaceta, stressed that as spectacular as the eruption is, this is an emergency situation. Tourists should keep away from the Cordón Caulle area.

Travelers are advised to watch the news for further developments. To keep up on Volcán Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s activity, check Chile’s Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (Sernageomin) website. Erik Klemetti’s Big Think has a good explanation (in English) of the eruption. The BBC and El Mercurio have spectacular photo slideshows.

Update:

The Ushuaia-based news agency Sur 54 reports that flights to the following destinations are suspended until at least Friday: Ushuaia, Río Grande, Trelew, Neuquén, Viedma, Río Gallegos, El Calafate, Ushuaia, Río Grande, Comodoro Rivadavia, Bahía Blanca, Santa Rosa and San Rafael. As well, night flights between Santiago de Chile and Mendoza are cancelled.

On the Road – Colombia: Off-the-Beaten Track Destinations with the Tempestuous Girl

A week’s hiatus and I’m back. I was off the beaten track, exploring a corner of Colombia where few foreigners go. It’s a favorite Caribbean destination for Colombians who now feel secure in getting to know their country once again.

Boating through the lagoon. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Besides a beach stretching three kilometers (1.8 miles) and more on other side of a point and a crystalline sea, this destination offers other natural wonders: mud volcanoes in which to immerse yourself, soaking away months of hard travel; ciénagas to slow-boat through, admiring scurrying crabs and multitudes of birds coming to their evening roosts; and an archipelago national park to explore on tour. The civilization of internet is at least six kilometers (3.6 miles) away.

The only reason to go there is to relax, eat good seafood and watch the sun gloriously set over the Caribbean Sea.

Where is this paradise? Ah – no fear. V!VA Colombia takes you there, with complete coverage of what to do, where to sleep and have a wondrous fresh fish meal washed down by an icy beer.

Spectacular sunsets. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But getting to such places is quite an adventure, thanks to the heavy La Niña rains in Colombia. Still the roads from the Caribbean coast to Medellín and further south are under repair. Sudden drop-offs into abysses narrow the highways to one lane.

The downpours moved eastward, battering the zone between the Cordilleras Central and Oriental.Television shows the flooding affecting Chía, Usaquén and other suburbs of Bogotá. The waters are rising dangerously close to El Dorado airport. The Bogotá-Bucaramanga road has been severed in several areas, causing delays in travel. Now the storms seem to be rolling off into the Llanos. A landslide took out the Yopal’s aqueduct, leaving Casanare’s capital without water.

These La Niña rains, though, have affected much more than travel plans. This year’s coffee harvest will be lower than in previous years. Corn and other food crops are also affected.

Meteorologists say La Niña is finally packing up her bags, and heading into retirement, until her next appearance (which hopefully won’t be too soon). Road crews can continue their work repairing roads and bridges, making Colombia an even safer place to travel.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA Colombia. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

On the Road – Colombia: Safety—Highways & Papaya

The rains and adventures continue in Colombia. Reportedly, the journey between Medellín and Mutatá is now taking 17-18 hours. Buses must go by way of Montería, as a bridge near Mutatá is out. Travelers coming to Cartagena from Medellín say trips are taking several hours longer than usual.

The images flashed across TV screens and splashed upon newspaper front pages show the situation to be quite desperate in some parts of the country. But how much is just hype?

Last week a couple traveling from Alaska to Ushuaia on bikes left Cartagena with hopes of getting to Mompós. They were a bit concerned about what Invías (the highway department) and newspapers were reporting. Nonetheless, they made it in a few days.

Richard McColl, owner of Casa Amarilla hostel in Mompós, reports that in recent weeks neither Mompós nor Magangué have been totally isolated. The Cartagena-Magangué road is fine; work is being done between Bodega and Mompós. Even though the road isn’t good, Unitransco’s direct Cartagena-Mompós and other transport continue.

Richard says, “Mompós never can be isolated … as it is a riverside town so can always reach here by boat. When there are problems, chalupas are put on from Magangué. The conditions may not be great, but it’s all in the spirit of adventure and travel and we must always remember that it has never been straightforward getting to Mompós, and it is this issue that has protected the town and for this reason remains an unspoiled corner of Colombia.” If you have any concerns about the road conditions to Mompós, contact Richard.

Indeed—Mompós is one of those many corners of Colombia that is difficult to get to even in the best of times, but well worth the adventure. Others are the Guajira, Llanos and Putumayo.  And with these La Niña rains, such adventures are presented to travelers wending through most of the country.

Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But there’s another facet of safety that visitors need to keep in mind as well, that has nothing to do with physical or political climate.

Colombians warn travelers, “No dar papaya.” Literally this means, “Don’t give papaya”—a strange way, perhaps to advise you: Don’t make yourself a mark for thieves.

Does this mean Colombia is a Den of Thieves? No, far from it. But as any place in the world, foreigners are an easy and logical mark for robbers. We either physically stand out from the local crowd—or do so once we open our mouths and our thickly accented Spanish comes stumbling out. Some would-be thieves believe if we’re traveling we must be rich. And often we are. Passports, bank and credit cards, travelers checks and cash. Laptops, cameras, iPods and other gadgets. Anything is easy to get rid of on the black market. Thieves around the world know this.

V!VA Colombia and other guidebooks warn about Colombian thieves’ tricks of the trade. When you meet travelers who have fallen into the same ol’ familiar traps, you can’t help but ask, “But didn’t you read …” “Yeh, I did, but I never …” is often the response.

Here are some real-life Colombian experiences of travelers from all over the world and of all ages. Some are seasoned journeyers, others are green on the road. Only the names have been changed to protect the identities of these people who gave papaya.

Magdalena, a retired travel consultant from Buenos Aires, was walking through Bogotá’s Candelaria neighborhood. While listening to her iPod music, she admired the colonial architecture and Jorge Olave’s statues of daily Bogotanos perched atop buildings. Suddenly she felt something wet hit the top of her head. “Oh,” a woman passing by told her, “a pigeon just shat on you.” Before Magdalena knew it, the woman was gone—and her iPod, too.

Swedish Per was sitting in Parque de los Periodistas, people watching. A plainclothes “police officer” came up to him and demanded to see his identification and proof that he had sufficient funds to be in the country. The “officer” also requested the same from another Latino “foreigner” sitting next to Per. He thought, well he’s complying, so should I. He told the officer his passport and such was at his hostel. While they walked back to the hostel, the “officer” kept hold of Per’s wallet. Per entered, turned around—and the cop was gone. (Note: There are no plain clothes police in Colombia.)

Young Australians Jenny and Bill, and their friend Mary couldn’t resist nightclubbing their last evening in Bogotá. A group of friendly, chatty Colombians sat down at their table. Jenny and Bill got up to dance. After a while, Mary began to feel “strange.” The three of them decided to go back to the hostel straight away. Mary began fainting away. An emergency visit to the hospital confirmed her drink had been drugged.

Sarah (UK) was sitting on Cartagena’s fortress walls, writing in her journal. She felt something hit her leg. As she looked down to see what it was (a soccer ball), her daypack (along with her guidebook, camera, passport and credit cards) disappeared from here other side. The same trick happened to Charles (US) while sitting in Plaza San Pedro Claver in the same city.

This is an unfortunate thing to say, but in my over 20 years traveling in Latin America, I have learned that much thieving isn’t done by locals at all. Rather, it’s a traveler-on-traveler crime. Too many tourists come to places like Colombia and get involved in taking cocaine or crack. The money runs out and the easiest mark is other foreigners. They’re in the same hostel, and of course they have passports, bank and credit cards, travelers checks and cash. Laptops, cameras, iPods and other gadgets. (Anything is easy to get rid of on the black market, after all.) And who would ever suspect that the culprit is another foreigner just like you? Never!

To keep from giving papaya to these would-be-thieves, take care about where you are staying. Avoid hotels that have a reputation for drugs (they’re illegal anyways). Choose hostels with personal safes or lockers, and use a good-quality lock. Be sure to keep all valuables locked away.

For more security tips, check out V!VA’s Safety in Colombia.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA Colombia. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.