Do you ever hear travel stories and think it sounds like a completely different world, with completely different rules?
When I was 25, I backpacked around the world for a year. I spent 8 months travelling across South and Central America solo. By the time I arrived in Guatemala, one of the northernmost countries in Central America, I was a pretty seasoned traveller. I had spent over half a year speaking pigeon Spanish, and navigating across a continent solo.
I arrived at the city of Flores by overnight bus. The picturesque city is based on a small island in the middle of a lake, connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. The overnight buses arrive at 5 in the morning. Local minibuses wait for the daily delivery of tourists, and then shuttle the tourists across the bridge and into the city. These taxi rides are free, because the tour leaders hope to sell other services to those arriving in the city.
Overnight buses in Central and South America are standard long-distance travel. Most coaches are pretty basic, and even when you’re prepared with an inflatable pillow, earplugs and a sleeping bag, it can be a pretty uncomfortable night’s sleep. And so barely awake, I arrived in Flores, and was ushered onto a minibus.
As we drove into the city, the tour guide asked what I wanted to do while I was in Flores. I had a tight schedule, but there were two things I wanted to book – a trip to Tikal, an ancient Mayan city and UNESCO world heritage site, and a bus ticket to Belize. The tour guide, Enrique, said he could do both. He would take me to Tikal later that day, and then he’d arrange for me to get to Belize a few days later.
True to his word, a few hours later he picked me up, and dropped me at Tikal. Sleep-deprived, I paid him for both trips, and was told that a bus driver would collect me a few hours later. It was only when I walked around Tikal that I realised I hadn’t been given a proper bus ticket for Belize. I explored the national park, but the issue was playing on my mind. Surely I needed a proper ticket. When would I see the tour guide again?
As I boarded the bus, I showed the bus driver the receipt I’d been given for the Belize trip – could I use this with the bus company? The bus driver shook his head, the expression on his face suggesting something bad was happening. Back at my hostel, I asked the same question. The receptionist gave me the same reply, and added ‘not this guy again … I think you need to go to the police!’
My next day in Flores was spent at the police station, making a report about the tour guide. When I told them what had happened, they knew exactly who I was talking about. ‘Enrique Pop Chub … he’s been doing this for months’. I filled out a complaint and asked what I could do – I was set to leave Flores the next day. The police couldn’t help.
And then I realised something … every morning at 5am the overnight buses arrived. And every morning at 5am Enrique and the other tour guides were there to meet them. I set my alarm for 4 o’clock, and headed to bed. I was going to stake out Enrique, and get my money back!
The following morning, I woke well before my alarm, nerves waking me. I walked across the causeway, off the island, and down to the road where the taxis waited for the bus. It was still dark as I walked from one tourbus to the next, searching for Enrique. ‘He’s not here!’ the other bus drivers said. And then one of them realised what was going on. ‘Did he sell you a fake ticket? This guy! He’s spoiling tourism for the whole city – he’s conned so many tourists!’
Enrique hadn’t yet arrived at the meeting spot. ‘He will be here soon.’ One of the bus drivers told me. ‘We will help you get your money back!’ And that was exactly what they did. When Enrique Pop Chub finally appeared to meet the overnight bus, I was flanked by five or six of the locals. They did the talking. ‘Give this girl her money back. You’re ruining tourism in Flores!’
And do you know what? I got my money back! It was probably only £20 or £30, but when you’re living on a few dollars a day, that’s a lot of money … and out of principle I wasn’t going to lose it to a con artist! I got my money back, and bought a proper ticket from one of the guys who helped me.
I managed to stake out a Guatemalan con artist … and got my money back!
You can’t make this sh*t up!