For Our Friends Robbed at Knifepoint: Nicaragua Photos

Audrey and the Girls - Masaya, Nicaragua
Audrey as one of the girls. Masaya, Nicaragua.

We usually share photos to better relate our experiences and provide a more personal look at a country and its culture. Here we do the same, but we add a cautionary tale.

Aside from the garden-variety border scam (from which a group of righteous Nicaraguan women saved us), our time in Nicaragua was pleasant and relatively hassle-free: climbing volcanoes, enjoying colonial cities, visiting revolution and martyrs’ museums, relaxing on a volcanic island, and meeting microfinance clients outside of the capital city.

After our visit, we fortunately had little first-hand experience to refute the prevailing guidebook wisdom suggesting that Nicaragua is the safest country to visit in Central America.

Then a few weeks ago we received a message from Nikol and Martin, a Czech couple we became friends with while trekking Nicaragua’s El Hoyo and Cerro Negro volcanoes. The joy of receiving a message from fellow travelers we really connected with (as it happens, we lived just blocks from one another in Prague) was quickly replaced by shock. Their story knocked the wind out of us:

…after Granada we wanted to go to Rivas…one lady asked us where we were going and said she was going in the same direction. She showed us the bus terminal. When we reached the station, she asked us if we wanted to share a taxi to Rivas; there was a car, she asked the price. (1st mistake: we did not check if it was a real taxi and didn’t mark license plate; 2nd mistake: our bags were put behind the seat, not in the trunk). We sat in the back with the lady and driver… on the way to Rivas he took another guy and he sat with us in the back and after a while another guy came in on the front seat… so we did not have any bad feeling … we were talking with all of them…suddenly the car turned down a quiet street and the guy from the front seat pointed a knife at us and screamed ‘DINEROS!’ (MONEY!)
 
…they caught our hands and legs, put something over our heads, punched Martin a few times and started to search us. We did not have lot of money, even on the credit card, so they were getting more and more upset. They drove with us for two hours and went through our backpacks (behind the seats) and took our clothes, trekking shoes, camera, books, all the souvenirs, cell phone, diary, everything. After 2 hours they kicked us out with our day bags, passports and 400 Cordobas ($20) twenty kilometers from Managua.
 
Some locals took us to a Christian community so we contacted my sister through Skype. The rest of our trip we used Western Union.

Nikol and Martin are experienced travelers. They speak Spanish and have seen their share of scams and adventure (for example, Nikol traveled around Northern India on a motorbike). Their story hit very close to home. The thought that it could have easily been us haunted us for days.

Sure, you could argue that no one should take shared taxis, or that you should write down the license plate number of every one you take. But the reality is that after spending months in Central America without any problems, it’s easy to become accustomed to doing what the locals do, including taking shared taxis and becoming friendly with people you meet on the street.

You become comfortable, you tire, you trust (and you want to trust); you let your guard down. You find yourself at the intersection of fatigue, trust and vulnerability. As long-term travelers, we have all been there. What separated their fate from ours was fortune and timing.

The reality is that Nikol’s and Martin’s experience could have happened in any number of countries. Nicaragua, like anywhere else, is not beyond crime and violence particularly where poverty, money and tourists intersect.

——–

So what does this story have to do with photos from Nicaragua?

Nikol’s message to us ended with:

Please, if by any chance, we can see more pictures from your trip it would be just perfect for us to have something to look through at home and to show to our friends.

So we dedicate these photo sets to Nikol and Martin and the photos they weren’t able to bring home.

Enjoy the natural, architectural and human beauty of Nicaragua in the photos below.

Granada, Esteli, Rivas, and Isla de Ometepe

Climbing Volcanoes in Nicaragua

Microfinance in Masaya

Lazing in Leon

Sunrise in the Valley - El Hoyo, Nicaragua
Sunrise in the Valley, El Hoyo Volcano.

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Comments

  1. says

    My worst nightmare came true for them. That would have been terrifying driving around for 2 hours. I think of all the times we have caught a ride or even in Ethiopia when we were cycling. I was really struggling on a hot day by myself so I ended up hitching a ride a few times all the way to camp. I had no problems, but it could have gone the other way easily. A good reminder to us all to keep our guard up. I understand completely, after a long time on the road, you start to forget that you are an easy target.

  2. says

    I’ve gotten myself into sticky situations (nothing like this though) from time to time and I think it’s when I’ve been a place for a while and start to get comfortable. The initial cautiousness is replaced and it’s easy to make mistakes since you start to feel like a local.

  3. says

    What a terrible experience… I felt so awful reading that. You post is so true – it becomes easier to let your guard down and trust people sometimes rather than be paranoid the whole time you are traveling. Stories like these are what worry me the most as I am preparing to leave home!

    Anyway, so glad I stumbled upon your site today – lots of great posts!

  4. says

    What a disturbing tale. I can understand why they let their guard down, especially with their travel experience. They are lucky to be relatively unharmed. Thanks for sharing this.

    I just discovered your blog today. It’s been a joy to read.

  5. says

    It was so upsetting to read this. It’s frightening for all travelers and foreigners. You never know who you can trust. When people are kind you want to believe they are trustworthy, but I guess since we are not locals we can never fully trust others. So sad, but glad they weren’t seriously injured.

  6. says

    What a terrible story. I am so sad for them and hope that they take the time they need to recover from this awful experience. I am glad that they are safe and wish them all the best.

  7. says

    Thanks to everyone for their comments and empathy about what happened to Nikol and Martin. This really is one of our worst nightmares and served as a reminder to stay on guard.

    @Dave and Deb: I think almost all long-term travelers have hitchhiked (something I would never do in the States) at some point. We did it often in Central Asia, as that is what everyone else did. It’s always difficult to balance wanting to trust locals and acting like a local with remembering you stand out and are a target.

    @Anil: You are so right when you say that when that initial cautiousness slips away that’s when things are more likely to happen. We’ve also had a few near misses…but then you get comfortable again.

    @Mina: Sorry for scaring you with this story before you leave home! Although horror stories like this do make the rounds of websites and bulletin boards, our own journey has shown that the kindness we’ve received from strangers has far exceeded the danger we’ve experienced. It is difficult to balance wanting to trust everyone and being vigilant. There’s a balance you’ll work out on the road.

    @Nomadic Matt: Official taxis are usually marked in the cities of Nicaragua, but that doesn’t guarantee a safe or painless journey. We met a group of Canadian volunteers who had an official taxi (ironically, arranged by their group leader) take them down a small alley in Managua and wouldn’t budge until they paid him a chunk of cash. We heard similar stories in Ecuador, so we’ve been extra careful taking taxis here.

  8. Robert Hill says

    “Aside from the garden-variety border scam…” Could you do your fellow traveling readers a service and describe exactly what the attempted scam was, how it was initiated and how it was avoided. Thanks.

  9. Ob1 says

    @Jason: “but I guess since we are not locals we can never fully trust others”
    This is true but it is not limited to foreigners. Locals, especially poor ones, are at least as likely to be the target of crime as relatively rich travellers from abroad. They live in bad areas, can’t afford a taxi home, no insurance or government which will help them if they really need support. And, in contrast to us travellers, they did not choose the risk of being there – they have no choice. I have friends and family in Ecuador and many of them have lived through similar experiences (despite this, Ecuador is still a relatively safe place compared to many other Latin American countries, especially outside the two main cities).

    No matter how much care one takes it is never entirely safe out on the road. Even if they would have noted down the license plate it might not have done them any good. Many cars have illegal plates, are registred at false addresses or the police won’t act anyway. In the best of circumstances it will get you your camera back, but at least for me the psychological effects of being at the wrong end of a machete while hiking in Guatemala were far worse than the loss of a few dollars and a camera. But I still wish someone would have posted a few pictures for me…

  10. says

    You make a good point. I think it is understood that everywhere in the world the poor are always at a disadvantage. I am confused about your last comment concerning, “But I still wish someone would have posted a few pictures for me…”

  11. says

    @Robert: Land border crossings are always rife with scams, from money changers conveniently leaving a 0 off the currency to special “fees” at immigration to transport confusion. Here’s what happened at the land border between Honduras and Nicaragua. It took us a while to get through immigration control, so we were stuck with a smooth-talking English speaking bicycle taxi to take us to town to catch the bus. He tried this game first: “Just pay me what you want when we get there.” Absolutely not. We agreed on a price. Then, when we got to the bus, he complained because we didn’t tip him 200-500% of the price. Annoyed, we paid him the agreed fee, ignored his pleas for a tip and got on the departing bus with our stuff. A guy then came up to ask asking for bus ticket money, so we paid him. Then, all the Nicaraguan women around us on the bus started yelling that he wasn’t the real ticket guy, but was a friend of the bicycle taxi guy. They sent the real bus ticket person after him and we got our money back. No personal harm was done and in the end it was only about $5 that we would have lost, but still annoying all the same.

    @Ob1: You are very right about how local people are not exempt from crime. We just did a photography project in a “bad” area of Lima. The organization insisted on getting us out by 4 PM because they couldn’t ensure our safety after dark. We could leave, but the hundreds of thousands of people who lived there obviously couldn’t. When we studied in Xela, Guatemala my teacher didn’t leave her house after dark and told stories of local buses getting robbed.

    But, it is also true that travelers do stand out more than locals and are more likely to have cash and electronics on them. Nowhere is 100% safe. I’m really sorry to hear about your experience of getting robbed in Guatemala. The thought of facing a machete or gun just sends chills – I can’t imagine how I would react (and hope I never have to find out).

  12. Lawrence says

    I’m very sorry for what happened to that couple but Nicaragua is actually a very safe country compared to other countries in the continent, foreigners can be crime targets but that is very rare, it will usually happen to people that goes places they don’t know or are just too naive to travel.

  13. says

    @Lawrence: Thanks for your comment. In writing this post, we really tried to be fair to what happened to our friends and also to our general experience in Nicaragua. Having said that, as tourists going from Granada to Rivas (a very common tourist route), our friends were obviously targeted. I cannot say whether this happens frequently or not, but I’m sure they were not the first tourists this will happen to, nor will they be the last. We also stressed the point that our friends were not naive tourists, but rather seasoned. But after one has been traveling a long time, weariness and corresponding vulnerability can set in.

  14. Peter says

    It’s interesting that this lady asks Martin and Nikol where they are going, and when they answer, she says she is going to the same place. When she asked “where are you going” They could have said “we haven’t decided yet. Where are you going?” I’ve never been to Latin America, but I hear the people can be very friendly and it’s easy to let your guard down.

  15. says

    @Peter: I imagine that if Nikol and Martin did have their guard up, they probably would have answered as you had suggested. But, they didn’t have any clue that this woman was part of a scam. You’re right, is very easy to let you’re guard down when you’ve had weeks of great experiences with local people.

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