Pickpockets, Mustard and Spit: Scams You Never Knew About

by Kelly on November 17, 2010

Coca Leaf Reader - Witches Market - La Paz - Bolivia
photo credit: Roubicek– Witches Market

It was a hot day in the heart of La Paz, Bolivia, when a friend and I were walking towards the “Witches Market” to go shopping for the day.

We wove through narrow windy alleys, hands in our pockets, people everywhere, when all of a sudden, I felt something wet and hot fly to my hand and my arm.

I looked down in shock, to find a huge amount of human spit covering me.

At first, I was mortified thinking that someone spit on me because I was a small white girl at a local market. I thought it was a ‘welcoming,’ in a you’re-not-welcome-here kind of way, and that someone was watching my reaction, enjoying the look of horror and embarassment on my face.

So, I just kept walking. Stoic, seemingly unfazed.  

It was the best thing I could’ve done (although, I’ll confess, as soon as I turned the corner I wiped it off of me and spent a good few minutes wiggling around going “eww eww ew ewwwww”.)

As travelers we are consistently aware of the dangers we face, and in places like South America, this fear seems to be a bit more prevalent, as thefts are common and we’ve all heard some horror stories.

photo credit: matiasjajaja

While I personally believe that South America is a wonderful, beautiful place that satisfies my soul like no other, there is no denying that traveling through it entails a certain amount of risk. While the things I talk about here are centered around my experience in South America, they certainly are not restrictive. These things happen everywhere.

After I returned to my hostel and started talking to other travelers, I caught the jist:

It wasn’t a warning, nor a welcome–but a scam to rob me.

Had I stayed there a minute longer, had I not kept walking, someone likely would’ve come up to me, apologizing and trying to wipe the spit off, while systematically taking everything from my pockets.

It happens SO FAST.

photo credit: Daquella manera

So, I thought I’d share some other stories I heard from travelers with you, so that you can be aware of some running scams out there, and better protect yourself.

  • You get ketchup or mustard squirted on your shoulders. Your first instinct is to lift your arms to wipe it off and POOF–your pockets are picked.

  • Someone comes up to you to try and talk to you about directions, or food, or anything really, while their friend sneaks up behind you and slashes your backpack.

  • You are distracted by someone yelling at you while walking down the street. You keep walking, but turn around to look at them and the commotion they make. Poof. Someone is in front of you, and has just stolen your wallet.

  • Or like me, someone spits on you or spills something on you. Someone comes up, apologizing profusely, seemingly sincere. You walk away thinking it was nice of them to be so concerned… but they took your passport.

I try not to live a life of fear, especially when I travel, and I have never had ANY problems. But, people do. Things get stolen. These guys are good.

So, to protect yourself, always keep an eye of your belongings and your surroundings.

  • Look around. Who is looking at you?

  • If anyone ever spills, spits or squirts anything on you, put your hands immediately in your pockets and keep walking, quickly. Push aside anyone who tries to come up and apologize.

  • At this point, most thieves know that the small backpack we carry on our front is really the one they want. Make it hard for them to get to it. Keep your arms on it or near it. Look like you know where you are, where you’re going and that you know exactly what you’re doing, even if you don’t.

  • Subways (or Subte in Argentina) are particularly re-knowned for theft, as they often get so crowded everyone is pushed together. Do NOT lose sight of your bag. Keep it in front of you at all times, with your arm pushed down on it. Don’t have anything in your pockets on the Subte.  You will notice everyone, even the locals, are guarding their purses the same way. 

  • When on a crowded bus or subte or train, DO NOT pull out your phone. Sometimes when we’re bored or alone in our home countries, we play with our phone to pass the time. Not a good idea here.

  • Never trust anyone who approaches you. Trust your gut on this one. Most of the time, if they need something they’ll know better than to talk to someone who is obviously foreign.

  • Don’t carry anything in your back pocket. Ever. If you can avoid carrying things in any pocket, do it.


I really want to re-iterate that I personally have never had any problems while traveling, through South America, or anywhere. But there’s no denying that bad things do happen: thefts, particularly. So take precautions and watch out for these common scams.

What about you? Have you ever been scammed while on the road?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Poi November 18, 2010 at 2:45 pm

hmmm annoying and disgusting! Never heard of this type of pick pocketing before and hopefully won’t ever have to experience it!

ayngelina November 18, 2010 at 4:56 pm

I’ve been lucky so far although I rarely carry much on me when I’m out and about.

Another one to add to the list for Ecuador:

Someone you think is working for the bus company insists you put your day bag up top on the rack or offers to put it up there for you.


Always insist it’s kept on your lap. Don’t even put it at your feet. I’ve met so many people robbed that way. I once had a guy selling CDs on the bus offer to put it up top but there’s no way it’s ever off my lap, even the 12 hour buses.

Kelly November 18, 2010 at 8:38 pm

That’s a REALLY good one Ayngelina! You’re right. Always always always keep your small day bag on you. When I was in South America I never let that thing out of my sight. For long bus rides, I would find a way to sleep with it either under my body or smashed between the window and my body, so that no one would ever be able to touch it. It’s crazy how fast things disappear the second you aren’t aware.

Nicolas November 19, 2010 at 10:19 am

You’re very right, scamming happens everywhere, but in South America scammers tend to be very inventive.
On the other hand, I’ve heard a lot of stories but I have never been robbed myself. It’s like a reflex, when I’m in a busy place, I take extra care of my stuff. Most of the time I also have an idea of who’s around me. This is not a first sign of paranoia, it’s just that I like watching people and this is a lucky result of that.

You’ve provided a couple of good tips against scamming, the only thing I have a problem with is the “Never trust anyone who approaches you”. This is just not fair. About 95%-98% of all people are trustful. It’s normal to be a little cautious around people you just met, but I think that not trusting people is not a good attitude…

To finish I also have another scam:
Last summer in Nicaragua, there were girls with a lonely planet under their arm, asking people to share a cab. “Luckily” there is already a cab waiting next to her. The moment you get in, doors get closed, knifes come out and you get robbed.

Kelly November 19, 2010 at 4:04 pm

Aah that’s terrifying! You have a good point about trusting people. I too believe most people are trustworthy. I guess it just comes down to trusting your gut.. however, I still have a hard time giving in and totally trusting people that approach me on the street in South America. Maybe it’s just a reflex. Also, I noticed when I came home from South America that I was always walking with my head down, trying not to make eye contact with anyone. I guess I developed this habit to thwart the catcalls and the heckling that sometimes come from being a solo female traveler. Strange, huh?

Nelieta June 16, 2011 at 4:41 pm

In some of the poorer countries you definitely have problems with pickpocketing but not in all the countries. I have travelled solo in many South American countries and never had any problems. Now I live here in Argentina 🙂

Anahi September 16, 2011 at 9:12 pm

You are so right!! I have also noticed that when I walk I never look at people and keep my bag very close…Even if I am not in South America!!…I guess is already a habit in me. Is better not to be too trustful when you are traveling. Is sad, but some years ago robbery was not a problem in these countries.

mariel April 3, 2012 at 4:03 pm

Im here studying in argentina. theft is a pretty common occurrence no matter where you are, in a crowded place or a quiet place. people are robbed at atms, my roommates bag was cut off of her at a bus stop where there were few people in broad daylight. natives and foreigners guard their bags at all times. as it is unsafe walking around my neighborhood at night, i always take a remis and carry my money in my bra. if you don´t have a bag, you are less of a target. i never carry my original passport. that stays in my room drawer at all times. photocopies are sufficient and i dont bother to carry my visa card because hardly anywhere accepts them. keep small bills with you and nothing more. most places dont even have change for 50 or 100 pesos. be alert at all times. it´s obvious that stuff happens when there are police check points to protect taxi drivers from being robbed or car jacked. be smart. don´t dress provocative. speak the native language as often as possible. don´t draw attention to yourself or that you are not from the country of choice. good luck and have fun!

Leah Eades December 6, 2012 at 12:52 pm

I had the mustard one in Quito. My friend and I were walking along, then one of us asked “Is it raining? Because my back feels wet…” and we both suddenly realised the backs of both our clothes and bags were covered with mustard.
Right on cue, a man appeared, brandishing tissues, and made straight for us as if to clean us up. He really might as well have been brandishing a mustard bottle and swag bag in the other hand, it was so obvious.
Luckily we’d been forewarned about this particular trick, so instead of being able to rob us, he was instead faced with 2 very angry shrieking girls screaming in his face and causing a massive scene, and he ran away.
Just goes to show it’s good to be forewarned! Once you’re aware of the scam it seems ridiculous that anyone could ever fall for it.

… I mean, I then immeidately had my bag slashed on the tram back to the hostel, but whatever. Can’t win everything! (Tip: watch your bag on crowded trams!)

Kelly December 13, 2012 at 11:39 pm

Ugh, the mustard trick is the worst! I just went back to South America with Semester at Sea, and told everyone about it. They were laughing at first, and then it happened to a few people! Luckily they were already aware and didn’t get pickpocketed! These scams are crazy!

Leave a Comment

{ 4 trackbacks }

Previous post:

Next post: