After a hitchhiking from Canada to Mexico a few years ago I had ended up in Mexico city and decided that buying a $50 bike and cycling to Cancun was a good idea. I spent a night in Mexico City airport Googling cyclist stories about cycling in Mexico but I stopped reading by the third account. In the first two stories I read they were both robbed but in the third they had an amazing time and couldn't wait to do it again. I figured it was best to stop reading on a high note. The next morning when I set off I was fully aware of where I was and the dangers but I knew with the right precautions it could be done smart and safe.
Unfortunately though the odds were against me and about 10 days in I was robbed and was nearly stabbed in the chest, by two guys I spent an afternoon with on the beach. Fortunately I had planned for being robbed and had I stuck to the plan it would've been a minor bump in the road, sadly I didn't stick to the plan and it was game over for that adventure and nearly for me.
These are the safety precautions I took and what I will do differently the next time I find myself travelling in a dodgy country...
Prepare A Fake Wallet
One thing I always travel with is a fake wallet with a few expired bank cards, a couple of American dollars and a few dollars worth of local currency. In the event someone pulls a knife on you, chances are they want to make the robbery as quick as possible so if you pull out your fake wallet and hand it over, chances are they will just open it, see the cards and the little bit of cash inside and make a run for it. It's highly unlikely that they will want to hang around and check your card's expiry dates and will hopefully just assume that that is all the cash you have on you.
Buy Prepaid Credit Cards In Local Currency
Losing your bank cards on the other side of the world is a HUGE pain in the ass so i like to try and have a backup bank card wherever possible. On this trip I had a few prepaid Visa cards with a few hundred US$ on each of them that I bought from a 7/11 that allowed me to withdraw money anywhere in the world.
What makes them so good is that when you get them they come with a code so that you can access the funds online, so if you lose the card you can transfer the money. Almost as good as cash but safer. Make sure you keep these access codes separate from your cards they're no if you lose them along with the cards. Even better, EMAIL THESE DETAILS TO YOURSELF SO YOU NEVER LOSE THEM!
Carry Two Bags
Now I'm not a fan of the two bag look, but in dodgier countries it's a smart choice. Obviously in your main rucksack you'll have all of your clothes, but you also want to make sure all your important stuff like passports, laptops, cash and bank cards are stashed in there too. In your smaller daypack you want to put things like your camera, fake wallet and basically anything else useful for the day.
I know, a bag on the chest is hardly a good look but it's a good safety net. If someone robs you, the last thing they want is a big bag that looks like it weighs 20kgs, nobody's making a quick getaway with that. Instead you can first try and hand over your fake wallet and hope they are happy with what little cash you have in there and make a run for it with just that. If not then offer the daypack as well, hopefully a camera and some cash will be enough for them. Remember those things can be easily replaced at the end of the day, replacing a passport isn't, neither is replacing all your documents and photos on your laptop. The more treats you can put between the robbing bastards and your important possessions in your main bag, the better.
Don't Be A Hero
If you do get rolled by someone, just hand over whatever you need to and let it go. You are in a foreign land and nobody else is guaranteed to be on your side, what you can guarantee though is that the people around you might be friends with the person who's robbing you and could come to their aid rather than yours.
I had spent the day with the guys that robbed me and when it happened I snapped and broke my own rule by pursuing one of the guys. This rash, uncalculated decision almost resulted in me being stabbed in the chest on a remote Mexican beach. Nothing is worth dying for. If they are armed, chances are, in an adrenalin fueled fight or flight situation they will use that weapon to defend themselves even if they had no intention of doing so in the first place. Your life is more important than any material possession.
Always, Always, Always, Always Have Travel Insurance
I did have travel insurance, or so I thought. It wasn't until I reached the airport that I found out my long term travel insurance had expired 4 days previously, forcing me to ask my sister for a loan of £800 for a flight back to the UK because I had lost everything. Fortunately it was only a flight I needed money for, had I been injured my medical bill could potentially have been so large that it would force my mum to sell her house to pay it.
Not having travel insurance is not being thrifty, it's being selfish. Never ever leave for a trip anywhere, even if it's only for a few days, without insurance. It's just not worth it.