Note: I originally wrote this post in October 2016 right after “the incident” while the details were fresh. Now I’m prepared to share my story.
When I was backpacking across Latin America, I took the bus everywhere. Not only is it the cheapest option, I also think it’s the best way to really get to know a country. In order to meet the locals, you need to BE with the locals!
99% of my bus rides went just fine. There was just this onnnnnne incident that will stick with me forever. While I completely encourage taking the public bus on your travels, please make sure to put your safety first! I learned this firsthand when I accidentally took a dangerous road in Colombia at night. (Btw, this is a long post, so if you want to skip ahead to my bus safety tips, scroll to the bottom.)
My scary story took place on a “night bus” in southern Colombia on October 3, 2016, two months into my first solo backpacking trip. I kept it private so my parents wouldn’t freak out while I was gone for another 9 months. Now that I’m home safe, here it goes!
My overnight bus in Colombia was stopped abruptly at 4am, and men in black masks came on board shooting guns.
Yes. Two men dressed in all black with black masks came on MY BUS shooting handguns. At the roof. At the windows. It was scary as hell! I wish I could insert a photo of the moment the first man stepped on the bus because it will be ingrained in my brain forever. But of course, I didn’t have my iPhone out for a “Hey look! A local holdup!” experience.
Before I go any further, let’s back it up a bit…
My friend Hannah and I had already been traveling by bus for over 30 hours. We started deep in southern Ecuador and were trying to San Agustín, a town in the Andes Mountains of western Colombia, all in one shot. It was going to take us nearly two full days of travel, but we were up for the challenge (and Hannah’s Ecuador visa had run out)! After a series of missed buses, delays, and bus terminal woes, we boarded our fifth bus on our second day of travel. It was an overnight bus leaving the Colombian border town of Ipiales at 10pm and headed for Cali via the Pan American Highway. I did not know that this was considered a dangerous route to take at night and neither did Hannah. It was all routine backpacker travel.
We purchased the two last tickets going out on the very last bus for the day. We thought we were super lucky we didn’t have to stay in a questionable border town. As we boarded and started walking towards our seats in the back row, I noticed we were the only tourists/gringas on board. The bus made a brief stop, and a police officer came on to get copies of everyone’s identification. Routine check, I guess. When I told him I was from the United States and flashed him my passport, he gave me an odd smile and said “wowwwww.” What was he thinking in that moment?
For the next several hours, I was in and out of sleep and never comfortable because: A) I couldn’t stay in my seat. I kept sliding off due to our bus driver taking corners at incredibly fast speeds on ridiculously windy roads! And B) There was a man sitting near me that reeked of booze and kept trying to strike up a conversation. (This was when I learned that “mami” was going to be a new nickname for me in Colombia.) I wasn’t sure what his intentions were, so I clutched my belongings and tried to stay awake. Minor bus robberies are not uncommon among tourists, unfortunately, so I was a wee bit paranoid. I was not prepared for what happened next, however.
I remember looking at my phone at 3:42am, feeling queasy and way too tired. I was bouncing out of my chair, holding on for dear life, when moments later the driver SLAMMED on the brakes. I’m talking super abrupt. I thought we had hit someone. Everyone woke up, and all the lights turned on. Hannah groggily said “I hate it when they do this,” thinking someone was going to get on selling food. I heard yelling outside. Then, a man dressed in all black with a black ski mask boarded the bus. I don’t remember saying this, but apparently I took a breath and said “He has a mask,” stating the obvious.
The series of events that happened next could have taken place over 5 minutes or less. Time seemed to have stopped. The man in the mask pulled out a gun and fired a shot at the roof. I don’t even remember seeing the gun. I just remember hearing the shot. Instinctively, Hannah and I dove underneath our seats and tried to make ourselves into tiny balls. There was yelling in Spanish while more shots were fired. My first thoughts were, I’m going to die. They’re going to kill everyone on this bus. What everyone said was right. Colombia IS dangerous. Mom and dad are going to be so sad. More yelling. Hannah and I attempted to crawl even further underneath our seats to protect our heads. Hannah held my hand. She also covered my head trying to protect me since I was in the aisle and exposed. Neither one of us screamed or cried. It was total chaos and I was frozen. My Spanish brain wasn’t working so I couldn’t understand what was being said. Then, I felt the man beside me. Mr. Black Mask said “Plata, plata” which means “money.” It all started to make sense. They were here to rob us. (Sigh of relief.)
“Hannah, we need to give them money. Get out your money.” Hannah was trying to unlock her backpack while I was reaching into my money belt, trying to determine how much to give them. “How much should we give them? How much are you giving them?” I asked Hannah. This conversation might sound silly to you. Just give them everything, right? Maybe not. I thought back to all the horror stories I’d ever heard, including kidnappings for ransom. Plus, I could only find American dollars, not pesos. They would think I’m a rich gringa for sure! If I gave them too much, would they kidnap me? If I didn’t give them everything, would they be mad and shoot me? I held around $60 in my hand, prepared to give it to the man the next time he came to my row…But luckily he never came back. I didn’t have to hand over anything. The men in black masks were gone.
It was incredibly silent and smelled like gun powder. Slowly, Hannah and I peeked our heads up. The man who was striking up a conversation with me only moments early confirmed that yes, there were gone, and it was OK to get up now.
Maybe it was the fact that we were in the last row. Maybe it was enough for them that Hannah’s Kindle was left on the seat, and they took that, thinking it was an iPad or something far more valuable. Maybe it was the fact that we were hiding underneath our seats, not listening to a word they said, and we were too much trouble for them. It turns out that the rest of the bus passengers were obediently sitting in their seats with their hands behind their heads as they were being robbed row by row. That is what the men were yelling. “Sit with your hands behind your head!!”
Did I realize that at the time? No. If I had understood, would I have listened? I’m not sure. When someone comes into your personal space and starts shooting, wouldn’t you instinctively run for cover? All I could think of at the time was the shootings that had happened over the years at home (school shootings, movie shootings, nightclub shootings, police shootings, you get the picture.) I had luckily never been in a shooting before, but all the stories I had heard of survival were either that they were randomly shooting people, and they got lucky…or they were hidden, playing dead, underneath dead bodies, etc. I remember thinking “play dead, play dead” which also didn’t make sense at the time because they weren’t shooting to kill. It turns out there was one shot fired very close to me, just two rows ahead, through the window. That might have been the shot I heard after one of the robbers yelled “quiete!” (shut up!”) to one of the passengers. I remember it was SO LOUD.
Slowly, Hannah and I returned to our seats. I looked at her, she looked at me, we breathed a deep sigh of relief…and then we started laughing uncontrollably. Like crazy, hysterical laughter. I was also burping nonstop, hoping I wouldn’t vomit. We laughed some more. I had a solo tear streaming down my cheek while I was laughing and burping uncontrollably. Hannah asked me if I was OK. “No!” I said, in between laughter and burps. But I was OK. We were OK. Everyone was OK. A woman in the front proclaimed “Nos vivimos!” (“We’re alive!”) and excited, nervous chatter ensued. The woman in front of me kept asking me if I was scared. WASN’T I SCARED? She was probably confused as to why we were laughing so hard. It was the shock and nerves. “Of course I was scared!” I said. “I was hiding underneath my seat the entire time! I didn’t know what was going on, so I did nothing!” I exclaimed. That’s when I learned what the rest of the bus was doing in the meantime. Even knowing what I know now, I don’t think I would have changed a thing. Hannah and I reacted instinctively, and we got out of it OK. Thank God.
The bus driver’s assistant assessed the damage and taped up the two windows that had bullet holes through them. (Safety glass, check!) We slowly pulled away and were on the road again. When we passed a police checkpoint, the bus driver started to slow down. Everyone started shouting nervously to keep going and continue onward to the next police checkpoint. It was the weirdest coffee break of my life. (There was an open cafe where we stopped!) I think they were afraid because we were still very close to where the incident took place. We drove on for another 5 minutes until we hit the next group of police vehicles. (Clearly this road is patrolled a lot at night.) We pulled over and everyone got off the bus. We spent the next hour or so hanging out, swapping stories, and talking to the police. A military vehicle pulled up, and the cops went back to the scene of the crime to see what they could find. Much to my surprise, they came back with a ton of people’s stuff! Backpacks and wallets filled with IDs, but light on cash and credit cards. The robbers took what they wanted and nothing else.
Once dawn hit, we boarded the slightly broken bus, and were on our way again. Needless to say I was wide away for the rest of the trip. Hannah had to keep assuring me that it wasn’t going to happen again.
So…what did I learn from this experience? Life is precious and sometimes short. Something unexpected can happen at any moment, so never miss any opportunity to tell your family you love them. Also, do what you love! You know, all that deep stuff. : ) It’s all so very true.
And then from a practical, this is how you travel on a bus in South America standpoint…
- Travel in daylight whenever possible. Truth be told, I begrudgingly took two more night buses after that experience (one in northern Colombia and one in Mexico), but I also took hundreds of buses during the day. It’s just safer to travel during daylight than at night. End of story.
- Research bus routes in advance. Will you be on a dangerous road that should be avoided at night at all costs? (That was our road. I did not know that.) It turns out that Lonely Planet even recommends taking a police escort if you have to travel that road at night. I met a guy who told me that his night bus had military and police escorts when he took that road back in 2014. Why wasn’t my bus blessed with such a thing?
- Sit near the back of the bus. I think that is partially why we were left alone. They robbed the front of the bus first and were in a time crunch. Sometimes a lot of people get on and off the bus mid-trip, so it’s just nicer to stay out of the way too.
- Practice the buddy system. As a solo traveler, I definitely had my share of solo bus journeys, and they were all completely fine. I just always felt a little bit more comforted when I had another backpacker next to me. This is particularly useful if one of you needs to use the toilet and you don’t want to leave your belongings unattended. (I always take mine with me! A girl got her passport stolen at a rest stop in Costa Rica. Even the “safest countries” have their crime.)
- Disperse your valuables, and don’t leave your belongings unattended. At the time of the robbery, I wished I had put some cash and credit cards in my backpack that was locked up underneath the bus. It’s good to diversify, just in case! This also means, don’t put things on the rack above your seat. Keep your most precious belongings on you, and even be careful placing your backpack on the floor without having it secured around your leg and with a lock. I met several people who left a bus with a much lighter backpack, or to have it completely gone when they left it overhead.
Welcome to Colombia, my friends! In all seriousness, Colombia was one of my FAVORITE countries the entire trip, so please don’t let my story keep you from visiting this beautiful place. I was there for over two months and found the people to be so warm, outgoing, and helpful (robbers aside). While this was a completely crazy experience, I took it all in stride and continued traveling and taking buses for 9 months afterwards. It didn’t deter me or make me want to head home. It just made me all the more cautious and potentially prevented even scarier things from happening down the road. It was all part of my journey.
Have you ever taken an overnight bus?
What other safety tips do you have for international travel?