Hug-Mugged in Ecuador

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader had a night in the capital city he’ll never forget:

Back in 2008, after completing college, I went on a backpacking trip through South America. Best time I ever had.

But it didn’t end well. I was in Quito, Ecuador, and I returned late to my youth hostel after getting lost. I’m a rather huge fellow, so I wasn’t much nervous about it. While standing outside the place waiting for the receptionist to wake up, two ladies approached me—and wrapped themselves around me.

They did so not because of my immense allure, but rather to pickpocket me. After I felt my phone leave my pocket, I caught a hold of one of the señoras demanding it back. She took out a can of pepper spray and gave me a long extended blast to my face.

So, I lost my phone. And my eyes were melting. I inhaled quite a bit of the spray, so my airway was burning. I was screaming.

It didn’t end there. While stumbling around screaming and crying, I tripped over something and broke my ankle. And to cap it all, I had an allergic reaction and spent some time in a not-so-lovely hospital. As a result, I missed my flight home. And upon coming back, I discovered that my insurance claim was denied. My family still thought I was the one at fault.

I still love Ecuador though. Been there twice since.

Have you ever been mugged on vacation? Drop us a note and we’ll post. Update from Chris, whose terrible travel experience ended up being the best thing ever:

I was traveling through Europe, with a plan to hang in Sevilla for a few years, or until the military junta in Burma collapsed under the strain of international sanctions and the Nobel Peach Prize that had just been awarded to Aung San Suu Kyi (this was 1991). I decided to stop in Barcelona for a few days en route to Sevilla, so I could get a sense of the city before moving on.

My first night there, I was sitting on a bench on las Ramblas, watching people go by, when a guy tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I knew where the statue of Columbus was. As it turned out, it was probably the only site I’d seen, so I pointed out where it was. Of course, while doing this, his accomplice was making off with my bag, which contained my passport and a journal I’d been keeping for several years while traveling. Shit.

Next day, I went to the consulate to apply for a new passport, which I was told would take about a week. Since I’d be stuck in Barcelona for a week, I decided to call a guy whom I’d met in the Copper Canyon of Mexico several years earlier. We’d only hung out for an afternoon, but he’d given me his sister’s phone number and told me to give her a ring if I was ever in Barcelona, as she’d know where he was. I called and explained as best I could that I knew Marcos. She said, “He’s right here, hold on.”

Long story short, Marcos took it upon himself to share all the best parts of Barcelona with me: his friends, his favorite spots, hikes in the Pyrenees. By the time my new passport arrived, someone had offered me a job, someone else rented me a room in his flat, and I had met a few women whom I definitely wanted to know better ...

Twenty-five years later, I’m still based in Barcelona and am grateful to those thieves.