Robbed in Rio

Robbed in Rio
I was taking a photo of that small billboard when it happened (photo via Google Maps)

99 out of 100 times I look around before I take my phone out in public. 99 out of 100 times I put my back against a wall or object if I have it out for any longer than a quick snap. 99 out of 100 f#¢&ing times I’m aware, cautious and more than a little paranoid.

Yesterday afternoon was that 1 out of a 100 times.

For the past four and half years of traveling through Latin America, in and around more sketchy areas than I can count, not once have I been robbed, pick-pocketed or even threatened.

I’ve listened to all the unfortunate robbery stories of friends and other travelers with a grain of salt because in many cases, they did something wrong.

I see the way many tourists handle themselves in the streets and I think; of course you’re going to get robbed, you’re way too comfortable and completely unaware of what’s around you.

Yesterday I got too comfortable and became one of those cautionary tales and I hate the fact that I’m even writing this story…

After lunch, I was walking back to my office down a crowded main street in Botafogo, when I stopped to take a quick iPhone photo of a World Cup poster to use for an upcoming post.

The first one sucked so I waited for people to pass and steadied my hands for one more.

All of a sudden I felt the phone being lifted out of my hands like someone was playing a joke on me.

Unaware of what just happened, I looked ahead to find a shirtless local kid on a bike, no more than 12 years old, clutching my phone as he jumped the curb and peddled hard into the busy traffic.

He reached back and stuffed the phone down the side of his boardshorts and I took off after the little bastard.

I sprinted down the crowded white-collar streets as fast I could, trying to keep an eye on his every move. He found a clear path along the shoulder of the road and picked up speed as I struggled to keep up.

After about nine city blocks he made a turn down a side street and by the time I got there he was just a speck in the distance. I searched street after street for the next hour, hoping he stopped to celebrate, no such luck.

This kid made a perfect grab and he wasn’t sticking around for anything. He was long gone and so was my phone.

I felt completely deflated and helpless.

I wasn’t even mad that he stole my phone – I can get a new phone. I wasn’t even mad that this kid was a thief – that’s probably all he knows. I was fucking pissed because I slipped up and got too comfortable.

People like this kid are opportunists and I gave him an opportunity.

Unfortunately there are many like him all over the world and you have to be aware all the time. 99 out of 100 times just isn’t enough.

After facing reality I went back to office to see if I could track my phone online. No luck there because I didn’t install a tracking app.

I explained to the office assistant what happened and she told me to go to the police station close by. Despite knowing that it would make me even more frustrated, I went, filled out a report and they couldn’t have cared less. But, that’s a whole other story.

From there I went to my local cell phone provider to see if they could track my phone with the chip (SIM card), no such luck.

I was defeated…

So what can I learn from this shitty situation?

Maybe this was just what I needed. Maybe this came at a perfect time. Maybe it was a (light) reminder that I’m not untouchable.

Maybe I needed to rekindle my awareness and focus on the tactics that have protected me and my things up until yesterday afternoon.

The truth is, it could have been A LOT worse. It wasn’t a stick up, he didn’t get anything else (wallet, camera, etc.) and I didn’t loose anything important from my phone.

I back up my photos and data from the phone onto my computer every few days and I have already canceled my local phone contract.

The worst thing that came of this is that I’m out a few hundred dollars and I’ll be off my Instagram for a few days until I get a new phone delivered from the States (electronics here are ridiculously expensive).

Next time I will install that Find my Phone app.

With all that said, I’m just upset with myself for letting this happen. I pride myself on being aware even in the most chaotic situations and I let it happen on a freaking walk back to the office.

You have to be mindful all the time.

Maybe now is a good time to write some tips and observations about the things I’ve seen and heard over the years to help prevent other travelers from being robbed.

I always thought I would be the right person to give this advice because it has never happened to me… shit.

Anyway, that’s enough swearing and pouting for this guy, I just had to get that out.

Let’s get back to having fun!

My name is Gareth Leonard, a Marketing Director turned World Traveler with a passion for slow, meaningful travel. I have been traveling the world full-time for the past 9+ years and document it all on Instagram and YouTube. Come join me!


  1. Brother, I’m sorry to hear about that. Getting robbed is no fun, and it’s surely no joke, even though it feels like it in those first few seconds where your just thinking “wtf, is this actually happening to me?”
    I had been traveling for several months from through Ecuador, Peru and Chile last year when on my last night before flying back to Miami I let my guard down in Santiago. I had been taking extra precautions in every way I could throughout the whole trip, switching street-sides to avoid walking by other people, staying away from the sketchy streets I was informed of and always having escape routes in the back of my head in case any shit went down. I was too enthralled with the fact it was my last night, walking by the park on a busy street I thought was safe but I failed to follow this instinct to cross the road like I had done so many times before, to avoid a couple of teenagers walking the opposite way. Well, sure enough one of them reached out to shake my hand and even though the switch went off in my head to brush aside and move past them instead before I had the time to react they had me up against the wall with a knife poking my belly going through my pockets, they got my phone with all of my writing and a lot of invaluable sentimental photos but I walked away with nothing but a little indention on my skin where the knife was (people on the other side of the street watched as this happened). I didn’t even have my phone out. Sucks though, I’ve just learned that nothing is here to stay, keep your head on a swivel but to walk away safe is only a reminder that material things come and go :/

    1. Well said Caleb! Luckily, my experience wasn’t as intense, I’m just bummed I let my guard down and gave this kid an opportunity.

  2. Welcome to the club. You’ll be able to laugh about it soon enough.

    I just started taking my iPhone out in Medellin 2.5 years after I was robbed of my last phone (a Blackberry). I know it makes me a bigger target (I mean what’s the use of carrying around a smartphone if you’re too afraid to use it).

    But this time around, it backs up to the cloud, I’ve got Prey tracking software installed ( and I’m financially covered for the loss through a policy with

    Cover your bases, and it’s little more than a glorified paperweight they’re getting away with!
    Dave recently posted..Online Taxman: The Budget-Friendly Expat Tax ServiceMy Profile

    1. As long as you do that, you’ll be fine Ronny. Don’t give anyone the opportunity to surprise you and South America is an absolutely amazing place.

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