The Bungling Burgler

“No tango,” I say feeling sorry for the tall lanky man standing before me. My shoulders shrug and my hands raise. I respond to his “request” like I would a beggar in the zocolo with his hand out. His hand is out except this hand is waving a six-inch kitchen knife. “Money,” he said. The only word of English he knew.

The man turns and walks away. “Good thing I know some Spanish,” I think to myself. I watch him stoop and pick something up. A red backpack laying a few feet from Jess.

In one fluid motion, Jess springs to his feet. He takes two large strides, and shoves the downtrodden man to the ground. The bungling burglar is now sitting on his ass with his legs spread in front of him, waving the blue-handled knife like a kid with a sparkler. Jess backs away with me alongside him.

The bungler stands and stomps towards us. The blade of the knife flashes as it’s moved back and forth in his hand. He is angry now, but still only threatening. We back up but don’t back down. Soon, rocks are clenched in our hands; softball-sized chunks of dense granite. “Give me the bag back,” Jess demands through clenched teeth, his face as red as blood. The Bungler freezes. Anger becomes fear as victims become aggressors.

Yesterday in the hostel, Whitey Titey told me of a couple being robbed at knife point on the same mountain. Did I heed the advice of the old wrinkly man dressed only in underwear that sagged in the ass making it look like he shit himself? No. Of course not. And not because of his saggy, white underwear.

Everywhere I’ve been on my bike I’m told of danger. “Don’t you go to da next city now. They’ll kill ya for shur!” Then the next city tells me the same of the other, “Ya mean ya wint der an’ they didn’t kill ya?”

It gets old hearing the same thing over and over. The world is a dangerous place. Yes, I know. Mexico is especially dangerous: for bungling burglars. Learn your lesson well, dammit! Months of riding hardened our resolve. We are determined and we never give up. Besides, we just wanted to work out. It’s not like we were carrying anything valuable.

The Bungler stands above us on top of the hill. He looks confused and frightened. He doesn’t know what to do. Until, of course, that rock whizzed past his head.

“What’s in the bag?” I ask.

“My wallet and leatherman!” The wallet contains his cards. The leatherman was a gift of great value to him.

“GIVE IT BACK!’ Another dense piece of granite just misses the now terrified burglar. He turns tail running faster than I would have believed.

Jess and I pursue throwing rocks even as we run. A pair of running shoes lie forgotten in the dirt beside the ten foot cross where we were stretching moments before. Jess is barefoot. When this is over, his feet will look like he massaged them with a cheese grater and a hammer.

The trail runs along a ridge and ends in a point. In front of us the trail narrows and zigzags down the mountain becoming lost in a mix of bramble. The Bungler is nowhere to be seen.

“Dammit,” Jess fumes staring off the mountain.

“This isn’t over.” I turn and backtrack along the path. I peek over the east side of the mountain, “Too steep,” I think. I’ve been hunting since I was a kid and my instincts take over. I continue back along the path. Tracks. Bent grass and fresh earth lead to a patch of shrubs. Further over the hill runs a dirt road.

“He’s in the shrubs!” I go into a rage whipping rocks and thundering, “I AM GOING TO KILL YOU.” I don’t really mean it; although, I am more angry than I have ever been in my life. Every muscle tenses as I yell. The Bungler runs down the mountain. It is steep and Jess isn’t wearing shoes.

We lose him at the dirt road, but we find his knife. I know he didn’t go right; I could see that direction as we descended. Did he go left? My instincts say no. A valley descends into a village heading the same direction he had been running. I sit on the edge of the hill hunting this man like I would a deer back home. No noise. No movements. He will think we left.

Ten minutes pass. Maybe fifteen. A small bushy tree begins to shake before a head emerges. I release a rock that hits him in the forehead, a glancing blow that sends him tumbling down the steep hillside.

We attempt to pursue but have no hope. Cactus and thorny plants with spines as long as my finger and sharp as a syringe slow Jess’s barefoot progress to a crawl. Besides. As committed as we were to retrieving the backpack, that man rolled down the damn cliff shredding his skin. Was it worth it?

Our screams had drawn a crowd in the village far below by the time Jess spotted the Bungler running along the road. “Robado,” he hollers with hands cupped to his mouth.

“Where is he,” I ask unable to see the hobbling man. I am lower down the mountain.

“Running up the road through the village,” he says.


“I see him!” He’s running down a flight of steps. He is far away. We know it’s him because of the line of young men pursuing him.

“The villagers are chasing him!”

“They have your bag! Common, let’s get down there.” It takes a long time to descend the mountain. Jess can barely walk.

An elderly woman wearing a red rebozo (the traditional scarf of the indigenous people here. They are worn as clothing accessories, but, more importantly, are utilized as a tool to carry anything from goods for sale to little children) greets us with a grin and hands jess a backpack.

“Is yours in there?” Unaware, the young men who captured the Bungler took his bag.

“Yes! Muchos gracious!” He shakes hands with each excited individual standing in the dirt road. “Muchos gracious.” He removes his red pack then gives the Bungler’s away to a boy of grade-school age. We are given water from a pink bucket – most likely drawn from a nearby spring – then led back up the mountain.

The path back to the cross is little more than a goat path. It is rocky. Cactus are everywhere.

“Take my shoes,” I say passing them to Jess. “You need them more than I do.”

As we walk up the trail, a young man of about 17 years of age points at the ground, cactus for me to avoid. He continues this the entire way.

They tell us the story of what they saw: a man running down the mountain, us throwing rocks, the Bungler tumbling, the blood on his head, arms, and leg.

At the top we thank the young men once more and make our way back down the mountain. I hold a rock in one hand just in case we run into more trouble. Fool me once, the saying goes, shame on you. Fool me twice? Prepare to be pummeled.

This story was a success for one reason: we were determined, we knew what we wanted, and we refused to give up; to be beat. These lessons we learned through the challenges faced on the road during months of riding a bicycle across foreign lands. Through rain and through hail; through thunder and lightning. Up mountains and down canyons. Facing tarantulas and mosquitoes and large biting ants.

These traits became stronger with every obstacle we overcame. With every mile we rode when every fiber of our being begged us to stop; to quit. “No more. Please. Stop! I can’t. I just can’t.” We scream back, louder and sometimes audibly, “SHUT THE FUCK UP! Yes, yes I can. I WILL! I MUST!!!” No quit. That is our motto. Our mantra.

As for Mexico being dangerous, it is and not just for the bunglers of the world. Mexico is dangerous for the people who live here. Cartels terrorize local villages and cities. People who speak out against the government disappear. Foreigners living here are sometimes kidnapped and held for ransom. For the tourist however, most of Mexico is as safe as anywhere else. Tourists spend money filling the pockets of corrupt officials. If tourist are harassed or harmed it draws unwanted attention. Therefor, they tend to leave us alone. Thieves and pickpockets won’t, but they are easy enough to deal with by following these rules:

  • Don’t carry cash and cards all in one place.
  • Carry a “fake” wallet – a wallet with old, expired cards and some cash. I emphasize fake because mine is my daily wallet. I pay for everything with cash anyway. When the cash runs low, I add a few days worth of currency. My debit card is stored elsewhere as is my passport. I also keep small amounts of cash hidden in different places in case of emergency. The goal here is not to lose everything in a worst case scenario.
  • If you know a place is sketchy, avoid it! If you can’t, stay on your guard. We let our guard down and went to a place we knew was sketchy.
  • Clip bags and purses to yourself or to something solid – like a chair at a restaurant or a bench in a bus station – so a thief can’t grab it and run.
  • Above all, use your head and make intelligent decisions. I’ve heard many stories of problems. Most,I could have predicted beforehand from the character of the individual. Most also include drugs and/or alcohol.

7 thoughts on “The Bungling Burgler

  1. Glad you got the bag back – doesn’t always end so well! Maybe he’ll think twice before robbing someone again. Where were your bikes? Where did this happen? I should add it to the hotspots map…
    Cheers, N

    • Our bikes were in a hostel. This happened on the mountain with the amphitheater and planetarium in Mexico in the city of Oaxaca. Not a very useful description to find for mapping purposes! We passed the planetarium and proceeded up dirt trails to the top where a large white cross is located. I would send you a link if I knew how.

      • Is that right in the middle of Oaxaca? Here: Did you go to Montealban? Worth a visit if you’re there. Also hierve el agua is beautiful (I got transport there and back, it’s a bit of a trip. There were some other ruins there as well which weren’t that interesting to me, i forget the name). And then there’s the widest tree in the world somewhere.

      • Yep, that is it! I call it a village. Perhaps it only felt that way being a dead end road on the hill!
        I did go to Monte Alban, incredible place and we had it all to ourselves.
        I missed hierve el agua. Intended to ride their on the way out of the city, but I couldn’t be bothered to ride up the steep, switchbacking, dirt road. I attempted it. Figured my psyche couldn’t handle riding back the next day though…
        Saw the tree.
        I’m in San Cristobal now. Leaving for Guatemala in the next day or two. I’d say tomorrow, but I always say that then stay one more night. Uno mas Noche!

      • Ha ha, the universal experience with long distance bicycle tourers. Just one more night. It’s always so tempting! 3 weeks later… Have fun in Guatemala, I enjoyed getting into a new country immensely after so much time in Mexico. (even though Mexico is awesome). Quetzaltenango is great if you want to study Spanish. Cheap and cool city. I can give you some tips on which school / where to stay. Antigua somewhat touristy but nice volcanoes.

  2. Or six in my case when staying in Mexico City! Yes, I am excited and really nervous. I planned to stay in a school in Xela, but decided I cannot afford the money or the time. Is it worth visiting if not to study? My major goal in Central America Is to climb a mountain. Any recommendations? I read your write up of the one near Antigua.

    • Yes, I reckon it’s a cool place to visit but I think it’s a 10km out and back detour to Xela which from memory was quite flat. (It wouldn’t be a total disaster if you did decide to skip it). Actually, not sure how much you like the back roads but there’s a back route (very steep!) from Xela to Lake Aititlan which I would have liked to have done in hindsight, avoiding the grim buses & traffic. Cass Gilbert talks about it in his blog

      It costs around $100 /week (+/- $20 depending on the school and peak/ off peak) to study Spanish for ‘one on one’ 25 hours. It’s an excellent investment but fair enough if you haven’t got the cash. I stayed in a house share for about Q40 per night and had a massive room. I ended up staying there for about 6 weeks! Una mas semana de español por favor… I preferred the vibe to Antigua, less touristy.

      With regard to climbing mountains, I climbed around 25 peaks or something in Central America, mostly volcanoes. You can find the list here:; I wrote blogs about most of them but feel free to ask me if you want any more info. Loved them all for different reasons. Depends on what you want. If I could only climb three perhaps I’d choose: Tajumulco (because it’s the highest in Central America), Volcan Telica (sounds like a jet engine and you can see molten lava albeit from afar), Cerro Chirripo (highest in Costa Rica, stunningly beautiful but pricey to stay in the compulsory huts at the ‘base camp’; can be done in a very long day hike though). Concepcion and Maderas in Ometepe was also up there with some of my favourites. Pacaya was probably the easiest, least interesting (although pleasant enough) and v. touristy.
      More about Tajumulco & Xela here plus the two different schools I went to (scroll down):

      There are some great back routes through Costa Rica by the way. I have a route map.

      Sorry, I seem to have written a thesis.

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