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Robbed While Biking the Argentina Wine Trail: Our Firsthand Account

February 23, 2012 at 3:20 PM | by | ()

Policia truck in which we rode

Me robaron. Me robaron. ME ROBARON. I was robbed.

I've gotten very good at saying this in Spanish in the last 20 hours, as yesterday around 3pm local time in the wine tourism town of Maipú, Argentina, a man reached into the basket of the bicycle I was riding, and stole my Nikon DSLR camera. That's the simple way of explaining what went down; the full explanation is far more harrowing, and you can guarantee that I've spent every waking moment since then replaying the events in my mind, wondering how a nice day of biking to vineyards turned into an ordeal involving 17 bulletproof vest-wearing members of the local Policia.

Here we go.

Traveling in Argentina as I am now still, it is not a vacation. It is work, with occasional long coffeebreaks to see the sights and—as I hoped yesterday—to finally experience the popular self-lead biking tours of the many vineyards in the Cuyo region. I am traveling with a friend (a guy) and we both set out in a taxi from our rural hotel just south of Maipú, to hit Mr. Hugo's bike rental, only a 10-minute bike ride from the first winery in the neighborhood, on the Ruta del Vino. Alas, there was one problem; we had run out of cash and, according to the bike rental and town tourist information booth, this was a cash-only area. Luckily there was an ATM just a few blocks away! It was out of cash. Later, we would discover that it is almost always out of cash, which is ABSOLUTELY IDIOTIC for the only cash machine in a heavily touristed area (a cash machine with a service fee around $4 per foreign card withdrawal, mind you).

This was the real beginning of the trouble, for we then had to bike 20 more minutes out of the way and into the center of Maipú, to a real bank.The tourist information booth gave us a horrible map that named only a few streets and had very little detail of the city. With no WiFi for miles, we couldn't exactly just whip out our iPhones and GPS locate anything either.

At the bank in Maipú, we retrieved cash just fine, but most other businesses were closed as it was Ash Wednesday. Residents were at home, hanging out in their yards, or heading to church. The roads we biked were busy, and paved. Alas, the map was horrible as previously said, and after leaving the bank we began to bike back towards the vineyards. All this time, I had a small black backpack with the few essentials I needed for the day, including my Nikon D80 camera.

In this town, as in the nearby larger town of Mendoza, the streets are filled with rusting (but still running!) vintage automobiles. We're talking FIAT 500s, 600s, old Renaults, Peugeots and seriously brightly painted Dodges from the early 1970s. I was photographing them for an upcoming feature here on Jaunted. While biking, I knew—from reading this WikiTravel article—that snatchings from tourist bikes was a common occurrence, so I wrapped the backpack straps and the camera strap around my handlebars, and kept them tucked down into the basket. I would, however, slip the camera out while riding, and shoot from the hip if we passed a particularly interesting clunker. The robbers must've seen me do this several blocks before they headed us off.

Down a major street—Correa—we hit a dead end in a normal neighborhood (thank you, crappy map) and heard a scooter motor down the dirt road to the left. We turned around to bike back down the main, paved Correa and just as I got peddling, a man approached from behind me, on my right and, without touching me, went straight for my DSLR tucked into the top of my backpack. But the strap caught the handlebars.

I remember everything. What he was wearing, the color of their scooter (a moped, not a motorbike), that they were two young men (like 18 or 20 years old) on it, and only one got off to approach me while the other waited, poised to zoom off once the grab was complete. I yelled; it wasn't "ayuda" (help) that came out of my mouth, but "hell no!" This became "Fuck You" over and over, screamed into his face as we fought in a tug-of-war for the camera.

Then he, for a moment, gave up on the camera and went for my backpack under it. There wasn't much in it but my wallet (debit card, the little cash I had gotten from the ATM, and state ID), but my iPhone was in there. He wasn't fucking getting that. We fought over that as well, but he was discouraged by the double strap wrapping around the handlebars, and he went back for the camera. In the meantime, I had recovered it and put it back in my basket and was beginning again to balance on the bike for a getaway, yelling for my friend (who was shirtless, with no bags and therefore not a target) to follow.

Scissors. The robber had scissors in his hand. He hadn't taken them out before, but he was showing them to me now as a threat. They were silver, kitchen shears, held open a bit like he was preparing to snip something far more ordinary than my skin or camera strap. The way he was holding them though, he obviously didn't want to have to use them. It was what it was—a threat.

He grabbed the camera again, the force of our fight slipped one of the camera straps free and now he had the camera, backing away with me clinging to the end of the broken strap. He gave it a final jerk as he had reached about 4 or 5-feet away, and I lost my grip. He had the camera, which may have even broken while being manhandled in our fight for ownership. I only knew I had to get out of there, fast.

Finally, the blinders came off—I had been so focused on the fight that I hadn't noticed neighbors coming out of their houses to stand and watch, nor had I heard my friend shouting as well. I peddled by gawking locals with my jaw clenched, teeth bared, seething. We reached an intersection only 3 or so blocks away, and a Policia car was making a turn. I flagged them down, and luckily one of two policemen spoke passable English. Of course I still had my backpack and its small Spanish language book.

In under five minutes, the police had gotten our descriptions of the event, the camera, and of the muggers, and had radioed for backup and for police on motorbikes to patrol the streets. All but two of the 17 officers who came to our spot there, on the side of the intersection, wore bulletproof vests and pistols in their belts. Police cars, police pickup trucks, two police on bicycles and the two police motorbikes dealt with my stolen camera issue. The detail of las tijeras (the scissors) made it more serious.

"Nueva York?"

"Si, New York."

The female officer taking my report gave me a look that seemingly said "you should have known better, being from crime-ridden New York." I could only nod and shade myself from the sun, it heating the region to 90-degree temperatures even in the afternoon. We wrote all of our information down for the police right there on the corner, in their report book. Passport numbers (memorized, thank god), hotel address, future hotels, address in NYC, and, for good measure, the exact names of the streets at which intersection the crime had occurred.

No longer in a mood to merrily bike the scenic lanes, we hefted our rental bikes into the back of a police truck and were driven to the rental center to return them. Mr. Hugo himself showed sincere concern for our safety and health, but I know that since we are tourists, it's also likely a ploy to save himself from a future bad review online at Tripadvisor or another site. (Note: no one in the entire ordeal knows that I am a travel writer, save for my friend).

We hadn't even made it to a single vineyard when the crime happened. My friend made this remark absentmindedly, and the police actually offered to drive us to two or three of the nearby bodegas (wineries). Also, I assume, they wanted to do this to save us from having a bad tourism experience as this area so heavily relies on visitors like us. No no no—no wine, no smiling and dipping bread into olive oil on a patio with a view of the Andes—just back to our hotel, por favor. Except—we had no food there and the single restaurant at our rural, 6-room place was crazy expensive (not to mention we didn't feel like spending three hours and three figures on a fancy meal after the day we had).

It ended with wine. The police said they'd stop at a mercado on the way back to our hotel, but instead they dropped us off at a restaurant that makes their own olive oil—La Melesca. They would return after we had "relaxed" and eaten. Hmmm. Again, I suspect them of trying to save face.

From our al fresco table at La Melesca, we dipped bread into olive oil and watched tourists on bikes (with baskets, and bags in them) continuously stream past. Still shaken, we had some local Malbec and ordered enough food to get us through today, all to go.

As they'd promised, the police truck returned and drove us back to our hotel, the driver fiddling with the radio dial and stopping on LMFAO's "I'm Sexy and I Know It" song. If the day could have gotten any worse, it had just done so.

Stay tuned: some thoughts and the aftermath coming tomorrow. And yes, we know it all could have been much, much worse.

[Photos: Cynthia Drescher (all taken with iPhones, which remained unstolen)]

Archived Comments:

Wow! Glad you're okay!

Wow. This is quite the scary story. I can't say that I would have handled it differently. The thought of losing my camera with my travel pics on it is one that makes my stomach churn, but being threatened with a weapon (albeit kitchen shears) makes me even queasier. I've always wanted to visit Rio de Janeiro, but you could say that the current criminal situation there has made it impossible. You've taught us a very important travel lesson here, and I'm sure your passion for traveling will remain unabated. Lo mas importante es que esta bien!

Friendly Argentines

How unpleasant to be robbed, I am sorry it happened. Certainly overshadowed everything else that you experienced that day. Argentines genuinely are nice, the friendliness that you encountered after the robbery is quite common. What happened to you is unfortunate, but equally unfortunate is that you subsequently put all the positive in a negative light.