"That old man is running off with our backpacks!"
Taganga, Santa Marta (Distrito Turístico Cultural E Histórico), Colombia
Vern: We got had. We arrived at Cartagena bus terminal and a man came over to us advertising a direct bus to the port town of Santa Marta (from where we were to connect to a little beach village, Taganga, where we'd be spending the night). We followed him to the bus across the road from the bus station (alarm bell one) and then haggled with the ticket-issuer until agreeing on a fair price. We stowed our backpacks and boarded the bus, then noticed we hadn't been given a ticket while other passengers had (alarm bell two). Andrea enquired and the ticket-issuer irritatedly wrote out our tickets.
The bus departed and a conductor came round and collected everyone's tickets. This was odd, since the bus made multiple stops, and usually the ticket (or at least a stub) is the passenger's proof of which destination one has paid to travel to (alarm bell three). A surprisingly violent kids TV show (the storyline of which included both a chloroform kidnapping and a bomb strapped to a child's chest exploding) entertained us and every time the bus stopped to drop off or pick up passengers I craned my neck and watched the luggage flap open and close to ensure our bags stayed on board. When the bus stopped on the outskirts of nowhere-town, Barranquilla - still two hours from Santa Marta, I watched as they unloaded canvas sacks, and then to my horror our backpacks! I raced off the bus and by the time I pushed passed boarding passengers and forced my way outside an unnaturally fast half naked old man (who looked like a skinny Santa Claus) was racing away with a backpack on each arm shouting "Santa Marta, Santa Marta." I raced after him while Andrea tried simultaneously to get an answer out the conductor as to why our bags had been unloaded and to catch us and get hold of her pack. A part of me wanted to believe that this was just a disorganised transfer but when our bus sped off and we were left standing on a dusty street corner with our backpacks retrieved from the dodgy little man we realised that we'd been screwed. A few minutes later, a bus headed to Santa Marta (with which I assume the speedy old man was associated) pulled up and we had to pay up again to complete the second half of our journey! The dodgy conductor had no intention of taking us to Santa Marta and the ticket-issuer had conned us into paying double for a ride to Barranquilla probably pocketing the difference. We were fuming! Even though this affair pushed our daily budget into the red it wasn't actually much money (probably similar to the amount which those of you reading this will spend on your lunch break) but it certainly sucked to be swindled and no one wants to be unceremoniously dumped on the side of the highway. In any country! We were also kicking ourselves for ignoring all the alarm bells and playing into their hands.
We eventually made it to Taganga, a short cab ride away from Santa Marta, and after a small cheap dinner, we slept as best we could given that a power failure had taken out the advertised air conditioning. The next day we were to downsize to just our day packs and head to the TayronaNational Park. It was a frustating day and a blow to our breezy confidence, but hopefully we'll learn from it and become smarter and more weary. We've heard numerous warnings about how almost every transaction in Vietnam may be prone to a scam, so this won't be the last of this shenanigans.