Last updated on November 14, 2021
Nestled into the cozy, cushioned table beds in Café D’Noz on Lago de Atitlán I was taken off guard when my server climbed up onto the cushions to whisper in my ear. At first all I heard was a bit of hushed syllables inaudible over the blaring movie showing in the café. With a questioning look from me she repeated the sentence in a hurried voice and rapidly stilting English.
“If you have drugs—flush in toilet now, police do drug raid next door. Do now.”
San Pedro on Lake Atitlán is a really big party town; the tiny town is full of backpackers and has a lot of English speaking expats running trendy little bars. It’s far from the quietest spot on the lake and was only going to be an overnight spot for me before heading a bit up the road to San Marcos for a couple of weeks of relaxing on the lake.
Because despite the drug raid in progress, which would taint my experience on the beautiful Lago de Atitlán, this area is one of the prettiest spots in all of Guatemala.
After our server moved on to the next table to quickly spread the message, my friends and I were torn—do we stay and finish watching the movie or just go home to avoid any interaction with the police? None of us had drugs so we figured we were safe to watch the last 20 minutes before heading back to the hostel.
Those 20 minutes probably saved me from spending the night in Guatemalan jail.
The police never showed up to our café so we walked straight back to our hostel, warning a group of travelers in the process about the current raid rumors before parting ways and going straight to bed.
About four hours later, in the dead of night, an incessant and soft knock woke me up. Earlier in the day I briefly met the woman sharing my hostel room and the woman now knocking at the door was not my friendly British cohabitant. In rapid Spanish she asked me to help me find my roommate’s passport as fast as possible—my roomie had gotten put in jail as a part of a street sweep (right at the time I was finishing my movie) and was trying to get out in time to catch her flight back to the UK later that day.
I helped. My roomie paid her way out just in time to run back to the hostel, grab her pack, cry a little, and then catch the shuttle heading to Guate City.
The rest of the day the entire town was buzzing about the backpackers still left in jail; two young male backpackers (with zero knowledge of Spanish) had actually spent the night cuffed wrist to ankle waiting for release.
Through all of this, I have no idea the drugs the police actually found on the travelers they arrested. What I do know is that roughly 40 backpackers got put in jail for not having their passports on them.
And what I find particularly interesting is the way this story evolved in the two months I spent in Central America after the drug raids (which were condemned by the Guatemalan police later that week once the embassies got involved and the San Pedro police were told to stop arresting backpackers for the passport issue).
Once I moved on to other parts of Guatemala and into Honduras I happened to overhear (twice!) travelers at the hostels gossiping about the “fake” drug busts in San Pedro designed to scare the backpackers. Their conversations ran something along the lines of: “ha, ha” clinking of beers, “like that really happens,” sharing of questionable substances, “ha, ha.”
Um, ok. I’m not here to sit on a soap box or be your mom and tell you what to do, so I’ll just share my two personal lessons from this story:
- ALWAYS carry at least a photocopy of your passport on you. Apparently it’s illegal in a lot of countries to walk around without identification. Who knew?!
- Tearfully calling my dad for help out of a developing world jail (or any jail for that matter) is not high on my bucket list so I’ll stick to a country’s legal activities.
Oh, and in case you couldn’t tell, beyond all of this drug raid story, Lake Atitlán is actually pretty gorgeous and worth a visit!