YOUR HOLIDAY DISASTER

The stereotypical machete-toting Mexican bandits are not confined to Clint Eastwood movies, discovers Catherine Gunn

GUIDE BOOKS and the British travel office did warn us about civil wars, frequent violent attacks on tourists and a dodgy police force (not to mention the army) in Chiapas, in south Mexico, on the border with Guatemala, but fellow travellers painted another picture. `The trouble's all over now, you can't miss Chiapas, it's the best place in the country.' Indeed it is.

Chiapas is an amazing area, with Mayan ruins set in the jungle and indigenous Mayan Indians living the way they have lived for centuries. My friends and I stayed in a touristy town, Palenque, for a couple of days before heading down to Guatemala, via a reasonably well-known route through rural Chiapas. Our 12-hour journey included travelling by van and boat, ending with a four-hour bus ride.

We didn't make it to the boat. I got up at 5am to finish packing. We all took off our jewellery - we'd listened to the warning not to wear anything in Guatemala that might make us look wealthy. We put our valuables in money-belts under our clothes, put locks all over our packs and went to meet our van. Our travel party was made up of seven foreigners and two Mexicans. Three hours into our journey, the peaceful ride through the jungle was shattered by our driver who began yelling at us in Spanish. A Spanish woman tourist on board told us there were banditos up ahead. I looked out the window and, sure enough, a Rambo look-alike was on the road, with a gun pointed at the van, waving us down with a red flag.

My first thought was that if we ducked down they wouldn't notice any foreigners on board and might let us past. Next thing I knew the van stopped and banditos were jumping out of the jungle from all directions. Between eight and 12 men were surrounding us, all armed with rifles and machetes. A couple of shots were let off - to let us know they meant business. The van door opened and everybody was getting out. Before I had time to get out, a bandito opened the boot and began stealing the packs.

He pointed his gun at me and said something (making me wish I could speak Spanish). Finally, I made it outside. The first guy out, a German man, was being searched by a bandito; he'd had his shoes and money-belt stolen, and they were searching his trousers for any other hiding places. His girlfriend watched in horror, with tears streaming down her face. At the sight of that, US dollars came out from everywhere - we all wanted to give them something, anything, so they'd leave us alone.

Once we'd handed over our money, another man came round and took the leftovers - passports (with working holiday visas, a bad thing to lose), airline tickets, money, credit cards - everything. By this stage the now shoeless and trouserless driver was back in the van - after a bit of a beating. He was driving away and yelling at us, so we assumed he was leaving us behind. Suddenly it occurred to us that we had to jump in. My lasting image is of a masked guerrilla with a bright pink backpack and a machete disappearing back into the jungle while his comrades shot after the van. We got out of there as fast as the van would take us.

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