I’ll start with the bad news, and will follow-up later with a post about the incredible 3 days we just had. In Potosi we were advised that since the town was dangerous and a few people had been mugged there in the past that it was best to put all valuables in the hotel safety deposit box. Normally, I keep everything securely on me, but in this situation since the hotel was a long way from any restaurants and we were going out at night, I followed the advice. What I deposited was a money belt that contained passports, vaccination booklets, and US dollars. You inventory the contents and sign a receipt with the receptionist. It is then placed into a sealed bag and taken away to the safe. In the morning when I claimed my items, the sealed bag was opened by an employee who was a couple meters away from me. I was suspicious that it was done this way, as I should have been the one to open the bag. I immediately checked the contents in front of him. He looked on cautiously. Passports, check. Vaccination booklets, check. USD, yes, the right number of bills and the front one matched the bent one from my other money belt. I said ok to him and walked away. We left shortly after that and took a 5 hour bus ride from Potosi to Uyuni on dusty, bumpy roads. We paid extra to have the bus to ourselves instead of being crowded in the usual local bus that doesn’t stop letting people on after the bus is full and it also extends the trip by a couple hours due to all the stops. Just prior to arriving in Uyuni there had been a violent wind storm. The ATMs would not work, and the Internet was unavailable. There were people in the group relying on being able to withdraw money on arrival so they borrowed US dollars from another traveller in our group and took it to a money exchange office. The money exchange took a $100 bill from the passenger, inspected it and returned it saying this is clearly fake. The bill had Spanish written on it saying it was not of legal tender and was on different paper. Other than that it looked real. When the traveller returned to the hotel with the fake it was discovered that 2 other bills in the girl’s possession were fake as well. I heard the story when walking with a few others for dinner. I immediately felt ill, knowing my concerns about the hotel in Potosi were probably justified. I inspected my money and found that only the front and back bills were real and that a few of the middle bills had been swapped with clearly fake money. What kills me is how close I came to catching this immediately at the hotel. I spoke with the tour company and explained the situation they promised to follow-up and get back to me when I reach Santiago. It is a hotel they regularly use. Our lovely tour leader called the hotel and yelled at the owner, who was denying this could have happened. We went to the local police station to report the crime, but it was late, and we had to return the following morning to make a statement. Later that morning we left for a 3 day drive across beautiful Bolivian landscapes towards Chile and were completely out of communication with the rest of the world.
I’m hoping the tour company will be able to pressure the hotel to compensate us for the scam, or stop giving them business (they give them a lot). I’m not sure what will happen with the police investigation. Although it is unfortunate I’m glad it happened to more than one person that night, so it was not a simple one word against another. I suspect the money is gone forever. I’m glad it was just money. First time in all my travels I’ve had money taken from me. The lesson learned is to take a photo of the contents going to a safe before parting with them and doing a very thorough inspection when it is returned. Not the end of the world, but aggravating none the less.