Rising beside the lobby desk, the grand staircase was not exactly welcoming. Chain-link fencing rose at least six-feet high, topped by razor wire. Repeated on each floor, the impression was rather that of an Escher-inspired cage.
And the elevator? Well, a blue-garbed guard with a shotgun protected that.
This wasn’t one of South America’s luxury resorts. It was in Bogota, Colombia. And though my travel agent had booked me in a very respectable hotel, I knew I needed to be careful.
As in: Don’t flaunt your valuables. Make purchases with discretion. Don’t flash around large quantities of cash.
As if the armed sentries weren’t enough, the desk clerk advised me to be discreet with any and all personal items.
But define “discretion,” please? And what’s a large amount of cash? I translated it to mean an almost complete divestiture, so I set out on my business with all valuables divided underfoot to avoid a limp and almost no cash.
Does the amount of money change by destination? Consider a popular resort like Cabo San Lucas, farther north. It’s touted as “a perfect combination of great weather and spectacular scenery,” it also has a popular following that describes the worst hazards as strong Pacific riptides, tap water, and drug-doctored drinks.
But even veterans can overlook one common hazard: carrying too much cash.
In a recent note to our Travelers United resolution team, a family reported their yearly pilgrimage to the area had been frighteningly interrupted when a family member was robbed of significant stash cash. Robbed, they say, by two men dressed as cops.
How much was taken? According to the 22-year-old’s account, he was headed over from a club to a taco stand when one of two men uniformed as police officers approached him then held a gun to his head and threatened arrest and plant drugs on him if he didn’t hand over all his cash. He had about $350 on hand.
Why was he carrying so much money in cash? I mean, Mexican food can’t be that expensive.
Heather Hunter, a spokeswoman for the American Automobile Association, shed some light on that question. But when she traveled to Buenos Aires a few years ago, she and her husband brought about the same amount of cash.
The boisterous “blue market” values the dollar is at 70 percent more than the Argentinian Peso. Your cash can take you far. But, she says, they never left the hotel with all of it.
“We kept most of cash in the best place, the safe,” she says. “The AAA has so many alternative to cash, our credit cards, cash cards, and some clubs still have travelers checks, though those are not as widely accepted anymore.”
Even in the worst case, that all your cards fail or are stolen, cash now can move quickly through either stalwart Western Union or one of several less-costly upstarts like Xoom.com.
So, is there really any reason for travelers to walk around with so much cash?