Travelblog LA#5: Attempted Robbery and Burundanga Drugging in Quito – Ecuador

1st May, 2023


Those of you who follow me on social media will already know that I had a bit of a scary incident on a bus recently, and I have decided to give an account of what happened. This is not because I desire sympathy – not necessary; I was not harmed, and I managed to recover my possessions – but rather because I want this blog to reflect all facets of this journey I am taking. Also, to potentially help other travellers who might end up reading this. As a backpacker with over three years on the road under my belt, I am well-versed in all kinds of scams they warn us about, but this particular method they tried to use on me was not one I had heard of before.

It started when I got on the bus at Terminal Carcelen in Quito. I was heading to Ibarra as it is closer to Colombia, and I wanted to get a head start for my border crossing the next day.

Just as the bus was revving its engine, a man came to me pretending to work for the company. He sprayed some stuff on my hands (which he pretended was hand sanitiser, but I later came to suspect was something else), and then placed my bag in the luggage compartment above my chair before telling me to fasten my seatbelt.

I will preface what happened next with a little caveat; I was a bit foggy-headed that day as I had arrived back in Quito late the night before (having just come from the Amazon), so I was tired and not fully acclimatised to Quito’s altitude. But, a couple of minutes later – after the bus had driven out of the terminal – I suddenly felt a sense of unease. I realised that I had zoned out for a couple of minutes – almost like I had drifted out of my body a little – and now I had ‘zoned in’ again, I was feeling a bit disorientated. I blinked a few times to help clear my mind and noticed something peculiar.

The other people on the bus were not wearing their seatbelts. And some of them had their bags on their laps.

I turned around and looked up just in time to see the man in the seat behind me make a sudden movement. My bag was closer to his seat than mine now, and I immediately knew then that something was wrong. 

I grabbed it to find it was fastened closed, but didn’t seem full enough, so I opened it to find that my laptop, camera, Kindle, and power bank were missing and immediately went into panic mode.

I asked the man where my laptop was – as it was obvious that he was the culprit – and he seemed to panic too. He pointed to the front of the bus and told me to go there. That my things were there.

I obviously knew he was lying, but I went to the front of the bus anyway – taking my bag and what remained of its contents with me – so that I could get the driver or someone to help.

But as I was walking, the man yelled at me again. He was now gesturing to the place underneath my seat, where I looked to find my laptop. I grabbed it – feeling a huge amount of relief to be holding it again – and then put it in my bag.

I then asked him where my camera was, and he – once again – pointed to the front of the bus only to call me back to tell me it had mysteriously ‘appeared’ underneath my seat.

I am not sure exactly how many rounds of this weird game of whack-a-mol we played – three, perhaps? – but I eventually recovered all of my things. As I was placing them back into my bag, the would-be thief talked to me. I didn’t catch all of it, and I don’t know if it was because of the altitude, the rush of adrenaline when I thought I had lost everything, or because his accomplice had possibly drugged me with that spray; but I was feeling very disorientated. I was just relieved to get my things back. From what I did hear, he was trying to gaslight me. Implying that it was someone else. That he had rescued my things. That I should be careful.

I knew he was lying, of course, but I didn’t know what to do. I felt scared. I knew by then that he had at least one accomplice – the man who pretended to work for the bus company and then vanished – how many other people were involved? At least ten people were sitting behind us. Why had none of them noticed what was going on? Why had none of them stopped him? Why were all of them – still – doing nothing? Was it because they were scared, some of them were involved too, or, did they simply not care?

I was very aware, during that moment, that I was a foreigner, and I was alone.

So – with all of these things going on in my clouded brain – I simply froze whilst clutching my bag. I didn’t want to sit down again because that would mean turning my back on him. I just stood there, watching him.

Eventually, he got off the bus, speaking some last words to me about being careful as he left.

It was after he left that I started to think a bit rationally again and thought to take some photos of him. I did so just in time to catch the side of his face.

And a few minutes later, I finally went to the conductor and spoke to him about what happened. I know I should have done this earlier – before he left the bus and got away – but I wasn’t thinking clearly or feeling my usual self. Also, whilst I can converse fairly well in Spanish now, it takes a certain amount of brain energy for me to hold conversations, and that was something that I didn’t have when I was feeling so spaced out and disorientated.

The bus conductor was somewhat sympathetic and got me to send him the photo I had taken. I am hoping that this means the people at the station will look out for him, and he will find it harder to target other people from now, but I don’t know how seriously they take these things in Ecuador. From what I have heard, I can’t even completely rule out the possibility that the conductor and bus company were involved too.

During the rest of the journey, I turned to some of my friends for support over Whatsapp, and almost all the ones from Latin America said the same thing when I mentioned the spray and how I was feeling.

Burundanga. Also known as scopolamine.

When you look up burundanga online, there is a lot of conflicting information. There are reports about police stations and hospitals recording people needing help after being spiked with it in their drinks, but in Latin America it seems to be more commonly sprayed in people’s faces during muggings and robberies; after which the victims either go into a daze or pass out completely. It is said to make you feel more passive and compliant if you stay conscious. There are also some wilder claims – such as criminals impregnating into paper and drugging people by handing them leaflets – and, finally, lots of sceptical first-world people giving their ‘opinions’ on whether it is real or not (whilst seemingly ignoring the lived experiences of thousands of people who claim to have been victims).

If you want my (unprofessional) opinion, here it is. I can understand why people would be sceptical about people being drugged by being handed pieces of paper – that sounds rather dubious to me – and there are yet to be any clinical studies on whether absorption of scopolamine in liquid form through the skin would be effective. I personally don’t see why the absence of studies makes some people feel like they can weigh in heavily either way though; I can only guess that they all feel very smart typing away at their keyboards whilst living in their much safer countries. Many substances are known to be absorbable through the skin, so it is possible. 

And even if scopolamine is not absorbable through the skin, that doesn’t mean that spraying it at people is not an effective technique, as it can still be breathed in, and people touch their faces much more often than they think they do (around twenty-three times an hour on average, and I am guessing it is more when people are in stressful situations.) 

And, finally, even if scopolamine is not as effective as believed, that does not mean that the criminals aren’t trying to use it, so watch out for anyone who tries to give you ‘sanitiser’. 

I would say – from my experience of how I felt – that I was probably under the influence of something during this incident. I didn’t feel my usual self and continued to feel very spaced out and disorientated for the rest of the day. I am not entirely certain, as it could have been a combination of altitude and adrenaline, but I am lingering on about 70% sure I was drugged.

And, before any of you feel compelled to bless me from your fountain of wisdom; yes, I do know how psychosomatic symptoms work. I also happen to know my own body better than you do, and I think I know whereabouts I lay in the spectrum of suggestibility. Ta.

It is a shame that my time in Ecuador (a country that I am very fond of) ended in such a way, so I am trying not to dwell on it too much. I am unharmed, I managed to recover my things and learned some lessons.

I think one of the reasons that I let my guard down a little on this occasion is just how nice most of the people in Ecuador have been. The Pastaza region (where I have spent most of my time in Ecuador) is very safe, and people had warned me that other parts of the country are much more dangerous than they used to be. I did listen, but over the years I have gotten used to claims of how dangerous places are being exaggerated – and, if I never visited anywhere that people (and/or institutions) warned me was not safe to travel, I would have denied myself some of my richest experiences.

So onwards and upwards, I guess. The next day I got back on a bus again (clutching my bag much more carefully this time) and headed to Colombia.

Travelblog LA#4: Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve – Ecuador

27th – 30th April, 2023


Day 1

I arrived in Lago Agrilo in the morning after a long and rocky journey from Quito. I did sleep a little but it was broken by all the twists and lurches as the bus snaked through the Andes. Looking out the brightening window, I could already see that I was within Ecuador’s tropical realms by the vegetation around me. I was back in the Amazon again for a tour of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve (close to the border of both Brazil and Colombia).

This was not part of my original itinerary – I have already done an Amazon tour four years ago in Peru – but during my time at Merazonia Refuge other volunteers gave this place such glowing reviews that they inspired me to make a detour.

For this trip, I was also joined by two other Merazonia veterans, True and Lucian.

Our names were the first the conductor called out when the bus stopped at a little café down a dirt track road. I was somewhat relieved that – out of the entire bus full of gringos – only five of us were destined for Green Forest Ecolodge, whereas the others had all booked their tours with other jungle retreats. We drank tea as we waited for another minibus to pick us up, and it was only an hour or so later that we reached the dock, where we met Tamara, one of our guides. After loading our possessions onto the boat, we were soon making our way down the river. Our tour had begun.

It only took a few minutes for us to start seeing wildlife. Our first sighting was some hoatzins, also known as ‘stinky jungle turkeys’. They are one of the most commonest sightings whilst cruising through the rivers on this part of the Amazon, but I never got bored of seeing them in the days that followed because of their unusual appearance. Their diets consist almost entirely of leaves that they eat straight from the branches of trees hanging over the waters.

We were also lucky enough to see a grey-headed kite that afternoon.

Blue and yellow macaws.

As well as a monk sakis.

Two hours later, we reached Green Forest Lodge, were we assigned dorm beds in one of their jungle huts and unpacked our things. Whilst getting our bearings, we were delighted to discover they had a bird-watching tower; a place I frequently returned to during my free time. In that first afternoon alone, True and I were lucky enough to spot a gilded barbet, a squirrel cuckoo, and some tamarin monkeys.

Shortly before sundown, we met Elvis, who would be our guide throughout most of the next two days. He took us out on a boat to a lagoon to watch the sunset, and on our way there, spotted two different breeds of sloths and yet more monkeys and birds. We also caught our first sightings of dolphins.

Swimming in the lagoon at dusk turned out to be a daily activity of this tour. It was always a refreshing way to finish a hot and sweaty day in the jungle, but the first evening was cloudy, so I will instead share photos from the following two days, where the clearer skies meant we got to see some spectacular sunsets.

What did change with each event was the activity after the sunset on the lagoon. The first night we made our way back to the lodge slowly on the boat and saw some of the Amazon’s nocturnal animals, including a caiman and a tree boa.


Day 2

The main activity of this day was a jungle walk, where Elvis proved himself very knowledgeable about flora and fauna. I will not tell you about everything we saw that day – as it would simply take too long – but instead give you some highlights.

An Ecuadorian poison dart frog: so named because of the poison that seeps from its flesh is often used by indigenous people to coat their darts to paralyse their prey when hunting.

A goliath ‘bird eating’ tarantula, which Elvis managed to cleverly draw out from its hole using a stick (video here).

Howler monkeys.

And, finally, a family of night monkeys.

That night we once again went to the lagoon at dusk, but after the sun had set, we made our way back to the lodge quickly – matching pace with a group of bats along the way – so that we could put on our wellies in time for our night walk, during which we saw spiders, tarantulas, and lots of frogs, including this glass frog.

And a HUGE – and very grumpy looking – bullfrog.


Day 3

We spent most of this day in a little paddleboat, and Elvis took us to another lagoon.

We didn’t have quite as much luck with wildlife that morning, but I think that was due to the weather being a bit wet.

Despite this, this was probably my favourite day of the tour. We had the entire lagoon to ourselves – there was not another tourboat in sight – and the lack of engine made for a peaceful ambience (and also that the wildlife we did see we managed to get closer to). This was the closest I ever felt to living in a David Attenborough documentary during this trip.

The lake was also very still, almost turning it into a mirror.

And we saw some beautiful orchids and bromeliads.

We weren’t completely unlucky with the wildlife either. We did see quite a few birds, including this blue-crowned trogon.

Some red cardinals.

And last – but certainly by no means least – we came across a group of woolly monkeys later in the afternoon. This was something that I was especially happy to see after working with these species quite closely at Merazonia Refuge.

In the evening (after our customary swim in the lagoon), we were taken on one last boat tour, where Elvis found yet another caiman in the swallows outside one of the other lodges, as well as a tarantula and another tree boa.


Day 4

We rose early and met Elvis at the top of the tower to do some birdwatching before we had our last breakfast. With the help of his telescope, we managed to tick many more birds from our list, including a group of toucans and a pair of yellow-headed vultures.

After that, we packed our things, said our goodbyes and made our way back. We were once again with Tamara on our way out of the park, and we told her that our tour exceeded our expectations in almost every way. We seemed to have been lucky with the wildlife and (mostly) the weather.

The only thing that we wanted to see before we left was an anaconda – something that is a fairly common sighting for those who visit this park – but seemed to have eluded us so far, despite our luck elsewhere. Tamara said she would do her best.

And for the first hour or so of the boat ride, it did seem that our luck had run out. We passed by several hoatzins, ingas and tiger herons, but these were all things we had seen plenty of over the last few days and almost – but never quite – grown bored of. We didn’t even bother to slow the boat so that we could take photos but simply continued.

It was just as we were getting close to the dock – and the tour was almost over – that Tamara suddenly rose from her seat and yelled at the boatman to stop. She seemed excited about something, and when the boat halted and she pointed up to the trees, we saw why.

So, you have probably noticed that this is not an anaconda. It is something much rarer; a harpy eagle. Tamara claimed this was one of only a handful of times in her career.

The perfect end to our tour.

Overall, I was very pleased with my experience with Green Forest Ecolodge. They have good facilities, the food was great (considering the setting), and the guides are very enthusiastic and knowledgeable. Several different lodges are working in this park, so you often come across other boats during your tours, and I happened to notice that a lot of the others had bigger boats with louder engines and filled with more people (which means their experiences were probably less personal and they probably didn’t see as much wildlife).

If you are interested in booking a tour with them, their website can be found by clicking here.

If you would like to see more photos (and there are many on this occasion) click here.


Travelblog LA#3: Returning to Merazonia – Ecuador

24th March – 20th April, 2023


I previously volunteered at Merazonia four years ago, so I would advise those reading this to catch up with my previous blog (click here), as it will be a more thorough account of this organisation and what it is about. This will be an account of my new experiences and I will try not to repeat myself too much.

Returning to Merazonia a second time felt like coming back to my home away from home. In my absence some of the old animals have left – either because they were successfully released back into the wild or have sadly passed – but Merazonia always has a trickle of new creatures in need of care, many confiscated from the illegal pet trade.

I was delighted to discover that Whistler – Merazonia’s eccentric kinkajou – was still alive. The last time he had often been described as an ‘old man’, and one of the several reasons why he can never be released – and thus is one of the few exceptions to Merazonia’s strict ‘hands off’ policy – is that he has a heart condition, so my first night I volunteered for one of my old favourite chores; giving him his medicine (fed to him with some jam from a spoon).

Most of the work at Merazonia was still the usual; feeding animals, cleaning cages, and foraging for leaves. All whilst avoiding eye contact and other forms of interaction with the animals (unless they are one of the other exceptions besides Whistler, such as a few flightless birds who can never be released and lack stimulation so interaction is a form of enrichment). Merazonia is primarily a rehabilitation centre so the animals need to be kept as non-human-orientated as possible to ensure successful releases.

One of the most rewarding things that happened to me this time I volunteered at Merazonia is that they gave me the privilege of working with the group of young woolly monkeys they were preparing for release. It was harder work than most of the other rounds, as woolly monkeys are notoriously messy, and there is a lot of emphasis on ensuring you find a good variety of leaves for them from the jungle, but it was very rewarding. Particularly for me as I found myself reunited with someone that some of you might remember.

Fonzi, one of the two woolly monkeys that I gave post-natal care four years ago. He is all grown up now!

He didn’t appear to remember me, and a small part of me was a little sad about that, but a much bigger part felt much relieved. I had already decided – when I found out that I would be working with him – that if he tried to interact with me I would report it to the coordinator (which would have likely resulted in me not working with him again). He is due for release soon and the chances of him being rewilded seem good as – despite how clingy he was with me and his other ‘Dads’ and ‘Mums’ when he was a baby – he shows very little interest in humans now. He is even starting to turn into the alpha of his group – a change that is both physical and behavioural – and making aggressive displays. Unfortunately, I won’t be there for his release but the idea that he could soon be living in the wild – and that I played a small part in making that happen – makes me very happy.

Living in the jungle is an amazing experience but it does come with challenges. The unpredictable and often turbulent weather can be destructive and during my four-year absence a tree fell on one of Merazonia’s largest enclosures during a storm, rendering half of it unusable. I witnessed another such event first-hand when we suffered a freak storm that changed the direction of the river and flooded the home of Mo, Merazonia’s resident coati. Luckily, they managed to rehome him before he drowned, but keeping up with all the maintenance involved in running a centre is a constant battle. Merazonia is run entirely on donations and does not accept visitors – as doing so would mean that many of the animals would get too much human contact – so I would urge those who can afford it to consider donating.

Other than the experiences mentioned above, my five-week return was once again memorable for the people there. I reunited with old friends and made some new ones. Merazonia is a place that many either end up staying for much longer than they originally intended or – like me – return to. One of its greatest strengths is how dynamic it is; they are always open to suggestions when people notice things that could be improved, and some volunteers who possess certain skills often leave their mark before they leave. I ended up undertaking a little project to look into ways for them to make their shopping more economical and improve the diets of the volunteers. People come and go, and the place evolves, but in a way that doesn’t lose its essence or purpose.

It saddened me greatly to leave again, but I will take away many memories, new friends, and a feeling of purpose that I have become a small part of the DNA that is Merazonia. Perhaps I will be lucky enough to have the opportunity to return a third time one day.

But, for now, it is time to move on.

After leaving Merazonia, I headed to Quito, a city I have already visited previously as a tourist, so I treated these few days as a pitstop, wandering around some of its old churches again and making some friends (one of whom was a Venezuelan chef who taught me how to make tequeños) whilst preparing to continue with my journey.

It is now that I feel my actual adventures will begin, and they will start with a four-day tour of Cuyabeno Wildlife Reserve in the Amazon.