Two young backpackers have told their horror account of being kidnapped, assaulted and robbed at gunpoint while travelling through Guatemala.
Jayson Peter Kelly, 25, and Kirsten Smith, 25, from Cairns, Queensland were just eight weeks into their nine-month backpacking adventure - a trip they had planned for two years - when what was supposed to be a trip of lifetime turned into a living nightmare.
Speaking to news.com.au from Costa Rica, a shaken Kelly recounted the terrifying experience to warn other tourists visiting the Central American country.
The couple were on a shuttle bus, organised through a hostel, with 10 other tourists - including two more Australians - when they were shot at and their vehicle was hijacked by a group of thugs.
"We were on a shuttle that was going from Antigua, Guatemala to León, Nicaragua. The shuttle was fully organised and available to be booked through several hostels/hotels and legitimate shuttle companies," Kelly said.
But shortly into their organised shuttle trip, which they assumed would be the safety of a number of options, three bandits shot at the van "like cowboys".
They held some of the passengers hostage at gunpoint while they drove off road and into the bush. Kelly was one of them.
That was the first time he thought he was going to be murdered.
"They commandeered our shuttle and jumped into the back and held a gun to my head. They had been shooting at the van like cowboys and once that hot gun was at my head, I thought that was it."
The van eventually stopped deep in the bush, where the three men dragged each of the tourists out, threw them onto the ground, and tied them up with their shoelaces while they robbed them.
They stole phones, computers, chargers, money, wallets and jewellery while the tourists had guns pointed at their heads. Luckily, all passports and identification were left on the bus.
This was the second time Kelly said he thought he was going to die.
"I actually hoped they would shoot me in the head to make it as quick and painless as it could have been," Kelly told news.com.au.
"Kirsten also thought it was all over when we all got tied up. She thought that we were going to be shot one by one.
"She was actually tied up next to me and at one point looked at me and asked if we were going to be OK. I had no idea what to say back. I just told her I loved her."
The female tourists were then sexually assaulted.
"All of the females were touched indecently," Kelly told news.com.au, including his girlfriend, Smith.
"Having to witness that but being helpless was just absolutely terrifying."
Kelly estimates they were kept hostage for about two hours before the thugs eventually left them tied up in the bush, and made their escape with the stolen property.
After they were alone, Smith was able to get loose and untie the rest of the travellers.
"As the sun started to rise they knew they had to leave. Kirsten was actually able to untie herself as her restraints were fortunately a bit loose," Kelly said.
"She then untied my hands which at this point I couldn't feel as they were tied up so tight. We were tied up by our own shoelaces. We then helped untie everyone else."
Kelly and another tourist ran out to the road to flag down help. He said he has no idea why their shuttle was targeted, but he feels it wasn't the first tourist bus to be hijacked.
"There's nothing that we know as to why the shuttle was targeted, however it was definitely not the first time they had done this," he said.
"The track they took us up into the bush leads one to assume it happens fairly regularly."
The pair have been interviewed by Guatemalan police and have given a statement. However, they aren't confident the authorities will pursue the three men responsible.
Kelly said the Australian embassy was notified through their families and is offering counselling and support.
News.com.au contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) which confirmed they had provided consular assistance to two Australians robbed in Guatemala, in accordance with the Consular Services Charter.
Citing "privacy considerations", DFAT declined to provide further information but said that typically, consular assistance in such cases may involve welfare checks, providing advice and support, assistance liaising with local authorities, contacting family and friends and, when necessary, issue of replacement travel documents.
The experience almost made the couple abandon their travel dream and fly back to Queensland, however, Kelly said with the support of their friends and family back home, they have decided to continue to pursue the trip they had been dreaming of.
"When we were tied we whispered to each other that if we got out alive we were getting on the next plane home," Kelly said.
"However our dream to travel has been one that's been planned for over two years so we are trying to move on and continue our dream together."
The couple have now left Guatemala and are safe in Costa Rica. Kelly said he and Smith will never return.
"Guatemala is a beautiful country ruined by three thugs. We, and our friends, will never ever go back."
On New Zealand's Safe Travel advice website, travellers to Guatemala are warned there is "some risk".
It warns that Guatemala has a high crime rate, in particular violent crime often involving the use of firearms, including in tourist destinations.
It also warns that New Zealanders "should remain security conscious and exercise a high degree of caution at all times.
"Sexual assault remains a serious problem in Guatemala, including against tourists."