Sunday, 29 January 2012

Venezuela - South America's North Korea

The main problem with first impressions, as they say, is that you only get to make one. Alas for Venezuela – not that the many seemingly myopic locals will care – what we witnessed on our, admittedly, brief and limited sojourn into the country will not have us rushing back. In theory, there shouldn’t be a major difference between the Colombian and Venezuelan cultures. Heck the two countries were once together – along with other territories - in a greater ‘Gran Colombia’. On the ground though, they seem worlds apart. The warmth and friendliness that you’ll instantly get on arrival in Colombia is replaced by a coldness bordering on hostility from a significant proportion of the population in Hugo Chavez’s ‘Bolivarian Republic’. Of course 'El Presidente' is perhaps one of the main reasons for this - we won't go there just now though.

Making the overland crossing into the country, it doesn’t take long to notice the more negative ‘vibe’ to the place. From the border crossing a short drive outside the Colombian town of Maicao to Venezuela’s second-city of Maracaibo – no more than a two hour drive – you’re likely to be asked for your passport and visa stamp at least ten times. Fantastic use of resources that. What difference in your circumstances are they expecting to find 10 kilometres down the road from the last check? Possibly it is a siege mentality thing derived from the top – ‘the foreigners are coming to infiltrate us, make them feel ill-at-ease’, sort of thinking. If as a nation it’s that paranoid, why not just follow the North Korean lead and don’t let them in? It might just make life easier for everybody concerned.

A selection of notes & coins of Venezuela's unfathomable currency - the Bolivar Fuerte.
Bolivar Fuerte - what's it worth?
Then you have the currency – the ‘old’ Bolivares or ‘new’ Venezuelan Bolivar Fuerte (VEF). The two are still used in pricing, but it’s the ‘Fuerte’ you’ll be physically using – it’s basically the old money put into more basic units from what we can gather. Go to an ATM machine and you’ll get at best five VEF for your one euro. Go to one of the numerous ‘cambios’ – currency exchange operators – on the street and one euro will get you, at least, a very nice 9.5 VEF. Almost double the value than what you’ll get via ‘official’ means at an ATM/bank. So depending on how you’re getting your money in Venezuela, the country can either be pretty economical or quite damn expensive compared to its neighbours. Knowing what we know now, the best thing is to bring in with you large volumes of a foreign currency to exchange on the street during your time there. Of course such a strategy comes with its own ‘security’ problems, but it’s probably worth the risk.

Mentioning money, Venezuelan business people we encountered seemed overly-obsessed with it – and that’s saying something considering the continent we’re in. Everything must be paid up-front – even at an internet cafe. The advice here is to only give the bare minimum required for whatever you’re getting or using. That’s because – for the most part – once you hand over your cash, you won’t be getting it back if the circumstances of what you originally paid for change. That’s a quick lesson to learn, especially if Venezuela happens to be your first Latin American experience or indeed if you’re visiting the country from Colombia, where they tend to have a far more relaxed, reasonable approach in this regard.
A sing at the Venezuelan border with Colombia, asking us to come back soon. Not so sure about that one?
Adiós Venezuela. 'Come back soon' - we'll think about it
Then of course you have the dirt. Now as the last few weeks have highlighted, this is something that doesn’t tend to overly bother us. However a rubbish tip of a place – as is much of what we saw of the country – coupled with a sour ambiance does not make for a good mix. Throw-in the most aggressive drivers we’ve come across on the continent – another big statement for Latin America, but here they will knock you down if you get in their way, no question – and you begin to wonder why you bothered coming.
Like everything though, you will find exceptions to the prevailing disposition of the populace, but they seem very hard to find. Also it must be said again that our stay in Venezuela was short-lived – there is much more to the place than what we witnessed. It just became too costly to keep going to the ATM. So maybe with more time it might be possible to discover a ‘lighter-side’ to the country. Some would argue this does in fact exist – it’s called Colombia.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Dirty old town

Frontier towns tend not to get much positive press among travellers, especially so in South America. The fact that many of them really only exist as functioning entities precisely because of their location and tend to be either the beginning or end-of laborious exit and entry procedures to another state probably play a part in this negative image. On the face of it, Maicao – nestled on Colombia’s north-eastern limits next to Venezuela – fits neatly into this bracket. Ask any native, town residents apart, what they think of the place and one of the first words your likely to hear back is ‘feo’ – that’s ugly to you and me. And to be honest, there is no arguing with that description.

A typical scene from the many markets in downtown Maicao - busy and dirty, it has a very 'eastern' feel to it.
One of Maicao's main streets
Now far from being a deserted tumbleweed spot such as your stereotypical border outpost in North America - well there may be tumbleweeds about the place but if so they’ve got stiff competition from the streams of rubbish blowing down the streets - this is a bustling market town. Indeed the whole centre is just one big mass of interconnected, dishevelled markets, selling just about anything you’re looking for. A shopper’s paradise in a sense – well, a quite dirty one.

If you’re coming from other, let’s say more ‘normal’ Colombian locations en route to Venezuela and you decide – unlike the majority of tourists – to stay here for a night or two, it’s an ideal spot to give you a small taste of what’s to come across the border. Just a very small taste though. That’s because no place in Colombia could really get you ready for the illogical madness that is Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Republic. Countdown’s dictionary corner couldn’t solve that conundrum.

One thing that does stand out here, readying you for Venezuela - apart from the rubbish that is - is the prevalence of those antique monster Buick-styled Chevrolet cars. It’s like you stepped back in time – a town full of gas guzzlers from the 1970s, perhaps earlier. Speaking of the gas, most, if not all, of what these dinosaurs are burning is smuggled fuel from just across the border – a commodity that is far cheaper in Venezuela. Indeed, you’ll be hard pressed to find a ‘legitimate’ gas station here – there’s no market for one. As regards the cars, it has to be said that most are Venezuelan owned. If you are hitting for the frontier don’t miss out on the chance of being chauffeured in one of these beauties.

The out-of-place Mosque in Maicao, north-eastern Colombia
No not Mecca, it's Maicao
A very appealing aspect of Maicao is the fact that it doesn’t get many outsiders and thus, just like Turbo last week, the people appear to be more genuine and indeed friendly. Rather than hunt down the ‘wealthier’ foreigners for their money as is the case in many other spots, the locals here will actually buy you drinks as we found out to our pleasant surprise. We won’t let the fact that the beer – the most popular being the deceptively strong Venezuelan brewed ‘Polar’ – is a giveaway $1,000 Colombian Pesos (about €0.40cents). Like most things here, as cheap as you’ll get anywhere in the country. Every little helps as Tesco would say. 

Another thing that will catch your eye – oddly so for a place of this size in a predominantly Christian country - is the strong Muslim population in existence. In fact one of the first Mosques in Colombia was built here in 1997 by the Arab settlers. They started coming to the area in the 1970s when Venezuela’s oil industry was booming, setting up as merchants and have now become just another part of the community fabric. 

In unison with many other towns and cities in these parts there are plenty of street dogs about the place, each doing their bit to ‘mop-up’ the rubbish. However, they’ve got competition in this regard from a rather strange source for an urban setting - cattle. Yes that’s right, our bovine, milk producing friends. When the sun goes down apparently it’s not uncommon for a few cows to come wandering into the town centre pilfering the day’s leftovers. Plus, from what we witnessed, it puts a question mark over the species reputedly herbivore status in the animal world.

A typical night scene in Maicao, Colombia - cattle wandering the streets!
"I'd murder a beef burger right now."
All this in a place that doesn’t get the tourists coming in droves and we haven’t even mentioned the juicy part yet. On our first day here a man was shot dead, apparently for not paying his bills – that’ll teach him. Residents assure us that it was a once-off, local dispute and nothing to be concerned about. We’ll take them at their word on that one.
So for another one of Colombia’s semi-hidden ‘gems’, Maicao does nicely. At the very least it gives you a small hint of what to expect a few miles away in Venezuela. Without, that is, having to go the significant cost and bother of going there.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Turbo living

There is a tired concept followed by a number of backpackers these days – the desire to do the ‘non-tourist’ thing. Yes, it’s a bit of a paradox, trying to avoid being something you clearly are. 

Very often those looking to go to the ‘non-tourist’ place end up so much out of the way that there is little, if anything, to do or see in said place. Or worse, they arrive in a location that is famous for one rather big attraction, for example, Cusco in Peru, the gateway to the ancient city of Machu Picchu, yet decide not to see the main ‘draw’ because it’s too ‘touristy’. Why bother going then, eh?

Sometimes though, especially if you’ve been ‘on the go’ for a relatively long period of time, it is nice just to take a break from the main tourist drag. To rock up in a place that gets very few outsiders. If that is what you are looking for, a good rule-of-thumb is to pick out a location that is not mentioned on Lonely Planet or such like - the ‘bible’ for many nomads. 
The entrance into the port in Turbo, Colombia. It doubles up as the towns rubbish tip.
The entrance into Turbo's port-come-rubbish tip
Or else opt for a spot that gets a very negative write-up in the guidebooks. It’s the latter type we found ourselves staying in recently – the transit, coastal city of Turbo, on Colombia’s north coast.

It’s where you’ll find yourself if you’re either coming from or going to the remote, car-free beach resort of Capurganá, a choppy three-hour speed boat journey up the coast, just a short hop from Panama. If you follow Lonely Planet’s lead, you won’t stay in Turbo – in and out of the place as fast as you can is the advice you’ll get from that publication. 

Indeed, the actions of the locals seem to back this up. It’s one of the few places where on your arrival, by land or sea, you’ll instantly have the natives approaching you asking what part of the country you want to go to next. It nearly feels like you’re not allowed to stay. But keeping with the title of this blog, we decided to ‘stick it out’ for a couple of days here. Sure why not? Let's be the ‘only tourist in the village’, to paraphrase the sketch show ‘Little Britain’. 

Now considering my own home place isn’t exactly a big tourist spot, maybe I have a natural affiliation with similar settings. Because, on the face of it, there is very little to do in Turbo. Yes, it’s a busy hub, even without the steady flow of passers-by. But it’s quite dirty – the hiving port doubling up as the local rubbish tip, replete with the accompanying smells. The nearest beach is a good twenty-minute bus drive away, so there’s not even a nice place to cool down and relax within walking distance.

Yet, in terms of what we wanted, it didn’t disappoint. Of course, when you have no expectations, even the slightest plus-point means you’re up in the deal. So what does it have? Well if you are looking for a break from fellow backpackers, you’ll get it here, especially at night once the coming-and-going of speed boats and buses ceases. 

Plus, once the locals realise you’re actually staying for more than a couple of hours, they’ll stop pestering you for a ticket to your next destination. And amazingly, unlike more well-trodden places, they won’t harass you for anything else. You’ll be left in peace. 

On top of all this – and importantly so considering we’re all watching our pennies these days – there’s value to be had in the place. An en suite private room with TV in a hotel overlooking the semi-attractive main square (about the nicest thing in the town) for less than €10 – as good a price you’ll find anywhere in Colombia. 

Equally just as important, we managed to find a bar that sold bottles of the very agreeable local brews ‘Aguila’ & ‘Pilsen’ for $1,300 Colombian pesos (roughly €0.50, yes 50 cents that is) – a price so far unmatched on our travels here. 

Also, considering not many tourists decide to stay here, you get a more genuine taste of things – a flavour perhaps of the ‘real’ Colombia. Throw in what was a lively enough night-life (granted it was a ‘holiday’ weekend when we arrived) along with friendly, helpful locals and you’ve got a pretty decent mix.

Indeed the perfect stop to engage in a bit of ‘non-tourist’ living. Better just keep it to yourself though.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Bienvenidos a Medellín - 'Bangkok light'

As Colombia’s, officially speaking, second city Medellín has plenty to offer. Indeed for many visitors, it has no rival, not just in the country but even in South America. Dubbed the ‘City of Eternal Spring’, the climate is one of the most favourable you’ll get around these parts. The average annual temperature of 22 degrees Celsius ensures you don’t get the chills of Bogotá while it never gets as uncomfortably hot as it does on the Caribbean coast. 

This steady, pleasant weather is thanks mostly to its position, 1,500 metres-above-sea-level in the northern Andes, replete with a setting as stunning as any location across the globe. It has a relatively healthy mix of Western affluence and Latino colour while the city’s murky underworld past appears – on the surface at least – to have dissipated. Getting around the place couldn’t be easier with the very efficient integrated metro system. Indeed we’re not aware of any other metropolis that offers a cable-car service as part of the everyday transportation system – a very cheap (less than $1US), safe and novel way to get stunning views of the city.

Stunning views of Medellin from the city's cheap Metro-Cable - it gives you a birds eye view of the sex tourism in operation!
The High Life - Medellin's cheap & efficient Metrocabl
All this and we haven’t even mentioned the natives, the ‘Paisas’ – for many, speaking from a male point-of-view, the main reason to come to Medellín and the surrounding areas. In a country famed for its gorgeous women, the Paisas are the crème-de-la-crème - arguably one of the most attractive distinct groups of people in the world. But what started out as a major pull factor, is now fast becoming a drawback for this beautiful city.

You see, once you’ve discovered you’ve got an asset, you can either nourish it or abuse it. Alas, for the Paisas, it seems a significant number are choosing the latter. It’s that age-old Latin American affliction – the desire for short-term gain to the detriment of long-term success. For many of Medellin’s stunning ladies, they’ve discovered there’s a quick buck to be made from their looks. So for a city that once prided itself on hard work and enterprise, many of its more prosperous barrios are following a more ‘direct’ route to financial stability – sex tourism.

Of course, a market can only thrive if it has sufficient customers. This isn’t an issue here, especially considering Medellín’s relative proximity to the ‘big-money’ players from North America. And once this industry kicks-off – as any visitors to Thailand will tell you – it can be hard to curtail. Even if there is a genuine affection, a cash ‘injection’ of some sort is expected. As far as the locals are concerned, not to do so would be criminal. In such an environment it is hard not to be cynical as regards finding true romance.

Now not every Paisa woman is ‘playing the game’, so to speak. There is a handy scale in operation – not particularly Medellín specific – that’s worth bearing in mind:

At the lower end are the ‘fours’ – these are your full-on prostitutes or ‘pagados’, women you pay to accompany you for a period of time. This is a money-up-front job, no ambiguity here. 

Next, you have the ‘threes’ – not quite prostitutes, but maybe more sinister. These will try to take money off you by stealth – for example spike your drink and steal from you - and many are linked to Medellín’s mafia. You might ‘get lucky’ once or twice with one of these, but they’re best to be avoided. 

The ‘twos’ are less dangerous so to speak, but most in this bracket have a very hard time finding their purse. Plus, as far as these women are concerned, the idea of being faithful to somebody only exists in fairytales – especially if you are from the ‘Western’ world.

Finally, we have the much sought-after, but far lesser-spotted, ‘ones’. These tend to be from pretty well-off backgrounds and a little more conservative than the above. If you do manage to ‘make it’ with a ‘one’, then you’ve pretty much ‘made it’. They’ll take you under their wing; insist on paying more than their fair share – genuine sorts. A negative might be that they may try to ‘over-mother’ you, but all done with the best of intentions.

As with any scale/theory, it’s open to interpretation and as ever there are exceptions for each category. However, it’s certainly a good guide to bear in mind. It was brought to our attention by the ‘Basil Fawlty’-styled owner of the delightful Arcadia Hostel in Medellín’s swanky Poblado district – an area renowned for its nightlife and the place where most tourists/'extranjeros' stay, making it the unofficial ‘sex tourism’ centre. 

Indeed for many visitors on a short-term jaunt in the city, the party scene doesn’t go much further than here. If you get the chance though, checking out some of the less-visited barrios is well worth it – things tend to be more authentic in such places, usually.

In any case, you’ve always got the cheap and cheerful Metrocable to enjoy.

Monday, 2 January 2012

At home with the Escobars

He has the blood – indirectly at least - of thousands of people on his hands. His business interests arguably ruined the lives of millions of families across the globe. He once had a bounty of $10,000,000US on his head and spent twelve years in a maximum security prison. Yet today, for little over €20, you can ‘relax’, have a coffee and spend an evening with this man in his middle-class Medellin estate.

Roberto Escobar may not have been ‘at the muscle end of his family’ – to paraphrase a quote from ‘The Godfather’ movie, a very appropriate one considering the subject – but there is no doubting the significant role he played in helping Colombia's Medellín Cartel become one of the most powerful criminal gangs in the world. While it was his brother, the infamous late Pablo that was ‘El Don’, Roberto was the vicious drug lord’s accountant, PR man and lieutenant. 

Those heady days may be behind him, but Roberto is happy to talk glowingly about them to anyone that feels comfortable enough to listen. And there are many willing to do just that. It is testament to the global reach of the ‘Escobar Empire’ that a tour bearing Pablo’s name and ‘officially sanctioned’ by the family itself is one of the biggest draws on the tourist scene in Medellín these days. For many it is a chance to step inside a surreal world that you only ever before got glimpses of through books, movies and the like. When you first see Roberto shuffling his way to welcome you to his home-cum-museum, those familiar with the Italian-American mafia drama ‘The Sopranos’ will be instantly reminded of the character Junior Soprano. 

Resemblances aside, the fact that Roberto is half-blind and half-deaf following a letter-bomb ‘hit’ two weeks after his brother’s death in 1993 means he moves just as slow as the elderly Soprano, but not without an air of authority. 
'Wrong Way' with Roberto Escobar at the Escobar residence, Medellin, Colombia alongside a copy of a 'search poster' from 1993 for both Roberto & Pablo
World's Most Wanted - Roberto Escobar & Wrong Way with Pablo's first mugshot.
The house – Pablo’s last residence before he was killed – is best described as a shrine to the man who terrorised the lives of thousands of Colombians in the 1980s and early 90s. From his bullet-proof, made-to-order Chevrolet jeep to the glamorous portrait of his prized show horse ‘Terremoto de Manizales’, you get an idea of the lifestyle Pablo ‘enjoyed’ as head of what was once the world’s biggest cocaine-exporting mob. Of course you cannot run a proscribed group without having a residence equipped with hidden chambers – for both human and monetary purposes – and this dwelling doesn’t disappoint on that front. Alas, any hidden money is long-gone. And just to keep things current, the bullet holes from a 2010 failed kidnapping attempt on Roberto and his son have been left in tact by the family. 

Interesting as all that is, the biggest draw of the tour has to be Roberto himself - the man who knows Pablo as good as anyone. The chance to chat one-to-one and have your photo taken with the right-hand man of one of the worlds most notorious criminals is quite an experience, whatever your moral viewpoint on the subject. Indeed if you are a little uneasy about such a tour, we have been assured that profits are put into community projects in the poorer barrios of Medellin, ensuring the ‘Robin Hood’ image Pablo liked to portray remains alive and well. 

Now you might think Roberto – who first came into the public domain as one of Colombia’s best cyclists – would use such an opportunity to show some remorse for the many crimes directly linked to the Escobar family. Not so. In our questions-and-answers session, afforded to all visitors, he tells us that his family were as much victims of the drugs war as anyone else. That viewpoint might be a bit hard to swallow for some. It’s quite obvious from the way he talks that he still has the utmost respect for his brother. Yes, Pablo did some very positive work for many of Medellin’s impoverished, maybe more so than the Government ever could – but you can also say that Hitler vastly improved the lives of many Germans in the 1930s. 

Unsurprisingly, Roberto believes that all drugs should be made legal. Not a unique view that, but maybe a tad ironic considering that the legalisation of cocaine would possibly have been the single biggest measure to curb the rise of the Escobar empire. That’s a debate for another day.
As for the letter-bomb attack on him in prison shortly after Pablo’s death, Roberto believes it was the Government that carried it out. Indeed he puts the administration of that time as bigger enemies than the Cali Cartel, their chief rivals in the drugs trade. 

What about the whereabouts of the unaccounted millions of dollars made during Pablo’s prime? That information is gone to the grave with him, of course. There was never going to be any other answer than that. But it does open the door for the next novelty tour, ‘Finding Pablo’s Millions’. Remember where you read it first.