Wednesday, 22 March 2017

An Arauca awakening

As we've mentioned before here, Colombia's popularity as a tourist destination has never been higher. The country is very much in fashion, not just among backpacking types but for a range of tourists. In many ways, it could be argued, we're just at the start of this upward swing. The potential for sustained growth in this sector appears substantial, pretty much like the size of the country itself (for the record, of Colombia's 32 departments, four are bigger in area than the island of Ireland).

The impressive bamboo 'gate' in Tame, Arauca, Colombia, officially marking your entry to Arauca coming from Casanare.
'You are now entering Tame, Arauca. (Photo from Facebook.)
We already have the fairly well-established areas such as Cartagena, Santa Marta and their surrounds on the Caribbean coast, the Eje Cafetero (coffee region), Medellín and the capital city Bogotá to name the most obvious.

There are other areas, however, that are practically virgin territory when it comes to tourism, and more or less anything else for that matter. Vast tracts of the previously written about Caquetá and Putumayo, for example, fall into that category.

Another department that has plenty to boast about but is rarely even considered as a place to visit is Arauca on the eastern extremes, bordering Venezuela. It's part of Colombia's vast Llanos or plains; in over-simplified terms, cowboy country.

As has been the case with most of the country's other more remote locations, one big reason why tourists, both those from inside and outside, were reluctant to visit was down to the internal conflict. Now, however, with the Farc and paramilitary problems fading post the peace agreement, the associated security concerns are also abating.

What's more, in this air of optimism circling around Colombia, coming from both near and far, everybody's looking to get some warmth (strike it rich we could say) from this new positive light. And why not?

Monuments to an important historical role: Tame, Arauca, Colombia.
Tame's historical role in Colombia is evident. (Photo from Facebook.)
To this end, those working in Arauca's fledgling tourism sector certainly don't lack energy and enthusiasm. The problem, however, is getting their message out to a wider audience in a country full of beauty spots, varied as many of them are. Other Colombians are unaware of the region's attractions, never mind outsiders.

As Carlos Alberto Duque, the creator of the Colombia Realismo Mágico slogan and who realises the tourism potential Arauca has, puts it: "Each place has sights to show off, a story to tell, but not many are good at getting the message out there."

Arauca's location doesn't help either. By bus, it's a good 12-hour trip from Bogotá just to reach its borders, and on the way the argument could be made that you pass places more or less equal in terms of landscape and culture. Coupled with this is the fact that for many backpacking types it's unnecessarily off the beaten track, basically a 'road to nowhere' as Venezuela is off limits for most right now.

That aside, while our short visit to Tame was mostly taken up with the town's annual festival, the all-round tourism pull the place has is evident.

For starters, what's a negative is also a positive. Not many tourists come here, so as tends to happen in such places, the locals are even friendlier than the Colombian norm. There also doesn't appear to be any 'gringo prices' in operation.

Tame, Arauca, Colombia: Another type of impressive sight ...
Some of Tame's, um, impressive sights ...
For bird watchers, the region is fluttering with delights. Indeed its wildlife in general is a big selling point (and a reason why we'll be keen to return to go on the look for caiman, giant turtles and monkeys to name just a few). Throw in the fact that over half the area of the Sierra Nevada del Cocuy National Park, home to Colombia's third highest peak, is situated in Arauca and nature lovers have plenty of reasons to visit.

From a cultural point of view, outside of the cowboy and meat-eating lifestyle, there is an indigenous influence in certain aspects, something that the locals seem eager to enhance and promote. Tame itself is known as the 'cradle of freedom' (cuna de libertad), the place where Latin America's great liberators Simón Bolívar and General Francisco de Paula Santander met for the first time, just weeks before the decisive Battle of Boyacá in 1819. This is honoured with an impressive monument of the two men seated in conversation.

Another not-very-well-known attraction is Arauca's cacao. The department is actually home to award-winning chocolate on an international level. Chocolate could become for the region what coffee is for the Eje Cafetero, which draws tourists all year round.

Specifically in relation to the town of Tame, its climate is relatively fresh for a low-lying tropical region. So even with temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius, it doesn't feel overbearing thanks to the refreshing breeze blowing about.

With plans afoot to develop a 'Ruta de los Llanos', basically a multi-departmental tourism-focused way through the plains, Arauca's delights could be set to become more accessible and widely known.

An 'Arauca awakening' of sorts. You read it here first!

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Tocaima's toxic teens, fair-weather police

"Be careful lads, it's not safe to walk around here on your own at night." "Yea, yea, we hear you. Don't worry, though, we're well used to perceived 'dodgy' areas, we'll be fine."

After over five years living in Colombia socialising, usually without problems, in places that some more well-to-do locals see as dangerous, we tend not to take too much heed of the oft-given advice such as that above. We generally find that the locals security fears are, thankfully, unfounded.

Tocaima, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
Tocaima: A quaint town, if only it could deal with its delinquents.
This is usually even more so the case when we're talking about Colombia's smaller towns, however popular or not they may be.

So on a recent trip to one such small town, Tocaima, a short three-hour spin outside Bogotá, when the locals told my travel companion and I that it wasn't safe at night, we were quite blasé about it.

What we hadn't factored in, however, were over a dozen pumped up young lads (is there any other kind?) looking to lay down a marker to the only foreigners in the village. Luckily for us the older townsfolk of a far friendlier disposition (not hard to be in this case) spotted the danger and ensured we avoided the planned assault.

Unlike the fair-weather, indifferent -- nay incompetent -- police officers on duty, these young men weren't going to let a long-lasting, torrential downpour wash out their plans to get their 'lucrative' prize.

On the contrary, they split up and occupied strategic positions along what was a three-minute walk back to our hotel. Indeed the police here could do worse than to take note and learn from these young thugs, if they weren't so damn lazy that is. (OK, eventually, although reluctantly, one officer escorted us back to the hotel, which incidentally was located directly opposite the police station, after being pressurised into doing so by the owner of the bar we were in and some other concerned bystanders.)

So while it all passed off without incident in the end, save for a few aggressive staredowns from our wannabe attackers while we took refuge in the bar, it did sour somewhat our time in Tocaima.

Tocaima Police Station, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
'Any police about?' Not ones that seem willing to work anyway ...
It's not a bad town and could be seen as a quieter alternative to the more popular Girardot and Melgar in terms of warmer-weather, short escapes from Bogotá. Yet, if young lads such as the ones we almost got robbed by are allowed to run amok, with what seemed like the connivance of the police, the chances of the place growing in terms of tourism are slim to none.

With Colombia being ‘open to the world’ as a recent tourism expo put it, places such as Tocaima could do with, at the very least, having a police force that seems willing to prevent crime -- all the other social inequality problems the country has to deal with notwithstanding.

As it is, these delinquents, what we can describe as the bad or better said toxic apples are rotting the place as a whole. It doesn't have to be that way guys.
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Friday, 10 March 2017

Applying for Colombia's TP-7 (independent) visa

Over the last while we've had a number of people ask about the process of obtaining an independent visa in Colombia, a TP-7 as it's called. Another sign, perhaps, of the country's global appeal right now.

Whatever the case, while the official website goes through the documents needed, there are a few grey areas that leave applicants with doubts. Then, of course, there's the fact that it's at the discretion of the official in charge of your application whether to approve it or not, as it is in most countries. This is something that's out of your hands, you might just get the wrong official on the wrong day.

Colombian immigration officials check a foreigner's papers ...
'Visa? What visa?!' (Photo from Facebook.)
Be that as it may, in terms of the documents required, from previous personal experience anyway, it's pretty straightforward.

First of all, it must be said that you can make the application in the country. So if you're already here on a tourist visa or whatever, you don't have to leave.

In terms of the paperwork, you need a letter, in Spanish obviously, stating the independent activity you are carrying out or intend to carry out, accompanied with your CV.

Alongside this, you must supply documents that prove you do or are going to do this activity. These could be letters from parties -- individuals or companies -- that you are collaborating with and who are already based in Colombia or have legally verifiable reasons to be here. From the 'Wrong Way' perspective, evidence of freelance-journalism work in relation to Colombia has been used, along with letters from other people and companies who I’ve collaborated with.

You also need documents proving that you are qualified to perform the role in question. These are basically copies of university degrees and the like (for the record, I've never had to provide translated versions, copies of the originals have been fine).

Perhaps the most troublesome, confusing part is meeting the financial requirements. It states that you have to show 15 times the monthly minimum salary, that is to say just over 3,500 euros, running through your bank account for the last six months. What's not very clear is does this mean 3,500 euros each month -- a hefty amount indeed -- or just that sum for six months?

Obviously I've always sided with the lower amount. However, it was an issue for my second time applying, where I was told I didn't quite meet the financial stipulations but they would let me off on this occasion and give me the visa.

The following year, with pretty much the same figures in the account to show, it didn't come up as a problem at all (here's hoping it stays that way for visa application number four later this year). Hearsay has it that this 'anomaly' was to do with the number of movements made in the account and that it's best to have money coming in and going out on a frequent basis.

Nonetheless, however they determine this financial threshold, which appears to be arbitrary, for first time applicants who may not have a Colombian bank account, foreign accounts suffice -- they did in my case anyway. For further renewals, officials, some of them anyway, give more weight to your Colombian account(s) if the activity you'd been doing enabled you to earn a wage in the country.

Having an actual, clearly specified figure might help to clear up a few things here. Just saying like!

On a minor point, but one that might save you a few pesos, you don't need to bring passport photos for the application procedure. The officials take your photo during the interview process, one that will be used on your visa if successful.

It is said that the TP-7 is the hardest of the visas to get, but there does appear to be some flexibility in the granting of it. We are in a time where there are a lot more independent workers about than previously. If that happens to be you, you're work is related to Colombia and you're looking to stay here on a longer-term basis, all you've got to do is convince the authorities of that (and then pay the more than one million pesos needed, including the fee for the compulsory ID card that is). Simple!

Failing that, there's always the civil union option, disingenuous as some are about it.
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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

St Patrick's Day with Bogotá's Irish

It's fair to say that it's largely down to the Irish Americans, those in the US to be clear, that St Patrick's Day is as big and wide-reaching a celebration that it is these days. They glamorised, as only they can, what had been back in its origin of Ireland a pretty tame affair.

Of course they've caught on back home; Paddy's Day (or week as it tends to be now) is a significant and important money-spinner for the Irish economy. The once somewhat sombre tone to it has been cast aside. The churches mightn't be as full as they once were, but there's no sign of straightened times in the pubs on March 17.

Giving a little more recognition to St Patrick's Day in Bogotá ...
An Irish-Colombian mix for St Patrick's Day in Bogotá ...
Personally, I've always been indifferent towards our national holiday. Thus, that I haven't been home for one since 2011 is no big deal.

Nonetheless, it doesn't pass without being acknowledged here in Bogotá. For one, you've a number of (badly) Irish-styled pubs in the city that know the day exists and do their best to get the numbers in. The problem with most of those venues is that they're ridiculously overpriced; $100,000 Colombian pesos won't get you too far in them. And considering many Colombians who are keen to recognise St Patrick's Day with a drink or two say they like to do it with genuine Irish people, you're less likely to find us in such establishments (unless we're being, um, sponsored).

What's more, with a small and scattered Irish community in Bogotá, not much in terms of organised celebrations took place in the past.

That changed a little last year thanks to the support of the Irish embassy in Mexico (we're still waiting for an embassy to open here!).

Building on that, this year members of the Irish community have got together to organise a gathering for all those who want to 'wet the shamrock' as we say (see the accompanying photo flyer, above, for details).

There'll even be some traditional Irish music on the night from the Colombian (yes, Colombian!) group Paddy's Season.

So if you're looking for something slightly more Irish (whatever that is exactly) this St Patrick's Day, you could do worse than come along to this get together.

Plus, with March 17 being a Friday, most of us don't have to worry about an early start the next day. A potentially 'close-to-perfect Paddy's' then.

P.S: Some of the Irish are also planning a late afternoon meet up, before the Cervecería Gigante event, at the bust of General Daniel O'Leary, a gesture that was started back in 2015.