Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Feisty Fusagasugueños

When it comes to nearby escapes from the madness of Bogotá, we're not stuck for options. There's Choachí, Giradot, La Vega, Melgar, Pandi, Tobia and Villeta to name just some of the places we're familiar with. Each of those differ in terms of their tranquillity factor, but all are unquestionably more relaxing than the capital city.

We can't, however, say the same for the big town -- city by Irish standards -- of Fusagasugá. OK, on the weather front it scores well; warmer than Bogotá, but not too stickily hot as some of the locations mentioned above can be. Yet with a population of over 130,000 it's not quite a peaceful rural getaway.
Fusagasugá, Cundinamarca, Colombia.
Fusagasugá: It has a couple of things going for it in fairness ...

In fairness, it's not marketed as that; well it's not marketed at all really, and with reason considering there doesn't seem much of interest to draw tourists. The pull factors tend to have nothing to do with the urban centre. For most of those who do go to the area, it's all about the rural retreats dotted around.

Yet cities and towns that don't rate high on the popularity scale have an attraction for us, and usually we aren't disappointed (well if you go not expecting too much, then it's easy to be satisfied; for example see previous posts on Buenaventura, Maicao and Turbo to name just three).

So a stay in the centre of Fusagasugá with a couple of like-minded Irishmen seemed like a win-win plan. And in many ways, it was.

For starters, it's reasonably cheap in terms of food, drink and accommodation, especially compared to Bogotá. What's more, unlike some towns close to the capital and other locations in the regions, there is an abundance of well-kept attractive ladies about (that is to say, not carrying far too many pounds than they should be; each to their own and all that). Then you have the aforementioned agreeable climate.

That's about as good as it gets, though.

On arrival, not having a Colombian cédula (national ID) for the hotels there was a bit of a problem. It was hard work trying to convince them to let us stay. You would have thought that the Colombian issued cédula extranjería, the compulsory ID all visa-holding foreigners must have, would have worked fine. But no. After a long chat with one receptionist we managed to convince her that all would be OK; if the police had any issue -- the reason behind this reluctance to check us in -- we'd speak with them directly. Pity those arriving with just a foreign passport, they'd have no chance it seems. Though this obviously rarely happens.

Then there's the 'people on edge' feel to things. Many appear to be lacking that relaxed, happy-go-lucky style that you'll find with Colombians in most other places (peak commuting hours in Bogotá excepted). No, in Fusagasugá it was more a 'what are you doing here' attitude from a number of its inhabitants, and not in a friendly way that.

One good representation of this was an off-duty policeman giving one of us an earful for, so it seemed anyway, no more than just because we were foreigners.

All this negativity might be down to the fact that the place tends to get types of a less-than-desirable nature spilling over from Bogotá -- the word for them in these parts being 'ñero'. Just a thought.

Now not everybody was in fighting form it has to be said. The onset of dusk, however, is the signal for the feisty Fusagasugueños to come out in force.

So if you're planning to let the hair down in Fusagasugá some weekend, it's probably best to do it by day; leave the locals to their own devices at night.
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Wednesday, 19 April 2017

Bogotá's new, 'big' micro brewery

When it comes to beer drinking in Colombia, the market is dominated by the bog-standard Bavaria beers. The nation's tipple of choice is generally a Poker, Aguila or Costeña, with some opting for the more 'upmarket' Club Colombia. They're far from amazing, but they're fine all the same.

Cervecería Gigante Cra 22 # 70a-60, Bogotá, Colombia.
Cervecería Gigante: Quality beer at reasonable prices ...
Yet for those looking for a better beer-drinking experience, there are other, quality options available. The most popular in this regard is the Bogotá Beer Company, but it could be argued that it has drifted a bit from its artisanal origins (if it ever really had such). It's also generally priced quite highly in the venues where its brews are sold; the cost of just a couple of pints are equivalent to half a days wages for many.

Thankfully there are more attractive alternatives. One of those filling this value-for-money versus quality/originality void is Cervecería Gigante, the brainchild of California native Will Catlett.

We caught up with him over a tasty pint (or two or three!) recently to find out what has him brewing beers down this side of the Americas.

Wrong Way: What made you start up a micro brewery in Bogota?

Will Catlett: Being from California, home brew and craft beer is a major part of our culture. My interest in craft beer started as a teen, and I got my first home brew kit when I was 15. Needless to say my interests in drinking beer at that age were quite different from what they are now, but it was always a passion and something I enjoyed doing.

There's also a social aspect that I always enjoyed, as you can share experiences about beer with anyone from anywhere around the world, and brewing with other people is always a good time to connect and share interests. But being that there is so much beer in California, and in the US in general, I never considered it an option simply based on the price and the competition.

So when I came to Colombia, I saw the lack of good beer, and I realised that the craft beer scene here would kick off soon. I had a restaurant for a while in La Candalería, and that was sort of my icebreaker in seeing how business works here, but it was kind of both a dream and a nightmare so I closed it and began thinking about what I wanted to do.

In my boredom/planning, I went to the only local home-brew shop I knew at the time, and bought some ingredients and started trying to make some of my recipes from back home. As the ingredients were limited, I worked with what I had and eventually got some pretty decent beer. I did a few events around Bogotá trying to promote my beer just to see how it would go, and we ran out faster than I expected every time.

From there I started thinking more seriously about the project and started looking around to find a warehouse where I could have both the brewery and the pub. And thanks to a ton of support from my family and friends, about a year or so later here I am with a brewery and pub, moving right along, living my dream.

WW: You say your restaurant was both a dream and nightmare! How has setting up & running the warehouse/pub been different? And how is business going so far?

WC: So there were various factors that made the restaurant both a success and a failure. To start off, that was my first experience owning and running a business. I had two business partners who helped out, but it wasn't enough to get things moving.

Both my lack of experience and fear of dedicating to one idea made it difficult for us to succeed. But we were very well located and our quality food, beer, and wine kept us afloat for quite a while. But in the long run, it wasn't enough to continue, and we eventually had to close.

In a sense I feel like what I'd done with the restaurant was really more of a distraction from what I really wanted to do, which was beer. Since opening the brewery and pub, I am happier than ever, and surprisingly it's a lot easier to run.

It's a lot more streamlined as far as the concept goes and it's a lot easier to capture my target market. With the craft beer scene being so new here it's really easy to connect with different markets and practically everyone shows interest right from the start. There is a growing community here in the craft beer scene and that definitely helps.

Running the brewery is fairly easy but it's a lot of work, dedication and endless things to do, but I enjoy every minute of it. The pub on the other hand is a bit more complicated, surprisingly a lot more work. Things are starting off well, but getting our name out to the general public is really the hard part, since we get most of our clients by word of mouth.

Most of my job at the pub is showing people the difference between craft beer and commercial beer, and not only why it's better, but to explain what quality beer really is and to make them pay attention to what they are actually consuming, and most of all, who they are supporting with their hard-earned money -- a greedy monopoly or a local, hardworking, passionate, small business owner.
Cervecería Gigante Cra 22 # 70a-60, Bogotá, Colombia.
It's not all about the beer, there's good grub as well ...

With craft breweries only having one per cent of the market share in Colombia, it's a slow process, but in the last few years it's come a long way, and I hope to be a part of the growing scene and culture as it expands, overcoming the challenges of competing with giants like Bavaria and SABMiller (now Anheuser-Busch InBev).

That's why the brewery is called Gigante, because that is what we have to be, no matter how small or how big we are, we will always strive to be bigger and better.

WW: So if a lucrative offer was to come from one of the brewing giants, what would your response be?!

WC: As far as one of the brewing giants buying me out or having partial ownership, at this point absolutely not. But if someone came by as a private investor I might be interested, but everything would depend on the offer. For me it's not about the money, it's about the idea and philosophy, so it's a very fine line between what I would or wouldn't accept. Although in almost all cases breweries are subjected to looking for bank loans or investors of some sort, not necessarily for starting up, but for increasing capacity and production, so it's not a theme I'm afraid to talk about.

WW: Finally, in a few words, for Cervecería Gigante newbies, what can they expect on a maiden visit?

WC: Good beer, good food, good service, a proper gastropub, and a unique atmosphere.

(We can vouch for that, and all at pretty reasonable prices, too, which can be difficult to find in Bogotá.)

*Cervecería Gigante's bar is open Thursday through to Saturday from 5 to 11 pm. It's located on Cra 22 # 70a-60. Pints (500 ml) of beer start from 7.000 COP, with 330 ml glasses from 5.000 COP.
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Monday, 10 April 2017

Colombia decides 2018: What'll yours be?

After eight years of the good, the bad and the ugly with Juan Manuel Santos, next year the Colombian electorate will vote for a new president.

There's still a bit to go before we know the, um, range of candidates on the actual ballot paper, but there are a few who have already indicated their intention to run for the highest office in the land.

Plus, considering there's generally very little ideological difference among those who do put their names forward -- due largely to an old policy of murdering any politician with just a hint of socialism about him/her -- it's very much like choosing you're favourite, bog-standard Bavaria beer, 'the' beer company of Colombia (owned by Anheuser-Busch InBev as it is now).

Colombia's former Inspector General, the conservative Alejandro Ordóñez ...
'Aguila' Ordóñez, what Colombia 'should' be about ...
We all tend to prefer one over the other, but they're essentially the same not-very-classy poison that may leave us with a headache and regret if we get too involved and put too much faith in them as instruments of change in our mediocre lives. (OK, that's a bit harsh on the beer, and at least it's not the ridiculously overpriced Bogotá Beer Company.)

With that as a guide, here we look at some of those in the mix at this early stage (subject to much change):

Gustavo 'Poker' Petro
Poker Petro is at home in Bogotá, where it has held sway for much of the working-to-middle classes for some time, a few 'flat', controversial moments notwithstanding.

The problem is, this populism doesn't tend to transfer to the other major urban centres. The label is seen as a little bland elsewhere, a tad bitter even. Thus, we'd expect it to do well in Bogotá along with a smattering of other towns and could go close. Yet a decent volume of support doesn't always turn into votes. The Poker grande (750 ml) might be popular and look impressive, but it's just one bottle. Two standard 330 ml Aguila bottles appear better on the table in the minds of some Colombians.

Alejandro 'Aguila' Ordóñez
At this remove it's all a bit clustered and hazy on Colombia's right, where you'll find all the 'políticos Aguila'. Yet for the moment an Aguila Ordóñez fits this slot pretty well (as does any one coming out of the ideologically-similar Centro Democrático). That is to say, the beer of Colombia. It matches, in a typical paradoxical way, what the country should be about. Aguila has the Colombian colours, the chicas, the vibrancy; Ordóñez the old-school Catholicism, the traditionalism, the elitism. A perfect match.

Foreigners often fail to get the appeal; it's a Colombian thing, we wouldn't understand.

Jorge 'Costeña' Robledo
The beer that could be king. However, in a significant part of the country it's not even known about. Ask for a Costeña Robledo and you'll get a strange look. Where you can get it, it suffers from not sharing in the same sort of lofty limelight as our Pokers and Aguilas, even though it's just as 'good' if not a bit better. Yet it's the black, 'potentially dangerous' sheep of the family, with its funny little shape. Knock back this brew and god knows what kind of crazy socialist path you might stumble down.

Sergio 'Pilsen' Fajardo
We're in Medellín/Paisa country and surrounds with this one. In its own backyard, a Pilsen Fajardo more or less beats all the other Bavaria beers put together; it gets its people. The thing is, it doesn't travel well. In fact, it doesn't really travel at all.

Sure it's recognisable to those who aren't in its catchment area. Indeed many Aguila and Poker stalwarts have dabbled in it and spoken highly of it. Nonetheless, it's still a little different and a bit too regional, self-centred even. If Pilsen Fajardo broadens its horizons, it could be a force to be reckoned with.

Germán 'Aguila Cero' Vargas Lleras
This ticket has a strong name behind it, but it lacks any real punch and tastes rather odd. If you were going to pick a 'beer', you'd have to ask why would you go for this one? The other ones out there are more exciting and give you a little high, at least for a while before it all starts going downhill. An Aguila Cero Vargas might turn out to be the safest option (scientific research pending), but it seems a kind of a 'last resort' this. The dregs of Santos in a way.

Current Colombian senator & presidential hopeful Claudia López.
Aguila Light López tends to leave you disappointed ...
Claudia 'Aguila Light' López
It almost seems like a great deal. An alternative to the traditional 'Aguilistas', an Aguila Light López speaks for a new, brighter Colombia, but not in ridiculously radical ways. A sensible, middle-ground option we might say, yet refreshingly different enough from the old-school popular boys.

That's the theory anyway. The reality is, it generally leaves you a little disappointed. It promises a high, but you tend to get too tired and lose patience before you reach it. What's more, you end up with a bigger hole in your wallet than if you'd just stuck with the old normal ones.

So there we have it. The not-very-definitive guide to some of the potential candidates for the Colombian presidency. Merry times ahead indeed.

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Colombia's Venezuelans

In a similar fashion to our Bogotá 'bull' report a few weeks back, the following is the original script of our latest report for RTÉ's World Report, this time on the growing number of Venezuelans entering and staying in Colombia. You can listen to the report here (from 20' 55'', edited for time reasons) and follow the script below:
Puente internacional Simón Bolívar, Colombia-Venezuela.
Most of the traffic is coming into Colombia these days, not the other way around ...

"We don't have to go too far back in history to find a time when some Colombians found refuge in neighbouring Venezuela, to escape the terrible bloodshed and uncertainty back home. Politically speaking, before Hugo Chávez's 'socialism for the 21st century' took hold in Venezuela, the two countries were quite similar. The difference was Colombia was seen as a violent backwater best avoided, while Venezuela, from a Western, capitalist perspective in any case, was a model for the rest of Latin America to follow.

It's not stretching it to say that now we have the reverse situation: Colombia's external image seems to get brighter by the day while Venezuela's plummets.

In Venezuela's pre-socialist days, so it is said, 'la Colombiana' was the one who came to clean the house of the well-off, the one who worked in the bakeries and bars, the work many locals felt was beneath them. Now it's the Venezuelans -- men, women and children -- who are crossing the border in their thousands to work in whatever they can find in Colombia. Chronic food and medical shortages, hyper-inflation and safety concerns, alongside a seemingly incompetent government to deal with these issues are what have them leaving in droves.

How many have actually relocated here is difficult to measure exactly. This is simply because on a daily basis the toing and froing of Venezuelans into Colombia, and vice versa, all along the over 2000 kilometre-long land border has been constant and not tightly regulated. [This is when the border hasn't been closed by order of Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro that is, as has happened on occasions over the last couple of years.]

The United Nations Refugee Agency in Bogotá does state that there has been "a notable increase of Venezuelan nationals coming to and remaining in Colombia." From an official viewpoint, however, it acknowledges the figures it works off from Colombian immigration are not terribly accurate and more than likely underestimate the volume.

Alongside the informal, unregistered crossings, the agency points to the lack of data on Venezuelan nationals remaining in Colombia as well as the fact that official asylum claims are quite low as this process in Colombia is somewhat cumbersome.

Notwithstanding the difficulties of getting an accurate figure, Daniel Pages of the Association of Venezuelans in Colombia estimates that between legals and illegals there are over 1.2 million of his countrymen currently in Colombia. The association itself, set up five years ago to provide assistance for Venezuelans looking to live and work legally in Colombia, has now over 15,000 people on its books.

Alongside the estimated numbers, Colombians themselves are quick to tell you that the Venezuelan accent is being heard much more of late than had been the case just a couple of years ago. And we're not talking here about illegal border intrusions into Colombia by Venezuelan military personnel, which caused a stir recently, damaging further official relations between the two republics.

No, this isn't just temporary border-hopping stuff; Venezuelans are travelling as far into Colombia as Bogotá to set up shop.

A visit to any of the capital's bog-standard bread shops or restaurants and it's a safe bet that there'll be at least one Venezuelan working there.

The problem, as some locals see it, is that these unregistered foreign workers are taking potential jobs from the many hard-pressed Colombians in need of employment. As store owner Laura Lancheros puts it: "Many of these unregistered Venezuelans coming here are willing to work for anything, so for some employers they're a good option because there's no real paperwork involved in hiring them."

Indeed, in Bogotá for one, there appears to be little sympathy for the plight of their neighbours. A lot of this stems from the Venezuelan government's decision to remove thousands of Colombian nationals from the country a couple of years back, the deported accused of being involved in paramilitary activities and other illegalities. President Maduro's almost daily jibes at Colombia also don't help, where he regularly accuses it as the source of many of his own country's problems.

Be that as it may, for the Venezuelans now living and working in Colombia, many are quick to distance themselves from what their government says and does.

What’s more, as 25-year-old Bogotá bread shop employee Angie Salcedo, who arrived here from her native eastern Venezuela earlier this year, points out: "Some Colombians would do well to remember the past. Venezuela was always welcoming to foreigners, but now that we're in trouble, we're not getting the same treatment from others. Not everybody is received with open arms."

A young, university-educated woman, Angie's story is typical of the Venezuelans flocking to Colombia: here illegally, engaged in unskilled work for barely the minimum wage.

Angie's co-worker, 22-year-old Yorkely Casanova, sees Colombia as just a temporary stopover. Like other Venezuelans, she has her eyes set on Chile as the process to become a legal worker there is shorter, more straightforward and less expensive than Colombia.

For the moment she, along with her husband, are working 12-hour plus days for no more than 10 US dollars a day to save money for that journey further south.

It's far from ideal, but as Yorkely sadly notes, it's better than being in Venezuela right now."
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