Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Santa Marta's serene surrounds

It's no major revelation to state that the main reason most tourists go to Santa Marta is to visit the attractions surrounding it. In other words, the city is a tourism hub solely because it's close to places of greater interest and beauty. (It's historic centre is quaint enough for sure and it has a bog-standard beach, but they're not necessarily crowd-pullers in themselves.)

Of the many places of interest in the region, the best known are, arguably, Parque Tayrona and The Lost City, La Ciudad Perdida. Indeed, by all accounts the latter has become almost too well-known compared to our first and thus far only virtually-solo trek there back in early 2009. It's not that 'lost' at all these days so it seems. An inevitable result of Colombia's growing popularity that.

Paso del Mango, Masinga, near the city of Santa Marta, Colombia.
A quite refreshing dip ...
Nonetheless -- and thankfully for those of us seeking less-crowded locations -- the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, this being the mountain range that surrounds the city, still has plenty of fairly remote spots to discover. And we don't have to go too far out of our way to find them.

In fact, about an hour's combined bus and moto-taxi ride from the city centre, via the suburb of Bonda and the village of Masinga, there's the quite stunning Paso del Mango. Similar to rural parts of Colombia's coffee region, many of the farms (fincas) here offer peaceful, sustainable mountain living but with the special bonus of the beach, should you want it, being just a stone's throw away, relatively speaking.

However, considering just the trickle of visitors the place seems to get, you mightn't be too pushed to leave the tree-shaded serenity it offers.

The small rivers that race towards the Caribbean around here regularly have their flow interrupted, resulting in impressive waterfalls that call out to you well before you can see them.

Paso del Mango, Masinga, near the city of Santa Marta, Colombia.
Peaceful surrounds ...
Aside from being picturesque, the little pools they've created provide a very refreshing dip after trekking in the tropical sun -- not forgetting the natural massage the cascading water provides should you wish. What's more, there's a good chance you'll have them all pretty much to yourself to relax and unwind in.

Speaking of unwinding, another plus point for us was that there was no mobile phone signal in the finca we overnighted in.* Seeing as how addicted many of us have become to our handheld devices, rarely disconnecting even when on holidays, a bit of forced rehab is a very healthy thing every now and again. (At the risk of ruining the image, we must point out here that the finca's caretakers, a young local family, do have cable TV. We were able to avoid that, though.)

Lying in pitch darkness, the gentle sounds of a busy nocturnal jungle and flow of a nearby river are therapeutic-like (interrupted by the odd dog bark albeit and, if things get sticky, you may have to turn on a fan. Nothing's perfect, eh?).

Altogether, the biggest pull factor Paso del Mango has to offer is its tranquillity. With a few other fincas currently in construction, there is a risk it might lose a bit of that in the coming years. Here's hoping it doesn't. We're all for development, but when we're talking about a paradise like this, keep it sensible, sustainable and in harmony with the natural environment. It's not too much to ask, is it?

*For more information about Finca Entre Ríos, visit Aluna Casa y Café.
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Friday, 22 September 2017

'We are the law' police

As most Colombian country folk know well, if you poke a bull, you can expect a reaction. In the same way, if you antagonise people, most of us will react in some way.

There are a number professions, however, where maintaining a cool head and looking at things rationally is a prerequisite; or at least it should be.

One of those is policing. Yes, there's no doubt that being a law enforcer is no easy task. So for that very reason, it's something that should not be in the hands of those of a reckless disposition.

Policía Nacional de Colombia: It seems like for every decent police officer in Colombia, there's at least one incompetent one ...
Some police officers think they are the law. (Image from Facebook.)
Unfortunately, in Colombia, as you get in many countries, some police officers here don't have the temperament to carry out their duties in an even-handed, fair manner. Add to this a new police code which seems to have been introduced without much forethought or adequate instruction, and the risk of abuse of powers -- or not knowing the limitations of them -- increases substantially.

OK, there's nothing new in the fact that some Colombian police officers are corrupt or take advantage of their position. The problem with the latest police code is that rather than trying to curb these abuses, the way a number of 'boys in green' interpret it results in further problems, not less.

What's more, a lot of these additional problems are completely avoidable, with the police very often being the root cause. Rather than taking an objective view of the situation and doing some fact-checking, they take one side of the story and run with that. But hey, to heck with due process when there's a chance of money being made.

For sure, we all must respect the law, but what about when the law -- or those supposedly upholding it in any case -- don't respect us in the first place? With some of the penalties at the Colombian police force's disposal, it pretty much equals a 'guilty until proven innocent' policy. 'We are the police and we alone can decide whether you've done wrong or not.' Judge, jury and executioner.

There are, thankfully and rightfully so, procedures in place to contest penalties. The thing is, with more common-sense policing, some of these charge notices issued need not have been handed out in the first place.

We could also say that police time is being wasted on rather trivial issues while the bigger criminal problems crippling Colombia carry on pretty much unabated with, at times, police connivance.

Obviously enough there are areas where more effective policing is needed. Yet the way the new police code is being used by some officers -- not all that is to say -- seems more a case of coming down hard on the less serious problems in the country. The easy way out.

This isn't terribly surprising all the same. A case of adding a splash of paint to a few internal walls in a house where the load-bearing structures are falling apart, built on flimsy ground as they were.
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Tuesday, 12 September 2017

What the Farc?!

There have been a few developments since we took our what-you-might-call slightly tongue-in-cheek look at the early candidates for Colombia's 2018 presidential election.

Rather than having a clearer picture of the state of play, things have got even more muddled (heck, we might throw our hat into the ring yet; well, if everyone else is ...).

Former defence minister under outgoing President Juan Manuel Santos, Juan Carlos Pinzón, has entered the running, distancing himself from the now unpopular Santos in the process; a man's got to do what a man's got to do.
Colombia's newest political party, Farc ...
'The Farc is dead, long live the Farc!'
On the female front, Angela Merkel lookalike Clara López is making another bid for the top job while the Conservative Party's Marta Lucía Ramírez is gearing up for a third attempt; suckers for punishment, eh? Very much on the other side of the political spectrum to Ramírez we've Piedad Córdoba on the list for the 'loony left' (don't shoot the messenger; it's how Córdoba and her ilk are generally viewed here).

Speaking of the left, arguably the most eye-catching move has been the founding of the political party for the former guerrillas, Farc. In a bid to distance themselves from the image of death and destruction that they represent for most Colombians, they've come up with a novel name: Farc.

The, um, devil is the detail. This Farc stands for Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (Fuerza Alternativa Revolucionaria del Común), different to what the armed Farc stood for, which was Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. See the difference?

We could say it's a case of 'keep it simple, stupid'. At least it will make it easy for both supporters and opponents alike to know who they are. No need to copy the Northern Ireland scenario where people said (and some still say) Sinn Féin-IRA, linking the party to the armed group it represent(ed). Farc was/is Farc, a rare instance of efficiency in Colombia that, to look at it positively.

Of course, as mentioned here on umpteen occasions and alluded to above, 'the left' is a dirty concept for not only middle-class Colombia but large swathes of its lower-classes as well. Come on guys, not all leftists are unwashed, miserable hippies. We shouldn't generalise now.

So the fear in some quarters that the political Farc could be a force to be reckoned with at the polling booth next year -- we've parliamentary elections in March, before the presidential contest -- seems quite irrational. Yes, it did register a less negative image than the other political parties in a recent opinion poll (the biggest thing that this poll highlighted was the lack of confidence in politics here in general).

However, if there's one thing we can rely on in Colombia, it's the electorate's unfailing support for the centre/centre-right when it comes to election day. Thus, the guaranteed seats Farc is to be given, five in each chamber as per the 2016 peace agreement, might be the party's lot for now.

What's more, the mess that we have in 'socialist' Venezuela weakens further Farc's chances of making any significant political inroads in the near future. We must note here that just because a government says it is socialist doesn't mean it actually is that way in practice. The 'whatever you're having yourself' political experiment that Venezuela currently is has done more to damage the left than the right ever could.

That aside, what 'post-conflict' (no sniggering down the back there) Colombia needs is a massive clampdown on corruption -- we're talking generations to achieve that; a culture doesn't change overnight -- and, as far as we're concerned, a healthy dollop of social democratic thinking and policy.

The question is, do we have a political party here that can actually deliver that? You cynics will say no, but we live in hope -- honestly, we do. Failing that, Venezuela might sort itself out in the next decade or so.
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