David and Lili's World Tour


August 2016 - Trekking in the Coffee Highlands

Bienvenidos a Colombia, until recently a dangerous place to explore, now a backpacker's paradise! With heaps of cool stuff to do including beaches, jungles, mountains, ancient archaeological sites, an exchange rate that's easy on the budget, a welcoming culture, and a lack of other foreign tourists, we highly recommend this country for your next adventure holiday destination. Spanish helps a lot though, especially because chatting with the friendly locals is awesome. So if you're a street-smart traveller and you want to experience a romantic culture at its best, forget Machu Picchu and maybe go salsa dancing in Cali instead?

Last month the FARC rebels and the government signed a deal to end their epic civil war. This was an especially complicated war given the third-parties to violence, so it seems miraculous that they closed this deal. Everywhere we felt the collective sigh of relief from the Colombian people. Hey Israel and Syria, please pay attention, thanks.

The Castro brothers helped to convince the rebels to lay down their arms and pay reparations for damages, in order to continue their fight via politics. Assuming the upcoming referendum vote passes, Colombia will establish a special justice system where the goal is truth and not punishment. Guerrilla members will receive amnesty (except in the case of international war crimes), and they will no longer be targeted for assassination, so they can go home. The goal behind the truth commission is not to dictate one version of the truth, but to learn to live with different truths. And not everybody is happy. Consider the context... The government and the rebels killed or displaced so many millions of campesinos that the war became almost impossible to sustain. And with the campesinos gone, giant corporations can now exploit those remote areas far more easily, and this was a big motivator for certain peace negotiators. Also, the cocaine trade will not be interrupted, but the dynamic between certain middlemen will evolve.

That's the peace deal in a nutshell, and it is great news for the independent traveller. Now it's easy to visit the fantastic archaeological sites at San Agustín for example, boasting pre-Colombian statues carved with no reference to language nor religion. This is all the excuse one needs to tramp in the coffee highlands on foot, a great idea, especially now because optimism is in the air. Bogotá is a nice capital city too, and it's even bicycle friendly. In summary: Colombia? Yes, Colombia!

PS: One month later... Holy disappointment, Batman! The peace referendum failed! Now what? Stay tuned...

PS: Regarding Venezuela...

We considered going to Venezuela on this World Tour also (ditto Cuba) but we ran out of time (we're on our way home to New Zealand now, via Hawaii and Japan). I have been to Venezuela before and I read the Spanish-language press, so I feel compelled to comment because the English-language coverage of Venezuela's current crisis really sucks.

Everyone knows the mainstream-media's version of the story: the regime led by Socialist dictator Nicolás Maduro (and previously Hugo Chávez) destroyed the Venezuelan economy, leading to food shortages and riots, et cetera. But of course there's another side to this story, isn't there? In a shocking media fail (or success if you're a propaganda boss), the English press has reported almost nothing about the war against the Socialist project by its powerful enemies. The Brazilian press's bias is also anti-Socialist generally. The other side of the story however, is something that all lower-class Venezuelans know (and politically-astute Colombians know) but wealthy Venezuelans and their American allies deny: the enemies of Socialism are winning both the economic and the propaganda war. Soon they will take back power, and the neoliberal elites in Washington will drink champagne. Think of the current crisis therefore not as a failure of Socialism (despite mistakes) but as a civil war.

First of all, the media is flat-out lying whenever is uses the word 'dictator' to refer to president Maduro, and they do this a lot. Venezuela is a democratic nation. Indeed Hugo Chávez won the vote by a large margin but he was widely vilified, and Chávez vilified George W. Bush. He also nationalized Venezuela's oil revenues to help the poor directly, and that's where he crossed the line, and that's why the wealthy elite have been fighting back so fiercely ever since, especially the people who used to get those big, fat, oily checks (plus their media allies and the CIA).

Hugo Chávez died and Maduro took power just before the price of oil crashed. The US dollar also spiked, dramatically increasing the price of imported goods. Bad luck. With hindsight, it was a mistake for the government to depend so much on oil revenues, but at the time the whole world was alarmed about Peak Oil and nobody predicted fracking. Maduro is not a great leader, and everyone is frustrated, but it would be wrong to impeach him, and it is wrong to blame Socialism alone for the economic mess, as the media does consistently.

To make matters worse, there's a severe drought now creating a water shortage and blackouts. Worse still, the anti-Socialists control many economic supply chains and they've been exploiting the negative external forces to engineer even more shortages of essential goods on purpose, just so that they can blame the government on TV and Twitter, an effective tactic. In the last election, they won back parliament and now they're threatening a recall against Maduro. For more on this, read The Other Explanation for Venezuela’s Economic Crisis published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

The good news, I'm told, is that while the situation is bad, it's not as bad as it seems because the media exaggerates the severity of the crisis too. For the backpacker in Venezuela, the usual precautions will suffice (common sense). In this civil war, the poor suffer while the media and elite complain cynically. The long queues shown on TV are at price-controlled shops in big cities, but not in wealthy neighborhoods. For the backpacker in Venezuela, a handful of US dollars goes a long way. So yeah, the media is extremely biased, who knew?

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