Fernando Botero birds

Medellin: From murder capital to tourist mecca

Mention Medellin to anyone from elsewhere in Colombia and they’ll respond with a bevy of cliches, very few of them positive.

Paisas – the word for people from Antioquia, the province whose capital is Medellin – carry their reputation before them.

They are known as shrewd businessmen who will have the shirt off your back before you know it. They are said to be proud to the point of arrogance, believing themselves a cut above the average Colombian. And they are viewed as tacky, valuing bling and money over all else.

Gaudy baseball caps in a shopping centre in Medellin

Medellin: Like Jersey Shore, only with less modest fashion

Outside Colombia, the reputation of Medellin is more one-dimensional. This was the cocaine capital of Colombia, the city ruled by drug lord Pablo Escobar and his Cartel in the 80s and 90s.

Violent wars between rival militias pre-date the Colombian cocaine trade. But it was drug money that escalated this conflict, providing the cash to buy ever more sophisticated weaponry.

As drug barons competed for turf armed with military-grade ordnance, Medellin became the most bloody city in Colombia, despite stiff competition.

By the peak of Escobar’s reign in 1991, it was the homicide capital of the world, with a murder rate of some 381 per 100,000 people.

Pablo Escobar

Pablo Escobar’s drug empire made him the de facto ruler of Medellin

Today it is 35th, with a more acceptable 38 murders per 100,000 people. That’s fewer than New Orleans, no great boast perhaps, but still a dramatic slide down the murder hit parade. The image introducing this blog on the homepage shows two statues by the renowned painter and sculptor Fernando Botero, born in Medellin. The original was blown apart in a bomb attack that killed 30 people in 1995. One can’t help but see the symbolism in Botero’s defiant insistence that he remake a new statue exactly as it was, next to the disfigured individual.

This is not to pretend that violence and the gang problem have gone away.

Gangsters still control what goes on in parts of the city and it remains a dangerous place to live for many. I spoke to a serving police officer at a stable for police horses. Some of their best mounts had recently been killed in ‘tiroteos’ – shootouts with local criminals.

Police horse Colombia

A mounted police officer introduces us to his trusty steed

The cocaine trade is still rife, fuelled in part by tourists keen to tick off ‘doing coke in Colombia’ from their to-do list.

But Medellin’s improvement from the dark days of Escobar and his cartel has been phenomenal. And as this article (also from the Guardian) suggests, a major victory in the battle to revive Medellin has been to  sell its resurgence to its own citizens.

The palpable belief of the locals in the renaissance of their home town is one reason why, whatever other Colombians say about Medellin, I feel so much goodwill for this city. The more they believe in the transformation, the faster it becomes reality.

It may lack the chocolate-box charm of Cartagena or the cosmopolitan sophistication of Bogota. But you cannot help but admire Medellin’s entrepreneurial never-say-die spirit.

Medellin Colombia

When the police come, this illegal gambling racket in the Parque Berrio disappears sharpish

There are practical and political reasons for this. Former president Alvaro Uribe is a controversial figure, who has been accused of having financial ties to some of Colombia’s paramilitary groups. Nonetheless, he is credited by many people with pouring sufficient money into the military to allow for a surge in tourism.

Medellin has been among the cities to benefit most. Just 20 years after Pablo Escobar’s death, tourists can even pay for a tour that includes a meeting with his brother Roberto.

At a more local level, the public works programmes started by Sergio Fajardo, the city’s mayor from 2003 to 2007, have been an important catalyst.

Sergio Fajardo

Former Medellin mayor Sergio Fajardo now governs the entire Antioquia province

Any visitor to Medellin can learn more about these by taking in one of the ‘free’ walking tours with Real City Tourss (there is a suggested donationn).

Our guide credited Fajardo with doing much to improve Medellin’s fortunes, an opinion backed up by other Paisas we met. Coming from a background of mathematics – rather than politics – meant that not only did Fajardo have a strong grasp on the city’s finances but he and his coterie were less prone to corruption. It was Fajardo who turned a square full of crackheads, prostitutes and criminals into the Plaza Cisneros, as good a symbol as any of Medellin’s progress.

Plaza Cisneros Medellin

These pillars, which light up at night, were built where crack dealers and prostitutes once roamed

Fajardo and his successors initiated and completed a series of incredible public works projects to help improve the lives of ordinary citizens. I won’t go into them all here but it’s well worth reading this account by Nobel laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz, writing in the Guardian.

With so much misery in their past, it’s no wonder that people from Medellin take pride in their city, almost to the point of arrogance.

This rebirth also means that tourists are greeted with open arms. It was here that Franki and I became friends with Ivan, an incredibly affable teacher who we met in Cartagena and who insisted on being our tour guide when we arrived in his home town.

Visitors should not be alarmed if locals gawp at them or approach and strike up conversation. For the most part, they are simply surprised and delighted to receive you in their city. Tourism remains a relatively new phenomenon, at least to the degree it exists today. To many Paisas, the influx of camera-toting gringos is evidence of how far they have come in such a short space of time.

Medellin has plenty to recommend it, such as the peaceful greenery of Parque Arvi…

Parque Arvi Medellin

Franki and Ivan enjoy the tranquil beauty of the Parque Arvi

…or the cable car you take to get there…

Medellin cable car

The cable car to Parque Arvi takes 45 minutes and gives you incredible views

…or the Parque Botero with its plumply proportioned statues by the city’s famous artist son.

Parque Botero Medellin

One of Medellin’s notorious fat cats, a sculpture by Fernando Botero

Perhaps most attractive of all though is the refusal of its people to be beaten. They have endured, through times when there was no more dangerous place to live in the world. And they have come out the other side of that troubled past looking only to the future.

No wonder they are proud.

How to go backpacking as a couple and not break up

If moving in together as a couple is daunting, the thought of backpacking with your other half is a terrifying prospect.

Unlike cohabitation, where at least one of you is likely to be at work for 10 hours a day, travelling means you are going to be joined at the hip. ALL. THE. TIME.

Telling people we were off around the world elicited delight, envy, surprise and – most of all – horror stories about perfect couples who went their separate ways after a blazing row in the foothills of the Himalayas.

Two months in, this is what we’ve learnt so far:-

1. Be realistic about what to expect

If you think every day will be a montage of the two of you pointing happily at capuchin monkeys and dancing salsa on the terrace of a charming bar, you’re wrong. Of course you’re going to share unique and unforgettable experiences…

Quad-biking on Ometepe Island, Nicaragua

Get your motor running… head out on the highway!

… But you’re also going to lie awake on stained sheets, sweating in the blistering heat while cockroaches scuttle across the floor of your crappy hostel. You’re going to get off a 16-hour bus ride spent next to a vomiting child and then have to negotiate with taxi drivers.
Rob and Franki looking bored

The bits we don’t post on Faceboook… waiting in line for hours to buy bus tickets

Worst of all, one of you is going to suffer an explosive stomach bug, while the other pretends to be deaf from the other side of a wafer-thin toilet door. As long as you accept all of this beforehand, you won’t be too surprised when it happens.

2. Share the burden

If you’re anything like us, one of you is considerably more organised than the other. This should not be an excuse to let that person do all of the hostel booking and the route-planning. We’ve found it helps to take turns as lead organiser.

NB: To date, most of the major fuck-ups have been committed by the ‘more organised’ Franki. But sharing the burden also applies to responsibility for mistakes, so Rob’s not being (too) smug about it.

3. Find ways to relieve boredom

Travelling means hours on end wedged into an uncomfortable seat with nothing to do. So we invented a travelling game called ‘Cow on a Truck’, based on the weird and wonderful sights you see on the road. Every time you spot some exotic oddity, you make your case for whether it is worthy of replacing the current leader. Both parties must agree for it to ascend to the top of the list. We began with Cow on a Truck and have since been through Fire Juggler at the Traffic Lights, a Fruit Car Named Papaya (long story) and are currently on Ten Thousand Rollerblading Santas, seen in Medellin, Colombia. That one’s gonna be tough to beat.

Rollerblading Santas in Medellin, Colombia

These rollerblading Santas held up all the traffic in Medellin for more than half an hour. Ho bloody ho.

4. Present a united front

Haggling is part and parcel of travel, be it with taxi drivers, local tour guides or market stall-holders. There’s nothing worse than when one of you agrees a price, only for the other to disagree vehemently after the fact. This not only weakens your negotiating position but also foster resentment between you. If possible, try to decide beforehand what prices/outcomes you’re prepared to accept, or at least have any impromptu discussions about it as discreetly as possible.

NB: The exception is when you’re making a deliberate play, using your partner as a negotiating prop. This only works if you’ve agreed the tactic in advance. ‘Look, I’m sorry but my boyfriend is walking away…I have to go with him unless you can do it for $10.’ Crafty but it often works.

5. Both learn the lingo

If at all possible, it helps if both of you have some local language skills. When we first arrived in Latin America Rob was the only one who spoke any Spanish. It’s been invaluable in terms of getting the best out of our surroundings and has saved us money too. It would have been all too easy for Franki to sit back and relax while Rob took charge. But if only one of you is doing the talking, that can become quite a strain on them. Luckily Franki is catching up fast now which should help spread the load. Languages aren’t everyone’s forte but if you are going to give it a go, it’s worth making sure you both learn a few words.

6. Take a deep breath

Being around the same person all the time means they WILL get on your nerves sometimes. You’re in a room the size of an Iraqi prison cell, trying to pack up everything you own, you’re just about to stuff that final pair of pants into an already overfull backpack and you turn around to find your other half standing right in the bloody way. Tough luck, that’s not their fault, it’s just how it is. Take a moment and remember that an extra thirty seconds is not going to kill you and that this is part and parcel what you signed up for.

7. Talk to other people

When travelling as a couple, it can be harder to meet people. Double rooms are often as cheap as two dormitory beds, so you’re not always in a room full of people forced by sheer proximity to make friends. You’re also not a singleton on the pull, so the lure of a cosy restaurant is just as great as that of a rowdy bar. Making an effort to pick up friends as you go provides a break from only ever talking to each other.

Rob with Colombian friend and police horse

Rob with Ivan, our new friend from Medellin, Colombia and an affable police horse

NB: This works both ways. Sometimes single people can be lonely or vulnerable. Inviting someone to join you for a drink could be the difference between them having a fun night with new people or falling victim to the bad guys.

8. Do stuff separately

This is limited by the bounds of safety. If you’re in a fairly dangerous part of town, you may be better off sticking together. Still, when you’ve been in each other’s pockets for days on end, going solo to a market or even taking separate day trips can be a blessed relief. Not only that but you may find that you really miss each other after the time apart, making for a happy reunion that ultimately strengthens your bond.

Franki on a lancha on Lake Atitlan, Guatemala

Franki heads to Santiago Atitlan, Guatemala, while Rob lies groaning in a hotel room, poleaxed by a stomach bug

9. Don’t be scared of downtime

Alright, you’re only in Colombia/Rwanda/Laos/Rhyll (delete as appropriate) for two weeks but that doesn’t mean you need to spend every waking hour trawling round another temple that looks a lot like the last one. Taking the odd day to chill out, recharge and laze about can be crucial for bringing you down off the peaks of tension that can easily fuel flashpoints between you.

Franki doing the camel pose. ‘Hump’ jokes on a postcard please

10. Look after each other

It seems obvious but it matters. A lot. You’re not the same person. Sometimes one of you will be feeling bored, anxious or ill, while the other is in high spirits. When you’re ill in particular, it’s a huge help to have someone who is prepared to nurse you, mop your brow, hold your hair back or just go out to the pharmacy to get triple-strength prescription meds not available at home. It’s also the little things. It’s the helping hand when getting off a slippery boat while carrying a backpack. It’s keeping an eye out for the bandito sizing up your partner’s camera while they take that perfect shot of a colonial balcony. And it’s simply knowing when to shut up, or to speak up, whatever works for your loved one at the time.

So there they are, our ten tips for how to ensure your relationship survives spending month after month in the constant company of your other half. If you make it out the other side, you know you’ve found the right one!

Rob and Franki in a hammock in Cartagena, Colombia

The hubris of this post is not lost on us. Fingers crossed we’ll be this happy together after another ten months

Nicaragua: The Debrief

What we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Steak (with apologies to our vegetarian brethren)

Seeing the ropy-looking cows moping around the Nicaraguan countryside might not get red-blooded carnivores slathering but the beef mostly comes from Argentina. What’s great about Nicaragua is the way they cook it. Judging by the tenderness of the Churrasco we tried – for instance at El Zaguan in Granada – they marinade for a hell of a long time. Grilling is the method of choice and they do it to perfection. Tuck in.

Drink: From a volcanic waterfall.

The Cascada San Ramon – on the double volcano island of Ometepe on Lake Nicaragua – is a must-see. It’s quite a hike to get up there, just an hour and a half but in sweltering heat and through steep jungle hills. But once you’re there, you’re greeted by a beautiful waterfall plummeting hundreds of feet into an icy pool.

Cascada San Ramon

Be brave, wade out into the waterfall and you’ll get a cooling shower and you can fill your bottle with pure, refreshing water from the lake that fills the crater of the Maderas Volcano.

Try: A new sport

Most tourists in Nicaragua have a go at volcano-boarding, whizzing down volcanic ash at speeds of up to 50mph. Ashamed to say we didn’t find the time to do it but by all accounts it’s exhilarating. Nicaragua has plenty of adventure sports opportunities for thrill-seekers, from surfing in San Juan del Sur, diving in the Corn Islands, ziplining, sailing, hiking, climbing, kayaking and swimming in the crystal clear water of the volcanic Laguna de Apoyo.

Laguna Apoyo

Buy: As little as possible.

Nicaragua is very cheap for the most part but the relatively small tourist numbers, compared to the likes of Guatemala or Costa Rica, mean the trips you’ll want to do (to volcanos, lakes and islands) are pretty pricy. So if you’re on a budget, best to save your Cordobas (dollars are accepted nearly everywhere too) for experiences you’ll never forget, rather than souvenirs you’ll probably lose.

Do: Rent some wheels on Ometepe island.

Mountain bikes, motorcycles and quad bikes are the way to get around on Ometepe, where taxis are not cheap. Between the main towns, the roads are pretty good, so biking (motor or push) is great fun. For everywhere else, there’s quad bikes.

Quad bike Ometepe

We found this was the cheapest way to get to the San Ramon waterfall. Not only that but it was damn good fun too. Watch out for cows.

Don’t: Be surprised if there’s someone else in your taxi.

The cab stops, you start to get in, then you notice there’s someone else sitting in it already. It’s not another customer but the driver’s pal or relative. This happened pretty much every time we took a cab in Granada. Might be a bit odd if you’re used to the cabs of London or New York but hey, the more the merrier.

And not forgetting…

…the transvestite marching band.

Go for dinner on the Calzada – the touristy strip coming off Granada’s Parque Central – and you’ll be pestered by a cabaret of different street artists and hawkers, with mixed abilities. By far the most bizarre was a troupe of masked people in tight dresses, most of whom were men or young boys. They appeared out of nowhere and started aggressively twerking at people trying to have their dinner. This was accompanied by an abysmal marching band who all seemed to be playing a different tune. Meanwhile a sort of gangmaster Fagin stood by our table muttering sinister oaths in a bid to make you pay up. We didn’t.

Booze of the World 2: Guatemala and Nicaragua

The second instalment of Booze of the World sees Rob take on Central America, including the world’s best rum

Guatemala

Beer: Back when I first visited in 2003, there were pretty much two beer choices: Gallo (the cockerel logo adorns a million backpackers’ T-shirts) or Moza. Both are made by the Cerveceria Centro Americana, owned by Guatemala’s powerful Castillo dynasty.

Gallo, at 118 years old the country’s first brew, is the archetypal Central American beer: weak, pissy sub-lager with zero flavour and enough gas to power a small industrial city. It resembles Budweiser in that it tastes of nothing, but plasters its name across everything. I was always a Moza man and to this day it’s my favourite of what Guatemala has to offer beer-wise. It’s a dark Bock-style beer, richer and more flavourful than Gallo with a slight brown sugar aftertaste that suits my sweet tooth.

There are a few other brews finding their way onto the menu in most bars and hostels these days though. The first is Brahva, owned by global giant AB InBev who (according to this BusinessWeek article) are keen on buying Cerveceria Centro Americana.

Unsurprisingly, given that AB InBev make Budweiser, Brahva is if anything like a watered down version of Gallo and to be avoided at all costs. AB InBev’s muscle allows them to undercut Gallo on price too, which should worry anyone who values local production over many-tentacled multinationals. Brahva makes me want to drink Gallo and that shouldn’t happen to anyone with tastebuds.

CCA’s Victoria is also growing in popularity. I prefer it to Gallo but it doesn’t offer much in the way of choice given that it’s also a pale lager. Same goes for their Cabro and Monte Carlo brands…different label, same marginally tweaked weak fizz.

I’d stick to the Moza every time but that’s very much a minority view in Guatemala. And ales? Forget it.

Beer with a twist: One odd quirk I was introduced to in Guatemala this year – although I believe it comes from neighbouring Mexico – is the Chelada and its spicier cousin the Michelada. The former involves adding lime to your beer and salting the rim of the glass, as you would with a Margarita. The latter is much the same only with a variety of spices, or tabasco, added as well.

They both sound hideous. Which is because they are, although i can imagine the limey Chelada might work on a very hot day. Still, if you’re drinking Brahva or Gallo, any added ingredient short of cyanide might be an improvement.

Rum: NOW we’re talking. You’d expect the world’s best rum to come from Jamaica or perhaps Cuba. Not according to many rum experts, who put Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa at the top of the tree. Or should I say the sugar cane.

Its success is despite the fact that its history is relatively brief. It was first produced in 1976 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the eastern Guatemalan town of the same name. They say its quality is down to being stored at altitude in the volcanic highlands. I sampled the stuff in a little wine and rum shop in Antigua, Guatemala almost directly under the famous arch of Santa Catalina.

When I was last in Guatemala there was no way I could have afforded a glass of Ron Zacapa. Much the same is true now but I felt I had to do my duty for Booze of the World. Altruistic, right?

I sampled both the 6-to-23-year-old Zacapa Centenario and the XO, the premium option at 6-to-25 years old. Both embrace you with their warmth from the first sniff, the vapours filling your lungs and circulating a fuzzy glow around your whole body. While the XO is the super-premium brand, I found it almost too subtle. It was so smooth that it lost something of the sugary mouth-burn I like about rum.

The Centenario was a revelation though. Multi-layered, nutty and caramelly without being sickly, with a long aftertaste. You’ll pay top dollar for this stuff anywhere outside Guatemala but if you like rum, you need this in your drinks cabinet.

NB: If you even THINK about putting ice in this, please reseal the bottle and give it to someone who deserves it. And if the word ‘Coca-Cola’ enters your mind, seek professional help.

Quetzalteca: Every country has at least one traditional drink of the people and this is the main one for Chapins (Guatemalans). Named for the Quetzal, the colourful bird that also gives Guatemala’s currency its name, this is a bit like an eau de vie. There are several flavours but I tried the Rosa de Jamaica. It packs a punch but not the body-shuddering donkey-kick you get with some traditional hooches of the peasantry. Surprisingly drinkable although i’m not one for neat spirits.

Nicaragua

Beer: Guatemala ain’t great for beer but Nicaragua is worse. On the first night I tried the Toña, which tastes like someone spilled a thimbleful of Budweiser in your Evian. That’s being kind. A step up from that is Victoria, a pilsen which has a bit more character but is still (can you sense a pattern emerging in Latin America) a pretty uneventful pale lager.

Still, in the baking heat after a long hike in the mountains, it might as well be Ambrosia. Ever seen the film Ice Cold in Alex (look it up here)? Extreme heat is the only way to make Nicaraguan beer taste good.

Oh, there’s also one called Premium aimed at the higher end of the market although the only thing premium about it is the name. All three are produced by Compania Cervecera de Nicaragua, which is in serious need of some competition.

Rum: Nicaraguans are proud of their Flor de Caña and you can’t blame them. It’s got much more character than your bog-standard high-street rum and there are some premium versions too. I can’t say I gave this one the same consideration as Guatemala’s Ron Zacapa but then, once you’ve had Ron Zacapa, everything else pales in comparison.

What else?: It’s usually not worth ordering wine with dinner in Guate or Nicaragua unless you want to drink something dreadful or pay top dollar. Franki and I chose to have a few dry meals rather than shell out the same price we’d pay in London for some dodgy ‘vino tinto’ from the part of Argentina they clearly reserve for ‘countries we don’t mind offending’.

As a footnote, no country with a Caribbean coast is ever without the option of a Cocoloco, a coconut sliced in half with a machete and then sloshed with rum to add to the delicious nectar within.

The verdict

Top tipple: It can only be Ron Zacapa. I prefer the Centenario but if you’re the kind of person who likes the most expensive label, give the XO a whirl. Either way, you’ll be feeling more cosy and warm than a Werther’s Original advert.

Gourmet’s choice: Ditto. In this case the most expensive is also the best.

Bubbling under: I’m a sucker for Guatemala’s Moza. Slips down nicely after a day in the limestone pools of Semuc Champey, climbing a volcano or sweating through the jungle of Tikal.

What to slur drunkenly: Arriba, abajo, al centro, pa’dentro (Rough translation: “Glasses up, glasses down, glasses to the centre and down it”, said as you slosh your glass about to the relevant motions. Very touristy but fun.)

Next stop on Booze of the World: Colombia

 

Mayan children

The CIA and malnutrition: Guatemala’s shackles, past and present

Think for a moment about the parts of the world we associate with malnutrition. Sub-saharan Africa during an acute famine, natural disaster zones, or impoverished regions of the Indian subcontinent. It may come as a surprise that Guatemala is the world’s third worst country for chronic malnutrition, behind only Haiti and Angola.

Sometimes called the Land of Eternal Spring – this lush and verdant country has an abundance of food thanks to plenty of rain, sunshine and astonishingly fertile volcanic soil.

Hills above Lanquin

Local markets feature some of the plumpest, most colourful fruit and vegetables you’re likely to see. So why are children being permanently damaged, even killed, by malnutrition?

One huge problem is that in many Mayan communities, for the most part far poorer than their Latino compatriots, children are well fed but badly fed. There is seemingly no limit to the Central American sweet tooth and among Mayans this is even more pronounced. The same globalisation that has done little for their economic prospects has brought with it a wave of addictive but highly unhealthy sweet treats.

Last week I sat on a boat on Lake Atitlan and watched as a Tz’utujil Maya mother fed her gorgeous little girl a chocolate-covered banana, chewing gum and some stuff that looked like a sugary Knorr stock pot, all in the space of five minutes. The mother was obese and her teeth were nearly all gold.

One Guatemalan NGO worker I spoke to, who specialises in battling malnutrition, reported infants being plied with Coca-Cola but not breast-fed. As far as food crops go, it’s largely corn in the form of tortillas, some frijoles, but precious little in the way of vegetables.

The result, in many cases, is stunted development of both brain and body, tightening the grip of Guatemala’s poverty trap.

A malnourished child cannot learn and so, later in life, cannot earn enough to improve the prospects of his/her own child. Provision of education is also poor in remoter rural areas, while many children don’t attend school at all. So there is little chance of them breaking the cycle by learning about nutrition outside the home.

Throw into the mix a lack of clean water, meaning infants and small children often suffer from diarrhea, preventing them from absorbing even the meagre nutrients on offer.

Coupled with the scourge of malnutrition is the other great plague that has dogged Guatemala – violence.

I don’t want to give the impression that Guatemala is a dangerous place to visit – for the most part it isn’t. Tourists who behave sensibly (don’t go waving your smartphone around at midnight on a dark street) are unlikely to encounter any trouble.

Sadly though, like most countries on the drug export trail up to the United States, Guatemala has a problem with criminal gangs.

Gang members in Guatemala

Guatemalan gang members (Source: http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au)

That’s thanks in part to the steady American demand for party favours, with the import supply chain outsourced to its poorer, less well-policed neighbours.

But there is something more deep-rooted than even the drug trade behind Guatemala’s ongoing struggles to address crime and poverty.

It is still recovering from the legacy of a civil war that lasted, astonishingly, from 1960 to 1996 and saw up to 200,000 people killed or ‘disappeared’. The war was waged, for the most part, by US-backed  government forces against the Mayan population and Ladino (mixed Hispanic and indigenous) leftist guerillas, who often turned to indigenous people for food and shelter.

Mayans hold crosses, with photo of victim of Guatemala civil war

Mayans mourn civil war victims (Source: http://www.timhoiland.com)

The grubby pawprints of American foreign policy are all over this tragic period in Guatemala’s history. Here’s a brief outline of Uncle Sam’s involvement:-

In the 1950s, US politicians were terrified by the emergence of left-wing potentially Soviet-friendly governments in Central America. In the case of Guatemala, they were increasingly minded to interfere with Guatemala following the election of President Jacobo Arbenz, who favoured land reforms to redistribute farmland away from a tiny elite, spreading it more widely among the rural poor in the hope of enriching them.

Jacobo Arbenz, former president of Guatemala

President Jacobo Arbenz (Source: http://www.carlosarmandosotogomez.com)

We don’t know whether the Arbenz government would have achieved its aims because he made one crucial mistake that meant no-one would ever find out. Much of the land he wanted to redistribute belonged to US firm the United Fruit Company. Luckily for UFCO, they had friends in high places. Secretary of State John Dulles and his brother Allen, CIA director, both had significant ties to the company and an interest in its prosperity. Between them, they managed to convince the Eisenhower administration that Arbenz was a dangerous Communist, rather than (as many historians of the region say he was) an exponent of a pretty benign left-wing ideology.

John Dulles and President Eisenhower

John Dulles and President Dwight Eisenhower (Source: Wikipedia)

Here’s the fiendishly ingenious and skin-crawlingly sinister part. The CIA sponsored an invasion that consisted of little more than a handful of right-wing Guatemalan forces. Using fake radio broadcasts ‘reporting’ major military victories that never happened, coupled with a relatively small degree of US air support, they intimidated the Arbenz government into capitulation. The new president fled and any prospect of organic democratic political development faded into nothingness.

What followed was more than three decades of brutal military rule, coups and counter-coups, in which armed patrols roamed the country perpetrating genocidal warfare, largely against a mostly defenceless Mayan population. Documents released subsequently revealed that the CIA provided vital support to genocidal militias throughout this bloody period, even as they carried out the worst atrocities imaginable – foetuses cut from the wombs of mothers, children smashed to death against walls, villages burned to the ground, rape, summary executions and much more.

A peace accord, brokered by the UN, was signed with leftist guerillas in 1996. But incredibly one of the (alleged) perpetrators of the CIA-backed coup and the atrocities in the civil war, General Efrain Rios Montt, managed to remain in frontline politics long after.

Rios Montt at his genocide trial, in military regalia and depicted in a mural calling for 'justice for he who ordered the agony'

(Top right) Rios Montt as his genocide trial (Source: http://www.dailykos.com); (Top left) The general in his younger days (www.kcsb.org); Mural with slogan ‘For he who gave the order for agony, i ask for justice’ (Source: http://www.nobelwomensinitiative.org)

When I first visited Guatemala in 2003, his party FRG (Guatemala Republican Front) was still fighting hard in the elections. The General remained a high-profile figure in politics until 2012, his office rendering him immune from prosecution. He was eventually convicted in 2013 of genocide and crimes against humanity in connection with massacres of Mayan Ixil people but that ruling was overturned on a technicality this year and a retrial is set for 2015.

Montt and the CIA left an enduring legacy. After the civil war, thousands of men who had fought on one side or the other found themselves jobless and with little in their skillset other than the ability to terrorise and kill.

Little wonder that Guatemala suffered from one of the world’s highest kidnap and murder rates for many years afterwards. While the security situation has improved, violent crime persists. Guatemala places fifth in the list of countries with the highest murder rates, a table topped by neighbouring Honduras and dominated by Central America [Source: UNODC]

As for the Mayans who suffered so terribly in the civil war, they remain to a large extent second-class citizens in their own country, abandoned and impoverished. The toxic residue of nearly four decades will take just as long, if not longer, to dissipate.

This is just a brief and by no means exhaustive outline of Guatemala’s catastrophic lost 36 years. The full story is far more labyrinthine, though just as heartbreaking. Two books worth dipping into are Bananas by Peter Chapman and Stephan Schlesinger’s Bitter Fruit: The Story of the American Coup in Guatemala.

What I hope this summary shows though, is how the progress of a country as beautiful, diverse and culturally rich as Guatemala has been tragically undermined by the twin menaces of malnutrition and US foreign policy.

I have every confidence in the vivacity and entrepreneurialism of this great nation to overcome its problems. I only wish it had been given more of a chance before now.

For more information about chronic malnutrition in Guatemala – and to donate – please visit Food for the Hungry, Guatemala.

Volcan Fuego, Volcan Acatenango, Volcan Agua

Hello Guate, my old friend: How Guatemala has changed in 10 years

Returning to a country you haven’t visited for 10 years is a bit like catching up with an old schoolfriend. How will you both have changed? Will you be able to recapture the good times of old? Is it still funny to shout out euphemisms for genitalia in class while the teacher’s back is turned?

OK, perhaps not that last one. But flying in to Guatemala, where I spent five weeks in both 2003 and 2004, elicited that same sense of nostalgia tinged with cautious anticipation.

As it transpired, I needn’t have worried. Everything that makes it so easy to fall in love with Guatemala is just as it was. The people are still hospitable and humorous, the food still simple but fresh and nourishing, the towns and villages still a panoply of colour.

The soundtrack to all of this, as ever it was, is provided by the cries of street-hawkers and the roar of the country’s famous ‘chicken buses’, old US school transport converted to carry the maximum number of passengers and tricked out by drivers competing to display the maximum amount of bling.

Most travellers set up home initially in La Antigua, the country’s capital until the mammoth Santa Marta earthquakes of 1773 triggered a move to modern-day capital Guatemala City. Antigua is ‘the place to stay’ for good reason. Its cobbled streets and brightly-painted stone houses are interspersed with ruined but well-preserved churches and monasteries, frozen in time since they were laid low by successive earthquakes.

The backdrop to all of this is the eternal looming presence of Volcan Agua, watching over the city like a strict museum curator ensuring it never loses its ancient charm.

Not only is Antigua far safer and prettier than the capital, but it is almost as well connected for most travel destinations in the country.

On my last visit, I was learning Spanish at the excellent Probigua language school. Antigua boasts an abundance of escuelas where you can learn the lingo but Probigua (PROyecto BIbliotecas GUAtemala) is different. Many of these places are simply out to extract as many Quetzals (local currency) as possible from the gringos but Probigua is a non-profit organisation. Your fees are ploughed into literacy programmes and students join the school’s staff on weekend expeditions in the Probigua travelling literacy bus to deliver books and computers to schools in the region, most of which are sadly lacking in resources.

It was heartening to see the old place that taught me my rudimentary but passable Spanish, apparently thriving as the best place to learn the language in Antigua.

I was even more excited at the prospect of visiting Veronica, the lady with whom I stayed both times I was last here. I used to call her mi segunda mama (my second Mum) and we would joke long into the evening while enjoying her delicious and wholesome cooking, including her excellent guisquil (also known as chayote, a local squash-like vegetable).

Through the haze of a decade’s new memories, I managed to remember where she lived and, totally unannounced, Franki and I made our way up to her house. Cue a very happy reunion as she invited us in to see the upgrades she has made to the family home.

She has acquired five grandchildren since I last stayed with her and most of her extended family now lives in the rooms she once let out to language students like me. I remember well how she and her sons had squeezed into two small rooms to accommodate guests, in order to make enough money to improve their circumstances.

Well here were the fruits of her labours, 10 years on. She had worked hard, opened up her home to people like me, and her growing family was now reaping the benefits exactly as planned. Nothing could make me happier to see her nous and hard graft paying off. Not only that but she was kind enough to pretend that I looked very different with my nascent and still rather pitiful travellers’ beard.

So what else has changed except for Veronica’s grandkids and my ‘beard’? The active Pacaya volcano has changed a fair bit, largely because it has erupted more than once in a pretty major way (check out the video) since I first climbed it. According to our guide, the path I took in 2003 was buried by molten lava earlier this year. In geological terms, that’s a near miss.

Lago Atitlan, the idyllic lake surrounded by volcanoes, has also witnessed some developments. For starters, the lake has risen by about 10 metres in the past decade, meaning much of the dockside infrastructure is now underwater.

On the plus side, the quiet hotels at Santa Cruz de la Laguna (try the uber-tranquil Arca de Noe if you get a chance) now come with added electricity. In 2004 it was candlelight only, which led to me plummeting six feet into an open sewer (thankfully dry) and landing on my knee. I can still tell when it’s going to rain by the twinge under my patella, thanks to that little mishap.

As a coffee lover (addict?), I immediately noticed a big difference in that Guatemala’s largest export is actually available within the country these days. When I first visited, all the good stuff was exported as soon as possible, hardly any of it seeing the inside of a Guatemalan cafe or restaurant. The coffee fincas were dotted around the country but you couldn’t get a decent brew for love nor money.

Now, there are a good half-dozen venues in Antigua dedicated to the art (and it is an art) of serving up the best coffee money can buy. The friendly knowledgeable guys at family enterprise Castellcafe (San Lucas branch pictured here) do a mean espresso and are particularly fond of the Chemex method of brewing coffee. You can find the Antigua branch in the Parque Central.

Don’t expect to find a skinny cinnamon macchiato when you’re in the depths of the jungle or up in the Alta Verapaz though. After all, you wouldn’t expect to find howler monkeys or Mayan ruins in a Shoreditch pop-up coffee house. Sadly.

Without a doubt, Antigua’s nightlife is also livelier than it once was. There are fewer tourists now than in 2004, by some estimates about half as many. But there are more bars than before and they are no longer dominated by tourists.

Whether it’s due to the emergence and growth of the middle class in Guatemala I couldn’t say, but there seemed to be more Chapins (Guatemalans) raving the night away and more places for them to do it.

Coming back to the scene of so many great memories, I was always going to notice what was different about the place. But while much has changed since I was here, there is plenty that hasn’t. For all of its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural heritage, Guatemala still struggles with chronic malnutrition and violence.

Anyway, more on that in the next blog about Guatemala, plus plenty more to come on what to do and see in this stunning country.

Booze of the World 1: California

In the first instalment of a regular feature I’m oh-so-cleverly calling Booze of the World, here’s a run-down of tremendous tipples and wonderful watering holes from LA to San Francisco.

Californian wine gurus may not want to admit it, but there’s not much they can do that the French haven’t done first.

As a Brit who has holidayed in France, where even a dirt-cheap vin de table can be delicious, it’s going to take something pretty special to measure up to what’s on offer just a short hop across La Manche.

When it comes to beer though, the US can claim to have blazed a trail. The old cliche in the UK is that Americans swig watery Budweiser by the gallon without stopping to taste the stuff, with flavour sacrificed to the greater aim of getting legless. Why else would you drink that swill, right?

But while bearded British ale snobs have been cocking a snook at our American cousins, for the past decade and more they’ve quietly been leading a craft beer revolution. So what’s on offer?

Los Angeles

If we’d stayed longer than three days i’m sure there would have been more bars to tell you about but the casual tourist can’t go wrong with the Venice Ale House, a beachside people-watching venue mentioned in LA: The Debrief.

Still getting used to the novelty of hot sunshine in October, I went for a cooling slow-fermented Alaskan Amber Ale, which proved thirst-quenching and not too hoppy. I instinctively feel like hoppiness is better on rainy cold days, don’t ask me why.

India Pale Ale fan Franki opted for the Stone Ruination, which did the job without being spectacular. To be honest, we were so jet-lagged that our tastebuds weren’t firing on all cylinders just yet.

If you’re in Hollywood, it’s also worth dropping into the Snake Pit Alehouse on Melrose Avenue. It’s fairly short on variety but still stocks some delicious craft beers, albeit nothing that out of the ordinary. On Abbot Kinney Boulevard, pretty much hipster central, there’s a great selection at The Other Room, although i’m always suspicious of any bar so darkly lit that you can’t see your own shoes.

My only regret about drinking in LA (Remember that song? Wasn’t it awful?) is not managing to sip a White Russian at a bowling alley, Big Lebowski style. What can i say Dude, i was out of my element.

San Francisco

This easy-to-love city’s blend of groovy nonchalance and youthful creativity makes for some fine watering holes.

Every bar or pub serves a strong selection of ales and lagers to put the average British pub to shame. I was particularly glad to find plenty of examples of an old favourite of mine from living in Germany – a refreshing Koelsch lager.

Putting beer aside for the moment though (it’s alright, you can pick it up again later) it’s also worth stopping into flavour-of-the-month eatery Nopa. In this ultra-popular spot, a late brunch can be accompanied by some pretty special cocktails.

My poison was a simple and refreshing Montenegro Lime (Amaro montenegro, lime). Franki sipped a Poinsettia (Cranberry juice, Gran Classico, Cava).

Make sure to reserve, or you might find yourself waiting an hour or more for food while sifting through what’s on offer at the bar. Which may not be a bad thing, of course.

Magnolia, on infamous Haight Street, is a pub-brewery-restaurant bearing architectural vestiges of its previous incarnation as a 1920s pharmacy. There are plenty of quality ales here should you need refreshment after wading through the thick cumulo-nimbus clouds of marijuana smoke suffusing original hippie hangout corner Haight-Ashbury. Try the Spud Boy IPA, brewed on site.

By far the highlight of San Francisco (booze-wise) was Monk’s Kettle, the daddy of San Francisco gastroboozers. We happened to visit this spot in the Mission district on the night that San Francisco’s baseball team, the Giants, won the World Series.

We walked straight from a raucous street party (imagine what it would be like if England won the World Cup) into this Mecca for beer-lovers. If such a notion isn’t inherently blasphemous.

The beer menu is so door-stoppingly large it could be serialised in a Sunday newspaper. Browse it here in all its glory.

The Levitation Ale is a smooth-drinking amber that slips down like ambrosia, the crisp Reissdorf Koelsch was a taste of the Rhine-Ruhr, while IPA-lovers should enjoy the Idiot, a well-rounded Double/Imperial offering draft that impresses without trying to do too much in any one aspect.

The knowledgeable waiting staff here are happy to help you choose and tables close to the bar have blackboards and chalk, for tipsy games of hangman. This is where beer lovers who have been extra good go when they die.

Highway 1

We drove from San Francisco back to LA, taking the scenic Highway 1 through beautiful Big Sur, staying in Monterrey, Morro Bay and Santa Barbara.

Special mention should go to The Libertine, a rough-and-ready tavern in the picturesque fishing village of Morro Bay with a wide and rotating selection of rare and local beers. ’48 rotating draft handles’, boasts the website.

But no trip down the Cali coast would be complete without visiting a winery along the way. Perhaps i came across a bit sniffy about Californian wine earlier in this post and that wasn’t fair. Inspired by a bottle of lush, apricotty Viognier from the Victor Hugo Winery (served at the excellent The Galley fish restaurant in Morro Bay), we stopped at the Roblar winery in the Santa Ynez Valley.

We enjoyed a tasting of five wines each, although sadly i was driving in the afternoon and had to donate part of my allocation with heavy heart to Franki. Here’s a picture of me with a heavy heart.

Highlights were a mouth-dominating cherry-noted 2011 Grenache and the 2012 Santa Rita Hills Chardonnay, which offered rich fruit flavours rather than the minerality i usually dislike about this grape. Both went very well with Roblar’s delicious flatbread pizzas. The winery itself is in a peaceful sunny estate that wouldn’t look out of place in the depths of rural Provence, despite being only a stone’s throw from the freeway.

The wining/dining area itself is rather less rustic but stylishly decorated in the manner of an old farmhouse renovated with modernist flair.

The verdict

In our limited experience, California is something of a tippler’s haven, with beer, wine and cocktails to write home about. It’s also hard to get about without driving though, so make sure you have a designated driver or enough greenbacks for a cab/Uber.

Top tipple: Work your way through those local Californian IPAs but i loved the Reissdorf Koelsch.

Gourmet’s choice: 2011 Grenache (14.9%, $32 a bottle), a blend from Roblar and the Camp 4 estate.

Bubbling under: Irish Coffee was supposedly popularised by the Buena Vista Cafe near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. It’s a creamy treat.

What to slur drunkenly: “Hey careful man, there’s a beverage here!” [The Dude, 1998]

Next stop on Booze of the World: Guatemala

 

LA: The Debrief

A quick guide to what we did and what you can do too…

Eat: Macrobiotic

No, seriously. LA is renowned for being health-conscious, sometimes maniacally so, and we were fully prepared to laugh in the face of this pretentious nonsense. But it turns out eating macrobiotic (ie fresh, unprocessed, largely raw foods) is really good. And “superfoods” are super tasty. Even committed carnivore Rob raved about the food at M Cafe De Chaya on Melrose Avenue near Hollywood. Kale salad with peanut dressing was fresh but richly flavourful, while tuna tataki and raw butternut squash salad with fennel and pomegranate were also tongue-pleasers.

There’s a reason everyone in LA looks like this:

Macrobiotic cafe

Drink: Craft ale

Californians love their craft ales and in LA a pint of draft beer will set you back anywhere between $6 and $10 (£4-£6). If you’re in Hollywood the Snakepit Alehouse is worth a try while The Other Room on ubercool Abbot Kinney Boulevard is fun, if a tad pricey, for the evening. But the best place we found to wet your whistle in the midday heat is the Venice Ale House on Venice Beach. A great selection of beers and they’ll help you out with a recommendation if you’re not sure what to try. The food looked tasty too and you can watch the weird and wonderful beach bums and surfer dudes from the terrace. [NB a US pint is about 20% smaller than a UK pint and we found a lot of places don’t serve half pints.]

Try: Recreating Grand Theft Auto V

One for the gamers, I’m afraid. If you’ve played a lot of GTA, a ride through the city is like a trip down memory lane. There’s the inner city golf course, scene of many a trigger-happy spree, the excellent death match venue that is Santa Monica pier, you can even recreate the battle with Merryweather at the Getty Center (the Kortz Center in the game). Just remember: not everyone is amused by you pretending to machine gun passers by. And by ‘everyone’ I mean Franki (although I hear the cops take a dim view of this sort of caper as well).

Spot the difference:

Kortz Centre

Getty Centre

Buy: Hats

Rob has never been able to find a hat that fits him but at Hollywood Hatters on Melrose Avenue, the knowledgeable proprietor Sal Rovero found him the Panama he’d been waiting for with a price tag of $45 (approx. £27). Listed by GQ as one of the best 7 hat stores in the whole of America, it primarily caters for the fellas (apparently Boy George buys his headwear here too) but I managed to pick up a white cotton sun hat for $35 (£22). Result.

Hollywood hatters

Do: Use Uber to get around.

One local told us the smartphone app had ‘saved LA’. In a city where walking is something you do only as a workout warm-up on the treadmill, this is hardly surprising. However, the San Francisco-based app doesn’t pay its drivers well at all so tip with cash. It’ll still be cheaper than a cab.

Don’t: Admit to ‘riding the bus’

Trendy locals with look at you like you’ve taken leave of your senses. But at $1 a time, it’s actually a pretty good way of getting around. Just don’t let on – in LA, the bus is the preserve of school kids, weirdos and the very poor (all of whom seem to be considered potentially dangerous).

And not forgetting…

…that time we were picked up by a Scientologist Uber cab driver who used to be in movies, (including a starring role as ‘Bus Driver’ in the film Rat Race with Rowan Atkinson, no less). He told us how he had sold his house to help pay for medicinal herbs for his sick wife, yet practically spat the words ‘socialised medicine’ at the mention of the NHS. He also tried out his fossil fuel conspiracy theory on us (“They say it’s running out but does anyone actually know where it comes from or how it’s made?”). What a guy.

 

Hollywood hatter Lookin’ hot in our hats…

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

California beaming: How one day in sunny Los Angeles drove away the London blues

As a natural born cynic, I sometimes struggle to see the sunnier side of life. My former boss at the Daily Mail once claimed I have ‘the darkest moods of anyone I’ve ever known in journalism’. This is a man who has worked for more than a decade with famously combustible Fleet Street legend Paul Dacre, the inventor of the rhetorical tactic known as ‘double-c*nting’.

So it is with huge surprise that I found LA slapping me about the face with a dose of pure optimism. It came as a shock. I thought the only way to derive happiness from this famously poseur-laden city would be reliving moments from Grand Theft Auto V. “Oh look, that’s where I parachuted out of a helicopter before opening fire on innocent pedestrians with a minigun. Happy days.”

Instead I find myself filled with an unfamiliar feeling of goodwill to all humankind. Perhaps it’s the sunshine, the plethora of independent bars and shops, or simply the sense of freedom afforded by going freelance after eight years behind a desk. Whatever the cause, within hours of being here, I find my natural scepticism eroding bit by bit.

Don’t get me wrong, I know LA has its dark side. This is after all the city of Raymond Chandler’s seedy villains and the broken dreams of aging waiters still clinging on to the faint hope that their screenplay will be picked up by one of the studios. It has been the unfortunate scene of more than its share of brutal gang violence, as well as the 1992 riots triggered by the brutal beating of Rodney King. And one can’t help but notice that in the glitzy bars and restaurants, it is the Caucasian staff who work front of house, while the economically disadvantaged Latinos toil away in the kitchen.

And yet, on a morning walk from Venice down to the beach, I saw the best side of this fabled town. It started with Abbot Kinney, dubbed ‘coolest block in America’ by GQ. Sprinkled with independent shops and cafes, this strip has the quirky idiosyncracy of London’s Shoreditch but takes itself much less seriously. Each building has an individual architectural style, yet somehow this kaleidoscopic mish-mash of colours and shapes assembles itself into a coherent stylistic genre.

Just a few streets away is Venice, where wealthy Californians enjoy the good life in stunning homes bordering a network of canals. Sure, Shakespeare never wrote a play about this place, it has never had a doge as far as i know and I doubt the baccala mantecato is anything to write home about.

What it does have is this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

And this:-

Venice, Los Angeles

Debating how the average home here would cost (prices start at a couple of million bucks we were later told), Franki and I wandered towards the beach. Rounding a corner, a cyclist nearly ran us down. In London, both parties would have mumbled ‘Sorry’ while mentally cursing each other in the harshest possible terms. When I apologised for no real reason, California bike guy just grinned and said: ‘Hey no problem buddy, that’s why I got brakes!’

Down at Venice Beach, the sense of easy-going optimism is no different, the locals taking their behavioural cue from the Pacific Ocean.

Surfers at the Pacific Ocean, Venice Beach

A dude whizzes by on a skateboard, carrying a surfboard under his arm. Later, seeking refreshment in the heat of the afternoon, we pop into the Venice Ale House and happen upon a range of craft beers that would take you ten pubs to collect in London.

Even the mad tramps have a superior patter here. ‘Jesus and Gandhi were the same guy,’ one tells me. ‘Moses too.’

Something about all of this puts a smile on my face. People in Los Angeles act as if they’re in a film shot entirely for your benefit. They bristle with infinite possibility and it is incredibly contagious.

I can’t escape the premonition that we’ll be robbed and beaten up now that I’ve written this – after all, my inner cynic can’t stay suppressed for long. Still, i bet the inevitable mugging will be conducted with bohemian nonchalance. We’ll probably become friends with our assailant on Facebook – maybe even launch a Neighbourhood Watch smartphone app together. That’s just LA, man.

Update – I think Franki and I just had the most LA experience possible. We were driven to Hollywood by a Scientologist Uber cabbie who used to be in films, including Rat Race starring Rowan Atkinson. He fell on hard times and had to sell his house ‘to buy holistic herbs’ when his wife became ill. Despite facing economic ruin due to her poor health, he doesn’t believe in socialised healthcare. ‘In this world, there are makers and takers.’

Update 2 – After years of searching, I even found a Panama hat to fit my outsize noggin. Thanks Hollywood Hatters!

Panama hat