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VENEZUELA: BEAUTIES, EL PRESIDENTE AND OIL
Ask someone what they know about Venezuela and indeed one might expect opinions that the country “going down the tubes due to Chavez” and of surgery-augmented Miss Universe winners. And those who have been reading our postings about expatriating to Latin America and the Caribbean over the years will immediately surmise that the actual story is a good deal more nuanced. A particularly interesting factoid is that a survey “has consistently shown Venezuelans to be among the happiest people in the world.”
This background piece is usefully long on facts. Its conclusion is apt: “Venezuela’s politics, foreign relations and El Presidente may not be popular in most parts of the world, but the country itself is certainly a blend of fascinating beauty – both human and natural!”
Ask people what they know about Venezuela and one of the following will be the answer: oil, Chavez or beauty queens. Indeed, Venezuela is known for its eccentric and polarizing president, Hugo Chavez, who is admired by a few and considered a beast by many. Venezuela’s petroleum industry is the envy of most nations, and keeps it usually thriving economy afloat and as for its stunning women, well, they capture major world beauty titles at an alarming rate – having garnered six Miss Universe, five Miss World and five Miss International crowns.
But Venezuela has lots of outstanding beauty: its coastline, which is the longest and most gorgeous coastline in the Caribbean; its interior rainforest, which are simply dazzling; its ecological diversity, which is stunning; and Angel Falls, which is simply awesome.
Most people know Venezuela for its plentiful oil reserves, but few realize that it is among the world’s 18 most bio-diverse countries, featuring diverse wildlife in a variety of protected habitats.
And, interestingly, the World Values Survey has consistently shown Venezuelans to be among the happiest people in the world, with 55% of those questioned saying they were “very happy.” But there is much more to learn about this lovely, undiscovered country ...
Venezuela is officially titled Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela (Spanish: República Bolivariana de Venezuela). It is a tropical country on the northern coast of South America. Venezuela consists of a continental mainland with numerous islands located off its coastline in the Caribbean Sea.
The name “Venezuela” is believed to have originated from Amerigo Vespucci who, along with Alonso de Ojeda, led a 1499 naval expedition along the northwestern coast’s Gulf of Venezuela. On reaching the Guajira Peninsula, the crew observed villages (palafitos) that the people had built over the water. This reminded Vespucci of the city of Venice (Italian: Venezia), so he named the region “Venezuola,” meaning “little Venice” in Italian. In Spanish, the suffix -zuela is used as a diminutive term (e.g., plaza / plazuela, cazo / cazuela); thus, the term’s original sense would have been that of a “little Venice.”
Martín Fernández de Enciso, a member of the Vespucci and Ojeda’s crew, states in his work Summa de Geografía that the indigenous population they found were called “Veneciuela,” suggesting that the name “Venezuela” may have evolved from a native word. The Vespucci story, however, remains the most popular and accepted version of the origin of the country’s name.
Venezuela possesses recognized borders with Guyana to the east of the Essequibo river, Brazil to the south, and Colombia to the west. Trinidad and Tobago, Grenada, St. Lucia, Barbados, Curaçao, Bonaire, Aruba, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and the Leeward Antilles lie just north, off the Venezuelan coast. Its size is 916,445 km2 with an estimated population of 26,414,816. Its capital is Caracas. The colors of the Venezuelan flag are yellow, blue and red, in that order: the yellow stands for land wealth, the blue for courage, and the red for independence from Spain. Venezuela is a former Spanish colony, which has been an independent republic since 1821.
Venezuela’s mainland rests on the South American Plate. With 2,800 kilometres (1,740 miles) of coastline, Venezuela is home to a wide variety of landscapes. The extreme northeastern extensions of the Andes reach into Venezuela’s northwest and continue along the northern Caribbean coast. Pico Bolívos, extensive plains that stretch from the Colombian border in the far west to the Orinoco River delta in the east. To the south, the dissected Guiana Highlands is home to the northern fringes of the Amazon Basin and Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall.
The Orinoco, with its rich alluvial soils, binds the largest and most important river system of the country; it originates in one of the largest watersheds in Latin America. The Caroní and the Apure are other major rivers. The country can be further divided into ten geographical areas, some corresponding to climatic and biogeographically regions. In the north are the Venezuelan Andes separated from the Central Range by the Gulf of Cariaco, covers all of Sucre and northern Monagas.
The Llanos region comprises a third of the country’s area north of the Orinoco River. South of it lies the Guiana Shield, a massive Precambrian geological formation featuring tepuis, mysterious table-like mountains. The Insular Region includes all of Venezuela’s island possessions: Nueva Esparta and the various Federal Dependencies. The Deltaic System, which forms a triangle covering Delta Amacuro, projects northeast into the Atlantic Ocean.
Though Venezuela is entirely situated in the tropics, its climate varies from humid low-elevation plains, where average annual temperatures range as high as 28°C (82°F), to glaciers and highlands (the páraar east. Most precipitation falls between June and October (the rainy season or “winter”); the drier and hotter remainder of the year is known as “summer,” though temperature variation throughout the year is not as pronounced as at temperate latitudes.
A Brief History
Venezuela was first colonized by Spain in 1522 in what is now Cumaná. These portions of eastern Venezuela were incorporated into New Andalusia. Administered by the Audiencia of Santo Domingo since the early 16th century, most of Venezuela became part of the Viceroyalty of New Granada in the early 18th century, and was then reorganized as an autonomous Captaincy General starting in 1776.
In the 16th century, during the Spanish colonization, indigenous peoples such as many of the Mariches, themselves descendants of the Caribs rejected paganism and embraced Roman Catholicism. Some Spaniards treated the natives harshly. Indian caciques (leaders) such as Guaicaipuro and Tamanaco attempted to resist Spanish incursions, but were ultimately defeated. Tamanaco was put to death by order of Caracas’s founder Diego de Losada.
After a series of unsuccessful uprisings, Venezuela – under the leadership of Francisco de Miranda, a Venezuelan marshal who had fought in the French Revolution – declared independence on July 5, 1811. This began the Venezuelan War of Independence. However, a devastating earthquake that struck Caracas in 1812, together with the rebellion of the Venezuelan llaneros, helped bring down the first Venezuelan republic. A second Venezuelan republic, proclaimed on August 7, 1813, lasted several months before being crushed as well.
Sovereignty was only attained after Simón Bolívar, aided by José Antonio Páez and Antonio José de Sucre, won the Battle of Carabobo on June 24, 1821. José Prudencio Padilla and Rafael Urdaneta’s victory in the Battle of Lake Maracaibo on July 24, 1823, helped seal Venezuelan independence. New Granada’s congress gave Bolívar control of the Granadian army; leading it, he liberated several countries and founded Gran Colombia.
Sucre, who won many battles for Bolívar, went on to liberate Ecuador and later become the second president of Bolivia. Venezuela remained part of Gran Colombia until 1830, when a rebellion led by Páez allowed the proclamation of a new Republic of Venezuela; Páez became its first president. Two decades of warfare had cost the lives of between a quarter and a third of the Venezuelan population, which in 1830 numbered no more than 800,000.
Much of Venezuelaís 19th century history was characterized by political turmoil and dictatorial rule. During first half of the 20th century, caudillos (military strongmen) continued to dominate, though they generally allowed for mild social reforms and promoted economic growth. Following the death of Juan Vicente Gómez in 1935 and the demise of caudillismo (authoritarian rule), pro-democracy movements eventually forced the military to withdraw from direct involvement in national politics in 1958.
Since that year, Venezuela has had a series of democratically elected governments. The discovery of massive oil deposits during World War I prompted an economic boom that lasted into the 1980s; by 1935, Venezuela’s per capita gross domestic product was Latin America’s highest. After World War II the globalization and heavy immigration from Southern Europe (mainly from Spain, Italy, Portugal) and poorer Latin American countries markedly diversified Venezuelan society.
The huge public spending and accumulation of internal and external debts during the Petrodollar years of the 1970s and early 1980s, followed by the collapse of oil prices during the 1980s, crippled the Venezuelan economy. As the government started to devaluate the currency in February 1983 in order to face its financial obligations, Venezuelans’ real standard of living fell dramatically. A number of failed economic policies and increasing corruption in government led to rising poverty and crime, worsening social indicators, and increased political instability.
The petroleum sector dominates Venezuela mixed economy, accounting for roughly 1/3 of GDP, around 80% of exports and more than half of government revenues. Gold, diamonds and iron ore are mined as well. Venezuela contains some of the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the world. It consistently ranks among the top 10 crude oil producers in the world. The country es main petroleum deposits are located around and beneath Lake Maracaibo, the Gulf of Venezuela (both in Zulia), and in the Orinoco River basin (eastern Venezuela), where the country’s largest reserve is located. Venezuela has the least expensive petrol in the world because of its high government subsidies.
Petroleum is King
When oil was discovered at the Maracaibo strike in 1922, Venezuela’s dictator Juan Vicente Gómez allowed Americans to write Venezuelaís petroleum law. But oil history was made in 1943 when Standard Oil of New Jersey accepted a new agreement in Venezuela based on the 50–50 principle, “a landmark event.” Terms even more favorable to Venezuela were negotiated in 1945, after a coup brought to power a left-leaning government that included Juan Pablo Pérez Alfonso.
In 1958 a new government again included Pérez Alfonso, who devised a plan for the international oil cartel that would become OPEC. In 1973 Venezuela voted to nationalize its oil industry outright, effective January 1, 1976, with Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) taking over and presiding over a number of holding companie. In subsequent years, Venezuela built a vast refining and marketing system in the U.S. and Europe.
Economic prospects remain highly dependent on oil prices and the export of petroleum. A founding member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), Venezuela reasserted its leadership within the organization during its year as OPEC’s president, hosting the organization’s Second Leadership Conference in 40 years, as well as having its former Minister of Energy, Alvaro Silva Calderon, appointed as Secretary General.
The collapse of oil prices in 1997–98 prompted the Rodriguez administration to expand OPEC-inspired production cuts in an effort to raise world oil prices. In 2002, this sector accounted for roughly a quarter of GDP, 73% of export earnings, and about half of central government’s operating revenues. Venezuela is the 4th-leading supplier of imported crude and refined petroleum products to the United States.
The Government of Venezuela has opened up much of the hydrocarbon sector to foreign investment, promoting multi-billion dollar investment in heavy oil production, reactivation of old fields, and investment in several petrochemical joint ventures. Almost 60 foreign companies representing 14 different countries participate in one or more aspects of Venezuela’s oil sector. The Venezuelan national oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) and foreign oil companies have signed 33 operating contracts for marginal fields in three bidding rounds. New legislation dealing with natural gas and petrochemicals is further opening the sector. A new domestic retail competition law, however, disappointed investors who had been promised market-determined prices.
On November 13, 2001, under the enabling law authorized by the National Assembly, President Chávez enacted the new Hydrocarbons Law, which came into effect in January 2002. This law replaced the Hydrocarbons Law of 1943 and the Nationalization Law of 1975. Among other things, the new law provided that all oil production and distribution activities were to be the domain of the Venezuelan state, with the exception of joint ventures targeting extra-heavy crude oil production.
Under the new Hydrocarbons Law, private investors can own up to 49% of the capital stock in joint ventures involved in upstream activities. The new law also provides that private investors may own up to 100% of the capital stock in ventures concerning downstream activities, in addition to the 100% already allowed for private investors with respect to gas production ventures, as previously promulgated by the National Assembly.
During the December 2002-February 2003 all-out national strike where managers and skilled highly-paid technicians of PDVSA shut down the plants and left their posts, petroleum production and refining by PDVSA almost ceased. At the same time, many business owners across Venezuela closed down their stores, both actions aimed at ousting Chávez from government. After more than 60 days of getting nowhere the strike died off, and activities eventually were slowly restarted by returning and substitute oil workers. Out of a total of 45,000 PDVSA management and workers, some 19,000 were subsequently dismissed with no compensation. Many of whom were managers and highly paid professionals and technicians who thereafter were banned from working in the petroleum industry, even indirectly.
The Other Economy: Manufacturing, Agriculture, and Trade
Manufacturing contributed 17% of GDP in 2006. The manufacturing sector continues to increase dramatically at a rate of 26.9% annually. Venezuela manufactures and exports steel, aluminum, transport equipment, textiles, apparel, beverages, and foodstuffs. It produces cement, tires, paper, fertilizer, and assembles cars both for domestic and export markets.
Agriculture accounts for approximately 3% of GDP, 10% of the labor force, and at least 1/4 of Venezuela’s land area. Venezuela exports rice, corn, fish, tropical fruit, coffee, beef, and pork. The country is not self-sufficient in most areas of agriculture; Venezuela imports about 2/3 of its food needs. In 2002, U.S. firms exported $347 million worth of agricultural products, including wheat, corn, soybeans, soybean meal, cotton, animal fats, vegetable oils, and other items to make Venezuela one of the top two U.S. markets in South America. The United States supplies more than 1/3 of Venezuela’s food imports.
Thanks to petroleum exports, Venezuela usually posts a trade surplus. In recent years, nonpetroleum exports have been growing rapidly but still constitute only about 1/4 of total exports. The United States is Venezuela’s leading trade partner although Brazil is expected to surpass the U.S. by 2011. During 2002, the United States exported $4.4 billion in goods to Venezuela, making it the 25th-largest market for the U.S. including petroleum products; Venezuela exported $15.1 billion in goods to the U.S., making it its 14th-largest source of goods.
In February 1992 Hugo Chávez, an army paratrooper, staged a coup d’état attempt seeking to overthrow the government of President Carlos Andrés Pérez. Chávez failed and was placed in jail. In November 1992, another unsuccessful coup attempt occurred, organized by groups loyal to Chávez remaining in the armed forces. Chávez was acquitted in March 1994 by president Rafael Caldera, with his political rights intact.
In 1998, Chávez was elected president after a vigorous campaign, in contrast with the feeble discourse of the weakened traditional parties’ candidates. His reform program, which he later called the “Bolivarian Revolution,” was aimed at redistributing the benefits of Venezuela’s oil wealth to the lower socio-economic groups by using it to fund programs such as health care and education, but has encountered great criticism by the previous establishment. In April 2002 he suffered a coup d’état.
He was returned to power after two days as a result of popular demonstrations in his favor and actions by the military. Chávez has also survived an all-out national strike that lasted more than two months in December 2002-February 2003, including a strike/lockout in the state oil company PDVSA, and a recall referendum in August 2004. He was elected for another term in December 2006.
The Venezuelan president is elected by a vote with direct and universal suffrage, and functions as both head of state and head of government. The term of office is six years, and as of February 15, 2009 a president may be re-elected an unlimited number of times. The president appoints the vice-president and decides the size and composition of the Cabinet and makes appointments to it with the involvement of the legislature. The president can ask the legislature to reconsider portions of laws he finds objectionable, but a simple parliamentary majority can override these objections.
Most of the political opposition boycotted the 2005 parliamentary election. Consequently, Hugo Chávez’s MVR-led bloc secured all 167 seats in the National Assembly. Then, the MVR voted to dissolve itself and join the new United Socialist Party of Venezuela, while Chávez requested that MVR-allied parties merge themselves into it as well. The National Assembly has twice voted to grant Chávez the ability to rule by decree in several broadly defined areas, once in 2000 and again in 2007. This power has been granted to previous administrations as well. Chavez has established alliance with several Latin American countries which have elected leftist governments, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Paraguay.
Throughout most of the 20th century, Venezuela maintained friendly relations with most Latin American and Western nations. Relations between Venezuela and the United States government worsened in 2002, after the 2002 Venezuelan coup d’état attempt during which the U.S. government recognized the short-lived interim presidency of Pedro Carmona.
Correspondingly, ties to various Latin American and Middle Eastern countries not allied to the U.S. have strengthened. Venezuela seeks alternative hemispheric integration via such proposals as the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas trade proposal and the newly launched pan-Latin American television network teleSUR.
The Venezuelan government has also expressed its support for the Russian position on the International recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which United States and its allies strongly oppose. Venezuela was a proponent of OAS’s decision to adopt its Anti-Corruption Convention, and is actively working in the Mercosur trade bloc to push increased trade and energy integration. Globally, it seeks a “multi-polar” world based on strengthened ties among Third World countries.
Venezuela’s politics, foreign relations and El Presidente may not be popular in most parts of the world, but the country itself is certainly a blend of fascinating beauty – both human and natural!
VENEZUELA’S ECOTOURISM WONDERLAND
Besides beauties, el Presidente and oil, Venezuela has natural wonders galore.
The range and variety of Venezuela’s ecotourism attractions are not as well-known as the country’s the beaches, nor by comparison to standard ecotourism destinations Costa Rica, Belize and Panama. Venezuela’s largest park, Parque Nacional Canaima, alone is larger than Costa Rica. The country contains nine bio-geographical regions, including the Andes, the coastal cordillera system, the islands and archipelagos, the plains of the Llanos, the Orinoco Delta and the four sub-regions south of the Orinoco.
The writer’s claim that Venezuela is an eco-wonderland is well-taken.
The range and variety of Venezuela’s bountiful nature normally comes as a big surprise to the tourist’s fortunate enough to leave the beaches and enjoy a verdant country packed with natural wonders.
Sadly, but perhaps not so surprising, is just how few foreigners visit this gorgeous country, while nearby Brazil, Costa Rica, Belize and Panama receive millions of visitors annually. Most of those visitor’s are in search of the well-known ecotourism aspects of those countries, so it is sad to note that they leap over Venezuela, without discovering this land teeming with ecological wonder. Venezuela’s largest park, the incredible Parque Nacional Canaima, is so big that Costa Rica could fit inside of it. And, Parque Nacional Canaima is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of ecosystems this northern South American country harbors.
In all, Venezuela boasts nine bio-geographical regions, of which the most important from a tourist’s point of view are the Andes, the coastal cordillera system, the islands and archipelagos, the plains of the Llanos, the Orinoco Delta and the four sub-regions south of the Orinoco, which include the plateaus of the Guayana Highlands (La Gran Sabana) and the rainforest systems of the Upper Orinoco basin.
Few other countries in the world pack such a varied and diverse ecological punch. Since establishing its first national park in 1937, Venezuela has gone on to protect over 54,600 sq miles, or 15%, of its national territory. The national parks are administered by the Instituto Nacional de Parques (called Inparques), with limited, and often mismanaged funds. Some parks such as those close to Caracas (El Avila, Guatopo and Henri Pittier) or Canaima and Sierra Nevada, boast good infrastructure, including cleared trails, cabins for sleeping, organized campsites and knowledgeable guardaparques (park wardens).
Others, like Peninsula de Paria, Sierra de San Luis or Sierra de La Culata are pretty much left to their own devices. Sadly, with little means of enforcing regulations or controls, in some cases they are little more than “paper parks.”
Some of the main ecotourism activities include:
Birders have long discovered Venezuela. The Venezuela Audubon Society, La Cuadra, Centro Comercial Paseo Las Mercedes, Las Mercedes, Caracas, established as early as 1970, works tirelessly to promote and protect not only the country’s stunning birdlife, but all of its wildlife and environments. One of its most active members, Mary Lou Godwin, published the bird watching bible to the country, Birding in Venezuela, with excellent practical information about the best spots but also details of lodging and eating possibilities. A Guide to the Birds of Venezuela by Rodolphe Meer de Schauensee and William H. Phelps, provides the definitive list of its species.
Probably the king of the birding parks is Parque Nacional Henri Pittier west of Caracas, where the Portachuelo Pass, a dip in the Cordillera de la Costa mountain range, affords a migratory highway for hundreds of species. The Audubon organize regular tagging sessions where volunteers are welcome, but can also put you in touch with the best guides or tour operators.
While the forests of the Cordillera, whose spine arcs right the way round Venezuela from the Andes to the Paria Peninsula, make for wonderful opportunities, Venezuela’s numerous coastal lagoons, such as Tacarigua, La Restinga (Margarita), and Cuare present ideal means to float along waterways, binoculars at the ready.
The Llanos plains also host a plethora of good birding spots, with over 300 species recorded. The dry season months make for the best multicolored displays of ibis, heron and roseate spoonbills. Hato El Frio (also known as Estacion Biologica El Frio), and the one-time ranch of the Rockefeller family, Hato El Cedral are among the popular birder haunts.
Providing access to the bird-rich forests of Imataca and the Sierra de Lema in Bolivar State, birders make a beeline for Henry Cleve’s posada, Barquilla y Fresa (book through the Audubon, above), on the road to the Gran Sabana.
When the wildflowers of the moorlands (called paramos) of the Andes blossom in October, these otherwise bleak landscapes hum with busying birds, including high-altitude hummingbirds. Perhaps the greatest treat however; a visit to the Mifafi Condor Center close to Apartaderos to learn about the program to reintroduce the graceful condor to Venezuela is a must.
Hiking goes hand in hand with bird watching or wildlife spotting. With over 40 national parks and “natural monuments” to choose from, you can guarantee you will be as worn out as your boots by the end of your vacation!
Hit the trails in the Andes, entering the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada by the Teleferico, from La Mucuy near Tabay, or from near Mucuchies. Highlights include the glacial lagoons in the north of the park, the stone chapel of Juan Felix Sanchez in El Potrero, and the hot springs and paramos within the Parque Nacional Sierra de La Culata.
Of the coastal parks, numerous fairly well-marked trails criss-cross Henri Pittier. There is excellent hiking or trekking tours in the park, and some nice lodges where you can chill out in the lovely colonial village of Choroni.
Peninsula de Paria, at Venezuela’s eastern extreme, retains plenty of untouched muddy cloud forest trails. Entering from the south, you emerge from the forest at paradisiacal beaches on the Caribbean. What better way to wash off the sweat of a four-hour hike! The soft sandy beaches, thankfully still Venezuela’s best kept secret, provide the nesting grounds for large numbers of endangered marine turtles. For information about turtle watching on the coast.
Tours of the park are best arranged through local posada owners. Check out the the pioneering lodge, Campamento Vuelta Larga, near El Pilar for assistance with guides. Also in Paria, the omnipresent Encuentro Paria, Avenida Independencia, Carupano, manage a series of beach cabañas, a water buffalo ranch, thermal springs, and an old cacao hacienda. They can arrange all sorts of tours of the region. For birding and hiking, see the owners at Hacienda Bukare south of Rio Caribe, is one of the friendliest lodges in the area.
And then there is Canaima, along with the Sierra Nevada, king of Venezuela’s adventure parks. Although most people visit the park to feast their eyes on Angel Falls, reached by river in the rainy season and by small plane in the dry, more adventurous hikers can discover its hundreds of waterfalls, sylvan pools and tea-tinted rivers. A growing number of operators, including the competent Cacao Travel Group (see above) arrange the demanding hike up the Auyan mountain, from where Angel Falls plunges, starting from the hamlet of Kavak.
The eastern sector of Canaima, reached by the Highway 10 leading to Brazil, presents a tapestry of trails to blaze. To the southeast, fit travelers embark on the six-day trek up to the lunarscape atop Mount Roraima, the highest of the mesa mountains (called tepuis) of the Gran Sabana. The trek is regarded as one of South America’s finest. But you can also head off into the savanna at any number of points. From San Francisco de Yuruani, a three-day trail heads west to the mission village of Wonken, in the heart of the savanna and seldom visited, while close to the unique frontier community of El Pauji on the Brazilian border, settlers from the cities or local Pemon guide you through the forests and savanna to some wonderful sights.
Of Venezuela’s numerous caves, the longest courses through the mountains of the Sierra de Perija in Zulia State (Cueva del Saman), though the most famous cave in the country burrows into the hills of Monagas State: the Cueva del Guacharo, home to the country’s largest colony of the unique guacharo (oilbird). Spelunking is best organized through the members of the Venezuelan Speleogical Society.
With the longest coastline in the Caribbean, it is no surprise to find diving well catered for in Venezuela. With three marine national parks (Los Roques, Mochima and Morrocoy) protecting its reefs, not only is diving comparatively economical in Venezuela, it is among the best in the Caribbean, rivaling Belize or the Cayman Islands. The variety and number of the country's reefs also means beginners and experienced divers alike come away delighted. You can expect dramatic drop-offs, forests of multi-colored corals, thermal springs, gulf walls, caverns and old shipwrecks. Sharks, turtles, barracuda, rays, angelfish, parrotfish, snapper and butterflies abound.
King of the dive locales, the Los Roques Archipelago off the central coast, rules for its variety of corals and number of fish encountered. Sesto Continente, based near the Inparques headquarters on Gran Roque island, is the only company to provide dive services and courses.
Some of the sites suit more experienced divers, though Boca del Medio, at only 33 ft in depth is nonetheless teeming with fish and pristine corals, making for a great beginners dive. Of the other sites scattered throughout the islands and islets of the archipelago, Dos Mosquices, with its turtle-breeding research center, and the shipwrecks close to Nordisqui are great picks as well as the vertical cliffs off Cayo Sal or the labyrinths of Nordonqui. Also, check out the deserted and pristine La Tortuga island, north of Los Roques, for a different type of option.
The shallows and sandy bottoms of Morrocoy, west of Caracas in Falcon State, are regarded as the best venue for beginners, with good dives off Cayo Sombrero and Cayo Borracho.
Mochima, the marine national park stretching between Puerto La Cruz in Anzoategui State and Cumana in Sucre State, offers some great deep-water dives, though waters are therefore colder than elsewhere in the country. Dolphins abound, and whales have also been spotted. If you want to combine sophisticated hotels, nightlife and dive life, head to Puerto La Cruz where several companies organize trips to the nearby reefs, among them the Scuba Divers Club, based in the Bahia Redonda Marina, Avenida Tajamar, El Morro, east of the town. For something more relaxed, and less luxurious, two posadas in the traveler-friendly Santa Fe, Playa Santa Fe Resort and Dive Center and Siete Delfines offer combined lodging and diving packages.
Last of the “M”s, one of the best dives on Margarita Island, El Farallon by Pampatar, includes a saintly religious statue among the brain corals and sea fans. However, you should head further afield for the best diving off the “Pearl of the Caribbean”: Los Frailes, a cluster of islands to the northeast, and Los Testigos, are only just being discovered by divers, and offer sites comparable to Los Roques.
Generally-speaking, the major beach resorts of Margarita and Puerto La Cruz offer a plethora of water sports. Margarita especially abounds in hotels or beach concessions providing jet skis, banana boats, para-sailing, windsurfers and catamarans. These can be quite pricey. If you bring your own board with you, surfing in Venezuela may not be Hawaii but it will keep you smiling through your vacation. On Margarita, surfers head for Playa Guacuco and Playa Parguito, while on the mainland, Playa Camuri along the Litoral Central (east of the Maiquetia airport), and Playa Cuyagua north of Maracay across Henri Pittier park, both draw plenty of surfers to their beaches.
One of the top locations in the world for windsurfing, El Yaque on Margarita’s southern coast boasts howling winds all year-round, strongest from November to March. Its annual regatta, attracting windsurfers from all over the world, is held in May. Not only are the winds intense, the accommodation and nightlife which has built up around the beach is first-class, making it a great place to come even if you are not a windsurfer. Rivaling El Yaque on the mainland, winds at Adicora, on the east coast of the “giant’s head” Peninsula de Paraguana in Falcon State, also howl. Accommodation and sail rental is available at Windsurf Adicora.
Yachts escaping the Caribbean hurricane season find welcome refuge along Venezuela’s coast. With so much coast to explore, and ever-improving infrastructure, the country is fast becoming a popular destination with the yachting set. The greatest concentration of marinas and yachting facilities focus on Anzoategui State’s El Morro and Puerto La Cruz developments.
El Morro, a vast project initiated in the 1980s, continues to expand. With its various marinas, luxury resorts, shopping malls and classy restaurants, it is the place to head for on Venezuela’s Caribbean. The country’s largest regatta, the South Caribbean Ocean Regatta takes place every year usually in August. For yachters, the Centro Marino de Oriente has the most modern facilities of the three marinas in El Morro.
If you are a group of four or more, chartering a yacht to cruise the islands of Mochima, or to head east to Los Roques, can be more economical than you might think. Dockside Marina Bahia Redonda, El Morro, is a very organized local tour, travel and yacht agents, within the marina. They can help you charter the right yacht for your needs. The loads of yacht charters on Margarita Island are also tempting. Day trips to the islands of quieter and beautiful beaches and coves of Coche and Cubagua islands to the south can be arranged through Viola Turismo in the Margarita Hilton.
Accommodation on Los Roques can get quite expensive if you are a group of more than four. Chartering a yacht for a few days in order to explore the islands in this case can save you money.
Venezuela’s mythical heart lies in the plains and horsemen of Los Llanos – though cynics would argue it is more like the beaches and boutiques of Miami. Ever since the llanero cavalry played such a pivotal role in the War of Independence, the cowboy – rugged, resourceful and romantic – has occupied pride of place in the country’s pantheon of heroes.
Look no further than the Llanos for great adventures on horseback. Many of the hatos (ranches) scattered throughout the plains states offer riding tours of their lands, making a far better alternative to the open-sided safari trucks usually employed. On horseback, you can get the much closer to the abundant wildlife, and feel far more in tune with the natural environment of the plains. After days spent in the saddle you’ll also understand why the llaneros are so tough. The dry season affords the best opportunities for both exploring and wildlife spotting. The 80,000-hectare (200,000-acre) Hato El Piñero boasts some of the best horses in the region, but you could also contact Las Churuatas de Capanaro, which enjoys privileged access to Parque Nacional Cinaruco-Capanaro.
In many towns throughout the Andes, local andinos rent mules and small criollo horses for day-trips. Spend an afternoon exploring the hills around Jaji; take a mule over the hills from the Loma Redonda teleferico station to the village of Los Nevados; or rent a horse to meander the trails close to Laguna Mucubaji. The quality of the animals may be lacking however, so it is best to contact one of the specialized fincas around Merida that offer larger horses, accompanied by professional guides.
Over on Margarita, the westerly Macanao Peninsula makes for some fantastic riding, but trails also abound throughout the inland villages of the main peninsula. The landscapes of Macanao, arid and cactus-covered, are as dramatic as the heat is unforgiving. Take a tour early in the morning or in the evening, and enjoy some rides along the near-deserted beaches of the southern shores. Rancho Negro, based near La Asuncion, have years of experience, while Cabatucan lies close to Boca del Rio on Macanao.
For some wonderful riding in the cool hills of the Sierra de San Luis above Coro, with its superb views and in Paria, explore the forests, colorful villages, cacao haciendas and unsurpassed beaches with the people of Ruta del Cacao, just south of Rio Caribe.
Venezuela is one of those undiscovered country’s that once you visit you will go back again and again – frankly, it takes a dozen visits to even explore most of the marvels of this eco-wonderland.
A BUDGET TRAVELER’S GUIDE TO CENTRAL AMERICA (PART 2)
Traveling cheaply in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Back in June the first in what now looks to be a 3-part series on budget traveling in Central America delved into specifics on the subject with regard to Belize, Costa Rica and Honduras. This time it is Nicaragua’s and El Salvador’s turn under the microscope. We are promised a concluding piece covering Guatemala.
As with the first part, the pithy bluntness is refreshing.
In part 1 we completed our account of budget travel through some Central America countries such as Belize, Costa Rica, Honduras, and continue that account in part 2 as we journey through two more “off the beaten track” type of destinations in Central America – Nicaragua and El Salvador.
More than just a lake? Nicaragua gets more than its fair share of visitors compared with what it has to offer due to its proximity with Costa Rica. Towns like Granada which are quite pleasant, but nothing too special, are hives of activity, full of budget travelers. Granada for example picks up on the Central American trail where the Bay Islands in Honduras leaves off. Towns such as Granada and León are the main sights in Nicaragua along with several volcanoes that can be visited nearby. Again these volcanoes are interesting but not on the same level with those found elsewhere in the region.
The lake (Lago de Nicaragua) is the other big draw card. Geographically and biologically speaking it and its contents are very interesting, but Ometepe, the largest and by far the most visited island, apart from being picture perfect will not hold your attention for very long. The lake can often get a little rough, but transport is easy. On the island itself mountain biking is the best way to enjoy your time, but more than often it is too hot for this. Other activities such as tours and volcano climbs are not expensive, but not that great of a value.
If you want to really see the island, public transport will be quite time consuming, so make sure you have a few days and a good book to really “do” Ometepe (although if you only spend a day or two you are not missing out on too much). This route through Leon, Granada and Ometepe is by far the most popular and if transiting through, worth several short stops. Elsewhere there are of course many other destinations that due to their location and difficulty to reach are off the tourist trail.
The Corn Islands for example. Sure get off the beaten track, but do not expect too much to reward you when you get there – not unless you are big into relaxing and are completely ignoring the much easier to reach and more impressive near-by attractions in Costa Rica and Honduras. Still the people are nice, the revolution is long over and if you are in the region like everywhere else: why not stop?
Highlights: No real highlights apart from the fact you are abroad somewhere new traveling! The most interesting and attractive places to visit are León, Granada and Ometepe with perhaps a stop to see a volcano from the top (drive right there) on the way.
Lowlights: Lack of anything to really impress, tourist trail and lack of accommodation that is really comfortable (not a complete hole, which are available in plenty at bargain prices), but not overpriced, Granada aside.
Prices are a little high by world standards, but a bargain if coming from Costa Rica.
• Typical tourist trail: Overland from or to Honduras stopping at León, Granada and Ometepe. Many tourists bring hire cars from Costa Rica as far as Granada.
• Visa strategy: No visa required for most developed country nationals.
• Dangers: Less crime than Costa Rica and Honduras, but be sensible at night with your bag.
• Hot/cold, wet and dry: As with the rest of the region be warned about traveling at the hottest time of year. It is still very possible, but heat is sometimes a little unbearable (especially at night) and A/C rooms come at a price.
• Costs: US$20-30 per day
• Money: Corodoba can be taken from ATMs in Granada, Leon and Managua, but ATMs do need some hunting. USD cash changes easily and is worth taking. TCs can be changed in major cities and Amex cheques are by far the best. Most banks in Nicaragua do not have ATMs, these are found (normally only one/two in a town) in mini-shopping centers or other modern complexes. If in doubt ask locals. In Nicaragua simply stock up on cash when you can.
• Getting around: Buses run around the country particularly on the Western side which is the good Pan American highway. Elsewhere roads are bad. Along the Pan American highway collectivos run at lightning speed. These are mini-buses that leave when full. Rates are fixed and good value.
• Guide book: Footprint or a regional guide, not necessary if on the beaten track. For a full list of regional guides please
• People vibe:
• Locals: Normal Central American folk, friendlier perhaps than in Costa Rica, those on the Caribbean coast as per normal in this region are friendlier. Some say the friendliest people are those on Ometepe since there was no fighting during the civil war here.
• Other travelers: Standard gringos, many on side trips from Costa Rica rather than those traveling the whole region.
• Tourist factor: Up to 8/10
• Accommodation: In large towns and on the tourist trail getting a room is never a problem and rooms can be found very cheaply, but basic.
• Hot water: Pretty rare in budget hotels.
• Average cost: From US$5 for a very basic room, but bearable if in the cool season. To US$10-15 for an okay room to US$30 for a nice one. A/C will cost more still.
• Communications: Internet plentiful in major cities.
• Books: None, really.
• TV: Hotels aimed at backpackers often have cable TV in the reception.
• Food: Food is quite basic and limited in most places apart from those on the tourist trail where in many cases backpackers are well catered for. Prices are a little high by world standards, but a bargain if coming from Costa Rica.
• Vegetarians: Fine.
• Hassle and annoyance factor: None really.
• Women alone: Generally fine.
It might be the thoughts of earthquakes or perhaps the memory of civil war that keeps so many away from El Salvador in such a well traveled region, but it is more likely the fact that the attractions of neighboring countries – and the lack of anything truly comparable in El Salvador that prevents most from even passing through. Those who do are normally pleased they did, but would agree that any “sight” is low key and as nice and friendly as the people are, they are also so in neighboring nations.
• Highlights (interesting and nice but hardly a must sees): Suchitoto and Sonsonate. Lack of gringo crowds. Some great beaches.
• Lowlights: USD economy, major cities and lack of anything really interesting or rural (country-side well cultivated).
• Visa strategy: No visa required for most (Latin America, North American, European including Israel). Notably Australian, NZ and Canadian citizens will have to buy a tourist card on the border/airport for $10 or a visa for $30 in advance.
• Typical tourist trail: Normally figures around coming from Guatemala and going to Copán (Honduras) via Suchitoto or transiting the country completely at its length (this is normally done on an international bus.
• Dangers: San Salvador is not the safest city in the region and care should be taken at night especially in the area where budget hotels are
• Costs: US$20-40 per day.
• Money: Since 2001 the national currency has been phased out and is now rarely seen. US$ is the new currency easily pulled from ATMs in major cities, but outside of them make sure you have cash to hand.
• Getting around: Old American school buses ply most routes. They are cheap, connections are easy and most roads are good (but not all).
• Guide book: Any regional guide.
• People vibe:
• Locals: On the whole very nice, more so in areas less affected by the civil war.
• Other travelers: Few.
• Tourist factor: 3/10
• Accommodation: Good hotels normally available, but at a price. In cities nice budget rooms are tough to find and basic ones will cost between $15-$30. Outside of the cities you can find a nice room for about the same price.
• Hot water: Only in nice hotels.
• Average cost: See above.
• Communications: Internet and phone easy to find in major towns and the capital. These are a world apart from the country-side where internet cafés are only just starting to pop up.
• Books: Difficult to find, unless in Spanish.
• TV: Cable TV in capital plus large cinemas.
• Web: For an excellent site on this less visited, less known country try www.4elsalvador.com.
• Food: Plentiful American fast food (in big cities), good eating on a budget is not too hard, but not that easy.
• Vegetarians: Fine.
• Hassle and annoyance factor: None.
• Women alone: No problem.
• Rating: 5.5/10
Part 3 will conclude this series on budget traveling in Central America with an overview guide of Guatemala, one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
OBTAINING A MORTGAGE IN CENTRAL AMERICA
It can be a tricky and tiresome process. But the industry is maturing.
Thanks to its official language being English and having a system of law based on English Common Law, Belize is allegedly becoming a regional mortgage origination center. Or so this article claims. We certainly see the attractions of those two characteristics for immigrants from up north.
Ask anyone who has tried it. But the industry is maturing, especially in the country of Belize, a relative newcomer to International Banking, whose industry began in 1996.
More and more folks are looking to Belize.
Panama is the 800 pound banking gorilla in the region and has been for many years. But when it comes to securing mortgages throughout the region, more and more folks are looking to the tiny nation of Belize, a country long known for diving, fly fishing, and archeological treasures. Now however, they are also becoming known for bank secrecy, conservative banking policy, and exceptional personal service.
For mortgages, there are two main reasons people are giving Belize a serious look. The first is that the official language of the country is English. The second is that they follow a Common Law system familiar to most North Americans. Both are critically important to the consumer, because they take what has been a complicated and difficult process and made it simple and easy.
The first reason many people are now obtaining mortgages through banks in Belize is that all official documents are in English. This might seem like a no-brainer on the surface, but one has to remember that in the other countries of Latin America, all legal documents are in Spanish.
Even more important to recognize is that the Spanish version of all documents is the legally binding document. “Official Translations” are expensive, and in the end, just that, an “official translation.” The binding document is the document in Spanish.
The second issue is the more difficult to explain in just a few sentences, because it deals with the difference between Civil and Common law. Hundreds of thousands of pages have been written on this topic so for any lawyers looking at this article, I apologize in advance for cutting it down to a couple paragraphs. My examples are anecdotal from my experiences and serve only to highlight some of the major differences between the systems when applying and receiving a mortgage.
The Spanish speaking countries of Latin America use Civil Law systems sometimes called “Roman” or “Napoleonic.” Beyond being unfamiliar to most North Americans, it is in many ways opposite to how we think the law works. To state it simply, Civil Law is a top down set of laws and rules created by rulers or administrators that judges must follow. The spirit of the law is secondary to the written word. While it is a good system because it offers all citizens a rule book to follow, it is highly procedural and technical.
For example, any mistake in a person’s paperwork, even a missing period, can compromise the contract or agreement. It is also a requirement that most documents be signed in person, with witnesses, notaries and that copies of documents be sealed and stamped by officials before becoming legally binding. In many cases the process is highly bureaucratic and cumbersome, leading to mistakes and errors which can later be used to invalidate an agreement.
Common Law is almost the opposite. It is a bottom up system of law where laws are created by cases and law is created by a judge’s ruling creating precedents. The spirit of the law, or the spirit of the contract is not only admissible, it is often a deciding factor in a case.
One major disadvantage of Common Law is that judges can in fact let their personal opinions weigh in on the case and sometimes their decisions create arbitrary or even conflicting sets of laws. However, when it comes to contracts, real estate paperwork, and mortgages, the advantages of Common Law really shine.
For instance, paperwork can be handled from afar saving huge expenses in air travel and time. Faxes can be used for instructions. Even e-mail notifications are now permitted if all parties agree to it. A loan can be requested, contracted, and funded remotely saving time, money, and hassle for all parties to the transaction.
Belize is becoming a leading Central American international jurisdiction with banking at the forefront. The growing number of international travelers and property buyers is creating an expanding market for their banking services. Regulated strictly with one of the highest reserve requirements in the world, 24%, Belize is an attractive banking center.
Mortgages to North Americans wanting to own property in the region is just one of the products offered to serve this growing population. If you have not looked at Belize yet, it may be time to do so.
HOW TO RENT OVERSEAS
Word-of-mouth. Finding a suitable rental in the right location for you at a good price can be a difficult thing to accomplish from afar.
Very useful advice from Kathleen Peddicord on how to find an overseas rental. You have to go there and start looking around, unless you have an agent (formal or informal) who you really, really trust. And as she points out immediately: Rent in an area before you buy. Maybe even rent indefinitely.
When engineering a move overseas, rent first, I remind you often. And maybe rent indefinitely. Which begs the question: How do you find a rental in another country?
Word-of-mouth. You can search on the Internet, but, as with property for sale, the rentals you find this way are typically the most expensive, certainly if you search English-language sites. Your chances of getting a better deal are increased if you reference sites in the local language. Still, going this route, you are going to find only those properties for rent by locals with the wherewithal to advertise them on the Net.
You can also source rentals through the local print classifieds. This can be an effective method, a way to penetrate the local market and to gain access to local pricing, if you read and speak the local language fluently. Understanding Spanish well enough to read a rental property listing in a local newspaper in Buenos Aires, for example, is t enough. You have got to be able to speak Spanish well enough to have a conversation by telephone with the owner to arrange a viewing appointment. Then you have got to feel comfortable enough in your Spanish to meet with him (or her) in person, at the property, to ask your questions, to negotiate the price and other particulars, and, ultimately, to review the rental agreement (which, of course, will be in Spanish if that is the language of the country where you are shopping). I have known many people who have successfully sourced rentals this way and been happy with the results, but I, for example, could not do it without help, not in a market where the language is Spanish. Mine is not good enough.
The most efficient and effective strategy, therefore, certainly if you are not fluent in the local lingo, is to ask around. You can begin this process before you arrive in your new home, but finding a suitable rental in the right location for you at a good price can be a difficult thing to accomplish from afar.
Two months in advance of our move from Paris to Panama City last year, I tried to launch our search for a rental in the Panamanian capital. I sent off e-mails to friends, business contacts, and property agents in the city. Everyone replied to say, in effect: “Searching long-distance for an apartment or a house to rent in this market is going to prove nigh on impossible. Much better to wait until you are here in person. Probably any time you invest before you are on the ground will prove wasted.”
The Panama City rental market at the time was an extreme example. It qualified as one of the most active short-term rental markets in the world. The would-be renter had to be ready to act. If you hesitated (showed up to a viewing without your local bank checkbook, for example, and therefore unable to write a local check for the deposit on the spot), you risked losing out. Few markets are this competitive (including the Panama City rental market, which has quieted down since).
But there is another, more universal reason it is not easy to try to shop for a rental apartment in one country while you are sitting at home in another.
Say you ask around from the comfort of your armchair. One of your sources replies to tell you about a rental in such-and-such neighborhood available for such-and-such price. It sounds great in the e-mail, the best value you have come across. But is it a place you would want to live? Making that determination without having seen the place yourself is a dangerous thing. Maybe you would trust your best friend or your significant other to scout and secure a rental on your behalf, but I have known even that to backfire.
Better to set your own two eyes on a place before you hand over the security deposit and the first and last months’ rent (as you will likely have to do).
It is not the end of the world, of course. Eventually, the lease term will expire, and you could move wherever you like. Maybe you could even negotiate with the landlord to get released from your rental contract early. However, in some countries, this is not easily accomplished, and, regardless, the negotiation is a hassle you do not want during what should be the honeymoon period in your new home in paradise. Better to set your own two eyes on a place before you hand over the security deposit and the first and last months’ rent (as you will likely have to do, though, sometimes, these terms are open for discussion).
It may sound like a non-strategy, but the best approach is simply to make a reservation at a hotel located in the area where you think you would like to live. Plan to stay up to four or five weeks. It may not take you this long to find a place to live more permanently, but do not be discouraged if it does. We were guests of the Granville Hotel in Waterford, Ireland, for a full eight weeks (we negotiated a discounted long-term rate with the manager) before we finally found the rental cottage that became our first home in that city. Easing into a place this way gives you a chance to get the lay of the land and to take your time considering your options.
We knew not a soul in Waterford, Ireland, when we first arrived in this city as foreign residents a dozen years ago. We were out of our element and on our own, with no local network of support. We quickly figured out that the Irish property market, for both sales and rentals, does not much resemble the one in the United States (there is no Multiple Listing Service, and agents do not share listings). We knew that the ideas and expectations we had brought with us from the States had to be adjusted. But how? To what?
Our challenge was particularly great because we were trying to find not only a house to rent, but also an office. We began making inquiries about available rentals at the front desk of our hotel, of fellow shoppers standing in line at the grocery store, of fellow parents at our daughter’s school, in the bank, and of every taxi driver we encountered. Finally, someone gave us the address of a small office he thought might be available for rental.
By this time, we were nearly desperate, so, new lead in hand, we headed across town immediately, without an appointment (for we had no phone number, only the address), to knock on the door of the office in question. Is our information correct, we inquired of the nice Irish lady who greeted us inside. Is this office for rent? Indeed, it was. We negotiated a price and terms on the spot and asked if we could return the next day to begin setting up shop. In addition, on our way out the door, I asked, as an afterthought, “Would you happen to know of a two-bedroom house for rent?”
The nice Irish lady did. She wrote down another address for us. Again, we walked out the door, down the street to the taxi queue, and took off in a cab, straightaway, to see the residence for ourselves. The landlord, it turned out, was at home in his own house on the same property. He showed us the place, the view of the river, and the garage where we could store belongings that would not fit in the little cottage.
We were won over, by the location but also by the furnishings. Rentals in Ireland, both short (a few weeks or a few months) and long (six months or longer) term, come furnished. On the one hand, this was welcome news for us at the time, as our furniture was in a container on a ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. On the other hand, “furnished” is one of those words that loses something in translation from American English to Irish English. Even the higher-end rentals we viewed had but bare-bones furnishings. Some did not even have central heating (this would be much less true today, 12 years later), and few properties had things like dishwashers.
We were delighted, therefore, with our riverside discovery, which boasted “all mod cons,” or all modern conveniences, as the Irish would say. We negotiated price and terms for renting on the spot. We sealed the deal, our second of the morning, with a handshake.
P.S. Should you engage the help of a rental agent in your search? In most markets, the landlord pays the fee, and, in some, it is split between the owner and the renter. I would argue that, in a place where the person you eventually rent from is responsible for paying the agent’s commission, why not enlist the services of a broker in your search? This may seem to contradict my recommendation to seek out your rental by asking around in the place where you want to rent, but that is not necessarily so. If it costs you nothing, why not have an agent search along with you? You pursue your word-of-mouth strategy, while the agent does his (or her) thing.
The downside is that, even though you are not paying it, the agent is still working for a fee, which is typically based on the monthly rental amount. In other words, the agent is not going to knock himself out trying to find super-cheap options. He will work within your parameters, but he will bring you the options that will earn him a greater commission. You can always politely decline interest, of course.
The other advantage to engaging a broker’s help sourcing a rental (in addition to expanding your search basis) is that, in some markets, the agent’s job is not over when the rental agreement is signed. Here in Panama, for example, a rental agent is expected to help you to orchestrate your move, as well. He will negotiate the terms of the rental; he will coordinate payment of the security deposit and initial rent (walking you through when, to whom, and how to accomplish this); he will help you arrange for the installation of telephone and Internet; and he will help you transfer the electricity account into your name (if that is what you decide to do).
These may sound like small things, but, in a new country, operating in a foreign language, dealing with these issues for the first time, you would be surprised how complicated they can become and how welcome a little help can be.
UNIQUE HOUSING FOR GLOBAL NOMADS
Options for those who find conventional housing too ... conventional.
Moving overseas and having one’s own place built from scratch can be trying on the patience, and eventually time starts to mean money. But perhaps create alternatives to the old four walls and a roof exist? Well, yes. “A home on wheels, on the water, or even in the trees, enables you to live simply and often inexpensively, while leaving a smaller carbon footprint,” we are told. Definitely thinking outside the box, so to speak.
Conventional housing, the kind with four plain walls and a mortgage, does not appeal to everyone, especially the inveterate global nomad. If we wanted safe and normal, we would stay at home in the first place. But once we hit the road, we need an escape plan. Whether it is for a month or for the rest of our lives, we need somewhere to sleep, hide from the weather and generally nest.
These days, downsizing is more than a trend; it is a necessary part of survival whereby smaller is better. The era of 2000 square foot McMansions is over and many will not lament its passing. Smaller, specialized housing leads to big savings on energy and building materials. With efficient housing, size does matter – it costs much less to maintain 200 square feet than 2000 square feet.
Relocating to a private island in Boca del Toros or to the foothills of the Andes can demand creative housing solutions to problems of location or zoning. A home on wheels, on the water, or even in the trees, enables you to live simply and often inexpensively, while leaving a smaller carbon footprint.
Free Spirit Spheres
Perfectly sane grown-ups want to live in treehouses for any number of reasons. First and foremost is the view, joining the canopy rather than just gazing up at it. Living above the ground offers all sorts of advantages from avoiding pesky scavengers to communing with the trees instead of clearing cutting to pour a cement foundation and build on terra firma. A treehouse lets us access a magical space without disturbing the environment.
Tom Chudleigh’s Free Spirit Spheres are a marriage of treehouse and sailboat technology. His tree spheres evolved when a plan to build a boat did not work out. He suspended what was meant to be the cabin of the boat up into a tree in British Columbia. Like boats, Chudleigh constructs his spheres out of wood or fiberglass, fitting them with plumbing, wiring, and windows. The spheres are easily heated with a small electric heater. There is a small flat floor area in the middle of the sphere, much like a camper or a boat. A galley area includes a counter, cupboards, sink, a microwave and refrigerator. Above the galley area is a loft bed with full sitting headroom at the center.
His spheres are hung in the treetops by suspension ropes. The spherical shape is well adapted to life in the forest, standing up to wind by moving with the treetops. Like a ping pone ball or a nut, the spheres are light with a tough skin – a form of bio-mimicry. Chudleigh says, “I grew up dreaming of treehouses and it’s a space that feels like magic to me.” The uses for a treehouse are only limited by one’s imagination. Gamewatching, meditation, photography and full time living are all perfectly possible in your treetop hideaway.
Price: approximately $600 per square foot.
The Airstream trailer is a true icon of American design, easily recognized by its distinctive round aluminum body, harkening back to simpler times before convoys of fifth wheels hit the road en masse, transporting snowbirds to the desert to hole up for winter. Wally Byam created the Airstream in the 1930s “to place the great wide world at your doorstep for you who yearn to travel with all the comforts of home.” For road warriors today, nothing beats hitching a silver time capsule to the back of the car. At the end of the day, no matter where you are in an Airstream, you have arrived.
This land yacht of sorts can be used for holidays, business (think mobile storefront), or as a permanently parked residence. Airstream manufactures approximately 2000 trailers per year, with several models like the compact Basecamp at 16 feet to the Classic Limited model at 34 feet. Paris Hilton hitched up an Airstream to tour the country in the Simple Life. Style icon Ralph Lauren tried his hand at designing themed Airstreams. Airstreams are more popular than ever, and restoration of older models is a passion shared by many. Whether your taste is traditional or high-end, the silver bullet of travel is a home away from home with a lively history.
Price: approximately $300 per square foot, new.
Anywhere you find water, you will find people living on boats. For most of us, the journey from landlubber to liveaboard is a total lifestyle change. Living on a boat has become a feasible alternative in today’s volatile real estate market – why limit yourself to land when over 70% of the world is covered by water? Liveaboards are an interesting mix of people worldwide who share a passion for boats and the water. Living on a houseboat is a lifestyle, whether you have a 100 foot super yacht moored on St. Bart’s or a 20 foot do-it-yourself-er floating in a canal. You have the freedom to choose where and how you live. And if you don’t like where you live, untie your lines and move. You will not find that kind of flexibility with a detached bungalow.
A houseboat is a great way to escape the rat race and simplify your life, while being close to nature. Houseboats come in all shapes, sizes and price. Houseboats with motors are meant to travel. Houseboats that are not open water worthy can be built on the spot and moored permanently. Most boats offer limited space so you will need to downsize your possessions otherwise your boat will not stay afloat for long. If you want to live on the cheap, the classifieds are full of reasonably priced boats and moorings. If money is no object, have a look at some of the exquisite houseboats in Europe, particularly in the waters of Amsterdam – home to a large houseboat population whose floating hotels are a tourist favorite.
Choosing a boat will depend on where and how you want to use it. Once you have figured out your needs and budget, consider other expenses such as a survey, insurance, mooring, licences, and running costs. Just like land based properties, you must have your boat surveyed by a qualified surveyor. A boat must be insured, but costs vary depending on whether or not you will be cruising in open water. With as many different types of boats out there as people who want to live on them, do lots of homework to find your ideal floating home.
Price: ranging from $10 to $10,000 per square foot.
Nothing says nomad like a well-appointed Yurt. Mongolian nomads created these movable circular dwellings some 2000 years ago, to accommodate life on the Steppes in the sun, wind and rain. Today’s yurts are adapted from the original Central Asian design, but more likely to be made of hi-tech materials like polyester and vinyl rather than sheep’s wool. A modern yurt is also more likely to transported via truck or boat instead of on a Yak’s back.
The yurt is easy to build, usually arriving in kit form, assembled with a couple of friends in as little as one day. These structures often sit above the ground with minimal environmental impact, but with the ability to stand up to extreme elements. Yurts are a natural choice for off-grid living with options like composting toilets and rainwater catchment systems. You can heat your yurt with a wood stove and power it with solar panels or a generator. Yurts can reach up to about 700 square feet, divided into rooms or left as an open space.
A Yurt dweller in the high Rockies is less likely to move with the same frequency as traditional dwellers, but a yurt provides both a good year-round or seasonal home. For remote locations like islands or mountain tops, a yurt can be floated in or dropped via helicopter. For seasonal users, some yurts can be taken apart and kept safe in the off season. If you’re looking for a temporary place to hang your hat while building your dream villa, a yurt easily converts into a guest bunkie or an art studio when your permanent construction is complete. A Yurt is a natural and inexpensive structure, leaving you close to nature but comfy and sheltered – an ideal shelter for the modern nomad.
Price: approximately $20 per square foot.
Tiny Tumbleweed Houses
Jay Shafer has been living in a house smaller than some people’s closet for over 10 years. Ask him why and he might joke about not wanting to vacuum any more or look after space he does not use. But his real reasons for inhabiting about 96 square feet arose from concerns about the impact a larger house would have on the environment. Shafer’s tiny home meets all his domestic needs without demanding much in return, but provides a simpler, slower lifestyle which he considers a luxury.
Shafer’s Tiny Tumbleweed House company builds houses ranging from 40-500 square feet. You can buy a tiny house ready made in about 3 weeks or buy the plans and build it yourself. The tiniest designs are road-ready (trailer hitch included), the ultimate in nomadic portability. Because the houses are on wheels, they are considered travel trailers, and do not require a building permit. You can put a tiny house anywhere you can put an RV. The houses are wired for electricity with a plug on the outside. You can power a house with a standard AC plug-in or via solar panels with an inverter that converts energy from the sun into alternating current (AC).
Tumbleweed homes on wheels are all plumbed to be connected to public water and sewer. If permanent sewer or water access is not available, a portable water tank and a compost toilet can be substituted. Built-in amenities include a two-burner stove, an under-counter refrigerator, a bar sink, an RV on-demand hot water heater, and a propane boat heater. The interior design pays maximum attention to light, warmth, energy efficiency and proportion. Tumbleweed Tiny Houses are very well insulated, easy to heat and cool. A Tumbleweed home owner in Olympia, Washington, spends an average of $5 per month on propane for heating her tiny home. That’s a novel concept indeed.
Price: approximately $500 per square foot.
BEAUTIFUL BEACHES, NO CRIME, FREE HEALTH CARE: IS THIS THE BEST COUNTRY IN WORLD?
Cuba is unquestionably a big opportunity. It is just a matter of a certain government getting real.
Once Cuba opens up what will Americans find there? A pretty amazing country, as the writer here outlines. Unclear to us is just how far U.S. people and companies will be behind the rest of the world, who lack the restrictions placed on U.S. persons by their bone-headed government, once visiting and investing in Cuba becomes legal under U.S. law once more.
It is time for your geography and sociology quiz.
What country just may be the ideal tourist attraction ... with a varied terrain that includes rugged mountains, bucolic farmland, and 3,570 miles of some of the world’s most beautiful beaches ... some with uninterrupted sandy shores of more than 13 miles?
(Clue: these sand beaches range from fine white powdered-talc to golden brown sugar to dazzling pink. And the gleaming offshore waters are incredible shades of green and blue, with an average temperature of 79 degrees.)
This country has beautiful cities, too. In fact, it has eight UNESCO World-Heritage sites – six cultural and two natural. It is rightly proud of its easy-to-navigate and well-maintained city streets, rural roads and cross-country highways. Along these roads and highways, grass is neatly trimmed, and vistas are unmarred by billboards.
No one litters here. In fact, crime is virtually non-existent. There are no illegal drugs, no gangs, no graffiti.
Sounds idyllic, right? There is more ...
This country has the highest literacy rate in the world. It is a world leader in preparing young children to succeed in school. Education is considered a right of every citizen, as is free health care.
Health care here, in fact, is excellent. You will find the highest number of doctors (per capita) in the world. Life expectancy rates are on par with the U.S. In many areas, health care statistics outpace the U.S. For instance, out of 30 nations, this country ranks #1 in the 5-year survival rate for women diagnosed with breast cancer. It ranks higher than the U.S. in colorectal cancer survival rates for both men and women.
It is a country where culture ... music, art, theater, film ... thrives. You will find the world’s top athletes here, too. In terms of per-capita medals won in international competitions over the years, this country ranks first in the world – up there with Japan, Italy, and the Ukraine – though (another clue here) with just 11.4 million people, the population is less than one quarter that of the Ukraine and less than 1/10 that of Japan.
And your last clue: Women dominate this nation’s economy. In terms of political representation of women, this country ranks first in the hemisphere. And it boasts subsidized day care and maternity leave.
Where in the world is this place? Find out tomorrow ...
Is This the Best Country in the World? Part II
Yesterday I told you about a country that has much going for it: Thousands of miles of gorgeous coastline with warm, tropical offshore waters ... top-notch (and free) health care. A crime-free society and a population that is among the best-educated, most athletic, and most culturally talented in the world. Read the full description here.
Today, I will tell you more about this “Nirvana.” With the clues I give, let us see how long it takes you to guess the country I am describing.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that all travel writers are obliged to describe this place as forbidden, mysterious and “lost in time.” But it is not that at all. Every year, millions of tourists visit its beaches, historic cities, verdant valleys, and rugged mountains.
The people, of course, are its true treasures. Even though I do not understand much about how their society functions or a lick about what makes them tick, on my recent trip, I was struck by their naivety and inquisitiveness. They ask so many questions!
They do not get the chance to meet many Americans, you see, as very few Americans visit here. During my visit, in fact, I did not meet a single fellow U.S. citizen, although I did encounter Germans, Italians, Spaniards, British, Irish, Mexicans, and Australians.
The locals love to sing and dance long into the night, and gorgeous music and swaying hips can be found in bars, restaurants, on beaches and street corners throughout the country. When those I met learned I was from the U.S., I always got a big hug and a smile. They were delighted to have me there and to have the opportunity to show me their beautiful homeland.
Unfortunately, despite all this country has going for it, its economy is on the skids in a big, bad, terrible way. The average monthly salary is $19. Food is in short supply, and the country has defaulted on so many debts it is hard to find anyone who will take a chance on exporting goods there, except on a cash-up-front basis – never mind that foreign lending markets have all but dried up. Since half its oil is imported, factories have been closed in order to reduce electricity consumption.
Think you know the country I have been describing? These final clues will help:
This country is just 90 miles off the coast of the U.S. – closer to visit for the majority of Americans than is the U.S. Midwest or West Coast. Yet for nearly 50 years Americans have been forbidden to go there, thanks to a 1962 trade embargo imposed by the U.S.
Yes, this is Cuba. 70% of Americans say they would like the opportunity to visit it. Very soon, they may get their wish.
Although President Obama recently extended the trade embargo against Cuba for another year, bills have been introduced in both the House and Senate to lift the travel restrictions.
To get the whole story, including the opportunities that may soon emerge when the travel ban to Cuba is lifted, check out the October issue of International Living Magazine ... Change is coming to Cuba and it is time to prepare ...
LABUAN ASIA’S BEST KEPT SECRET
For anyone with significant international operations, Labuan is definitely worth looking into.
Labuan is a Malaysian territory that has been set up so that it can act as an essentially independent state, with its own laws. It has negotiated 69 double taxation agreements, is a common law jurisdiction, and has easy access to Asia’s booming capital markets. What is not to like?
Maybe nothing. We are just not well acquainted with Labuan. Which is Simon Black’s point: It is kind of a secret.
Today I found out first hand how much Chinese are looking to avoid taxes.
I attended a conference today sponsored by the government of Labuan, Malaysia at the Grand Hyatt here in Shanghai. Labuan is Asia’s newest financial center, and the government there is heavily courting wealthy Chinese investors and businesses to migrate their capital.
There are a lot of rich Chinese businessmen who are looking for a way to reduce their tax burden, and most do not have a clue where to begin. This conference was a significant step in educating high net worth individuals, as well as their advisers, on the advantages of proper offshore planning.
Christine Verone, my local contact and old friend here in Shanghai, pulled some strings to score us some tickets. We were nearly the only white people at the conference ... but her insider connections have paid off because the contacts I could turn out to be priceless.
Labuan’s key principals gave presentation after presentation, highlighting the benefits and advantages of doing business there. Christine and I were able to meet with many of them in a more intimate setting after the conference to get the real scoop on how things work.
Quick overview: Labuan is a federal territory of Malaysia – essentially an independent state with its own laws but protected by the sovereignty of Malaysia ... replete with access to the double taxation agreements (69 of them), common law standards, and easy access to Asia’s key markets.
Naturally, like most other low tax jurisdictions, Labuan levies essentially no tax for most companies with non-Malaysian sourced income ... no income tax, no stamp duties, no withholding tax, no dividend tax, no service fees, etc. Even salaries paid to company directors are not taxable in Labuan.
Consequently, the jurisdiction is becoming more popular with Asian businesses. For example, Air Asia, one of Asia’s low cost carriers, bases its operations in Labuan. According to the company CEO, this decision saves the airline millions of dollars each year and affords it the opportunity to keep fares low and stay competitive.
But this is all standard stuff for low-tax jurisdictions. Labuan excels in other areas, and this is why you should really care:
• ANYONE can open a bank/brokerage account there, and the process is incredibly simple and transparent. In the time it takes you to open an account in Hong Kong, you can probably open 100 accounts in Labuan. Nearly every sophisticated banking institution in the world now has a branch in Labuan, and they have actual professional bankers staffing the branches, unlike Seychelles, Cayman Islands, etc. where you get a bunch of ninnies in monkey suits.
• Labuan is part of Malaysia. Malaysia is a Muslim country in Asia. This puts Labuan effectively under both the Chinese umbrella and the Middle East umbrella, making it extraordinarily easy to raise money and providing geopolitical independence that other low-tax jurisdictions do not have.
• Unlike other “name plate” jurisdictions like BVI where lawyers churn out companies simply to avoid taxes, Labuan incorporation agencies provide a full suite of cost-effective back office services to fully staff operations with qualified employees.
• Brokerages set up through Labuan trust accounts provide access to all of Asia’s financial markets with nearly unbreakable protection against creditors. Setup costs are roughly 1/3 as much as Hong Kong.
• Like Singapore, raising money for start-ups is much easier in Labuan than other jurisdictions because of the availability of capital. Banks are awash with money, and structuring a tax-advantageous fund is a relatively uncomplex procedure there.
Based on the contacts that we made today, I will be having further discussions with many key principals in Labuan to explore the full range of services that these lawyers, trust companies, and private bankers offer. In my opinion, for anyone with significant international operations, Labuan is definitely worth looking into.
GIVE ME LIBERTY OR GIVE ME BOARDING PASS
It is easy to build a Starbucks, Super-Target, and endless rows of McMansions. The hard part is finding a place where the government leaves you alone to live your life and prosper.
The ideas upon which America was (theoretically) founded – individual freedom, limited government, risk-taking, a voluntary-exchange economy – are sinking fast. As Simon Black puts it here: “The United States has drifted a long way from America.” In other countries, in contrast, the ideas are on the rise.
Perhaps everything is just cyclical, but as long as the cycles are asynchronous you can move from the one on the downward trajectory to the one going upward. And right now, the United States is one of the ones on the downward slide.
I am in the United States through the end of next week out of necessity ... I need to tie up some loose ends (read: taxes!). Once I get my confession mailed out to Uncle Sam, I will be out the door once again.
Whenever I am in the United States, I always think deep thoughts about liberty. This place has changed so much since I was a child that it is hardly recognizable.
When people overseas ask me where I am from, I always say that I’m an American ... which is simply a reflection of my state of mind, not geography. As my friend Doug Casey says, “‘America’ is an idea, not a country.” I agree entirely.
America as an idea espoused economic and individual freedom, limited government, entrepreneurial risk-taking, and a market-based economy. America was the one place in the world where rags-to-riches stories were commonplace, and where wealth was held up in a respectable light.
The United States has drifted a long way from America. To underscore this point, I would like to share an email that I just received from a close friend of mine who lives in the Midwest, “America’s heartland”:
Dear Simon –
As you know, I have two young children who attend pre-school at a local Montessori school. The school is completely private and quite expensive ... not a single dollar of public funds goes to this school even though I pay out the nose in state taxes to support public schools.
Yesterday, the county health inspector decided to show up and go through the health records of all the students. Naturally I was immediately bothered that a public official could go through what I consider to be private records.
The truth is, after lengthy conversations with her pediatrician and a lot of self-study, my wife and I decided against many of the immunizations.
Frankly I don’t see the benefit in sticking my child full of a bunch of unnecessary chemicals. I didn’t get most of these shots when I was a kid and yet somehow I managed to live this long.
Regardless, the county health jackass gave us **one week** to get her ‘caught up’ on her immunizations, or else she will be forbidden to attend this PRIVATE school anymore.
The only way out of this is if I apply for an immunization exemption for my daughter on the grounds that our religion forbids me to have her inoculated. Here’s the actual text of the document that I have to sign and have notarized:
“A religious exemption may be granted to an applicant if immunization conflicts with a genuine and sincere religious belief. A Certificate of Immunization Exemption for religious reasons shall be signed by the applicant or, if the applicant is a minor, by the parent or guardian or legally authorized representative and shall attest that the immunization conflicts with a genuine and sincere religious belief and that the belief is in fact religious, and not based merely on philosophical, scientific, moral, personal, or medical opposition to immunizations. The Certificate of Immunization Exemption for religious reasons is valid only when notarized. Religious exemptions do not apply in times of emergency or epidemic as determined by the state board of health and declared by the director of public health.”
It infuriates me that the government requires me to have my child immunized to attend a private school. If I disagree for medical or philosophical reasons then that’s not OK ... but if I’m a Scientologist, then they’ll let me off the hook. Are you kidding me?
I have little doubt that the lack of immunizations for my children demonstrates to the state that I’m a bad parent. How long before Child Protective Services comes knocking on my door for a little home inspection?
I probably visit at least 30 countries each year ... and to be completely frank, there is no perfect place. But as free people we are able to decide for ourselves where we want to live, under what level of government – to “opt-in,” if you will, to the set of regulations that we are willing to live under.
And believe me, there are a hell of a lot of places out there where my friend would not have to deal with this type of coercion.
Sure, the U.S. is a comfortable place to live, but as my friend points out some of the critical freedoms are being erroded right under our noses. The distinction between private and public is blurred. The idea of being a “responsible” citizen is being held up as the ideal compared to personal liberty.
The U.S. is on a downward trajectory. Many other places are on an upward trajectory. It is only a matter of time (and not too much time, at that ...) before other countries surpass the United States’ quality of life. Many already have.
After all, it is easy to build a Starbucks, Super-Target, and endless rows of McMansions. The hard part is finding a place where the government leaves you alone to live your life and prosper, and surrounding yourself with people who feel the same way.
Do you have similar stories? Do you agree that the U.S. is on a downward slide, or do you believe that it is still the best place to be? I would really like to hear what you have to say.
A followup piece from Mr. Simon continuing in a similar vein is found here.
U.S. and Cuba Discuss Resuming Direct Mail Service Between Nations
In what looks to be another step by President Obama to engage the communist nation in “steps forward,” the U.S. and Cuba will start talks this month on resuming direct mail service between the two countries for the first time in nearly half a century, U.S. officials said ...
The negotiations ... will follow the resumption in July of talks on the legal immigration of Cubans to the U.S., according to the officials. The two sides agreed on the two sets of discussions in late May, a month after President Barack Obama eased travel and financial restrictions on Americans with family members in Cuba.
The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because details of the negotiations are not yet completed. Direct postal service between the United States and Cuba was terminated in 1963 and since then mail has had to go through third countries. Previous attempts to restore the link have failed and experts believe Cuba’s communist government remains sensitive about what kind of material might be sent to the island from the United States.
Trying to improve relations
Obama wants to improve relations with Cuba and has taken several steps to gauge the Cuban leaderships’ interest in doing so, including supporting a recent decision by the Organization of American States to revoke Cuba’s 1962 suspension from the 34-country group.
But he has also said the U.S. embargo on the country enacted in 1960 will not be lifted until Cuba enacts democratic and economic reforms, such as freeing political prisoners and allowing freedom of speech. Several U.S. lawmakers have proposed intermediate measures, such as ending the ban on travel to Cuba by all Americans.
“The idea of postal service is in keeping with what appears to be an administration policy of moving ahead in a measured way and to try to engage with the government of Cuba,” said Peter DeShazo, a former senior State Department official who dealt with Cuba and Latin American officials until his retirement in 2004.
“It is a careful, measured outreach to Cuba,” said DeShazo, who is now the Americas program director for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “No one has any expectation that these kinds of steps will lead to (reform in Cuba), but they could improve the relationship and the environment for cooperation between the U.S. and Cuba that eventually could open doors.”
Cuba has responded warily to the overtures, insisting on the removal of the embargo. However, when it agreed to restart the immigration talks and the postal negotiations, Cuba also expressed a willingness to cooperate with the U.S. on fighting terrorism and drug trafficking, and on hurricane disaster preparedness.
Talks suspended by Bush in 2003
Before the U.S.-Cuban immigration talks were suspended by the Bush administration in 2003, the twice-yearly meetings in alternating countries had been the highest level contacts between the two countries.
The talks were created so the countries could track adherence to 1994 and 1995 accords designed to promote legal, orderly migration between the two countries. The aim was to avoid a repeat of the summer of 1994, when tens of thousands of Cubans took to the sea in flimsy boats.
On July 14, U.S. and Cuban officials met in New York to resume the immigration negotiations in what the State Department said at the time was a sign of “our interest in pursuing constructive discussions with the government of Cuba to advance U.S. interests on issues of mutual concern.”
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