From the moment you arrive in Maicao, you get the feeling you are in for something a little bit different. Unlike many cities and towns in South America, you won’t find a crucifix dominating the skyline. No, what stands out loudest here – rather surreally considering the country you are in – is the star and crescent of the Muslim faith. Indeed, considering the relatively sandy terrain, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve somehow been transplanted to the Middle East, a feeling augmented by the presence of the continent’s second largest Mosque (Buenos Aires being home to the largest).

The arrival of the Muslims reputedly dates back to the 1940s, growing steadily from that period thanks to the town’s thriving commerce, which peaked in the 1970s during neighbouring Venezuela’s oil boom. Their numbers were such that they saw fit to build the aforementioned Mosque in 1997 as well as establishing an Arab school. But Mecca this is not. It is just one of the many intriguing aspects to this bustling frontier town.

Aesthetically speaking – the Mosque aside – Maicao doesn’t have much going for it. The whole town centre is just one big mass of interconnected, dishevelled markets, selling just about anything you’re looking for. It’s a shopper’s paradise in a sense – well, a quite dirty one, but colourful all the same. In fact on the rubbish front, a good gauge of how a place values its cleanliness is how far you have to walk between public bins. You’ll be hard-pressed to find even one here.

Now if you’re coming from other, let’s say more ‘normal’ Colombian locations en route to Venezuela and you decide – unlike the majority of tourists – to stay in Maicao for a night or two, it’s an ideal spot to give you a small taste of what’s to come across the border. Just a very small taste though. That’s because no place in Colombia could really get you ready for the illogical madness that is Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian Republic. The best scientists NASA has to offer wouldn’t be able to figure that place out.

One of the things you will notice here in readying yourself for Venezuela is the prevalence of those antique monster Buick-styled Chevrolet cars. It’s like you stepped back in time – a town full of gas-guzzlers from the 1970s, or perhaps earlier. Speaking of gas, most if not all of what these dinosaurs are burning is smuggled fuel from just across the border, a commodity far cheaper in Venezuela. Indeed, you’ll be hard pressed to find a ‘legitimate’ gas station here, as there’s no market for one. Regarding cars, it should be said that most are Venezuelan owned. If you are heading for the frontier, don’t miss out on the chance to be chauffeured in one of these beauties.

A very appealing aspect of Maicao is the fact that it doesn’t get many outsiders and, as very often tends to be the case with such places, the people appear to be more genuine and friendly. Rather than hunt down the ‘wealthier’ foreigners for their money as happens in more frequented spots, the locals here will actually buy you drinks. We won’t let the fact that the beer – the most popular being the deceptively strong Venezuelan brewed ‘Polar’ – is a steal at $1,000 pesos.

In unison with other towns and cities in these parts there are plenty of street dogs about the place, each doing their bit to ‘mop-up’ the ubiquitous rubbish. However, they’ve got competition in this regard from a rather strange source for an urban setting: cattle. Yes that’s right, our bovine, milk-producing friends. When the sun goes down, apparently it’s not uncommon for a few cows to come wandering into the town centre pilfering the day’s leftovers. Plus, from what we witnessed, it puts a question mark over the species’ reputedly herbivore status in the animal world.

So for one of Colombia’s semi-hidden ‘gems’ replete with unique Middle-Eastern flavour, Maicao is worth a weekend. At the very least, it gives you a small hint of what to expect a few miles from Venezuela