Archive for March, 2008

Bottom’s Up Bogota !! – Colombia’s Capital

March 31, 2008

Hola from Colombia

So I arrive in Colombia…must admit I always get a little bit nervous and yet excited when I get to a new country. But after all it is Colombia and they’ve had a little bit of bad press over the last few days having planned an attack inside Ecuadorian territory and killed the no.2 leader of FARC (the group they called terrorists here). Luckily for me Chavez has stopped jumping up and down in his clown suit and publicly they’ve all kissed and made up.

So I get to Platypus (the oldest hostel in Colombia), after making sure I’m in an official taxi and check in. Platypus now has three houses here and I’m not in the main one. In my room is a Kiwi called Craig who says he spends all of his time in the main house. So I grab a couple of hours of sleep and head over myself. I get chatting to a few people and then an Irish girl called Norma says she has a free spare ticket to the theatre tonight and would anyone like to go. Bogota is actually hosting two weeks of theatre festivals (the biggest in South America). Never one to look a gift horse in the mouth I say yes immediately. We catch the Transmillenio a bus network and head to the theatre. There appears to be a drunken Mexican on there that won’t leave me alone until he insists on giving me his number. The whole bus is laughing and I turn to two Colombian girls and ask if he is typical of the men in their country. They immediately say no – what a relief !! As it turns out Norma’s tickets were free and given to her by two Americans who she trekked Cuidad Perdida with (that’s the lost city and the main reason I came to Colombia). The play is the Dollshouse. It’s different in the sense that there are three female actresses and the male actors and little girl are all played by dwarfs. The coup de resistance at the end is that the actress goes full frontal nude and you see a dwarf’s bottom (that is a first for me). Given that Norma had trekked with this woman the nakedness was a complete surprise to her – no wonder there was a full house. After the play we are invited backstage by the director to meet Norma’s friends. Norma kindly tells the director that I thought the dwarf had nice buns !! I did but I wasn’t going to tell him that.

After the play we catch a taxi back to the Candelaria area where the hostel is and go to a salsa bar. After a couple of beers we head to the zona rosa area where there are yes more bars. We end up in a bar called “Spin”. It’s busy and all the youngsters are salsaing the night away (traditionally it was the only way a boy could talk to a girl). I do love the fact that all the men dance here.Emerald traders in BogotaMy first Columbian meal with Juan It works out better to order a half bottle of Colombian rum, so we do. We are enjoying ourselves and then I head to the toilet. It’s empty and there’s no lock so I have my hand across the doorway. The next minute someone in a large white trainer tries twice to kick the door in. My hand is there so they fail but then I hear a “psst” noise and look up to see a head darting down from the adjacent cubicle. I’m a little bit shaken and go and tell security but I didn’t see enough of the guy to recognise him again. Needless to say I need to drink some rum but after a few minutes the nerves have gone and I’m back to myself. It’s not the first time that’s happened in my life but i won’t be going into a toilet here on my own again.

We then head to another bar and meet a guy who wants to dance with us. We decide to get rid of him and go to another bar, but tell him we are going home. Unfortunately we’d tried to get in to this bar before and refused to pay the cover charge so they told us we couldn’t go in now. At that moment “our friend” comes out of the other bar. Being extremely mature girls we run and hide behind a tree giggling. Damn, he walks right in to the bar we wanted to go in. So we go back to the door and tell them to get our friend. He then gets us in free and we say that we changed our minds and saw him going in and wanted to come and join him. It’s really late and I’ve barely slept for the last couple of hours so after one drink we do finally go home.

I wake up late and the phone is ringing in the lounge and go and answer it and low and behold it’s for me. I had planned to meet up with a Colombian guy called Juan who is a friend of Roger who was in my hostel in Buenos Aires. He very kindly had offered to show me his city for the day. I go to the other house and bump into a guy called Sean that stayed in the same hostel as me in Bariloche in December – small world. Juan picks me up and says how would I like a traditional Colombian meal. I would, I’m starving if rather hung over. Bogota is high at 2600m and cold and today it is pouring with rain. We head to a restaurant near Juan’s house and have a very local soup. (I really want a cookery book on Colombian soups, they are gorgeous). Juan actually knows a shop in London where I can buy all of the ingredients so I may have to investigate that when I get back. He then drives me around the city pointing out certain areas and then we drive to a place in the hills and have the Colombian equivalent of a mulled wine (without the alcohol – I can’t stomach any more). The owner of the bar is so nice he offers us a free bottle of Aguadiente (a Colombian sambucca type drink) but I really can’t. Juan makes me laugh by telling me stories that if anyone tries to rip him off when he’s abroad his answer is “I’m a Colombian, do you really want to mess with me ?”. I may try and use that one myself, it always seems to work !! In fact he is a real gentleman and we have a laugh. There’s a photo of us with our traditional meal. He also kindly tells me that if I get stuck at all in Colombia to give him a call and he is likely to know someone who lives nearby that can help – it’s really reassuring in a new and strange country !! Bogota seems so modern after Havana and the fact that I can go in to a shop and buy anything I like without thinking now is a real novelty. I go back to the hostel and chat with Robbie my other room mate for a while and then we head to the room. There is Gavin and we end up chatting until 2am. Gavin wants to come back and open a hostel here. There are few people I’ve met who don’t. If all remains calm here then Colombia is going to boom over the next 2-4 years. Maybe a lot of that is because the president Uribe has helped make things a lot safer. However, I have to say I’m enjoying the fact that there are fewer travellers , and most of them are so much more sociable. I’m torn, I want to encourage people to come but I don’t want it to get spoiled by tourists.

Due to altitude I’m having trouble sleeping but I head to the main hostel the next morning to meet Norma. We are off to the main attraction just outside of Bogota in Zipaquira which is the salt cathedral. So it’s back on the Transmillenio and a little mini bus and we’re there. Zipaquira is a cute town with the usual South American main square. The salt cathedral is huge, it has a museum and inside the cathedral are the stations of the cross and various lovely statues. Although bigger, it’s not as impressive a the old salt mines in Krakow. We head back and chat to the people in the hostel. Yet again, I bump into someone who was in my hostel in Buenos Aires – again small world !! The area where are hostel is used to be quite bad but it’s been cleaned up. However, I wasn’t too keen on the street people eating out of rubbish bags, but I suppose that happens in every major city. Unfortunately I was due to meet up with Juan today but we missed each other. Even so I’d like to thank him again for his very kind hospitality.

The next day Norma and I take a walk around the city. Maybe the president’s in town as there seems to be an awful lot of security but it is quite beautiful. We have a great veggie lunch (the set meals are a bargain) and then go and take a peek at the emerald street traders. Yes, in Colombia, emeralds are a girl´s best friend. It rains yet again so we watch a movie then grab a slice of pizza. We are travelling overnight (something you couldn’t do until recently) to Armenia to go to Salento the coffee area. In the bus station we are immediately grabbed to catch a bus. It’s pretty empty so we have double seats to ourselves, I’ve enjoyed Bogota but it is a little cold and wet, roll on the rest of Colombia.

Transport count:

Plane = 23, Bus = 89, Train = 2, Boat =16, Sunglasses = 7, Mosquito Repellant = 9, Books Read = 21 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner), Bags lost and then recovered = 2.

Take care all

Sally

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Hip Havana !! – Cuba’s Capital

March 28, 2008

My new carA cuban and his cigar !!

Hola from Cuba

We caught the bus after breakfast back to Havana for the final time. This time we are staying in Hotel Valencia, it’s our largest room so far but they are sticking to the 4pm check in rule so we have to wait for an hour. It would help if the women working there smiled a bit aswell. This gives my father the excuse to watch some more Champions League football, football has been on cable here constantly and my father has been in seventh heaven. I think he’s probably fluent in football Spanish by now especially ….GOOOOAAALLLL !!!

Finally we get to our room and it’s huge, we have a separate toilet, sink and shower – no queues in the morning then. We grab a taxi to Revolution Square, this is the huge square where Castro addresses his people and I think even Pope John Paul II spoke there. There’s a huge statue of Jose Marti, Castro’s revolutionary hero and a 192m tower that you can take a lift up. Unfortunately it was already 5pm so it was too late but at least we got to look at it close up. We grabbed a taxi back to the old town and headed to the market to see if there were any better souvenirs available than elsewhere. There was a gorgeous dress I wanted but it was too expensive (for Cuba), oh well will have to look for some others for that Portugal holiday I’m having with the girlies as soon as I get back !! We went back to the hotel and I gave Mum some clothes which I don’t (hopefully) need anymore to take home, at least that’s dropped a couple of kilos from the backpack. Then time for our last dinner, we went to El Dominica a really nice Italian and for the first time they had everything we ordered. We then had a last drink in the plaza before heading to bed.

What a racquet !! We are awoken by some kind of pump at 6am, we think they are pumping water into the old town as they probably don’t have a great plumbing system. After half an hour it stops, but we can hear reception singing and ringing her bell to get the porters. 8am and the pump starts again so we get up. Then there’s the dogs fighting throughout the night to contend with aswell. So my advice would be if you want to stay in the Old Town stay at the Trejudillo, otherwise you are in for a very early daily wake up call !!

We walk to the square which contains a nice book market. On the way we are stopped by an old woman who holds out a picture of two children. I prefer to give something rather than money here so I gave her a toothbrush…at which point my father commented “She hasn’t got any teeth !!”, good one, I couldn’t have picked a less suited candidate for a toothbrush if I’d tried. So I told her in Spanish to give it to the children. Mind you she wasn’t doing too badly as the very next person she approached gave her some pens. We then decided to go to El Morro, it’s a fortress on the other side of the water. It’s “the folks” last day…The fort was built in the 18th century and at one point the English took it over from the Spanish. After a good walk around we came across a tower where they still seem to listen to the shipping news. The guys who worked there showed us various Havana sights through the binoculars, we left them a tip at the end and needed to catch a cab back to the other side of the water. A guy offered us a ride in his old 1954 American car. As Mum commented 54 years old!! They like to charge a premium here if you take a taxi in a modern car and if you take one in a really old one so you can’t really win. This one had nothing working inside and looked like it had been hand painted mint green. The fumes coming in were enough to induce suicide without the pipe. We stopped him as soon as we’d crossed the water as we couldn’t take it any more. Our last stop was the Hotel Ambos Mundos a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemmingway and is supposed to be where he penned “For whom the bell tolls”, we went up to the roof terrace for one final drink. Then it was time to pack the parents off in a taxi. I think they really enjoyed it here, Dad said he’d like to come back so that’s a good sign, anyway it was great to spend some time with them and I’ll be ready for some more when I get back.

I in the mean time after wiping up my tears had to collect my bags and head to my Havana Casa particular which I have to say was sparkling. Then it was off for a walk to find the Cubana airlines office to check my flight was real. Let’s just say I was a little unconvinced given the fact that I had a hand written ticket and I couldn’t find it anywhere on the Cubana confirmation site. Also as there’s only one flight per week I really didn’t want to miss it (just as well Cuba don’t stamp the passport as I’d love to see the reaction of UK immigration when I explain flying from Cuba to Columbia – could there be any dodgier destinations !!). Before going to the office I checked out the Museum of Rum as they are supposed to run rumba lessons every morning unfortunately nothing doing. Then time to walk to Vedado where the office was. I walked along the coast, it wasn’t pleasant, now I’m back on my own I am getting a few catcalls although I’m sure they were reasonably innocent. The good news is my flight was confirmed, the bad news was that I had to be there 3 hours before which means 5.45am. I walked back and watched the children jump the waves in the harbour. I decided to veg for what was left of the evening with some ancient English programmes in my Casa.

The next day I awoke with a mission to cover everything I hadn’t yet done in Havana. Firstly, the Museum of Rum. It tells the story of how slaves were used to work in the sugar cane fields and factories, after a shortish tour we were given a sample of a 7 year old rum. It was a bit early in the day but it certainly warmed me up. They use 150 year old barrels to make it which come from the USA via Canada of course. Next stop the birth place and former home of Jose Marti the man who has the huge statue in Revolution Square and the father of Cuba’s independance. This is opposite the train station which seems to park redundant trains in the street next to it, an unusual sight for sure.

Then to my favourite factory, to see Cuban cigars being made. We had to hand our bags over as these things cost a fortune and they didn’t want the visitors sneaking any out. It’s an incredibly complex procedure and trainees go to school for 9 months to learn different processes. There were 700 workers there and and they work a strict 7.30-4.30pm with an hour for lunch. They close 4 weeks a year and have to take their holidays then. The most popular brand made here is Montecristo. All some women had to do was sort dried tobacco leaves all day by size, colour and quantity (think I’d get bored with that after a while). Only 20% pass school, others go on to make their own cigars and sell them on the streets whilst others just can’t keep up. If they do there is pretty good money to be made, well compared to other professions here. On the rolling floor the most expensive cigar rollers have to make 60 per day whilst the cheaper brand rollers have to make 120 a day. If they don’t make the correct amount they have to make up the number another day and if they can’t then they are sent to the back of the class and watched. The cigars are rolled, cut and pressed, they are checked for the correct amount of air pressure and again if they don’t have it the worker goes to the back of the class and is monitored. Now I understand why they are so expensive !! They are then boxed by hand according to colour and labels are hand stuck on them in the exact same position. On the plus side they get to take home 3 per day each and they can earn extra money if they produce extra really good quality ones. The other perk is that someone sits at a large stage in the factory and reads them the paper twice a day for 30 minutes. As the guide joked, it’s not such a perk as it says the same thing every day. Having now seen a Cuban paper it contains Castro’s thoughts and surprise surprise they are all about America. 

Time for some lunch and then I went back to finish the Museum of the Revolution. The bit I got to before was how Che Guevara was assasinated and then it had information on more recent years, it only went up to the mid 90’s so maybe things have taken a worse turn since then. I can’t see there being any changes to help people here for a long time and I feel a bit sad about that. If the gates were opened I think there would be an initial mass exodus like there was before but even the people I’ve met who have left always seem to come back, they just love this place.  On the plus side Cuba has a mystical air, is incredibly safe and there is an awful lot of restoration work going in. Call me crazy (who doesn’t) but it’s not going to make my top 5. This will fall in to the I may come back one day and then again I may not !! I think Castro initially tried to help the country but then just got a bit left behind the times. Great for a holiday destination but not for the lone backpacker. I’d like to thank the parents for subsidising me as well. Thank goodness your children are always your children…….

Time to go to Columbia (I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t one of the places I’ve been most desperate to see), due to the early flight I stayed up all night as was too paranoid to miss it, so did my new Casa Particular mother bless !!       

I aquaplaned to the airport in the worst storm I’d seen here. Cubana airways gave me a complimentary bag wrap (I suspect things have previously had a habit of going missing), and mercifully the plane was more modern.

So to summarise, Cuba is cool but I could take it or leave it (but great to see the parents) !! 

Transport count:

Plane = 22, Bus = 89, Train = 2, Boat =16, Sunglasses = 7, Mosquito Repellant = 9, Books Read = 19 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner), Bags lost and then recovered = 2.

Take care all

Sally

Vistas in Varadero !! – Cuba

March 27, 2008

Sunset on Varadero beachRum Punch with MotherHola from Cuba

We spent the morning walking around town. There’s another large square that contains lots of old books on Che, Castro and of course another of Cuba’s favourite sons Hemmingway. The bus was going around 1ish but when we got there it turned up and left again without anyone on it. It seemed there was a problem with the aircon and the engine and no one could give any indication of how long it would take to be repaired. In this country there are no spare buses. We were considering a taxi when the bus suddenly reappeared, it had only taken an hour so it wasn’t too bad I think it was more the not knowing factor of how long things would take that was annoying everyone.

After arriving in Varadero we caught a shuttle bus to Tortuga Villas. As we drew up I thought this is my Father’s idea of heaven. Swimming pool, beach and all inclusive food (sounds like holidays we took years ago). Actually the rooms are decent and it is right on the beach. There are 3 buffet meals a day and free alcohol 24×7 (although we didn’t find that out straight away). Despite that no one got really drunk (maybe as there were no English tour companies there, or it was watered down, but though not the best it didn’t taste too badly). Every night they also had a special show, all in all not bad for UKP 35 a night for all three of us (double if you book on arrival, definitely book ahead for deals in Cuba). Dinner was fine and we watched the International Show afterwards.

The next day it rained in the morning, how dare it when I finally get to a beach (I mean it has been 10 days since the last one). We used the internet briefly (at UKP 7 per hour you keep it short) and then headed to the beach. It was a bit breezy but not bad and we could watch the various volleyball games in progress. It’s lovely just being able to pop in for a little snack at lunchtime !! So really I feel like I’m eating non stop here. Although we did play pool after the cabaret tonight not that you’d call that a full on sport to burn off the calories!! The following day we went to the market, it seems clothes are really expensive here as a souvenir but my Dad loves his international collection of T-shirts so had to get one with Che and Cuba on it, of course !! Mum and I bought some local jewellery, well we couldn’t be left out. We also checked some hotel prices. I’d booked Tortuga for 3 nights as the plan was to go on to Trinidad a beautiful colonial city here, but the parents can’t face the 6 hour bus journey each way (Dad doesn’t understand how I’ve been able to do it) so we are staying here for a further 2 nights. That’s fine with me, guess I’ll have to come back then some other day. We take a horse and cart tour to see the whole town instead and then it is the afternoon on the beach once more. Varadero is touted as the Cuban Cancun, personally it’s not on Cancun’s scale but there is a certain charm about it. One Cuban told me it was the best beach in the world, I wouldn’t quite go that far. It’s developed but not if that makes any sense. The all inclusives do seem to be the way to go here. We seem to have acquired a comfortable routine of dinner, show and pool with a bit of stealing meat to feed the local cats in between. We also decide to stay put and not move hotels…….ah yes the easy life !!

Whilst here we also visited a local school and took them some crayons and felts, there is a shortage and the Vice Principal thought we were Canadian, I think they all come here as Americans can’t (Mr Bush is very strict on that rule, very large fines incurred if you are found out). Cuba don’t even stamp your passport as America will want to know what you are doing there ?? We check out the bus timetable for our return journey and walk back along the beach. There are some snorkellers and the sea is such a gorgeous turquoise colour, I’m really enjoying the Caribbean !! I spend the afternoon alone on the beach whilst my parents hit the pool. I can’t do pools unless there’s no beach I find it a waste of the natural environment (Ok, it’s official, I am a snob!!). We also took others walks which led us past inlets filled with jellyfish and other strange fish that had found their way in from the sea. Mum and I waited for sunset on the beach on the last day, there’s a picture attached. The last day as actually the best food day, fish and chips (wow, potatoes) followed by steaks…buffets can become hard work you know !! For our last night we got a dance show and the audience were encouraged to join in. Two local guys dragged me up, not sure if it was the Rumba or just something they made up but it was fun. After that bit of exercise it was Pina Coladas all of the way as you can see from the picture. Oh well at least I now have topped up my tan and after one last breakfast it’s time to head for the last time to Havana – boo hoo !!

Transport count:

Plane = 22, Bus = 88, Train = 2, Boat =16, Sunglasses = 7, Mosquito Repellant = 9, Books Read = 19 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner), Bags lost and then recovered = 2.

Take care all

Sally

Vintage Vinales – Cuba

March 26, 2008

Hola from Cuba

Well after breakfast with Marty I caught the airport bus from Cancun to the airport. I have to say Mexican buses have been very good apart from the one break down and the blasts of freezing aircon. I picked up my tourist card for Cuba at the Cubana desk in a matter of seconds, can’t believe I wasted so much time in Argentina trying to get one. No one even checked if my hotel reservation was correct (you’re supposed to have the first 2 nights booked). The airline check in was possibly one of the slowest I’ve ever come across, especially as I had to stare at the worst dressed man I’ve seen in a very long time in front of me (is there a male equivalent to mutton ?). I just couldn’t help but stare. His wife was dressed normally, I’d have had to have stood somewhere else. He was in his 40’s dressed as a 15 year old. All I’m saying is incredibly bad hip hop stylee !! I went to TGI’s for lunch as I figured it may be the last decent meal I get for a while and then it was time to board the plane. There were various journalists on it, mainly due to the fact that Fidel has stepped down and the successor (most likely Raul the brother) will be announced in 3 days time. So all in all a historic time to be going to Cuba after a 49 year reign of Castro. Ok on to Cubana airways…..I will not choose that option again. The English guy sitting beside me wasn’t that tall and his knees were crushed against the seat in front. The seats themselves actually fold forwards all of the way. The defumigation was so full on that smoke was seat height and the plane was so old that the seat letter didn’t indicate which side was the window. My favourite feature though had to be the call button which actually had the word “STEWARDESS” on it. How old is this plane ? I was relieved when that flight landed, no wonder the passengers all applauded. The bags took ages to come through and dogs were searching the bags for drugs. There is no bus so you have to get a taxi and for this neck of the woods it’s pretty expensive so I managed to get the two English boys to share a taxi with me. We were all quite shocked at what we could see. The cars date back to the 50’s, buses were carting hundreds of people around in what looked like a make shift container, the buildings were incredible….there are few places left in the world like this. One thing I would say is Cuba is great but not the land for the lone back packer, thank goodness the parents are coming. Due to the accomodation set up it would be hard to meet people and it’s not cheap. I’d love to know what percentage goes to the government but more on that later. I arrived at Hotel Trejudillo in Havana Vieja (the old town), it was already a bit late and my room was so huge and lovely that I decided to stay in and enjoy it – just which one of the three beds should I sleep in ? After all it will be a busy old time when the parents arrive.

I had a lovely lie in the next morning and after the buffet breakfast went out to explore. My main plan for the day was to familiarise myself with the city so I could get the parents around as much as possible and as easily as possible. Also I wanted to check that all of the reservations I’d made over the web were okay, so I made myself a little route and off I went. There seems to be lots of horse and carts waiting to take you for a tour around the city. They even have little bags underneath to collect the horse manure and not litter the streets as they go. Very ingenious !!

Firstly I went to the square and visited the Cathedral. I can’t get over the buildings. They are so ornate and Spanish looking. In some ways this is the good part about things not changing as they haven’t knocked these gorgeous buildings down to make way for the new. Mind you loads look like they are about to fall down but they do seem to be refurbishing quite a few. The city is full of “Up the Revolution” signs and “George Bush Terrorist”, I feel Castro likes them to live in the past, maybe it’s time to move on…but then you’d lose the charm I suppose. The people look a real mix here, even almost Brazilian. Some people want to say genuinely say hello and chat but others just want to ask you for money. There are older men and women dressed in traditional costumes with large cigars sticking out of their mouths posing for photos, then you pay them. Given the fact that a waiter earns more than a surgeon here it’s not a bad way to make a living.

All of the accomodation was fine and it was a good way to get to know the old part of town so I could guide the parents around. The required commodity of the day appeared to be pens. I think I’d put that on the list to be brought over. There are poor bitches being followed by the males all over town…and that’s just the dogs !! Yes, they are everywhere, it’s even worse than Chile !! After the accomodation had been sorted it was time to research restaurants and entertainment. I wanted them to have a local experience but a lot of the entertainment places seemed to be closed, restaurants were easier or so I thought. For some reason I checked out the local boxing stadium (the no.2 sport of Cuba, baseball being no.1 and volleyball no.3), this led me to the slightly more derelict areas that hadn’t been restored for the tourists. The stadium seemed derelict aswell although I’m sure it wasn’t so had to strike that off the agenda. I am surprised at how many tourists are here though, especially English. 

Time to do a bit of shopping, this is definitely not the country for that. There are some very poorly stocked supermarkets where you can buy supplies at prices which appear to be expensive for the locals and then there are shops on corners of streets which contain some fresh meat and eggs. Outside of these are queues of people and I think locals can either pay or use ration type books to buy produce. There are supposed to be 2 currencies (1 for locals and 1 for tourists) here but I only saw one, all of or locals asking us for the tourist version when they wanted money from us. Cuba now likes Euros as the hard currency of choice, if you want to convert US $ you will get charged an extra 10% commission and do not change money at the airport as you will get really ripped off. Banks are funny though, there isn’t a real queue and you have to ask when you come in who is the last person in the queue so you know when it will be your turn. There is a little man there who just shouts “Ultimo”, so the person who is last puts their hand up to let the new person know.

I walked up to the “Havana Centro” next passing children playing baseball. Sometimes no bat is available so a plank of wood makes do. The Centro area contains the Capitolio building, which unashamedly looks just like the “White House”. It’s offices rather than a government building now. I then walked down the Prado ( a pavement in the centre of the road) to look at the local art work. This takes you down to the harbour. Everyone is really into music and keeps inviting me to nights out at local discos. I guess music is one of the main things they have I have noticed that everyone has been playing instruments and they are supposed to be quite cheap to buy here. I got chased down the street by a man who was looking either to sell me a CD of his music or exchange his UKP 1 coin. It felt very exciting this morning when I first stepped outside but now I feel a bit sad for the people (but I guess that can be said all over the world). They certainly have spirit but are they allowed to really show it ? Oh well, I’m going back to my fabulous room to relax until tomorrow.

I checked out and then realised that since I’ve been in Cuba my watch has been an hour ahead which means there’s no way I am going to be able to check in to my new room. They have a strict check in at 4pm and check out at noon policy. So I walk to the new hotel and have a coffee and read. I got a shared taxi to the airport and the driver asked if I needed a boyfriend whilst I’m here. They have a 70% divorce rate (I wonder if it’s due to their life long struggles) and everyone I’ve met has children but is not married. I declined. The plane was delayed for 3 hours but eventually Mummy and Daddy came through so we grabbed a taxi back. I joked when they were debating where to meet me that if they chose Cuba it would be like reliving their childhood, some of the cars are nearly the same age as them (that’s still very young of course !!)and some models (every Cuban can tell you which country, year and model the classic cars are from. Let’s just say if they could be exported they would be worth a bomb !!) had been their first cars…and to think they thought I was being cheeky !! No it was lovely to see them, I hope they enjoy it !!

After checking in we found out surprise, surprise (she typed sarcastically) that Raul Castro was indeed the new leader. We took an evening stroll down to the harbour. My father within 10 minutes had managed to step on some live electrical cables poking out of a drain, it was deliberate and they started to spark. That could have been a great start to the trip. I was going to ask if adults regress as I’d have got a complete bollocking for doing that as a child. Obviously I have so can’t really comment and I guess they are on holiday. I took them for a stroll into the old town, it does look great at night and eventually after an hour we came to our restaurant “Hanoi”. It was Cuban with music, but although most restaurants have menus here, they rarely have half the things listed on it. In fact given their close proximity to South America there seems to be a country wide potato shortage. At least they’ll never be short on rum !!

The next day after breakfast we made our way to the Museum of the Revolution. I love museums where they are incredibly biaised to their own country’s view (i.e everything was awful before Castro came to power and since he’s been in power it’s all been great). Outside it was Castro’s tank as used in the “Bay of Pigs” invasion. There are a lot of old effects and we read about the plight of the sugar cane workers and the leaders prior to Castro. Unfortuantely there wasn’t enough time to do it all as we have a bus to catch to Vinales. Definitely worth a visit though !!

Vinales is about a 3-4 hour journey from Havana and upon arrival there was a bit of confusion. We are now staying in a Casa Particular, this is the alternative accomodation to hotels in Cuba. The house has to be authorised by the government and they have to give the government a share of the income. This did seem more relaxed than what I’d heard in the past though. Having tried t book via the web one hadn’t confirmed and one had and they were both there..I went with the one that had confirmed (not my fault). We were driven down a dirt road. I’m sure my parents were wondering what on earth I had taken them to. We drew up outside a pink painted house with two rocking chairs on the patio. In fact every house in Vinales seemed to have two rocking chairs outside. Inside we were shown our own seating area and we had 2 bedrooms with ensuite bathroom. The house was lovely. The fact that we were off the beaten track actually made it more appealing. We met the family and got talking to a local guide who had lived in 2 places in England Stoke Newington and Newcastle (which peculiarly happens to be where my parents had spent a lot of their childhoods) Small world !!

We took a walk in to town. There are animals all over the road. Pigs, chickens, dogs, cats, horses (I had a feeling the roosters were going to be out in the morning). We went to Casa Don Thomas for dinner. The best restaurant in town with a yummy lobster cocktail. So far the sleepy and supposedly most friendly town in Cuba is living up to it’s reputation.

Oh my……the roosters were up way before the crack of dawn. I wonder if we can get one of those put on the menu tonight. We’ve decided to have the meal cooked by the casa. The breakfast was so fabulous you couldn’t not. I wonder if they eat the leftover food afterwards as they make so much. May be that’s a way they can get around their rations – I hope so !! Today we are doing a bus tour of Vinales. You can buy one ticket and just get on and off where you want all day. First stop is Los Jasmines hotel as the look out point gives you an amazing view of the whole valley. Vinales or the province it is in produces around 95% of tobacco for the whole of Cuba and those famous cigars. There’s pictures below of Ma, me and Pa at the look out point and one of a local tobacco field. After admiring the view we went to the tourist office down the road which details some of the walks you can do in the area and gives you a bit more local history. After that we hopped back on the bus and popped into town. The plan had been to go and have lunch by a huge rock mural but it was closed so town it was. Next stop caves. I have to say these were naff. They had real people dressed as slaves at the end of it, very tacky !! We walked to the next stop along the road. The only problem with this in Cuba is you tend to get mouthfuls of exhaust fumes. The set of caves at the next stop looked as bad so we jumped back on the bus and got off at the Ermita hotel to have rum and watch the sunset and of course to give the folks a rest. I forget how much walking I am used to doing now. Sunset was ok and we headed back to town and dinner. As usual the Casa had put on a real spread. There were huge chunks of pork, potatoes (our special request), rice and vegetables..it was delicious !!

The next day we’d arranged to go horse riding with a local guide. This was my father’s request and to be honest it surprised me as I’ve never seen him on a horse in my life and I had managed to avoid riding one for the past 8 months. Mine luckily looked okay. My father’s was definitely the leader and didn’t like it if anyone tried to pass. I couldn’t even remember how to hold the reins, eventually I got the hang of it. Our route took us down in to the valley that we had looked down on to the day before. It had been raining heavily earlier in the morning and after we’d been on the horses for less than 30 minutes it started again. My poor Mother had picked up a cough on the plane, this was not going to help. It absolutely poured. Luckily I’d packed 2 coats to keep myself and Dad dry. Mum struggled on with her umbrella. We eventually got to a tobacco field and could take shelter in the tobacco house that they dry the tobacco leaves in. We were given warm coffee and some local brew and learnt about how they grow the leaves and what they earn. They are allowed to keep some of the crop to roll their own and the rest goes to the cigar factories. They also grow other crops to earn additional income. After the rain had calmed down a bit it was time to saddle up again. We were doing a slow walk most of the way so it was pretty comfortable. Unlike England drivers don’t slow down when they pass you on the road but the horses must have done this route so many times that’s it’s like they are on auto pilot. My Mother’s horse seemed to be more windy than the others and due to the rain they were slipping down the steep muddy bits, but all in all despite the rain it was very good fun.

Due to the rain we went back to the Casa and played cards for the afternoon. We ended up going back to the same restaurant (they could really do with another one here as it’s jam packed and we just got in). The next day we were getting the 2pm bus (well we hoped we were, another weird system here is that you can only buy bus tickets 30 minutes before). We went to the agricultural museum and the church which is the poorest I’ve seen since I’ve been away. Then we walked to the most famous garden in Vinales.  It’s 90 years old and has the most amazing selection of plants, trees and food growing (right up Mother’s street). Unfortunately some more tourists turned up just as we were finishing so we didn’t get the fruit plate. We made our way back to the Casa and I made friends with a local pig who squeaked to welcome me. He was so cute….a future pet maybe (then I’d really be up on the recycling)!! After a farewell to our Casa family and donating some toothbrushes to them (they are hard to come by here) we caught the bus back to Havana.

We checked in to El Meson de la Flota (Lonely Planet’s pick), sure it was nice but the bathroom stinks. The main draw is the nightly flamenco show. Again we were out of luck on the potato front and a few of the other menu items, but the show was ok and really fast paced. We finished our wine and then tomorrow we are off to the beach and Varadero, can’t wait !! Vinales though is definitely worth a visit especially if you want to see the real Cuba.

Transport count:

Plane = 22, Bus = 87, Train = 2, Boat =16, Sunglasses = 7, Mosquito Repellant = 9, Books Read = 19 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner), Bags lost and then recovered = 2.

Take care all

Sally

With the parents at the Vinales look out pointTobacco fields Vinales,

Tulum’s a tonic !! – Mexico

March 17, 2008

Beers at the beachChitchen Itza Main PyramidHola from Mexico

Well I arrived at Tulum just after 8am. Actually I was waiting for my ex dorm mates to get off the bus to be sure but they just stayed there and then suddenly jumped up. They asked if I wanted to share a cabana on the beach with them but I’d already booked a hostel nearby as I wanted to do a couple of days of ruins first to get them out of the way.So I said I’d try and meet them later on the beach somewhere (don’t think I realised how long the beach was, so didn’t see them again). My hostel was about 30 meters from the bus station and they hadn’t received my booking but they had a bed so I checked in. I’m staying at the “Weary traveller hostel”. I like the vibe but as it’s one of those where they let people stay for free if they work it could be cleaner and the hot water is questionable. You are given a purple bracelet to wear which says “I am not a tourist, I’m a weary traveller”, after the night’s sleep I had there’s nothing weary about me !! There were 3 people asleep in my dorm so I decided to head straight out to Coba. As luck would have it a bus was leaving in 5 minutes and 45 minutes later I was there.

Coba is a very small town and it’s the sort of place you wouldn’t go if there was no ruins but it has a nice lake and less tourists than usual. I had a coffee at the restaurant/bus stop and then walked around to the ruins. The ruins at Coba are far more spread out so you can hire bikes or taxi bikes to get around. They are all set really in the jungle and look older or less well constructed than the ruins I’d seen at Palenque the day before.

As you enter the site you come across a huge ball court.No one really knows how this game was played as the Spanish tried to kill off any old traditional pastimes that the indigineous people had. But there are two huge concrete sloping walls with ground in the middle and a hole at the top on each side where the players have to get the ball through. The interesting thing about this game though is that the captain of the winning team is beheaded and it was an honour to have this done to you. Which begs the question….why would you try and win ?? I mean everyone watches the beheading including your family and surely if you behead all of the good players doesn’t the standard of the game go down ? I mean eventually no one must be ever good enough to score !! And it did look very hard to score. Next stop some more pyramids. This site was built between 750-1250AD and at it’s peak had 55,000 inhabitants. Only around 5% of the whole site has been uncovered although you can see other bits still buried in the jungle, it’s quite cool and gives you a more secluded feeling than other ruins. It’s quite a walk down all the paths and takes just over 2 hours to get around the whole area. There are some interesting stellae where you can still see the carvings etched on them and one last huge pyramid to climb at the end. Time for lunch and some yummy fajitas in a green sauce…spice,spice,spice !!

In the afternoon I got back and decided to check out the beach. It’s my first ever visit to the Caribbean sea. It is definitely my type of beach.White sand, turquoise and dark blue waters and most importantly no resort hotels to ruin the skyline. Along the coast I can see the Tulum ruins but I’ll save those for another day. Well, I can’t see the girls anywhere so check out the cabana prices. They are quite a lot and I quite like my hostel so I’m going to stay there and use the free bus we get, other wise it’s more than an hour’s walk.

I go back to the hostel and opt for the hamburger deal they offer there. I end of spending the evening with a couple of Danish girls, a Norweigan and a German (wow it´s like being back at school in Buenos Aires). Then an English guy comes along and as it’s his last night he buys a bottle of local rum for everyone to share. I know I should know better and courtesy of Raj, I’ve had my fair share of Caribbean rum. I don’t stay up too late and the rum is already having an effect.

I awake in the morning feeling rough as hell !! I have a 9am bus to Chitchen Itza.It’s just under a 3 hour journey (am I mad or what ??) and I arrive to blazing sunshine and hoards of tourists. This must be the one they all come to see. It’s huge and incredibly difficult to take photos without getting other people in them (the one above is taken from behind a wall to get rid of the tourists). In fact I seem to spend my life along with a lot of people I’ve met trying to take the perfect photo without anyone else in them. I head first to see the Observatory and then the largest ball court in Latin America. This one even has pictures of skulls engraved in the walls. There’s also an Apache Indian and a Roman Centurion carved into the wall. Now how did he get there ? They have no idea. Maybe a ship went adrift or maybe someone else really discovered this place before Columbus and kept it a secret !! Chitchen Itza was originally Mayan but then later the Toltecs came and although not harmonious they did manage to live together. I actually like the decoration here more. There are lots of serpent and jaguar heads and many columns all over the place. This was also inhabited a bit later in 1250 AD. There was also a huge natural well where they often made sacrifices to to thank the Gods for the water supply. These people are obsessed with sacrifices. At one area with lots of columns I come across a cool iguana just perching on top of a wall. Eventually other tourists frighten him off by trying to take photos too close, I then took a walk to the old steam bath area. After a nice lunch I waited around for the 4pm bus and went back to Tulum. I got back to discover my room had been painted and had to move to a bigger dorm. I ended up chatting to Fred a Danish guy and had an early alcohol free night.

The next day was beach day. As I said earlier the beach is absolutely gorgeous with lovely white sand and a really nice breeze. From the beach I can see the ruins in the distance and there are small catamarans on the beach. I spent the day just gazing at the caribbean sea and listening to music and finally finishing my Spanish cds – heaven, well the music part !! I dropped in my laundry and after some food went back to the hostel and spent the evening back on the beers chatting to a group of people including a Canadian rancher called Lorenzo and yet another German guy who lives in Ireland called Chris. That’s the third German living in Ireland I’ve met so far, weird !!

The next day there has been an outbreak of bed bugs in the hostel. Luckily not in my room, they are not pleasant and result in the victim itching constantly wherever the begs have bitten them, some people have had them all over their body, but this was just an arm attack. I caught the bus to the beach and headed straight to the ruins. I bumped in to a Belgian couple that I’d seen in Palenque and durting my broken down bus experience – Gitta and Pieter, so we did the ruins together. Location wise if I was a Mayan I would definitely have chosen this venue. It seems the iguanas had the same idea as me as there were hundreds all nodding their heads and trying to get very friendly with each other. We went back to the beach and had a couple of beers before heading to the sea and playing a game of frisbee. It seems very safe here and we can even leave our bags whilst we all head in to the sea. They were telling me about the dodgy police who tell taxis they can’t stop in certain places and make the driver give them a small fee to do so. The drivers just say that the police man is probably hungry or thirsty and wants a bit of cash – nice !! They’ve had that two nights running. I say goodbye pick up my laundry and meet Lorraine a Canadian girl for dinner. It’s an Argentinian restaurant but very disappointing compared to the real thing. We stay for a while but then the dancing starts and the singing from a visiting group. Mexcian women appear to have a worse singing voice than me (if possible), it was all very painful so we left. As we were paying our bill the waiter said “look at the eclipse” and there it was in the sky, very impressive. So we walked back to the hostel and watched the eclipse for quite a while. It is now beer o’clock and I join an American John for beers and then head back to Chris and the others for the remainder of the evening.

After breakfast I headed to Cancun with Lorenzo as we are both flying out of there the following day. We passed through Puerto del Carmen which looked like my idea of hell, too built up by far. We arrived in Cancun and stayed in the Weary Backpacker branch there. Lorenzo had been travelling with an older American guy called Marty who was still there so we went out for dinner with him. He’s been travelling around this area for more than 30 years so I gave him my little schedule and he went through and gave me advice about other locations and places that I hadn’t even thought of. Very handy. From Cancun you can also go to the Island of Women called Isla de Mujeres, I may do that on my way back through Central America as it sounds great although I could see myself back in Tulum very easily. I didn’t get to check out the beaches in Cancun, the town itself seemed ok although thre’s a lot of drugs and prostitutes roaming the streets. We bought some rum and met some people from Belize who were distraught that I wasn’t visiting, could be a good thing as she was obsessed with where she could buy drugs from. Maybe Belize another day but it doesn’t really appeal. Time for bed and tomorrow it’s time to go to Cuba to meet the parents….how exciting !!! So far though I think Tulum has been my favourite beach.

Transport count:

Plane = 21, Bus = 86, Train = 2, Boat =16, Sunglasses = 7, Mosquito Repellant = 9, Books Read = 18 1/2 (couldn’t get on with Faulkner), Bags lost and then recovered = 2.

Take care all

Sally