Havana, Cuba and Returning Home

The very last stop on my trip (minus the five hour lay-over in a Florida) was the very peculiar, unique and exciting city of Havana.

I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect when coming here. I had heard so much about Cuba already from history lessons revolving around the Cold War, and my interest in the place, its politics and ultimately its people was curious before I arrived.

The Old Town of Havana seems to have forgone a transformation, with the narrow cobbled streets flanked by souvenir shops. Parque Central and the Capitol Building are impressive sites, as well as the churches near the coast. Furthermore, the Art Museum just off Parque Central is worth a look for a range of art from across the world and centuries.

The roads are of course streaming with old 1960s classic cars, making it unique and intensely interesting just to walk the streets in my eyes. Furthermore, the Malecon seawalk and the fortress standing tall at the end are spectacular sites.

Mojitoes, Cuba Libres and Daquiris are rife in the town, this being their birthplace. Though by no means the best versions of these cocktails I have tried, it was certainly an experience having home-grown ones. There is also a range of cigar and rum stores for those who are that way inclined, and plenty of bookshops with communist propaganda overflowing from the seams.

Playa de Este was worth a visit, a short bus ride out of town for beautiful Caribbean blue seas. It was, however, very busy on a Saturday. You have been warned.

It was away from the good conditioned Old City where the proper feel for the city is achieved. The place is a deep grid of run-down streets, piles of rubbish (including dead animals) and dilapidated buildings aplenty. The locals are friendly, but some of their cat-calling can be intense – especially if you are a lone girl.

However, it is here away from the onslaught of tourists that one can find the cheapest and best food and drink. Mango juices, and mangoes for that matter, are the best I have ever had. The mango was the size of a baby’s head and so juicy. The coffees that can be purchased from here are great too.

The country runs on a very confusing dual-currency system. The tourists are supposed to use CUC, convertible pesos at roughly 1 to a dollar, though there is a 10% charge when exchanging US dollars. The locals are supposed to keep to CUP, 20 to 1 dollar for the national peso, though if you buy from places away from town, you often get change in this. Use them wisely, it can make your trip a whole lot more economical.

So, I guess that is it, my whirlwind adventure has come to an end abruptly due to lack of funding. I have had an excellent, life-changing time out here, full of ups and downs. I return to London, but I won’t be staying there for long as I have also luckily secured a job teaching English in the Czech Republic for 3 weeks and intend to do a mini trip to some countries in Eastern Europe. After that, it really will be home for the long-haul, to get the money that will pay for my Asia trip. Stay tuned.

Last Stop in South America – Ecuador – Quito, Banos, Cuenca and Guayaquil

So that inevitable day has come;  I have finally ran out of money. The end of money spells the end of my six month trip passing through fifteen countries by the time I step back afoot on native soil, and unfortunately my very last stop in South America was a small country called Ecuador.

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Named, funnily enough, because of its position on the equator, Ecuador has a friendlier, safer feel than its Colombian neighbour; evidently this rather small country was not so badly hit by narcoterroism, the poverty is still rife here, as it has been through pretty much all of the Latin American countries I have visited.

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The capital city of Quito pleasantly surprised me, and was one of the most agreeable capitals I have visited throughout my six months. It is larger than expected, and many hostels are situated in the New Town, a surprisingly trendy area with many bars, restaurants and discotecas (I read in my guide book that “club” actually means a brothel in this city, so I shall refrain from using the term…).

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The Old Town is brimming with hilly cobbled streets, beautiful architecture and the inevitable churches and squares. A short walk up a hill brings you to the largest aluminium statue worldwide; one of an angel called     , with fantastic views of the city.

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A well worthwhile day-trip from Quito is one to El Mitad del Mundo (literally the middle of the world), a monument and museum upon which the Equator lies. The monument is huge, and it’s quite fun jumping from one hemisphere to the other. Furthermore, the museum is interesting and busts certain myths such as the one of water running different ways down the tap hole – the flow of water is actually reliant on a number of factors and can be manipulated to flow any way you like in any hemisphere.

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Banos is a sweet town around a four hour journey from Quito. The translation of the town’s name means “baths” and is so called because of the thermal springs, teeming with minerals, which the city hosts. These baths are very relaxing, though can get busy on weekends and public holidays. Banos has a lot of outdoor activities available also, and the luscious green landscape surrounding enhances the stay in the town.

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Another night bus, and an arrival at Cuenca, yet another colonial town, this time situated in the Central Highlands of the country. Token features include a church and main square, and there’s also a pleasant river. This town acts as a base to visit Ecuador’s most well-preserved Incan ruins, Ingapirca, around a two hour journey from the bus terminal. With a landscape reminiscent to the English countryside, this site has the only remaining Sun Temple left intact throughout the Incan Empire and entrance includes a tour.

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It was a last, tiring nightbus which brought me to the coastal town of Guayaquil. Lacking the small town charm of some of the other places I have visited in Ecuador, Guayaquil is a bustling city. It’s central park differs a little from the now unfortunately familiar formula of the rest of the colonial centres; this one has iguanas and terapins in! A walk along the malecon is recommended, and the town’s ferris wheel aloft on the banks of the large river a beautiful lit up by night. The neighbourhood of Las Penas consists of a hill leading up to a chapel and lighthouse, making for a very good view across the town.

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So it is from here, Guayaquil, that I take a flight which stopsover in Panama and finally ends up in Havana, Cuba. This experience I am very much looking forward to and fascinated by. However, I can only spend five short days in Cuba before catching a flight to the hopefully embargo-free Florida and finally getting that across-Atlantic journey to London.

It has been a long first journey. Travelling away from home for six months has truly been eye-opening. I have adored experiencing the wealth of different cultures, landscapes, city architectures and characters of people along the way.

I have sampled strange and interesting foods, conversed with strange and interesting people, seen so many beautiful ruins of civilisations almost completely wiped out by colonisers, climbed volcanoes, trekked through jungles and traveled the furthest away from home as I have been so far.

Though it hasn’t been all bright, sunny and full of sprouting daisies the whole time, I feel as though I have come out the other side of this journey someone more enriched, culturally aware and furthermore enlightened about the struggles that go on beyond the small country which I call home.

No doubt I will be back to travel South America when I can – so many more nations still need to be conquered! But for now, I shall have to return home, recuperate funds and set my sites on another wonderful continent for my next big trip; the beauty of Asia awaits me.

Cartagena, Medellin, Guatape, Coffee Country and Cali

Just along the coast from Santa Marta is the beautiful fortified city of Cartagena. You can actually walk on top of these walls overlooking the sea, which is quite a sight, and all the buildings are sweetly colonial. These a nice set of market stalls under arches just across from the clock tower which sell sickeningly sweet treats; the fudge block shaped like a baby was delicious/

 

Moving away from the coast, one reaches an area that little-less than thirty years ago was fiercely controlled by gangs.

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Medellin in particular was badly affected by narcoterroism, having been the home of infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. Nowadays, Medellin isn’t considered quite as dangerous and parts of the city, namely the trendy El Poblado, full of hip open front bars and stunningly dressed young people, are even quite nice to stay. You can still visit Escobar’s grave and the rooftop on which he was shot. Beware, not all the facts in the TV series “Narcos” are correct, though certain parts, such as his brutality to blow up a plane just to get at one person, are true. Furthermore, it is the fault of Escobar that wild hippos roam the hills just outside Medellin, as they escaped from his mansion which featured a menagerie of the sorts.

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The centre is still a little rough in comparison, but hosts a lovely square full of fat sculptures of various animals and people created by the artist Botero.

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A couple of hours out from the north terminal of Medellin and you reach the beautiful countryside surrounding Guatape. This area is dominated by a huge rock; El Penol. This isn’t so strenuous to climb up the 700 or so zig-zagging steps, and the view of the eerie lake complex and woodlands beyond is more than worthwhile.

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Coffee country was next – onwards to a Finca just outside Manizales where we were able to sample different types of coffee grown in the beautiful mountainous scenery and have a look at the factories, then to Salento, a pleasant little town known for its hiking, but where pleasant fresh water trout is also on the menu.

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One of the last stops in Colombia was Cali, yet another city badly affected by drug trafficking, due to the Cali Cartel. Though much of the town is still a bit… rustic, the San Antonio area is nice to stay in, especially walking up the grassy hill just beyond which had a number of music acts, food vendors and dog shows when I was there.

 

 

A quick stop in the colonial town of Popayan and it was a night bus to Ipiales, the border town. Onwards to Ecuador then!

Santa Marta and the Ciudad Perdida Trek

Another night bus to the coast and I found myself in the very Caribbean feeling Santa Marta. Next to the coast, this industrial town with a huge port isn’t exactly known for its beaches, though Parque Tayrona further up the coast is a bit more equipped for the idyllic beach scene.

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The main reason for coming here, apart from staying in an awesome hostel with a mango tree, was to go on the Ciudad Perdida trek.

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This was honestly one of the highlights of my entire journey. I love trekking, and the coastal, jungle terrain of Colombia made the perfect spot for diverse wildlife, towering jungles trees and crystal blue rivers which we got to swim in. The Ciudad itself is quite modest, with platforms of circular grassy discs rising up on the side of the mountain. Indigenous people still live there and go up and down the trails with mules.

 

The food provided by the tour was excellent too, with fruit stops every so often which hosted the best tasting pineapple I’ve had.

 

Colombia – Bogota, Bucaramanga and Giron

So Colombia’s capital city is an interesting stay…

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I arrived after about two days of dodgy sleep; a night bus from Arequipa to Lima and an early early morning flight to Colombia.

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A public bus from the airport took me straight to La Candelaria, the main central part of town. Here you’ll find a square full of people putting seeds on their sleeves to get a photo of them being stormed by pigeons. Furthermore, the Military Museum is free and interesting to look around – details of the famous drug-fueled war between the government and paramilitaries are exhibited as well as some more historical weapons and uniforms, complete with a helicopter and missiles in the back garden.

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As a vegetarian, I fell in love with a Colombian food which I expect a lot of people might find quite bland; the Arepa. Essentially a pancake made out of maize (though I swear some of the ones I have had were made out of potatoes…) the best ones come with butter and grated cheese.

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Another activity worth promoting in Bogota is the Graffiti Tour. Run by a very sound-minded young American-Colombian, the tour took me through some previously undiscovered cobbled streets and highlighted some of the wonderful street art the city had to offer – both aesthetic and political.

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The walk up to Monserat – the monastery on top of the hill overlooking the town – is well worth it, though it can be a bit strenuous on the thighs. Several hundreds of steps take you up to the summit where the most amazing view of Bogota is seen. For those who’d prefer not to take the steps, there’s also a cable car to take you both ways.

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A tiny security warning for Bogota (and the majority of big cities in Colombia and South America in general in fact), be careful walking alone at night and be aware of certain areas. Myself and a guy I was with were threatened with a knife near the centre. Just be wary.

From Medellin, a lot of backpackers make their way to Villa de Leyva or San Gil for some extreme sports. We, however, headed out to Bucaramanga for something that can only be described as an “authentic” Colombian experience. Essentially there’s not much to do here and the main street of the city is a shopping street filled with open front shops selling what can only be described as tat. The highlight of Bucaramanga was the dessert cafe next to our really cheap hostel. But before, the South Americans have an odd set of taste buds and they seem to think it’s perfectly normal to add grated cheese to an ice cream sundae. The Crema de Avena drink is heaven in a cup however, though by no means helped with my attempted travelling diet. Try coffees that street vendors sell in flasks too, they’re really cheap.

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Less than an hour’s bus ride from Bucaramanga was a lovely colonial town called Giron, with a mountain setting, central square and unique cathedral.

Llama or Alpaca?

Probably the biggest and most important question which had been raised in my mind over the two weeks I have been in Peru is how you can tell the difference between a llama and an alpacaca.

And google returns some very interesting results.

  1. So one of the main differences between the two is the ear shape. Apparently llamas have long, banana-shaped ears whereas alpacas have very short thin ones
  2. Furthermore, alpacas are the smaller ones and llamas are generally much larger.
  3. Llamas faces are longer and alpacas shorter and more cutesy cramped
  4. Alpacas wool can be used in textiles whereas llamas aren’t so fortunate and are more likely to be used for farm labor and meat
  5. Alpacas are herd animals and llamas are very strong independent individuals

 

Basically llamas are larger and spit more. Another important question answered. You are welcome.

Lake Titikaka, Copacabana and La Paz, Bolivia

Lake Titikaka is enormous and stunning. By sheer volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America and forms part of the border between Bolivia and Peru.

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I went to Copacabana from Cusco ny night bus, passing through quite an easy border control to find myself in the small Bolivian town. My main reason for visiting Copacabana was to head to the Islas de Sol y Luna – two islands which were beleived by the Incas to be the birthplaces of the sun and the moon.

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The boat out of Copacabana was cheap and very rickety. There are waves on this lake, and big ones, so it’s probably not advisable if you get sea sick. Honestly, the islands are just islands, but it was nice having a walk around them, especially when it was sunny.

 

Back on mainland and I took a collectivo from Copacabana to La Paz.

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Once again I have to be honest with you here; I did not like La Paz. The highest recognised capital in the world, the Bolivian city’s altitude made me feel quite dizzy, the weather was so grey and horrible that I was unable to see the famous Mount for the time that I was there. Perhaps a trip down Death Road would have cheered me up, but with the trusted tour guides charging over $100, such a thing wasn’t possible.

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So I was cold and grumpy, and thought I would cheer myself up by going to the curious sounding “Witches Market”. But, oh god, there were dead llama foetuses hanging off the walls!

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It could probably go unwritten that I got out of there as soon as I could.