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.

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Political graffiti showing Che and Fidel on a roadside

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.

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Old town Havana with the Capitol Building in the background

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.

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One of the many aged cars on the Malecon

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.

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Authentic Havana Club Mojitoes

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.

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Playa del Este teeming with beachgoers

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.

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Beautiful tropical sunset

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.

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Me in front of the fortress in Havana

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.

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Capitol Building
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Playa del Carmen, Mexico

Just north up from the coast from Tulum and I found myself heading deeper and deeper into the world of American holiday resorts.

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5th Avenida in Playa

Playa del Carmen is again another step up on the tourism scale. A prime beachside resort, the majority of bars and restaurants reside along 5th Avenue, the town’s busiest street. It was the first time I had seen a H&M out here, which I got unreasonably excited about, and several Starbucks for that matter. I also had my first experience in a Walmart which turned out to be pretty much as I expected; a big supermarket.

At night the place is brimming with people and the party scene is evident – two men approached me asking if I wanted “blow or smack” to which I politely declined.

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A bustling open-fronted bar on the strip

The beach itself is reasonable, though far better reviews are heard from Akumal beach where one is actually able to swim with turtles and other marine life. Cenotes such as the El Jardin de Eden are also reachable from here, with crystal clear waters and cavernous rocks to explore.

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The typical resort beaches at Playa del Carmen

Continuing my interesting and extremely thought-provoking tour along the resort trail, my next stop will be the iconic Cancun, a place which I am very curious about owing to the many mixed reviews I have received from other travellers. Me in Cancun alone on a Friday night, what could possibly go wrong?

Tulum, Mexico

I took a chicken bus from Belize City all the way north to Chetumal in Mexico. There is an annoying exit tax when crossing from Belize – $20 US in fact, which I wasn’t too happy about. From Chetumal it was an uncomfortable second class ADO bus to Tulum, arriving at dark to a very chilled out hostel.

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Me relieved to have finally got to the beach!

Tulum is an odd town, not what I expected at all. The google pictures of it show sprawling beaches, which there are, but they are about 5km out of town – believe me, I walked it! Most people hire bikes which I would probably recommend as the best way of getting around, though collectivos and taxis are available.

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Beautiful sprawling coastline

Also the most obvious difference from any other part of Central America that I have travelled so far is the tourist trade. Even volunteering in Monteverde – a town that lives for tourism – I felt it more authentic than the coastline with resorts and hotels fencing every bit of sand.

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Main road in Tulum

There are ruins in Tulum, and they are quite impressive being directly on the coast. It is recommended to get here early (as with any tourist spot) and there was a random road train ferrying people around, though I have no idea of its origin or destination.

The town itself mainly lies along a long strip of busy road consisting of tourist restaurants. Mexico is cheap in comparison to Belize and towards the less busy end of the road I found an extremely nice street-food style burrito shop Burrtito Amor. This place has a great atmosphere and fast service, not to mention amazing burritos at a very cheap price; my hefty portion of a cheese and bean burrito cost me less than $3.

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Burrito Amor, for a good, cheap streetfood style experience

But alas, it is time to move further north, delving ever deeper into the lands of the American tourist.

Caye Caulker, Belize

Off the shore of Belize lie a number of Cayes, or small islands with their own communities and rich marine life. I took a ferry from Belize City to Caye Caulker, a very small Caye with only one main street.

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My time here was mixed. Some of the locals act a bit oddly towards tourists – some of them were high and drunk some of the time and one got very angry when I refused a spliff at two in the afternoon.

The beach is small, but the water is clear and beautiful and very refreshing to swim in. Lots of snorkelling tours go out from the island with chances to sea sharks, dolphins and even manatees among other colourful coral fish.

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The island is quite expensive compared to the rest of the country, but I did have a great time going out to the Sports Bar on Saturday – where most of the island seems to go. Furthermore, I met a very hippy, spiritual guy in my hostel room who played a ukelele with whom I stayed up to about 4am talking about everything, from experience of consciousness to how his father reacted when he chose to move to the jungle. Very weird, very surreal, I was somewhat relieved to get back on the mainland and continue my journey north to Mexico.

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Leon, Las Penitas and Volcano Boarding down Cerros Negros

A bus journey, a quick change in Managua and I arrived in the lovely north eastern town of Leon. Leon was once the capital of Nicargua until 1857. Home to Nicaragua’s national university, the atmosphere here is healthy and buzzing.

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The Cathedral in Leon

A lot of tourists pass through this town, many of them hearing about the activity of volcano boarding.

Going down a steep, ashy volcano on a plank of wood at speeds of up to 90 km/h? Naturally I had to try.

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Hiking up Cerros Negros – if you touch the floor you can actually feel the heat of this very active volcano

First of all it is necessary to get up the volcano in order to come down from it. This involves about an hour of walking carrying your board which I was perfectly ok with, apart from when the wind tried to steal my board!

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Me jumping very strangely…

Some people did struggle however, but there were people there to help you with your board if you needed it. The paths were sometimes a bit unsteady too – good trainers or hiking boots are definitely needed.

 

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Sliding down a volcano in an orange jumpsuit anyone?

The ride down looked scary at first, but it was so fun! Even if you do end up falling off the board when the tour guide is taking a photo of you…

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My dramatic fall

All in all, it was a fun occasion and I am very glad I got up the guts to do it.

The activity is – like most others in the tourist industry – quite expensive. Most places offer the package for around $30, giving you a snack, a beer and a t-shirt to remember the occasion. Since I have been pretty scrupulous so far, I figured one splurge wouldn’t hurt too bad. Furthermore, the activity is partaken at one’s own risk, and some people have mentioned how it is dangerous. In my opinion, risk elements are there, but I felt entirely in control for the majority of the time…

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Me posing on a Pacific beach

Afterwards I took the shuttle to Las Penitas, a quiet beach town on the Pacific coast with huge waves. A sunset and some rum and cokes topped off a beautiful day, and it was back to the hostel bar for a much needed dance.

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Sunset at Las Penitas

I’ve been out two nights in a row dancing to reggaeton and even trying to salsa. I’ve also made friends with two Nicargauans and met some really interesting people at the hostel.

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One of my new best friends

Leon has been one of my favourite towns so far, but the east wind is blowing and it’s necessary for me to move on. Vaminos!

 

Isla de Ometepe, Nicaragua

The name Ometepe derives from the Aztec language of Nahauatl’s words for two mountains. This it has – two volcanoes in fact, and this is probably what makes the island so striking.

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Two volcano peaks of Ometepe as viewed from the ferry

In order to get to Ometepe you need to take a 50 cordoba ($1.7) ferry from San Jose which is accessible by a taxi from the nearby Rivas. The ferry is about an hour and dropped me off in Moyogalpa near the largest of the two volcanoes; Concepcion. Moyogalpa is probably the largest town on the island, but even this is small without much going on – my visit here was a lot more subdued compared to San Juan del Sur. That said, I did enjoy the restaurant Picante right near the port and next to the hostel I was staying at. I went here with an American pilot I met at the hostel who was also travelling around alone, and both our meals and drinks – mine was a cheese quesadilla – cost under $20. The place is also owned by a very nice Swahili man who it was good to converse with,

I would recommend hiring a motorcycle if you can ride one – which I can’t. But with quiet and relatively alright roads, this is probably the best way to travel the island.

I took a bus to El Ojo de Agua, an inland cold Spring which was very refreshing and even had a Tarzan swing which was very fun.

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Ojo de Agua, a pleasant spring on the Isla de Ometepe

Tours to hike the volcanoes – and you need a tour guide – costs around $20, but be warned, it is hard!

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Sign for the volcano

All in all, I am a little underwhelmed with Ometepe. If it is trekking you want, do stopover, but otherwise I am not so sure I would return.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tamarindo, Pacific Coast, Costa Rica

My journey down the mountain was a bit laborious, but I guess that’s what I get from trying to use the public bus system in another country. A lot of the towns in Nicoya Peninsula are very similar – set on a grid much like San Jose. The temperature difference is very apparent having been up the mountain for so long, as was the oxygen levels – you feel like you can do anything after coming down from altitude!

Anyway, I finally made it to the Pacific Coast. I have never actually seen the Pacific Ocean before, and yes, it did look much like any other ocean, but it was the symbolism that mattered to me.

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Beautiful Pacific beach at Playa Tamarindo

Tamarindo is very much a beach town which seems to thrive on the surfing industry. Every second shop is one renting boards and there are plenty of very cool looking people riding the waves at any time of the day. I have stuck souly to swimming so far – I had a debilitating shark phobia which meant I used to have little girl tantrums whenever my brother swam away from me in deep water, and I am still getting over this, but maybe at my next stop up the coast I might give it a try. Come to think of it, I would really love to be a surfer girl!

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Classic VW Campervan – a must for this surfer beach

I’m staying at Hostel Selina, which I would recommend as it is cheap with very lovely staff and a beautiful little pool and bar with fairy lights. There are plenty of seats made in broken down cars as well, and swings! A lot of the bars are right on the beach here and offer 2 x 1 Happy Hour deals for considerably longer than an hour. I haven’t had the chance to sample one yet – a side effect of travelling on one’s lonesome – but maybe tonight I’ll push the boat out and get two just for me…

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The pool and bar area at Hostel Selina, Tamrindo

One last thing to say is that yesterday I literally saw the most beautiful sunset. The picture does not do it justice; it was so beautiful. Veins of red on a background of orange which resembled capillaries going through eyelids. So beautiful…

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A stunning sunset

So tomorrow it’s onward and upwards to Nicaragua. Wish me luck!