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.

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.

Cancun

I don’t know what I was really expecting of Cancun. I had heard such mixed reviews from other travelers coming down from the resort town that I was really unsure of what I might encounter.

Seared in my brain as the place of Spring Break parties since my mid-teens, Cancun is definitely equipped for sun, sea and clubbing. The huge stretch of beaches, bars, resort hotels and night clubs lies on a strip some way out from the town of Cancun, and buses run regularly to and from the zone.

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One of the few (blurry) pictures I have of the Cancun nightlife

If I’m being perfectly honest, the town of Cancun isn’t great. Busy roads and large shopping centres hardly create a picturesque and cultural feel that can be experienced in other towns of the country. Going clubbing there is expensive too, with some of the top clubs charging $65 for entrance on big nights. Although this includes an open bar, I know that I won’t be able to drink back my money’s worth. I spent one day with a huge hangover and the next leaving – there’s not actually much to do here apart from partying.

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The ‘real’ Cancun…

So I tried it once, had a good night out, probably wouldn’t return, but at least I can say I have stepped foot in the famous Cancun. Now it’s time to explore some more of the real Mexico away from the resort-lined east coast.

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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Into Belize – San Ignacio

A public bus from Flores and I arrived at the Guatemala-Belize border which was quite easy to cross in comparison with the Costa Rica-Nicaragua.

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The Belize border

Belize feels very different to Guatemala. A former British Colony and situated on the Caribbean Sea, there is a distinctively Caribbean feel. Indeed, although many can speak Spanish, many people around here speak with a beautiful Caribbean tone. It is also very green and flat, reminding me a lot of some places in Europe.

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Sign in San Ignacio…

My first port of call was the town of San Ignacio about 20mins or so from the border. This small town is nestled in the middle of rolling countryside and there are plenty of cave tours and Mayan ruins to see. For me, I took the time to walk to a river crossing where you could swim.

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River crossing and swimming!

I also made friends with some nice waiters at Tandoor restaurant on the main road. Glenn was fantastic to talk to and they all made me feel very welcome.

A good stopover city, but now it is time to head for Caye Caulker on the Caribbean Sea.