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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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!

Arequipa Peru

Looping back up into Peru, I arrived in the beautiful town of Arequipa. Surrounded by snowcapped mountains and with a delightful centre square, cathedral and being home to the 16th century Santa Catalina monastery, the place is picturesque to say the least.

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It is a good town to base yourself if you wish to visit Colca Canyon – the world’s deepest canyon about 150km north of the town, and companies run regular tours ranging from multiple day hikes to a day trip.

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The market here is delightful with a range of traditional foods being offered, such as ceviche, the vegetarian option of some layered potato thing (it was actually very tasty!) and also stuffed peppers which unfortunately had meet in them. The juice here is great to try too.

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Viva Peru! Lima, Huacachina and Nazca

So, after a pretty uncomfortable night spent sleeping on the floor of Mexico City airport, I got the six hour flight I had booked a month and a half ago to Lima.

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I only spent one night in Lima; I will be passing rough here to go to Colombia in two weeks so I figured I could get a better taste of the city then. From what I saw though, Miraflores was a very nice, happening place, especially around Parque Kennedy. There are a lot of bars and restaurants and a nice buzz at night. Or maybe I was just influenced by the fact that the supermarket close to there sold super-cheap focaccia…

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Parque Kennedy in Miraflores, Lima

Anyway, I managed somehow to take public transport to the Cruz del Sur terminal in the city. The receptionist recommended me this company, and although it’s cheap with a good service on the bus, I had to wait 50 minutes in the terminal just to book my tickets! Also, the cheapo in me wouldn’t mind taking more Soyuz buses to save that all-important cash.

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View from the bus

Huacachina is an oasis town just outside of the city of Ica. To get there, one must take the bus to Ica and then go by taxi or motortaxi (motortaxi is cheaper, and quite a fun ride!).

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To be honest, I’m not really sure what to think of the place. Climbing the sand dune was an experience, and you are able to book dune-buggy and sandboarding tours (though thanks to the little-known site of Machu Picchu draining all my funds, I had to give these a miss). But apart from that, the place lacked atmosphere for me and I couldn’t really have stayed there more than the one night. I guess it was good to get a look at the oasis though, and it might sound stupid, but I really didn’t expect Peru to have desert.

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View out into the desert 

Anyway, another day, another bus, this time arriving in the southern town of Nazca. Again, the town itself lacked an atmosphere for me which I have appreciated in a number of other places through my travels, though the central square is nice to sit in and have a muse.

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Central Square in Nazca

The real draw to the town of Nazca is the famous Nazca lines. Around 80 of them are depicted as artistic shapes representing animals and religious emblems, such as trees, carved into the dry desert terrain between Ica and Nazca. Thought to have had some spiritual significance, maybe even corresponding to constellations, the lines were thought to have been made around 540AD and have been preserved so well as a result of the climate and stable conditions in the area.

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El Arbol Nazca line
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Me at the top of the viewing tower

If you have el dinero, one can participate in an aircraft tour; where a lightcraft plane gives you the best views of the spectacular works. I, however, sadly on such a strict, peasants budget, opted for the viewing tour, or mirador, which costed 3 soles (1 dollar) to ascend, with the bus two and fro also being three dollars each time. You get a good look at el arbol y los manos, so I would say it was worth it, especially as the place was crowned a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994 (a fact a purely remember because it also happens to be the year of my birth!).

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The mirador for viewing

Mexico City, Teotihuacan and the House of Frida Kahlo

Mexico City is a large, sprawling metropolis with plenty to occupy oneself with.

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The Cathedral is absolutely huge. One of the major sights in the city, the structure is built atop the old Aztec settlement known as Templo Mayor, and you can also walk around a raised path to see the ruins. Housed in the cathedral is the painting Our Lady of Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico. Indeed this image was present in pretty much every church I visited in the country.

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Cathedral in Mexico City

The Zocalo (Main Square) was home to a market/stage whilst I was there, and it was very pleasant indeed to walk around and be given tasters of traditional foods. There’s also a large pedestrian street stretching away from the Zocalo towards Palacio de Bellas Artes. The palacio is a strange gallery as the main paintings housed here were large murals depicting bloody and surreal scenes. I didn’t have to pay because my student card is still in date though!

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Zocalo

One of the highlights of Mexico City for me was a visit to Frida Kahlo’s house. One of the most prominent artists of the 20th century, Kahlo grew up in the neighbourhood of Coyocan, a metro ride from the centre. The metro in Mexico City is wide stretching and very well-functioning (though it does get a bit busy at peak, as normal) and only costs $5 pesos (about 25p) per ride (you hear that Transport for London, 25p instead of £2.40!). After marrying fellow artist Diego Riviera, the two made the house their home.

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Metro of Mexico City (notice the young couple embracing – this was an unusually common sight on the underground, it seems the city Metro is the place to go for a hot date.)

It was a little hard to find, not least because some of the Mexicans I asked seemed to think it was helpful to give directions even if they had no idea where it was. I arrived all the same and after a quick stop at the market a couple of streets south (tasty spinach and mushroom tortillas!) I got into the museum, or La Casa Azul, again with student prices.

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La Casa Azul

The museum houses several famous works by Kahlo, notably Viva La Vida and several of her famous self-portraits. There’s also a number of photos on display and plenty of furniture and trinkets owned by the couple. Interesting points I found were the bedroom in which Trotsky stayed when he was exiled to Mexico and also Frida’s day and night bedrooms and studio, both of which featured mirrors the artist used to paint with. Furthermore, there are two clocks housed here with inscriptions by the artist which show the dates of the break-up and reconciliation of her marriage with Diego after his affair with her sister.

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Viva la Vida, by Frida Kahlo, not Coldplay…

Further artifacts included braces used by Kahlo who had been detrimentally injured in a bus accident when she was eighteen. Together with contracting polio aged six, Kahlo was left disabled for much of her life and also unable to bear children – a theme which is present in a lot of her works.

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Two clocks inscribed by Frida Kahlo

The house is very peaceful with a nice garden, but probably not somewhere one would care to visit unless they were a true fan of the artist and role in communism as I am.

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Garden of La Casa Azul

I spent Friday night at the very surreal event of Lucha Libre – Mexican wrestling. The whole thing is honestly quite fascinating; very muscly man dress in tight, sparkly suits and brightly coloured masks wrestle one another to the ground in a display which appears incredibly homoerotic. Dramatic drops and somersaults were witnessed – these guys are very agile it must be admitted. There’s generally more than two people in a ring, meaning that several people team up against one another and at one point two people with dwarfism began wrestling – very weird indeed.

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Lucha Libre Wrestling

A must-see for anyone visiting Mexico City, however, is the Mesoamerican ruins of Teotihuacan. I went here without a tour, taking the metro to “del norte” and then catching a bus from the station there. Transport and entry included cost $170 pesos.

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Carving at Teotihuacan

The city is thought to have been established in 100BC and fell around 600-700AD. The name Teotihuacan apparently means “birthplace of the Gods” in Aztec, and the two pyramids – one dedicated to the sun and one to the moon – are certainly gargantuan and god-like in proportion. You’re able to climb to the top of both, giving excellent views of the surrounding landscape and site.

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Me on top of Piramide de Sol

The main avenue “Avenue of the Dead” (a little eerie, I know) stretches east to west along the centre of the site, the levels rising and falling due to different temples, squares and market places being built along it. I thoroughly enjoyed this site, even though I had been in a proper mood that morning.

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Sun pyramid from the ground

A funny thing also happened when I somehow managed to find myself at some trendy recording studio party. It was an odd night, one that ended in a taqueria talking to a native Venezuelan about the sad situation in his country. Only in Mexico!

Valladolid, Chichen Itza and Merida

Travelling inland from Cancun and I came into contact with several gems of the Yucatan Peninsula.

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Valladolid is an adorable little town which makes a great first stop away from Cancun. Refreshingly Mediterranean in atmosphere, the town has a number of nice churches, a pleasant square and several museums around which to wonder. The market is also worth a look too, with an array of fruits and snacks cooked on the street and considerably cheap in price.

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Perhaps the highlight of Valladolid is Cenote Zaci. There are many different cenotes dotted around this part of Mexico. They are essentially a series of collapsed caves and caverns filled with fresh water and connected by a delicate web of underwater streams. The Mayans apparently considered these pools entrances to the underworlds and they were treated very seriously in the Mayan society.

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Me at Cenote Zaci

A lot of cenotes are located bus rides away out of towns and cities. Cenote Zaci, however, is situated right in the centre of the town, just a few streets away from the market in fact, which makes its breath-taking appearance all the more surreal.

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Cenote Zaci

The water is beautifully clear and little black fish come and nibble at your legs if you’re not careful! There’s also a 20ft ledge which you can jump off – it took me a while to gather up the courage, but the thrill of the jump was well worth it!

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Me in front of El Castillo

About an hour along from Valladolid is the famous Mayan site of Chichen Itza. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Mayan ruins are probably best known for the distinctive and well-preserved El Castillo (Temple of Kukulkan); the first and most iconic temple you see as soon as you enter. The shape and position of the temple is very important for the spring and autumn equinoxes when the sunrise causes a particular triangular shadow to be cast along the balustrade – creating the effect of a feathered serpent slithering down the temple steps.

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First settled in the early classic period of around 400AD, the city was built near the site because of the presence of two cenotes. The Sacred Cenote lies a couple of hundred metres away from El Castillo and was thought of as “the well of the Gods” by the Mayans. Human sacrifices used to be thrown into the pool so as they could use the cenote as a passage from this world to the next.

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Furthermore, a grand pelota court stands near the centre of the city – pelota being one of the most popular sports of the Mayas. Comparable to football nowadays, professional pelota was taken very seriously, perhaps too seriously as the captains of losing teams could very well face human sacrifice (at least professional football isn’t quite as tough on its players…)

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Entrance to the Pelota court in Chichen Itza

Ruins of the observatory, market and the nunnery (basically a university) are also in very good condition. Some have beautiful carvings showing  sacred Mayan animals such as serpents and jaguars, but also weird faces with eclectic expressions.

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Two and a half hours more on the bus from Chichen Itza and one reaches the capital of the Yucatan peninsula; Merida. Merida is a beautiful colonial city, with a similar Mediterranean feel as Valladollid. The beautiful square sitting in the shadow of the cathedral is the focal point of this town and is very atmospheric in the evenings when bands are playing and people are singing and dancing. As with many colonial towns, a rife of street food is available and the city also has several museums including a Mayan Museum.

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Central Square in Merida