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Where in the world do I start with Cuba… I guess at the beginning is best, but first… open a new web browser page, search Cubana Airlines, book a ticket, and once you’ve received your confirmation, continue reading.
Firstly, wow! Cuba is one of the best places we’ve been, on so many levels. The people, the places, the everything.
We only had 9 days in Cuba and resultantly decided to only hit 2 spots, Havana (Habana) and Viñales. This only covers a tiny, tiny portion of this HUGE island, but they’re both amazing, and unlike anywhere we’ve ever been.
This first blog post will be about 3 of the quintessential Cuban things. Some of the things that in a way make Cuba, Cuba.
Our next post will talk more about the people and the places. The people of Cuba are some of the nicest we've met on our travels and the places are unlike anywhere we've ever been.
Now I’ll admit right here and now I don’t know anything about cars. I know where the accelerator and the brakes are, and I can work the radio and quite often the CD player, but the rest (the insides, the brands, the models and the makes) is well over my head. However heading to Cuba I had one thing on my mind, “Gee I hope I can find an old car to take a cool photo of”. Boy did I feel like a dumbass heading to our casa particular (more on these later) from the airport.
As you may or may not know Cuba, since the 60’s has had an embargo in place from the USA. Resutlantly, they have not, and currently still do not, receive any products from the United States or majority of the nations the USA trades with. This combined with it’s geographic location means that Cuba does not receive many new cars, and hence a huge portion of the vehicles in Cuba are working remnants from the 50’s, and even earlier.
And they’re beautiful.
Whether cared for - shined and polished every day - or completely dilapidated, Cuba’s car are fantastic and ensure that whilst walking around exploring you feel as though you’ve jumped back in time almost 70 years.
The Rum! (and the cocktails)
The rum! Another thing I don’t know a whole heap about (except that it makes me a better dancer) is rum. I know there’s white and there’s dark and I know it’s in a fair few of my favourite cocktails, but otherwise I’ve got no idea.
Cuba is famous for a few of its rums, the most famous probably being Havana Club and Santiago de Cuba
Now whilst in Havana there are 3 “must see” bars. I put this in inverted commas as you definitely don’t need to see them. However we did and we enjoyed them. Even if the drinks did cost 2 or 3 times the price of everywhere else, $5 for a mojito… You’re kidding! Anyway, the 3 places are where Ernest Hemmingway apparently liked to drink and hang out whilst in Cuba, and at each different bar he liked a specific type of drink.
The 3 bars are:
La Bodequita del Medio
Grab a mojito if you’re willing to part with $5. I’ll be honest here I’ve had many a mojito and this didn’t crack the top 5, or even 10 for me. However the place is famous, theres always a heap of tourists getting a photo or writing on the walls and there was a cool live band. It’s super touristy, but don’t let that stop you. After all, we’re all tourists and I always think that when somethings touristy there’s a reason, and for the most part that reason is it’s generally awesome.
Dabble in the daiquiri. Again the drink is ridiculously overpriced at $6 (in some bars in Havana you can easily snag a 2 for $3 deal) however the drink is good. It’s a delicious daiquiri that even Sean enjoyed.
and the last is…
Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers)
I’m not sure what Hemmingway’s drink of choice was here however I’m told he frequented the joint, and the amount of pictures and drawings of him on the wall cement my belief of this.
It’s a cool place to grab a rum (neat of course), light up one of Cuba’s finest cigars and soak it all in.
And if you’re nice to the wonderful bar staff they’ll get a photo of you behind the bar. Whether you want one or not.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again… I don't know anything about cigars. And believe it or not I didn’t smoke a cigar in Cuba. However my amigos, and resident experts; Sean and Tash sampled a few and have given me the low down on flavour and the technique.
I’m not going to explain it here because I don’t know enough and I’d hate to sound stupid however I can say that whilst in Viñales (more on this beautiful place later) we literally bumped into a woman who invited us back to her house for a few cups of coffee and a lesson or two on the growing and making of cigars with her husband, Domingo.
Now I’m going to go into more detail on this farm visit as I can honestly say it absolutely made Cuba for me. I already knew the place was beautiful and the people were friendly but this was honestly above and beyond. It was perfect and quite possible one of the best, if not the best, experience we’ve had in the past 11 months, besides the whole "getting engaged and deciding to spend forever with each other" of course.
On our first day in Viñales we were meant to go on a horse ride, however I’d had a funny tummy the night before and resultantly we pushed it back a day. Instead we decided to just walk around the town and out into the surrounding farmland to see what we came across.
Upon our walk roughly 1km from town across a small stream and down a muddy path we met a woman named Aida (sounds like AH-EE-DA). She asked if we wanted to come over to her house for a coffee and to learn about tobacco, and we said we’d love to.
Once we entered her house she showed us her horse, introduced us to the dogs, the chooks and even the pigs. She poured us all a cup of coffee and grabbed us each a banana off the tree in the backyard. She then called out to her husband, Domingo who wandered over from one of the surrounding fields and introduced himself.
For the next hour they talked to us about growing tobacco, coffee, mangos and bananas, and the process of making cigars. Domingo made us each one and let us roll them ourselves whilst we all chatted, smoked cigars, sipped coffee and ate their bananas.
At the end of the hour and a half of some chill time on the beautiful back porch taking in the scenery and chewing the fat, we offered them a little cash for their time, coffee, tobacco, food and information. They were super surprised and ever so grateful and gave us 8 cigars to take with us… 8! We only gave them $15 between the 3 of us…… The cheapest cigar you can buy in a shop here is about $4 and you don’t get to see it made.
We took a few group photos and I showed them to Aida and Domingo, they loved them and Sean and I promised we would print them out and send them to their house in Cuba once we made it home. They said we had to come over for more coffee and even a mojito when we were in the area and we happily accepted.
I have to say if you’re going to Viñales you HAVE to go and visit them! We’re not sure if they can have guests stay in their house due to the intricacies of the “Casa Particular” laws in Cuba, and hence aren’t sure if tourists can legally stay in their house (we don’t want to get them into trouble).
Now, like I said if you haven't already, book a ticket to Cuba asap!
In our next post on Cuba we'll talk more about the places we went and the people we met. The people of Cuba are amazing!
We jumped off the bus in Tulum from Playa del Carmen and after a bite to eat we headed straight to the nearest bike rental place and got a pushy each for 60 mexican pesos per person per day (about $5 aussie for those playing at home).
Tulum, like all of the Yucatan we saw is super flat, and with the assistance of some bike pathways, the bikes were a great way to get around for the few days we were there.
We headed off down towards the beach and our acommodation. We dropped off our gear and went for a little explore before having a relaxing arvo catching up on a little homework.
The next morning we got up early and cycled back through town to the Gran Cenote. We got here nice and early and only had to contend with a handful of scuba divers to enjoy the turtles, bats and fish in this awesome little spot.
The last few months on the Yucatan have seen fairly regular waves of seaweed and some kind of algae getting washed into the beaches. We had one amazing blue day of swimming when we came to Tulum as part of a day trip to Chichen Itza a few days before, but unfortunately for the time we were staying in Tulum we had to contend with the seaweed.
That afternoon we went for a spin along the beach and found a relatively weed free spot to swim and enjoy.
The last morning we got up early and rode to the Tulum ruins. Whilst quite a small site with no huge structures, we nonetheless loved the setting of the ancient city overlooking the sea here, and enjoyed it much more than the zoo that is Chichen Itza. Will let pictures do the talking for this one, but we both suggest going early (the site opens at 8am) and taking plenty of mosquito repellent and even your swimming gear to really enjoy this site.
After this it was back to the hotel to pick up our gear and back on the bikes to town for a bus to back to Cancun and a ferry to our next stop, Isla Mujeres.
Playin' in Playa del Carmen
After the boat back off Isla Holbox, a bus to Cancun and another short bus from Cancun we arrived in Playa del Carmen.
Note: This post may seem a little negative, and that's probably because it is. This part of the world was A LOT more touristy than we expected and resultantly we didn't love all of it. We still had an awesome time here, we were just a little surprised at how "Americanized" it all was.
I'm going to be honest right off the bat here and say that this was far from our favorite place on the trip. Basically picture a main strip littered with shops and restaurants door to door all with at least 1 person out the front calling out to you every time you walk past to eat there or buy their stuff and you get an idea of what it's like. Kind of like Kuta in Bali or some of the touristy Islands in Thailand plenty of people back home would have been to.
That being said, we stayed at a good little hostel close to the beach and close to the bus depot. The beach wasn't too bad to swim in either once you got past the ever present salesmen without any sales skills. However if you think you'll get a quiet little spot on the beach to yourself think again. And we went there in the super low season.
None the less the water is clear and blue and the climate is great... It just wasn't our cup of tea.
One day we hired a car with our 2 new buddies Rhys and Bonnie (hey gang), and drove to the ruins at Chichen Itza. The main pyramid "El Castillo" here was beautiful, and we arrived super early and hence were able to get some snaps of it from different angles without a million other people in the shots.
Apart from El Castillo though we were a little let down with the site at Chichen Itza. With the volume of tourists through here every day I completely understand why the sites have been closed to people climbing them. However, the hundreds of locals with stalls everywhere harassing you to buy the same crappy nick-nacks that are available all over the peninsula really cheapened the place.
Honestly, if ruins are your thing and you find yourself in this part of the world, do yourself a favor and go to Tikal in Guatemala.
Back in the car, and we took a short 15 minute drive down the road to the cenote of Ik-Kil. We got here quite early and got to really appreciate the spot. We had a great time swimming around with the little cat fish in the huge deep hole before the fake waterfalls got turned on and the hordes of people leaving Chichen Itza after us arrived.
On the way home to Playa we swung through Tulum and had a fun arvo swim at the beach. Apparently the whole region had been swamped with algae and seaweed only a week or sobeforehand so the fact that we got to enjoy an arvo at the beach in blue Carribean water was a real treat.
That night we had a few cheeky bevvies at the hostel and hit a few bars later on, taking full advantage of the "Ladies Night, girls get free drinks" situation. This for the most part is what people come to Cancun and Playa del Carmen for. For us however one big night out in Playa was more than enough, and we were happy to head onwards to the next spot.
Next stop, Tulum (again, I know but we stayed there for more than an afternoon this time.)
Our first stop after NYC was Cancun, Mexico.
Now whilst Cancun has beautiful beaches and some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen, it wasn’t really our scene. We’ve got nothing against Cancun specifically. It has amazing resorts, restaurants, shopping and partying opportunities, however it just wasn’t our style of place. None the less, we spent 2 nights here had some great cheaaaaap food, 5 tacos for 25 pesos ($2 Aussie), corn on the cob w/ parmesan, butter & chilli for $1 and an entire bag of churros for $2! Perfect!
From Cancun we headed north to Chiquila on the Caribbean coast to jump on a ferry to Isla Holbox.
Isla Holbox is really well known for its proximity to an abundance of whale sharks during their migratory period here, and resultantly lots of people come here to swim with these amazing creatures in tour groups.
We just missed the tour season (we arrived October 2 and it ends in September) however it was bittersweet because as much as we would LOVE to see and swim with a whale shark, we weren’t sure how we felt about these tours. We’ve heard horror stories about some tours allowing people to touch the whale sharks, which damages the mucus membrane on their skin potentially leaving them vulnerable to infections. There are potentially hundreds of people on multiple boast flapping around and compounding the problem as these creatures try to head on their merry way. I’m sure there are some tour operators that do a great job but anything involving people and wild animals hits a bit of a chord with us, and we don’t like to participate unless we know it’s either in the animals best interest or they aren’t being interrupted at all.
That being said we’ve had plenty of friends who have done tours and said they were handled quite well with good instructions about giving the sharks space etc.
Our days in Isla Holbox were spent at the beach, lazing in the sun and playing cards with our new amigos Bon and Rhys in the arvo before watching the sunset. Although we didn’t get the best weather here we still had plenty of fun. Whilst Holbox is much bigger than other Caribbean islands such as Caye Caulker in Belize or Little Corn in Nicaragua, it’s positively deserted compared to it’s Mexican sisters of Isla Mujeres and Cozumel. We don’t have lots of interesting stuff to write on this one sorry guys, but all in all we had a fun and chilled few days.
Next stop.. Playa del Carmen. We're not sure what to expect from this well know party town.
An Aussie who loves travelling, hiking, trail running and pretty much any activity you can do outdoors.