A Travellerspoint blog

Closer to Paradise

Caye Caulker, Belize – 29th July – 1st Aug

Leaving Havana, I arrived back in Mexico and returned to Playa Del Carmen, checking into the same hostel as before mainly as it was close to the bus station, and I thought "better the devil you know". I was in a different room and I ended up having the worse night`s sleep I`ve had for a long while.

The air con was so loud, it was like sleeping on a helicopter! I thought I was only sharing with 2 Israeli girls, but when I came back from an e-mail fest at Starbucks, there was a couple snogging on the top bunk above mine! I wanted to get undressed and go to bed only to discover the bloke was actually sharing the room with us – oh joy! I think I scared them off for a while, and got to bed with my earplugs in around midnight. The girls came back and were very quiet and got ready by torchlight so as not to disturb me, but the couple came back around 1am, threw all the lights on and proceeded to chat away for the next 40 minutes. He then asked me if he could unplug my laptop which was charging, so he could plug in his mobile phone! I refrained from suggesting exactly where I would like to plug his mobile, but did tell him how inconsiderate I thought he was and could they go back upstairs if they wanted to talk and let the rest of us get to sleep. Grrrr! I was so wound up and what with the noise I don`t think I got to sleep until around 3am and then woke at 6am freezing cold. Gave up and decided to get up to catch my bus to Campeche, on the border with Belize.

I went from feeling very pleased with myself, as my research had paid off, and I managed to get from the bus station to the ferry terminal and bought my ticket for the 4.30pm (it should have been 3.30, but was told it operated on Belize time...which was an hour behind... eh???) ferry to San Pedro in Ambergris Caye and then on to Caye Caulker. I had a few pesos left to get something to eat and then made my way to the most laid back departure lounge I`ve ever seen – two desks – one for immigration and one for customs, and a dozen deckchairs at the end of the pier! Everything went very smoothly apart from the ferry, which felt like you were in a tumble drier each time it hit a wave. Still, being greeted on our arrival at San Pedro by a stingray swimming about under the pier, and one of the most amazing sunsets, more than made up for the rough crossing.

My smugness quickly vaporised as I started speaking my pigeon Spanish to the guys on the pier, only to remember (I did know, really I did), that Belize is the only English speaking country in Latin America. They even have a picture of a very young-looking Queen on their bank notes – she would be flattered, although she does appear to have been having a bad hair day.

I was totally taken aback by Caye Caulker – it really is a piece of barefoot paradise. The island is only one mile wide (and that only in parts) and five miles long and is made entirely of sand – even the roads. It is strange walking down the main street and being able to see the sea on both sides of you. It has a very Caribbean feel to it and their motto, “no shirt, no shoes, no problem” sums the place up perfectly. There are also “no cars” – but they do have internet (albeit painfully slow and Belize telecom have blocked Skype), an ATM and several small guesthouses. I was accosted by a dodgy looking Rasta called Gilbert as soon as the ferry arrived who ushered us to a golf buggy which serve as taxis here. Ended up at the first guest house he took me to, as it was dark by then and I couldn`t be bothered looking around for somewhere else. I moved the next morning so somewhere a bit better with sea views (it`s quite rare not to get a sea view on this island) and free wifi.

All life on the island is centred on the main street where the police station, post office, library and social security office occupy lovely shacks next to the beach. Along with a few restaurants, bars and supermarkets plus a dozen dive tour operators, this pretty makes up the place. Tourism is obviously the main trade here, but surprisingly the only hassle you get is pretty good natured (they obviously haven`t heard about Playa Del Carmen).

Once I had moved into my new hotel, I decided to take a stroll down to The Split, a gap between two parts of the island where most people seem to hang out, have a drink and sunbathe. I borrowed some snorkeling gear from the hotel and spent a happy hour or so studying the amazing variety sea life just in this little spot. I must admit, sitting on the dock, I had a moment where I actually pinched myself to make sure I was really here – the views were so stunningly beautiful and I think this is as relaxed as it is possible to be without actually being in a coma!

Unfortunately, my mood was spoilt when I got back to the hotel and had a heated debate with the awful woman next door who had collected several star fish and bits of coral which were in the process of dying a slow death outside their hotel room. Her only defense was that they were for her children and that she didn`t come to Belize very often (thank goodness) – unbelievable! The worst part is that they will be smelling rotten within the next few days, so they won`t want to take them home anyway.

Preferring to see my wildlife in it`s natural environment, I booked a morning`s diving – I was really looking forward to discovering the second largest barrier reef in the world.

Just avoiding the torrential downpour, I finished the day with a bike ride around the island (which didn`t take long) and in the process realized that I was cycling amongst mangrove swamps, in a malarial country at the worst time of the day, with no insect repellant on. I decided the best tactic would be to try to out-run the little buggers, so instead of the leisurely pace I had anticipated, I proceeded to cycle around the island like a maniac – it looked lovely though, and I escaped with only a couple of bites.

An early start the following morning, I joined my fellow divers to sail out to our first dive at St George`s Caye. It was one of the most comfortable dives I had ever done and although we didn`t see any big fish or turtles, the corals were fabulous. The second dive at Hangman`s Bay was also excellent and we saw barracuda and lion fish. Had a last stroll through town, and booked my ferry for 7am tomorrow morning, for my long day ahead travelling though Belize to Flores, in Guatemala.

Heavenly Sunset

Heavenly Sunset


The High Street - Busy Saturday Afternoon

The High Street - Busy Saturday Afternoon


Caye Caulker B & Q

Caye Caulker B & Q


View from my room

View from my room


The Split

The Split


One Stop Shop for Happiness

One Stop Shop for Happiness


Dusk

Dusk


Dusk 2

Dusk 2


Which One`s Mine?

Which One`s Mine?

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Belize Comments (0)

Cuba Libre

Havana – 17 - 18th July

Left the tourist hell of Playa Del Carmen for my flight from Cancun to Havana (now I know what Aeroflot do with their old planes). I`m not sure there could be two places of such contrast. I was full of excitement, curiosity and trepidation at the thought of visiting Cuba - somewhere I had been desperate to experience for so long, and I felt grateful I had managed to get there before it`s opened up to the US and mass tourism. God forbid it should ever turn into a resort like the one I had just left.

I felt inspired to sit and write this, having just returned from my first foray into the Old Town – it`s little wonder that Hemmingway loved this place so much – there`s character seeping from it`s every pore. The first thing that struck me was how dark it was – there are hardly any street lights, which in some way is a pity as you can`t really appreciate the crumbling but historic old buildings, but in other ways, somehow adds to it`s charm. Apparently this is due to the Government`s attempts to save energy – and money no doubt!

I walked down dark alleyways, the like of which I would never dream of venturing down in most other cities, feeling perfectly safe asking for directions. They proved a fascinating insight into the lives of the locals, offering glimpses into their homes, with every other street proffering some kind of entertainment, be it someone sitting on their doorstep playing a guitar, or a group of people gathered around a table outside their home, playing chess or dominoes. Strolled back along the Malecon (sea front) which was a hive of activity, packed with people lounging on the sea wall, chatting and playing music. The Cubans may not have much money, but they seemed the most enriched and contented people I had encountered so far on my trip.

I had booked one night at a Casa Familiare, basically a guest house – the Cubans have to apply to the Government and pay a fee to let rooms out in their homes, because there are not enough hotels to accommodate the tourist trade at the moment. The place, like most of the others in the city looked like a wreck from the outside, but I was welcomed into the most wonderful 1930`s house, full of original furniture and fittings, by Luis the charming owner`s younger brother. The house was previously owned by the boys' grandparents, and as they and their father had passed away (I`m promised an introduction to their mother tomorrow), they decided to turn it into a Guest House. They couldn`t have been more accommodating and I immediately felt comfortable in my lovely, spotlessly clean, high ceilinged bedroom (with my own bathroom – luxury!). They served me a wonderful dinner in the dining room, accompanied by the sounds of the Buena Vista Social Club on the CD! A perfect and fitting start to my tour of Cuba – I think I`m going to like it here.

Woke the next morning to another tasty breakfast with my fellow guests, two girls from Milan (another language I had to remember) and then headed out to another part of the city – the Vedado, home of the historic hotel Palacio, which had hosted such luminaries as Princess Diana, Robert Redford, Mohammed Ali to name but a few. This beautiful 30`s building was wonderfully preserved and I could imagine myself transported back in time to the pre-revolution days. Passed by the Havana branch of Coppelia, the seventies styled ice-cream parlour where people queued night and day for a table, found a wonderful music shop selling CDs and DVDs of Cuban music and it`s derivatives (including my new discovery, Silvio Rodrigues – a kind of Cuban Sting). Bought a couple of Che postcards for my collection. After checking my e-mails at another perfectly restored pre-revolution Hotel, the Hotel Seville, I made my way to the airport to meet my friend Michelle, who was going to join me for the rest of my tour of the island.

After a wonderful re-union and a lot of catching up, we checked into the Hotel Tejadillo, (again, a beautiful old colonial building with an inner courtyard) we headed out for dinner to Los Nardos, a restaurant that had been recommended to me by an English guy I had met at the Palacio. He had warned me it was popular, and we had to queue for 40 minutes for a table, but the atmosphere was unique even if the food wasn`t (the reputation of Cuban cuisine was less than impressive – especially for vegetarians). The following days led to an overdose of omelettes, beans and rice, which left me craving a vegetarian lasagne or tandoori! It made me realise how spoilt for choice we are in the UK with such a variety of different types of food on tap.

Vinales – 19 – 20th July

After a relatively early night as Michelle was quite jet-lagged we met the rest of the group the following morning at their hotel. We were very fortunate as Jorge, our tour leader introduced us to an eclectic but very affable band of fellow travellers from Eastern Australia, Singapore and the UK. We kicked off our road trip, with a stop at the Orchid Farm at Soroa – one of the largest in the world, and located in a stunning setting amongst the palm tree clad hills of the interior. Our destination was Vinales in the western part of Cuba, a village that was as much as a culture shock as Havana had been – literally a "one horse" town of two or three streets with pigs, chickens and horse and carts passing down the street every few minutes. I almost expected the stage coach to go riding by. Our host that evening was a wonderful lady called Mirta who cooked up our best meals in Cuba by far. She was such a welcoming hostess with a great smile and sense of humour despite the language barrier and I think made our stay in Vinales one of the highlights of the trip.

The only “venue” in the village hosted a cabaret evening each night consisting of a live band and exotically costumed salsa dancers. I must admit, despite the Mojitos, the novelty had worn a bit thin by the second night and Michelle and I sneaked back to the house to watch a DVD! Our day in Vinales was spent visiting the local cave and taking a boat trip on the underground river, which I must admit felt a little like a Disney ride, and being invited into the home of the local tobacco farmer, who turned out to be a bit of a guru! Fascinating stuff though.

Trinidad –21st – 22nd July

Onward to Trinidad, the perfectly preserved Colonial coastal town which was once the centre of the Cuban Slave trade. We decided that the cobbled streets (made with stones originally used as ballast on the ships that crossed the Atlantic) were not the easiest to walk down (I knew there was a reason I`d rejected the heels when packing!), but they did make for some very pretty photos. The nightlife here was an interesting mixture of African and Cuban and we spent a happy evening sitting on the steps in front of the Cathedral listening and watching the locals strut their stuff. The following day, we trekked through the national park to the local waterfall (Michelle kept us entertained on the way by falling fully clothed into the river!). The waterfall was refreshing, if packed with tourists, and worked off some of the filling (if heavy) Cuban cuisine we had been sampling. A much needed relax in the turquoise waters of the nearby Caribbean beach was book-ended by a marvellous taxi ride in a 1956 Chevrolet (all we were missing was some Chuck Berry on the radio!). He even managed to fit all 6 of us in!

Cienfuegos and Santa Clara – 23nd July

The following morning we set off for Santa Clara, a key city in the history of the revolution, and home to the Che Guevara Memorial. A stop for lunch at Cienfuegos gave a brief glimpse of this French influenced Colonial town. Paris, it wasn`t but it had a certain charm – and more shops than I`d seen anywhere up until now and an interesting street market. Even the citizens had a definite eye for fashion and style. At the unusual, European style mansion, originally build by sugar magnate Jose Ferrer, we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of a local girl celebrating her “Fifteen”. This is a kind of coming out ceremony that all Cuban girls have in their honour to celebrate their coming of age – she looked stunning in her white lacy dress. Not sure what our equivalent would be – “first tattoo” perhaps???

On arriving on the outskirts of Santa Clara we discovered that this weekend is a public holiday to celebrate the anniversary of an important rebel victory and the huge Plaza de la Revolution was being prepared for the visit of Raul Castro. Disappointingly, this meant that the Che Guevara Museum was also closed as a security precaution. We did get to see the Mausoleum which houses Che`s body and his huge bronze statue, along with the memorial garden for the rebel troops. The town itself was unmemorable apart from the spot containing the original carriages, where Che`s men derailed a train carrying Batista`s troops and supplies – which eventually toppled his regime.

Back to Havana 24 - 25th July

The next morning we set off early for another key site in the Revolution, The Bay of Pigs (where US backed Cuban exile forces were humiliated by Castro`s people). Just outside, the oddly named town of Australia was home to the building used as Castro`s headquarters during the attacks, and is now a museum containing the US plane (disguised as Cuban) which was shot down, along with other interesting memorabilia. The Bay itself was now a very popular beach resort for the locals. I wondered what it would be like there now, if the battle had gone the other way!

We arrived back into Havana just before the heavens opened, and it was rather nice sitting in our hotel room listening to the thunder and the rain pouring down inside the courtyard. We arranged to meet the rest of the group for our farewell dinner and felt very colonial, sitting at the hotel bar drinking what the bartender described as “the best Mohitos in town” – they were certainly the most expensive we`d had so far!

The rain had eased off by the time we walked to the restaurant and after an interesting dinner spent discussing the viability of forming our own tour operator offering Music and Salsa holidays to Cuba, we exchanged contact details and promised to keep in touch.

The following morning we both woke with a touch of Castro`s Revenge and were a bit nervous about going on the walking tour, but a couple of Imodium tablets later, we decided to chance it. The old town of Havana is in the process of being renovated by the Government and the lovely old buildings were gradually being restored to their original splendour. To my horror however, I noticed that one of the stores about to open in the Plaza Vieja was Benetton (aargh!). Part of me still liked the run down, crumbling part of the city I had experienced on the first night – it somehow felt more authentic and natural. I just hope that it isn`t eventually turned into a picture perfect tourist haven completely losing it`s uniqueness.

Fancying a change from the (I have to say) fairly heavy and repetitive Cuban food we`d been served over the past few days, we had a great lunch in a Lebanese restaurant we noticed on the tour. As a veggie, I felt that diet was fairly limited – and we still didn`t really understand why the food on offer didn`t include more fresh vegetables (such as avocados, tomatoes and greens) which should have been fairly easy to grow in this climate. There comes a limit to how much rice, eggs and beans can be washed down with the Mohitos! It made us appreciate the variety and quality of food that is available to us in Britain (God, I`m really beginning to miss Sainsbury’s).

After a spot of haggling with the taxi driver, we negotiated a rate equivalent to half a day`s wages (around £25) to drive us to our “luxury” all inclusive about an hour away, on the north coast in Jibacoa.

Jibacoa – 25 – 28th July

Originally booked as a relaxing end to Michelle`s stay in Cuba and a chance to catch up on 5 months of gossip and news, Breezes wasn`t quite as good as other all inclusive resorts I`d visited in the Caribbean. The service was average, and although they had two other a la carte restaurants to supplement the buffet, both proved harder than The Ivy to get a reservation for! After speaking to the Client Services lady and using my “I`m a travel agent” tactic, we did get a table on our last night at Martino`s Italian Restaurant, which was OK but infinitely better than the buffet.

The beach was beautiful, and although a public beach, the armed (yes real guns and bullets) were there trying to discourage anyone walking along to the next hotel. They were quite charming though, and it was reassuring being watched out for by someone called Jesus (who`s uncle apparently was Che`s best mate – yeah!). The internet connection however was about as up-to-date as the cars, so I had to wean myself off my daily fix for a few days (hence the lateness of these last two blogs). My complaints fell on deaf ears and we had to laugh when we discovered the miserable and totally unhelpful receptionist had the unfortunate title of “Yuselise” on her name tag!

We topped up the tans and the drinks were free, so it was bearable for a couple of days and I was really sad to say goodbye to Michelle at the airport to catch our respective flights back to Gatwick and Cancun (sorry Michelle – think you pulled the short straw there!)

Views of Cuba:

I was intrigued to know more about the politics and views of the real Cuban people and I found it fascinating that the Cubans we conversed with spoke freely and we felt, honestly about their lives and their country. The only complaint seemed to be about lack of choice and variety in the shops, and a slight feeling of being told what to do by their government (join the club!).

The tobacco farmer we met seemed perfectly happy with his simple but honest way of life and left us all feeling very humble and empowered with his heartfelt advice to respect people (especially women), teach the youngsters from an early age to lead good lives, appreciate the things that you have - and to smoke 20 home rolled cigars a day (not too sure about the last one!). He looked extremely well on it though for 69 years of age!

Our lovely guide Jorge, who was a relatively wealthy young man for Cuban standards, vehemently claimed not to be a communist, but still clearly loved his country and hated the Americans. He was always up for a good discussion over dinner, and we learnt a lot about the background to the Revolution and the lives of normal Cubans since then.

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive in Cuba is that the only advertisements are propaganda – no billboards or shops that look anything like our shops. This seems very strange after coming from the States or even Mexico. The lack of commercialism is quite refreshing.

We learnt that the Cubans boast a 98% turn out in the elections, one of the best education systems in the world with every child receiving a free education up to degree level, and produce some of the best doctors (and are altruistic enough to send some to Africa to help out there) – they even trade their medical expertise with other South American allies such as Venezuela in return for raw materials.

The Cubans are made up of many different races, so you see people of all shapes, sizes and colours and there appears to be absolutely no racism or classism (there no wealthy Cubans). It certainly makes you wonder about the merits of their system over ours and I felt quite envious. No-one starves – everyone receives a ration book allowing them to buy their basic food requirements for next to nothing, and we never saw anyone looking scruffy or badly dressed.

However, human nature dictates that this is never enough and partly down to the influence of American TV, the black market is thriving. Tourists are seen as an easy target, and while not as bad as in some other countries I have visited, there is a certain amount of hassling and exploitation. Taxi prices are astronomical but the government takes a large cut which it feeds back into the economy. No-one complained about MPs expenses either! I can`t imagine a less corrupt government. Viva Fidel!

Lastly, just want to say how much I appreciate all your comments on the blog – it`s always comforting to have some contact with everyone, and nice to know that some of you are still keeping up with it!

The Malecon

The Malecon


Welcome to Havana

Welcome to Havana


Power to the People!

Power to the People!


Beautiful Vinales

Beautiful Vinales


Our Taxi

Our Taxi


Che Rules OK

Che Rules OK


The New Havana

The New Havana


Jibacoa Sunset

Jibacoa Sunset


The Tobacco Guru

The Tobacco Guru


Havana by Night

Havana by Night


Havana through the window

Havana through the window


The World`s Biggest Mohito

The World`s Biggest Mohito


The Last Supper

The Last Supper


The Mariachi Ban was still Enforced in Cuba!

The Mariachi Ban was still Enforced in Cuba!


Cienfeugos

Cienfeugos


Trinidad

Trinidad


Vinales Rush Hour

Vinales Rush Hour


Where`s my Chaufeur???

Where`s my Chaufeur???


Citizen Gardner

Citizen Gardner


Trindad at dusk

Trindad at dusk


God knows what the locals are left with!

God knows what the locals are left with!


Our Lovely Host

Our Lovely Host


Carmen Miranda Eat Your Heart Out

Carmen Miranda Eat Your Heart Out


Trinidad Lad

Trinidad Lad


Parking Restrictions were Strictly Enforced

Parking Restrictions were Strictly Enforced


The Little Princess

The Little Princess


Me and Michelle - Vinales

Me and Michelle - Vinales


The Bat Cave - Vinales

The Bat Cave - Vinales


The Orquid Garden - Vinales

The Orquid Garden - Vinales


I Signed Up

I Signed Up


Bay of Pigs

Bay of Pigs


Bay of Pigs - The Resort

Bay of Pigs - The Resort


Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos


The Santa Clara Branch of Sainsburys

The Santa Clara Branch of Sainsburys


Greased Lightning!

Greased Lightning!


Return to Havana

Return to Havana


Havana Side Street

Havana Side Street


Jibacoa Beach

Jibacoa Beach

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Down Mexico Way Pt 3 Campeche to Playa Del Carmen

Campeche 9th July

The coastal town of Campeche sounded a little more interesting in the guide book than it actually was. It is on the Caribbean, but has no beaches to speak of and a seafront about as exciting as Canvey!

I arrived here after what was supposed to be a 4 hour bus journey (which would have taken about 1 hour if we hadn`t kept being stopped all along the way at army checkpoints). At one stop we all had to get off the bus, and stand at the side of the road while they spot checked the bags. Luckily they didn`t find my hidden stash of drugs and guns I`d wrapped up in my dirty washing.

I arrived in Campeche just in time for the daily tropical downpour, and all the roads turned into rivers – I wasn`t sure whether to hail a cab or a canoe. My hostal, La Pirata was themed after the town`s history of pirate attacks in the 17th century. Apparently they got so fed up with being attacked that they built a big high wall around the town, some of which still exists, as well as several bulwarks. Never mind the bulwarks, the twin towered cathedral was pretty impressive (looked best at night – much like many of the towns I had visited).

My hostal was very "piratey" – lots of sculls, crossbones and dead men`s chests, but sadly no bottles of rum, Captain Jack Sparrow or Wi-Fi! What is the world coming to? It had the most friendly staff though – the young girl behind the desk even lugged my rucksack up the stairs for me, bless her. My room was up some stairs and then over a bridge across the roof – I thought she was about to make me walk the plank! They`d build an annex up there (I prayed there wouldn`t be an earthquake while I was there). It was comfortable, if a bit cramped and I had to dispose of a dead cockroach in the shower - yuk.

By the time I`d settled in, the rain had stopped and I went for a quick walk around. Apart from gate-crashing the last part of the sound and light show and getting a free walk along the battlements, I found that the Campeche W.I. had taken over the town square, selling cakes and knitted clothes (in this heat???). They also had a band playing but 1970`s Big Band Sound is not really my sort of thing, so went to try and find the sea. Harder than it sounds, as it was well hidden behind a big block of ugly 70`s buildings (this town was obviously planned by the person who built Harlow and has a kind of 1970`s thing going on).

Had a nice walk along the prom (it was slightly cooler there) and something to eat before heading back to my very hot attic. Even with no sheets and no clothes on, it was a very hot night (good job I didn`t go for the mixed dorm).

Merida – 10th-11th July

Managed to miss the rain shower this evening by being on the bus – I am beginning to relish the air-conditioned bus journeys as a chance to cool off. Merida is one of the larger towns I`ve visited on my trip and the Zocalo was buzzing when I walked into the centre. The obligatory Cathedral was again very striking and again lit up the night sky. Being a major stop off point for the rest of the Yucatan Peninsula, the place is rather touristy with loads of people trying to flog you things. The sad part is a lot of them are tiny kids – around 6 or 7 years old.

The next day I picked a café to watch the Cup Final, and there was a fairly even mix of Dutch and Spanish supporters. Not quite sure why the Mexicans feel such an affinity with Spain – it`s a bit like India supporting England in the World Cup! Still got chatting to some Aussies who like me, were travelling for a year (one was a travel agent!) – and they gave me some great tips about Cuba. I felt like I wanted Holland to win, and it was sad to see the Dutch contingent go home disappointed.

I have my own room at the hostal here, and it has a pool! (the hostal that is, not my room) – but it looked a bit murky so I decided to cool off by sitting in the garden, unfortunately so had the mosquitos. About fifty bites later, I made a hasty retreat back into town.

Spirits were high that evening, and I came across an incredible sight – they had closed of one whole side of the Square and there were literally hundreds of old Spanish couples dancing to a sort of Salsa and having a great time. One of the smaller squares had a similar event earlier in the day (albeit on a smaller scale) and a good time was being had by all (they even had a doctor going around the crowd with a stethoscope in case anyone over-did it!). Sweet.

Chichen Itza and Tulum 12th July

Julie and Andrew, another American couple who had been on the trip to the canyon and Palenque, were also staying at my hostal, and I got chatting to them on the way to Tulum the following morning. This driver couldn`t be more different from the last. He arranged an English Speaking guide to take us around the Chichen Itza site (one of the largest in Mexico) and even though it was stiflingly hot, he explained the significance and the amazing ingenuity of the Mayans in lining up their pyramids to mean that on the solstices, a serpent would seem to appear winding it's way down the side of the pyramid. All the structures were designed mathematically and formed a type of calendar.

We all returned to the bus hot and sweaty – and the driver suggested a dip in the local “cenote” a naturally formed swimming hole. This really hit the spot and none of us imagined the well organized “pool” complete with hanging vines, real fish, and ultra clean bathrooms. And all for 70 pesos (around £3.50). It certainly tops my list of places to swim – it was like something out of Indiana Jones. An unforgettable experience.

After lunch we were dropped in Tulum. Julie, Andrew and I jumped in a cab to a hotel I had been recommended, only to find it was a bit of a dump, but was close to the ruins (in fact it was in danger of being mistaken as part of the ruins). They only had a mixed dorm available, and since we felt we knew each other quite well by then, we agreed to share. The strange thing is, only a few weeks ago, it someone had told me I`d be sharing a room with a couple I barely knew, I would have found it all a bit uncomfortable, but here I was, and it seemed perfectly normal! Hopefully, they felt the same.

We walked down to the beach just as the sun was setting and it was beautiful – the sky was full of pastel pinks and blues and the sand pure white. Sitting at the beach bar drinking Margaritas until it got dark was a little slice of heaven.

My intention to get up early the next morning to walk to the ruins before the crowds, didn`t quite happen, and it was already very busy and hot when I arrived. Although not as architecturally stunning as the other ruins I had visited, the setting was unique, overlooking the blue Caribbean – they even had their own beach (perhaps they could claim to be the very first all inclusive property along the Riviera Maya??).

Spent a very relaxing afternoon enjoying the beach and the beach bar with Julie and Andrew – they had decided to spend the night in Tulum and had rented a cabana on the beach – must admit I was quite envious.

Playa Del Carmen – 13 – 17th July

Took the bus an hour along the coast to Playa Del Carmen – not the place I remembered when I stopped off there on a cruise 5 years ago. It was awful – a tourist hell hole full of souvenir shops and Burger Kings. The only redeeming factors were that the hostel was within rucksack carrying distance of the bus station and there was a Walmart! I was sharing a dorm with a very strange woman from the Bronx, who now lived in Hawaii. She said she was a writer in the film industry but “didn`t want to talk about it”, was on her way to Amsterdam, and had a very liberal attitude to wearing clothes in the room (bear in mind she was in her sixties) – I reached the conclusion she worked in the porn industry! My other room mates were initially 2 South Korean girls, and then an Argentinean and a couple of trainee doctors from Watford (the first Brits I had properly encountered so far).

Spent the next couple of days trying to avoid being hassled on the main “Strip” and I hate to admit, holed up in Starbucks, where they had free wi-fi and air-conditioning. Took the ferry over the Cozumel to meet up with Kate, one of Dan`s old primary school classmates, who had trained there to become a diving instructor. Had a morning snorkeling and then a very long lunch catching up on the last 12 years since I`d seen her.

Was fairly relieved and excited to be moving on to my next port of call, Cuba – a country that had always fascinated me and that I was desperate to see before the US lifted it`s embargo and the end of the Castro administration. I managed to get my Cuban Visa at the airport with very little hassle – to apply in London you have to send proof of where you are staying, flight tickets, give 20 reasons why you want to visit Cuba and join the Communist party – here, they just look at your passport and take your money – it took seconds. I have a funny feeling the rest of my visit to Cuba isn`t going to be so straight forward!

All I have to do now is to work out how to get from the airport to my home stay in Havana – they did say they would try to pick me up (what in, I ask myself? – a tank perhaps?).

Shiver Me Timbers

Shiver Me Timbers


Pirates of the Caribbean

Pirates of the Caribbean


Let`s All Dance

Let`s All Dance


Cenote

Cenote


Chichen Itza

Chichen Itza


Tulum

Tulum


Re-union with Kate

Re-union with Kate


Campeche

Campeche


Merida

Merida


Merida

Merida


Tulum

Tulum


Tulum

Tulum


Merida

Merida


Tulum Beach

Tulum Beach

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Down Mexico Way... Pt 2 - Puebla to Palenque

Puebla, Oaxaca, San Cristobal and Palenque 1st – 9th July

The days are flashing by, so apologies for the blogs coming thick and fast now, but I'm trying not to fall too far behind as I risk forgetting where I went and when.

Mexico City to Puebla - 1st July

Got to the bus station full of trepidation, but was pleasantly surprised by the first class bus and service – my tickets were waiting, and they even checked in my bag and gave me a ticket for it (I have nightmares about losing my rucksack). Still, after a relatively effortless and comfortable 2 hour journey I arrived in Puebla and waltzed off the bus with all the other passengers into the "Arrivals Hall". But the luggage carousel was no-where to be seen, and I was left with no idea what had happened to my bag. After several miserable attempts to ask people for help (they thought I wanted to buy a bag – so much for my Spanish!) – a young man who was unloading bags, went off with my ticket and luggage receipt. With visions of my bag returning without me to Mexico City and with no proof that it ever existed, someone came to my rescue and managed to translate my predicament to the powers that be. At that moment the young man appeared with it out of nowhere – so panic over! Now I know, you have to actually get your own bag off the bus –the first class service obviously ends when you get off the bus!

My Hostal was an old 17th century colonial mansion with a pretty inner courtyard. I had a dorm to myself – free reliable internet and a continental breakfast– all for £8 a night – bargain.

Went exploring only to find the only branch of Woolworths still in existence – it`s here in Puebla! Sadly there was no pick and mix. There was also a memorial to John Lennon – imagine! That evening I experience my first tropical rain storm. Lucky for me, I did have an enormous bright blue rain cape that I bought in the 99 cent store in San Francisco. I`m sure I looked very stylish as I slid home (the Aztecs obviously hadn`t accounted for the perils of walking on polished stone pavements with flip flops when they built their towns), looking like Batman`s mum.

I did get chatted up (before I donned the cape) by a drunken young Mexican, but the language barrier got in the way (must learn: “I`m old enough to be your madre” in Spanish).

Oaxaca (which is pronounced like someone clearing their throat) 2nd – 4th July

After a fairly comfortable 4 hour journey, I made it to Oaxaca, managing to collect my luggage this time. Found I was sharing a dorm with two nice girls – one from Delhi and one from San Fran.

Unfortunately they were here first, so I got the top bunk! I`ve not slept in a bunk bed since the boys were small, when I used to fall asleep reading them a bedtime story. Still it`s all part of the fun. Good job I don`t sleep walk.

Oaxaca is another fairly pretty colonial town and during my first outing I discovered that the local elections were taking place this weekend, and they seem to be a great deal more enthusiastic about them than we are! They had firecrackers, a band playing in front of the cathedral and a parade – at that point, I really felt that I had arrived in Mexico.

After being chatted up by a nice young man who somehow guessed that I was looking for a vegetarian restaurant and said that he thought I had lots of positive energy but was slightly unbalanced! (A scarily accurate description all in all). I didn`t hang around for him to try to balance me out, and found the veggie restaurant which was owned by a guy who used to live in Seven Sisters! I tried out the “mol-e” which is a speciality of this area – basically a thick brown spicy gravy, made with chocolate – and yes, it really is as disgusting as it sounds, especially with tortillas and cheese.

Had an interesting day out visiting Monte Alban, another temple complex – this time on the top of a hill so amazing views, and it is almost complete, so the lay out is fairly apparent. I wonder when I`m going to get fed up seeing piles of old stones??? Stopping off at unusual unfinished convent at Cuilapan, the heavens opened again, just in time to make it back to the hostal. Later that I evening I braved the rain (sensing it had eased off a bit, judging by the fact that the fireworks had started up again – either that the local candidates were having a shootout). Headed off back to see my mate Augustin at the Veggie restaurant to reminisce about North London.

San Cristobal 5 - 7th July

My first overnight bus journey wasn`t too bad, but I found myself linguistically challenged as my neighbour was from Toulouse. Between her not very good English, and my not very good French, we managed to hold a fairly decent conversation! It was a bit confusing for me, having been struggling with my Spanish for the past few days, to have to drag my French back to the front of my mind (with a bit of Italian thrown in for good measure).

I thought that if I could manage a 12 hour plane journey, a first class bus with reclining seats and loads more first class legroom should be easy. What I didn`t account for was the fact that it seemed to be going round and round bends on the mountain roads all the time (thank god it was dark) lurching from side to side every few seconds. The bus seemed to come to a complete standstill every half an hour or so (maybe to wait for a goat to get out of the way perhaps?), plus there seemed to be speed bumps every few yards for most of the journey (or maybe they were the goats they didn`t slow down in time for??)*.

The Posada Ganesh is quite sweet if not a bit rustic. I`m in a “cabana” in the middle of the garden, which is a glorified shed really, but at least I`ve got the shed to myself. While waiting for my cabana to be prepared (they probably had to move the lawn mower and the rake out) I had breakfast with some lovely Polish youngsters, who spoke better English than wot I can. Then had a long chat with Yoko, a lovely Japanese lady around my age who was, like most of the other Americans I came to meet in Mexico, from San Francisco.

Had a wander around the town and got chatting to a weird and wonderful bunch of hippies from Minnesota, playing a cross between Country and Zydeco music which was really good. They`re travelling all around South America in an old school bus, so maybe I`ll catch up with them again somewhere – maybe even Glastonbury next year?

What`s there not to like about this place, it`s kind of cool and chilled out with musicians on each street corner – every other restaurant is vegetarian, the wine is less than orange juice at 90p a glass and there`s an Indian that also does Lebanese food! No wonder the Zapatista rebels wanted it to themselves.

My tour to the Sumidero Canyon proved a nice change from cities and churches and ruins. The views were stunning, and we got to see several crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks, as well as monkeys, storks, pelicans (and sadly the last of my hat, as the speed of the boat and the wind blew it right off my head). Met a really nice Danish couple that had been on the overnight bus (I think I eventually got to know almost all my fellow travelers on that bus whilst in San Cristobal).

Back in town in time for the second half of the footie, I remembered to pick up my washing which set me back the princely sum of MEX$15 (about 75p) – I wondered how much it would cost to post all my washing here from Brentwood? Back at the hostal, I found that that Katie and Gautam, the nice American couple I had also met on the bus, had taken my recommendation and come to stay there too. I don`t know what their room was like, but they were jealous of my shed!

Had a very enjoyable evening with them, and tried out another local speciality - Caldero – a watery soup with tortilla chips (tastes better than it sounds!). We then walked right up to the church overlooking the town for some great views of the lightning storm in the distance.

Palenque – 8th – 9th July

An early start on Thursday for my transfer to Palenque by minibus. The bus driver was the grumpiest git I`d encountered so far. All the other tour buses managed to stop right outside the hostal, but he had parked half a mile away so I had to lug my bags all along the street and round the corner (of course he didn`t help me). I was the last one on the bus, so I had the privilege of sitting on the rock hard seat in the middle next to him. After telling me off for trying to eat the cake I`d brought for breakfast, he eventually (and reluctantly) stopped after 3 hours at a roadside café right in the heart of Zapatista territory. This was obviously not on his itinerary, as he cut our time short at the next two stops on the 10 hour journey – a couple of lovely waterfalls – Agua Azul and Misol Ha. We arrived at the Palenque Ruins just in time for another torrential downpour, and after being harassed by the guides who proposed a tour in English (this must have been quite limited as they didn`t even understand when we asked them the way to the toilets), I decided to make my own way round. It was impressive, being set in the middle of the jungle, but had nothing on Angkor Wat in Cambodia (maybe I am getting a bit templed-out now!).

It`s was so humid and hot, I was so grateful that I splashed out on a “hotel” for the night – I couldn`t wait to get the air con on and jump in the shower. The driver was not very happy about dropping us at our accommodation (even though this was the service advertised) as he claimed he didn`t know the way! Facing an uprising not seen since the Zapatistas heyday, he reluctantly agreed to take us, with me navigating. Despite this we managed to find The Hotel Chablis (I think this town has a bit of a drink problem – there`s also a Hotel San Miguel – I`m was looking out for the Hotel Pinot Grigio), and although not the Ritz (or the Dom Perignon), was just about worth the princely sum of £23 a night (about 3 times what I had been paying) and I had a good sleep.

Palenque offers very little other than the ruins, but as I didn`t fancy another overnight bus journey, I faced the prospect of another whole day here. I spent a day avoiding the rain (the trusty blue rain cape made another appearance), buying a new hat (the Spanish for hat is actually “sombrero”, so I was a bit worried about what I would end up with) and sitting in the really cool bar across the road where they played great Cuban music and served fantastic food, writing my blog and catching up on e-mails. An early start the next morning to catch the 8am bus to Campeche, where I hit the coast for the first time in Mexico – the beaches are beckoning!

  • Joke: ©D.Harris

Memories....

Memories....


Everybody Dance

Everybody Dance


Monte Alban

Monte Alban


My Shed

My Shed


Crocodile..rock...

Crocodile..rock...


San Cristobal

San Cristobal


New Iron Maiden Album Cover?

New Iron Maiden Album Cover?


My new best friend!

My new best friend!


Puebla

Puebla


Cuilapan Convent

Cuilapan Convent


View from Monte Alban

View from Monte Alban


Oaxaca

Oaxaca


Oaxaca Fountain

Oaxaca Fountain


Oaxaca

Oaxaca


Sumidero Canyon

Sumidero Canyon


San Cristobal

San Cristobal


Agua Azul

Agua Azul


Palenque

Palenque

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Down Mexico Way... Pt. 1 - Mexico City

Down Mexico Way...

Pt 1: Mexico City 29th June – 1st July

This is it – have finally made it to Mexico. Moving from the relative familiarity of San Fran right out of my comfort zone, was a bit scary at first, but I guess it`ll take a bit of adjusting. I really wished I spent more time (or had more time) before I left to learn a little more Spanish. I`m struggling a bit here, and they don`t seem to understand my Italian which is a bit frustrating! If only the Italians had invaded before the Spanish, I`d be alright!

Arriving at my first hostal in Mexico city was a bit worrying as it looked a bit like a garage on the outside, but was clean and comfortable and was opposite a police post, so I felt fairly safe! Tried out their underground system, which is about as hot as ours, but much more reliable and the tickets only cost….wait for it….15p! Boris could learn a few lessons from Mexico. And no buskers, just blokes with huge boom boxes in their backpacks trying to flog CDs. Who buys CDs anymore! Haven`t they heard of illegal downloading here??

Mexico City is very different place from San Francisco! You can cross the road whenever and wherever you like for a start! Although you do run the risk of being mown down, there are no homeless people and it`s HOT!

They had closed off the Zocolo (the main square) and all the surrounding roads to show the football. This is a nation that takes the sport seriously! And I`ve never seen as many coppers in my entire life in one place – they`re everywhere! I soon found out why – there seems to be a bit of a "protest" culture here.

Since I was feeling a bit tired and hot, I decided to get one of those hop-on-hop-off bus tours. Well, after waiting about an hour to hop on it, I didn`t feel much like hopping off, and just stayed on it while it did a 2 hour tour of the what looked like the back streets and industrial estates of downtown Mexico City. They did have commentary in English for the first half hour, but then that packed up, so I had no idea what we were looking at. I kept nodding off, only to be woken up by branches from the low hanging trees bashing into my head.

The following day I went on a tour to Teotihuacan (which I still can`t pronounce) which the Aztecs regarded as the place where the universe was created – it didn`t look like a black hole but was pretty impressive nonetheless. We had stopped for lunch at the obligatory craft workshop, which was better than most as they showed us how they made mescal (with several free wormless samples) and also 101 things you can do with a cactus! The soundtrack on the bus was circa 1966- 70 (Santana, Hendrix and The Doors) which certainly added to the hippy experience.

That evening proved quite a surreal experience. I went to find Garibaldi Square where all the mariachi bands play. It was hilarious – I felt like I`d walked into a Monty Python sketch. I imagine a pretty square full of cafes, where the mariachis would wander over and play a song for a few pesos. I got within half a mile of the square and they were hanging around like hookers on the street corners dressed in their full costumes, touting for business and brandishing their instruments quite menacingly!

I expected Michael Palin to come lunging up to me with his trumpet shouting "Tune missus???". The square itself was quite scary, and I got offered my first joint of the trip – at that moment, I didn`t feel I needed one!

The next morning, despite my complaining feet, I set off for the renowned Museum of Anthropology, which was indeed a fascinating and comprehensive insight into the history of the Mexican people from the Stone ages onwards. Looking forward to my first bus journey (only 2 hours, so breaking myself in slowly).

Spain vs Portugal

Spain vs Portugal


Where`s My Mule???

Where`s My Mule???


The Mariachis Take on a Gang of Local Youths

The Mariachis Take on a Gang of Local Youths


Museo de Antropoligia

Museo de Antropoligia


Museo De Antropologie 2

Museo De Antropologie 2


Mexico City Cake Shop (Especially for Dave)

Mexico City Cake Shop (Especially for Dave)


Eros`s Girlfriend

Eros`s Girlfriend


The Biggest Organ in the World!

The Biggest Organ in the World!


Teotihuacan 1

Teotihuacan 1


Teotihuacan 2

Teotihuacan 2


Teotihuacan 3

Teotihuacan 3


Bride over-does her pre-wedding Diet

Bride over-does her pre-wedding Diet


The Mexican Team

The Mexican Team


The Gang Leaders Have a Face-off

The Gang Leaders Have a Face-off


They Bring In the Big Guns...

They Bring In the Big Guns...

Posted by kathystravels 16:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

(Entries 26 - 30 of 35) « Page 1 2 3 4 5 [6] 7 »