We´re going to e-e-e-lope to Me-e-e-xico

We decided early on in our planning that Mexico was far too vast a country for us to attempt to explore in any depth given the time constraints of our trip, So, alas we simply spent a few days in the Yucatan region before making our way further south. As soon as we stepped off the plane from Cuba we had our first encounter with the illegal touts – did we want to buy bus tickets for 5 times the going rate? Of course they worked for the bus company – the tourist info guys didn´t know what they were talking about! Thankfully we continued past them to find the genuine tickets office 200m down the road. I get the feeling this could be a common theme for the trip!

A few hours later we were in Tulum, our base for our time in the country. We checked into a place which has been our most luxurious so far, four-poster bed, air con, mosquito nets, massive breakfasts and the biggest extravagance – our own bathroom. (I think it will be a while till we get anything like that again). Tulum is a small town on the main highway consisting of a handful of bars, restaurants and hotels. However, it also boasts two key draws – a stunning beach with white sands and turquoise sea and an impressive set of Mayan ruins overlooking said beach.

We borrowed bikes (no gears, brakes, bent handlebars, flat tires etc) and cycled to both on a very hot morning. The ruins were stunning, especially given the backdrop. And the site is guarded by literally hundreds of giant iguanas – they look very majestic as they sit atop the ancient ruins. We spent some time on the beach, chilling out, swimming and watching kite surfers doing flips and turns off the beach.

Tulum is only a couple of hours drive from Chichen Itza – one of the most important Mayan sites in Latin America so we hired a car and made a trip out to the ruins. This time we hired a guide, which made a massive difference and helped us understand much more about Mayan culture, the calendars the people used, the importance of their gods and the sacrificial rites they believed in. The structures were incredible, and understanding how they had been designed heightened our appreciation of the area. The only damper on the excursion was being stopped at a police road check on our way there – they said they´d have to give us a ticket for not having both our passports with us as ID. This would mean us making a trip to the state capital to pay it etc. However, they would help us avoid this inconvenience if we paid them a small “fine” instead. We had little choice but to pay up – only a few dollars as we persuaded them we didn´t have any money on us but frustrating to experience this example of corruption nonetheless. Thankfully, we stopped at an internet cafe to print off copies of our passports for the return trip – just as well as they stopped us again, but this time we were prepared!

We left Mexico the next day to continue on to Belize and Caye Caulker – a fairly brief stop in Mexico but we enjoyed the beautiful scenery, the yummy food (think giant burritos) and the lessons in Mayan history.

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Cuba: a tale of two cities

1 – 8 November 2011

First stop on our travels around Latin America: Cuba, and what a place to begin. We split our time on the island between two spots, the heart of the island Havana and the more rural western town of Vinales. Arriving in Havana late in the evening, we took a taxi to our first casa particular where we were greeted by our host, Oscar. He set the mark for what we would come to expect of almost all the Cuban people we encountered; he was incredibly friendly, eager to help us how ever he could and liked to talk to us about his views on the country and its unique situation. The casa we stayed in was a grand though crumbling old building close to Plaza de la Revolucion. And that’s where we started our tour of the city the next morning. A large open square, where Castro and the Pope have previously addressed hundreds of thousands of Cubans, looked over by images of Che Guevara, Cienfuegos and the Jose Marti Memorial. As tourists like us took in the sites, old buicks, cadillacs and pontiacs circled the square. Later we toured the city by bus and on foot, taking in Havana Vieja, its decadent but decaying buildings contrasting with the vibrancy of the people on the streets. Changing some of our tourist convertible pesos into moneda nacional, we indulged in delicious peso pizza for about 30p a slice – a habit we continued for the rest of the trip.

On the following day, we visited the Museo de la Revolucion and saw the Granma, the ship which transported Castro, Che and other revolutionaries back to Cuba from Mexico at the beginning of the revolution. Later, we headed on out to the beach to enjoy the sunshine where we got chatting to a local guy who told us how he had tried to get to Miami on a boat with friends but had been caught and turned back by the US authorities. He explained how difficult life was especially for the youth in Cuba and how much they want change.

After a couple of days in Havana, we headed out to the Cuban countryside to explore the more rural side of life on the island. Vinales is a small town of only a few streets, situated in the Pinar del Rio province. Porch life is a key feature of the town where everybody knows everybody and they all seem to spend half their time sitting on porch rockers and visiting the neighbours. We heard about a garden on the edge of town which we went to check out and were treated to a tour by one of the women who worked there. She showed us bananas, pineapples, starfruits, cocoa, coffee, oranges, grapefruits and more all growing there and which she let us sample. Of course a trip to Cuba wouldn’t be complete without sampling some of the local tipples, so we found a bar to try out some Cuba Libres, Mojitos and Daquiris – mmmm…

Vinales and its surrounds are designated Unesco Heritage sites so we decided to explore the reserve with the help of a guide. He took us hiking through tobacco fields, fruit farms and caves in the Mogotes. We stopped at a campesino’s house to try some freshly ground coffee and see how cigars and produced. A quick puff was necessary but I don’t think I’ll be taking up the habit of so many Cubans! Later that evening we stopped by a bar in town with live salsa music and watched the locals hit the dance floor. Incredible to see the moves, especially to the faster numbers.

Back in Havana, we dedicated our final days to exploring the parts of the city we had so far overlooked. We put down the guidebook and wandered aimlessly around the old city, discovering hidden squares and back streets, salsa bars (and more peso pizza stands). We got soaked by massive waves breaking along the Malecon as we took in the sunset. We took a trip out to the Vedado neighbourhood and, while sheltering from the rain, got chatting to a local woman who told us about an amazing Japanese garden made entirely from shells right on the sea front, accessible through a hotel. A real highlight of the trip and no mention of it in the Lonely Planet.

After a week in what was a charming and incredible country, it was time to move on to our next destination, Mexico. But, just to end it on a high note, our last  (and wonderful) hosts drove us to the airport in their fabulous1950’s Ford Fairlane.