Cuba & Belize
Two week Intrepid tour through Cuba then what was left of the month in Belize
Long flight and a slow passage through Cancun airport. Pretty straight forward though the bag took a while to show up. The bus stop wasn't obvious in the crowd of taxis outside but once I found the kiosk was straight forward and only had to wait 5 minutes.
The hostel wasn't far from the bus stop and is run by a really friendly guy. They've only opened a month ago and it's pretty basic but they're doing an awesome job painting it colourfully and with some pretty impressive murals.
There's a park just up the block where the locals seem to congregate with food stalls and music. Makes for quite a pleasant evening though I get the impression they very much follow the Spanish culture and start late.
So a pretty gentle start which is what you want after a 10 hour flight.
The guacamole they described as mild is pretty spicy, think I'll skip the jalapenos
I wasn't really interested in exploring Cancun as I've been here before so lazed about for the day waiting for my flight tomorrow. There's more productive and interesting things I could have done but my time zones were a bit out of sync and for a single day it just didn't seem worth the bother to me.
Had a pleasantly chilled day and started reading a book that's been on my to read list awhile: The Goldfinch.
I arrived at the airport for a 3pm flight to find it had been delayed to 8pm. We were able to check in our bags so going to the beach for a few hours was definitely an option but I was really into my book The Goldfinch by this stage so didn't mind so much. They gave us meal vouchers so dinner was free and its not a bad airport, there a coupe of bars where I could kick back with a beer and read my book.
My flight eventually left at 10pm meaning I was arriving after midnight rather than the original 5pm scheduled arrival. I'd taken the easy route and prearranged pick up and accommodation with Intrepid. Given the delayed arrival I was really happy I had and was picked up and delivered without any issue which was great as it was after 1am by the time my bag arrived and I made it out of the airport.
+5/7/15Start of the tour
I had pretty much a day to myself and spent it wondering around the streets of old Havana. The city has a vibe to it that I really like.
The evening was the official start of the tour where we met our guide Mickel. He has a tendency to go on a bit but seems a good sort. I'm rooming with Matt, another Kiwi also living in London. There's sixteen of us, half oldies half more my age and younger. Too many to remember them all but there's a couple of Aussie girls, Janine and Karina; Emily an Irish girl; Gillian from Scotland; Carol and Kevin, an older couple from Aus as well as another pair of couples; Kristina and Tatyana, both from Switzerland; Fiona I think from Brisbane (Pricilla, Queen of the Desert) and another Irish girl Anne Marie.
Mickel took us to a local joint for dinner that was probably a bit small for a group our size. It was a cool joint though and the food was great; the shrimp in garlic oil was absolutely delicious.
We had a slow three hour walking tour with our guide in the morning culminating in mojitos on a rooftop bar on a hotel where supposedly Ernest Hemingway used to stay. The rest of the day we had to ourselves.
I walked around for a few hours checking out the other squares that had been recommended that I hadn't seen yet before catching up with some of the others for a taxi in one of the better kept old cars. Ours was a purple 1948 Ford Fila with white interior. It struggled a bit when it hit a ride but an hour or so cruising around Havana in old convertible was pretty awesome.
We caught up with a couple of the other girls for dinner at a restaurant Mickel had recommended in a wee culdisac off the square with the main cathedral. I had the Shredded Lamb and it was delicious. So far the comments I'd heard beforehand that food in Cuba isn't great has been off the mark. Guess having a local guide to give us recommendations helps a lot.
The evening we spent in the fort across the river for the firing of the canon at 9pm. Overly dramatic and touristy but that added a bit of an amusement factor to the proceedings.
Our first day on the bus. Air conditioned and really pretty comfy. 24 seats for 16 of us so I have one to myself which lets me stretch out.
A four drive to Santa Clara where we visited the Che Guevara museum. No cameras allowed but a stone face in the wall where his remains are a good selection of photos that highlighted his life.
From there it was on to Cienfuegos where we had nice dinner - lamb for me - on a rooftop restaurant as the sun set. Following that Mickel took us down by the sea side for rum and coke we drank out of plastic bottles as we sat on the wall. Plenty of locals around but we seemed to be the only ones drinking.
+8/7/15Cienfuegos to Trinidad
In the morning we had a few hours to explore Cienfuegos but there wasn't a great deal to see. Tried the ice cream at the Coppiella but sadly strawberry was the only flavour available.
Back on the bus at midday where we had lunch on the rooftop of the Casa I'm staying at. Not long after it bucketed down.
A short orientation walk then we had an informal salsa lesson. I'd been dreading this bit but it was fine. Grabbed some beers to help loosen up then stumbled my through with the others.
Dinner involved lobster and while there was plenty it was a bit over cooked. We followed this up with s late night at a bar.
+9/7/15Rave in the cave
After a few hours sleep managed to get up in time for a walk to a local waterfall. Quite pretty and nice and refreshing.
The afternoon was abut of a siesta and dinner was an average affair but with a great view over the city.
The highlight of the day had to be the cave bar Mickel took us to. In the hill above Trinidad what looked a bit like a bunker entrance actually let down in a fully done up cave. Full of limestone formations it had been decked with a couple of dance floors, bars and even the toilets were impressive. Late night followed by a pizza early in the morning.
+10/7/15Recovery in Trinidad
Was meant to head down to the beach but even though I was awake I pulled out. Probably as good a place as any to laze around but I decided I preferred to sleep in the aircon rather than the hot sand. Was just feeling lazy really. From the others said it was lovely.
Had a couple of beers on the stairs in the evening. Reading The Sun Also Rises at the moment which is a nice fit though wish I had The Old Man And The Sea as he was apparently in Cuba when he wrote it.
We had a shared Cuban meal at the Casa for dinner that was pretty decent, the lobster and shrimps being the highlight. Headed up to stairs again afterwards for a bit of music before I cut it and headed for home. A night of Salsa didn't sound ideal to me.
I've enjoyed Trinidad though. Wish I'd made it to the beach but to be honest I needed the time to recharge.
Half a day on the bus from Trinidad to Camagüey most of which I spent dozing. Just finished The Old Sun Rises which I really liked though I can't say why it appealed so much.
We're staying in a hotel here for two nights, our only one for the trip. Nothing special but somehow a nice change. It even has a pool though it's full of kids
We had a small tour in the morning in bicycle taxis around the squares and the farmers market. A bit drawn out maybe but a nice way to see the town. It's Sunday so not seems to be open.
Chilled out in the hotel for the afternoon watching some crummy movies and had a few drinks on the rooftop bar with Dan and Aggy before the afternoon rainstorm drove me indoors. Bit more persistent than the others have been and the awning didn't provide much cover.
Dinner was at Restaurant 1800 and buffet style. It's pretty well reviewed and was decent. Had a small bottle of Rum with Karina, Gillian, Anne Marie and Fiona in the hotel lobby as a night cap before bed.
+13/7/15Mickel's home town
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba
Our earliest start at 8:30am. Looks like we'll be visiting Mickel's home town at midday before we finish our longest drive day at Santiago de Cuba.
His hometown didn't have a great going on. We visited his mums craft hall which was nice and they gave us all little crochet gifts as it was Tatyana's birthday and they surprised her with a few things. Most of the group lined up at the Coppelia for an hour in the midday heat but I skipped and went for a beer in an air conditioned restaurant with Trevor and Hanna.
Mickel's parents seemed lovely and it seemed obvious it was a treat for them to get to have lunch him.
We arrived Santiago de Cuba after 5pm and the place has quite a dodgy feel to everywhere else we've been. The people here are much pudgier than elsewhere and the doorways are of guys leering at the girls. We had dinner at Rumba Cafe, a place Gillian knew from when she'd been here before which was really nice. We then headed to the top of the Gran Hotel for birthday drinks for Tatyana though as she's been sick she wasn't drinking. It had a spectacular view but was an odd joint, Karina's sure it was full of prostitutes and had spotted the pimp. When we left there were three girls in lingerie dancing up the front so she may not have been far off.
+14/7/15Santiago de Cuba
Santiago de Cuba, Cuba
This town hasn't grown on me. We visited the cemetery, a barracks that Fidel had raided and a fort at the harbour entrance. They wanted to charge $5 everywhere on top of the entrance fee for us to be able to take photos and frankly it wasn't worth it in most places and we didn't bother. The fort was impressive and you could easily snap a few pics after you'd entered.
For lunch headed back to the Rumba Cafe and had a properly decent sandwich which was Matt's recommendation from last night. Wandered around the streets for a bit afterwards but the Barcadi museum we'd planned to visit was closed and my impression of the place hasn't changed. Bought some water and food for the picnic tomorrow and chilling with a couple of beers on the rooftop terrace looking over the harbour.
Dinner was at the main Casa and was pretty good. They even pulled out a birthday cake for Tatyana for yesterday. Chose to have an early night as I don't like the town and Baracoa sounds like it'll be more much more fun.
+15/7/15Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa
We were on the bus at 9am and stopped just before midday at Guantanamo for a bathroom break and brief history lesson. On the way to the coast we got a glimpse of Guantanamo Bay as we went up a hill but it's no longer apparently possible to get close.
For lunch we stopped on the Carribean Coast and had a communal picnic and a swim in the sea. Really good.
Baracoa is a small coastal town and seems nice. Certainly a nice change after Santiago de Cuba.
Dinner was a small restaurant not far from the square. Nothing special but the fish in coconut sauce was good.
+16/7/15Loma del Yonque
Me and Karina were the only ones in the group keen for a hike, the others all signed up for a tour of a chocolate factory and the beach.
We were looking forward to a bit of exercise and a good hike but our guide had different thoughts, apparently wanting to go as slow as possible and taking the opportunity to stop and talk about every little thing. He did have some interesting stuff to point out but refused to take the hint we wanted to go faster and got in a strop when I asked him to they he chilled later. There was a fruit stall half way up where for a peso you could eat as much as you wanted both then and on the way down. At the end we called of in the river before a chocolate milk made from the local chocolate.
Dinner was another shared Cuban affair on a rooftop restaurant before drinks beside the sea to say bye to Fiona who leaves early tomorrow.
A late start today but headed up to the beach with the girls. The day was mostly sleeping in the shade and the occasional dip in the sea.
Dinner was at the same place as last night but this time a la carte. Lobster in coconut sauce and a couple of bottle of wines later we headed to a rooftop terrace for a few more drinks. Some of the guys were a bit gropey with the girls and I was asked to step in more than once. Still a fun night with a lightning storm and rain occasionally bucketing down and driving everyone under the tarps to wait for the next break. I broke a Jandal running after Karina and Gillian in the rain to check they back OK before heading back with Emily and Anne-Marie to our own Casa.
+18/7/15Buena Vista Social Club
We had a 14:30 flight from Baracoa to Havana so had the morning to chill. Just as well as I was pretty hungover after a night dancing and drinking in the rain.
We took an old ford truck to the airport which a nice change. The flight was slow but got us to Havana with no issues.
Dinner we had by the cathedral square, the good place we went to last time wasn't open but the place nearby we choose was good if somewhat disorganised. The lamb stew with sweet potato and blue cheese was rather good.
The evening was spent listening to Buena Vista Social Club in a funky old building. It was a good show but the music just doesn't move me. After that the night was a fizzer, the girls wanted a place to dance eventually gave up; I should have gone home earlier, I really wasn't in the mood.
+19/7/15Havana to Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
Quiet morning with a walk to a cigar and rum shop before everyone split and I caught a cab to the airport with Karina.
Flight to Cancun was only an hour late so arrived at a decent hour in the afternoon. The ATM wasn't working so changed some pounds at a horrid rate. Glad I knew where the bus left from as I had to go through two barriers, some works and the departures terminal to get there and only arrived s couple of minutes before the bus left.
Getting to Playa del Carmen and my hotel was dead easy. The hotel is conveniently between the bus station from Cancun and the one I'll be taking to Belize. Playa del Carmen itself is very much an American party town from what I've seen so far.
+20/7/15Playa del Carmen
Playa del Carmen, Mexico
This is a real American tourist town. It's kind of nice for a change with everything being so convenient but it's not a place I want to stay. The street street is full of bars, restaurants and shops all selling the same touristy rubbish. The beach is nice white sand but the water is brackish and full of dead seaweed at the moment.
Caught up with Mia who I met on an African trip in the evening with some of her friends. They were all clearly pretty tired after a day with the whale sharks and the others had a 6am start so was an early night. The Tequila almost convinced them to head out but sounded like they'd been doing it for the last week.
+21/7/15Mexico to Belize
Belize City, Belize
Long slow day as I waited for my bus at 23:40. I wondered around the beach and the streets of Playa del Carmen but it's all the same and the dead seaweed makes the beach less pleasant. I was saved by Mia who came out for a few drinks in the evening. Lovely to catch and see her after 18 months and helped me pass the day.
The bus left on time and did manage to nap for s bit before the border crossing at 4am. This took an hour on either side and eventually rocked into Belize City just after what I was to find was 7am.
Caye Caulker, Belize
The water taxi was an easy walk from the bus stop but I was disappointed to see I'd just missed the 8am and would have to wait an hour and a half for the next. It wasn't until I asked when the next boat was and the girl said 8am that it clicked the time had rolled back an hour.
It was a bouncy ride across to the Caye and the guy kept getting us to move around at the start to try and balance the boat. An hour later we were there.
And it was hot, really hot. It's s charming little place though with dry sand streets and lots of little restaurants and bars.
Caye Caulker, Belize
The first time in 4 years so I did a refresher early in the morning before joining a dive trip out at the Turneffe Islands.
I hyperventilated a bit at start of the first dive so went through my water a bit quick but was much better on the second. The panicky feeling at the start had me ready to throw the whole thing in for a while though. In contrast I had a moment on the second dive where I was loving it. They weren't spectacular dives but saw turtles, eagle rays and a big moray eel.
Rendezvous Caye, Belize
I signed up for the three day sailing trip with Ragamuffin from Caye Caulker to Placencia based on the recommendation from Mia and her friends. There were about 20 others with the same idea, mostly couples and two small families, and we all hopped on a catamaran for a few days. Only room for people up top but it's a nice boat and we sleep in tents on the island.
We stopped for some snorkelling on the way down and briefly at a tiny little island that at some point had a couple of palm trees but is now clear of everything. The snorkelling was pretty decent, saw an eagle Ray and a turtle.
In the evening we stopped at a little island that been set up with shelters for cruise ships. Looked quite idyllic. Setting our tents up in the strong wind was bit of a challenge. Sleeping in them was even harder. Mine was the last up so was in the worst position and was half flattened by the end of the night.
The food was a decent spread and the free rum punch crept up on you then hit you solidly out of nowhere. Had a smoke with the locals in the wee shack of the pier. The electrical storm when getting up for a leak in the middle of the night was impressive especially with the clear sky directly above showing the stars and being surrounded by lightning.
Tobacco Caye, Belize
The next day we had two more good snorkelling stops, the highlight being a big eagle Ray that sailed past.
The best part for me though was the fishing. I hung a line out of the boat for most of the day and landed a Barracuda right at the very end, ten minutes before we landed. We had him for dinner as well as a whole lobster each and some amazing scalloped potatoes. Seriously good feed.
A bunch more rum punch then a better nights sleep in the tents as it wasn't blowing a gale. Tobacco Caye is actually populated so we were surrounded by trees and houses to block the wind.
The end of the trip. We had another snorkelling stop in the morning in a reserve where I saw the usual suspects: a turtle, eagle Ray and moray eel. We saw a leatherback turtle swimming on the surface as well as we made our way to a swimming spot and lunch.
Placencia seems like a nice little town though I haven't done much more than walk around it. The beach seems to suffering the same seaweed problem as the rest of the coast though.
Hopkins was a bit of an earlier stop than I was planning but sounded like a chilled out place and gave me a chance to catch up with Keith. I skipped the 6am bus and took the 12:45. There was an option to get a water taxi across to Independence at 10:00 then find the bus station but I chose to take the cheaper option and enjoyed a long breakfast at The Shak at the bottom of Placencia.
There wasn't a direct bus so I was facing a 7 mile walk or hitching a lift. Luckily an English couple were on the same bus and had prearranged a taxi and were kind enough to let me join.
Hopkins has a nice vibe to it. It's only a small little town and locals seem to just along with their lives; it hasn't become too touristy yet.
I missed Keith's message about dinner but did catch up with him for a couple of beers later. Random to see him in this part of the world.
San Ignacio, Belize
Got the bus at 7 to Dangriga where I waited half an hour for a bus to Belmopan. Almost missed it as I didn't realise the buses that said Belize City were going via Belmopan. Caught a taxi with a Dutch girl from Belmopan for $30 rather than waiting for the next bus. I wasn't in a hurry but she was keen to get the taxi and split it wasn't much more than a bus would be.
I fell asleep almost as soon as I got to my accommodation and lazed about the entire day. Going to see the ATM caves tomorrow, then Corocal and lastly some cave tubing before my flight out on Sat.
San Ignacio, Belize
Very cool trip though they don't let you take cameras because of previous damage which is a shame. You start with a half hour hike before making your way half a mile into the cave system.
The start is blocked by a deep pool you have to swim through before clambering your way upstream. There's one point that's quite tight and you have to bend your neck first then tilt your head to get through. The walls are fantastic, stalactites and stalagmites, glittering rocks in the torch light and the odd bat fluttering around it hiding from the light.
Once we were half a mile in we climbed up to a terrace which was full of broken pots and the odd sacrificial skeleton. They've left things as they found them so it's a fantastic experience. There are admittedly a few other groups in there at the same time and our guide pointed out damage from previous visits but now it seems they're much more on top of preventing further damage which sadly means no cameras.
It was a really cool experience and one that a number of travellers had recommended along the way.
Having dinner at the Guava Limb Cafe. The food was good but the cocktails are delicious. Had two mojitos as its two for one, the watermelon mint and the kiwi guava.
San Ignacio, Belize
I wasn't having much luck finding a tour group to join but Bing at the hostel hooked me up with a lovely French couple who had their own car and were willing to take me.
The road out was pretty bumpy and for the last stretch they provide a military escort because of some incident ten years ago. The site itself was impressive, especially when the sun came out. Not as amazing as I remember Tikal being but still very cool and the scale of the structures is impressive when you look back at the time.
After the ruins we visited Rio Frio Cave, the Rio On Pools and a 1000ft waterfall nearby. The cave was the best out of three, more a huge tunnel than a cave while the pools were murky and you could only see the top 300ft of the fall. The road out to the falls was the most exciting, an hour each way and some deep muddy patches that you felt you could get stuck in.
San Ignacio, Belize
I would have enjoyed this more if we hadn't spent so much time waiting. A couple were doing the zip line which took well over an hour and then we had lunch so didn't make a start until after midday though we left at 9 and arrived just after ten.
The caves were pretty cool once we got to them at around one. The tubing was pretty slow and easy but I was expecting that. We actually spent more time climbing in the caves than we did tubing. There was tight space were you had to crawl through on your stomach in the mud that was fun.
I flew from the tiny little airport in San Ignacio to Belize City via Belmopan before catching another flight up the coast to Cancun. From there it was one more flight directly to London.