A Travellerspoint blog

Trinidad & La Boca

experiencing a cubans holiday

sunny 36 °C
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The first thing about Trinidad was that it is HOT, even hotter than Havana which was already very hot. After realising we didn't have an address for our hotel we had to find The Internet Cafe, the only place in town to get Internet where we then could keep walking in the heat to our casa particular.

We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the cobblestoned streets of Trinidad, jumping into any shop that had air-conditioning and eating a bucket of ice-cream to keep cool. After a home cooked dinner at our casa, on the roof terrace overlooking the city, we went for a stroll to a free outdoor concert and bar where there was a Cuban salsa band and people salsa dancing. It was such a fun atmosphere sitting on the steps of the square having a mojito and listening to the salsa music.

The next day after breakfast at the casa we headed to La Boca, a village 5km from Trinidad on the coast of Cuba. We arrived and checked into our waterfront casa and then got some rental bikes so we could ride 8km along the coast to Playa Ancon (Ancon Beach) a spectacular white sand, bright turquoise water beach. The ride along the coast was beautiful but horrific, the heat just killed us and by the time we arrived at the beach we were digustingly sweaty and frustrated and just fell into the water. After recovering we found some beach chairs and an umbrella and settled in for a day of sunbaking in the shade and swimming in the warm clear water. Pretty relaxing day really.

In the late afternoon we rode back slowly to La Boca. La Boca was absolutely buzzing with activity with people walking up and down the main beachfront street buying ridiculously cheap food and goods and lots and lots of people hanging out in the calm water drinking rum. We got ourselves a pizza that literally cost 20 cents each and then jumped into the water (minus the rum). After a super cheap dinner of pizza and burgers for a grand total of a $1 we then went for another swim, at 8pm the water was still packed! What was nice about La Boca was that it was a Cuban holiday resort, it felt like we were the only foreigners here and we were just watching normal life. Watching the people get their cheap food, seeing the queue to use the public phone, local kids playing with their toys in the sand, it was a great place.

In the morning we changed casa's and then had a really enjoyable day. Firstly we walked to just out of town to this awesome spot of really bright blue water where we were able to snorkel. We were the only ones there and it was brilliant. When we came back we had pizza for lunch again. I think Christian ended up eating about 10 of these pizzas over the 3 days we were there. We also escaped out of the heat into our well air-conditioned room to have a nap. It was just so hot outside its all we really could do. In the late afternoon we made our way up onto the roof terrace of our casa where the grandma who runs the casa brought us ridiculously strong cocktails and we watched the view out over the bay. We got to experience another piece of normal Cuban life while up here; watching an extended family having a full on violent argument (apparently about something disrespectful one boyfriend said about the cousin's girlfriend). There was everyone punching each other, girls pulling hair and at one point a baseball bat and machete were pulled out (though thankfully restrained before they were used). It was a very surreal place. For dinner we went to one of the stands and met Lionel, a Cuban with very good english, and although he has a degree in chemical engineering, he runs this stand with his dad and wife. We spent ages chatting to him about all sorts of things, he was in love with Christians accent while he cooked us up some steak sandwiches for about 50c a piece. We went back and visited him every day!
The next day we hired bikes and rode firstly to our snorket spot again for a quick dip, then after a quick pizza we rode the 5km hilly road, past old cars, tractors and horse and cart back to Trinidad so we could use the internet and book a bus. So many things we take for granted at home but here you have to go out of your way to get them. Thankfully the ride back to La Boca is more downhill and far more enjoyable. After sweating ourselves silly with all this riding we had another burger, and jumped into the water as we waited for them to cook. We spent the afternoon hopping swimming spots of bright blue clear water down the 8km to Playa Ancon and back. There was lots of beautiful coral and fish to see and then also relaxing on the white sands of Playa Ancon. Another lovely day.

We had dinner that night at our casa. Firstly black bean soup, then shrimps and rice and finished it off with fruit and home made vanilla bean ice-cream. It was possibly the best meal we had in Cuba.

In the morning of our last day we went back for a swim in our swimming spot. Our time in La Boca had been so relaxing, there was no hassle and expectation that you had heaps of money as you were a tourist, there was no tourists really, no phones, no internet, just enjoy the beach. It was wonderful. Before we left we went back to our burger man who had wanted to give us a pineapple to say goodbye. We also said goodbye to our lovely casa family and then we were off to Santa Clara.

Trinidad

Trinidad

The rooftops of Trinidad

The rooftops of Trinidad

Having dinner in the casa

Having dinner in the casa

Relaxing on Playa Ancon

Relaxing on Playa Ancon

main street la boca

main street la boca

The crowd in the bay

The crowd in the bay

Relaxing on the balcony

Relaxing on the balcony

Bike riding to the beach

Bike riding to the beach

At our snorkel spot

At our snorkel spot

At our snorkel spot

At our snorkel spot

The beautiful coastline

The beautiful coastline

Taking in the view from the rooftop balcony

Taking in the view from the rooftop balcony

the crazy family fight we watched

the crazy family fight we watched

Sunset from the balcony

Sunset from the balcony

With the cuban granny

With the cuban granny

Posted by awowchuk 15:24 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Havana

old cars and rum

sunny 35 °C
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We were incredibly excited as we got to the San Jose airport for the first of the two planes to get to Havana. After a little frustration of having to pay yet another airport tax, we were off to Panama and then Havana!

We arrived in the afternoon and were instantly hit with the humid heat. After changing our money into the two different currencies, which will always be baffling and incredibly frustrating, we headed off to Havana, not in an old 50's car, but in a Hyundai! But there were these old cars and buses everywhere. Puling up to our accommodation in Centro Habana we were struck with how run-down all these beautiful colonial buildings were and also there were just people everywhere. The people just live out on the street or from their balconies looking over the street. There was almost always more pedestrians than cars. In Cuba there is not really a hostel system in place, instead in the early nineties the government allowed families, under strict conditions to rent out rooms within their houses to people. It was one of the first forms of private enterprise allowed in the country. People of course still have to pay the government a fee for this but it an incredibly popular thing with Casa Particulars as they are called, everywhere. We were staying with Lidia and Argnelio who owned this particular house and they were so lovely and so interesting to see how the people live.

We spent the afternoon strolling around Habana Vieja, the old town. It was a fascinating place, if it was restored to its former glory it would feel so much like Cartagena in Colombia. It was so sticky walking around the streets, seeing the cafes and the stores. The shops are so different to ours. Absolutely everything in every store is kept in cabinets, there are no supermarkets or convience stores. Everything feels like you really need to know where it is and how to get it. Just finding a place to buy bottled water was hard enough. The other thing about Cuba is the food is TERRIBLE. We sat down at a restaurant recommended in Lonely Planet which was nice and cheap. You wouldn't think it is hard to screw up pizza or pasta but the whole country just can't cook. It's probably the ingredients they have to work with - the ham tasted like spam, and the cheese was just plain terrible and the chorizo was just mush, we didn't even see how it resembled a sausage. After our 'interesting' dinner we walked through the old town up to watch the sunset on the Malecon. A promenade along the sea linking Habana Veija, Habana Centro and Vadado - The old and the newer parts of the city. Then back through into Habana Vieja to a bar where we had some Mojito's and watched the salsa dancing while talking to an aussie guy from Parramatta also having a few drinks! (small world)

The next day was spent walking around all the sights of Habana Vieja - the beautiful refurbished squares, the grand buildings, having some semi-decent lunch and taking in the atmosphere. We also visited the Revolution Museum which sounded promising but was really just badly curated with a lot of propaganda. It was housed in the pre-revolution presidential palace and there were some bullet holes all around from an assasination attempt on Batista, the former 'tyrant'. Everything in Cuba is about the revolution, there are billboards everywhere with pictures of Fidel, Raul and Che along with passionate revolutionary words. The revolution museum was no different and had a section with vehicles used in the revolution that these guys drove and also the boat they attacked Cuba with. To be honest it made us a bit incensed, with how much propaganda there was. The government really does have tight control over the Cuban people and their way of life.
Another example of this tight control is Internet. There is no such thing as free internet, indeed it was only a few years ago that people were allowed to own a computer. We have become acustomed to having free wifi wherever we stay and at restaurants and cafes but in Cuba it is only in either the really expensive hotels at a premium, and only accessible in the lobby areas or at a slighly less expensive price at the government telecommunications provider, of which there is normally only one of these in the city. So to use internet we had to go to a fancy hotel and pay $8US an hour to send a few emails and book some accommodation. Needless to say our time in Cuba gave us a little distance from the rest of the world.

We also visited the Havana Club Rum Museum. Havana Club is the most famous and oldest Cuban Rum and in a quick tour we learnt how they make it, under the guidance of the Rum Masters. We also got to sample some, but no matter what I will never like drinking it straight. That evening we walked all the way along the Malecon to Vedado to go to a famous ice-cream parlour - Coppelia and then the cabaret. The ice-cream parlour turned out to be a disaster and showed just how screwed up the double economy was. We tried to walk in through multiple but security guards turned us away or pointed us in the direction of private room. Basically foriegners are not allowed to pay the cuban prices (CUP) and must pay in the Cuban convertible peso (CUC), but the markup from the CUP to the CUC feels like 5000%. Something that costs 3 CUP will then cost 3 CUC but the rate is actually 1 CUC is 25 CUP. So basically as a tourist you are getting horrifically ripped off. We left the ice-cream parlour angry and ice-cream less. It may only be a few dollars but it is not right. We went instead and spent the money on mojitos.
The cabaret was an interesting event, the salsa version of the moulin rouge. We were quick expecting all the tackyness and we weren't quite sure what was happening at all through the whole event but it was entertaining none the less.

Our third day in Havana involved a day trip to the region of Pinar Del Rio and Vinales. The tour firstly took us to a cigar factory in Pinar Del Rio where we saw rows of people sitting at workstations rolling the tobaco into cigars. These people earn approx $25 US a month and work 6 days a week. The most exciting part of their day is when the news or stories or announcements are made. Everything is nationalised in Cuba and cigars are no exceptions, factories are not for individual brands, instead all factories make all brands and each day they make different cigars.

After a quick visit to a rum and cigar shop we passed on Vinales, a beautiful landscape of karst mountains surrounded by tobacco fields. We firstly went to a lookout point to see the landscape and then into the valley where we visited the ugliest rock mural ever seen, supposedly a picture of the animals that have inhabited this land over all time, before going to a cave within one of the mountains. We had lunch at the cave before going back to Havana. The tour was pretty good, especially the cigar factory but it all took a down hill as I got incredibly sick, food poisoning that seemed to last for the next few days.

After a horrific night for me, we left early in the morning for the bus to Trinidad.

off to Cuba!

off to Cuba!

Walking around Havana

Walking around Havana

Sunset on the Malecon

Sunset on the Malecon

The main street of Havana

The main street of Havana

A still used pharmacy in Havana

A still used pharmacy in Havana

Awesome old cars

Awesome old cars

The revolution muesum

The revolution muesum

Lots of old cars

Lots of old cars

Exclusive havana rums

Exclusive havana rums

A free shot of rum

A free shot of rum

Cabaret

Cabaret

Streets of Havana

Streets of Havana

Vinales valley

Vinales valley

Christian at the lookout

Christian at the lookout

Anna at the valley

Anna at the valley

Inside the cave

Inside the cave

Posted by awowchuk 11:59 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Bocas del Toro

just some more island fun

rain 25 °C
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The overnight bus to Bocas del Toro was absolutely freezing. I asked if they could turn down the airconditioning but they just laughed in my face. Throw in an incredibly fat woman in the seat in front of me, who's seat was unable to support her own weight, meaning she spent half the journey in my lap and a couple of bus drivers who insisted on blaring music out of the overhead speakers all night; meant we had a terrible journey. We arrived at a town called Almirante at about 7am, and from there we caught a taxi boat out to the islands that made up Bocas. It was absolutely pouring by the time we arrived. It wasn't a good start! However we were soon in the dry at our hostel. I say hostel, but that doesn't really do this place justice. It was more cabana accomodation and on arrival the host offered us a free upgrade to one of the largest cabanas. It was amazing, it had its own kitchen, a dining area, a bathroom and a very cool bedroom. It also had a big deck area outside.

We spent the first day in Bocas relaxing after the journey. We went out sushi on the waterfront for lunch and explored the town on the bikes that came with our accomodation. Bocas is made up of a number of islands. There is one main island where most people stay and then a number of islands nearby where there are beautiful beaches.

On our second day we visited Bastimentos Island, where there were a number of beaches. We caught a taxi boat from Bocas town out to the island and from there jumped on the back of a pickup, which drove us to the beaches. The first beach we stopped at was called Red Frog, because there are lots of red frogs that apparently live nearby. It was a huge surf bay, and looked quite rustic, but it was pretty. We had swam in the sea-weedy water, before grabbing some lunch. We then walked round to turtle beach. I thought this was much prettier than red frog and much to my delight there was no sea-weed! We played in the waves for a while before continuing to explore the island. It then started to pour with rain, so we turned back, went for another swim on turtle beach, and then wandered back to the taxi boat and returned to Bocas town. That night we met up with Shane, our friend from the San Blas tour, for dinner and drinks.

The following day the three of us had signed up for a snorkelling and deep boarding tour of some of the further islands. The tour was initially delayed by rain, but about an hour later we set off. The first stop was sloth island, a tiny little island with lots of sleeping sloths. Next stop was meant to be coral caye, but it started to pour with rain and lightning storm, so we had to take shelter and missed out on snorkelling. When the storm eventualy passed, we carried on our journey to Zapatillas island. This island was a protected national park and was absolutely beautiful. We had a walk around the island, through the mangrove and looking at konch shells before we had lunch and went for a quick snorkel after lunch. Then it was time to go deep boarding. I know many people reading this would have no idea what deep boarding is, we had certainly never heard of it before now, but it is basically being dragged behind a boat, holding onto a perspex wing that was attached to the boat by rope (like waterskiing), whilst wearing a snorkel, so you can observe life below the surface. The wing has been designed in such a way that a slight tilt up or down allows you to dive down, or spin or rise back to the surface. The wing reacts very suddenly and that combined with the momentum from the boat, allows you to dive quite deep very quickly, continue at that depth, exerting no effort, and then when you need to breath or feel like coming back up, return to the surface, again with very little effort. That may all sound very strange, but it was actually brilliant fun and you were able to experience the underwater world in a way that isn't really possible with normal snorkelling. We were able to have a couple of 10 minute goes each, by which time our arms were very tired from holding onto the wing. We then all jumped back in the boat and were taken to a final snorkelling spot. We spent a bit of time snorkelling and then we had some beers in the water. It was great. As the sun began to beautifully set, we were driven back to Bocas town.

The following day was spent travelling to Costa Rica (we had found that bizarrely it was cheaper to fly from Costa Rica to Panama to Cuba, than just from Panama to Cuba). We set off early and caught the taxi boat back from Bocas town to Almirante. From there we caught a bus to another town which took about 45 mins. From there we jumped on a much longer bus that would take us over the border and all the way to the Costa Rican capital, San Jose. It was about an hour and a half to the border. We had to cross a river on an incredibly rickety bridge at the border by foot and Anna managed to drop her flip-flop down a gap between the planks. She managed to get it back after a quick dash through no-man's land, but came back covered in nettle stings. After a bit of time queuing we had our passports stamped and we were able to get back on the bus. The journey from the border to San Jose took about 6 hours. There was a little hold up, because there was a head on collision in front of us, which closed the road for a while, but eventually we arrived in San Jose. We didn't really explore much of San Jose. It wasn't particularly pretty and we only saw it as a stop off before our flight to Cuba. We had dinner at a teriyaki grill and then returned to the hostel, excited that the following day we would be going to Cuba!
Bocas from the boat

Bocas from the boat

Relaxing in the waterfront sushi restaurant

Relaxing in the waterfront sushi restaurant

Riding our bikes!

Riding our bikes!

Red frog beach

Red frog beach

A sloth in the trees

A sloth in the trees

The pour rain on our boat trip

The pour rain on our boat trip

Not happy on Isla Zapatatas

Not happy on Isla Zapatatas

Holding a konch shell

Holding a konch shell

Isla Zapatatas

Isla Zapatatas

Christian being silly while deepboarding

Christian being silly while deepboarding

Being dragged behind the boat

Being dragged behind the boat

Swimming and beer with shane

Swimming and beer with shane

Boat and beer, what more do you need

Boat and beer, what more do you need

Anna and shane

Anna and shane

Bocas waterfront

Bocas waterfront

Our gorgeous bungalow

Our gorgeous bungalow

crossing the bridge from costa rica to panama

crossing the bridge from costa rica to panama

Posted by awowchuk 21:00 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Panama City

visiting the Panama canal

sunny 28 °C
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Panama city was not at all like we expected. Driving into it felt like driving around Singapore - enormous new skyscrappers lining the large freeways. There seemed to be no semblance of a downtown, just buildings all around and roads everywhere.

It was a great relief to get to our hotel and have a real shower and relax in a proper room, without a floor made of sand! We then headed into the historical part of town to have dinner with Fabio, Bart, Tessa, Caroline and Partoe. The historical centre could be absolutely amazing, much like Cartagena's old town, but it is still in the slow process of being gentrified. There is a collection of nice buildings amongst all the run down ones.

We only had one day in Panama city, so we went to the Panama Canal. We had to take a taxi there as you have take taxi's everywhere in Panama city. The canal is fairly impressive, being built in early 20th century and still be used 24 hours a day now. There are 3 sets of locks along the length of the canal and we were at the Pacific locks - Miraflores. The lock gates were 2 metres thick, weighed approx 800 tonnes and raised the ships up 16m from sea level. The whole system raises the ships up 36m over the course of 8 - 10 hours. We were able to see a ship leaving one of the locks heading towards the Atlantic. We also walked around the museum and learnt about the enormous expansion project they are currently constructing and then watched a little 'movie' about the canal. It was a classic piece of 3D corporate movie complete with funny glasses.

We spent the afternoon catching up with the internet and home before having dinner with Bart and Tessa at a cheap local restaurant and then we were off again..... we could only handle one night without a beach!!!!

Miraflores Lock at Panama canal

Miraflores Lock at Panama canal

Anna at the locks

Anna at the locks

The locks looking towards the Pacific

The locks looking towards the Pacific

The gates - 2m thick

The gates - 2m thick

3D glasses!

3D glasses!

Posted by awowchuk 07:35 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

San Blas Islands

sailing through paradise

sunny 30 °C
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To say we were excited about the next few days would be an understatement. After so much time in the snow and travelling around the mountains we could not wait to go to the San Blas Islands and enjoy the sun, the water and the coconuts. We woke up early and after a little breakfast, walked down to the pier and got on our first boat (more like a canoe) that would take us 20 minutes around the headland to the border town in Panama called La Miel. There we would meet up with Fabio, our captain, and board our boat for the tour, Green Moon. We were also able to pick up some cheap duty-free rum for our nights on the islands. After a short stop in La Miel we were soon on our way. The first leg of the trip was about an hour and a half long. The water was quite choppy and we sort of bounced along in our boat, but no one was sea sick so it was ok. After about an hour we began to see the islands we had come to visit. There were only a few at first but as we travelled further we could see more and more. They were all different shapes and sizes, some had little villages built on them, others were nothing more than a handful of palm trees on a sand beach. They looked amazing, like a scene out of a movie. The water beneath the boat was very clear and bright blue. The first island we stopped at was one of the bigger islands we'd seen. We had lunch and unloaded our bags, because we'd be spending the night there, before having a little explore of the village. The village itself was a traditional Kuna village, where everything was built out of timber, married women still wear tradition dress, everyone sleeps in hammocks, and they still poo directly into the sea. We too were going to be staying in hammocks! We then set off again in the boat to a nearby paradise island. The island looked like a scene out of Castaway. It was quite a small little island, with a reef just off the beach, and lots of coconut trees leaning right out over the water. The water was incredibly bright blue and shimmered in the sun. We lazed around on the island for the afternoon, spent a bit of time snorkelling and climbing the coconut trees. That night we returned to the village for showers (by bucket) and dinner. We then spent the evening sitting out on the deck over the water, drinking cocktails and chatting to the rest of our group.

We actually slept suprisingly well in the hammocks, but were woken by a huge storm at about 5 in the morning. The islands run up the coast of Panama, roughly in line with an area known as the Darian Gap jungle. This jungle is one of the wettest places on earth, and the islands seemed to get a lot of the same weather, with storms and heavy rain every night. Fabio also pointed out that the area of jungle is used by the drug traffickers trying to smuggle cocaine from Colombia to the US. Indeed drug boats are known to leave the Colombia and sail up the coast to the area we were visiting, where the drugs are dropped off and then carried by foot through the jungle, until they reach the Pan-American highway. As a result the area is strictly patrolled day and night by the USDA, and at night you can hear the police planes and boats patrolling up and down. Luckily we had no contact with any of this!

After breakfast we set off on a mammoth journey in our boat, and after about 5 hours of choppy sailing we eventually arrived at our home for the next 2 nights, Franklin Island. The island was absolutely tiny, you could walk round it in about 3 minutes. There was a kitchen and eating area, a bar, a volleyball court, a few huts built on the beach, complete with sand floors, where we would be staying, a few coconut trees and that was it! It was beautiful! We spent the afternoon lazing around on the beach and swimming in the warm sea. After dinner I went out fishing on the boat, but sadly only Nico caught a fish while Anna stayed behind. After fishing we had another chilled out night playing card with the rest of the guys and relaxing in the hammocks on the beach.

The next morning I woke up really early and went for a swim in the sea. It was lovely being able to wake up and almost roll into the sea! We spent the morning enjoying the island, playing frisby in the water, bat and ball on the beach, making human pyramids on the sand and taking silly photos. After lunch we got back in the boat to visit a few of the other islands. We stopped first at a natural swimming pool. It seemed to be in an area between two reefs and it was full of bright orange starfish. After that we stopped at another island where there was a shipwreck from over 60 years ago. We snorkelled around the wreck and sunbathed on the beach. It was great. Our last stop was another island that had a long spit of sand, where we took photos and enjoyed the beach. It was a brilliant afternoon, on some of the most beautiful islands I'd ever seen. That night we had a spontaneous toga and pirate party and a bonfire on the beach. It was a wonderful way to end a fantastic few days.

We spent our last morning on the island relaxing by on the beach. After lunch we boarded our boat for the last time and headed back to the mainland. There we were met by jeeps and driven along the worlds most undulating and bendy road (we had to stop after 20mins because we were all feeling sick) to Panama city.

La Miel

La Miel

An inhabited Kuna island and where we stayed

An inhabited Kuna island and where we stayed

Moonlight on the toilet

Moonlight on the toilet

Spending the night in a hammock

Spending the night in a hammock

Franklins island

Franklins island

Our island home

Our island home

Perfect water

Perfect water

Off fishing

Off fishing

Awesome sunset

Awesome sunset

The group

The group

doing yoga.... its been a while

doing yoga.... its been a while

Lobsters

Lobsters

It's kinda heavy

It's kinda heavy

Another perfect place

Another perfect place

The group

The group

Pretty beach things

Pretty beach things

Toga and pirate time

Toga and pirate time

coconut tree islands

coconut tree islands

Posted by awowchuk 07:18 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

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