Archive for August, 2013

Cuba

Posted: August 8, 2013 in Cuba, North America

Cuba.  The name alone evokes strong sentiment.  Revolution, Bay of Pigs, Communism, Cold War, Nuclear War, Fidel, Che, what does it mean to you?

To me, it is an opportunity to travel through a living piece of history, and try (and fail) to understand what this small island in the Caribbean is, not only to itself, and also to the world at large.

We flew on Cubana Air, surprisingly modern, a short flight from Cancun, yet more than world away.  Upon arrival, we were met by our transfer.

Airport transfer!

Airport transfer!

A sign of our two-week visit, the 1950’s Chevy started without a problem, and sixty years after being built, transported us back in time to central Havana to our casa de particular (homestay).  We were warmly welcomed by our hosts, who shared the two bedroom apartment with us for the next three days.

It is difficult to describe what Cuba is, and how it feels.  The description I favour is as follows; “a living museum, where time stopped in the 1950’s with the revolutionary overthrow of government by Fidel, Che and co..  Apart from a trickle of goods and services from the USSR, and other countries sympathetic to the Cuban cause, all that remains is what existed in the 1950’s….”

To say it is breathtaking would be a massive understatement, and we spent the first few days wandering around in Havana and the immediate surrounds in amazement at the preservation that has taken place (by necessity).

Havana

Havana

We soaked up as much of the world heritage city as we could, then headed south-east to Trinidad.

From one world heritage city to another, Trinidad did not disappoint.  We continued to stay in homestay accommodation, which landed us in a 400 year old colonial mansion!

Our accommodation

Our accommodation

The few days spent here were nothing short of incredible, as we wandered cobblestone streets, enjoyed a local festival where we drank mojitos for 25 cents a pop!, and enjoyed fantastic Cuban live music at night.  We ate like kings, with whole lobster and giant fish plates served for lunch and dinner, after huge breakfasts of fresh fruit and eggs, food heaven……We also found time to take a day trip out to a former sugar cane plantation, on a steam train, so cool!

Steam Train

Steam Train

The art was also a feature of Trinidad, so many pieces to choose from, including this very unique piece below.

What the...

What the…

We continued on to Santa Clara after a few days in Trinidad.  We stayed longer due to this:

Cheap!

Cheap!

Santa Clara reeked of history,it is famed for an amazing victory during the revolution, delivered by Mr Guevara himself.

Revolution!

Revolution!

The bulldozer above was a crucial war tool, as Che and his brigade used it to derail a train filled with weapons and soldiers heading for battle.

After Santa Clara, it was time to go to a Caribbean beach, Cayo Coco, where we enjoyed a four star all-inclusive resort or next to nothing, heaven!

Cayo Coco

Cayo Coco

An awesome two weeks in Cuba, whilst we may not understand it, we certainly thought it to be one of the best countries either of us have ever been!

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Cuba by Photo

Posted: August 8, 2013 in Cuba, North America, Photos
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Here is a guide on how not to fly from Galapagos, Ecuador to Cancun, Mexico.

Morning one, wake up very early, take local bus across Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, transfer to ferry to Baltra Island, then take next bus to Baltra airport. Board plane, fly to Guayaquil, Ecuador.  Let some passengers off, take on more passengers, take off again to Quito, Ecuador.  Collect baggage, and then check baggage back in for flight to Lima, Peru.  Arrive Lima late at night.

Morning two, after 5 hours sleep in small hostel near airport, head back to Lima International, check in for flight to Mexico City.  Fly 6 hours to Mexico, sit in airport for four hours.  Take fifth flight in 36 hours to Cancun, Mexico.  Hop on local bus, head to downtown Cancun, find accommodation, descend in to a coma like sleep.

After this inauspicious start to our relaxation time in Mexico, things got markedly better.

Cancun!

Cancun!

Having been to Mexico 10 years ago, I was not a huge fan of Cancun.  Mirella had not seen the place, so we stayed for three nights, after which, Mirella was also not a huge fan of Cancun.  Whilst it certainly serves a purpose, and is a great place for a party, it was not what we were looking for after four months in South America.  We headed an hour south to Playa Del Carmen, a little slice of heaven with great local food, one of the best beaches in the world, and a gluttony of accommodation options which allowed us to find a an absolute bargain only metres from pure white sand and Caribbean turquoise waters.

I was fortunate enough to celebrate my birthday here, 38 years young!

Rooftop Infinity Pool

Rooftop Infinity Pool

We spent the next ten days drinking way too much alcohol, sleeping in, eating way too much good food, and generally lazing about.  Was a great break after all the flashpacking through South America!

One of the huge benefits of our awesome apartment was a full kitchen, and being able to walk in to the local fish shop and buy whole grouper for $4-5, and then head to Walmart for some of the best produce in the world at ridiculously low prices, made for some spectacular eating!

While doing a whole lot of nothing, we decided to book the next part of our journey, Cuba, another bucket list destination, and the details will be in the next post, stay tuned….

Galapagos, Ecuador

Posted: August 7, 2013 in Ecuador, South America
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This post, much like Antarctica many months ago, is the easiest and hardest post to write.  It is easy because of the sheer quantity of incredible moments packed in to the 12 days spent in a naturalist’s heaven, and hard for the very same reason.  No matter what prose I put down in the next few paragraphs, it will never be able to encapsulate the wonder that is the Galapagos Islands.  With that being said, let me give it my best go!

Like all visitors to the Galapagos, our journey started with a flight.  We flew from Quito to Guayaquil, and then on to Baltra, the main airport of the island chain.

First Glimpse

First Glimpse

Galapagos!

Galapagos!

Upon landing, you pay the National Park fee, which entitles you to all park sites on the island.  It is a brilliant concept, as you do not need to pay for any nature visits for the rest of your trip, and makes life very easy, well done Galapagos administrators.  The journey to town is awesome, you board a bus from the airport down to the edge of the small island of Baltra, and then take a ferry across to the main island of Santa Cruz.  On the ferry we saw a variety of bird life, and our first Galapagos Sea Lion!  You then transfer to a bus or taxi for a one hour ride across the island to town, incredibly scenic.

Once we got to town, we transferred to a local ferry that would take us to our first destination, the island of Isabella.  Located in the west of the island chain, we were keen to get out and hike to the second largest crater in the world (largest is Ngorongoro in Tanzania), Sierra Negra.  Little did we know that it was full moon, and full moon means incredibly rough seas.  Our small fibra got smashed for two hours by huge waves, and it was a rough crossing to say the least!

Once on dry land, we hiked in to Puerto Villamil, the small town on the south-east of Isabella.

We made it!

We made it!

We found amazing accommodation right on the beach, and had a great dinner, all ready for the big hike tomorrow.

Sierra Negra proved to be as good a day hike as we have done all trip, as we walked up in thick fog to the edge of the crater. Our guide told us that we may not be able to see the crater at all, as he hiked the day before and saw nothing.  Of course, the guide did not reckon on the power of Mirella, and her seemingly indefatigable ability to ensure good weather conditions all around the world. The fog cleared to the view below.

Crater

Crater

It was an incredible view, and would have been worth the walk, and there was more to come!  We went past the crater and entered the most enigmatic, awe-inspiring, moon-like landscape I have ever seen.

Moon

Moon

The colours, the textures, the ‘un-earthliness’ all contributing to an incredible experience.

Moon

Moon

We also were lucky enough to see our first of (many) Iguana’s, the Galapagos Land Iguana.

Land Iguana

Land Iguana

After an exhausting and exhilarating day, it was back to the beach for a beer or two, and a relaxing evening.

The next day we took a short tour in the morning to a small island nearby, and walked along shark alley!

Shark!

Shark!

Galapagos is famous among the diving fraternity for some of the best underwater action in the world, and this was a great introduction while on dry land.  We also saw Sally Lightfoot Crabs and Marine Iguanas.

Marine Iguana

Marine Iguana

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Sally Lightfoot Crab

Our new favourite animal though had to be the Blue Footed Booby!

Booby

Booby

We spent the afternoon checking out another local, the Galapagos Tortoise.

Tortoise

Tortoise

Isabella was amazing, and a great start to our exploration of one of the world’s truly great wilderness areas.  Although not excited, we boarded the same fibra to take us back to Santa Cruz, and from there another fibra across to the third main island in Galapgos, San Cristobal.  Whilst the full moon had passed, the seas were still rough, and for four hours we were constantly hurled in to the air as the fibra skipped over the two to three metre swell, arrgghhhh!  Of course, in between the two rides, we found time to go to a beautiful beach, and snorkel in a natural channel carved by volcanic forces, so it was not all bad….

Once on Cristobal, we found another great hotel, and booked in for a boat cruise that turned out to be the single greatest day trip in the six months to date!

We booked to do Isla Lobos and Kicker Rock.  Isla Lobos translates to Sea Lion island, and Kicker Rock is renowned for attracting huge schools of sharks!

Hammerhead Alley!

Hammerhead Alley!

The day was magnificent, not a cloud in the sky, a great boat (much better than the fibras!), and still seas.  We headed straight to Sea Lion Island, and spent two hours swimming with Sea Lions.  Hard to put into words how amazing the experience was, the Sea Lions love company, and the level of interaction with a wild animal is unparalleled in my travelling days.

Swimming with Sea Lions

Swimming with Sea Lions

We then moved on to Kicker Rock, as pictured above, a wild spot.  We snorkeled through the gap in the rocks, and were met with huge Spotted Eagle Rays, White and Black tip Reef Sharks, and unbelievably, schools of Hammerhead Sharks!  Never seen so many sharks in my life, was the best snorkel ever!

We returned to Cristobal after a great day, and crashed ready for more the next day.

Up early, we headed for a hike on the outskirts of town, and for another snorkel with Sea Lions!

Awesome!

Awesome!

We also saw the Magnificent Frigate Bird.

Frigate

Frigate

Special mention has to be made of the main town in San Cristobal, Puerto Moreno.  The town is literally teeming with Sea Lions on the main street, it is a unique experience to share your day with these amazing sea creatures.

Homeless Sea Lion

Homeless Sea Lion

Slide time

Slide time

Wow!

Wow!

The trip changed pace at this point, as we hopped on our luxury Catamaran, the Treasure of the Galapagos.

Treasure

Treasure

Talk about a holiday within a holiday!  The ship was immaculate, with all the modern trimmings, and the cabins were amazing.  We spent five days on board, cruising through Espanola, Floreana and Santa Fe Islands, seeing all manner of birds, reptiles and sea creatures in five-star comfort.  The snorkelling was easily some of the best in the world, the day treks allowed us close contact with all manner of animals, and the company on board could not have been better, as we spent time with some other great travellers from around the world.

Please do have a look at the Galapagos photo post to see all of the wonders, Galapagos was one of the highlights of our travelling lives, and I will leave this post with one last photo, how often do you get to high-five a Sea Lion?

High Five!

High Five!

After an incredible adventure in the Amazon rainforest, we flew on two short connecting flights from Iquitos back to Lima, and spent the night in Miraflores, the tourist district in Lima.  We spent the day sightseeing and organising ourselves for the next leg of our journey, Ecuador.  We headed back to the airport for our flight to Quito, the capital city of Ecuador.  Due to my desire to spend as little time as possible in airports waiting for the flight, we almost missed check-in!  We flew with TAME, the Ecuadorian carrier, and it was surprisingly good (as was everything in Ecuador!).   We were delayed though, and arrived very late (or very early depending on how you look at it!).  Thankfully I had pre-booked accommodation, and after a long taxi ride (the airport moved this year from the centre of Quito to 50 odd kilometres out-of-town), we arrived in the most amazing four star hotel in central Quito.  Clearly we had come in low season, as the price for the 300 year old stone built mansion was cheaper than many crappy 2 star hotels we had stayed in throughout South America!

We spent our first day in Quito doing what many backpackers and flashpackers do, organising our trip to Galapagos.  It is one of the most anticipated highlights on a journey of many highlights, and we were keen to find a great ship to take us out to some of the more isolated islands in the archipelago.  We eventually found an agency that owned a magnificent catamaran called the “Treasure of the Galapagos”, and booked for a 5 night journey.  We also planned to do a week independently, more on that in a future post!

So we found ourselves with a week to fill before we flew out to Galapagos, and we decided to go to two small towns, both a short bus ride from Quito, called Mindo and Otavalo.

Otavalo is famous for having one of the biggest (and best) Saturday markets in South America.  After having done Pisac in Peru, we were excited to see the market, and what great things we could purchase and send home….

We headed to Otavalo on Friday afternoon, enjoyed a very comfortable and modern bus (with large flat screen tv playing movies in English), stayed at a beautiful hotel right in the centre of town, and had the most amazing meal for dinner, a perfect day of travelling!

The market is by far the best one we encountered in South America (and is a very close second for me to Chatuchak in Bangkok).  The range of goods was remarkable, and we went crazy buying Alpaca blankets, incredible hand-woven hammocks and great quality clothing at obscenely cheap prices….my only regret after six hours of shopping is that we did not buy more!

After the gluttony of Otavalo we headed back to Quito, stayed the night, and then went on to Mindo the next day.  Mindo’s claim to fame is being one of the great birding spots on the planet.  We would certainly not be categorised as birders (although Mirella is well on her way to being a fully fledged twitcher!), the opportunity to go hiking for a few days in cloud forest was too great to resist, it is one of my favourite forest types (as you can see from the photo below, awesome)!

Mindo magic

Mindo magic

We spent the next few days hiking in and around the town.  Whilst it was very wet (as cloud forests tend to be), we saw some amazing sights.  The first day was a butterfly park, and again, not usually our first choice of things to do, it was a great visit.

DSC06776 DSC06770 DSC06766

We then went for a huge hike into the middle of the cloud forest, there were some great views.

Rope pulley across a gully!

Rope pulley across a gully!

All in all, a great week in Ecuador, a country we are sure to return to, as it also has great beaches, more Amazon and historical sights, and of course, Galapagos!

Mindo in Pictures

Posted: August 7, 2013 in Ecuador, Photos, South America
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