Snapshot of the Week: New York and Coming Home

So this week we left Cuba, and with it, Latin America behind. Safe to say, it’s been an adventure. We decided, in our infinite wisdom, to head home via New York and Oslo, for a quick Christmas injection before we rocked back into London. Rockefeller Christmas tree, ice skating, Gløg… sounds awesome.

First though, we had to get there. Because we had changed our original plans and because airlines don’t like to refund tickets, we had to head to New York from Havana (distance: 2106km, flight time 3 hours) via Panama City and San José (distance: 5279km, cumulative flight times 24 hours). Thanks for that, Delta.

Anyway, one day and some really overpriced airport food later, we arrived at JFK airport absolutely knackered and bloody freezing. To compound our woe, we weren’t able to contact our Airbnb host as JFK’s wi-fi hotspot is a load of shite, so we figured we’d just rock up at the door of our accommodation and hope she wouldn’t turn us back into the cold. Thankfully, we were right, and to boot our lovely hostess had just made a fresh loaf of banana bread. Our moods considerably improved, we had a glorious nap and headed out into Brooklyn.

There really isn’t anywhere that is quite so ingrained in modern media like New York. The countless hours we’d spent watching those iconic towers, parks and streets on the screen, meant that strolling across the Brooklyn Bridge felt weirdly familiar. It is a wonderful and rare feeling for a place to not only live up to these imagined scenes, but surpass them. Despite concerns that we had packed too much in at the end of the trip, or that we wouldn’t have enough time, we had an absolutely incredible 3 days. We really did save the best until last.

New York, and Oslo to be fair, had the added bonus of making us feel Christmassy. Now most of Latin America may well be staunchly Catholic, but no amount of Virgin Mary statuettes draped in tinsel will make you feel festive when it is 32 degrees outside. No, Christmas needs cold, and our last two stops delivered that in spades. By the time we had bought enough warm things to survive the bitingly cold breeze on the Brooklyn Bridge (alliteration high five), and gone to the most famous Christmas tree in the world, the festive spirit well and truly took hold of us.

All of this was just in time to come home. Two months away was enough time to learn an awful lot, and to be ready to come home and recharge our batteries. A quickfire family Christmas, a few days’ work and a week or so visiting just about everyone we know and we’ll be back on the road again, heading out to Rio on the 18th January. This time we’ll be gone for 6 months, and there’s one thing we can guarantee. It’ll be an adventure.

Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, and thanks for reading any of our rambles over the last 10 weeks or so.

 

 

 

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Lessons Learned On the Road in Central America

Objectively speaking, two months on the road isn’t all that long. Still, it didn’t take us long to figure out what we were doing right and what we could do better. These are the ten things we took from our “taster” two month trip.

1. Go slow. Rather than cramming in ALL the destinations just because they are en-route, give ourselves time to work, recuperate and really enjoy each place. If we love a country, we’ll come back one day anyway.
2. Pack less. Our next trip is South/North America, which will require even more clothing variety and so we’ll have to be pretty brutal. One thing we really regretted this trip was not leaving space for more food/tupperware and we really missed not being able to cook much. We also definitely need more space for souvenirs and presents.
3. Booking and researching in advance is a good thing! We’ve met tons of people who wing it, and do it brilliantly, but it just isn’t for us. We like to guarantee we get the best price and the best accommodation, which – especially in high seasons – means booking well in advance. You don’t get the flexibility, but by golly you do save a ton in time and money. We’d much rather sit at our little desk at home and plan ahead (hopefully giving ourselves enough time) than do it on the go when you’re missing out on what is around you.
4. Go private. Dorms are cracking for meeting people, but by and large they are rarely cheaper than a private and you’re trading in comfort, privacy and security for drinking buddies…who you can meet anyway. There’s a big place for dorms, but for a 27-year old couple, we’d just rather pay that bit more. This also ties in with the previous point – more often than not you can book in advance and get a much nicer/cheaper Airbnb apartment than two last-minute dorm beds in the cool party hostel. Home comforts and staying with locals? Yes please.
5. Be savvy. Easy advice to give, not so easy to follow. It is a little bit sad, but when you travel in the developing world, especially as really obvious tourists like we are, you are ripe for a mugging, both literal and metaphorical. Essentially, arm yourself with information and take as much care as possible without letting suspicion and cynicism ruin your trip. Follow the old advice that, if something seems to good to be true it probably is, and that if somebody says that something is”for you my friend special price” they are lying to you. If a price or your change seems wrong, don’t be British and shuffle away silently, the chances are they are doing it on purpose to grab an extra dollar from you. Be careful with your possessions and don’t leave stuff unlocked in dorm rooms, no matter how much you like your dorm-mates. Lastly, use your common sense, and if you don’t have any use someone else’s.
6. Eat carefully. Everyone we met on the road in Central America had food poisoning at some point, except – miraculously – us. This could well just be our good fortune (that’s a first) but we like to think that our research and care helped our cause. For the millionth time, TripAdvisor is your friend. Use it. If a hundred people say something is excellent and one says it is terrible, it’s probably pretty damn good. Maths doesn’t lie. Also, listen to the locals, they know better than you. Recommendations, whether it is a restaurant, a cafe, or just to wash your vegetables in mineral water not tap water, are all invaluable.
7. Manage your money. We are/Sadie is insanely OCD when it comes to tracking our money/planning/life in general. You don’t need to be anywhere near as thorough as this, but 100% do keep track of things. We met so many people who were just “generally trying to be cheap” and travelling until they ran out of money, which invariable they did far too soon. Make yourself a budget and basically stick to it. There is enough information out there to know how expensive a place should be, so there really isn’t much excuse for ringing home for emergency dollar. Your money will go further, and the pluses of having a basic budget is that you can 1) keep track of what you’re spending and where you are hemorraging money 2) know how much you have left/what you can do with it and 3) Have some guilt free fun. I have £20 allocated for lobster today do I? OK THEN.
8. Sort out your money access. Bring at least two bank cards – one VISA and one Mastercard as not every ATM accepts both – and always have an emergency plan. Make sure you have a way to wire over cash if the worst happens. While you’re at it, ensure your bank knows where you are, your internet banking works and you never have too much cash in the accounts you have access to. If your internet access will be crappy, we suggest having a main account (which you do not have a card for) with a weekly transfer to one of your travel cards. Sadly express kidnapping are still a thing (you enter a taxi, then a man wielding a gun/knife forces you to visit every ATM in town until you’re bankrupt) and the lovely insurance folks normally only pay out up to £500 for theft. Fraud is normally covered by your bank, but if a card gets nicked get on the phone stat.
9. Don’t judge the travel wankers. Advice we need to practice as much as we preach! You’ll undoubtedly encounter a few individuals on your travels who will decide it is sensible to cast judgement on your travel plans/expenditures/lifestyle/non-vegan outlook. If someone wants to blast their money on alcohol and western food in party hostels, good on them. If they want to hitchhike and stay in a Buddhist retreat the whole time, fair play. Don’t throw stones in glass houses and all that. We’ve all worked (well…most) to have OUR trips of a lifetime, so save your judgement. The one exception – the unwashed backpacker. No accommodation lacks showers, so for god’s sake go have one.
10. Find the balance. Long-term travel is a constant balancing act between what you want and what you can afford time or money-wise. Unless you are very lucky, you can’t be on the road for long periods of time and do everything you want, but also don’t regret missing out on the things that are important to you. That extra £100 you spent on fancy lakeside accommodation won’t be remembered in a year’s time. Nor will the money you spent on that souvenir you knew you’d treasure, the bungee jump or the nice meal out. Money can be earned when you’re back at home, so enjoy yourself. Likewise, if you want to spend a few weeks in one place simply because you like it and are tired and sick of the road, don’t feel guilty for it. We put far too much pressure on ourselves to do everything 24/7. Your happiness is more important than being the “perfect traveller.”

 

The Best of Central America (…and Cuba)

Over the last 2 months, we visited 22 destinations in 8 different countries. We covered thousands of miles by land, air and sea and saw the best and the worst of Latin America. After much deliberation and a few petty squabbles, here are our favourite bits:

Favourite 5 Destinations
1. Antigua, Guatemala
2. Trinidad, Cuba
3. Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
4. Caye Caulker, Belize
5. Tulum, Mexico  

Top 10 Experiences (in no particular order)

1. Tikal ruins, Guatemala
2. Snorkelling with sharks in the Hoi Chan Marine Reserve, Belize
3. Watching the sunset, El Tunco, El Salvador
4. Monteverde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica
5. Toasting marshmallows at Pacaya volcano, Guatemala
6. Swimming in Casa Cenote, Tulum, Mexico
7. Exploring the art collections in Casa de los Venados, Valladolid, Mexico
8. Jumping in Lake Atitlan, Guatemala
9. Drinking cocktails, salsa dancing and the “rave cave”, Trinidad, Cuba
10. Insane Impromptu Christmas Street Party, San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua (Sadly, we don’t have a photo of this because we were being careful with our valuables in Nicaragua. You will have to take our word for it that it was utterly mad. Nicaraguans don’t really do health and safety).

Top 5 Colonial Cities
1. Antigua, Guatemala
2. Trinidad, Cuba
3. Old Havana, Cuba
4. Valladolid, Mexico
5. Granada, Nicaragua
Note: Leon deserved honorary mention as the worst Colonial city. Battered is pretty, dirty is not.

Top 5 Meals
1. Cuban Rock Lobster, Hostal Casa Mia, Trinidad, Cuba
2. Tapas, El Bocadito, San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua
3. Lobster Skewers, Chef Kareem’s Unbelizable Lunch, Caye Caulker, Belize
4. Cuban mezze, Habana 61, Havana, Cuba
5. Lobster and steak burrito, Crazy King Burrito, Cozumel
Is there such a thing as a lobster addiction? Seriously, we can’t say no to £8 lobster, ever. God bless you the Carribbean.  

Top 5 Beers
1.Brahva, Guatemala
2. Imperial, Costa Rica
3. Pilsner, El Salvador
4. Victoria, Nicaragua
5. Cristal, Cuba 

Top 5 Regional Foods
1. Pupusas, El Salvador
2. Fry Jacks, Belize
3. Lobster skewers, Belize
4. Ceviche, Nicaragua
5. Tamales, Mexico/Guatemala
6. Churros, Cuba
7. Deep fried corn tacos, Mexico
8. Street BBQ, Guatemala
9. Cuban sandwich, Cuba
10. Jerk chicken, Belize
Papsusas take the metaphorical cake for two very good reasons: 1) you can have a pupusa party (fun to say and eat) and 2) they cost less than $1.

Top 5 Hostels
1. Amigos Hostel, Flores, Guatemala (Gorgeous chill out area, great food and super organised)
2. Mama’s Home, Tulum, Mexico (Amazing, unrivalled breakfasts)
3. Hola Ola Hostal, San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua (Great vibe and staff, but a tad pricey)
4. Oasis Hostal, Granada, Nicaragua (Amazing chill out/pool area in an old colonial mansion)
5. Hostal Candalaria, Valladolid, Mexico (Beautiful garden area, great breakfasts, cheap as hell)

Worst 5 Experiences
1. Sadie’s phone being stolen in Granada, Nicaragua. (Phone, I miss you)
2. Costa Rica’s 3-hour border crossing queue/ stranding in a random town. (God bless the kind fisherman who gave us a lift)
3. Flyapocalypse ferry, Ometepe island, Nicaragua. (Never seen anything like it, truly disgusting)
4. 14 hour bus journey from El Tunco, El Salvador to Leon, Nicaragua and stranding in Leon. (Made marginally better by the episode of Planet Earth our entire bus watched on our tiny laptop)
5. The bus to Havana, Cuba, which charged us $50, kicked us off 1 hour in, left and never came back. (Thieving bastards).

Cuba: A Travel Guide

cuba

Cuba is a confusing country. Part Caribbean paradise, part Communist backwater. Part bustling metropolis, part unspoiled jungle. Part welcoming with open arms, part openly hostile. It is certainly unique though. Our 9 days there were not enough to sample the whole country but we got a good feel for it. This is how:

Getting There
For the geographically challenged among us, Cuba is an island, so the only way in is to fly. Most of the major towns have airports but the cheapest and biggest by far is Havana. Now the US-Cuban embargo has been consigned to history, you can fly direct from a lot of American cities, Miami, New York and Atlanta included, as well as Cancun in Mexico, San Jose in Costa Rica (we did this), Panama City and a few European cities too, Madrid and Cologne two of the biggest. Cancun tends to have the cheapest return flights.

Getting Around
This is one of Cuba’s most challenging aspects. Inter-city transport for non-Cubans is very expensive and very limited. The most common way between places is with the Viazul bus network. This state-owned company is responsible for shipping tourists all over the place, and on two of our three journeys they were fine. The third was an utter shambles and the customer service is worse than awful.

Your other choice is a private transfer. Most Cubans with a car are happy to be a taxi, for the right price. If you are in a group of 4, or can find a few mates to buddy up with, a private taxi will normally cost about the same as a Viazul bus, and you might get the added fun of going in a classic car too.

Getting around the cities is a similar kind of story. Buses aren’t really an option for non-Cubans, so taxis are the main option. Collectivo taxis run in some places which are cheaper than private ones. As in most of Latin America, agree your price first.

Accommodation
We spent all our time in Cuba in a type of accommodation called a Casa Particular. These are essentially B&Bs licensed by the government, and they can vary from a simple room to your own private bar and restaurant. We booked through a company called BBInns Vinales, purely because they had a good web presence which is very rare in Cuba. We stayed at Casa Monzon in Varadero and Hostal Casa Mia in Trinidad, both of which were great but the latter was truly fantastic. We stayed at Casa Havana Blues in Havana, which was absolutely fine, but was always set up for a fall after the excellence of our Trinidad Casa.

The alternative is hotels. The hotels we saw in Cuba looked, to be frank, a bit grim. Unless you have an insane budget, do some TripAdvisor-ing and find yourself a good Casa. You won’t regret it.

Places to Visit

  • Varadero – Go here for some unashamed relaxation. Objectively, there is very little to do in Varadero, and in a country as culturally rich as Cuba some see it as sacrilege to “waste” your time on a beach. I respectfully disagree. The Varadero beach is as pristine as you will find anywhere in the world, and the huge number of holidaymakers (not backpackers) actually means that there are quite a few decent and inexpensive food options, which is a bit unusual for Cuba.
  • Trinidad – A jewel of a colonial town on Cuba’s South Coast. Cobbled streets, beautiful buildings, classic cars, salsa music and a great beach. Trinidad literally has everything you could want in Cuba in a tiny little town. There is a reason everyone who goes there loves it. Check out an evening of salsa at Casa de la Musica, and drink the local Canchancharra cocktails.
  • Havana – Where to start with Havana, or La Habana as the locals call it. Sprawling, chaotic, at times beautiful and at others hideous. Frustrating, rewarding, roasting hot and really damn cool, it is a city of contradiction, contravention and of course, revolution. The place throbs to the beat of non-stop salsa, the plazas and little streets of Old Havana are amazing places to get lost and hide amazing secrets, the architecture is beautiful and above all it is, well, Don’t miss the Plaza Vieja for cocktails and people watching, the Revolution Museum for a dose of history and the enormous souvenir market by the waterfront for your retail fix.

 

Food and Drink
Sadly, eating in Cuba can be a very hit and miss experience. With some prior research, we managed to avoid the local takeaway staples – such as the “food tubers” (no idea) and the congealed spaghetti drizzled with tomato ketchup, and has some truly fantastic meals.

Although eating isn’t exactly super cheap – bar the aforementioned food tubers – as long as you are picky about where you eat Cuban food can be incredibly good value. For instance, we had an 3 course lobster dinner (see image – they were whoppers) with complimentary free cocktails for $12 at our amazing Casa in Havana. Seafood is very reasonable, with prawn dinners (with the standard rice, beans, salad and sauce) costing around $6-$9 and seafood pasta and pizzas ranging from around $6-$8 dollars. Follow our tips for reasonable and amazing food.

  • Rule number 1 – find a decent Casa with a great reputation for food. Not only will you get to eat in the comfort of your own home, get brilliant private service and actually hand out with some locals, you’ll also find some of the best and most reasonable food in Cuba. Expect around $5 for breakfast (decent size – tends to include eggs, a fruit salad, fresh fruit juice, bread, jam and some kind of pastry) and $8-$10 for vegetarian/pork/chicken/beef lunches and dinners, prawn dishes at around $12 and lobster between $14-$15. Lunches tend to include a salad and a coffee, while dinners will include the aforementioned along with a hefty portion of dessert. If you’re staying at a place for a few days they may well offer your additional reduced prices, and if you strike gold you may well end up with some free drinks to boot. Cocktails tend to be around $2 while beers will set you back $1.50-$2.
  • Eat Italian. Pizzas and pastas are absolutely everywhere and tend to be the cheapest thing on a menu.
  • Tripadvisor that bitch. A lot of places match their prices, and often the more expensive ones (read: government owned) aren’t necessarily any better, Quality really varies. We found some amazing restaurants (see below) by actually researching the places people bothered reviewing. If in doubt, follow the westerners and some truly inventive Cuban grub will await you.
  • Drink cocktails, or beer if you’re too manly for that. Rum is crazy cheap ($4 a bottle of decent Havana rum in the supermarket) and Cubans make excellent cocktails. Cuban wine however, is sadly rather shit.
  • Don’t rely on grocery shopping. The Cuban shopping system is baffling and leaves so very much to be desired. Bring staples if you plan on cooking and ask your casa if there are any decent fresh food markets about – imported goods are very expensive.

Havana
Habana 61 – Brilliant Cuban fusion cuisine. Very reasonably prices and one of the best meals we’ve had. We went twice in three days and loved everything on the menu. Eat the croquettes and thank me later.

ArtPub – Simple and understated cool little bar, open all day. Go for the beer ($2), massive cocktails ($3-$5) and insanely good sandwiches (all huge, priced at $4.50 and include a salad). They also do takeaway with equally satisfying portions. The Cuban sandwich was our fave.

Factoria Vieja – Skip the food (looked OK and not at all that cheap) and be wary of the service charges/general overcharging, but definitely indulge in a few beverages at this wonderfully located spot. Overlooking the plaza and often accompanied by a salsa band, the serve good cocktails for around $2-$3 and are one of the few places that serve decent beer by the pint. Cracking afternoon spot.

Nameless but very kind churros man – Located next to the Museo de Chocolate, he sells amazing churros for $0.50 from 10-7pm every day. Be extremely wary of the many other churros sellers who try and charge you $5 CUC for a lesser version.

Trinidad
Hostal Casa Mia – exclusively for Casa guests (and it does book up in advance) we ate here literally every meal we could. Best food we had in Cuba and brilliant hosts. They will try and get you drunk though – you’ve been warned.

Varadero
Note: Varadero was strangely the most reasonable place we found for food, seafood especially, but the options are more limited and quality varies.

Kiki’s club – Very cheap and good carby food. Pizzas, pastas and a few Cuban staples are on offer. Drinks are also very reasonable and it has a great view of the seafront too.
El Caney – We ate here twice and loved this place. Exceptionally reasonable, great service and a really diverse menu which they actually did well. The $6.50 fillet mignon was surprisingly great. Cheapest drinks we found in Cuba too.

Tips

  • The main tip we can give is be wary. As Westerns you are basically a walking dollar sign. The average Cuban earns a disgraceful $20 a month ($60 for doctors) and yet you will be expected to pay $25 for a fifteen minute taxi. As a result a double economy has formed – those who are becoming very wealthy through overpriced CUC-fuelled tourism, and those on CUP salaries. It’s easier to see why this has bred an environment of scamming, bad service and people essentially with their hands out, but swallow it all with a healthy dose of cynicism. If you get good service tip (10% or under is plenty) because it will make a real difference to them, if you don’t, or random strangers try to ask you for it – don’t. It is a very thin line between charity and exploitation.
  • Likewise, if someone overcharged – challenge it. If you think the price is higher than that listed, ask for a receipt. Don’t be a mug essentially.
  • If you can, get your hands on some CUP. Luxury items (i.e. any decent restaurant, alcohol, imported goods and merchandise) will all be sold in CUC, but a lot of the cheap (but often shit) food joints still sell in CUP – and more often than they ignore any kind of conversion rate.
  • Often smaller stalls will try and charge you in CUC what a local would pay in CUP. You are paying 25x over the odds in this case. Politely tell the seller where to go and find someone who isn’t robbing you blind.
  • In the markets do barter, but don’t expect the kind of reduction you get elsewhere. If you’ve saved a few dollars you’ve done alright.
  • Let go. You can do Cuba on a budget, but it really is a holiday destination through and through. Have the lobster. Drink some cocktails. You deserve it.
  • Buy some food in advance for Havana airport. You think you’ve seen some crappy overpriced airport food? Think again.
  • As mentioned, you have every right to get angry at the odd intricacies of Cuba, but don’t let it spoil your holiday. There are some amazingly generous Cubans out there and a lot of places are worth the prices they charge – yes they are high, but we are incredibly lucky to be able to pay for it in the first place.

Snapshot of the Week Part II: Surpassing Expectations, Cuba’s Highlights

Now, in case we develop a – somewhat deserved – reputation for being grumpy gits, we hasten to add that while Cuba has been the most challenging and frustrating country we have visited, it has also been one of the most enjoyable.

A large part of this is because, unlike the rest of our trip, Cuba felt like a holiday. An annoying, brilliant holiday. Now some of you may scoff at us, thinking the past two months have simply been one hell of an extended vacation. You’d be partially right. There were days, plenty of them, which consisted of beautiful, relaxing indulgence. We may not have splurged the way we would on a shorter trip, but it hard to argue the allegedly superior merits of backpacking (“it is just so enriching, yah”) when you have a beer in the hand and the sand between your toes.

However, sandwiched between these amazing days – for which we continue to be insanely grateful – were the standard backpacker woes. Travel can be fucking tiring, and in Central America we lost many a day of our lives cramped on sweaty buses, in traffic jams, in three-hour queues, disgusting toilets, bedbug-ridden beds and apocalyptic fly swarms. Anyone who tells you that long-term travel is one long joy-filled holiday is either doing it on a much bigger budget or snorted one too many lines of fresh Colombian coke.

But Cuba was different. Here, we massively increased our daily budget, not because it is more expensive than anywhere else in Latin America, but because what was on offer was too bloody hard to resist. A three course lobster dinner for £9? Cocktails aplenty for £1.50? Amazing private rooms with your own personal waiter/cook for £20 a night? A sunbed on a pristine Caribbean beach for £2? Yes, yes and thrice yes. It didn’t help that our amazing Casa owners in Trinidad brought us free cocktails aplenty and thought we had gone mad when we decided to go teetotal for one whole day. Accordingly, our usually saint-like eating and drinking habits (pah) took quite the walloping. Honestly, I have never eaten so much seafood in my life, forget muffin top, I have a lobster top. We were told Cuban food was awful*, but thanks to some solid Trip Advisor-ing and our incredible Casa Chef, we had the best food we’ve eaten in months on a daily basis. IT WAS BRILLIANT.

The other reason it felt like a holiday? No. Bloody. Internet. On the one hand, this was frustrating for the standard app-addicted millennial. Instagram missed me after all, and not being able to randomly Wikipedia important information like the Cuban Revolution, or where the best churros were was quite distressing.

One the other, much chubbier hand, thank goodness they didn’t. I have spent the last 8 weeks attempting to balance freelance graphic design and travel with increasingly crappy Wi-Fi, awkward time zones and a dying computer. I am incredibly lucky to do something I enjoy on the go, but I really didn’t anticipate how often my days would be monopolised by it. Tasks which should have taken minutes sometimes took hours, and when you get paid hourly and aren’t a complete arsehole, it meant I spent a lot of unbilled hours staring at the spinny ball of doom. Sometimes this was softened by my location, but other times it was all the more frustrating. You don’t save up for two years and travel halfway across the world to miss out, which sometimes I did. A new computer, slower pace of travel and better Wi-Fi should all help on the next trip, but dividing my time is definitely something I need to work on. In the meantime though, nine days of offline activity was pure bliss.

It wasn’t just a lack of internet and good seafood that made Cuba so special. The country is unbelievably beautiful, like ridiculously so. It’s so unspoiled in so many places, and the “spoiled” bits like the cities are teeming with life and activity. As mentioned in part 1, there are darker sides to Cuba – the relentless money grabbing, belligerence and scamming which all seem to be actively encouraged by the government. Disregarding this small portion of the populace, Cubans are incredibly helpful, generous and friendly people. Sometimes their kindness genuinely caught our (increasingly cynical) selves off guard. They also really, really know how to have a good time, and it is both infectious and hard going on the wallet and the liver. The music scene is obviously incredible, the beaches are pristine and the colonial architecture, combined with Cuba’s famed antique cars means every corner is postcard-worthy.

But it’s more than that. Cuba, at its best is saturated with a feeling of old school Hollywood charm. Sitting at Plaza Vieja, sipping mojitos and puffing a cigar while a salsa band plays in the background, you can almost imagine Sinatra doing the same sixty years earlier. Knowing Cuba, the chairs were probably ever the same. Thanks to its ridiculous government policies, it remains, for better or for worse, largely untouched by the West, a perfectly preserved snapshot of 1950’s Latin America. But between the beautiful cobbled streets, smartphone-wielding youths now crowd the designated Wi-Fi zones, and shiny new cars infiltrate the classics of old. Cuba is changing, and changing fast. We feel incredibly lucky to see this Cuba, conflicted and confusing as it is, before the West’s undeniable influence takes hold.

I for one, would much rather the odd scam or two on a street packed full of lively and original bars, than see one single Starbucks open.

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*The local takeaways that line the streets truly are abysmal though. Spaghetti with tomato ketchup on top, maybe with a side of “meat tubers” (no idea) does not a rounded diet make. Meat-tubers for fucks sake.

Snapshot of the Week, Part I: Communism and Corruption, the Worst of Cuba

As you will know if you have been following our adventure (and if not, why not?) we changed our plans and decided to leave behind Central America and to head to Cuba. Cocktails, white sandy beaches, rum and endless salsa, what’s not to love? Well, a bit actually.

We arrived in Havana – confusingly called La Habana by the locals – at about midnight from San José in Costa Rica. Incidentally, San José is literally the best airport ever. They have unlimited free wi-fi and give away free coffee and chocolate in their duty free shop. On the other hand Havana airport is, to put it kindly, dated, and the staff are, to put it unkindly, useless. We waited hours for our bags despite being the only plane to have landed within the previous hour, and were baffled by the insane amount of luggage people seemed to be bringing with them. The reason for this, as would later become clear, is that there is a lot of stuff that you just can’t get in Cuba.

We then went to the cambio to change our money into Cuba’s insane currency, of which there are two, both called pesos. The one we got, the CUC or convertible peso, is for “luxury items,” by which they mean anything tourists buy, and is worth one US dollar (minus the 10% fee they charge you if you change USD into pesos, obviously). The other, which tourists aren’t supposed to get, is the CUP, worth 25 times less and used by the locals on their day to day stuff. It is confusing and frankly ridiculous, and as a by-product it is creating a dual-economy in Cuba whereby taxi drivers earn ten times what doctors do. It won’t last – it can’t – but for the moment we have to make do and get the tourist cash to pay for an insanely overpriced taxi to the bus station.

Now imagine our mood. We have been travelling for about 20 hours, we are tired and dirty and we’ve just waited 2 hours for our bags because the people of Cuba have brought every single item on sale in Panama with them on the flight. So we find a taxi driver and tell him where we are going. The bus station, please driver, but is it open at this time in the morning? In flawless (ahem) Spanish, of course. Of course, our new amigo replies. You will be able to sleep there until your bus, which is at 6am. So he relieves us of 25 CUC (this is what an average Cuban earns in a MONTH) and takes us to the bus station, gives us our bags and drives off, at which point we discover the bus station is of course not open at 2.30am and will not be for another 3 hours. Gracias, you wanker.

So our first impressions of Cuba weren’t exactly flawless, but a few days in touristy Varadero set us right. To be honest there’s not a lot a pristine white beach and crystal clear water won’t fix. We thought our troubles gone and set about enjoying ourselves, and continued to a few days later in beautiful, colonial Trinidad. If there is a warm heart of Cuba, you find it in Trinidad and we loved it.

Annoyingly, on leaving Trinidad for Havana, Cuba dealt us another shitty hand. You didn’t think it was over did you? Seriously, read the title.

We had bus tickets to Havana with a state-owned company called Viazul. Viazul essentially provide inter-city transport for tourists, as their prices are out of range of normal Cubans. We had taken two before and had no problems, but this one was a little different. We got ninety minutes into our five hour journey and stopped in the town of Cienfuegos. I think that means “a hundred fires” in Spanish – appropriately named since it was at least one million degrees in the sun there. To our surprise, everyone had to get off the bus, bags and all. Our consternation was compounded when, once the bus was empty, it drove off.

After much interrogation, it turned out this bus had gone because the air conditioning was broken. Nobody was warned, less consulted, just the company decided that we would be better off with no bus at all than a warm one. I would not have minded this thoughtfulness had there been a replacement bus lined up but of course, this was not the case. I actually had the temerity to ask a member of staff when a replacement bus would arrive. With a look that clearly wished me a slow and painful death and with the attitude of someone who has just been asked to smear shit on their sandwiches, he told me that he didn’t know; one hour, maybe two, maybe more. Even so, we’ve paid 25 CUC (average monthly salary, remember) for this privilege so we better wait it out.

Two hours in the blistering heat later, no food, no water and no information offered by the company. Everyone who has asked for information has been met with the same incredible rudeness I was, with even less useful information. Many people have given up and got a taxi instead. We can’t really afford that so we came up with the genius plan of asking for a refund and using these funds to pay for a taxi. The man in the office explained that he was unable to give a refund, but if you get a taxi to Havana and ask there they will be able to give you one. Can you write this down for me, kind sir? No, of course not. Hmm.

3 sweltering hours in a taxi later, we arrive at the Viazul terminal in Havana. Asking separate staff members about or refund, we’re met with the level of customer service we have come to expect from public sector workers in Cuba. I treat dog faeces on my shoe with more deference. The boss isn’t here, he won’t be back until tomorrow, one says. The boss is at the bank, he’ll be back in an hour another says. By this point my bullshit alarm is ringing loud and clear and my temper is very, very close to boiling point, as is that of about ten other passengers who have been forced to make the same journey. One companion who spoke much better Spanish than us told customer service representative number one to get the boss or you will have a bloody mutiny on your hands, which finally prompted her to get off her arse and do something.

Said boss arrived and was, despite the disagreeable raft of souls we have already met on this adventure, the rudest and most obnoxious man in Cuba. He dealt with us with an arrogance and disdain that only an un-sackable, fat lump of shit could do, telling us in pretty much exact words, to go fuck ourselves. A near riot ensued, and we were forcibly ejected from the bus station. A few words with a kindly taxi driver informed us that this isn’t an entirely unusual situation at the Viazul, but sadly the police would do nothing as they are public servants too and would side with the company. Great.

In our three days in Havana, we were plagued by more of this kind of thing, though on a lesser scale. Being “helped” by strangers then having money demanded from us. Being overcharged for everything unless we demanded a receipt. The problem, which lies directly at the feet of the Cuban government, is the insane dual economy created by the twin currencies. In Cuba there is money in tourism and in absolutely nothing else. Tourists are a walking dollar sign and it shows, and it is incredibly frustrating and puts a cloud over our time in what could be an amazing country.

It isn’t all bad, mind. In Part II read about what we loved about the place. For a country so famed for conflict, it hasn’t half left us conflicted.

 

TL;DR – Cuba is annoying.

 

 

 

Monteverde: A Brief Guide

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GettingThereAccommodationActivitiesFood&DrinkTips

We were only able to go to Monteverde as a very brief stop heading south towards San José. Even though we only ended up having two nights there, we were thoroughly glad we made the effort – in fact we were a bit gutted we couldn’t spend longer there.  It was a really nice little town, up in the hills or Northern Costa Rica, clean, safe and cool – everything Nicaragua wasn’t. It also has the added attraction of being surrounded by beautiful forest. Here’s a (very) short guide on what to expect:

Getting There
By far and away the hardest bit of Monteverde – well connected it ain’t. From San José and the south it isn’t too bad, you can get direct buses from the capital for about US$6, which take four hours or so. I believe it only runs once a day though. From the North and the Nicaraguan border it is a different story. You need to get to a place called La Irma by 3pm or (like us) you will end up stuck in the middle of nowhere, or a town called Las Juntas to be precise. If you do decide to undertake the journey in a day, SET OFF EARLY. The Nica-Costa Rica border is chaotic. Once you cross into Costa Rica, take pretty much any of the San José-bound buses and ask them to tell you when you reach La Irma, which takes about 2 hours and should cost between US$9-12. The bus from La Irma, or Las Juntas if you do get stuck, costs about US3.50 and takes a further 2 hours up the scenic route to Monteverde.

Accommodation
Monteverde is awash with hostels and hotels as the town is something of a tourism hub. We stayed at Sleepers hostel, which was reasonable and had hot showers and good wifi. We had a bit of confusion with booking them through Hostelworld however and ended up accidentally overpaying so be wary. Average dorm beds cost about US$10 per night, private rooms for two about US$20-25.

Activities

You go to Monteverde for the activities. It’s surrounded by national park – and it’s all rainforest. What you choose to do pretty much depends on the extent of your budget. We went to the Selvatura Park and did the Hanging Bridge Canopy Tour for US$20 each, then went to the Hummingbird garden for an additional $5. There you could also do a zip line canopy tour for about $40 which looked an absolute blast, if that is you don’t have a crippling phobia of heights.

Selvatura is not your only option though. You can go and visit the Cloud Forest park for $10 and walk around nature-spotting. There are similar bridge and zip line tours there too, only your views are likely to be obscured by clouds, hence the name. The prices are similar at both parks so it’s a case of personal choice.

Food & Drink
Only one recommendation here because we cooked for ourselves: Taco Taco was a fantastic and reasonable Mexican place. Get the beef burrito with the mango salsa and send me your thanks on a postcard.

Tips
Costa Rica is one of those countries where incredibly large numbers are perfectly reasonable. At the time of writing, there are approximately 560 Colones to the US Dollar, and 700 to the pound. What makes things even more confusing is that a lot of stuff aimed at tourists is priced in dollars, but the expect payment in Colones. You have to watch out for the exchange rate. Do the maths yourself and pay in whichever is cheaper.

On the subject of currency, cling on to your smaller denomination notes like your life depends on it. ATMs often only dispense 10,000 Colones notes. Yes this is less than $20 but the look you get from people when you try and pay with one is like you burned down their mum’s house and pissed on the ashes. Get change from supermarkets, banks and the like and avoid the death stare when you need to buy something little.

Lastly, tap water is fine to drink in Costa Rica, especially in Monteverde. Avoid it if your stomach is particularly sensitive, but otherwise save yourself a couple of dollars a go for a bottle and go native.

Nicaragua: A Brief Guide

san-juan-del-surNicaragua. Land of coffee, volcanoes, chocolate, lakes and surfing. Backpackers have headed here for years, but the advent of the internet and the Instagram-heavy blogger has made more people head to its shores. Including us. Normally, we’d give you a place by place guide to a country, but since we blasted through Nica in no time at all, here is a very quick pros and cons guide to the most common stops on your Nica route:

Léon

Léon, one of Nicaragua’s two cultural capitals. Famous for being the seat of Nicaragua’s revolutions, being full of slightly crumbling cathedrals and its proximity to a couple of sand-board friendly volcanoes. It’s cheap, it’s dirty and has a buzzing nightlife. If you like your towns rough and ready, Léon is for you. If you have a sensitive nose and can’t abide by litter, maybe skip it and head on South to Granada instead.

Managua

The actual capital to stop Léon and Granada bickering about it. Famous for… well… being a bit murder- and kidnap-happy and not a whole lot else. Even Lonely Planet describe it as “a shambles” (before going off all doe-eyed about its vibrancy and authenticity, but I’m not going to do that). It’s big, dirty, chaotic and dangerous. Go if you like express kidnapping or really, really need to be near the airport.

Granada

Like Léon, but prettier. The second of the cultural capitals, Granada actually was the capital city while Nica was occupied by the Spanish. It’s always been more conservative than its northerly, hated neighbour, and it shows. Its centre is primly maintained, with shiny cathedrals and a manicured town square. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its problems though; petty crime flourishes here, especially after dark.  Go if you are into colonial architecture, good food and an interesting nightlife scene. Don’t expect western levels of sophistication though, this is a town that is firmly Latin American in its feel.

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Granada’s Rooftops and Cathedral

Ometepe

An island formed by twin volcanoes rising out of the colossal Lake Nicaragua. Very beautiful, peaceful (everywhere but Moyogalpa where you can party all night long) and full of wildlife, it is an impressive site. The hike up Volcan de Concepcion is famously beautiful. Avoid Ometepe if you can’t handle bugs – it is very insect-heavy.

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Lake Nicaragua

San Juan del Sur

A pretty and very popular surf town. Not authentic, barely even Nicaraguan but it is popular for a reason – it is cool. Surfers flock here from all over the globe to go to the surrounding beaches, and the town’s party scene reflects their well-known need for some après surf fun. It isn’t cheap, it isn’t cultural but it is very, very fun. Every backpacker going through Nicaragua will stop here, guaranteed.

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San Juan’s Famous Sunset

Snapshot of the Week – Nicaragua and a Series of Unfortunate Events

This week, the photo of our little plastic travelling companions was taken with Jesus. Well actually, near Jesus, because it cost $4 to get in to see a Jesus statue and we weren’t that bothered. Like the much bigger and much more famous one in Rio, the Nicaraguan concrete imitation of our Lord and Saviour is at the top of a big old hill overlooking a bay. The similarities between Rio and San Juan del Sur pretty much end there though, this tiny little surf town is about as far from a buzzing metropolis as it is possible to be.

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A Big Concrete Jesus – sorry, Jésus

Our last week has been something of a misadventure. It’s been trying at times, amazing at others. Honestly though, it’s been one cock up after another and it all started with a traffic jam.

Let me paint you a picture. It’s 30 degrees, about 90% humidity and you have been on a minibus for 10 hours, going across three countries and dealing with all the fun that Latin American border crossings throw at you. You are 100km from your final stop, at last in the country you were aiming for, the roads actually have some tarmac on them (I’m looking at you, Honduras, seriously sort your shit out), it’s the home stretch.

And then you stop. Your driver gets out, which is never a good sign. He surveys the scene, there’s a bit of a jam. Roadworks, he tells you. But not one-lane-closed-we’ll-be-through-it-in-a-minute roadworks, but they’ve-closed-half-the-road-in-one-direction-for-a-few-miles-and-this-is-chaos roadworks. Basically, they shut off half of a two lane highway, at the closest thing Nicaraguans know to rush hour. And it was utter bedlam.

Now forgive the stereotyping, but Central Americans are not known for their patience, especially behind the wheel. If this was in Britain, there would be a queue, much grumbling about how there were loads of roadworks but no road workers, you would wait your turn and then crack on with the journey. In Nicaragua, the system (I use the word loosely) seemed to be a cross between a Top Gear challenge and a destruction derby. Every man for himself, take up any free space on the road in any direction and fight your way to the front. Funnily enough, it didn’t speed things up, and it infuriated my British queuing sensibilities. We waited for 2 hours in the “queue,” it took the dulcet tones of David Attenborough to stop me from strangling somebody. Yes, we had enough time to watch Planet Earth in the queue, we literally didn’t move while it was on.

The upshot of all this was that we arrived in Léon in Nicaragua 4 hours later than advertised. 4 hours was enough for us to miss our connecting bus to Managua, meaning we had to spend a night in the filthy home of the Nicaraguan socialist revolution. A $30 night in a bogey-coloured room later and we were off to Managua, the fourth most murderous city in the world where the only thing scarier than the kidnap-happy inhabitants is the driving, at which even a Parisian would baulk. Truth be told, we didn’t even want to be in Managua – it was meant to be a stop-off – but we’d already paid for it so it was happening. The next day, two days later than planned, we finally arrived in beautiful Granada.

Unbelievably, our luck then got worse. Lost in the city, we got out Sadie’s phone to check the map. Seconds later, we were relieved of the phone by some sticky-fingered local on a bike. A chase ensued (barefoot sprinting on Nicaraguan tarmac; not recommended) but it turns out that bikes are faster than Mark, and once he turned into the ghetto there was no chance the phone was ever coming back. Consequently, we spent our first day in the former capital in the police station, trying to explain in broken Spanish that no, we didn’t see the bastard’s face – he was on a bike.

Granada did sort of redeem itself. The next day was beautiful, the city was lovely and we had the best western food. We then went to Ometepe, via a fly infested San Jorge (literally a cloud of flies, it felt weirdly apocalyptic) and spent a couple of nights with a Nicaraguan family in a not very insect-proof room. It was very pretty though. We were supposed to be there four nights, but because of our earlier mishaps we left after two to get ourselves down to the coast, which is where I am writing this.

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San Juan Sunset – Outrageous

San Juan is a welcome relief. The people are friendly, the hostel staff speak English, the sky is blue and the food is awesome. We are chilling here and doing very, very little until we leave for Costa Rica on Sunday. A cloud forest awaits us…

Oh, and today is our 7 year anniversary. We intend to be indulgent as hell, complete with imported wine, tapas, cocktails and an air conditioned room. On a soppy note – it’s been an insane 7 years. We first met at the tender age of 14, when Mark was in a torrid teen romance with our mutual best friend Kim (Lancaster is an incestuous little place) and romance was as from our teenage minds as could possibly be. Fast forward a few years and we went from attending – and graduating – from University together, bought our own house, got engaged, quit our jobs and went on this mad adventure. We’re proud, happy and very excited for the future. Here’s to the next 7 years being as good as the last.