Havana Vieja – a magical old city

Our first impression of Cuba was how welcoming it was. We were ushered through customs by a man who asked our nationality, and when I answered “Australian” he smiled and said “aah, Skippy!”, and waved us through to the next stage. As it turned out, every step of our journey would be filled with people making our lives easier (and many people smiling and reminding us of Skippy the bush kangaroo).

We had heard from many people that Cuba was an amazing place to travel, and heard all about places to go outside of Havana (Habana to the locals). Well, we’re here to tell you – don’t be so desperate to leave the architecturally diverse and culturally rich capital so soon. We fell in love with Havana the moment we took our first taxi ride from the airport to our casa particular (a house owned by a Cuban in which you rent a room, where you can usually also buy breakfast and/or dinner, have your washing done, and enjoy it as more of a family environment). We had arranged to get picked up from the airport and taken to our accommodation but when we landed there was no-one there to meet us. There were endless touts there offering us “¿taxi?”, but it wasn’t until we heard someone offer us “¿información?” instead that our ears perked up. The lady at the information desk not only answered our questions about where to exchange our money, but then called our contact for us to find out the address of our casa particular, wrote it down for us, and organised a taxi for us. The contact we had seemed quite confused despite exchanging emails with us a couple of weeks ago, and asked “oh yes! Are you with Simon?”. After further explanation that we had no idea who Simon was, he understood and sent through the address we needed. Our taxi driver waited politely for us to finish exchanging our money and then drove us to the door of our casa, knocked, and waited until our hostess opened the door before shaking our hands and driving off.

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A colourful Havana streetscape

Amelia, our hostess, greeted us enthusiastically and immediately began a fast and animated conversation with me in Spanish, cheerfully telling me not to worry when I apologised for my poor Spanish, as she didn’t speak any English. Disregarding my politely delivered (if apparently too subtle) hints that she was speaking a bit fast for me, Amelia continued to tell me everything we could need to know about the casa (house), along with plenty of information about Havana. Her sausage dog, Rocky, waddled up the long, slim staircase to greet us outside our top-floor bedroom, from the balcony of which Amelia pointed down several floors to the courtyard where she would serve us our breakfast in the morning.

At this point, we were both thinking that we have never set foot in a more welcoming country, and despite all the difficulties of getting there, we were mighty glad we’d come.

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Havana’s famous Capitolio building

We headed out for our first meal, very conscious of the fact that it was already almost 10pm and most places could be closed. Not wanting to get lost at night in a new place, we stayed on the most brightly-lit street running near our casa, and eventually found our way to a bar with salsa music blaring, filled with people dancing the night away. Our stomachs grumbled almost louder than the music, and reminded us of our priorities – food first. We headed next door, to a tiny Italian restaurant that seated 14 (small) people at absolute maximum capacity. Our food came quickly and we washed it down with our first Cuban beer, a Bucanero, which was beautifully refreshing on a warm and humid evening, served in a glass straight out of the freezer. My pizza took up more than half the tiny table, and completely dwarfed Alex’s plate of lasagne. It was simple, not overwhelmingly flavoursome, but still tasty, with a perfectly thin and crispy base I had just watched the chef prepare. Alex’s lasagne was flavoursome, though it was interesting it came served completely solo. Satisfied with our first experience of Cuban food (which we had been warned several times would be plain, boring and probably overcooked), we found our way to a small and almost undetectable window opening through which we bought water for the evening, and then made our way back home.

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Our first dinner in Cuba

When we awoke on our first full day in Cuba, we headed down to breakfast in the quaint courtyard, only to find place settings for four. Not long afterwards, another young couple wandered down and introduced themselves as Saskia and Simon. The mystery was solved! As it turned out, our contact hadn’t arranged accommodation for us at all, and Amelia had only found out after we touched down in Cuba that we were on our way. Simon had been emailing the same contact for a few weeks and thus, the contact was expecting Simon and Saskia, and not Alex and I. We quickly got to chatting with the two lovely Germans, only to discover they are planning to move to Australia in January. We made plans to catch up with them for dinner that evening, and set off to explore.

Our first few days in Cuba consisted of an awful lot of walking around, checking out everything we could by foot. We saw two forts – Castillo de la Real Fuerza, and Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta; the grand Capitolio which is unfortunately undergoing renovations at the moment and couldn’t be explored too closely; numerous beautiful Plazas with old cobblestone paving and grand buildings around every corner; various pieces of street art, some of which featured Che Guevara; many impressive monuments to renowned military or political figures of Cuba, including Jose Marti, Che Guevara, and Calixto Garcia; and endless stunning buildings and cars.

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Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana

You’ve heard about the old cars driving around Cuba. Well, there are many more than we expected, yet still every vintage car we saw the first few days was a completely magical experience, and even by the end of the trip, we still found ourselves pausing to take photos of the well-taken-care-of, photogenic automobiles; particularly in front of the well-taken-care-of, photogenic buildings everywhere we looked. As well as the cars, there are horses trotting down the streets in most Cuban towns as a main form of transport for locals; less so in Havana, though there are still horses towing carts laden with tourists around there (as everywhere in Cuba). Outside of Havana, people commonly use horse-and-cart to transport themselves, their produce, tourists, and anything else that seems like a good idea at the time. There are also always bicycle taxis around every town, similar to tuk-tuks in South-East Asia (though not usually motorised).

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Gran Teatro de la Habana – The Great Theatre of Havana

In short, it isn’t just the architecture and vintage cars that make you feel as though you’ve stepped back in time when you arrive in Cuba. Pay phones abound in the middle of town (can you even remember the last time you saw a pay phone in your city?); people still call each other to talk on the phone rather than texting or using any of our many forms of social media to communicate; and many types of transport don’t have any motor to speak of. Never in any country I’ve travelled to have I seen more people with their guidebook out on their table, right next to their half-finished mojito, because you can’t simply Google things when they spring to mind here, as you can in most other countries you visit.

It’s incredible, it’s liberating, it’s a beautiful and timely reminder of how to enjoy life’s simplicities and, rather than always focusing on taking the best photo for Instagram, or texting your friend about what’s happening, stop to breath in the moment and truly absorb the magic of it before it’s too late.

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A typical view on a wander along Havana’s enchanting streets

Dia de Muertos

What a full on few days in Pátzcuaro! We were lucky enough to be able to enjoy the festivities with the locals – artisan markets, street food, dance and music performances, face painting, and a general atmosphere of anticipation, love and celebration.

Dia de Muertos is a celebration of those who have passed. The locals believe that every year on November 1st and 2nd, their loved ones return to visit them, and must be welcomed home with ofrendas (altars) decorated with wild marigold flowers and the favourite food and drink of the people who have crossed over. The first of November is the day the angelitos (deceased children) come to visit, and the second is the day the adults arrive. As such, this time of the year is a celebration and not a sad time – though there is certainly reflection and memories shared, the strongest sensations felt are excitement and love.

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An ofrenda for an angelito

When we woke up on the 1st November, our first instinct was to head back to the markets we’d seen the day before and explore to our heart’s content. However, our stomachs beat our hearts and we stopped on the way for some more Mexican food at a little café near our hotel. I tentatively asked one of the waitresses if there was anything vegetarian on the menu and she offered me a few choices. I picked flautitas con frijoles, queso y patata – miniature, fried tortillas filled with refried beans, cheese and potato, topped with shredded cabbage and a tomato sauce – they were delicious! Alex chose to take a gamble and try the menu del dia – menu of the day. He ended up with sopa tarasca, guisado de pollo, and the postre del dia – the same soup I had yesterday; a chicken stew served with rice, refried beans and soft tortillas; and the dessert of the day, which was a caramel flan. The sopa tarasca was creamier and thicker than mine from the day before, and somewhat more flavoursome. The main chicken dish was filling and well-rounded, with a lovely mix of flavours and textures; and the dessert was the perfect end to our meal – sweet but not overpoweringly so, packed full of flavour, and sensationally smooth. After thanking our waitresses, we walked to the markets, guided by the sound of music and fun.

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Flautitas

As we approached the stage in the middle of Plaza Vasco de Quiroga, a band was playing various string instruments, accompanied by dancers dressed in brightly coloured clothing, wearing masks of elderly people. They comedically approached the stage, wobbling as they shuffled along with their walking sticks, before jumping into a very fast and well-choreographed tap dance. The crowd laughed and clapped, and we couldn’t help but join in.

The artisan markets were calling our names, and we followed willingly. It was a delight to every one of our senses – the smells of the hot cakes; the sounds of the crowd rapidly chattering away in Spanish interrupted by the music drifting our way from the stage; the colours and incredibly creative artefacts… we didn’t know in which direction to look at any given time, and were constantly pulling each other and pointing out exciting new visions to take in. Almost everything here was made locally and the people were proud of their products, from jewellery and clothing (yes, including many ponchos), to wooden dolls, straw baskets and Dia de Muertos figurines, to homemade clay barbecues, and endless kinds of food.

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Barbecues and pots for sale

Walking past an empty-looking kiosk, we peered curiously at the tabletop, and noticed that it was a face-painting stall. Without hesitation, we both chose designs and sat down to have our faces painted in Dia de Muertos designs. Apart from the enormous quantity of razor-sharp glitter completely encircling my eyes, we loved our new faces, and set off to enjoy the rest of our day in true Pátzcuaro style.

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Our Dia de Muertos face-paint

The evening had many more performances in store, involving several different traditional outfits worn by men and women, young and old, largely tap-dancing but also exhibiting elegantly fluid movements across the stage in bare feet. After watching these until well after the sun was truly asleep, we wandered in a direction we thought we knew to hold a convenience store for some much-needed water purchases. Unfortunately, we were wrong about our local street knowledge. Fortunately, it led us instead to another, completely different kind of market. In these markets were feather earrings and necklaces, henna tattoos, crystals, tie-dyed t-shirts, local medicinal herbs, and even a peyote gel infused with marijuana. Needless to say, we made no purchases here, but it was fascinating to see the differences in the people that frequented each marketplace. In the centre of this market was a shrine to an angelito, which hosted the traditional marigolds, candles, and Dia de Muertos decorations, as well as a photo of the little boy, fruit bowls, and several toy cars and trucks for him to play with when he arrived home. It was extremely touching to see and brought home the true meaning of Dia de Muertos to the people of this small but incomparably enchanting town.

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One of the enchanting cultural performances

We finally found an open churro vendor and ordered one filled with lechera – sweetened condensed milk. It was a firmer dough than we get in Australia but, once covered with sugar and cinnamon and filled with delicious sweetness, it still tasted amazing.

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Another performance about the meaning of Dia de Muertos

The second of November saw us amble in a different direction to where we had before, to explore more of Pátzcuaro’s magical streets. We happened across a man and his young son riding horses, wearing cowboy hats and looking like they had just ridden out of a movie set; a group of men working on some power lines in a manner that would definitely not pass occupational health and safety standards in Australia; and a few pieces of beautiful street art we had to pause to admire. Pátzcuaro might be an old town, but it is still one of surprises!

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“Welcome to my magic town” – Street art in Patzcuaro

Alex’s first real Mexican burrito was filled with chicken, rice, refried beans and cheese. It’s always very interesting to try food in its country of origin, and try to jettison preconceived ideas of what these foods should taste like based on how we are used to eating them. I have heard from many a traveller that pizza in Italy is completely different to what we are used to having in Australia, whereupon we pile endless ingredients onto thick bases; rather than cherishing a few select flavours on a crisp, thin base created with love and practice. In a similar fashion, we in Australia are used to packing our burritos full of herbs, spices, condiments, salads and meats, until we aren’t entirely sure what flavours we are attempting to taste anymore. In Mexico, burritos are designed to showcase the flavour of the meat, while being a wholesome and complete meal. Alex’s first impression was that the burrito was bland – perhaps this trip will be an important lesson in bringing our tastes back to cherishing simple flavours, rather than expecting every mouthful to be packed full of so many different flavours that we lose track of the point in the first place.

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Burrito con pollo

Our evening was finished off with beautiful fireworks exploding through the dark night sky over a town that has thoroughly won our hearts, and of which we will dream in years to come.

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Fireworks over Patzcuaro

Before catching our bus back to Mexico City, we ducked out for breakfast in a café we had been admiring since we arrived in Pátzcuaro. Watching two men play chess next to us, we were treated to freshly baked buns with butter and jam; café con leche – coffee served with sweetened condensed milk; fresh orange juice; and eggs of our choice. Alex chose poached, while I decided to live a little and pick huevos a la mexicana – Mexican style eggs. It never occurred to me (even after all of the lecturing from my Mexican friends back home that Mexican style necessarily means ‘with chili’) that this would mean ‘spicy eggs’. When they arrived, I excitedly dug in – scrambled eggs with tomato and green capsicum, served with refried beans and queso – cheese. As it turned out, I don’t believe there was any green capsicum in the eggs – rather, I’m fairly confident that it was green chili. Nonetheless, when in Rome (or Mexico) – so I powered through, and thoroughly enjoyed it (even if I did leave a few skerricks of chili to the side).

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Huevos a la Mexicana

We checked out of our hotel, hailed a taxi, and were on our way to the bus station – or at least, we thought we were. On the way, our taxi driver went a few blocks in the wrong direction, and picked up his wife and baby. Once we arrived at the bus stop, we confidently tried to board the bus with ‘Mexico Norte’ – our destination – written across the front, and were confidently told that this was not, in fact, our bus, and we should wait for the next one. So wait we did, when a Canadian couple politely asked us if we were in line for the bus. We told them what had happened, and checked their tickets – they were bound for the same bus as us, which was apparently not this one. Nevertheless, it gave us time to talk to them, and in the short few minutes we had, we garnered incredibly illuminating information about Mexico and Cuba from them. That evening, we received a long email from them with many tips for us about where we should go and what we should see while in Cuba. New travel lesson learned – never miss an opportunity to talk to someone waiting in line for a bus; it might make your whole trip infinitely better!

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An ofrenda in Plaza Vasco de Quiroga

To finish off our evening once we arrived in Mexico City once more, we ducked out to the nearby Tortas El Cuadrilátero, a Lucha libre (wrestling) themed sandwich shop with an infamous promise – if you finish their el gladiador sandwich –  40 centimetres long, 1.2 kilograms heavy – in 15 minutes, you get it for free. We were in no way inclined to even attempt it, after seeing a model of the sandwich in the front window. We were tempted to try their ‘normal’ sized sandwiches, so happily ordered a torta vegetariana and a chorizo sandwich with cheese. We grossly underestimated the sandwiches and were shocked when two enormous bread rolls headed our way. The vegetarian sandwich consisted of mushrooms, avocado, tomato, and about five kilograms of cheese. So much so (and those that know me and my undying love for cheese know that this is hard for me to say) that I was completely unable to finish even half of my sandwich without stripping it of most of its cheesy contents. After taking what looked like quite literally half the sandwich’s innards out, I enjoyed my colossal sandwich, and Alex said his was super tasty too.

Tomorrow we are headed for Havana, Cuba, so there will be radio silence from us until the 29th November, when we return to the land of free wifi. ¡Hasta luego, amigos!

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A firetwirler in Patzcuaro

Stepping back to the 1320s

We woke to frightening cracks of thunder and heavy rain pouring down on our roof – I guess we won’t be going anywhere anytime soon, we thought. After the rain subsided we headed out to properly explore Pátzcuaro, a town founded in the 1320s in Michoacán state. We’re already falling in love with the beautiful cobblestone streets winding their way lazily down towards Lake Pátzcuaro; the eclectic mish-mash of new and old – cars, buildings, signs, graffiti; the cheerful local people going about their daily business, many with Dia de Meurtos face-paint adorning their smiling faces; and most of all, the unique culture and atmosphere of this historical town.

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Graffiti on the streets of Patzcuaro

We found a delightful café with outdoor seating where we could watch the world pass us by, and tucked into some lunch. We were presented with bread, lime, margarine, and chili salsa, as we had been before our meals in Mexico City. The salsa here in Pátzcuaro was spicier than that in Mexico City, but still super tasty. I decided I couldn’t go past ordering “Sopa Tarasca” – a traditional tomato-based soup from Pátzcuaro with dried chili, cheese, and fried tortilla strips. I tentatively asked for my soup “sin chile” (without chili) – our waiter obligingly nodded and promptly brought my soup, with chili floating unobtrusively on top. It was time for what little chili training I’d done in Australia to show its worth. I took a small sip of my soup, and was pleasantly surprised – it was a little spicy, but nowhere near too much. Near the end of my soup, having left the chili pieces well alone, I decided it was now or never – I put one of the larger pieces on my spoon, and chewed on it… No trouble at all. I got lucky this time! The soup was amazing and the tortilla pieces throughout it were a revelation – I could easily develop an addiction to it. Alex and I ordered our first coffees of our trip – my long black was awfully bitter, and his cappuccino was watery and flavourless. Nonetheless, the caffeine kept us going through our long day exploring.

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The standard sides served with bread before each meal

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Sopa Tarasca – with chunks of dried chili

After our meal, we set off towards a church we had been admiring from our table at the café. It was beautiful, and also happened to be in front of a long string of market stalls selling fruit and vegetables. Never one to resist markets and the delightful colours and scents within, we eagerly wound our way through the stalls, pausing to admire the vibrant orange marigolds that are synonymous with Dia de Muertos celebrations, and ponder the fascinating vegetables and fruits we had never seen before. Continuing our walk in no particular direction, we soon realised that Pátzcuaro had a secret intrigue we hadn’t read about on any website – their complete patchwork of doors, no two alike. Every house, no matter how small, had an impressive entrance, with doors of all colours, sizes and styles. It would take a day at least to take photos of only the most beautiful doors in Pátzcuaro, and with any luck in future we will be back to take a journey through the doors of the world, and perhaps make a blog about that alone…

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After becoming blissfully lost, taking an enormous amount of photos and exchanging greetings of “buenas tardes” (good afternoon) with many locals, we turned our attention to finding our way back to our hotel for a relaxing late afternoon cerveza. On our journey back we found ourselves in the middle of a group of thirty or more young children, dressed to the nines in their Dia de Meurtos costumes, complete with face-paint, suits, and beautiful dresses. It was amazing to see the effort they and their parents had gone to, and the result was nothing short of spectacular.

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One of the many fruit and vegetable stalls

Finding ourselves back at the church we had started at, but not quite ready to head straight home yet, we followed our noses to a nearby bakery, full of freshly baked goods tantalising our tastebuds. We carefully chose two out of the many options – a chocolate loaf, and a sugar-coated fruity pastry. We could have stayed all day admiring (and slowly working our way through) the shelves full of doughnuts, traditional Pan de Muertos, croissants, and endless other baked goods, but we moved on to a bottle shop instead to choose our cervezas for the day. Having never had a Corona in Australia, Alex decided that it was only fair to give it a go in its home country of Mexico, so we picked two up. The salesman explained to me that if we didn’t bring in our empty bottles, we had to pay an extra 5 pesos to have the bottled beer as opposed to the cans. We’ll know for next time!

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Doughnuts at the bakery

On our way home, we walked past new markets we hadn’t come across before, and discovered the sugar skulls that we had long anticipated. Stall after stall sold chocolate skeletons, sugar skulls, lollipops shaped like skulls or spiders, and many other kinds of festive confectionery.

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Dia de Muertos confectionery

After our afternoon beers in our hotel room, we realised it was already almost 9pm, and we’d better find some dinner before it was too late. Our stomachs led us towards the food stalls we’d been to the night before, but before we made it there, beautiful music reached our ears, and we diverted to listen to a five-piece band playing in the middle of one of Pátzcuaro’s most famous squares, Plaza Vasco de Quiroga. It was surreal, standing in the middle of a park in a small, ancient Mexican town, listening to excellent musicians play with extraordinary passion, and realising – we did it, we’re here, we’re living our dreams!

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Enchiladas

We found our way to the food vendors after the band had finished, and tucked into some amazing traditional Mexican enchiladas, which were packed full of flavour and super filling. Alex’s was served with chicken, while the woman cooking was kind enough to make me a vegetarian version with beautifully spiced carrots and potatoes alongside corn tortillas, topped with queso (cheese) and shredded cabbage – yum!

Hoping for some churros for dessert, we were disappointed to find the shop had closed for the night – there’s always tomorrow!