8 Things I’ve Learned While Travelling The World

1. It can be dangerous to say “yes” to a food item without understanding what it is you’re saying yes to.

Once, I ended up with a bowl of hot cinnamon water served alongside a jar of nescafe, and a whole chili, stuffed with cheese, crumbed and deep fried. It wasn’t the most appealing breakfast and it was much spicier than I expected at that time of day!
On another occasion, I walked into a restaurant where the waiter asked me a question. I thought he was asking if I wanted to eat my meal here (rather than take it away) – he was actually asking if I wanted the set menu. All I wanted was a sandwich, but I ended up with a bowl of boiling, slightly flavoured water, with pasta in it; a bowl of salty, slightly flavoured rice; a jug of very sweet flavoured water to drink; and a cold, custard-like dessert. There would have been a main as well but it was crumbed chicken, which I declined. What an experience! Lesson learnt – don’t say yes without knowing what it is you’re agreeing to if you’re at all picky with your food! Luckily, it’s all an experience and makes for good stories!

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My stuffed chili surprise in Oaxaca, Mexico – I finished it!

 

2. People change when you’re travelling together.

Setting off overseas with your brother, best friend, or partner might seem like a great idea – and a lot of the time it is! But other times, being in close proximity to someone for a long period of time can force you into a make or break situation. The key to travelling well with someone is communicating well with someone!

 

3. Plans change.

Don’t expect everything to happen when you want it to. You might have a bus booked to your next destination – it might not arrive on time. Don’t stress! Ask yourself – is there anything I can do? If the answer is “no”, then let it go, and let life play out as it was always intended to.
In Cuba I once booked a taxi to my next destination with three other travellers. We assumed it would just be the four of us and the driver. Alas, after waiting over an hour for the “taxi” to arrive, we discovered it was in fact a beaten up old van with no air-conditioning or windows that could be opened, no working speedometer, and the world’s smallest and most uncomfortable seats. And it was already filled with ten other people, so it was an extraordinary squeeze just to get us and our bags in! But we got to our destination safely and made friends along the way!

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Waiting for our very late “taxi” in Havana, Cuba

 

4. Life goes on.

No matter what happens to you on your trip – getting mugged, missing a plane, not having accommodation booked and finding everything is full, or breaking up with your partner mid-trip – life will go on. You will find a way to remember why you came travelling in the first place and you will find something to make you smile again. My fiancé ended our engagement two months into what was meant to be a six month trip together before getting married at home. It was a huge shock, the worst thing I could have imagined happening on our dream trip. But I woke up a few days later and went for a walk and felt a little bit better. And in a week or a month I’ll feel a bit better. And whether I go home early or keep travelling, I need to believe everything happens for a reason and I have no choice but to keep waking up and going for walks and experiencing this beautiful world. I’ve made it this far, and I want to make it further.

 

5. Say “yes” to new experiences with people you trust.

Even during the middle of my break up, I had a friend of a friend ask me and my fiancé to go sight-seeing with them. Instead of being miserable and wallowing at home, I said yes, and I will always remember that day and those experiences with new friends as one of the highlights of my trip. New people can give you the distraction you need and remind you that there’s more to life than what’s bringing you down. A couple of days after the break up, I spent the day crying in bed at my Airbnb accommodation. That evening, the owner called up to my room to make sure I was ok, and asked me to join him and his friends in a gathering. The last thing I felt like doing was leaving my room to face the world, but it was the best decision I could have made. I spent the evening trying to understand new friends speaking much faster Spanish than I’m used to, eating traditional Christmas “rosca de reyes” cake, drinking amazing Oaxacan hot chocolate and not thinking about my troubles.

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An excellent quote I found on a day out with my new friends, amidst my break up. It translates roughly to “Love isn’t forever, mezcal is!”

 

6. If you pause for a second and consider taking a photo, do it!

I guarantee that you’ll regret not taking a photo but you will never regret taking too many. A few times I was in a hurry somewhere and saw something amazing on the way and didn’t pause to take the photo and I wish I had! It takes a few seconds to take a photo – it’s always worth it!

 

7. Stick to your budget – but work a few extras into the budget before you start travelling.

Things don’t always go to plan (refer to #3), which can mean things are more expensive than planned. Allow for this in your budget so you don’t get too disappointed when you spend more than you expected to. I knew Cuba was going to be expensive but when I came back to Mexico and could use the internet to look at how much I’d spent there, it was even more than I expected and I was a bit shocked! But I don’t regret a dollar I spent there and will have incredible photos, memories and stories to tell from Cuba for the rest of my life.
As well as this, every now and then there will be something you want to do but you’ll think, “it’s a bit too expensive” and you’ll consider not doing it. Sometimes this is the right decision, but sometimes it isn’t. Reconsider your budget and write down the pros and cons of doing the activity/going to the new place/eating the expensive food. It can be well worth it, even if it sounds overly expensive at the time!

 

8. Make the most of your trip – you might not be back again soon.

Get out and explore! Eat new food, don’t stick to sandwiches and hamburgers and pizza. Try new drinks, talk to new people, give each new place a chance. Find one thing you love about your day each and every day – it’s possible and it’s the only way to travel!

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Enjoying beers and mezcal in Puebla, Mexico

Cienfuegos – The Land of One Hundred Fires

For years, when we are asked “where were you when you learned about the new President of the United States?”, we will be able to answer with a most interesting response. We were in a taxi, travelling from Viñales to Cienfuegos, speaking to an incredibly interesting European couple. News travels slowly in Cuba, so it was days after the election results were released that this couple broke the news to us. A heated discussion about the state of world politics ensued, with the half-Swiss, half-Slovenian couple wholeheartedly agreeing that this new information had tarnished our trip; and all of us agreeing that each should go back to their home country and work their way up to the top of the political career in order to undo the negativity that is currently sweeping across the world from some of the world’s strongest States. We eventually had to take deep breaths and change the topic of conversation to something less disappointing, and spent the rest of the journey learning more about each other’s countries and lives.

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A Cienfuegos streetscape

The taxi ride from Viñales to Trinidad is a long one, so many tourists choose to stop a night or two in Cienfuegos on the way. There are quite a few tours you can do from Cienfuegos to keep your stay interesting; though if you can’t afford or aren’t inclined to join in on one of these, two nights here is enough.

The town itself is interestingly placed, with the ocean bordering one side, featuring a beautiful palm-lined esplanade leading to a fishing wharf; and historical streets and buildings throughout. What I found to be most interesting about this part of Cuba was the endless propaganda. Entering the city you will be greeted by billboard after billboard with slogans like “Socialism makes the impossible possible”, lining both sides of the highway. Within Cienfuegos, every walk will take you past pro-Che and pro-Castro propaganda, reminiscent of the propaganda seen during high school history classes, encouraging people to join whichever political movement was in power at the time. The propaganda here is emotive, strongly worded, graphically illustrated, and almost convincing.

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One of the many pieces of propaganda in Cienfuegos

On our first afternoon in Cienfuegos, we wandered through the centre of town, pausing to check out laneways filled with markets, and buy one or two souvenirs for ourselves and our loved ones. We had a very plain lunch at a courtyard restaurant, and ended up finding ourselves at the fishing wharf, where we sat for a time and watched beautiful little jellyfish drift out to sea with the tide. For a moment, I wondered where they would end up, and whether one day I would see them or their descendants in another place, at another time.

As the sun approached the horizon, we started home, pausing a moment to listen to a band at an outdoor bar play “Bailando”, an immensely popular Enrique Iglesias song we hear everywhere (and which every live band in Cuba plays at least once per set). With this catchy and uplifting tune stuck firmly in my head still hours later, I came to realise that for years to come, many of my favourite memories of Cuba would involve this song – and I loved this revelation.

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The Cienfuegos wharf

We had chosen to enjoy dinner at our casa that evening, which led to us meeting two lovely European ladies staying in the same place. We chatted with them over drinks on the rooftop terrace before dinner, and the conversation flowed on constantly throughout our meal and for a while afterwards, until the pair headed out for a night on the town. It was interesting to get their perspective on Cuba as two young ladies travelling without male companions, as apparently the whistles, date requests, and other forms of harassment were rife throughout this part of the world. I hadn’t experienced this very much because I always had a male with me, though I had been asked by a few Cuban men if he was my boyfriend or not. It would be a real annoyance to be constantly approached and not left alone, simply because you are a female without a male; particularly in Cuba, where the men are used to getting their way with women because there are apparently five or more women for every man (as many Cuban men reminded every female tourist they could talk to for long enough). Whilst Cuba is by no means a dangerous country, there are certainly annoyances, and they do wear you down after a while.

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This propaganda is right outside a school, and says “To defend the revolution is the most sacred task”. Interestingly, “tarea” translates to both “task” and “homework”. 

On our second day in Cienfuegos, we followed Lonely Planet’s recommendation and made our way to Cementerio la Reina, the oldest cemetery in Cienfuegos (founded in 1837), where many Spanish soldiers who died during the Wars of Independence are buried. We were amazed to learn that, because of the high water levels here, many bodies were laid to rest in the walls, rather than in the ground. As well as this, there were a great number of incredibly elaborate statues on top of graves, and beautiful farewells inscribed on tombstones. We didn’t know it yet, but we would go on to see an even more impressive cemetery when we returned to Havana. Nonetheless, this one was interesting and beautiful and we were glad we went.

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Some beautiful statues at Cienfuegos’ famous cemetery; behind them are the wall graves

We enjoyed some mid-afternoon beers on the beautiful rooftop terrace of our casa, before making our way down to the esplanade to watch the sun set. It was an enchanting, fiery, stunning sunset; changing every minute until we were left with only a golden-red glow where the sun had been moments before. “Cienfuegos” literally translates to “one hundred fires”, and the sunsets alone are reason enough. We sat at a waterfront bar, sipping the most expensive mojitos we’d had in Cuba from plastic cups, thinking about our families at home and wishing they could be here to share this beautiful, tranquil moment with us.

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A fiery Cienfuegos sunset

Viñales – The Gem of Cuba’s West

After three nights in Havana, enjoying dinner and drinks with Simon and Saskia every night, all four of us headed to Viñales on the recommendation of many other travellers. We had been expecting a taxi, but ended up waiting over an hour for a beaten up old van, packed full already, which we and our luggage were somehow jammed into, in a Mary Poppins kind of way. The speedometer didn’t work, the dashboard was virtually non-existent, the seats weren’t secured properly so you had a choice of slipping off or having the backrest hit into you with every motion of the car (this turned out to be the favourable option), there was no air-conditioning and the only windows that opened were the ones right down the front. Every one of the eleven passengers were around our age, and, in a way that only travelling several hours in a barely-road-worthy van together can, we pulled together and cheerfully chatted with one another about where we’d been, where we were going, and other travel stories. We met a European couple who had to speak in English to one another as one person was Italian and one was Dutch; a group of travellers at least one of whom was Italian but spoke fluent German to Saskia; and various other interesting, well-travelled people, all of whom were from Europe.

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Our ride to Vinales, photo courtesy of Simon S

We arrived safely at our casa and were greeted cheerfully by our hostess Elisabeth, who immediately showed us to our large, well equipped and comfortable room, and then promptly organised a tour of Viñales for the four of us for that afternoon. After getting settled in, we headed to a local restaurant for lunch and mojitos (at $2, how could you say no?). Lunch was plain but large and filling, and very cheap. We then headed back to our casa for our tour, which was CUC $30 for the four of us, and lots of fun. We were driven about by a young man in an old car to several different places in Viñales, the stand-outs being Cueva del Indio, the Mural de la Prehistoria, a tobacco farm, and Hotel Los Jazmines. At Cueva del Indio (cave of the Indian), we paid another CUC $5 each entry, but it was worth it. We saw a brief cultural performance outside the cave with Cubans dressed up in traditional costume. The performance involved a Cuban hutia, which is a rat about the size of a small adult cat. After this, we wandered on through the caves, only to find ourselves at the banks of a river. We were pondering if we should now walk back the way we came, as there didn’t seem any other option, when a boat showed up and ushered us on board. We were taken up and down the river for a short while, having various rock formations in the cave pointed out to us for their similarities to animals and people. After being dropped off outside the caves again, we got back into our vintage ride and continued on.

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Our boat ride inside the caves

The Mural de la Prehistoria is an absolutely enormous mural on a huge rock face, featuring several dinosaurs, snails, and humans. It is intended to symbolise the theory of evolution, and is famous in this area for its 120 metre length, and the fact that it took eighteen people four years to complete. At the tobacco farm, we saw what tobacco looks like before it’s dried, and watched cigars being rolled by an expert, whilst hearing about the process from workers. The farm was so proud of its product they gave free cigars out to tourists to try, and encouraged people to try them dipped in honey, as Che Guevara enjoyed his. We finished our tour at Hotel Los Jazmines, which has breathtaking panoramic views over Viñales.

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Watching cigars being rolled at a tobacco farm

We enjoyed dinner at our casa that evening, before heading out to Casa del Mojito a few doors down. A second German couple who were staying at the same casa as we were had recommended it to us, so the six of us together whiled away the evening enjoying traditional mojitos, and then trying more exotic, flavoured mojitos. The guayaba (guava) and mango flavoured mojitos are my picks – absolutely delicious! We ended up heading back almost every night of our Viñales stay, and voted the mojitos here some of the best in Cuba (read more about that here).

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Some of Cuba’s best mojitos at Casa del Mojito

In Viñales, there is one main street with almost all of the town’s restaurants on it, as well as the banks, the biggest shop, and most other things you will need. If you follow this road far enough in one direction (the opposite to the way you came in from Havana) you will reach the Jardín Botánico de Viñales (botanical gardens), which are free to enter and well worth a look. There are plenty of beautiful native plants, all of which will be pointed out and explained to you by a friendly and knowledgeable guide. Here you will find the güira fruit, from which maracas are made; a spiky tree which is used by Cubans for aspirin; the cacao plant (though we were told they don’t harvest the cacao here, the plants are purely for aesthetic pleasure); along with various other Cuban plants. There are also some Cuban parrots and a Cuban hutia (also known as a tree rat) to look at. Some people keep tree rats as pets, while others eat them, according to our guide. We were lucky enough to see a hummingbird’s nest, though a few weeks too late to see the baby birds themselves. The humidity and heat in Cuba is ideal for growing orchids, so there are several different varieties of orchid here to admire. At the end of the tour a tip tray is placed on a table but there is no pressure whatsoever to donate, though I encourage you to as it’s a beautiful place and it would be great to keep it going for future generations.

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One of the fantastic plants we saw at the Botanic Gardens

If you continue on this road for another few kilometres, you’ll reach Cueva del Indio, though it’s perhaps easier to visit this on a tour rather than walking. Near Cueva del Indio but on the opposite side of the road is a cave that features a restaurant during the day, and turns into a club at night time. We didn’t visit this, but did drive past it and it is certainly a nifty idea. Further away from Viñales there are other caves with pools in which you can swim, though again we didn’t visit them. Simon and Saskia hired bicycles and rode out to them, though they are a bit of a distance away. You can also take a horseback tour to these caves, which we would have loved to have done but ran out of time.

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The guira fruit, used to make maracas

A short walk from our casa was Cueva de la Vaca, which was a great little adventure for us. We had no intention of walking there initially when we set off, we just intended to see where the street lead us. After walking a little while, we came across a couple walking in the opposite direction, so I asked them if there was anything worth seeing further down the path. They told us about the caves and we were sold; it definitely sounded like an interesting place to visit. We ventured on and found a sign to a farm, which is what the couple had told us to watch out for. We entered the farm and wound our way down the dirt path to a hut set up with hammocks, chairs, tables and a tree rat on a chain. A man greeted us amicably and asked us if we wanted anything to drink here. We said no thank you, and he said we were welcome to continue on through his farm to the caves. We wandered through a field with a pond that a couple of horses were cooling off in; past a pig sty with piglets rolling around in the mud happily; over an interesting make-shift A-shape ladder that humans can climb but the farm animals can’t; and onwards towards a lengthy, slippery, damaged stone staircase winding up and up and up…

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The entrance to Cueva de la Vaca

We made it to the top, puffing and sweaty, but it would turn out to be worth our effort. The cave was small, but L-shaped, meaning that if you stood right in the middle, it was almost pitch-black. We used the light on Alex’s phone to make it safely to the other side, and then decided to clamber down the stony hillside to the paddocks at the bottom. We found a couple of cute little goats chomping on some grass, who were all too eager to say hello to us. They were tied up so couldn’t quite make it, but I decided to risk it and ventured carefully over to one. Inexplicably, the goat thoroughly enjoyed licking my legs, which was one of the strangest feelings I’ve experienced (and I’ve had my feet nibbled by fish in Cambodia). We said hello to the other goat, wandered a bit further through the fields, and then turned back when we came to a barbed-wire fence that silently said “You shall not pass!”. Once we made our way back to the cave, we were surprised to hear tiny little squeaks we hadn’t heard the first time around. We paused, pondering the odd noises, when we suddenly realised what it was. Bats! With the trusty phone torch lighting the way once more, we were lucky enough to look up and see, huddled in the crevices of the cave’s ceiling, hundreds of minuscule bats just starting to wake up. We took plenty of photos and a couple of videos to capture their unique voices, and then went on our way to let them grab a cup of coffee or perhaps some breakfast bugs to munch on.

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Some of the tiny bats in Cueva de la Vaca

Watching the sunset from the roof of our casa while sipping on Havana Club rum, we wondered what other excitement lay ahead of us on the next two and a half weeks of our trip in Cuba. So far, we were loving every minute of this relaxed, diverse, happy country, and we couldn’t wait to find out what was next.

Where to Stay in Cuba

Lonely Planet makes some suggestions of some good casas particulares (find out what that means in my first blog about Cuba, here) in each town; otherwise, some casas have Trip Advisor stickers on their front doors to advertise their success at hosting guests.

Usually, when you find yourself at your first casa in Cuba, you will pretty much be organised for the rest of your trip. Your hostess will offer to find you a casa at the next place you are headed, and book you transportation to pick you up at your door and take you to your new temporary home.

To find your first casa and get your trip going, you can either book online from home, or walk around and knock on doors when you arrive. If you choose to book ahead, keep in mind that it can be a slow process and take weeks to get replies between emails, so start organising well in advance. Ensure you write down all details of your booked casa, including the address and a contact name and phone number, in case you need them when you arrive. It is also a good idea to write down the contact name and phone number of the person you have been emailing to organise your casa for you, just in case. It is usually not a problem to walk around door-knocking, as most Cubans are awake until quite late at night and expect travellers to request a bed every now and then. However, you may be doing a fair bit of walking before you find a casa that suits your needs and has availability. It’s always better to have a place booked before you arrive if you can.

In case you want to organise your own accommodation and are looking for more suggestions than what you can currently read about in Lonely Planet, there are a few websites you can take a look at. I used http://casaparticular.org/ , but you should note that organising through this website will take several weeks. Other websites I looked at but did not personally use include  www.casasparticulares.com , http://www.casaparticularcuba.org/ , and http://cubaparticular.com/ .

I’ve listed below the casas in which I stayed and what I found good and bad about them, as a starting point. The prices listed are what I paid, though I understand they may be higher in the high season (the end of November, throughout December and possibly into January).

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One of the relaxing hammocks at Hostal Dos Leones, Playa La Boca

Havana Vieja

  • Casa Carusa, Calle Acosta 412, between Calle Egidio and Calle Curazao, Havana Vieja
    • Amelia was our hostess here. She was very helpful and kind, always up for a conversation and some advice-giving. She does not speak English; only Spanish.
    • Amelia can make you breakfast for CUC $5 per person per day. Breakfast consists of eggs, cheese, meat, vegetables, bread, butter, coffee, juice, and a fruit platter.
    • Amelia can do your washing for you if you’d like. We had quite a bit to do including pairs of jeans after our time in chilly Mexico City, so we paid CUC $12.
    • The property is conveniently located within a short walk of many of Old Havana’s greatest attractions, including several fantastic restaurants and bars, and many museums and architectural attractions.
    • The property has a long, slim staircase that would not be good for older or larger guests.
    • Our bedroom had a bathroom within, but there was no door between the two and it was very open.
    • The hot water was sporadic at best.
    • We paid CUC $30 per night for our room.

 

Havana – Vedado

  • Royal House, Calle 10 No. 113, between Calzada and Calle 5, Vedado
    • Luca and Taimy were our hosts here. They speak a little bit of English. They are kind and helpful.
    • The house itself is lovely, with a small balcony with a table and chairs for guest use, as well as the rooftop area having a bar, jacuzzi, and more chairs. The bedroom had many extra touches, such as our towels in different nifty shapes (swans, presents, lollies) each day, and throw pillows on the neatly made bed.
    • You are not provided with a key to your room, which was unusual for us as every other casa had given us a key to our room and the front door of the property. However, the property has high fences and several security cameras, as well as a gate that needs to be manually unlocked from the inside. Someone is always home to let you in, 24/7, as there is a man who works nights.
    • The casa offers breakfast, though we never ate there. There is also a food and drinks menu in your room with various snack options.
    • Our room had a huge bed in it, as well as a large TV, a radio/sound system, a small fridge, air conditioning, and a bathroom.
    • The hot water was consistent, though the showerhead wasn’t properly fixed to the wall and needed to be held to use it properly.
    • We had our room cleaned every day and new towels daily, which was unexpected.
    • We had our washing done here, which cost CUC $5 for our one bag.
    • We paid CUC $35/night to stay here, though it was high season at this point.
    • You can contact them on: Ph: (53) 78 307 947 or (53) 58 045 625; e: vacanzacuba@yahoo.it; vacanzacuba.it
  • Casa Viel, Calle Linea No. 1004 (Bajos), between Calle 10 and Calle 12, Vedado
    • Our hosts were Milagros and Victor. They were both astoundingly kind and went well out of their way to help us multiple times. Milagros doesn’t speak English, but Victor speaks fluent English and happily translates any/all conversations between you and Milagros.
    • The house is lovely with a balcony with several chairs and tables, as well as a lounge room with comfortable couches and a TV, and a dining room.
    • Our room had air conditioning, a large bed, a small fridge, and a bathroom.
    • The hot water was consistent.
    • Milagros and Victor explained that the water they use in the casa is all boiled and then purified so you don’t need to worry when they serve glasses of water or ice. They were there to answer any questions we had, and loved to chat.
    • When we stayed with them, I was very ill. They went well out of their way to make me tea with fresh mint from their garden, as well as plain pasta for my lunch and plain rice for my dinner. The next morning they made me more tea, and gave me crackers to eat as my stomach was still very unwell. They refused to charge us for any of this and said they just wanted me to feel better. We couldn’t imagine more hospitable hosts, especially in a foreign country when you are unwell.
    • On top of this, they woke up early to make Alex a full breakfast for 6am, with fruit salad, bread rolls, butter, jam, eggs however he wanted, coffee, juice, and pastries. This was CUC $5.
    • They made Alex dinner which was large and very tasty, consisting of juicy roast pork, rice and beans, mashed Malanga (kind of like potato), potato chips, tomato, cucumber, and lettuce. This cost CUC $10.
    • The next morning Alex was locked in our bedroom as the door malfunctioned and wouldn’t open. Without hesitation Victor ran to our aid and did everything he could to help, which ended up involving asking our taxi driver to shoulder-charge the door to break it open and get Alex out. They were nothing but apologetic that this had happened, and so kind to us in every way.
    • We were only able to stay one night as they had been booked out prior, but we would have loved to have stayed longer with them.
    • We paid CUC $35 for our night here.
    • You can contact them on: Ph: (053) 52 940 846; e: milagros6210@nauta.cu; http://casaviel.blogspot.mx/

 

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Our room at Royal House, Vedado, Havana

 

Viñales

  • Villa La Niña, Adela Azcuy Norte No. 11, Viñales
    • Elisabeth was our hostess. She was very helpful and understanding, and speaks some English, certainly enough to get by if you don’t speak Spanish.
    • The house is located right near the main street of Viñales, which is an excellent location within walking distance of a few of the main attractions of the town (including the Botanic Gardens and Cueva de la Vaca), and a bike ride length to most other attractions.
    • The house itself is lovely. It is all very clean, and there is a beautiful hut with electrical sockets you can use behind the main house. There is also a table and chairs on the rooftop which provides a beautiful view of the Viñales sunset and the nearby mountains.
    • Our room had a fridge, two double beds, and a bathroom within it.
    • The hot water was sporadic.
    • Elisabeth and her family were wonderful cooks. They provided breakfast on request for CUC $5, and dinner was CUC $10. The meals were delicious and so plentiful it was impossible to finish them. The food here was some of the best in Cuba.
    • We paid CUC $25 per night for our room.

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Our view from the roof of Villa La Nina, Vinales

 

Cienfuegos

  • Hostal Pink House, Avenida 42 No. 4913, between Calles 49 and 51
    • Henry and Lalita were our hosts. They were both friendly and helpful and spoke some English.
    • The water was sporadically turned off, without warning or reason. This was highly inconvenient at times.
    • Hot water was fine when the water was working.
    • There is an internet hot spot across the road from the house if you bought the card needed to access it.
    • Dinner was tasty and filling, and served with dessert. The prices varied depending on the type of meat chosen but was about CUC $7-10, with lobster costing more.
    • Breakfast was CUC $5 and was the usual eggs, bread, butter, fruit salad, coffee and juice. The juice was quite watered down on the first day but better on the next. We were also given sachets of mango jam and guava jam, which were delicious.
    • We paid CUC $25 per night for our room.
    • You can contact them on: Ph: (53) 4352 8734; e: lalita05@nauta.cu

 

Trinidad

  • Sarahi Santander Soler, Francisco Peterssen (also known as Callejón Chinchiquirá) No. 179, between Calle Rosario and Callejón de San Cayetano
    • Our hosts were not very hospitable. It felt awkward to ask for breakfast when we were there, and we didn’t feel particularly welcome, which was not how any of our other casas had been.
    • Our room smelled and looked quite mouldy and damp.
    • Our room had a powerful fan, a mini fridge, and a bathroom.
    • The water was hot and consistent.
    • The breakfast was CUC $5 and was tasty, except for the very bitter coffee. We were also provided with honey.
    • We heard the hostess speaking with other guests about dinner so I presume dinner is available if you ask for it.
    • There was a lovely patio area with tables and chairs surrounded by beautiful, lush plants that was available to guests.
    • We paid CUC $25 per night for our room.
    • You can contact them on: Ph: (53) 41 998 484 or (53) 52 617 812; e: sarahisantander@gmail.com; http://casasarahi.webstoreinc.com/
  • Hostal Tito y Vicki, Mario Guerra (also known as Callejón de San Cayetano) 177, between Frank País and Jesús María
    • Tito and Vicky were our hosts here, along with their son. They spoke a bit of English, the son speaks enough to get by if you do not speak Spanish. They were all lovely and hospitable.
    • The house is a grand house with plush furniture and a huge fish tank in the living room. The rooms are huge and the beds are bigger than normal.
    • Our room had a small fridge, two large beds, air-conditioning and a big bathroom with a waterfall showerhead.
    • The hot water was consistent.
    • There was a lovely shaded balcony area for guests with tables, chairs, and plants.
    • We had our washing done here. I believe it would have been halved if we had put it all into one bag; as it was it cost us CUC $10 for two bags.
    • We didn’t have any meals here, nor did they offer, though I believe they would have cooked if we had asked. We are told they don’t enjoy cooking at this property.
    • We paid CUC $30 per night for our room, which was well worth it, particularly after our previous casa in Trinidad.
    • You can contact them on: Ph: (53) 41 993 952 or (53) 52 701 548; e: titoyvicky@yahoo.es; http://titovicky.trinidadhostales.com/

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The beautiful, ornate ceiling at Hostal Tito y Vicki, Trinidad

 

Playa La Boca

  • Hostal Dos Leones, Avenida del Sol, Playa La Boca
    • We had Heidy and Rolando as our hosts. They were both extremely kind and caring, going out of their way to make our stay as relaxing and lovely as possible. Heidy speaks English but appreciates you speaking Spanish where you can. They have two children who are quiet and very sweet.
    • Heidy is one of the best cooks in Cuba, providing us with huge, healthy, delicious meals every morning and evening. Playa La Boca does not have anywhere to eat other than at your casa, except for one restaurant which sporadically serves food.
    • The house was a lovely, big, airy home with a beautiful, huge hut out the front under which we found three hammocks, along with two tables and chairs. This area always had a lovely breeze and we ate all of our meals here.
    • Our room was large, with a big double bed and a single bed, air conditioning, a fan, and a bathroom.
    • The hot water was consistent.
    • The house is a short walk to a nearby beach and within a few kilometres of nicer, sandy beaches. It is an 8km walk to Playa Ancón.
    • Speak to Rolando about snorkelling – he works at a snorkelling place about 3km from Playa La Boca, and was kind enough to give us a discount on our snorkel rental, as well as literally lending us the shoes off his feet to navigate the rocky ground leading up to the ocean.
    • Breakfast here was CUC $5 and came with not only fruit salad, eggs however you like them, bread, butter, jam, coffee, juice, and honey, but also homemade biscuits and cakes, wrapped up to take with you on your day’s adventures.
    • Dinner was CUC $12 per person per night, and was well worth it. Most nights we had a soup to start off with, followed by salad, rice, meat or fish of your choosing and potato chips, and every night we had Heidi’s delicious and unbeatable flan for dessert.
    • Overall, this was easily our favourite casa from our time in Cuba. If you’re headed to Trinidad, it’s well worth taking the short trip to Playa La Boca to stay a few nights at Hostal Dos Leones – we stayed 5 nights and we loved every minute!
    • We paid CUC $30 per night for our stay here.
    • You can contact them on: Ph: (53) 52 447 949 or (53) 52 816 591; e: rheidys35@nauta.cu

Staying in a casa particular is an excellent way to get more involved in the Cuban culture. You’ll meet more locals than you would staying in a hotel, eat more traditional Cuban food, learn more Spanish, and enjoy your time truly immersed in Cuba. We didn’t stay in any hotels, but I wouldn’t change that. We had the best time in Cuba, and you can always move to a new casa if you aren’t comfortable in the one you’re at – we did, and we’re glad! We highly recommend Hostal Dos Leones in Playa La Boca, and Casa Viel in Vedado, Havana. Of everywhere we stayed, these two casas were the most welcoming, kind-hearted and homely, and we hope to stay with them again one day!

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A typical Cuban casa – a rocking chair and a balcony – Casa Carusa, Havana Vieja

Where to Find the Best Mojito in Cuba

For months, when we told people we were headed to Cuba, we were flooded with comments about how jealous they were that we’d be sipping mojitos on a beach for three and a half weeks. Well, the beach part is harder than it seems, but the mojito part certainly isn’t. Everywhere you go, you can buy a mojito or two, sometimes in more than one flavour (though usually just traditional, which is all you really need). After our first few days in Cuba, having had at least one mojito per day, we decided we were obliged to find out for our readers where to find the best mojito in Cuba. Neither our wallets nor our livers could afford for us to try every single mojito we found on a menu, but we’ve tried every one recommended to us along with a few extras, and have come up with a list of must-try, and best-to-avoid mojitos. We developed a rating system including Price, Strength, Taste, and Extra Information, and have included our results for your reading (and drinking) pleasure.

Havana

Plaza Nueva –

Address: Plaza Vieja, San Ignacio, Habana Vieja

  • Price – $4.00
  • Strength – Not very strong
  • Taste – Average
  • Extra Information
    • Live music often in the venue or neighbouring venues;
    • Good view of the main square of Havana.
  • Overall score – 2/5

Nao –

Address: Obispo No. 1, between San Pedro and Baratillo, Habana Vieja

  • Price – $3.00
  • Strength – Very strong on first visit, not strong on second visit
  • Taste – Good, quite sweet
  • Extra Information
    • Venue is very well placed, with views of the ocean on one side and Plaza de Armas on the other;
    • Often live music at the venue;
    • Great breeze in outside seating and more atmospheric than indoor seating.
  • Overall score – 3.5/5

D’Lirios –

Address: Paseo de Marti, Habana Vieja – opposite Capitolio

  • Price – $2.95
  • Strength – Average
  • Taste – Good, sweet
  • Extra Information
    • Goes down well with the delicious food on offer, or while waiting for a table (as the restaurant does not take bookings).
  • Overall Score – 3.5/5

Paladar Don Lorenzo –

Address: Acosta No. 260A, between Habana and Compostela – upstairs

  • Price – $3
  • Strength – Not strong
  • Taste – Ok, very sweet
  • Extra Information
    • Added mint liqueur to the mojito, which made it sickeningly sweet and overpowered by the artificial mint flavour;
    • Arguably the worst of the mojitos we tried in Cuba; perhaps they had run out of rum the day we visited and added mint liqueur instead. For this price there are many better mojitos available nearby.
  • Overall Score – 1/5

La Catedral –

Address: Calle 8, between Calle 5 and Calzada, Vedado, Havana

  • Price – $1.05
  • Strength – Average to strong
  • Taste – Good
  • Extra Information
    • The cheapest mojito we tried in Cuba, and well worth trying;
    • The food is very tasty, and enormous servings for the price.
  • Overall score – 4.5/5

 

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The (far too green) mojito at Don Lorenzo, Havana

Viñales

Casa del Mojito –

Address: Adela Azcuy Norte, just past Villa La Niña (No. 11)

  • Price – $3.90
  • Strength – Quite strong (Menu advertises 80ml of Havana Club 3 years)
  • Taste – Excellent
  • Extra Information
    • Large glass;
    • Excellent service – when your mojito is delivered you are advised to wait one minute, then stir, then drink;
    • The menu advertises the use of safe ice;
    • Best mint in any mojito we tried – flavoursome, well scented;
    • Several options as well as the traditional mojito, including mango and guava mojitos, both of which are amazing.
    • Extra fun provided with the super-long straws – see what you can make out of them!
  • Overall Score – 4.5/5

Yellow Restaurant on the corner of Salvador Cisneros and Adela Azcuy Norte –

  • Price – $2.00
  • Strength – Quite strong
  • Taste – Excellent
  • Extra Information
    • Small glass
    • Lime present in glass.
  • Overall Score – 3.5/5

La Plaza Bar & Café –

Address: Opposite the church in the centre of town, on the street off Salvador Cisneros

  • Price – $3.00
  • Strength – Good
  • Taste – Good
  • Extra Information
    • Small glass
  • Overall Score – 3/5

Paladar La Colonial –

Address: 101 Salvador Cisneros, Viñales

  • Price – $2.50
  • Strength – Good
  • Taste – Good
  • Extra Information
    • The food here unfortunately left a lot to be desired. You would do better to save your money and head to Casa del Mojito.
  • Overall Score – 3/5

 

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Two of the flavoured mojitos from Casa del Mojito, Vinales

Cienfuegos

Los Pinitos –

Address: Paseo El Prado, Cienfuegos

  • Price – $5.00
  • Strength – Average
  • Taste – Good
  • Extra Information
    • The bar is right next to the waterfront in Cienfuegos, which means beautiful sunset views sipping on a mojito.
    • This was the most expensive mojito we found in Cuba, and was certainly by no means worth the extra expense.
    • Served in small plastic cups.
  • Overall score – 2.5/5

 

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Our sunset mojitos at Los Pinitos, Cienfuegos

Trinidad

Taberna Ochún Yemayá

Address: Calle Boca, between Calle Jesús María and Frank País

  • Price – $2.00
  • Strength – Average
  • Taste – Good
  • Extra Information
    • The food and service here are excellent;
    • The mint in the mojitos is diced finely rather than a whole twig being put into the glass, meaning the flavour is released into the drink more.
  • Overall score – 3.5/5

 

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More fun with the straws from Casa del Mojito, Vinales – Guerrilla advertising!

It should be noted that very few mojitos we tried had evidence of lime present, though it may be that the juice was squeezed and strained before being added. Additionally, the mint in Cuba doesn’t seem to have much flavour, so most mojitos we tried were basically soda water, rum, and sugar, with a large amount of mint leaves in the glass which served more as a garnish than a flavouring device.

Weighing up the price with the other factors, we concluded that La Catedral in Vedado, Havana is where to find the best mojito in Havana; and Casa del Mojito in Viñales is the best mojito outside of Havana.

As a bonus tip, the best piña colada in Cuba is undoubtedly at Plaza Nueva in Havana Vieja. Perfectly creamy, deliciously coconutty and sweet, it is definitely worth a try (or two). If you happen to find yourself in Viñales, the piña coladas at La Plaza are very tasty, too.

Let us know if you find an amazing cocktail where you’re travelling – we’d love to try it out!

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A Pina Colada at Plaza Nueva, Havana

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!

14 degrees and no hoodie in sight

Our alarm woke us at 8am – today’s the day we headed to Pátzcuaro, so were excited to get up and on our way. We wandered the streets near our hotel to find a convenience store for supplies, and hopefully somewhere serving breakfast. We came across multiple “Oxxo” stores – the Mexican version of a 7/11 (though they have those, too) – and bought some water and snacks for our bus trip. After walking a few more blocks and finding nothing open for breakfast, we headed to another Oxxo and bought a sandwich and a burrito for breakfast – anything to fill our empty stomachs!

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Dia de Muertos decorations at Hotel Fornos

We’d realised last night that Alex had forgotten his hoodie in Australia and only had one thin jacket to keep him warm. This wasn’t ideal, given we’d just googled “weather in Pátzcuaro” and realised it was significantly colder than we’d been expecting. We had a brief look for shops selling jumpers on our morning walk, but to no avail. Never mind, we thought – we’ll try again when we get there.

After checking out of our room and asking the receptionist to order us a taxi, we met an American man in the lobby who struck up conversation with us and asked us where we’d been, where we were going, and how we were finding Mexico. It turned out his family was originally from Pátzcuaro, and he said we were going to love it. He wasn’t wrong!

On our taxi journey to the bus station Central Norte, our driver asked me a heap of questions about myself and Alex, and, upon hearing we were heading to Cuba, told me about some of the differences in pronunciation, accent and words between different Latin-American countries. He then gave me lovely compliments on my Spanish, which was a real relief after losing confidence in a conversation with our hotel receptionist the evening prior.

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View from our bus

We booked our tickets for our bus to and from Pátzcuaro, and were lucky enough to get the last two seats together. We had been nervous that we wouldn’t get seats on this bus at all, as we had been trying to book online for a month to no avail – it would seem you can’t book tickets with Primera Plus buses without a Mexican credit card; or at least, we tried four different credit cards and had no luck. At our hotel last night we were watching the bus book up quickly and knew there was a chance we’d have to wait a couple of extra hours at the station for the next bus. On top of this, we hadn’t heard from our accommodation (which we had booked in March) to confirm our reservation. Given that Dia de Meurtos was one of the biggest drawcards in our trip to Central America, we weren’t happy with the idea of missing out! Luckily for us, one of the lovely receptionists at our hotel, Hotel Fornos in Mexico City, phoned Hotel Posada Camelinas in Pátzcuaro for us to confirm our reservation. In the end, all was well and our reservation was confirmed, and we had seats on the bus we were hoping to be on!

On top of this, the bus was as nice as any plane, with TV screens in the back of each seat screening movies (though Alex was disappointed they were only in Spanish), air conditioning with controls for each seat, wifi (not great), on-board toilets and they even provided us with a sandwich, a drink and a snack. Though it cost roughly $35 each one way, it was well worth it for not having to swap buses in Morelia (as it seemed you do with every other company), and for the amenities and cleanliness, as well as the security, I’d spend the money again.

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View from our bus

We had a couple of hours to kill at the bus station, but there were plenty of food places and shops around to peruse – we chose to sit and people-watch instead, which passed the time quickly. When it was time to board our bus, we had to pass our bags through X-Ray scanners, and ourselves through metal detectors, before being frisked by security guards. We then had our large bags checked in underneath the bus and were given tags – hot tip, do NOT lose this tag, as it’s your only proof of which bag is yours and we’ve heard it can be very difficult to get your bag back without it. Our carry-on luggage was searched manually, and we were scanned again by hand-held metal detectors before being allowed onto the bus. All of this made me feel a lot better about the trip, which turned out to be completely uneventful and enjoyable.

From Mexico City to Pátzcuaro we went through about seven checkpoints/tolls. Every time the bus slowed down I had flashbacks to the horror stories I’d read about buses in Mexico being stopped by armed groups who would then go through your luggage and take what they wanted, if not worse. Every time, I was wrong. We arrived in Pátzcuaro with minds full of beautiful scenes we’d seen along the way, and hearts full of excitement for the next few days.

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Our hotel’s street

After wandering around for a little while thinking we knew where we were going, and asking several locals for directions (they’d never heard of our hotel), we gave up and caught a taxi. The ride through town was breathtaking – cobblestone streets, so pokey you could barely see around the corner before you were upon it; street vendors selling traditional Mexican tacos, enchiladas, cups of corn kernels and a multitude of other delicacies we’d never heard of before; Dia de Meurtos decorations strewn everywhere; and endless streams of people with somewhere to be.

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Chorizo tacos

After checking in, we set out for a walk to where the people had all been heading – and soon saw why they wanted to be there. Markets set up in a big square, filled with clothing, jewelry, toys, and lollies to give local children trick-or-treating; miniature pony rides down the cobblestone streets; food everywhere; and so much more to take in. We stopped at a taco vendor and bought Alex his first real Mexican chorizo tacos – he loved them! We then headed over to try out pizzas from a cart with an oven tucked away inside, and found them to be just as delicious. We can’t wait to try everything we missed tonight over the next few days!

12,685 kilometres…and counting

“Your new adventure starts now” declared my Dad, at 6am on the long-awaited 28th October 2016. It was time – the day had arrived! We still felt like we had a lot left to plan, but we had our passports and some money, and figured we’d see what happened!

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No turning back now!

We had a few hiccups along the way from Brisbane to Mexico City, with each airport throwing an obstacle our way, but in the end all was fine and we made it safe and sound. We’re currently approximately 12,865kms from home, and after our 25 hour journey to get here, including two flights, lots of waiting in airports and the longest taxi ride to our hotel, it sure feels like we’re that far away!

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Our American Airlines boarding passes

All the advice we heard about needing to speak Spanish before we arrived has proven pretty accurate so far – from booking the taxi in the airport, to ordering our dinner, and plenty of conversations in between, my brain is definitely going into overdrive trying to remember all those university Spanish classes – so far so good, though!

We were standing at reception at our hotel having just asked for a map when a 22-year-old Australian girl with fire engine red hair asked us if we spoke both English and Spanish. “Kind of!”, I replied, before trying to translate between her requests about taking a taxi to the airport, and the receptionist’s attempts to accommodate her without being able to understand her English. We got there in the end (with the help of another Latin-American man passing by), and ended up speaking to her for a while about her incredible journeys around Central America that had led her to this point. We took notes on the unmissable adventures she had in Costa Rica and Nicaragua and hopefully will be able to give other people we meet in future our notes on the places we’ve been!

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Our first beers in Mexico

We had our first meal in Mexico in our hotel’s restaurant, which included fresh (but cold) bread served with butter, fresh lime, and chili salsa; pollo Cordon Bleu (obviously Alex couldn’t walk past a $7 Cordon Bleu!); mushroom soup; queso panela (not what I was expecting but still tasty!); and two Mexican beers we hadn’t tried before – Victoria and Pacifico. All up our dinner cost us about AUD$14 – can’t complain about that!

We headed back to our room with grand plans of having a deep sleep before waking to explore Mexico City the next day… Around 20 hours later, we woke up, and realised it was already getting dark again here and probably best to enjoy another hotel dinner before our day tomorrow headed to Patzcuaro! Not exactly the most exciting first day in Mexico, but we feel better prepared for the rest of our journey now with much needed zzzs fuelling us for the excitement ahead!

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We made it!