Mexico – week2

Our second week in Mexico was very similar to the first one.  Lots of pool and beach time.  Yet again we failed to make use of the watersports on offer – oh well perhaps next time. 

We did escape the confines of the hotel for a couple of visits though.  We decided to go back to Isla Mujeres in the sunshine as our previous trip was cut short.  Taking the local water taxi which was almost next door to the hotel we ended up in Downtown Mujeres as opposed to the tourist beach of the previous week. OMG what a place! You are accosted as soon as you walk out of the ferry terminal with vendors offering their wares – mostly silver jewellery and diamonds and everyone offering a discount.  The greatest thing about walking into those sparkly shops is the air conditioning, it just hits you in the face after the furnace outside.  Walking around the corner and into the small side streets you find the smaller vendors and souvenir shops each selling pretty much the same thing as each other. There are only so many souvenir shops you can see without losing the will to live.  Anyone who really knows me knows my tolerance level is quite low for souvenir shops.  I think its a Newquay thing.  Then we hit the café and restaurant streets. Lunchtime!  We tried a couple of local Mexican restaurants, one didn’t take card payments (no nearby ATMs) and we didn’t have any cash.  The other couldn’t cater for a coeliac. We ended up in a burger bar. Yes I know.  We were in Mexico yada yada – but a burger after 6 weeks in the Caribbean was like ambrosia on the tastebuds – and it was good quality meat!  Then a quick trot down to Playa Norte (North Beach) which we were told is the best beach for swimming and chilling.  They were packed on there like sardines.  There were bodies everywhere.  Granted there weren’t any knotted hankies and white socks but the sun loungers were in regimented straight lines which would make the army proud and you could hardly squeeze past the bodies to get to the water.  We lasted five minutes and gave it up as a bad job.  It took us 30 minutes to walk along the street towards the ferry terminal.  This part of Isla Mujeres just didn’t do it for us.  It was good to visit Downtown but even better to leave.   Hotel beach was much less crowded. 

The trip we were really looking forward to was to Tulum with Playa del Carmen as a second stop.     Our time in Tulum was very short – about 2 hours in total and we would have loved to have stayed longer.  This site is a lot smaller than Chichen Itza which we visited last year.  The beauty of it isn’t spoiled by market traders or the huge crowds.  Our guide was great; she really knew her stuff and was proud of her heritage.  And then it was on to Playa Del Carmen, which we were told was a great place for swimming and snorkelling.   But………………IT WAS JUST LIKE North Beach!  We wandered around the upmarket shops for 10 minutes before we found the beach.  But we didn’t stay. It was just one packed beach too many although I did like the heart shaped bottle top collection point on the entrance to the beach.   I was thrilled to watch the Mayan pole  and rope dance (don’t know the right name for it) which involves four men climbing to the top of a 100’ pole in Mayan costume and carrying long ropes.  To the sound of a flute and drum playing they proceeded to wind the rope around the top of the pole.  A fifth member climbed up when this was done and next thing we knew they had thrown themselves off the top of the pole with a rope tied around their waists and gently swung their way to the bottom with the rope unravelling as they did so. It was lovely to watch.  And then we caught the local bus back to Cancun.  It was a journey of just over an hour.  The coach was really comfortable with a film playing throughout the journey.  A vendor got on to sell snacks at the second stop which is quite normal apparently.  He was like an old fashioned cinema usher.  The local buses are brilliant and so cheap. 

Further trips were curtailed or stopped because the weather forecast wasn’t very good.  But they got it 100% wrong for the whole week.  So it was a week by the pool and beach. There was very little to see in our own part of the beach because the currents were quite strong and churned the water too much. But someone was kind enough to show me a sea cucumber and live conch.  I had spotted some sea urchins myself. 

From our hotel restaurant we watched the ships and boats crossing back and forth regardless of the time.  Breakfast would see the ferry leaving from the terminal next door, lunchtime would see the speed boats and jetskis from the hotel next door, and then of course the pirate ships at night.  I did spot some mayan gig type training one morning.  This is for a competition later in the year.  Just like Cornwall.

On our last day we were given a free trip to the jewellery factory (showroom with some making going on) and also a tequila tasting next door.  For this we were rewarded with a zipline activity in the jungle and a swim in the cenote.  We weren’t expecting great things of the zipline activity but it was so much fun.  We had six different rides high up in the trees.  The guides jumped ahead and clipped us on and pushed us off.  The worst part was climbing across the road bridges to get to the steps up to the platforms.  Sadly the cenote didn’t measure up.  We weren’t the only ones to refuse a swim in this one.  We were expecting crystal clear water but were faced with green murky water with a greasy scum on top and lots of biting insects. Yuk!  Previous ones have been crystal clear with lots of fish.  It would have been a miracle to find anything in this one.

Our final two days had to be used to get as many pina colada and lovely Mexican food down our necks.  The barman put different amounts of rum and cream in each time so there was no way we could get the recipe but I certainly plan to try.  My favourite dish was chicken chimichanga, with homemade guacamole and salsa.  Shop bought guacamole will never be the same, so roll on the avocado glut and cheap prices.

Our journey home was uneventful but long.  First a ten hour flight to London and then  a few hours wait for a connecting flight to Alicante.  We finally reached home at 5pm –  a 32 hour journey with hardly any sleep.  But that double bed felt fantastic when I finally collapsed into it at 10pm  and then slept through till 7 the next morning.

And that just about sums up the past 6 weeks.  Florida, Jamaica, Grand Cayman, Cuba and Mexico.  Its been a blast.  I have taken part in the Disney marathons, climbed a waterfall, rode a bobsled down a mountain, seen starfish, turtles and iguanas in the wild, as well as hummingbirds, been into a completely natural crystal cave, and zipwired through a jungle as well as so much more.  Now it is time to start planning the next epic journey which starts in August but before then I have a campervan to get on  the road and some local adventures to have with my cat.

Boat race training
Bottle top recycling
Zipwire in the jungle
Tequila tasting
I still don’t know what this animal is but they sure are cute

Mexico – Week 1

Well we have been here a week and done very little. Its been a time to sit by the pool (again) and look at the beach.  The sun has continued to shine almost every day – I’m not sure monsoon weather counts as it is so warm its like taking a shower.

Our trip over from Cuba was by Aero Mexico. We were offered an upgrade at the airport which we accepted as we then didn’t have to pay for excess baggage and we got really comfortable seats in the plane with dedicated steward services – LOVELY! and worth doing

The Harris Hawk bird scarer
Just one of the birds who bathe outside our condo
Sign on the footpath
Pancho – just one of the enormous crocodiles in the lagoon.
Chocolate making the Mayan way
Ixchal – Female Mayan Goddess

Our hotel/resort is right on the main road of the Cancun ‘strip’ of Kukulcan, so we are hearing an awful lot of road noise.  This is helped along by the building site next door who start work at 0630 and heavy machinery at 0700 and also the kitchen staff trundling their trollies along outside from 0500hrs when they open the storeroom opposite my bedroom window.  But it is a lovely hotel.  The staff are fantastic and always so friendly – a lot different to Cuba.  They aren’t well paid so rely on tips to increase their take home pay. They are also aware that tourism is the main income for this region.  We are in Mayan country.  A land of tradition, culture and architecture.

I am happy to say that we have made use of the local bus service which runs past our hotel about every 5 minutes.  It doesn’t matter how far you go; 1 stop or 20 it only costs 12 pesos a trip (about 70p).  The drivers skills are amazing as they just pull out in front of moving traffic and lurch their way forward screeching to a halt with an emergency stop when someone puts their hand out to stop the bus.  Some are a lot smoother drivers than others but if you are standing you just really hang on tight.

We booked some excursions before we arrived using the tour company we used last year.  We did manage to bag a few bargains as they were having a sale.  Our first planned trip was to be to Tulum to visit the ruins but on arrival at the collection point we managed to change our booking and we are yet to visit. But we did make some chocolate!

Although I booked the chocolate workshop I wasn’t too sure what to expect as we had no details from the tour company.  But we got on the local bus to the workshop area which was in the Plaza de Fiesta which at first glance looks like any other souvenir shop (which it is) but look closer and you find some wonderful Mayan and locally made arts and crafts.  The colours used in the knitted and embroidered cloths are so bright and vivid.  Really ‘happy’ colours. And it is inexpensive.  Sadly I have no space in my suitcase or luggage allowance to take home anything more than a keyring and a bottle of vanilla essence.

But we met Jorge our chocolatier who was running our workshop.  And it was just two of us.  Jorge is of Mayan origin who speaks 5 languages (which includes Japanese apparently) and has a terrific personality.  We learned of the origin of chocolate and its place in Mayan culture and then started the process of making it by grinding the seeds by hand and adding flavourings at the start (I chose coffee and vanilla) and then pushing the ground chocolate through a mincing type machine a couple of times before tasting the finished article.  It was great fun and the chocolate tastes like nothing you get in the shops. 

Our next trip was to Isla Mujeres (the island of women) which we can see from our hotel.  So we trundled off to the meeting place just up the road ready for our departure.  The day was dull and overcast so we didn’t take any swimwear and we were expecting more rain like the previous days monsoon.  We  were offered a  couple of ‘upgrades’ which we declined (we later found out that everyone is offered this and the upgrade is a bit of money making scam) and settled into our comfortable seats at the back.  The drinks start to flow almost as soon as you board but I waited until 1030 before I had my first gin of the day.  I just felt that 10am was a little early. Near the island there was a quick snorkel option – cut short because the weather was turning and then onto the Island and lunch.  It had taken us 2 hours to get here.  The lunch was surprisingly good.  And then it was onto the optional golf buggy tour of the island which we opted for. The island itself is a mix of rich and poor as it is across the rest of the Caribbean with the tourist areas cut off a little from reality. We saw the temple of Ixchal which is the first place to see the sunrise each day but had just 10 minutes to look around.  Before we knew it our hour long trip was over and then it was back to the catamaran; where we were told that the trip was to be cut short as the weather was becoming worse and the waterways were being closed to all shipping.  This meant we didn’t pay the extra for the buggy. Result! Especially as we found on our return trip that you can hire one for $20. 

When we arrived back at the ferry terminal in Cancun we found that most other trips had also been cut short and we pulled up alongside the party boat from the hotel ‘Temptation’ which looks innocent enough from the road.  We never realised that it is an adults only hotel which means anything goes and is known the world over apparently.  Anyway the naked people shared our dock and were then directed to the left whilst we all went to the right.  It would seem that you can’t be naked on the street – but it looked as though they had lots of fun and didn’t have to worry about their clothes getting wet.

The wildlife outside our condo is lovely to watch as the birds are lovely colours. I don’t know what any of them are called except the hummingbird which comes along occasionally.   The hotel employs bird scarers for the pool area who bring in a harris hawk each day to fend off the blackbirds and seagulls so they don’t steal food from the holiday makers.  And I have seen a miniscule frog in the gardens which was probably no bigger than my thumbnail.  But there aren’t many lizards or geckos though and the ones we have seen are very small.

Sounds quite a dull week really compared to all the other weeks.  But I have made use of the hotel gym – which has a fantastic view from the treadmill. Thee Pina Coladas keep coming and I really don’t have any calories to spare as the food is gorgeous.  I might have to make my own guacamole when I get back.  It tastes so different to the stuff you buy in the shops.  And there will be an avocado season in Spain when they practically give them away.  And it has been a chance to relax and recuperate from the previous few weeks.

Cuba – A step back in time

And so we bid a farewell to the Cayman Islands for our week in Cuba.  Why do you panic about leaving for the airport so that you get there in time even though you know it is only 30 minutes away from your accommodation, security won’t take forever and you are already checked in?  Because you think – I can take some pictures of the aircraft – no there is a mesh fence all around the building.  You can go to the lounge for a drink and snacks from the bar – No the lounge has been removed whilst building work goes on. Security will take an age – No you are the only people in the line (therefore they do a really thorough job).  It will take ages to offload the heap of rubbish we hired from Budget cars this week – No its just across the road.  So now we are sitting at the departure gates – think Newquay airport but this one has 7 gates, with seats that are the same as Newquay (so hard on the butt) the only difference really is that the aircon is working really well, the staff are really happy, the coffee tastes better and doesn’t cost as much and the destinations are much more exotic.  Its only 2.5 hours till departure.

Only a minor but major mishap which could have been disastrous for the next 3 weeks.  We got to check-in (my case gained 5Lb between the flat and the scale but they let me off – phew) and we needed to pay for the visa for Cuba (cash only).  Went for the purse to find that it wasn’t in my hand luggage – I had used it just 10 minutes beforehand to buy petrol so reckoned I had left it in the car.  I legged it back to the happy helpful ladies at Budget to find that the car had already departed for cleaning (amazed!) Fortunately there was one lady who was happy to help, she made a call and the chap brought the car back.  So relieved when he got out of the car holding my purse as it has my credit and cash card in it as well as cash.  Panic over. 

So we are off to Cuba where the temperature is expected to be similar to Cayman thankfully. But no Wi-Fi although like last year I will buy an hour long card and eek it out over the week.  Not getting many Facebook updates anyway but we do need to be able to keep in touch with what is happening back home.  If only to find out whether there is a deal or no deal, what MPs are in jail and what the weather is doing.

Oh Cuba how soon you forget the previous years arrival at Havana Jose Marti Airport. A quick dash to the loo soon reminds you that you should never leave your room without a packet of tissues and hand sanitizer in your bag. This goes for the hotel too.  Toilet roll is not always provided  (unless you pay the lady or man for a single square as you enter) and water doesn’t always come out of the taps.  The first time I saw a toilet without a seat I was horrified but you soon realise it is normal out here.  Onto the booth which passes for immigration and passport control. Glasses off, look straight into the camera.  No chit chat and only a small smile as they release the door catch and let you out the other side.  Almost like Orlando airport but more friendly. Then you get your bags scanned before you collect your baggage – security is pretty serious here.  Go to the carousel to collect your suitcase and then it comes onto the belt marked Newark whilst the other passengers luggage came on the belt marked Cayman. Thank heavens my multi-coloured belt made it in one piece this time.  And straight through customs and out the other side.

There is something nice about being met at the airport by a man waving a placard with your name on.  Makes you feel quite important.  Our taxi driver tried a couple of words in English but soon stopped trying as neither of us understood the other.  It was great to see the old cars still working hard at the airport and even nicer to see them outside of Havana city.  Our drive down to Varadero enabled us to see a little more of the countryside.  Lots of chickens and goats at the side of the road, we could have been in Cayman or Jamaica.  And much as I like to listen to Cuban music we both lasted about 10 minutes before we put our headphones in to listen to our own music.   Although mostly unspoilt countryside the urban areas are very run down with chimneys belching black smoke into the air next to the ocean and a small town.  And so interesting to see oil derricks working at the side of the road, although the area has an overwhelming smell of oil.

And so to our luxurious abode for the week.  OMG what an awful place (but it could be us just being snobby)Our hotel is an ‘all inclusive’ resort in the tourist town of Varadero (purpose built for tourists apparently back in the late 80s and updated many times since then).  Just 24 hours in and we wanted to pack our bags and leave for somewhere a bit quieter.  The ‘bungalow` we have been assigned has a double bed only and much as I love my sister I really don’t want to sleep with her.  Bungalow number 2 had a shared living space – really not ideal.  But third time lucky!!!  Twin beds and a separate and personal living area – Yippee.  Our gourmet dinner (buffet style) had to have the worst quality food there is.  Lots of it but unless you like ham or fish in all of your pasta, eggs, rice, potatoes etc you don’t stand a chance.  Abandon all hope if you are a vegetarian or Coeliac.  But there are some very clever chefs working here – I have seen the wonderful fruit and vegetable sculptures they decorate the salad bar with, its just a pity the cleverness doesn’t spill over to the hot (not)food.  Apparently the heated food lamps don’t work so the food is always cold.

I wonder what has happened to my sense of adventure.  I think I must have lost it between reception and our assigned accommodation on check-in .  It is possible that this happens to the majority of holiday makers. But I have to say that the pool area looks lovely as we can see if from our balcony. The sun loungers which are spaced out in perfect symmetry and the blaring disco music pumping out don’t know how many decibels for hours on end.  We have come to the conclusion that the all inclusive resort thingy is definitely not for us as we can’t drink as much as all the gorgeous young things around the pool shouting and screaming at all hours of the day and well into the early hours.  Hell on earth!  No, we were there last week – got the stamp in my passport to prove it. (and it was so much nicer)

We found a second, smaller pool and once we had plugged our headphones in and turned the volume up we were able to drown out most of the other noise.  It did keep conversation to a minimum though but we have read lots of kindle books between us.  But you can only do this for a short time (3 days actually) before you lose the will to live and decide you really don’t like Cuba as it has nothing to offer and you could be in any beach resort in Europe, UK (although it is very warmer here) the world etc.  The hotel information doesn’t give you any and reception really aren’t helpful.  There are some organised coach trips available (Yuk!)  our saviour came in the shape of the security man at the front door.  He knew a tour guide.  One quick phone call and day four was organised with a day trip with a taxi.

Enter Dainyris (her real name, who has long blond hair but has never seen GOT, although has heard the name Targaryen) our tour guide, and Franklin our driver for the day.  We even got a classic taxi which was an unexpected bonus, a 1959 Chevrolet Belair.

We had decided that we wanted to see a bit of the ‘real’ Cuba as it was supposed to be fantastic.  And we did and it was.  Our car had open windows as the aircon and dodgy door handles which meant that Franklin always had to open our doors to let us out, but oh so comfortable once you were sitting on your towels to prevent you from sticking to the plastic seat protectors.  We bounced our way along roads without direction signs or much in the way of road markings and no sat nav.  I wondered how they find their way around and apparently they just learn.  I have to say that car could motor.  Up to 70mph without effort along those roads.  Loved it.  We found out later that is has a Toyota engine in with we don’t know how much horse power.

We headed down towards the Bay of Pigs as we were in need of an educational or cultural fix.  Dainyris speaks 4 languages fluently and is a great tour guide.  I would certainly recommend her services if you need accommodation/tours/information etc sorting before you go.  She will be happy to help.  The locals have just been given data/Wi-Fi/internet services which we take for granted and her website and facebook page is still in its infancy but contact her before you go for a great service

When speaking to the Cuban people you soon realise that they are proud of their country.  They have free education, free healthcare and are given basic food rations each week which supplement their wages and ensure that nobody is hungry as the majority are on a basic minimum wage.  One of the leftover gifts of Fidel.  He also built hundreds of schools to ensure that the nation was educated.  They are also a pretty healthy nation without the same weight problems we suffer in the UK.  There are no fast food take-away outlets (yet) that I have found, either here or in Havana, which obviously helps.  They don’t import a huge amount, so if the food can’t be grown, caught or killed then it isn’t readily available.  Forget having an orange in January if there aren’t any in the shops.  The season ends in October or November.  And they accept this as a matter of course.

I had very little knowledge about the Bay of Pigs uprising and always assumed it was led by the Americans against the Cuban people.  A quick trip to the museum at Giron (landing beach for the invasion) and also a documentary (maybe some propaganda) film about the invasion soon had me educated – I think. At least I have a better understanding now.  The film is fairly graphic even in black and white and shows some of the action.  Really was worth a visit.  The names and photos of the heroes and martyrs are shown here as well with fresh flowers as a tribute.  Then onto Giron beach itself.  This beach is the paradise beach you always dream about.  Pure white soft sand and warm Caribbean waters with tropical fish swimming around the shallows.  Absolutely fantastic.  We were shown another couple of beaches used by the local people and not known about by tourists.  Our idea of heaven.  Then it was off to lunch and a local restaurant which served lunch for 17CUCs each.  No choice but the lunch of the day was a selection of freshly cooked chicken breast, lobster, crab and white fish served with rice and beans, salad and banana chips (salted and not like the variety we have at home).  Real Cuban food cooked at the rear of someone’s house and one of those little places that only a local will know about.  The best meal of the week.  Divine. And it was hot and we didn’t have to fight for it.

As we are 7 day residents we are able to have 2 a la carte meals which are available on specific days throughout the week. We opted for Mexican (hopefully next weeks Mexican food will be a bit different) and also Spanish.  They do import olives and they have been really lovely.  These are life saver meals which bring you back from the brink of food despair.  They are ok and hotter than the buffet bun fight.  But they are not A la carte as we know it.  You can choose your main course from the menu with a choice of about 3 items.  No sides but the salad buffet starter is generally nicer than the main restaurant.

 I have focused a fair bit on the food available here.  But with a Coeliac it really is fairly important for a good choice.  I am also a fussy eater as I don’t eat pig or fish so will find myself with just some potatoes on a plate.  We did have roast beef one night but the slices put on the plate were still mooing and no way could it be eaten without causing some vile stomach upset.  It is sad that the ingredients available aren’t finished to a better standard which is such a shame.  None of the staff are aware of what gluten is or how it can affect a person who has a serious allergy, but I am sure this will change in years to come as Cuba becomes a more popular tourist destination.

Today we walked into the local town.  We managed this with a few stops on the way for coffee, cold drinks etc.  Our final refreshment destination was at the Pullman where we  (r only really stopped to use the loo but ended up staying for 2 Pina Coladas.  OMG they have to be the best I have tasted yet.  Freshly made by a barman who knew how to make a drink.  So different from the poolside drinks we have had over the past few days at the poolside in plastic cups.  We finished off with a ride back to the hotel in another classic car taxi – a 1927 Model T Ford, bright yellow in colour.  Well it just has to be done.  We only have one more day left

We couldn’t face a final day poolside or on the balcony so decided to go in search of some caves we had spotted on an information board. (We just assumed they could be visited)  We called Eileen our driver with the model T and asked her to take us.  First to Matanza which is approximately 35Km from Varadero.  An open top Model T is possibly not the best option for a long fast drive( not sure what engine she had in hers but it certainly motored although it sounded like one of the cars at the Tomorrowland Grand Prix at Disneyworld).  The Matanza Caves are amazing.  Totally unspoilt although a little damaged.  It is inexpensive 5CUCs each but then you pay an additional 5CUCs for a phone or camera if you wish to take photos inside.  Mine really don’t do the cave justice but after climbing through such narrow spaces (no hard hats here) I have the greatest respect for the Chilean cave rescuers and the wonderful job they did in 2018.

And it is finally the last day.  Our taxi to the airport still hadn’t arrived 45 minutes after the agreed time so it was down to a local taxi to take us on a 2.5 hour drive back to the airport.  I just wish we could use the lounge as these seats are pretty hard to sit on.

Would I come back to Cuba?  On the face of it, it looks like a resounding no but with our day trip to Giron and escape from the hotel to find new sights I would say yes definitely.  Cuba does have a lot to offer once you get away from the all inclusive nightmare and speak to some of the local people.  Havana is amazing if you love old buildings, history, art and sculpture and the countryside is fascinating with its history and landscape.  Just find a local guide, negotiate your price and get away from the bustle of the tourist towns with the usual souvenirs.  Although there are people in our hotel who have been coming for the last 13 years and love it.  But they are from Canada where their home temperature is -47 apparently. So they escape to here every year.  Me – I would choose a better hotel or AirBnB (check it out)  been told that you can live like a local in some wonderful homes (and that comes from a Cuban).

Finally, I think the Cuban mosquitos are the most vicious yet, which I have encountered on this trip.  Multi bites in one day (I counted 15) including one on my face. They hurt like hell after the itch.  I have abandoned the witch hazel I bought as it has no effect and have resorted to the wonder cream which is sudocrem. Sadly white and red splotches are not a good look.  And I also really love real Cuban coffee which we had for the first time on our escape day, so smooth I was able to drink it without any milk or whitener.   I always liked strong coffee and this really does hit the spot.  Decaf doesn’t quite cut the mustard but it also doesn’t keep me awake half the night.