A Travellerspoint blog

December 2015

Guatemala: Flores, Tikal, El Mirador & Departure

Magical Tikal, the tough and rewarding road to El Mirador, and a melancholy farewell to Guatemala...

semi-overcast 2 °C

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Flores & Tikal

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Tikal was at the top of my list for things to see in Central America.
The scenic island town of Flores is the closest centre to the site, though there are eco camps closer to the ruins.

Transport

I opted for a 45 min. flight from Antigua, rather than overnight bus.
I flew with TAG... really easy, and only $140
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They are a small operator who fly out of the mini/private hanger beyond Guatemala City's airport.

The flight was stunning!
Guatemala is gorgeous from a height... so mountainous, littered with volcanoes.... just marvellous!

Accomodation

Amigos is the premier hostel in Flores.
It's really friendly, very social and serves totally awesome, healthy food.
Perfect for weary trekkers. I downed countless smoothies.
The staff are super friendly and helpful, and speak English.
As an alternative to dorms, they have a building full of private rooms down the road,
I took that option, and it was perfect.

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Tikal

Tikal is a fascinating stop!!!
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We left the hostel at 4:30am for the hour or so drive to Tikal.
Of course, on these buses you meet lots of different people.
I was fascinated to meet a 67 year old lady who was backpacking Guatemala, in the same way that most youngsters do.
She was having the time of her life, full of energy and climbed all the hills/steps in line with rest of the group.... age is surely just a number.

There is a famous scene in Star Wars: A New Hope, where the Millennium Falcon dashes through a forest planet with what looks like Mayan Ruins...
George Lucas filmed that scene here....
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The ruins, are immense, and wonderfully excavated.
I joined a walking tour and it was really, very interesting!

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Definitely recommend Tikal for anyone coming to the region.

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Fancy another trek?

I met new friends from Iceland at Tikal, who were planning a trek to El Mirador.
I was still exhausted from Arcatenango, but they asked me to join anyway... why not!

El Mirador

The El Mirador trek is TOUGH.
5 days in the muddy jungle... 80kms, no solid paths.
Deep mud and mosquitoes unperturbed by deet!

At times it felt like tough mudder... unrelenting.

(We met this fella along the way)
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This trek isn't for the faint at heart and will test your patience, fitness, determination, and endurance.

Carmelita by Chicken Bus

The trek starts at Carmelita... roughly 5 hours drive from Flores.
We took old rickety Chicken buses both ways, which were far from comfortable...
This is compounded by the fact that most of the road isn't paved and really bumpy....
So, trekkers beware and bring a neck pillow and take anti-nausea tabs before you set off.

(View of the vast jungle from the top of some of the ruins)
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On the road back, the bus was full.
Families were transporting crops between farms, via the bus roof, or any available space within the bus.

As all of my trekking buddies slept, and I sat listening to music, a group of kids surrounded me and bombarded me with questions...

  • Where are you from?
  • How old are you?
  • Are you married?
  • Are you Catholic?
  • How do you say x in English?

The conversation progressed to an impromptu English/Spanish class in eye/spy format.
Some of the kids carried live chickens on their laps, and later just let them go do sit/roam on the floor.

The long errr jungle to El Mirador

We had mules carry our food and water.
Trekkers were responsible for carrying personal belongings (clothes, hiking water, etc)
It's essentially, two days trekking to the main site, then two days back.
Gumboots was the optimal footwear...

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Sleeping

Each night we stayed in dedicated camp sites, with tents and outdoor kitchen.

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Our guide Eric and his assistants cooked awesome food for us each night, and we were lucky enough to stay at his Mum's camp one night for her awesome cooking.

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Way out in the jungle, all of the starts are out, illuminating the sky... just gorgeous!

Ruins

The views from the top of the sites are totally worth it.

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The Mayan ruins haven't been fully excavated yet, which gives you a better view of age.

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Our local guide, knew his stuff!

He explained the history, architecture, building techniques and significance of all the sites.
It was an awesome trek, with a great group and awesome camaraderie...
Bye the end of it, we were all totally exhausted, yet almost triumphant after completing such an awesome experience!

Adieu Guatemala

Guatemala is an awesome country to travel in, especially for adventure sports, trekking and studying Spanish.
Guatemalan's are really welcoming, friendly, and sometimes boisterous.
It really was an amazing 6 weeks in Guatemala.

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I passed through Costa Rica and Panama next, en route to Colombia.

Posted by SkinnyFists 10:17 Archived in Guatemala Tagged volcanoes guatemala antigua arcatenango Comments (0)

Guatemala: Antigua & Climbing Volcano Arcatenango

semi-overcast 2 °C

Arcatenango

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Climbing Arcatenango is a must do for intrepid trekkers!
It's a full day/next morning climb to the top.
To the most amazing views, I've ever witnessed.
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It's a tough trek, and I'd definitely recommend some training, or warm up treks before taking it on.
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The Trek

We took off from Antigua in the morning and arrived at the base of the hill.
Thankfully there were kids selling beanies and gloves, because I wasn't well equipped.
We then took on the steep ascent, almost 2700 metres in 1 day!!
There were a few times of struggle where I had to channel that relentless Muay Thai training months ago...
...go hard, and there's no way home, so keep going hard

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We finally arrived at the camp, lower viewing point for dinner and rest.

The views from here were truly incredible.

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With Pacaya errupting right in front of us.
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You get a real sense of height too.

Below we could see right across Guatemala... and we could see the sun continue to set far across the horizon, Guatemala was already dark below.
Just magic!

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It was a cold night in the tents, with really crumby sleeping bags.
Everyone wished they had brought more clothes, or even hired a proper down sleeping bag.
Some opted to keep the fire going and slept by it.

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We rose again at 3:30 a.m to continue the climb to the top.... arriving just in time for sunrise.

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Views From The Top

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Volcano Fuerte decided to go off just as we arrived!!

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The descent was the toughest part of the trek!
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We had to carry the tents, sleeping bags, etc down; coupled with the slippery, muddy and steep terrain, lack of sleep etc...
most of the crew were running on elation from the sheer magnitude of what we had just seen and experience!!

What to Take

  • More water than you think you'll need
  • Toilet paper
  • More clothes than you think you'll need (it's freezing at night)
  • Down sleeping bag (the ones provided are very thin and non insulating) or thermals
  • Travel friendly food - museli bars, etc....
  • Pre conditioned legs!!
  • Trail runners or hikers with good trail grip.

Antigua

Antigua is a lovely, albeit mega touristy city.
It's a nice haven for before/after treks, has a lovely general atmosphere, and feels pretty safe.
You'll find yoga retreats, gyms, health food shops, boutique hotels and spas, etc ,etc.
I recharged here for two days after the climb, and readied for the next adventure in Flores.....

I did the El Mirador jungle trek next, and will publish shortly!

Posted by SkinnyFists 13:44 Archived in Guatemala Tagged volcanoes trekking guatemala arcatenango Comments (0)

Guatemala: Adventures and Spanish Study in Quetzaltenango

Three weeks of Spanish immersion plus adventures aplenty in the gorgeous Guatemalan mountains

overcast

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Time to learn Spanish

Whilst in roaming Mexico and Cuba, it became very apparent that my dozen after-work Spanish classes held me in no stead to travel properly, or engage people in Latin America.
Guatemala is well known to have many quality immersion programs and arguably the best schools in Central America.

I looked at two of the major cities:

  • Antigua - a tourist oriented UNESCO heritage town with plenty of English speakers, or
  • Xela - with less tourists, but an emergence of quality schools and better opportunity for immersion.

Within Xela there were many reputable schools to choose from.
I went with Celas Maya after prompt responses from their administrators and the ton of positive reviews on Tripadvisor.

I booked three weeks full time study (5 hours per day), with homestay arranged by the school.

Overall it was a super experience, not only because of the school - but the activities, active immersion, with the added bonus of Xela being a very interesting city.

The School

Celas Maya is located in Zona 1, the upscale area of town, very safe, etc etc.
The grounds are lovely; with the ornate building surrounding a lovely garden.

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Lessons are 1-1, where teachers / students sit at individual tables under the patio surrounding the garden.
It's a very peaceful place conducive to learning.

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The school is affiliated with universities around the world, and offers formal accreditation courses.
Medical professionals from the US were studying here as part of a requirement back home to practice in Spanish.

Teachers

The teachers here are great!!
Students have the option to change teachers each week. There are pros and cons to this approach.
I decided to work with my teacher, Yoli for the duration of my stay, as she's an ace teacher and also knew my strengths and weaknesses in learning and retention. She geared the syllabus and my homework accordingly.

By the end of the stay, we were great friends and I really appreciated her efforts, patience and persistence with me.

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Teaching Style

The style of teaching is pretty formal, and the 5 hours of class plus homework can be pretty gruelling, but I got into a rhythm.

Classes were a good mix of concept introduction, exercises, then putting learning into practice via conversation.
We spent a lot time talking to practice.

By the third week, we were having discussions around politics, culture, travel, etc.
Not only was this a great way to practice Spanish, but more or less it was a cultural exchange.

The contrast between bus conversations going in to Xela, and three weeks later leaving... was chalk and cheese!

Homestay

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I stayed with a lovely family, very close to the school.
They were very used to having students live in their enormous, and very interesting house.

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I had a massive bungalow, there the sons of the family grew up in, mostly to myself as they had now grown up.

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These guys had a perchance for 70's and 80's classic cars, and between the three of them had no less than eight cars scattered around the city.

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Living in the house really helped my Spanish as nobody spoke a word of English, and they weren't shy in correcting my Spanish at the dinner table.

Living in Xela

Xela is a very friendly city, untainted by tourism with many things to see and do.
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A tip for visitors needing a working, there is an awesome athletics field in Zona 3.

Restaurante Panorama

Atop one of the hills overlooking Xela is the superb Restaurante Panorama.
It's a nice workout walk to get up there, but the views are definitely worth it!

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Activities

Guatemala is a playground for the intrepid traveller!

Volcanoes

We climbed to an awesome view point to Santa Maria
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Mayan Culture

With a such a strong Mayan presence and culture, it was a great opportunity to learn about Mayan history and enduring culture and traditions.
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Fuentes Georginas

The hot volcanic springs sit atop the lofty mountains near Xela.
We ventured up and swam in the boiling pools.
Local people believe the naturally heated volcanic water has healing properties.

Todos Santos

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This was a highlight!
We drove for nerly 5 hours up through the mountains .....
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to Todos Santos, for the annual festival, which included a horse race/parade... a standing tradition for many hundreds of years.

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The town was abuzz with music and activity.
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The caballeros looked pretty worse for wear after a marathon beer sesh to celebrate another horse race, and baffingly returned to the track in the afternoon for more drunk-riding.

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Zaculeu

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On the way home we visited the marvellous Zaculeu ruins.
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These have been marvellously excavated and, unclike Chichen Itza in Mexico, visitors are allowed to climb them!
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Movies

Each week Celas Maya showed films in Spanish, usually pertaining to local culture or events.
I was fascinated by the film - When the Mountains Tremble
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_the_Mountains_Tremble
Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú's film detailing Guatemala's very torrid recent political past.
This film is a must for anyone coming to Guatemala, or interested in Latin American history and politics.

Festivities

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We celebrated birthdays and graduations.
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... with piñatas of course...
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I graduated along with several other students, celebrating with morning tea in the lovely garden, with obligatory speeches :-)
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Gracias Xela, Adieu

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Guatemala wasn't on my bucket list, but I'm so glad I stopped here.
Xela was an incredible experience, and recommended for anyone wanting to do Spanish immersion.

I went to Antigua to climb Acatenango next....

Posted by SkinnyFists 07:49 Archived in Guatemala Tagged volcanoes guatemala xela spanish_study todos_santos celas_maya Comments (0)

Cuba (part 4): Departure

The future, embargo lift, music bytes, and travel advice.

sunny 38 °C

One more thing before I go....

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I had a really amazing time in Cuba.
It’s a beautiful country with happy, bright people, who are immensely proud of their country and history.

Go Now?

Everyone says to go now, before America gets it's mits on it.
I'm not convinced that Cuba is destined for cultural dilution.....
Cuban culture is strong, and they're embracing the future!

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‘murica’s comin' tah getcha

The US embargo had a long lasting, devastating impact to Cuba’s economy and development.

To try and explain the mood in Cuba about recent embargo softening, I’ll paraphrase what one of my guides said about it…

If a company in China makes a fridge, and one single component is made in Cuba, then the US will not accept those fridges, and probably not work with that company.
The embargo has hurt us so much.
Cuba welcomes re-engaging with the United States.
Every tourist asks the same question..if I dread Starbucks and McDonalds. Why would I?
Cuba has a strong culture. Doing business again with America isn’t going to change that.
Cuban people don’t have a problem with Americans and never have.
They’re our neighbours! We used to be close!!

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Tourism - what to expect

Tourism infrastructure is slowly building in Cuba.
There are two major government owned tour companies; both very efficient with english speaking operators.
English certification is a pre-requisite for working in most tourist jobs.
The guides, transport/buses/etc, general organisation in Cuba is wonderful!
Hotel service is really professional and old school, as Don Draper would have expected.

Lack of internet is a problem, especially for DIY travellers... you'll have to trust in Cubatur, or book transport in person this time around ;-)
If it suits, casa particulars are by far the best option!!!

Many international tour companies also operate in Cuba, employing local people.
One of the most popular way to see Cuba is by bike.
A myriad of tour companies offer multi day bike treks across Cuba… all were booked out six months ahead of time, when I was there!

What to take

1. Everything you’ll need. Don't assume you can buy it there.
I didn’t really see much in terms of clothing shops, pharmacies weren’t stocked, etc.

2. Cash is vitally important. You can't really transact at all with credit card.
It might feel disconcerting carrying massive wads of cash… however withdrawing money can either be painful, or not possible at all.

3. Open ears and eyes, and you’ll have the time of your life.

4. Some Spanish - and you'll make many new friends.

5. Dancing shoes!!

Music

Discovering music was a highlight of my trip to Cuba.
Every venue I visited had live musicians during lunch and evening times.
There was even a Salsa Orchestra playing in Havana Airport when I departed.

Here is a brief summary of snippets I recorded during performances in Cuba; from tiny cafes to larger venues. The variety, passion and energy, unassuming virtuosity and genuine joy was evident at every turn...and really inspiring!!

Adios Cuba.... I can't wait to come back!

Posted by SkinnyFists 08:13 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba havana trinidad embargo Comments (0)

Cuba (part 3): Trinidad

Spectacular, historic, amazing, musical, friendly, beautiful. Everything you need in Cuba is here.

sunny

Trinidad

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Gorgeous Trinidad

Subjective advice for anyone coming to Cuba.... make Trinidad a priority over Havana.
My highlights, in terms of music, bands, nightlife,architecture, food, historic sites, people and (err) vibe, lie squarely in Trinidad.
Cuba is an amazing country, unlike any other and Trinidad is petite glistening jewel.

Every glance.... every corner, every street.... house, church, is picture worthy!
It's beautiful!
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I almost feel guilty writing about it now, in fear of contributing to a mounting crowd of SLR toting hordes lacking self awareness, muddying this pristine example of aural and aesthetic utopia.
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Yes, it's one of those places you want to protect... with a relatively small population (70,000 or so) it is very small, and dutifully protected by UNESCO Heritage.

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Tourist infrastructure, music cafes, superb restaurants and bars are emerging everywhere, yet inconspicuous, blending with the town's ethos.

Gorgeous Streets

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I booked a walking tour via the Cubatur office.

Being the only taker for the day, I had a private guide.
She walked me through all of the major historic sites, and explained Trinidad's controversial history as a wealthy slave trading port.
I was amazed at how well kept and relatively pristine the whole city is.
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The cobblestone alleys, colourful frontages... and the familiar sound of rhumba rhythms and Salsa, everywhere.
Though, for the visual experience alone, Trinidad is amazing!

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Amable Personas!

The folks of Trinidad, are happy, boisterous, outgoing and unassumingly superbly stylish.
I marvel at Cubans... they are not influenced by trends, etc of other countries... blissfully unaware that they eat western fashionistas for breakfast without trying... and the friendliest, happiest, artfully creative bunch I have observed thus far.

Trinidadians are curious about visitors. Keep in mind...we need them more than they need us ;-)

Santería

During my tour and beyond I learned a great deal about Santería.
When Africans were brought in as slaves they were forbidden to practice any of their homeland traditions.
Eventually they developed a hybrid blend of Yoruba mythology with Christian and Indigenous American traditions, formalised in Santería.

Here is Google's explanation
Santeria (Way of the Saints) is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba beliefs and traditions, with some Roman Catholic elements added.
The religion is also known as La Regla Lucumi and the Rule of Osha. Santeria is a syncretic religion that grew out of the slave trade in Cuba.

I visited many gorgeous Santería churches in Trinidad.

The formal dress is all white, and looks magnificent.
I also saw the presence of Santaría in Cartagena, Colombia... more on that later

Musica

Local Magic

Cuba has a wealth of music options. Music is the national passion is very much in flight here.
I saw many bands at every scale and was duly impressed... mesmerised... everywhere.
What I like about Cuba again, is how unassumingly talented they are.

At a small rooftop cafe, where I was the sole patron, a young band was rehearsing.
The songs were solid yet whimsical, with a really interesting and subtle groove.
During their break, I spoke with the singer.
They write all of their own songs together, from rhythm up to lyrics and vocal melodies.
I watched them work through a new piece... their calm, inclusive and very technical nature of collaboration... progressing bar to bar was astounding.

After 30 minutes, they had two minutes of musical magic.

Casa de la Musica

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Casa de la Musica sits at one of Trinidad's major squares at the top of a hill, overlooking the gorgeous town.

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The venue is open air, and free to join in the fun.

Every night a schedule of bands/performers fill the evening which truly mesmerises.

Before the shows....
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Locals and tourists alike packed in the the tiered area for a view of the acts and to dance.
This is a gorgeous, fun, festive and welcoming evening.... and was a highlight of my trip to Cuba!
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Casa de la Trova

Outside the venue...
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This small venue has a very homely and welcoming feel.

Band warming up in the afternoon...
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The house band are incredible, and audience members are invited to take a clave to learn the rhythms participate in the rhumba!!
Some folks sat with their cocktails to really take in the band, whilst many danced in the lovely courtyard.

...otros

I passed by many, many other music venues in Trinidad that I will have to visit next time!!

Salsa love

What amazes me about Salsa is that it really, really plays with aspects of music; melody, tempo, cadence, emphasis, volume, rhythm... in very unique and skillful ways, largely absent in other forms.
It's the most dynamic form to listen to. I can listen to songs for hours and not get bored trying to dissect or simply marvel!
Seeing proficient Salsa musicians interact and work together is really something special!!

Accomodation

Lessons learned and advice...

I stayed at a hotel on the beach. In hindsight, winging it and looking for a Casa Particular would have been a much better option.
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Advice for anyone going to Trinidad, Cuba.... avoid the beach at all costs and stay in Trinidad town... either at Iberostar, or a Casa Particular.

Further, with the beach hotels being so far from town, and taxis being expensive, you will eat through CUCs and time ferrying back and forth.

Thanks Trinidad!

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Trinidad was absolutely a highlight of my time in Cuba, and highlight of this trip so far.
I can't wait to go back and explore, listen, dance and learn more there.

Posted by SkinnyFists 09:55 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba playa trinidad salsa casa_de_la_musica Comments (0)

Cuba (part 2): Viñales, Varadero.... and understanding Che

Out to the valleys, through the mega resorts, then stopping in Santa Clara to understand Che's journey.

sunny 35 °C

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Viñales

I jumped on a tour through the Viñales; a gorgeous, lush, hilly region of Cuba with many tobacco farms and rum mills.
We first stopped at a local tobacco farm where they also make cigars on site.

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The proprietor took us through the journey… from tobacco leaf to cigar... and rolled some right in front of the group to sample.
As with all production businesses in Cuba….90% of his output goes to the government.
The rest he keeps for himself for consumption or to sell on for extra money.
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Same deal for the rum factory where we stopped.
It was deliciously sweet stuff!

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Our next stop for lunch was in the lovely countryside at the foot of The Mural de la Prehistoria, where the cliffs had been painted in a huge art project in ancient times.
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Finally we stopped at the famous cave systems with rivers running through it; for a superb journey by foot and boat through the amazing stalagtites
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This day trip was arranged by a government owned agency (one of only two in the country).
Quality is pretty much assured here because of rigorous standards....
Further, in Cuba, every guide has to pass rigorous English, German and/or Russian exams...I'll babble/gush about Cuban education later ;-)

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Varadero

Varadero sits upon a truly magnificent coastline, with enormous mega all-inclusive hotels.

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I booked two nights at an all inclusive for a bit of chilled beach time, and also out of curiosity.
Upon arrival I was issued a wristband, which gave me licence to eat/drink wherever/whenever across the four restaurants, and several bars in the megaplex.

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They even had barbecues scattered around the beach making burgers to order.

I met mostly Canadian and Russian visitors….
It's worth highlighting Cuba and Russia's very close, long standing relationship.
Whilst there are huge personality and cultural differences, their greater good ideologies are largely aligned, and for this observer, there is an evident kinship.
Russian's have been visiting Cuba for a very, very long time, and also aid their comrades in many ways.

Back to the resort.... everyone was drinking and eating to the max, seemingly for the entirety of their (for many) two week stay.
I joined the hotel pool games, politely declined the drinking games, but had a great time in very luxurious surrounds.
Nothing was too much trouble!
My laundry was crisply ironed, and steaks, pasta and mocktails made precisely to order.

No internet of course, but I called home with the dedicated aid of the hotel's very courteous operator.
Yes, Don Draper would have loved this place.

At the enormous pool, there were games which I, and most of the other guests participated.
It was a nice platform to socialise.

The service and facilities across the board at this place was absolutely incredible.... for the equivalent of AUD$80 per night.
At home something like this would be ludicrously expensive.

The hotel sat upon the west facing beach.. and was absolutely incredible.
Perfect warm blue water, and flawless sand....

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One evening, I went to see a band billed as the Buena Vista Social Club.... which was a bit of a con, as only 3 of the members were actually affiliated with the group.... beware if you're considering this.

Nonetheless this band were absolutely incredible, with ace dancing too!

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After 30 minutes the 400 strong crowd were also up dancing for the remainder of the show!

Sanda Clara & Ernesto "Che" Guevara Mausoleum

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I boarded and very early morning bus bound for Santa Clara.

During the 3 hour bus ride the guide explained the Ché and Fidel's revolution in amazing detail, from inception, planning, rationale, key battles, and Cuba's transition and evolution.... after the revolution.
She also talked in great detail about Che Guevara - as we approached the mausoleum, including:

  • Growing up in Argentina
  • Education in medicine
  • Journey from Argentina to Mexico,
  • Joining Fidel in planning and executing in the war
  • Life thereafter as head of Cuban Bank
  • Involvement in the Congo ...and ultimate capture and murder in Bolivia by the CIA.

Ché's mausoleum has a very detailed museum with comprehensive documentation, photos and artefacts,and also acknowledges the fallen guerrillas who were captured and killed along with him.
It is a fine tribute to the Argentinian, who became saviour and hero to Cuba and international inspiration.

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Bound for Trinidad

I farewelled the tour group from that point and changed transports, bound for Trinidad, along with two Danish couples in their late 50’s.
They had travelled most of Latin America and gave me all of their contacts in Colombia…

Stay tuned for Trinidad!!

Posted by SkinnyFists 19:46 Archived in Cuba Tagged beaches caves vinales trinidad salsa varadero che_guevara mausaleum Comments (1)

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