A Travellerspoint blog

Colombia: Santander (Bucaramanga and San Gil)

Paragliding, white-water rafting, trekking, visiting old friends, eating traditional food (including fried ants) and enjoying the wonderful region and culture of Satander.

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Satander

To get you started, here is a video of my highlight in Santander:

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The state of Satander is marvellous!
The capital, Bucaramanga has the highest employment rate in the country and is very well organised, safe and interesting.
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I also had a really super, adventurous time high up in the adventure capital, San Gil
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Long bus journeys…

I woke up early in at my favourite hostel in Colombia ‘Chocolate y Candela’, Santa Marta…. at a weary 5am.
The night man, promptly organised my taxi and I arrived just in time for my bus to Bucaramanga.
Copertran buses as ace!
They have huge reclining seats, strong wi-fi toilets and have new release films (though overdubbed of course) playing.
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It was roughly a 10 hour journey, climbing significant to altitude; from the beach of Santa Marta, to over 2500 metres at Bucaramanga.
Buses in Colombia are perfectly safe, efficient and comfortable though time-saving intercity flights are also very affordable and easy these days through Avianca.

Bucaramanga

My friend German invited me to join he, his girlfriend and parents to visit a few sites and enjoy some Colombian food!
We went to Ecoparque Cerro del Santisimo with amazing views overlooking the city, and impressive statue of Jesus Christ keeping a watchful eye over the town.
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We also went for a traditional Colombian lunch which was seriously a mountain of food!
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Bucaramanga is also famous for it's delicious oblea!
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...an also famous for hormigas culonas (or fried ants)... I tried some and they were delicious!
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I didn’t really check out the nightlife, but my lovely hotel was on the cusp of Zona Rosa with many venues blasting various forms of music.

I’d definitely visit Bucaramanga again.
Some people told me it’s a great place to teach English.

San Gil

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San Gil is a small town surrounded by seriously amazing and jaw dropping terrain, and as such is an adventure sports capital.
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You can abseil down through waterfalls, raft level 5 rapid, bungee jump, go paragliding over the amazing Chicamocha, and so on.
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The town itself is simply stunning. It has an ‘amamble’ formal and courteous atmosphere with lovely parks, nice restaurants and great accommodation options.
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The message I got from most operators here was “tell your friends….”
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The manager of the rafting company I went with told me that five years ago they only have 10 customers per week… now they have around 15 per day… and hopefully this rate increases more ….rapidly ;-)

Paragliding

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This is a truly awesome experience.
I tried it for the first time in Nepal with awesome views of the Himalayas, and the views and exhilaration of flying over Chicamocha was equally amazing.

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We flew high! ....over the canyons, swooping in many directions.
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The views and experience was a definite highlight of the trip!!
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I’ve tried bungee jumping and skydiving also, and have to say paragliding made me the most nauseus…
The advantage though, is that you can really take in the views… and Chicamocha is an amazing example of mother nature at her most epic!!
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Rafting at River Suarez

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Having rafted in some pretty gnarly rapids in Borneo in the past, I thought I was prepared for the rapids here… no way!
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River Suarez has level 5+ rapids that are seriously... BUSY!
The highest level we traversed we level 5.
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My boat worked really well as a team, with very good instruction from our guide, and we managed traverse the rapids unscathed and full of enthusiasm.
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In the briefing we learned about safety, positioning within the boat for different situations, plus rescue.
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...and we ended up really needing these skills during the tricky parts.
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In the quieter, calmer spots, we practiced our safety and rescue routines.
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It’s worth noting that the canyon that the river passes through is seriously gorgeous terrain too.
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Altogether it was a seriously fun, challenging and adventurous day... one of the best in Colombia!
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San Gil is a stunning small town with a tranquil, quiet, yet adventurous and friendly culture.
It is surrounded by stunning, jaw dropping nature. ...
I had a blast; rafting the level 4 rapids of Suarez River and paragliding over astounding Chicamocha.... and had the good fortune of meeting some of the loveliest people encountered this trip.
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Villa de Leyva and Zipaquira next...
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Posted by SkinnyFists 09:27 Archived in Colombia Tagged rafting adventures paragliding colombia san_gil bucaramanga Comments (1)

Colombia: Parque Tayrona

Trekking through one of Colombia's most beautiful national parks set upon astounding coastlines; where many a music video was filmed.

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Parque Tayrona

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....is a stunning, well preserved national park with awesome terrain; stunning beaches, and a chance to camp under the stars amongst other intrepid travellers and local families alike.

Ask any Colombian for advice on where to visit, and they will undoubtedly mention Parque Tayrona amongst their very long list of places to go.
The gorgeous landscape and coastline features in many, many Colombian music and tourism videos:

Including this:

...and this amazing video from my favourite new band, Bomba Estéreo from Bogotá!!

Entry

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Before you can enter the park, visitors have to have to attend a briefing on rules, the tracks, accommodation, safe places to swim, etc.
There is a nice video (in Spanish) that goes with this.

You can book a tent / hammock at the entry point, though if you want alternatives (and there are a few), you can probably wing it (with one exception... mentioned later)

Security

Police take everyone's details upon entering the site and inspect ID's / passports.
They also thoroughly inspect all bags.
Drugs and alcohol are very sternly prohibited.
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My friend with a few tattoos was given very special attention by the police; though we both agreed it was more out of genuine intrigue.
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Trekking

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The walks are stunning in Tayrona, but be warned it is extremely hot and can be a bit of a challenge, so drink water!
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The hills aren't too steep though...
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You can also get around by horse!
Thankfully there are many breathtaking beaches to cool off in....
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Sleeping

You basically have three choices... hammocks or tents... or outrageously expensive cabins.
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Cabo San Juan is the most popular site camp site because it is set at the one of the best beach coves I've ever had the pleasure of chilling at.
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Tents and hammocks go very fast here, and most trekkers end up missing out.
The office starts registration at 1:30 or 2pm - you'll probably need to arrive an hour ahead to secure a spot.

If you have a silk sleeping bag liner and wondered when you're ever going to use it... this one of those rare occasions.
It was pretty apparent that the linen in the tents were not changed each day; and if you opt for a hammock, it'll fend off mosquitoes.

New Friends

Tayrona is really socially conducive without being too busy.
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We spoke with an Argentinian couple; the lady is a nuclear physicist who designs the complex systems that operate nuclear power plants.
She helped build a prototype for a proposed station in Australia, and was training Australians how to operate it (hope I haven't blown her cover)... interesting!_trek.jpg

Food and Supplies

The first night we stayed at the main camp site, where there are posh bungalows, etc - which is really nicely laid out and has a very nice restaurant.
I had this little beauty for lunch (fish and veggies cooked in banana leaf with salad thrown in)... seriously good!
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There is an awesome bakery on the beach about half way to Cabo.
They make their goodies in a wood fired oven, and have fresh orange juice and Colombian coffee on offer.
Their arequipe infused buns are muy rico!!

I'll be back

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With 19000 hectares, Tayrona is immense.
I hardly skimmed the surface, and will be going back to explore the more remote areas by boat next time...

The great state of Satander next...

Posted by SkinnyFists 09:13 Archived in Colombia Tagged beaches trekking parque_tayrona colombia_caribe colombia_beaches Comments (0)

Colombia: Barranquilla Carnaval

Who lives it, is who enjoys it (Quien lo vive, es quien lo goza)

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En Barranquilla me quedo...

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Just outside of Barranquilla's main stadium is an enormous statue of Salsa legend Joe Arroyo..
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...forever keeping time with his claves and just one symbol of Barranquilla's dedication, passion and appreciation for their homegrown music.

Barranquilla is the fitting home to the second biggest Carnival on earth!

Carnaval

To get you started here is a video I put together of snippets recorded in Barranquilla and surrounds during carnival time

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Barranquilla's Carnaval is second only to Rio's... Google the stats ;-)
It's a wonderful, welcoming, boisterous and enormous festival spanning the many flavours and variances of Colombian music and dance.

WELCOME

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As soon as landed at Barranquilla airport, I could hear drums!
A huge welcoming party of drums and dancing awaited new arrivals... and certainly got you amped!

Music

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Music is a hugely important part of Colombia's culture and identity - especially in Barranquilla and Cali.
Both cities share similar characteristics.... I have no idea if they identify with each other - but to this visitor they are similar in their fervent passion for home grown music.

La Troja is one of the best, rawest, and boisterous Salsa joints on earth - optimising the revolutionary, reactionary, anti-establishment roots of Salsa that came out of the Bronx 50 years ago.
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Barranquilla celebrates the wondrous cultural diversity of Colombia through music and dance of maily Cumbia, Vallenato, Champeta, Salsa and some Reggaeton.
We also saw international representation; Chinese, Brazillian and a variety of European floats
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In Barranquilla music is played LOUD... everywhere, in restaurants, bars, loungerooms...everywhere.... and especially during Carnaval.
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Lodgings

It's very unwise to decide on Carnaval in the week leading up to the event. You need to plan ahead!!
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Prices quadruple for this week and rooms sell out months ahead, and so it's essential to book in a timely fashion.
My friends and I were lucky to be offered a room at a family house, which was a true blessing.

Parades and Activities

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The wikipedia entry sums everything up perfectly
here

The different floats, choregraphy and music was incredible.
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The atmosphere is really special, with countless numbers of people gathering along the very long road, either paying big for seats in the stands, a bit less for non tiered chairs or standing in limited free spaces.
Seats for the stands were quite pricey, but we managed to find roadside seats for a reasonable 20k pesos.
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Everyone makes an effort to dress festively, and has a great time, enjoying food and drinks.
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We saw some really remarkable showcases!!
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Carnavalada

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This is the main point for evening festivities and showcases!
We saw many awesome Cumbia performances and others
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Calle 84

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This is Barranquilla's party street, with a myriad of venues to choose from.... all blasting Vallenato, Merengue, Salsa, Champeta and the occasional Bachata tune.
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The music is turned up to 11 t every joint so music can blend in from next door.
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Nonetheless the atmosphere was awesome to the max!
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Food

Barranquilla has seriously amazing food, both during Carnaval at the stall, and also very interesting restaurants.
We went to Totumazo for traditional soup... it was the best meal I had in Colombia!
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Riomar

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We found a magnificent train ride that leads out along the coast with seriously amazing views and tranquility.
The marvellous little train carries you along the 7km slither of land that separates the beach facing the Carribean Sea and Magdalena River
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It's an awesome day trip!!

Museums

Carnaval Museo

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We stopped by for an interesting peak at the history and artefacts of the Carnaval.
This is an informative stop for any Carnaval goer!

Museo del Caribe

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This impressive building, has some seriously impressive displays and activities within it.
It really shows how unique the Carribean region of Colombia is, and when contrasting to the rest of the country; how amazingly diverse Colombia is in terms of culture and terrain

The holographic music showcase is tremendous and worth the visit alone!

♥ Barranquilla

When you go to Carnaval, graciously accept being doused in corn flower and sprayed with foam... and do your best to keep up!
Barranquilla is a friendly Carribean City of Colombia, proud of their city and significance of Colombia's diverse, rich cultural tapestry.

Sad to leave, but see you next year!
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Parque Tayrona next...
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Posted by SkinnyFists 10:31 Archived in Colombia Tagged barranquilla carnaval_colombia vallenato salsa_colombia Comments (0)

Colombia: Bogotá

Discovering the vast capital!

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Bogotá

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Bogotá is the third biggest city in South America after Sao Paolo and Lima.
... and it feels vast!

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Colombians in the Carribean, Cali and Sandander all warned me about how cold and aloof Bogotanos are.

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Perhaps tourists are immune to the city's frio...
I found Bogatanos to be very friendly and welcoming... though certainly not as cheery as those from Colombia's sunnier towns.

One thing is for sure, Bogota is big, diverse and full of character.
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Safety

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Many will tell you that Bogotá can be dangerous... though no more so than any other big city.
Having lived in London, I feel that Bogotá is actually safer.

In Bogotá there is a very visible, comprehensive and formidable police force.
In London I had to calm an unarmed officer down as she fearfully mistook me for a Yardie gangster.... but that's another story ;-)
Colombian cops are well armed, high in numbers, confident, controlling and alert.
Many buildings also have armed private security, and the posh suburbs even have military patrols.

Activities

Cycling

It's a very flat city, and perfect for cycling!
As such it is very bike friendly, with many dedicated bike lanes.
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Freeways are closed off to cars on Sundays so that people can enjoy the day cruising by bike (hear that Australia?!!)
The famous bike tour that leaves from La Candelaria, is an absolute must!!
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Not only because it's a great way to explore the vast city, but it's also very informative and a lot of fun!!
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Graffiti Tour

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Bogotá has a LOT of amazing street art!
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Graffiti artists from all over the world have contributed to some of the many amazing pieces around the city.
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The Graffiti Tour that departs from Simon Bolivar Sq is amazing and was a genuine highlight of my time there.
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Monserrate

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The grand hill of Monserrate overlooks the city, with incredible views.
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You can travel up the long and steep hill via cable car, or walk!
There is also a lovely garden to roam around.

Tejo

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A local friend took me to a Tejo centre to learn the game.
Tejo is an ancient and traditional pre-Colombian game, still recognised and supported by the national sports association... and a lot of fun!!
The aim is to throw weighted discs at gun-powder infused targets, wedged into clay....so they explode.
Hitting a target and getting it to ignite is very, very difficult, but when you do, the payoff is excellent!

We also played Rana... a similar game, and still popular with Uni students.
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Nightlife

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As with any large city, there are many great nightlife options.
Zona Rosa is jam packed with bars, discotheques, restaurants and everything in between.

Salsa, Vallenato, Merengue and Reggaeton form the musical core of Bogotá.
Some venues such as Cafe Libro are dedicated purely to Salsa, whereas the majority of venues are'Crossover'; playing all of the above forms.
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Malls

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It's pretty clear that Colombia's economy is taking off.
One of the many telling signs is the enormous malls scattered around the city.
These places dwarf the malls in Australia.

Take a look at Titán and Unicentro to start.
Upscale Zona Rosa has Adino Mall with giant flagship stores for Nike, Lacoste, Zara, in the surrounding areas.

Tale of Two Cities

As with many big cities, there are huge divides in wealth and quality of life.
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In the posh north, I walked past Maserati, Porsche and Ferrari dealerships, gated communities, with private security or cops on every corner.
You will also see high fashion, beautifully manicured gardens and professional dog walkers in toe with rare purebreds.
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The chain cafes (Juan Valdez) are better/fancier in the north, complete with posh folks with cashmere sweaters draped over their shoulders ;-)
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Alternatively in the south, it's rougher, and boisterous - full of vibrant colour, music and character.
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A local friend explained that there are six tiers of class in Colombian society, and Colombians in general are pretty class conscious.
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Of course Western visitors would be oblivious to this (including me).
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Accommodation

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Bogotá has a myriad of great hotels and hostels.
As I passed through on several occasions I wholeheartedly recommend:

  • 12:12 Hostel - like a hotel, with ace facilities, privacy curtains and chargers for every bed, etc
  • Hotel Regina - this would have been Don Draper's favourite. Old school service, 50's classic music piped in the lounge, where folks sip the free coffee on Chesterfields and late checkout times.
  • Hampton by Hilton - Another amazing part of this ace franchise
  • Casa Dann Carlton - 5* in every possible way. Best gym I've ever seen at a hotel.

Transport

You can fly almost anywhere from Bogotá airport.
The intercity bus system is easy to navigate, and the Transmilenio is pretty efficient (though avoid during peak hours).
The best and safest way to get around Bogotá (and any other city in Colombia) is with Uber

Farewell Bogotá

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Most other travellers I met didn't like Bogotá, but it became one of my favourite cities in Colombia.
It has great infrastructure, plenty of great places to eat and explore and is hugely diverse.
It isn't touristy, as say Cartagena or Medellin, which means you can immerse as a local.... and I was treated as such, and made many great friends here.

This afternoon I met friends for coffee in the north and took a taxi back to my lovely hotel in the south.
As I traversed the city, it really struck me how diverse and enormous it really is... it slowly changed, visibly flowing in character.
I'm going to miss this city... it certainly will be a melancholy departure.

Adios for now amigos!

Posted by SkinnyFists 19:05 Archived in Colombia Tagged graffiti bogota colombia south_america Comments (0)

Colombia: Cali

Journey to the world capital of Salsa!

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The Capital of Salsa

To get you started, here is a video I put together of snippets I recorded at concerts, conventions and Salsatecas in Cali:

Cali, Colombia is widely (and aptly) known as the capital of Salsa.
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Salsa is more than a pastime and interest for Caleños, it is an obsession, transcending many generations since the 1960's.

Many famous and popular Salsa artists from Puerto Rico and Cuba ended up moving to Cali, to be amongst it.
It's in the air and everywhere....in supermarkets, taxis, hotel foyers, air lounges, bars, discotecques, hospitals, family lounge rooms.

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My Salsa teacher in Cali told me that over 40 percent of Caleños are involved in the music/dance industry, and it's hardly surprising.
J Lo often calls upon dance troupes from Cali for her performances, and the bloke who invented Zumba is a Caleño.

Salsa dancing flows throughout Cali.
I even saw homeless folks dancing salsa caleña in the streets without music!

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I had the good fortune of arriving in Cali for the city's fair - Feria de Cali - the biggest Salsa festival on Earth... and it was amazing!!

This article sums up Cali's Salsa culture perfectly:
How Cali’s DIY dance clubs keep the spirit of salsa alive

Cali Fair

Superconcierto

Some friends and I attended 'Superconcierto' at Pascual Guerrero Stadium, featuring the biggest Salsa, Salsa Choke and Bachata artists; Romeo Santos, Chocquibtown, Grupo Niche, Guayacan, Willie Colon, Oscar D'Leon, Binomio Golden and Daniel Calderó!

I haven't seen such a huge and emphatic music crowd since Glastonbury in the UK.

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All the bands and artists were on serious fire and blew the crowd away.

Hermanos Lebrón

The Lebrón Brothers celebrated their illustrious 50th year of creating music magic with an amazing show!
Even in posh theatres, Colombians bring their own cowbells and beat perfectly in time!!
This concert was a highlight of my trip!

Tascas

Cali's central park converts to the wonderful Tascas for the fair.
A huge expanse of food vendors, tables, stages and of course spaces for dancing which were constantly packed!!

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Canchas Panamericanas

Canchas Panamericanas played host to the biggest celebration of Salsa music for the fair.
It featured talks from collectors, venue artists, central figures and artists alike.

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There were many stalls and shops selling records, and artefacts from Salsa's rich history.
It was like Comic-Con for Salsa!

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Salsa Venues

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There are more salsa venues here than any other city, including Havana.
You are spoilt for choice! The most gringo friendly is probably Tintindeo... and it's excellent!
Unpretentious, with both beginners and local veterans dancing together. I had many a great night here and met new friends.
La Topa Tolondra is another cools place, but it is very narrow, and not really conducive to busting your new moves.

In the north east of town are the bigger clubs, some dedicated to Salsa and others play a mix of latin styles.
Take your travel buds with you to these places, and grab a table as the majority do; and dance between them or on the myriad of dance floors scattered around these vast joints!

Markets

Cali's downtown/market area has to be seen/heard to be believed.
Bustling, crowded and musical. Music blasts from every shop and stall with a view to attracting customers.

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Lodgings

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I stayed at three places in Cali:

  • Hostel Encuentro is a fantastic, tranquil family run place where you will be also welcomed and treated like family.
  • Hotel Granada Real is ideally located close to all of the action of Avenida 9, and super cheap.
  • Every city in Colombia now has Hampton by Hilton franchises... and they are excellent!

For approximately $60 per night, with 5* facilities and service you can't go wrong. Cali's is outstanding!

Transport

Cali doesn't have much in the way of tourist friendly public transport.
Uber is definitely the way to go. It's reliable, cheap, and all of the drivers I had in Cali (over 30 trips) had wonderfully immaculate cars and were amazingly professional.

Cali, The City

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In comparison to the other big cities in Colombia, Cali is a gritty town.
Once ruled by the ruthless Cali Cartel, it seems to be in the throes of recovery.
Though it's difficult to tell if they are keen to progress or fine as they are.

Medellin, by comparison, was hit even harder back in the day, but has now shaken it's torrid past off, and taken enormous strides to become arguably Colombia's premier and most friendly city, attracting the most foreign and local migrating workers in Colombia.

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Cali certainly doesn't market itself as a tourist centre; Caleños get on fine without tourists.
I read a quote in that famous travel guide... you need Cali more than it needs you... and it's so true.
Any visitors who arrive with a lofty entitled, tourist pedestal will be very quickly ignored... or worse.

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Don't expect to come to Cali and find tourist maps, museums, etc.
The attraction here is the very rich culture of music and everything that surrounds it.

Cali is just one example of Colombia's vast and varied musical tapestry; which is just one of the many marvellous factors that distinguishes Colombia from the rest of the region.

I had a great time in Cali, made many new friends, learnt some new dance moves and got a wonderful insight into Colombia's musical jewel.

I went to the capital next... boundless Bogotá!!

Posted by SkinnyFists 14:25 Archived in Colombia Tagged salsa colombia cali salsatecas Comments (0)

Colombia: Rodadero, Santa Marta, Barranquilla

Exploring serene El Rodadero, heavenly Santa Marta and the boisterious rhumba of Barranquilla!

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El Rodadero

It was time to move on from Cartagena and explore the rest of the Caribbean north.
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I took the Marsol bus without hassle along the busy yet gorgeous coastal freeway, stopping occasionally for snacks, and finally arrived at the very lovely, quiet, family oriented beach town, El Rodadero.
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I was lucky enough to be there for Día de las Velitas (Day of the Candles), where families light candles and spend special time together just before Christmas.
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The atmosphere was serene!
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The beach was full of people yet calm... music played and people danced...
the night illuminated with candles and lights.
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The beach is a big drawcard here.
The water is calm and safe and the sunsets are just downright magical!
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Calle 11 Hostel

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This place has an interesting history.
It was reportedly owned by a mafia kingpin, and then sold by the government after his take down.
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It's one of the most luxurious and best run hostels I've ever stayed (no, they aren't paying me).
Backpackers will appreciate the spaciousness and privacy curtains provided for the beds.

Santa Marta

Santa Marta is heaven!
It's clean, beautiful, friendly yet boisterous, with wonderfully warm weather, stunning beaches.
Not too big/yet not tiny with very much a strong sense of community!
The streets are full of character.... and full of music.
We stayed at Chocolate y Candela hostel and I recommend them to you!

Nightlife

There are a few big clubs in Santa Marta, but the best time is probably had at the chilled bars surrounding Parque de Los Novios.
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Later though, you'll no doubt end up dancing somewhere, whether you intended to or not!

Police Escort

One night a couple of friends and I ventured out clubbing, and decided to walk.
The club was about 5 minutes walk from the hostel....
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As we progressed down one of the silent streets, 3 police saddled up to us, riding Segways.....
(in Spanish)
"Where are you boys going?"
"Miko Bar, why?"
"You shouldn't walk at night..."
... the officer directed us to turn around...
A group of rascals, who were probably harmless, had been following us from a distance, and were now cautiously diverting their path.
One of the officers said.... "We'll take you to Miko...."
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Barranquiila

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Barranquilla is famous for two things... pop star Shakira, and the world's biggest Salsa carnival every February.

Many people overlook Bazza outside of Carnival time, because it's isn't an especially pretty city, and lacks tourist attractions.
This is a shame, because it's a really friendly, welcoming and fun place, and a significant cog in Colombia's gloriously diverse society and economy.

Hostel from Hell

As Barranquilla isn't really on the backpacker's trail, there is a lack of hostels.
In fact we could only find one, and it was, well interesting....

The reviews were mixed, to say the least, but my compadres and I took a punt. How bad could it be?
.....nothing prepared us for the horrid, turgid, pungent, mess that was The Meeting Point Hostel, Barranquilla.

<cue Deliverance banjos>
When the three of us entered our dorm, we were greeted by an odd fellow lying on one of the bunks, wearing only his undies.
As we settled in, the odd fellow just stared art us.
Mildly disconcerted, we continued our conversation about whether to leave/stay/sleep outside.
Our staring friend continued to gaze, voicelessly.

I had pre-arranged to meet someone via Couchsurfing, so mentioned I was going to shower (there is only one).
Suddenly, the staring elf jumped up and yelled ....
"Are you having a shower?!! Are you having a shower?!!!!!!!... I was going to have one..."
hmmmm.... oookay
"OK buddy, go have your shower."

Here's my Tripadvisor review:
The putrid waft hit us as soon as we walked in.
Dirty clothes and clutter are draped everywhere, cats roam the halls where the owners leave handfuls of food for them on the floors.
The dorms are scary. No A/C or decent fans in a very hot/oppressing atmosphere.
The dorms are cramped, yet did seem relatively clean, though the loose live wires hanging from the ceiling was disconcerting.
The bathroom was horrible - no shower curtain with water splashing everywhere across the filth.. hair and stains everywhere.
My feet have been itchy since we left.
The owner family are indeed friendly and helpful, but the padre smokes in the common area (inside) - and it wafts through the entire building.
Do yourself a favour, heed the other reviews here and stay clear!!

Second Chance Pays Off

After a horrid night's sleep, my homies and I quickly prepared to escape.
Whilst my pals opted to return to serene Santa Marta; I thought.... that there had to be more to Barranquilla!
So I stayed a while.... and so glad to have!

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There really isn't much in the way of sites, but it's a very nice city, easy to navigate and has really friendly people, and a positive vibe!

I walked most of the city; past the panaderías, markets, the mechanics and factories, through the fancy shopping centres, and via the very picturesque and spotless neighbourhoods.

Salsaaaa and Nightlife

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By contrast to say, Cali where folks bust a frantic move, Barranquillan's prefer to savour the music... sitting in big groups, occasionally dancing between the tables.... closely with their partners.... or banging out rhythms with the cowbells and claves that they brought from home!

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There are many many discoteques in Bazza.... but the most famous one... the must see....
.... and my absolute favourite on earth is La Troja!
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It's boisterous, friendly and totally unpretentious.
People congregate and dance inside the venue, and at nearly every available space on the periphery.... literally stopping traffic.
There are street vendors outside servicing the additional crowd... who are there for the magic of music!
It's a very incredible experience!

Definitely check out their Instagram for a taste!!!

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Inside, there are also TV screens everywhere showing boxing and football too!

I'll be back....

If you want an authentic Colombian experience; to see just one of the true beating hearts of this amazing country with such diversity and contrasts, then please do visit.
You will have a great time, and have the (unfortunate) luxury of being one of the only tourists around.
Bogotá, Medellin, Cali, Barranquilla and Cartagena are so starkly different yet essentially Colombian, it's really incredible.

I can't wait to get back to Bazza for Carnival and rejoin the nice friends I met there.

Posted by SkinnyFists 16:14 Archived in Colombia Tagged salsa colombia santa_marta barranquilla el_rodadero colombian_beaches calle_11_hostel Comments (0)

Colombia: Cartagena

Border advice plus... dancin', chillin, cyclin' plus more in Colombia's paradise on the Carribean coast

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Arrival Colombia

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I left Central America full of great memories.... via Avianca and landed on the sunny shores/airport of tropical Cartagena.
Luckily I had bought a bus ticket to Ecuador for a month's time, because the customs officer asked for evidence of my departure before letting me in to the country.
This has happened twice for me so far.... so be warned.

I made the mistake of not supplying onward travel evidence in Costa Rica.
It created all kinds of havoc, though I'll save it for another chapter dedicated to border crossings.

Lodgings

I stayed at two different hotels at different times, and both were excellent!
Though, I really recommend Patio de Getsemani.
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It's run by a super friendly family, the rooms are wonderful, cool and quiet... and the hotel has the most amazing rooftop patio/garden with astounding views.

Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani is a wonderful, hip suburb just outside of centro.
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The streets really come alive at night... many families blast music out of their front rooms with the windows open and often sit out the front socialising with their neighbours and tourists alike.

It's a very nice environment to be part of.

There are many bars in this area, but the spot where most people congregate is Trinidad Square.
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Many food stalls surround it, and there is often sound systems blasting quality tunes.

Centro

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Central Cartagena is wonderful!
It is a photographers dream, and most likely heritage protected as it has a very antique feel, retaining its 600 year old charm.

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You will find all of the boutiques, upscale shops, and fine restaurants in an amazing setting.
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It seems like from the facades the city has not changed since inception nearly 600 years ago!
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There are many squares, where people either sit and eat, or amazing performers ply their trade.

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Café del Mar

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If you want to impress your loved one, book a seaside table at Cafe Del Mar for sunset.
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It's a truly beautiful spot with incredible views out to sea, and out to Bocagrande.

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Beach

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Cartagena isn't famous for the beach, but it is nice.
It is easy to get to the more pristine places like El Rodedero or Playa Blanca

Explore by bike

Cartagena is a great place to explore by bike.
It is very flat, and doesn't have much road traffic, with many bike friendly avenues.
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I took 3 hour tour covering centro, Getsemani and often less visted barrios for a bit of contrast.

Festival of Lights

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Cartagena put certainly put on a show in terms of Christmas lights.
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Huge light statues and presentations were scattered all over the cities and parks.

Nightlife

Cartagena has amazing nightlife! All Latin forms of music plus electro are catered for here!

Salsa

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Salsa is the staple form of music in Caribe Colombia, and Salseros are in for a treat.
You can study at Crazy Salsa, and enjoy some awesome venues to dance or just listen and marvel.

Here are some venues I visited....

Donde Fidel is a small bar with a huge voice!
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(Folks sit outside of Donde Fidel, in the main square enjoying the music by night)

There isn't a great deal of dancing here, it is more of a place to sit appreciate/talk about music with others so passionate about it.
Many groups, couple, individuals sit and appreciate the tunes, amidst the photos of famous Salsaneros who have visited the place.
Bring sticks and even a cowbell!

Quiebra-Canto is a 3 story venue dedicated to Salsa.

quiebra_canto.jpgThe bottom venue attracts many casual punters, and the top floor was filled with aficionados passionate about the music .
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I spoke with the barmen about different artists... and they of course bash rhythms and singing passionately when they aren't serving drinks.

Havana Café. Arguably the premier live Salsa joint in town.
They have smokin hot musos gracing the stage and a really festive environment.
My only problem with it was that it was full of tourists and no room to dance.

I had the best time at Donde Fidel and Quiebra-Canto!

Music

One day I came across a busker playing didgeridoo... in a way that Colombian's would - rapidly, with marvellous complex rhythms and a strong groove.
His girlfriend was playing a soulful clarinet accompaniment.
It was truly amazing and I'm kicking myself for not filming, but if you visit Cartagena watch out for them!

I saw a lot of other really wonderful performances in different pockets of Cartagena.
It was my first taste of the country and the importance of musicality in Colombian culture quickly became very clear.
I could write subjective tomes about it... and others have done exactly that....

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

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The Jewel of Cartagena and a very significant/strategic part of Colombia's history.
I spent more than four hours exploring, via aid of audio guide.
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It was really fascinating, especially to lean that at one stage British Pirates conquered the fort.

Amable personas

Cartagena is just one of the many magnificent cities of the Carribean coast of Cartagena.

I also had an amazing time in Barranquilla, Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona, which I'll write about shortly.
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I definitely recommend Cartagena as a destination for families and backpackers alike.
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Hasta luego!

Posted by SkinnyFists 14:18 Archived in Colombia Tagged salsa cartagena colombia_cartagena Comments (0)

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)

Cuba (part 1): Havana

Stepping back to the good ol' days - amazing music, awesome cars and hand-rolled cigars.....magnificent and potent culture...

sunny 35 °C

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I had a totally amazing time in Cuba... it is an unashamedly charming, stylish, welcoming, musical and wondrous place....
Here's part 1 in Havana....

Visas

Visitors to Cuba will require a tourist card/visa.
Visas can be arranged through through embassies, or if travelling from within the region a tourist card, issued at the airport suffices.
I flew with Interjet from Cancun, and they had a separate tourist card stand next to the check in counter.... where I arranged mine in minutes.

Arrival Havana

As soon as I left the plane at Havana Airport, it felt like stepping back in time - to the good ol' days of formal smiling service, pay-phones and paper forms.

Money Exchange

The money exchange is outside of the airport. As you leave the arrivals section, turn right.
Note that foreigner used currency (CUC) is not traded outside of Cuba. You need to buy them after arrival.
In hindsight I underestimated how much cash I would need, and found it very difficult withdrawing money thereafter... so be warned... cash is king in Cuba, and you can always change surplus back to Euros/Pounds on your way out of the country.

The best rates seemed to be or Euros. GBP/USD can also be exchanged, though AUD cannot.

Taxis

Just like almost anywhere outside of the "west" meters are not used in cabs, so negotiating price before setting foot is essential.
The first driver I met wanted 30CUC to my Casa, and we finally agreed on 25.

The drive from the airport was nothing short of spectacular....
Cadillac after Chevy after classic car traversing the palm tree lined motorway... each car full to the brim of people.

We passed through bustling Habana Centro in all of it's original 50's glory to my Casa Particular, the border of Habana Veijo.

It felt like the beginning of a Mad Men episode... Don Draper would have loved Cuba.

Homestay

I wanted an authentic experience, so opted to stay in a Casa Particular in Havana i.e. family home.
There are many advertised on Tripadvisor, or you can take your chances by walking the streets, as families have signs posted outside of their homes.

Casa Pablo Menses was recommended to me by a travel compadre, and it was a solid, solid choice!

I was warmly welcomed to the home, and to my lovely room; complete with a brand new air con system, glistening bathroom, comfy bed, fridge and TV.... opening out to the casa's lovely courtyard.

Welcome dinner at Casa Meneses
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Casa Pablo Meneses is a grandiose, immaculate family home which surrounds and enclosed open courtyard with a lovely garden and latticed furniture. Their tiny pseudo restaurant is also renowned in the neighbourhood.
On several nights during my stay, a group of French tourists visited for a banquet, favouring Meneses to their posh hotel around the corner.

This intrepid group, all had disabilities of varying forms, some travelling with dedicated carers, some in wheelchairs, etc.
They had bonded over the internet and joined together for a self managed adventure traversing Cuba... determined, jovial and absolutely adventurous!

The patriarch of the Meneses house, Cesar helped arrange a private guide/spanish teacher for me, and taxis when I needed.
I had many broken Spanglish conversations with everyone in the family, and I really can't recommend their hospitality enough.

There is a pedestrianised walkway near Meneses, leading from the main square down to the coast.
People trade, hold group discussions, sell art and have performances along here....
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Habana

Havana is a dynamic, festive, musical, friendly and relatively safe city.
The old city is particularly amazing, and absolutely gorgeous!

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I booked a private guide though Saint Cristobal, and she took me to all of the squares, explained the history of Cuba and significance of landmarks; from Spanish arrival, to the independence revolution and ensuing abolishment of slavery.... right through to Che and Fidel's revolution and beyond.
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Havana was of course home to Ernest Hemmingway. He lived in Hotel Ambos Mundos....
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His hotel room is now a museum, and atop the hotel you will finds some of the best views of Havana
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....and most delicious mojitos.

Music is everywhere in Havana!!!
You won't hear much recorded music playing in the old town.
Instead, almost every venue has a band playing during all hours of trade!

Casa de la Musica is definitely worth a visit, however I was most impressed by the bands at smaller venues!

The small bars are ace at night!!
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My favourite band were at Cafe Paris...
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Walking the back streets of central Havana, I stumbled upon a massive block party.
They had set up massive speakers in the middle of the street, and guys were rapping in heavy Español Cubano with an enormous, rapturous crown encircling them. It was MEGA!!

During my time a huge public concert took place to celebrate Independence Day.
It felt like most of Havana came for it. It was a spectacular setting, with musicians from all over the world including China visiting to perform.

Setting up....
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During the show...
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Cubans take music very, very seriously and it is their national passion.
I haven't seen virtuosity, unassuming talent or genuine interest in music like this anywhere else.
Lone pianist... twinkling the ivories
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The big hotels are worth visiting even if you don't stay in them.
They are relatively unchanged since the 60's and all have working banks, salons, etc, and are immaculately kept.
The Museo de Revolución took 4 solid hours to pass through, and documents Che and Fidel's revolution in meticulous fashion!
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Revolution Square is also well worth a visit!
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Havana at night is also magnificent.....
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Just like any tourist destination, there are sharks, but harmless if you politely catch them out and decline their game.
There is a visible police/military presence especially at closing time...but not perturbingly so.

Pimps are everywhere, and they will make it their business to convince every male they meet (single or not!) that their providers can make your Cuban stay more authentic.
I was out with a lady friend from Colombia one night, and still had to shoo a cheeky pimp and one of his ladies away!

Resources

I definitely recommend taking a guidebook.
You can find (slow) wi-fi at the big hotels, however you need to purchase an exorbitantly expensive login card, which aren't necessarily available at the hotels themselves.

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I also used a fantastic offline app called Havana Good Time which contains many user reviews.

I'll be back....

...more from Cuba shortly.... Viñales, Varadero, Cinfuegos and Trinidad.

'luego!

(sad to leave Havana...)
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Posted by SkinnyFists 14:59 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba music havana salsa havana_veijo casa_particulars Comments (0)

Mexico: Yucatán

Mayan Riviera and Mérida; immaculate beaches, amazing ruins, wonderful towns, diving beneath the jungle and phenomenal oceanic sites.

sunny 42 °C

Ace Mexico

I had an amazing, adventurous and sun drenched two weeks in Mexico..... super accommodation, amazing beaches, awesome diving , interesting Mayan culture and amazing ruins, a bustling town in Merida, friendly people, etc… and an all round ace time.

Transport

I flew from Madrid on new budget airline, Evelop, opting for their premium economy package at roughly 300 euros.
This got me seat #A1 with silver service, extra snacks plus more soft drink and coffee than I should have had!
I arrived at Cancun Airport feeling very refreshed after the 10 hour flight .... and jumped on a bus bound for Playa del Carmen.

Note: I was initially refused check-in at Madrid for not having a return/onward journey ticket....
Sky scanner saved the day, and I quickly found a flight to Cuba via Interjet... all sorted in 3 minutes.
I had to show the email receipt to the check in clerk and her manager before proceeding.... you've been warned.

Playa del Carmen

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PdC is a lovely, easy going, friendly, safe and well layed out town, centred on the main Avenue #5, just off the beach.

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You can get almost anything in the pharmacies here; diet pills, romance assistance, hormone injections, etc, etc...
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Lodgings

I stayed at Playa Karma Hotel, and really enjoyed it there.
It’s very well priced, well appointed and very quiet considering the 2 minute walk over to the clubs/beach.
It's a family run place and they gave me a lot of advice and assistance for my onward travel.

Diving

There is a huge diving community here and it is very cost effective.
I did 3 full days of diving with Scuba Playa, at sites around Playa DC, Cozumel and the Cenotes for USD280 including gear hire and lunches each day!
They were recommended to me and I absolutely recommend them to you.
Their service, staff, culture, knowledge, general organisation and offerings are first class.
It was also phenomenal value.

Day 1: Wrecks and Mayan Waterways
We dived around one of the wrecks sitting just off the coast of Playa. It had sunk in 1996 and was immersed in a lot of coral and wildlife.
Between dives the boat took us to shore at the mouth of an ancient Mayan water system!
We walked along the canals and our dive master explained the history!

Day 2: Cozumel
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Cozumel is a small island facing Playa del Carmen and takes roughly 30 mins by ferry to get there.
I joined my diving compadres from Japan, Germany and China on or ready-to-go dive boat And set out for our sites.

The water was crystal clear with amazing visibility, which was great because there was plenty to see. We saw at least three massive turtles, many, many kinds of fish and coral.
Cozumel island itself looks pretty ritzy with many high end resorts, and caters to the serious diver.

Day 3: Cenotes
The Cenotes are underground caves located in the jungles, and now full of freshwater, with enormous stalactites formed over (possibly?) millions of years.

Diving these sites is not for the timid, and requires an advanced open water cert. at minimum to join a trip.
We followed our dive master single file through many caves and tunnels, creeping past stalactites and interesting formations.
The passages are dark and narrow, but very, very rewarding!!

We passed through many tunnels and very low depths (approx. 45 metres).
I had to conjure a bit of calm and courage at points, but it was all worth it.

Enormous stalactites enhanced by the glitter and reflection of the water, it really felt and looked otherworldly!!
Absolutely up there with the best diving experiences of my life!

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Nightlife

All of the big nightclubs are on one street (Calle 12), making them easy to either avoid altogether, or stumble between them.
I had a great time dancing Salsa and Bachata with locals and tourists at Salsanera, and also experienced the truly memorable Coco Bongo....

Coco Bongo

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Visitors to Playa del Carmen will inevitably become aware of Coco Bongo.
I was sceptical about it, but gave it a go..... and so glad I did.
For me, it was a unique entertainment immersion experience with great acrobatics, choreography and music.
The show starts at roughly 11pm and finishes roughly four hours later!
There are many sets with many themes and featured artists /films including Guns n Roses, Madonna, MJ, Tron, etc.

The Michael Jackson section was thriller and bad.... chaaamone...
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When the show ended, the fun continued into the night, as the DJ span Reggaeton to the max and everyone boogied till dawn.
Ushers even encouraged people to dance on the bar(!) and let loose.
I had a great time!

Chichen Itza

This is an ancient Mayan site, of what once was a metropolis designed and built from pure genius.
The detail would be poorly explained here, suffice to say it was a marvellous experience and a highlight for everyone visiting this region.
I recommend watching the film, Apocalypto before visiting!!

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After some hunting around I went with Cancun Bay tours.
The tour took in one of the more scenic Cenotes first with an opportunity to swim and then lunch.

At Chichen Itza we were divided in to English and Spanish language groups.
The guides were very informed having extensive qualifications in Mayan archeology, history and anthropology.
Their insights really added to the experience, and I left feeling somewhat informed and mesmerised at the end.

We were on the bus for a total of 5 hours, and in Mexican style the beer, tequila (mixed with lemon) flowed all the way home courtesy of the tour company!
The mood was jovial, the conversation flowed and everyone agreed it was a really amazing and experience!!

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Tulum

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After a really nice time in Playa, I moved south to Tulum in search of more Mayan ruins and a bit of PnQ.
Tulum is a tiny, friendly town with strong Mayan roots and the most amazing Mayan site I saw in Mexico.

My hotel, Teetotum was amazingly lovely, unique, and charming...
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Tulum Ruins

The ruins are worth the journey. Incredible! Set on the coast to add a bit of drama.
You can get close and in some cases climb the stairs of some ruins.
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The surrounding restaurants are a bit of a tourist trap and charge exorbitant prices.
I'd recommend going to Subway instead.

Tulum beach is lovely, sleepily super chilled, with no shortage of great places to stay, eat and drink.

Mérida

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The Capital of Yucatán is a beautiful city with warm, friendly people and a thriving arts culture.
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It would be a great place to live, and many Americans do immigrate here.
I saw really interesting art, co-ops, studios, galleries, resto-galleries everywhere... complemented by the music you can hear throughout the city!
Salsa, Reggaeton, Reggae.
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As the world celebrated Octoberfest, Merida was no exception.
An entire street was closed to traffic in favour of Bavarian style open air beer halls, bratwurst BBQs and German music.
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I stayed at the amazingly serene Lux en Yucatán, for seven nights and definitely recommend it.
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Mérida is an amazing town, and really shouldn't be missed if you visit this part of the world!

Muchas Gracias Mexico. Adios

Yucatán is an amazing part of the world, particularly for diving, incredible beaches and Mayan ruins.
It's very safe an easy to get around, and I had an awesome time.

Over to Cuba....

Posted by SkinnyFists 18:15 Archived in Mexico Tagged beaches diving ruins maya cenotes chicen_itza play_del_carmen Comments (0)

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