Wednesday, 17 June 2009
Arriving in Mexico City airport at 11.30pm we went to the airport hotel which was the Hilton, once again not preferred but little choice (no complaints though). We handed over our cash card to book the accommodation and nothing happened, it was declining. No worries we said, lets try the credit card, also nothing. Not the first time it has happened as our bank has shut us down for security reasons, so we call the english bank Natwest and they say everything is fine their end and we have more than enough money to cover it although the hotel was not seeing the same information. Anyhow after 3 hours of trying we finally went to the business centre in the hotel and booked it online, all worked fine. It was extremely worrying that we were in a city where we had no access to any of our money. I must say I never want that to happen again and can only hope the banks in OZ are better. At 3am we finally had a bed to rest our heads….if nothing else. Few tears from Tish from the long day.
Woke up in the morning and went to the cash machine and it was like nothing happened last night. Cards were working fine….thanks to the banking lord but more dramas when we woke. We couldn’t check in online for our flight which in previous experience has meant something is not right with our booking, so after 4 hours of finding a correct BA phone number (nothing works fast in Mexico airport) we finally got to speak to someone that told us our agent had not linked the booking number with the online check in…phew! Sorted it out and checked in. Some of you might ask why we pursued the online check in when we were at an airport and this was because we were there so early before our flight and a boarding pass from online gave us access to shopping and better facilities in departures.
Finally after some shopping we hopped on our flight at 9.30pm and all went OK, apart from the very drunk Spanish lads behind us drinking till 3am….another sleepless night.
We arrived into London so excited to be in a country that we know so well and the sun was beaming…..unheard of! We were staying at our good friends house Tom and Hannah for the night (originally 2 nights but was changed while we were away) We were so so so so happy to see them and they spoilt us rotten. BBQ in the garden, cold beers, good giggles and Tish was handed the biggest cheese plate she has seen and for Simon a cheese cake.YUM. We were nearly in tears of the thought of having to leave. A few loads of washing, good feed, few hours sleep, restock bits and bobs and we were on the plane again the next day to East Africa – Tanzania, an Arab port city called Dar Es Salaam.
To sum up, our transit goes something like this, Cuba, Costa Rica, Mexico, London and Africa in less than 72 hours, throw in 2 sleepless nights, issues with cards and you have one hell of a transit.
At this stage we were feeling a little homesick for the first time but knew once we hit Africa it would be great.
To view pictures click http://picasaweb.google.com/simtish/LostInTransit?authkey=Gv1sRgCNLQ9aO2vYy8_wE#
After some last minute flight planning in Ecuador we secured a one way flight to Havana from Ecuador via Panama, hurrah!
So arriving from Quito we were a little unprepared with what was required to travel to Cuba in terms of information, day to day cost and cash requirements. The reality of travelling for the last 4 months often detracts from future planning. Cuba is NOT the place for backpackers and is NOT the place to just arrive with no GBP, EUR or Canadian dollars in cash. We did arrive into Havana with no substantial currency to exchange apart from some trusty emergency USD (due to being in Ecuador) so we did assume there would be at least 1 cash machine that would take our cards!!!! No such luck.
Cuba is still living very much as a socialist/communist society and tourism is not overly prevalent, and where possible Fidel Castro takes lengths to keep it separate from local activities. Getting out cash is made extremely difficult and VERY expensive as most of the banking infrastructure we take for granted is American owned…not good for a country who don’t want to deal with Americans and vice versa and have trading restrictions in place!
Anyhow, we spent the first 2 days completely flabbergasted that the only option we had was to take cash off our Mastercard (NO Maestro or Cirrus Debit cards accepted) and get charged not only from our bank for cash withdrawal but 12% from the Cuban government as well. So the exchange rate for us was 1GBP to 1 Cuban Peso convertibles (tourist currency) once you took out all the charges we were hit with for not having brought cash. Lesson number 1!
So once we got over the fact that Cuba was so expensive (which took us a lot of time and deep breathing) we decided to do the resort all inclusive package deal in one of the nicest beaches - Varadero as it worked out cheaper than any other way to travel.
Package deals are typically not our thing and we must say that we won’t be jumping at the chance for another one too soon, anyhow we did book for 7 days which consists of buffet breakfast, lunch and dinner and all you could drink…including cocktails.
The days consisted of swimming, reading, sunbaking, eat (average to very bad food) and a small amount of exercise and the evening shows of dancing and singing. The highlight for us was meeting a great group of Frenchies that we spent most of our time hanging with and playing volleyball. They were so much fun and it was nice to speak to people that were under the age of 60 from Germany as these places are mostly packed with these people.
We were well and truly ready to move on when the day came. We booked a bus to Trinidad where we spent the next 5 days.
Trinidad is historically picturesque with its cobbled stones, old churches, plazas, local dancing and horse and carts as one of the main transports for businesses.
We were lucky to have stayed in a beautiful casa particular (rooms rented in family homes) it was a stunning 6 bedroom home with high ceilings, European architecture, fishpond in the middle and life size statues of Mary. The house has been in the family from day 1. The family originally had 9 properties in Cuba before the government reduced property ownership to one per family. Three generations were currently living in the house and the Grandma would make us breakfast most mornings of scrambled eggs, mango juice, fruit salad and fresh pot of coffee…YUM. For dinner we would have traditional Cuban food of chicken, rice and salad and one night we had lobster…nice but still not as good as Australia (naturally!).
The plan for Trinidad was to hire a car for a day and take drive around the country side but nothing so far had gone to plan so either was this. We were finally getting to understand the Cuban mentality a little more and were ready for anything…so we thought. Off we went to check out what car hire choices we had, as it happens there was only one. Government run Cuban Car Hire…this didn’t really surprise us but what did was the fact that no one in the 3 offices could offer us a car, today, tomorrow or the day after for that fact as no one knew when there would be a car available. We couldn’t believe this was the case so every morning we would go again and see if there was a car, but to no avail. We had met another 2 girls traveling Cuba (there were not many non Cubans in Trinidad) so they also helped us try to make this happen. Eventually we found a man willing to chauffeur us in his car for the day around the Trnidad region - Cienfuegos and Santa Clara. We started by driving through the Escambray Mountains, had coffee at the Rio Negro view point and saw the Che Guevara Monument and revolution memorial museum that was erected 20 years after the revolution when Che’s remains were returned from Bolivia……Your impression of Cuba when you see Che’s pictures plastered everywhere is that everyone must love him with many people having his tattoo on their arm, and it appears they do but his use as a military/political symbol is strong which to us failed to symbolize freedom but rather an oppressive government.
Cienfuegos (named after another military revolution figurehead) is listed by UNESCO but we didn’t think much of it, just another basic town with basic facilities. We spent lunch there having read how beautiful it was but were bitterly disappointed with the town and very much the food. We ate the worst meal EVER.(see picture)
The day overall was good, certainly nothing to brag about but it was nice to see some more of Cuba and get out of town as were really starting to feel trapped and counting down the days. Cuba really makes you feel completely isolated from the rest of the world. (little to no internet, newspapers, phones, own opinions, etc.)
Due to the swine flu we hadn’t’ booked our flight out of Cuba prior to arrival. Everyday things were changing with flight restrictions (Fidel didn’t want Cuban Air flying to Mexico), therefore everyday we would go into the agency and were told to come back tomorrow when they would know more. It worked out that only 4 days to go and we still didn’t have a flight out. Panic started to set in as Cubana Air and Mexicana were no longer flying to Mexico so they were no help to us. We ended up emailing trusty travel agent Michelle in London and got her to get us a flight out of Cuba….and fast. She did succeed in this at a fair expense but we were well and truly used to being robbed of our money in Cuba.
Due to the cost of Cuba we only spent time in Varadero, Trinidad and surrounds and back to Havana to fly out. Having another 2 days at the end of the trip in Havana, it was great as we knew our way around and got to see things we didn’t see the first 2 days.
Havana is packed with Mango trees, Tropical palms, vintage cars consisting of Chevrolet, Lada (Russian - mainly taxi’s), Fords and pretty much any other car that was built before 1950. It really is what makes Havana as well as Cuba so unique. People in Havana are generally friendly but have little interest in helping or going out of their way to help. They love their Cuban music and dancing which was great. We had a night in a local bar where there were some great bands and locals getting up dancing and singing. Rations are still used in Cuba so it was common to see people lining up for the weekly…tough to see and in Cuba you really do feel people are poor. We gave a lot of our clothes away, unlike other countries that receive aid, you really notice these people don’t receive it nor have the chance to earn money that is not government owned.
For us Cuba was one of the hardest countries to have travelled, due to a few reasons, being a backpacker, coming from a capitalist society where almost everything is possible and people are able to express their opinion, animal welfare and having few choices in most things. Having said this, looking back we were lucky to have experienced a culture that we have not experienced before and appreciate the society we live in.
If you are ever thinking of going to Cuba, we suggest you book everything through a travel agency prior to arrival, have as much cash on you before you arrive and don’t use CC at all if possible, be prepared for traveling in a militaristic government controlled country, leave behind your culinary preferences and be prepared to be harassed daily by the locals for cigars, money, food amongst other things. On a positive note Cuba is one of the safest places to visit as getting caught for stealing, robbing or violence can and will certainly lead you to jail. Additionally, Havana truly is a vibrant city with lots of quirky historical pieces and music culture that make it unique.
To see pictures click
Tuesday, 16 June 2009
We planned to arrive into Quito on a Friday morning as we knew a lot of the boats leave over the weekend or early during the week. With no reservation made we had to be prepared wait about for days/weeks or not going at all…..risky but also big rewards if we could pull it off.
So after another enjoyable over night bus…. a quick shower and breakfast we headed to a travel agent for opening time to see if there were any last minute deals. With luck on our side we spoke to a Canadian guy (Paul) who owned Carpe Diem Adventures and he happened to have 2 spots left on a 4 day tour.. 1 double room on The Galaxy www.galapagosgalaxy.com.ec/galaxy_yacht.html . A 1st Class 5 Star boat with 4 levels including a deck with porters, waiters, bartenders and an amazing chef. The trip was usually 1500usd pp for 4 days, however we did not even pay half that and the great part about it, it was leaving the next morning…almost too hard to believe! Spirits were high! About 15 minutes later another couple came in looking for the same thing, they were gutted when they found out we just beat them.
So with that settled we packed our stuff and danced in celebration of our luck!
Most boats at this standard are usually full of much older, wealthier people but we were so lucky to have a whole boat of people under the age of 35, except 2 grumpy Germans…haha. We ultimately bonded well with a top english couple with a good sense of humour; Louise and Leigh who were enjoying a few months in central and south America on their honeymoon.
We flew into Baltra on Santa Maria, an island close to San Cristobel which is one of the biggest Islands in Galapagos where we were taken to the other side of the island to see some Giant Galapagos Land Tortoises and to check into the boat.
It is so hard to sufficiently describe the next 3 days as it was like nothing we have even seen or experienced. Mornings started at 7am with a 3 course breakfast of fruit, hot breakfast and coffee. We would then snorkel for a few hours and swim and play with baby sea lions. Our guide Pepe born in the Galapagos with 9 years experience knew his stuff when it came to the history, geography,geology, flora and fauna of the area which really helped improved our knowledge. We wont add all the details on the blog but it really is fascinating and worth a few google searches of your own to learn about Darwin and the Galapagos plus the under water currents that produce such an amazing environment. The days also included island walks where we would see sea lions, Galapagos sea iguanas, boobies red and blue feet plus Nasca boobies (we were tempted to buy the tourist t-shirt “I love boobies!”), flamingos, frigate birds, hawks and the list goes on with way to many varieties to mention here. What impressed us was the amazing diversity and healthy populations of animals here surely something worth saving from humans and other introduced animals.
On the snorkeling side we visited the Devils Crown (an inactive underwater volcano) which was pretty impressive, we saw some lazy looking white tip reef sharks, a vast array of fish, a poisonous sea snake or two and many other marine life I wont mention. Now the toughest statement we have to make on the snorkeling in Galapagos and at risk of sounding strongly patriotic is that it was ok but visibility was at times poor and the marine life in volume was not that great…the benchmark we used however was the Great Barrier Reef in Australia which in our experience is still number one for marine life in terms of volume and colour of what you see (happy to be corrected here if someone has been else where in the world they can recommend is better!).
So in summary the initial 4 days of sun, eating, swimming were world class and highly recommended…a point worth making is that they are now year on year heavily reducing the numbers of people who can visit Galapagos – somewhere about 120,000 can visit now per year compared to 180,000 last year and the cut is due to happen again so long story short get to Galapagos SOON before it disappears (theories depict this as possible) or truly becomes a more expensive elitest holiday.
What makes Galapapos special is its uniqueness and from a point of view of the animals they were safe in the presence of humans as we weren’t actively hunting them for food or other malicious purposes…this was something we will never forget.
After the 4 day tour we spent a further two nights on San Cristobal in Galapagos eating, drinking, swimming (see the theme here?) and we also went on a day trip with a bunch of divers to a place called Kicker Rock, an amazingly tall volcanic rock island protruding from the water with animals again in abaundance. Here we snorkeled with many sharks in dark waters which was frightening at best! We were explaining to the locals that we can never get out of our minds the idea of the murderous great white sharks back home and the Jaws movies of course, I guess it didn’t help when they made Jaws music as we entered the water! So another negative here was that after speaking to the divers they mentioned it wasn’t that great in visibility but as they say its luck of the draw with the ocean as some days its clear and you can see the bottom.
So Galapagos finally drew to a close sadly but it left us with an experience which arguably was the top of the pile for the trip so far.
To view pictures click
Monday, 8 June 2009
Saying goodbye to the Peruvian beaches was hard as we had grown accustomed to the days of swimming, reading and eating but we knew we had some great things ahead in Ecuador.
Today we were celebrating our second last over night bus….at this stage we really felt our patience was on its last legs with regards to night buses. We arrived at the Ecuador border about 1am which was a complete shambles. There was no understanding by anyone (travelers or staff) on the process of leaving Peru and entering Ecuador, none the less we made it through with only one small hiccup, Simon Passport. Simon had received a new Passport in Peru (the old one had been filled), therefore he had his entry stamp in his old passport which is now invalid, so the man was not happy in the slightest to see his new passport with no entry stamp. After much raised voices, Simon instructed him to stamp an entry and exit stamp on his new visa….Sorted!
As usual, we arrived early morning into our destination of Vilcabamba; a small town in Southern Ecuador which is mainly run by Germans/Americans. It is set in the most beautiful undulating lush hills. We had heard about this gorgeous place through other travellers for its spa resort style accommodation on backpacker prices.
With no reservation made at one of the nicest places in town Izcaluma Resort, we were happy to wait around and see if anything would become available. As luck happens, we were upgraded to the Luxury suite for the night at 20usd….bargain. Tish did some GREAT wangling with the manager to stay in the room for the next 3 nights for 40usd a night. Happy Days! This room was amazing. With 180degrees of views and glass windows to view, hammock in the bedroom, mirrors on the roof above the bed (shock horror!) it was heaven.
A cheeky massage for us both and a facial for Tish, and we were back on track after another tiresome overnight bus.
Vilcabamba is known for it’s stunning, self guided treks, so Simon and I headed off the next day. With a late start and a 4 hour hike in 30+ heat we took our time. This hike runs through some tough terrain, steep slopes but the views at this top were magnificent. Once you are at the top, it is about 1 hour of walking on the peaks of the hills with drops off each side. This trek for us was one of the most stunning, rewarding walks we have done so far.
The food, atmosphere and customer service at our resort was out of this world. Highly recommended!
With yet another horrid bus journey over night, we made it to
Huanchaca early morning. It is a very sleepy beach town with very
little to do but
After checking in to at hostel called ¨My Friend¨, we caught up on the usual
few hours sleep before we began the day. The hostel is a beach bum hangout
stop with double room for 20 sol a night ) about 5 pounds and a killer
breakfast of fresh fruit, toast and eggs for about 1.50.
As mentioned, there really isn´t much to do in this town, which was really
just what we were after as we decided against any more mountains or trekking
for this trip so get got straight into the surf school. Our teacher was the
brother of Peru´s junior champion....so we were feeling a little intimidated
at this stage but soon enough we were happy to get down to business. With
only Simon and I in the school we had one on one teaching with some of the
biggest boards I have seen.
After the first 2 abysmal attempts on tiny waves, Simon and I were up
standing by wave 3.....very impressed. In 2 hours we were hooked!
In Huanchaca we decided to finally celebrate our engagement with a seafood
lunch. Since it happened we had been on back to back tours and buses. So we
stuffed ourselves with Prawns, Squid and fish....still nothing compared to
After 3 days of catching up on rest and emails we were ready to move onto
another sleepy beach town...Mancora towards the Ecuadorian border.
Mancora is well known through the backpackers trail so it was much more
commercial than the last 3 days which was a little disappointing but the
beaches were a little more picturesque and the food amazing. We found a
great breakfast cafe called Green Eggs and Ham that we made our morning
Our first 2 nights were in a party hostel called Loki, which is
becoming a popular
chain around south America. We had a moment of thinking we should get in
with the young crowd and be cool but as soon as we arrived we realised why
we have stayed clear of any popular backpackers joint. Big mistake! After
night 2 we really wern´t keen to stay on due to the loud music and
party atmosphere (are we getting too old?!) so moved down the road to
hostel called La Casa del Turista where it was a family run place. Cute
clean and friendly, right on the beach. Mancora was another
cute little beach town where surfers come to relax (and party) but
with a little more
night life. We were there to surf, swim, sleep and just truly wind
Highly suggested place to visit to get some of Perus stunning beaches
which to be honest are most often overlooked on the gringo trail and
most dont know they exist.
Thursday, 30 April 2009
- Seeing Russ and Bobby for one night on their way to La Paz - having cold celebration beers on arrival, a good dinner, good company, wine and an awesome meringue.
- We stayed in a chilled Hostel in Miraflores (Inka Lounge) - met many good travellers from around the world including those volunteers helping out the Peruvian town Pisco which was levelled by an earthquake almost 2 years ago. Thanks to Ryan from South Africa for good laughs and use of his laptop!
- Spoke Spanish, Spanglish, German, English and Portugese to a guy from Portugal to communicate! ha!
- Had a nice walk with Tish overlooking the beach
- Talking to Mum and Dad! (Mr and Mrs Peric)
- Picking up Simons renewed passport safely from the Australian Embassy (the old one ran out of pages!) - soooo good to see Australian newspapers and tourism brochures at the embassy.
- Overcast weather
- Simon got a horrid bug that put him in bed for a good part of a day or 2. Part and parcel of travelling - this one was a shocker!
- Missing out on a great seafood restaurant by the sea due to said bug.
- Crap internet connection at the hostel preventing blogging and photos posting by Tish while simon was in bed...boo!