Travel Blog for Fredrik and Gunnhild

2011 Cuba and Mexico

Planning Cuba and Mexico

One week until we travel to Cuba and Mexico!

The trip will start in Havana the 11th of November, we have booked a hotel for 3 days. After Havana we have booked a car, our plan is to drive to Viñales, Matanzas, Santa Clara, Trinidad, Cienfuegos, Bay of Pigs and back to Havana

From Havana we will fly to Cancun in Mexico, since this is a place for party and charter we decided to find a hotel in Tulum, a bit south west of Cancun. In Tulum we are close to many of the Maya sites in the region.

This is the plan one week before we leave, where we will go and how things will work out we will find out as we go 🙂 The update on this site will be limited during this trip because it is hard to find internet on Cuba.

Map Cuba/Mexico 2011 >>

Arriving in Havana

We had a nice flight to Havana, without any big issues. The airplane clock did say it was 2000, while waiting at our bags, Gunnhild saw a clock saying it was 2100, but we agreed that the airplane clock probably was right. We arrived in a taxi at hotel Deauville around 2200 and was happy with that. The next day we got up at 0900 for breakfast, but when we went down to the breakfast area we were told that the breakfast was closing at 1000, so the airplane clock was wrong 🙁 .

We decided to walk to the old Havana along the Malecon (costal road), we did not go long before a guy (Jorge Antonio) came up to us and started to talk about showing us around the city. After a while we agreed to go with him to a place that should play salsa, but when we arrived there was no salsa, but they would be start playing around 1500. We had a Mojito before he showed us to a paladar (private restaurant) that served us good breakfast. During breakfast we agreed to a guided tour around Havana the next day, and continued to explore the city center on our own. After a while we met a young couple that had their ten year anniversary, that took us to a local café where an 85 year old from Buena vista social club and his band had a small concert.

Later in the day we had a drink at the terrace at hotel Lincoln, where we met two Norwegians couples and their daughters that we exchange students for 3 months. We had a bad dinner in a bar on San Rafael street, but after the dinner we had a lot of fun trying to dance salsa with the locals and drinking cheap rum.

When we got back to the hotel we stopped by in the lobby bar, and started talking to a German girl (Ute) that was traveling on her own for about 4 mounts.

Havana sightseeing

We started the day with breakfast at 0900 and went out to meet our guide Jorge around 1000. He told us that daylight saving time ended and the time was 0900. We walked a few blocks to our car for the day, an old Opel, but the clutch did not work, so we got an old Buick instead. We drove around for 5 hours to Plaza De La Revolución, Hemmingway Marina, the Cigar factory, Necrópolis Colón, Rum Factory, Hemingway Museum and other nice parks and view points. The last stop was Castillo Del Morro with a nice view of Havana. We had lunch at a charming paladar, where we had sea food, sugar cane juice and fresh coconut.

After a Bucanero (local beer) by the hotel pool, we did some more sightseeing around Plaza De Armas and Plaza De La Catedral. We stopped by La Bodeguita Del Medio, Hemingway’s favorite Mojito bar.

We walked along the boulevard Paseo Del Prado, and discovered a hidden salsa place with only locals. We came a bit too late because they were closing after 10 minutes there, but we had already made friends (Karina and Roberto) and they took us to a night club.

Havana – Pinar Del Rio

We picked up our car at 1100 a bit delayed because no one was at the car rental desk. After studying the map briefly we decided it was time to go! All guides and taxi drivers that we talked to was saying that we would have trouble getting out of Havana without help, but in spite of construction work we found the autopista at first try!

The autopista is something for it self, 6 lanes with hardly any cars, but plenty of horse carriages, bicyclists, hitchhikers, domestic animals crossing and potholes everywhere.

Gunnhild held track of the side roads so we would not miss the exit for Las Terrazas, witch was a tiny crossing with no signs at all.

Las Terrazas is a community built for the farmers by the government in 1968 and are surrounded by pine trees. On the way through Soroa to the autopista we drove trough a landslide which had taken all the road, but we managed to get past even with our small Hyundai.

On our way into Pinar Del Rio a bicyclist stop us and asked if he should guide us to the city center. He led us to an English speaking friend and they showed us a great Paladar where we had lunch. for a couple beers they also help us find a Casa Particular (Guesthouse) which was good since the entire city was fully booked. In the evening we walked down the main street and looked for a nice bar to relax with a mojito. We met Daniel who showed us his fathers restaurant one block outside the main street. He had a great terrace with two rocking chairs where we stayed all night talking to the owner José, drinking all kinds of drinks, and when we asked for an 7 year old rum which he didn’t have, he ran out and bought a bottle. We gave away a lot of pens, paper and flashlights to the kids eating in his restaurant and after being totally immersed for a long time we got lots of greetings and drawings back.

Viñales

In the morning we drove to the Viñales valley, famous for it’s beautiful landscape with mogotes and caves. We stopped at an information center / view point just before we entered the valley. From there we drove to Mural de la Prehistoria, a big painting on the wall of a mogote. We continued to Cueva del Indio, a large cave where we walked for 200 meters before taking a boat ride on the underground river San Vicente.

In Cueva de José Miguel we had a local drink which they tried to convince us to have with rum even if we were driving. We walked into the museum through the cave which was used as shelter for runaway slaves (cimarrones) and today shows how they lived. At the other side we were welcomed with an African dance by the restaurant which is built around the santeria religion. We were transported back to the car in a horse carriage.

On our way back to Pinar del Rio, we stopped for lunch at a restaurant a bit above the information center. We had a really good and very cheap omelet that was not on the menu, and enjoyed the view of the valley from their spectacular terrace.

Back in Pinar del Rio we went straight to José’s restaurant to pick up him and Daniel. We arrived a bit early and José took us to a local coffee place where he bought us coffee and iguana juice. When Daniel arrived we drove to a tobacco plantation, and to get there we had to drive over fields and pass ox wagons on tiny dirt roads. First we visited a private house where they rolled us a cigar each. These were made of left-over leaves which was not completely fermented, but they still tasted great. Then we were showed around a casa del tobacco where the leaves were dried and prepared before being sorted by quality and sent to the factory.

After a little mojito break at our casa particular we went to meet José and Daniel again. This time we had to wait for José because he was out getting us a salsa cd for the car. He was tired after bicycling, so we took a bici-taxi to the paladar where we had dinner. The waitress was borrowing our Spanish-English dictionary and was taking notes, so we decided to give it to her before we left.

We spent the rest of the evening with José and Daniel in a very local bar, drinking rum from Viñales, smoking cigars and listening to European music from our cell phones. After a while we had to close all doors and windows because the government was spraying the entire city with insect repellant. A lot of locals came by the bar, and a young girl and her father sang a beautiful duet for us. When it was time to go home, José insisted on paying the bill.

Pinar del Rio-Havana-Cardenas

When leaving Pinar del Rio we had a short stop at José’s place. The reason for this was that the people on the tobacco plantation had clothes full of holes, and Daniel had agreed to bring them a few t-shirts and other presents from us. As we got there we played the salsa cd on high volume, and José wouldn’t let us leave without buying us coffee.

After 2,5 hours we arrived in Havana to pick up Ute, the German girl we met a few days ago. We drove to Matanzas, where we had lunch at a bad restaurant and decided to go further to Cardenas. There we found a fantastic casa particular with a swimming pool, jacuzzi and the most charming and helpful host Angelo. We had an amazing dinner there with fruit, soup, fresh lobster and cake for only 10 CUC/USD. We also got Spanish red wine and good mojitos. After a long day of driving we decided to take it slow and relax at the casa.

Cardenas-Trinidad

We had a big breakfast by the pool before we walked to the city center of Cardenas, where we had a guided tour of the main sights. There were hardly any cars in the city, even the local buses were horse carriages, and we took one of these back to the casa.

Angelo told us that it should be possible to reach Trinidad in two hours if we skipped Santa Clara which was the original plan. After a long and confusing drive through the citrus plantations we finally reached the autopista after 3 hours. The locals guided us in all different directions, probably based on the quality of the roads. When we left the autopista and turned towards Trinidad we picked up a hitchhiker going to Cienfuegos. Just after Cienfuegos we stopped for a new hitchhiker who wanted to bring his whole family in our small car. We said only one, and he came with us to Trinidad. On the way there we had a flat tire, but Fredrik and the hitchhiker fixed it in a few minutes.

Five hours after we started from Cardenas we finally arrived in Trinidad just when it was getting dark. We had quite a bit of trouble finding a casa, since everything was full. But at El Chef they had one room for us and Ute got to stay in a private bed downstairs. Again we had a fantastic dinner at the casa, this time with Cuban red wine from Soroa.

Trinidad day 1

We woke up early because of the neighbor’s rooster. Even though we loved our hosts and the backyard we decided to move to a different casa where they had availability for more days. Mirella e Ivan was only a block away so we we still went back to El Chef for laundry. The three of us had the were the only guests and had the whole second floor including a nice terrace to our selves. After checking in we drove 4 km to Casilda to get our spare tire fixed, but the mechanic was at lunch so we had to come back later. We went for a city sightseeing with Ute for a few hours, walked around Plaza Mayor, visited a small museum and climbed the bell tower for nice views of Trinidad. Later we went back to Casilda and got the tire fixed, and then we parked the car for the day and had a few Cuba Libre on our terrace (2 USD for 1/2 bottle of white rum!).

In the evening we found a really nice Paladar named La Ceiba where we had soup, amazing shrimps, fruit, desert and Cuban wine for almost nothing. We started talking to Peter from Germany who was sitting next to us alone. He was bicycling around on Cuba on his own. We spent the evening at Casa de la Musica, where a live band was playing in the middle of the huge stairs and both locals and tourists were dancing salsa. The stairs were full of people watching and/or drinking.

Trinidad day 2

We had a late breakfast and decided to spend a day on the beach. We ended up at Playa Ancon, which is in the hotel area, but there were hardly any people on the beach. We did some snorkeling but there was not much to see, and we also had a bit of clouds. But it was nice with a relaxing day, where we were served pizza for 1 USD. We were also offered fresh lobster for 7 USD from the son of a fisherman that was out fishing, but we decided to go to the great paladar from last night instead.

After a shower and a drink at the casa we went out to eat. We had a little trouble finding the place, so we agreed to look at few other paladares that people offered on the street before we were offered the right one. It was obvious that it was popular, because the didn’t have any tables left when we got there, but they managed to squeeze a spare table in in the back yard. While waiting we had a drink and suddenly noticed that Peter was there as well. After yet another amazing dinner he joined us to Casa de la Musica where we sat in the stairs watching the salsa dancers. At midnight we celebrated Ute’s birthday. Fredrik tried to by her a fancy drink, but the best they could offer was a straw. We still had a great evening and got to bed quite late.

Trinidad day 3

We were recommended by a lot of people to take the old steam train from Trinidad to Valle de los Ingenios, so this was our plan for the day. We got up early and asked Iván if it was possible to buy some flowers for Ute’s birthday. Mirrella quickly showed up with some freshly picked flowers from one of the neighbours’ gardens that we put on Ute’s place at the breakfast table. At 0930 we boarded the train from 1906 with open carriages and a small bar in the middle carriage. We moved slowly up the valley, stopped a few places to fill water and pick up some locals. At one point the track was a bit too steep for the train, so they had to put coal on the tracks to get us moving.

Our first main stop was Manaca Iznaga where we had an hour to explore and climb the famous Manaca Iznaga Tower, once used to watch the slaves on the plantations. On the way back we stopped for lunch at a ranch and for a toilet stop in another small city. Here we gave away a few pens to a kid waving to us, and suddenly all the kids in the neighborhood was surrounding the train. Luckily we brought a lot of pens…

On the train we met Anthony and Martine from the UK, and shared a lot of travel experiences. They are travelling for up to six months in Middle and South America. After the train ride that arrived at 4 pm instead of 2 pm as expected, we invited them for a drink on our terrace. We had a great time and they almost forgot that they had to pack before leaving to Cienfuegos.

We had a quiet evening with dinner at the casa. In spite of the language barrier we had a long conversation with our hosts and they showed us pictures from their trip to Switzerland, where the highlight seemed to be that they saw snow for the first time.We also managed to explain that we wanted to go snorkeling or scuba diving at the reef if possible, and it turned out that they had a friend who was a diving instructor and he came over 10 minutes later. We agreed on a dive the next day, so we took an early evening.

Trinidad day 4

Our dive instructor, Pedro, picked us up at the casa and we drove to La Boca in our car to pick up the diving equipment. We continued to a small beach between La Boca and Ancon where the reef was really close to the shore. Except from two Swiss girls we were all alone on the beach. We started with some snorkeling while they were diving, and then Pedro took Ute out for a dive. She was a bit worried, but he was very calm, patient and professional so she had a great experience. We also brought our new underwater camera, and Pedro was documenting Ute’s dive. The two of us had a great dive with dive master Mandi. We went down to 8 meters and Mandi caught two lobsters with his spear. He also took plenty of pictures, and they were both very excited and a bit jealous. We agreed with Pedro that he could come to the casa to get a copy of the pictures.

When we got back to the casa we ordered soup for dinner, thinking it would be a light meal. Mirella and Ivan were in Havana fixing some papers after their trip to Switzerland, so the neighbor made a large bowl of chicken soup for us. While we were sitting in the kitchen going through the dive pictures we smelled something great being cooked somewhere, and Ute went down to ask what it was. Luckily it turned out to be our dinner!

Pedro came by later with a USB-stick borrowed from a friend of a friend, and he was very happy to get the pictures. We also agreed on another dive early the next morning. In the evening we finished the rum, went out to by more but the store was closed. So we had to open a couple of the souvenir bottles bought in Havana.

Trinidad&Cienfuegos

Since we stayed a few days longer in Trinidad than originally planned we ran out of money, and there were no ATM’s in the city. We got up early to go to the bank, but got bad directions and ended up in the wrong bank where they only exchanged money. With all our Euros and a small loan from Ute we managed to pay for the casa and still have money left for the dive. This morning there were a lot more people on the beach since one of the big Ancon Hotels had an organized snorkeling trip. There was also a few more scuba divers. Again Pedro took Ute for a dive and borrowed our camera which now was set to video.

Since we did quite well on our first dive, Mandi took us out to 7 meters depth before going down. At 10 meters we left our camera in a coral since it couldn’t go deeper and we dived through a tunnel out to the reef edge where it was several hundred meters deep. Fredrik brought his computer to the beach so that we could copy the movies onto Pedro’s memory stick. The only problem was that the movies were 6 times bigger than the memory stick, so we ended up giving away a couple of memory cards.

We went back to the casa for a shower and a very late check-out, and after so many great days it was hard to say goodbye. We drove 1 hour to Cienfuegos where Mirella and Ivan had booked a casa for us. When we got there the owner was waiting for us, and told us he had no water so he would help us find a different place to stay. We ended up in two different casas owned by two sisters. Ute got a room at Barbara’s and we stayed at Maritza’s. After getting settled we went over to Barbara’s since she was known to make the best mojitos in Cienfuegos, and they were probably right! After a couple of mojitos and a nice chat with two newlyweds from Argentina, we went to Maritza’s for a lobster dinner and some red wine.

Cienfuegos + Santa Clara

We decided to take a day trip to Santa Clara which was the site of the last battle in the Cuban revolution in 1958. The roads from Cienfuegos to Santa Clara goes through a lot of small villages, and since it was quite early in the morning there were people and animals everywhere and a lot to see and a lot to pay attention to. We stopped at the main attraction, the Che Guevara monument. We tried to go to the museum, but with a lot of tour busses and school excursions the line was too long for us.

We continued to the city center where we stopped in Parque Vidal before going to the Parque del Tren blindado. On our way back we stopped at the Che Guevara monument again, and this time there were no lines. We were also surprised to see that both the museum and the mausoleum had free entry.

Back in Cienfuegos we went for a walk in the old town, before catching a bicycle taxi to La Punta. We had a drink there before walking to Palacio del Valle. Sadly the terrace was closed for renovation, so we only got to take some pictures from the outside. We also went to a nearby park which had a lot of sculptures made of recycled bikes, radiators and other stuff.

After yet another very good and too big dinner at the casa, Gunnhild went to bed while Fredrik had a beer with Maritza and her teacher in Italian.

Cienfuegos

We started the day at the delfinarium, where Gunnhild and Ute had a swim with the dolphins. When we got there a group of 8 were already in the water, but only one more person showed up after we arrived so we were only 3 people swimming with 2 dolphins. In the beginning it was mainly a photo shoot with kissing and clapping for the camera. Later we got to play and swim around more, and the highlight was standing on the tip of the dolphins’ noses.

We drove out to the entrance of the Cienfuegos Bay where we could see over to Castillo de Jagua, the fortress on the other side and also had a nice view over the bay towards Cienfuegos city.

Back at the casa we managed to get our host Maritza (who didn’t speak English) to help us book a hotel in Havana, copy the dolphinarium pictures from a CD, agree on take-away-breakfast for the next morning and find the most scenic route to Havana. We went to the main street, bought a beer and sat down on a bench watching people and cars. We met Ute at 18 and went to an Italian restaurant where we had a great dinner with wine and paid 15 USD for all three.

While walking around trying to find a nice bar we met a local named Ricardo. After asking where we were from, he told us he had a brother in Røros. We went to a small, local bar for some drinks and a great conversation. We had a good laugh when Ricardo told us that he learned that Norwegians got “drita full” (very, very drunk) on the weekends.

Cienfuegos – Havana

At 0900 we left Cienfuegos and drove via Bay of Pigs towards Havana. We might have missed something, but we didn’t find any nice places on this route. It was mostly forests with no views and tourist resorts wherever we got close to the ocean. We ended up stopping at a banana plantation by the autopista to eat our take-away breakfast.

We arrived in Havana at 1400 and went straight to Hotel Lincoln where we had booked a cheap room. We delivered our rental car without any problems, and tried to get on the internet for the first time in two weeks. It took us 30 minutes to check one email and book a shuttle for Mexico. Really slow!

Back at the hotel we met up with Peter and Ute. He took us to Plaza Vieja, a really nice square in the old town with a brewery pub where we sat down for a few beers and a small dinner. We walked a bit around in Havana, and took a goodbye drink with Peter at the hotel before he left for the airport.

Havana – Tulum

Suddenly it was our last day in Cuba and we had to split up to get everything done. Gunnhild went out shopping while Fredrik shared pictures with Ute. We took a taxi to the airport and were informed that our flight time had changed 1 hour. Later we realized that we received an email about this 10 days earlier, but internet in Cuba was so slow that we did not bother to use it. When we finally boarded the plane we were another hour and a half delayed, but we arrived in Mexico only two hours late. We also got through passport control and customs really quickly, and our bags were already on the belt.

We had to wait 20 minutes for our shuttle, and stopped at two resorts and in Playa del Carmen on our way to Tulum. Our driver was obviously tired and drove very fast so we arrived in Tulum 2 hours after leaving the airport. He had a little trouble finding our hotel, but after asking around he found it just off the main street. We were welcomed by our host Tom, who showed us our large double room with a small kitchen and a cozy terrace. He gave us a map of the area and a lot of information about sights, restaurants, beaches etc.

At Posada Luna del Sur we had all the luxury we missed in Cuba, like fresh drinking water, English speaking hosts and of course free wireless internet! After a quick internet session we went up to the terrace where we had a few beers with Linda and Penny from the US. Tom’s father Graham also showed up, so we ended up having a very late dinner at Charlie’s.

Tulum day 2

After a very good night’s sleep we went up to the terrace for a Mexican breakfast (including tortillas and salsa of course). There was a short rainfall just after breakfast, so we spent some time blogging before going out to explore the city. We found a cozy Mexican/Cuban bar (Caribe Swing) with pictures of Che Guevara on the wall, and had to take a couple of beers there before we went out to rent bicycles for the next days.

We ended up bicycling down to the beach where we had nachos, guacamole and some drinks at a small beach resort. Back in the city we went shopping for snorkeling gear, before we went back to the hotel to relax before dinner. We ended up at the small restaurant El Capitan, and while we were there Anthony & Martine that we met in Trinidad showed up. We had a beer with them and agreed to meet them again the next day.

We were told that there was a great salsa party every Sunday at La Zebra on the beach, so we took a taxi there. We were a little bit disappointed after our salsa experiences in Cuba, so we went back to the hotel and ended the evening on the terrace.

Tulum day 3

Since we agreed with Penny to share a taxi to Coba, we got up early and were picked up at 0830. It took about 40 minutes to get there, and there were hardly any cars in the parking area. We had a 45 minutes guided tour of the main sites, before going on our own through the jungle to the highest temple the second highest Mayan temple (Nohoch Mul – 42 meters). This is the only temple you are allowed to climb, and it will probably be closed off next year. Of course we climbed to the top where we were astonished that there were hardly any wind although it was quite windy down below. On the way back we stopped by several other ruins, where the most impressive ones were the watch tower and the ball court.

Back in Tulum we had lunch at Pollo Bronco which is a local restaurant that buys fresh chicken in the morning and closes when they are sold out. Highly recommended! After more than two weeks of travelling we needed some European food, and ended up in an Italian restaurant and had great pizzaa bottle of Montepulciano red wine.

After dinner we met Anthony and Martine in Caribe Swing. Later we walked down the main street to find a more lively bar, but it was obviously a slow night in Tulum. We still had a great evening together, and look forward to keep in touch.

Tulum day 4

We woke up to a cold breeze from the north, so we decided to have a slow day. We did some sightseeing in the back streets of the city on our bicycles. Tulum is not a city with a lot of sights, but it is interesting to see Mayan houses mixed with modern Mexican buildings. Parts of the population in Tulum does not speak Spanish, only Mayan, and in addition to the famous Tulum ruins there are several Mayan sites in the city center. After brunch we bicycled out to the Tulum ruins (25 minutes) to get an overview.

We spent most of the evening in the terrace, and went to El Pator (known for the best tacos in town) for a late dinner with Penny & Linda. They were goooood! After an ice cream stop we went to a kiosk to buy a few beers. We were told that it was too late to buy beer, but after a short discussion we went home with a six pack of beer hidden in a cardboard box.

Tulum day 5

We checked out of the hotel at 11 and took a taxi to the beach. We walked along the beach checking prices and looking at the rooms. We ended up in a private cabana at Playa Azul with a small terrace with chairs and a hammock. We took a taxi back to Posada Luna del Sur to pick up our bags, but ended up having a beer on the terrace before saying goodbye. We were also treated with a fresh coconut from Tom’s Mayan neighbor. Back at the beach we went for a swim and tested our new masks and snorkels.

Before dinner we had a long walk on the beach with the jungle on one side and the Caribbean sea on the other. There were hardly any people and the sunset was magnificent. We had a great dinner at the terrace with only a small candle light on the table.

Tulum day 6

We got up early to beat the tourist buses to Tulum ruins, were there just after they opened at 8 and had the place pretty much to our selves. Tulum was an important port in the Mayan trade routes and is one of the best preserved costal Maya sites. The ruins are situated on 12 meter high cliffs and we took a swim from the beach to get the view from the sea side.

Back at the hotel we had a big breakfast with lots of fresh fruit, and then we went snorkeling for more than an hour. There were not too much fish in the area but we saw a few big ones, and discovered that cold water (probably from the cenotes) were coming up from the sea bed.

We were thinking of going snorkeling in a cenote, but ended up spending the afternoon relaxing on our sun beds drinking Piña Coladas. In the evening we tried out both Mexican and Mayan coffee, which the bartender mixed by our table in a spectacular way with lots of fire.

Tulum – Akumal

Tulum – Akumal

After breakfast we checked out and took a taxi to Akumal. We didn’t have any hotel booked, but had found one on the internet that looked promising (Vista del Mar in Half moon bay). Our taxi driver dropped us off there, and luckily they had a nice and cheap room for us right on the beach.

We haggled with a taxi driver and got a good price for a return drive to Aktun Chen, a national park just outside Akumal. There we had a guided snorkeling tour of a cenote, and were allowed to swim around as long as we wanted. Since the water in the cenotes is quite cold, we were ready to go back after about an hour.

We were back in Akumal around 1630, and decided to buy flippers and try to find the sea turtles by swimming from the beach. Since we only had about an hour before sunset we didn’t expect too much, but got really excited when we saw a turtle after only 10 minutes of snorkeling. Before we had to go back in we saw two other turtles, a stingray and lots of fish. Fun!

Playa Akumal

Sea Turtle, Playa Akumal