A Cuban Christmas

We left Mexico sad to say goodbye but excited at the prospect of seeing Rose’s family in Cuba. We landed in the capital, Havana, as the sun was setting and were immediately taken aback by its contrast to Cancun. Where Cancun airport was host to designer shops and rich American tourists, Havana appeared harsh and outdated, its faded red walls a metaphor for the country’s struggling communism.

Despite 3 months of travelling we would be lying if we said Cuba did not come as a culture shock. The impact of half a century of communism and strict sanctions has made day-to-day life very difficult for those who remain there. Long queues can be seen outside every public building, with locals diligently waiting to enter supermarkets whose shelves are virtually empty. The strict control of internet has meant contact with the outside world is heavily restricted, with locals struggling to contact family members in neighbouring Miami fortunate enough to have left the country. The food leaves a lot to be desired—its incredibly bland nature arising from a scarcity of ingredients—and generally revolved around dishes containing meat, beans and rice. Additionally, the introduction of a dual currency system in 1994 only emphasises the divide between tourists and locals.

The knock-on effect of this is a soured attitude shown by a large number of Cubans towards tourists. It was rare that we felt we were not trying to be cheated out of our money, and when it was clear that we did not agree with proposed exorbitant prices people would very quickly lose interest. Perhaps the bitterness arises out of the assumption that outside of Cuba people are made of money; however, it inevitably left us with a negative view of the people.

That being said, Cuba itself is beautiful—a pastiche of crumbling colonial buildings and 1950’s Chevrolet’s. The photogenic old town of Havana is an assault on the senses, with Afro-Cuban mambo and rhumba blaring from every bar and restaurant. The cigars are cheap and the rum is cheaper, offering endless opportunities for fun. The long stretch of ocean boulevard which frames the city known as the Malecon made for beautiful sunsets, the silhouettes of countless fishing rods providing a memorable sight.

Bypassing the better known beach resort of Varadero, we spent our second week in Cuba in Guanabo. Situated only a short drive away from Havana, the neighbouring town is a favourite holiday destination for Cubanos and a much more low-key spot to enjoy the country’s stunning beaches. Grateful to escape the overwhelming buzz of Havana, our second week allowed us to enjoy the beach and make the most of our time with Rose’s family.

Being able to enjoy Cuba with Rose’s family was very special and made Christmas a much more enjoyable affair. We were incredibly lucky they agreed to come out and meet us and I hope they had as much fun as we did. Sadly though this meant it was that much harder to say goodbye. After two great weeks, we put on a brave face, said our farewells and looked forward to Colombia.

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Tulum

Our last real stop in Mexico we were initially taken aback by how touristy Tulum was. Holiday goers out numbered Mexicans and we saw numerous people paying in US dollars. Despite this and a considerable spike in costs of things we adjusted quite quickly. We split our days by sightseeing in the morning and going to be beach in the afternoon. The first day we went to the Tulum ruins. Tulum was one of the last cities inhabited by the Mayas surviving for around 70 years after the spanish started to occupy Mexico.

It was really nice seeing the temple right next to the sea and the ideas behind the sunrise and moon felt very akin to somewhere like Stonehenge. We arrived first thing in the morning and the light was incredible with no one else there- by the time we were leaving the droves of tourists arrived.

We went to Akumal which is known for turtles grazing on sea grass. We were excited to snorkel in the hope of seeing them- which we did. It was amazing, they are only about 1.5 meters down feeding on the grass below and coming up for air every few minutes, which was our favourite thing to see- it was quite funny! These turtles were the same species that we released in Bacocho a couple of weeks before. We also saw sting rays- Rose wasn’t as keen.

Before flying to Cuba for Christmas to meet Roses family we spent a night in Cancun with Rose’s work friend Jo with her husband Joe, who are also on their ‘honeymoon’. We drank lots of a delicious cocktail made by Joe with Mezcal, Mint, Agave syrup, and water. It was so nice catching up- revelling at the idea that it was just a few days before Christmas and it couldn’t feel less christmassy.

Bacalar

After yet another night bus- we arrived in the early hours of the morning in bacalar, the lake of seven colours. Arriving at our hostel knackered- our hearts dropped as the hostel was dirty, staff unfriendly and everyone seemed to be ill. We swiftly went to look for other options and luckily found a lovely hostel down the road with an available room. Sadly the weather wasn’t great initially but the lake was still stunning. We went for a little explore on the lake with a pedalo- but returned when it started to rain. Hopeful that the rain would stop we booked a stand up paddle board tour for sunrise the next day. Paddle boarding was so much fun and calming way to start the day. The water looked like a mirror as the sun rose, we made our way to bird island where the birds sounded like pigs. Before heading to the black cenote, a sink hole that is so deep all you can see is black. The difference in depth throughout the whole lake creates so many different colours, varying from crystal clear turquoise, deeper greens, electric blues and completely black.
We also visited cenote azul, which is connected to the main lake by underground waterways. It was so beautiful- almost perfectly round and about 100m in diameter. The water is so fresh and was so nice to swim in. In typical fashion the sun only shone on the day we were leaving but the lake was still beautiful, and somehow unbelievable that it even exists.

El Roble—a touch of paradise in Paraguay

El Roble has probably been our favourite place so far. Run by an East German who made his way to Paraguay after the fall of the Berlin wall, it translates as the oak—Germany’s national tree. After a few years of “interesting” jobs in Paraguay, he bought a plot of land just outside the northern city of Concepción that was dry, difficult to farm and had no running water. One of the first things he planted was an oak tree, from seeds that his mother brought over from Germany.

Fast forward 20 years and he has gradually turned a desolate piece of land into a thriving paradise, with copious amounts of trees, plants and wildlife. After building a number of simple jungle lodges, he started to have guests to stay. I (Rose) managed to find out about it by one of my frequent and very random google searches. Usually they are quite fruitless; however, this was quite the opposite!

We arrived at El Roble on a Tuesday evening. We got out of the taxi after a long and hot bus journey and were pretty gobsmacked by how stunning the place was. The sun had just gone down, so we couldn’t soak up too much that evening, but immediately the farm had a relaxed, friendly atmosphere.

Having met Peter—the owner—and another couple of travellers, we shared a well-earned beer and supper with them. It felt like a real treat after travelling a lot over the last 7 or so days.

We went to sleep to the sound of frogs all around us. We were sleeping in a little cabin, but luckily it had air conditioning. This was something we were thrilled about as Paraguay’s temperature regularly hits the mid-forties.

Waking up the next day was really exciting. We both woke quite early, probably as we were excited to explore. At breakfast we got a real feel what the farm was about: home-baked bread, home-made cheese, cream, and home-cured and reared bacon, along with freshly laid eggs.

The garden has an incredible diversity of plants, trees and flowers. There is so much to look at: 40 foot bamboo, orchids growing on top of trees, numerous succulents and a wild flower bed to top it off!

Staying at El Roble was pretty inspiring, from their almost self-sufficiency to their bio-filtered water system. Not only this, but Peter is an extraordinary person. Having told us numerous stories, it was amazing to hear how he grew up up with so many restrictions but always strived for freedom.

We enjoyed El Roble so much that we stayed for 8 nights, the longest we have stayed anywhere yet.

Asunción

Asunción was our first stop in Paraguay; we crossed the border on a bus. We were slightly nervous in doing so as we were the only tourists on the bus and had to go through immigration unlike everyone else. We crossed the border in the evening, which normally would have been fine but there was a power cut which meant we were shuffled along and got our passports stamped in the almost pitch black.

Arriving at a lovely hostel in the evening we instantly felt relaxed in Paraguay’s capital city. The people were very friendly and chatty, the city was energetic but not overwhelming. We went to a restaurant for food—we were both thrilled as they had IPA on tap and hefeweizen beer. While at the hostel we were able to get our clothes properly washed at a launderette—the first time in a while.

The next day we ventured out and soon realised that the weather was not ideal. Close to 40 degrees with high humidity, we had to return to the hostel a couple of times for cold showers! Although there is little in the way of sights in Asunción besides the Government palace and a few museums, the city has a much more laid back atmosphere than Buenos Aires.

Taking it easy any enjoying the relaxed way of life in Paraguay, we decided to go out to a bar that evening which felt more like Berlin than a city in South America. Already we had a really good feeling about Paraguay and were excited to move on to our next destination, Concepción!