A Travellerspoint blog

26th February - 20th March, Guatemala

26th February
A small van, collected us and about 10 others from our hostel, and, with bags perched precariously on the roof, we started the journey that would eventually end in neighbouring Guatemala. The trip to the Mexican border town was uneventful and only involved one stop that allowed us to buy a couple of very expensive and rancid tasting banana milkshakes. Our bags were unloaded and, heaving them onto our backs we walked through the local market to the customs office. Plastic bags and paper packets were strewn all over the road. Old ladies sat in the dust amongst the litter and sold bead necklaces, holding small babies as they did so. The sun beat down and the breeze did nothing to ease the uncomfortable humidity, instead just whipping up the dust and blowing rubbish around our ankles and legs.

Mexico was beautiful, this town however, was not. Crossing the border proved very straightforward - no awkward questions about our schedule or parentage or why we were visiting as has been the case in other places. A Guatemalan stamp in our passports, a new bus, bags on top again - and we were off. Initially the bus had to negotiate narrow, steep, concrete streets for which the driver obviously felt the best approach was to drive as fast as possible and get it all over and done with quickly. We survived somehow. And then the road opened up just a little and endless Guatemalan hills stretched off in front of us. Apart from being squashed into a tiny seat and following enourmous trucks bellowing out clouds of black smoke the drive was very pleasant and late afternoon we arrived into Xela.

We checked into the Black Cat Hostel and then went a wandering. Our first impression of a Guatemalan town was not necessarily that positive - we needed money and each money machine we tried was behind locked doors and guarded by mean looking men with huge guns. There's certainly an 'edge' to the place. But, the main square near to where we stayed was busy and attractive. A religious parade (yet another saint of some sort...) trumpeted their way through the streets. Small children dressed in rather comic looking purple gowns were struggling to hold up some sort of papier mache model of this saint as they tried to keep up with the band.
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And, later on we found a little bar, the local beer was tasty enough - well, all lager tastes the same anyway...! And we ate at Salon Tacun.

27th February
A lazy day. Well, we had one or two things to organise. A simple job such as sending some post ended up taking a fair amount of the morning - a little harsh perhaps, as sleeping in and breakfast had also taken up a lot of time. A hike was then organised for the following day, booking of future hotels, a haircut, etc etc...... It was very nice getting a few little things organised and walking about the small town in the sun. We ate at Cafe Babylon. I opted for something local - Guatemalan chicken in red sauce. There were no lies I suppose - a dish with a bit of sad looking chicken smothered in a bland red sauce appeared. Marsha's salad was far better.

28th February and 1st/2nd March
A van picked us up at the crack of dawn and drove 30 mins outside of Xela to the start of our walk. The 'walk' was in fact going to be a 3 day trek taking us far into the Guatemalan Highlands, staying in a couple of villages on the way before finally ending up at Lake Attitlan on the 3rd day. And so, we had to carry everything we needed for 3 days: sleeping mats, sleeping bags, food, loads of water, several change of clothes etc... The packs were heavy and the path ahead looked steep and the hills behind were definitely very tall.

Our guide, Angel, was a slightly built Guatemalan, and together the 3 of us set off on the trek about 7am. Initially the path took us through a couple of villages and we nodded a 'Buenos Dias' greeting to those villagers we met many of whom strode past us in bare feet carrying huge baskets of sticks or foodstuffs on their heads. We continued upwards through the dense forest eventually arriving at a plateau where the trees were more sparse and the views opened up. We were exhausted and learnt then that as well as perhaps a lack of fitness, this was also due to the fact that we had climbed to 3000 metres above sea level - and once told, we of course recognised that the air was noticeably thinner!

Small children waved and shouted 'hola' as we passed. Insisting on photos we checked with Angel that it was ok and then happily snapped away. The reason we checked first was because a few years previously a Japanese tourist had been snatched by locals whilst comforting a small child that was crying. Thinking he was in the process of kidnapping the child, they took the poor fella and lynched him. Anyhow, we had no such problems and carried onwards and upwards.

We saw no other tourists at all. Birds noisily chattered in the branches above and sometimes a local man would wander by, but otherwise we were alone. At one point I noticed our guide looking furtively left and right. 'Are you looking for animals', I asked. Confirming he was I then asked as to what animals. 'Oh, no worry. Is nothing really', he replied. Aware that my question had been answered with politician like avoidance, I asked again. He hesitated before muttering, 'Oh, bears, snakes - Black Mambas mostly'....

Later on we stopped for a rest. The clouds swirled around the valley sometimes completely blotting the hills from view. And, then patches of blue sky would appear and the sun would beat down upon us, and far in the distance we could see a small river meandering its way through the jungle - before the clouds blew across once more. Angel disappeared for a few mins to relieve himself and left Marsha and I on our own. Suddenly out of the bushes appeared 5 men each carrying a large machete. They brushed past us, fortunately after something other than gringo blood.

Much later we arrived at the village where we were to stay the night. Just a few huts dotted around the hillside. We gratefully sat and removed our shoes and socks. It had been a good walk! The weather turned a little after our arrival and as thunder and then rain appeared we joined the small children of our host family in watching a movie on their tv. The family seemed to be somewhat of a Jean Claude Van Dam fan. We watched these violent bloodbaths unfold on the tv screen along with these tiny children who were engrossed as they clutched at their cuddly toys and sucked their thumbs.

Dinner of spaghetti and a rather sorry looking sausage appeared and then, very early, we unfurled our sleeping bags and mats and settled down onto the concrete floor.

We actually slept very well and it was with some reluctance that at just before 6am we were roused from our slumbers. A coupld of mugs of porridge soon helped us along the way and before long we were on the road again. The village was at 2500 metres and the path ahead led steeply down. A little rain overnight had helped to dampen the dusty ground and we made good progress. There were some clouds early on and the sun's rays shone through to the jungle - it was stunning. Sadly neither of us could capture that early morning light and mist in the jungle on our cameras.

Down, down, down we went. We stopped at a small stream and Angel informed us that there was gold in the stream. Doubtful, I scooped up some grit from the bottom and sure enough loads of gold coloured specks were glittering in my palms. We assumed that it couldn't be real gold or somebody would have fished it all out by now - or perhaps that's what everyone thinks who comes by....

A little further on and we reached the river at last. It being the dry season it was reasonably tame, however, it still needed to be crossed and the only way was the awkward looking collection of sticks jumbled together sort of resembling a bridge. But, safely across, photos taken, and we were heading back up. The river was at 1500 metres and Angel informed us that Santa Clara - our destination for the night - was 2300 metres up. It was very steep at times and the little bridge was soon far below us.

Exhausted, almost out of water, hungry and with blistered feet we arrived at the entrance to the village some time in the afternoon. Our homestay was of course at the top end of the village and delayed our rest by a further 15 mins. But we made it. Shoes off, socks off, packs off. Food - sadly no shower, but a change of clothes nonetheless, and we felt almost human again. There was a little internet place which we used and then dinner at El Angel before we camped down in the spare room at the homestay. We were both asleep almost immediately despite the cold concrete below us.

Early morning and it was just a short 20 minute walk up the hill to a spot overlooking Lake Atitlan from about 500 metres up. The sunrise was fantastic. We sat, ate cornflakes and admired the view for ages before carrying on our way. The last part of the trek - we were due in San Puedro by lunchtime.

We clambered down the hill towards the town, occasionally being overtaken by impatient old ladies in bare feet as they scurried past. The view of the lake all the way down was breathtaking - it is known here as the most beautiful lake in the world! Towards the bottom we encountered a coupld of religious symbols on a hill overlooking the town.

Eventually we arrived into SanPuedro, nearly 3 days after having set out from Xela over 40km away. We had a celebratory cup of tea (we know how to party!) and then said our goodbyes to Angel and boarded a boat for Pana' firstly to pick up our stuff that had been taken there, and then to Santa Cruz.
Some photos of the walk:
Walk from Xela to Lake Atitlan

Walk from Xela to Lake Atitlan

P2284193.jpgP2284194.jpgP2284198.jpgP2284199.jpgP3014201.jpgMarsha showing pictures to children

Marsha showing pictures to children

P3014210.jpgPanning for gold

Panning for gold

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Sunrise over Lake Atitlan

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In Santa Cruz we checked into the Isla Verde - an eco friendly hotel on the shores of Lake Atitlan. The views from the terrace were gorgeous. Our room, sadly, was about 250 stairs up the hill which after 3 days walking just about killed us, especially as when we arrived at the room we found it uncleaned and had to return down and wait for the cleaning to be done. Eventually though we enjoyed a long awaited shower.

2nd/3rd/4th March
We enjoyed the lie-ins, the food, the drink, reading, the view of the lake, relaxing and generally doing very little over the next few days, courtesy of the Isla Verde. Marsha set the alarm on the 4th and boarded a boat bound for Pana' and then a bus to a nearby huge market that gathers every Thursday. And that was about the extent of our activity over the few days. Lovely!
View from hotel, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

View from hotel, Santa Cruz, Lake Atitlan

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5th March
We moved hotels - about 10 mins down the lake, still in Santa Cruz, to a place called Arca De Noe. Financial reasons only. Once done, we then walked from Santa Cruz westwards to the little village of San Marcos. In the guidebooks we'd read, the authors spoke of beautiful trails around the lake with stunning views, but, with the occasional bandits lying in wait in the bushes. So, taking nothing more than a handful of dollars for lunch on arrival we went on our way. And the books were right - the views were lovely. Along the way there were several large private homes and also some hotels springing up along the shores of the lake. They looked like wonderful places to live and stay - so we popped into one - La Casa Del Mundio. It was a hotel built into the side of a cliff face reaching right down to the clear blue water of the lake. Balconys stretched over the water, hammocks hung loosely in the shade, the views across the lake to the volcanos on the distant shore were breathtaking. We wandered around, had some food and decided it was one of the best hotels we'd ever seen - so booked ourselves in for a couple of nights - about a week ahead.

The trail continued up over hills, around sandy coves, in and out of forest and eventually ending up many hours later in San Marcos - and bandit free. Of course we had checked with some local people and others who had done the walk and heard that it was very safe these days.

San Marcos was a little bit of a let-down food-wise. A beautiful lake but no-one as yet had bothered to build their cafe, bar or restaurant lakeside. Also, we had had to hand over a cash deposit to the cliff based hotel we'd stopped in at and we'd only been left with a few dollars. A quick burger at some sort of anonymous place and then we managed to persuade the boat taxi driver to return us to Santa Cruz despite not having quite enough for the fare. The boat ride back gave us further glimpses of the houses and hotels we'd seen whilst walking - and many more that had been hidden from view. Most are owned by ex-pats - god knows what they do here - but they obviously make (or have made) a lot of money - the houses are very luxurious.

The Arca De Noe Hotel's owners are German, and she prepares a homemade meal each evening for those staying at the hotel and any others who book in. At 6.30pm on the dot she rang a small bell summoning us into the dining room. There, we joined another young couple (She Costa Rican and he French) along with about 10 elderly American women who lived in Santa Cruz.

The food was absolutely fantastic. 6 courses. Gourmet food, gourmet standard. Amazingly good and amazing value at under $10 each for the lot. Everything was homemade including the array of spices, dips and sauces on offer. The Chilean wine to go with it was also of high quality. We were so busy enjoying the food that half way through and we hadn't really chatted with the old ladies. So, we got talking a little with Nancy who was sat next to me.
Once it was established that I was British, the eccentric, little, old lady opposite immediately embarked on some loud and lengthy monologue in a bizarre Africans accent. After she had eventually finished her bewildering performance she grinned over at me expectantly.
Not knowing quite what she wanted from me I said, 'that was nice'.
'Who do I sound like', she asked.
Thinking that an answer of Winnie Mandela might offend, I replied that I wasn't entirely sure.
'British! That was a British accent of course', she said, shaking her head at my obvious ignorance.
I suggested to her that next time tried her British accent she should raise her hand so we'd all know. Marsha told me later on that she'd, found this well meaning joke reasonably offensive being clearly quite proud of her British impersonation. Anyhow, it didn't stop the old lady from persevering with it for the remainder of the meal.

6th March
Breakfast at the Arca Del Noe was also quality. And, sat out in the garden with the sun rising above the volcanic hills east of the lake, the setting was also hard to beat. Afterwards we relaxed in the hammocks in the garden for a couple of hours. Unbeknown to us at the time, a various assortment of invisible mosquitoes and sandflies also joined us and had their breakfast whilst we read.

Mid-morning, we had a shower each which we realised was actually a rather public affair as people walking the path outside could potentially see a fair amount of what was going on. Anyhow, once clean, we boarded a boat for Pana' and then a bus to Antigua a couple of hours away. After much searching we settled on a place near the centre. Sharing a room with 4 other strangers is never the best and we decided to search for alternative accomodation the next day.

On of the main reasons for visiting this incredibly touristy town is to learn Spanish. Spanish Schools are abundantly dotted around the town. We checked some out - having already spent 3 weeks or so in this part of the world, our lack of Spanish was beginning to frustrate us and so we decided to do something about it.

We ate at Sabor Del Tiempo, mainly because the Chilean wine was cheap and the pizzas large. Engrossed in whatever, we didn't inspect the wine bottle that carefully on arrival at our table and only when the bill was set down at our table did we realise that we'd been drinking some actually very nice Sav Blanc at twice the price we'd intended - ah well...

7th March
Antigua is awash with tourists, with churches, with language schools, with cafes and restaurants and bars and with religious parades. The little cobbled streets are forever being temporarily made pedestrionised as another parade noisily rambles by. Often the main feature of these parades are purple cloaked children carrying a huge religious themed float. Always a brass band accompanies the marching children, loudly leading the way. Today is Sunday, and there seemed to be even more parades than normal. Fireworks explode in the blue skies above indicating the start of another group of worshipers intent on publicly displaying their affection for some saint or another by making children walk the streets in colourful clothing.

We came across one parade that seemed to be a little different. Teenage boys and girls, arm in arm and very fancily dressed walked behind a group of about 10 students who each wore a sash, on which was displayed their college study - computer, mathematics etc... Graduation day in Antigua!

We wandered around getting to know our neighbourhood - as we would be here for a week or so. We checked into a cheaper place at the top end of town - with our own room. And, we signed onto a Spanish School for a week. We found a gym, several bookshops and decent cafes and even a Salsa studio where daily lessons were offered - just not on Sundays. It may be touristy, but it looks like being a decent place to spend a week. As usual, sometimes the most satisfying part of travelling is sitting with a coffee overlooking a busy square as people go about their business in the sun wondering how everyone else's working day is going... Of course, today being Sunday and all, but you get my drift....

8th - 12th March
The 5 days followed a very similar sort of pattern. The alarm awoke us just before 6am, breakfast in the square and then 4 hours of Spanish. A quick bite to eat at one of the many cafes nearby and then Marsha went off shopping and generally wandering around the cobbled little streets in amongst the colourful cafes and markets. Meanwhile I continued on with the one on one Spanish for a further 2 hours - although little good it did me. We met afterwards either in a cafe for some tea or depending upon the time at the Salsa studio near the hotel. After an hour's 'dancing' we both went to the gym which we'd joined for an hour or so on the running machines or bikes etc...

On the Sunday the American at the Spanish School had promised that despite being a smallish outfit he had plenty of clients - and yes, we could pay with visa.In reality, no-one else was on their books at that time – we and our 2 teachers were alone in the small garden at the desks provided. Occasionally the American who had been so pleasant on the Sunday would drop in, but he’d studiously ignore us. Oh, and they didn’t take visa.

‘Buenos Dias, Como estas’, began my teacher.
I hesitantly replied,’Buenos dias’, and then paused. ‘Erm, I´m a beginner I’m afraid’, I explained. A brief grimace passed across her face, but she boldly continued. What made the lessons initially all the more difficult for both teacher and student was that their English was little better than our Spanish.

But, words were written down, learnt and endlessly repeated. Phrases were committed to memory, verbs were conjugated and simple pleasantries were exchanged as our understanding and vocabulary grew. After a day or so we became increasingly confident enough to start volunteering information using full sentences. Admittedly, sometimes these words and sentences seemed to take an eternity to be said, but, the teachers were reasonably patient as they listened to long dull explanations as to where we live, the places we´ve been, how we met, how many siblings we have and so on….

As was the case when we learnt Indonesian, it wasn´t so bad to read and talk, but listening to replies was near impossible. And so, when we attempted our Spanish out in the street in cafes and shops, we´d put together a sentence in Spanish only to receive a rapid babble of Spanish in return. ‘¿Cuanto por cada postal, y, tienes unos sellos?, I asked in one shop – ‘How much for each postcard and do you have some stamps?’.
‘ncnxçzcbNZç+$Clkajdc&gjas$cb*nzbcnb*cJsds¨%dvdvhd’, she replied.
Right, I was kind of hoping for a number accompanied by the appropriate number of fingers and a quick ‘si’ or ‘no’. Of course, either the whole conversation degenerates into chaos and eventually I just slowly start to back away, or, the Spaniard rolls his/her eyeballs and then we continue in English.

One evening having returned to the hotel after our gym session, and sweating and probably smelling a little, we put our clothes together and handed them in to be washed. A man was standing nearby waiting to speak to the man at reception himself. Sensing an opportunity, I turned to him, closed my eyes in concentration and stuttered out, ’Todos los dias vamos al gimnasio despues nuestra clase de salsa y por eso ahora tenemos que lavar nuestra ropa’ – (everyday we go to the gym after our Salsa class and so now we have to wash our clothes). Now, this was an absolute triumph for me, a whole Spanish sentence to a complete stranger and it had only taken about 30 seconds to say. I opened my eyes and grinned at the man expectantly. Surely my effort was worth a shake of the hand, a clap on the back or at least a few words of praise. He was staring at me blankly, open-mouthed, clearly wondering why this gangly foreigner was telling him all about his personal hygiene issues….

The Spanish lessons were actually quite tiring mentally, and so the Salsa classes late on in the afternoon were a good way to stretch the legs and take our minds off the language for a while. After having completed a couple of lessons in Cuba a few weeks back, we had a vague idea of some of the basic steps. Our teacher was a tiny Guatemalan man who couldn’t take his eyes off himself in the giant mirror installed in the room. He seemed entirely bored by our labored efforts to learn new steps, however, he was pleasant enough and we managed at times to actually put together a few twists and turns that weren´t complete disasters.

Salsa requires the man to lead which Marsha understandably resents as I can’t hear the beat or rhythm. I’m often heading off in unexpected directions and launching into turns mid-beat. Marsha dealt with my general incompetence reasonably well and even managed to contain her natural instinct for freestyling whenever she felt like it – something my toes still remember her doing in Cuba on many an occasion.

Towards the end of our first session our teacher and the female teacher at the studio showed us how Salsa should look. It really is a very graceful dance. We have a way to go but the lessons had been a lot of fun and hopefully we´ll be able to drop into various places and clubs along the way through Central and South America and further practice our new steps, turns and moves.

And, as the sun set over the volcanoes above the town, we headed back across town away from the Salsa place to the gym. It was, surprisingly, packed every evening. Generally we had to wait for a while for two of the 4 running machines to become available. At 1500 metres above sea level the exercise was even more difficult than usual, but, we certainly felt as though we’d earned our dinner an hour or so later.

Food options in Antigua are plentiful, albeit often expensive. We ate at a very cool wee place called Kafka for 3 nights in succession. The food was excellent and cheap. On the Friday, having finished with the Spanish School, Salsa and the gym for the week, we celebrated by having drinks at the Sky Café before eating at an Italian place near the square. The bottle of Chilean wine successfully whetted our appetite for South American wine and on the way home for some reason we dropped into another bar and ordered una botela mas….

One evening after finishing all of our lessons and exercise, whilst having a drink at the Sky Café we noticed a sea of purple in the distance. Gradually the purple mass neared us and human shapes emerged. It was another procession but far bigger than anything we’d seen previously. Hundreds and hundreds of men dressed in flowing purple robes were slowly moving through the streets. White clouds of Smoke blew around them in the breeze, coming from the fiery coals a few of the men were carrying in pots. Others were carrying crosses and banners, but in the centre of the procession a massive truck sized float was being slowly heaved along the road on the shoulders of about 60 men. On the float appeared to be various scenes from the last few days of Jesus Christ. Occasionally it would stop and sway back and forth as the men marked time. The 20 piece brass band behind it would then start up yet another instrumental blast. Lights adorning the float flashed on and off, and it would start to move again.

This incredible sight was attracting huge crowds and we joined them and followed as the purple procession meandered its way through to the central square a couple of streets over. Dozens and dozens of cameras clicked and flashed as it eventually halted in front of the main cathedral in the square. A truly absorbing sight.

13th March
And so, armed with a small sized Spanish vocabulary and a couple of dance moves that occasionally go as planned, our week in Antigua was at an end. We enjoyed wandering the streets - the cobbled lanes, the colouful shops and the chaotic markets complete with the aromas blowing about from the street barbeques - one last time. We had a big breakfast on the square and at noon we awaited our bus back to Pana' outside of our hotel. A couple of American school groups on their spring break pulled cases past us and into the hotel alongside. We waited. Around 1pm the bus turned up and so it was later than expected that we pulled into Pana' - neither of us feeling to good after the twists and turns on the road - or perhaps it was the wine the night before....

We checked into one of the cheapest places yet - Tommy - at $4 each for a double room you can't complain. After spending an hour fruitlessly searching for a bookstore we settled into an internet cafe for a while. Later we ate dinner at Cheritos. The menu had all sorts - including some Indonesian dishes which we prudently avoided. Eventually we settled for some Chinese food and asked (in Spanish) for it to be picante (spicy). Either our Spanish left a lot to be desired or we're completely immune to spice - still, it was very nice.

The dogs in Pana' were odd. They appeared to take on human qualities. One sitting cross-legged on the pavement outside the cafe eying us suspiciously as we emerged after dinner. Another appearing to grin and laugh after it lay in wait in the bushes and leapt out surprising Marsha. One last dog accompanied us all the way along the street, guiding our way, sensing our indecision as to which direction to go. All very strange...

14th/15th March
We were back at the lake. Lake Atitlan - 'the most beautiful lake in the world'. A week or so earlier on our walk from Santa Cruz throug bandit territory to San Marcos we had happenned upon La Casa Del Mundo - a fantastic looking hotel - and we'd booked in for a couple of nights. After a quick omlette in Pana' (ordered in Spanish. That was fine. The reply was in Spanish asking me a question. I tried pardon a couple of times before just plumping for one of the options. Sadly I chose wrongly - with the omlette either came fried potatos or some brown grungy muck. I had unwittingly ordered the brown stuff. More lessons needed I feel...), anyhow, after breakfast we left Tommy and caught a boat taxi to the hotel.

The hotel is built into a side of a cliff. Balconies and terraces and little pavilion like bedrooms all overlook the lake and the volcanoes that surround it. The place is stunning. The water is clear, the sky blue, the air full of bird life - we saw a few more tiny humming birds. We hung about (literally) in hammocks, read books, swam in the water, ordered wonderful food and drink and watched the sun cross the sky as boats passed by below us. It is a truly idylic place.

In the evening everyone sits down together for a very good 4 course meal at a ridiculously low price. Chilean wine accompanies the meal as do several other American tourists or volunteers. All in all it is not surprising that Lonely Planet rates the place as the most magical place in Guatemala. The 2 days go too fast but very very pleasantly. More than once we discussed the possibility of abandoning any further travel in favour of spending the next 4 months here...!

As I write this, I'm in a hammock on the terrace about 50 metres directly above the lake below. The sun is going down and I'm hoping Marsha is at the bar ordering me a 'cerveca'.

16th March
Much more of the same for the morning before we had to check out. Reluctantly, bags were loaded onto the boat taxi and we sped across the lake to Pana´ and stayed at Tommy once again. We wandered down the shoreline a little further than we had previously and explored to the end of Pana´ - a town that obviously once attracted many more tourists than it does now. Huge lakeside restaurants and bars with attractive views across the lake laid mostly empty. Upbeat music pumped out of each but the desperation in the waiters´ eyes and voices as they tried to entice us in betrayed the real situation - no-one ate there anymore.

And, nor did we. Back on the main road in town and slightly in land, and the place was alive with people, colours and sounds again. We lazily busied ourselves in shops, cafes and bars etc... for the remainder of the day.

17th March
St. Patrick´s Day. And to celebrate, we took a boat over to Santiago De Atitlan. This town - the largest on the lake - is also the least touristy. It is also here that 'Max´ lives. Maxamon or 'Max' as he is known locally is an evil spirit and he stays as a guest in different houses across the town at differing times of year.

Posted by Patrick H. 14:55 Archived in Guatemala Comments (1)

February 9th - 25th, Mexico

February 9th
And so, with a job organised for the end of the trip in July, we were free to continue our travels. We stayed a week in England however, and with a hire car visited several friends who all hosted us enthusiastically and generously. But, on the morning of the 9th at about 5.30am we heaved our overloaded packs onto our backs yet again and set off - this time through the slightly snowed streets of North London.

In Frankfurt, the famous German efficiency was not particularly in evidence as we were made to wait an eternity in the plane before take-off whilst they de-iced the wings. Once airborne, Luftansa cranked up their inflight entertainment which consisted of 3 miserable films. It was with a certain amount of relief that we eventually touched down in Mexico City. A short taxi ride deposited us at the Hostal Moneda and having checked in we gratefully climbed into bed.

February 10th
After a little breakfast we ventured out into Mexico City. This is not our first visit to the country having already been to various parts in the north east and west. But it was our first time in the capital. We were staying in the centre just off Zucalo and so wandered there and took in the vast square. Dominated by the Cathedral at the north end, the square also has the National Palace and various government offices as its perimeter. We entered the cathedral first and were impressed with the sheer size. An intricately detailed and designed gold plated wooden facade behind the altar was the highlight.
Cathedral, Mexico City

Cathedral, Mexico City

Main Cathedral, Zocalo, Mexico City

Main Cathedral, Zocalo, Mexico City


The National Palace contained huge murals painted by Diego Rivera. These depicted some of the history of Mexico and adorned the walls of the corridors surrounding the central space that contained a fountain.
Murals in the palace

Murals in the palace

Governement building, Zocalo

Governement building, Zocalo

After spending a little more time on the square we then headed up 5th of May Avenue towards the large Art and Theatre house at Belles Artes. This impressive building contained huge paintings again. Unfortunately we were refused entry to the actual theatre.
Belles Artes

Belles Artes

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Continuing on our way up towards the pink zone we noticed that several of the buildings we passed appeared to be leaning slightly. Apparently Mexico City is sinking - literally. It is built in a basin albeit over 2000 metres high and the enourmous buildings are beginning to sink in parts into the earth. The huge earthquake 25 years ago probably did little to help the situation either.

In the Zona Rosa we walked up the long ramp to Chapultepec Castle. Off in the far distance beyond even the outer limits of the city 2 tall snow capped mountains towered up into the sky. I'm sure that Mexico City suffers from some abysmal pollution and poor visibility much of the time, however, today the view was perfect and we found ourselves a spot at the foot of the castle and admired the view. The castle itself was full of these huge murals and paintings again and various rooms re-created to demonstrate royal privalege from times gone by.Mexico City view

Mexico City view

We had walked a fair distance west and so caught the metro (underground) back to the hotel area. We knew it was rush hour but even so.... Being squeezed into the carriage alongside thousands of others as the train rattled along wasn't pleasant but it was a far better experience than when the train stopped. The doors open and immediately those wanting to get out put their shoulders down and heave and charge with all their might against anyone unfortunate enough to be in their way. Meanwhile, those on the platform scramble aboard as quickly as possible. The result is somewhat painful if all you want to do is stay on board - although several stops down the line we questioned why we really did want to stay on.

February 11th
We braved the underground again. Outside of rush hour it is actually a very quick, cheap and easy way of crossing the city. At the North Terminal we boarded a bus and an hour later were dropped off at the Aztec ruins and Pyramids at the aptly named Los Piramedes. These 1800 year old ruins covered a huge area at over 2300 metres high. We walked up the 2 mile long ´Avenue of the Dead´. In its day it would have been a remarkable sight. Small pyramids of Aztec design lined the avenue and half way along on the right stood the 3rd highest pyramid in the world - the other two being in Egypt and one elsewhere in Mexico. Unlike in Egypt we were allowed to go up it - so we did. At 70 metres high it was very impressive and provided great 360 degree views over the surrounding area.

Back down onto the Avenue of the Dead and we walked to the end where a slightly smaller pyramid stood. Again we climbed up and surveyed the area that was once one of the most important centres of the Americas. Ancient ruins outside of Mexico City

Ancient ruins outside of Mexico City

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It was well into the afternoon by the time we returned. Altitude and jet lag continued to weary our legs and Marsha took the opportunity to engage herself in the Mexican way of life with a short siesta whilst I had a wander around the lively streets nearby our Hostal. There is a lot of noise in Mexico: vendors advertising their goods by yelling from their stalls, drummers and dancers beating out rhythms and the constant sounds of haggling and discussion over the price of everything. And, a lot of kissing takes place...

Dinner at a local place called Santa Dominica. We both ordered local - fajitas for me, Mexican stew for Marsha. On the way back we encountered a few separate groups of dancers jigging away to the beat of a drummer. We stood and watched a while. Some of the dancers had shells attached to their ankles and so as they kicked and moved a kind of whooshing and shushing noise accompanied the drums. A local fella sidled up to us and informed us that the people were dancing. ´Thanks´, we replied. He stood patiently by us for a few seconds and then asked for money for the information he had provided...

February 12th
We caught the underground and then the tram south to a district called Xochimilco. On arrival we heard a constant banging and looking skywards we saw fireworks flashing. We followed the noise and eventually happened upon an exuberant parade in the road. Bands, dancers, people dressed up in costumes, religious floats and at the front a couple of blokes dressed in woman´s clothing with balloons down their front. Nearing us they began whispering together and as they drew alongside launched themselves onto the pavement and grabbed me and together we all did some kind of rugby scrum like dance for half a minute. Hmmmm... very embarrassing.
Parade in Mexico City

Parade in Mexico City

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Apart from that mildly uncomfortable moment the parade passed without further incident and was very enjoyable to watch. Apparently it was a saint´s day of some sort. We wandered to the old square which was peaceful and pretty complete with an old church. From there we made our way to the canal.

The town is famous for its hundreds of kms of interlinking canals. We took a punting trip down the canal for an hour. Lovely houses and gardens ran down to the water´s edge where large white birds sought out fish. The river was not quite our own - several other boats full of tourists were cruising up and down. And, there were the Mexican musical boats... Boating bands of Mexicans trawled the canals hunting down people to play to. We refused, however, the boat near us clearly needed further entertainment than the trip was providing and so the band played to them for 10 mins. It was all very entertaining and although we very much felt like we were in Mexico, it certainly didn´t feel like we were in the metropolis that is Mexico City - peacefully sliding through the water with greenery all around.
On the canal...

On the canal...

In the local market we tracked down the food section and sat down to some tortillas. Street food is often as good as anything found in restaurants.Market food, Mexican style

Market food, Mexican style


The tram and train system allowed us to cover the city in such a way that we visited a couple more places: a large hacienda that housed a huge amount of Diego Rivera´s art and Frida Kahlo´s old home complete with some of her art. Both places were very interesting to wander around. Frida Kahlo also housed Trotsky for a while back in the day. At the first place the gardens were beautiful and full of peacocks roaming around. It must have been mating season or something similar because seemingly on cue all of the peacocks fanned out their colourful feathers and shook them out for us. img=http://photos.travellerspoint.com/227666/P2134024.jpg]P2134034.jpg

February 13th
A day before Valentines Day and the main square at Zukalo had a huge inflatable heart hoisted up and large tents and a stage had also been erected. The street sellers were already out in force, clammering for space on the pavement as well as trying to get their voices heard above everyone else.

On the underground we found to our dismay that Saturday mornings were just as busy as weekdays. Anyhow, we headed south and as we neared the end of the line the crowd thinned out. At the South Terminal we boarded a bus bound for Tapeztlan and arrived a little over an hour later. Now, Mexicans are clearly a religous lot - we have passed many churches in various places and for the second day running we encountered a town intent on celebrating some sort of local saint.
Parade in Mexico City

Parade in Mexico City

Of course, there could be an ulterior motive - everyone was walking about clutching litre cups of beer and were clearly in party mood. This was confirmed somewhat on entering the old church as it was deserted. The beer was odd - it appeared to have chilli powder in it!

As well as the countless food and drink stalls there were also fairground rides on offer, fireworks being let off in the streets and children dressed up in glitzy costumes dancing around to the beat of the band that played for them. It was wonderfully energetic and very very busy. Just cruising the streets was superb entertainment in itself. The town itself sits at about 1700 metres and is surrounded by high cliffs that tower above the streets and houses below. And, atop one of these cliffs was a pyramid that had been constructed many many years ago.

It wasn't difficult to find our way - just followed the crowds. And, 500 metres higher and about 1 hour later we reached the pyramid. The views were gorgeous - not photogenic unfortunately though. We sat and admired the view across the hills in the distance and down to the town below us. Occasionally the valley would reverberate with the banging sounds of the fireworks. We weren't alone - lots of people and also a fair number of curious looking creatures called cataks (something like that anyway). They looked a little like anteaters but their diet seemed to consist of crisp packets and coke cans rather than little bugs.Strange Mexican animal

Strange Mexican animal

The centre of Mexico City was also buzzing later and crammed with people, many of whom were holding large silvery/red valentines balloons. A band was on the stage we had seen earlier desperately trying to get the crowd to clap along with their 'noise'. We listened for nearly a full minute and then carried on back to the hostal. Had dinner at a nearby cozy little local eatery.

February 14th
We caught an earlyish bus to nearby Taxco. Set several hundred metres lower in elevation than Mexico City the ride was one where, as we approached our destination, each corner afforded views down the vally to the plains below. Occasionally a snow capped mountain would peak out of the clouds behind us as well, contributing to the outstanding scenery.

Taxco centre (Zucalo) is a small square lined by cafes and bars boasting balconies overlooking the hustle and bustle. The tiny and very steep cobbled streets wind mazelike away from the centre into local markets where many of the shops are filled with silver. Although the silver has mostly now disappeared from the area, the town is still famous for the metal and silver, mined elsewhere, is brought in to be sold in Taxco's markets and shops.

We stayed at the Casa Grande. After a quick feed in one of the many cafes on one of the many balconies, Marsha decided to trawl around the shops looking for silvered bargains and I slogged up the confusing winding paths up to the large statue of Christo a few hundred metres above the town. He stood in a pose much like the more famous statue of him in Rio, arms stretched, on a podium on a hill. It was a good walk and the view underneath his arms down to the town and the hills and valleys beyond was worth the journey. I only got lost about 5 times - at one point a 4 year old girl walked with me a while showing the way and then demanding extortionate rates for her service.Christo statue in Taxco

Christo statue in Taxco

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Down in the town, we met up in the church that dominated the little square. It was beautiful inside with incredibly detailed, gold-plated wooden panels decorating the walls and behind the altar. Church in Taxco

Church in Taxco

P2154048.jpgWe explored the local market a little further afterwards and Marsha showed me one or two items that had grabbed her interest, one of which she eventually bought.

We had dinner in Bora Restaurant overlooking the square where a band was playing. Balloons were being sold - most of which were Valentine's themed and a man dressed up as a bull chased children around the place. 3 young girls dressed in wedding dresses and perched on top of cars were being driven around to the excitement of all the various relations crowded in and out of the cars trooping along with them. Not as chaotic and energetic as the previous day, but Taxco proved to be a very charming and pleasant place and we could easily have stayed longer.

February 15th/16th/17th
Our friends Jen and Gareth had lived in Mexico City for a while and had often ventured out to Pie De La Cuesta - a small strip of beachside properties a few minutes from Acapulco. They had talked in the same revered terms as we had about our weekend getaways to Bali about this place - and Villa Nirvana the actual place they stayed. So we booked in for a couple of nights - and ended up staying 1 more.... We understood immediately their love of the place. The hotel was beachside. On arrival, we stood barefoot, warm sand oozing between our toes, the sun beating down from the clear blue skies above, and watched as giant waves from the Pacific pounded the beach.

We didn't do a great deal over the 3 days. We read a few books, laid around in hammocks, swam in the pool, went for a few gentle strolls up the road and back along the beach, visited a couple of cafes and had coffees and Coronas and fish dinners. The sunset on the first day was stunning and as we sat on the beach with the sea hammering away in front of us, the golden sky behind, we mused once again for the millionth time in 7 months how lucky we were to be taking this year away.

One morning we woke up feeling energetic and so went running on the sand. Only 5 mins in and we passed a yellow snake writhing about in the sand. Hmmmm.... We reckoned tht it was a sea snake and that one of the many many pelicons that regularly flew overhead had plucked it from the sea and then abandoned it for some reason - probably because it was a snake and not a fish! We had watched the previous night as these pelicons had vertically dived into the sea from about 15 metres high in order to catch their supper. It did kind of put us off swimming in the sea however....

I write this now, at about 6pm, the sun going down, Marsha sprawled in a hammock on the beach reading, and me about to open the first bottle of Corona of the evening. We haven't yet decided on dinner but it will be on the sand - and fishy....P2164105.jpg
Sunset, Pie De La Cuesta

Sunset, Pie De La Cuesta

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February 18th
We left for Acapulco nearby, it was raining.

At sunset we caught a taxi along the coast road to Los Flamingos Hotel - originally owned by John Wayne and Johnny Weismuller. Photos of the pair and other Hollywood stars adorned the walls. Many of the old Tarzan films had been shot in this part of Mexico. It was also the hotel and bar where, allegedly, the cocktail Coco Loco was invented. So, as the sun vanished from view leaving behind a beautiful red sky, and far below us waves crashed into the rocky clifffs, Marsha set about her giant sized Coco Loco that had arrived. The tequila based cocktail came in a large coconut with several flowers and various fruits sticking out of it and what looked like a small branch off a tree hanging from the side. My Corona was nice meanwhile...Sunset at Los Flamingos

Sunset at Los Flamingos

Coco Loco and Marsha

Coco Loco and Marsha

We left a little later. The taxi-driver offered us a fare of 25 Pesos to return to the town centre. A long and intense session of haggling followed at the end of which Marsha had managed to re-negotiate a price of 30 Pesos!

Back at Acapulco we were in time for a quick bite to eat at a nearby place specialising in spicy burrito type dishes before we took up our positions to view the cliff divers. Every night local cliff divers hurl themselves into the sea from up to 35 metres up a cliff. Our position from the other side of the channel, only about 30 yards away, was about 20 metres up and it seemed ludicrously high to be jumping into the ocean from. We watched as one by one they dived headlong into the water below. The last fella jumped from 35 metres up, with all the lights turned off and just a small bonfire providing a minimal amount of light from near where we stood. Not in a thousand years could I do that...

Sadly, after the dive was completed, the fire blew out of control and sparks and flames flew up into the spectators, but hey, we were ok, and the show had been brilliant.

February 19th
We awoke to a beautiful blue sky. We had a good breakfast at the 100% Natural Restaurant on the coast and then caught the bus further along the shore. Then, spent the day on the beach and in the sea, reading and sunbathing. Life's tough. Acapulco's hotels soared behind us, a new cruise boat lazily floated in port and we relaxed on the warm sand and in the equally warm sea. Both Marsha and I wish we'd kept a record of all the books we'd read since July - but it must be approaching 50 now between us. Lovely.Acapulco Beach

Acapulco Beach

Still, we needed to enjoy the luxury whilst we could because the evening was to be less pleasant. There was a bus to catch. To Oaxaca. 11 hours. Overnight.

February 20th
Early in the morning the bus arrived into the 1st class terminal in Oaxaca and wearily we dragged ourselves into a taxi and to Hostel Pochon. Being too early to check in we left our bags in reception and had a qander around the nearby centre of town (Zocalo). The Spanish styled squares we've come across so far have been very pleasant areas and in Oaxaca the same was true. Leafy areas where people with carts sell their wares, cafes line the perimeter and people sit around and chat and people watch. We had a bite to eat and then set off to Monte Alban about 30 mins away. These old pre-Hispanic ruins sit nearly 2000 metres on top of a hill commanding great views over the plains below. Very Aztec like in design, the place was very serene and a lovely, big green area to wander about.

The ruins were up to 2000 years old and had been substantially renovated in parts to reveal its former glory. The place would have been remarkable in its time and even today presents a very interesting insight into how people would have lived. But, it was very hot and having had only a little sleep on the bus we were both tired and returned to Oaxaca after a couple of hours. Monte Alban

Monte Alban

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The local markets offer tacos, quasedillas, tortillas etc... at very reasonable prices and so we planted ourselves at a table and had some food. Marsha then spent some time in town looking through some of the other markets and shops and I enjoyed a siesta back at the hostel.

The zocalo in the evening was heaving with people. There were at least 3 balloons to every one person though. Various comedy acts were being performed to crowds of people and a band was playing in the far corner which we listened to for a while. The cafes, bars and restaurants lining the square were all full - a great people watching place. Some chess players were deep in thought surrounded by some fairly vocal onlookers. We did a couple of laps watching the shows etc... before finding ourselves a little restaurant off a side street.

February 21st
Nearby Tlacolula hosts a famous market for the region every Sunday. It covered a huge area and sold an assortment of rugs, clothes, food, crafts etc... Marsha bought a few things, meanwhile I enjoyed myself in the eating sections where you could buy your own meat and then cook it yourself on the BBQs provided. Again, it was very warm and trawling around the place in the heat of the day soon became quite tiring.

On the way back we stopped off at El Tule. This tiny place claims to have the biggest tree in the world. Having been to the USA and seen Giant Sequoias and Redwoods I can certainly say that it wasn't the tallest, standing at 42 metres. However, being nearly 2000 years old the diameter of the trunk had grown to 14 metres. It was pretty large. It easily dwarfed the little colonial church standing nearby.The biggest tree in the world (allegedly), El Tule

The biggest tree in the world (allegedly), El Tule

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Back in town the square was again entertaining. There appeared to be some political rally going on. Some middle-aged fella was really going for it on the microphone - shouting, pointing, waving his arms and generally being very aggressive. Even so, as he finished - flushed in the face through the exertion, he received a polite ripple of applause from the small group of spectators.

Having spent a while taking in the square and staring in bewilderment at the collossal amount of balloons on sale, we decided we fancied something other than Mexican food and found an Italian called Nostrana.

February 22nd
Slow to rise this morning. A leisurely breakfast downstairs, chatting with some of the other guests. Before we knew it, it was time to check out. We had another lengthy bus journey to look forward to in the evening and so neither of us were planning to do much with the day. After a little internet time we visited the large Santo Domingo Cathedral in the centre of town - there really is a huge amount of money tied up in these churches here, it was once again very impressive in many ways - dripping with gold plated details.

Over a coffee and cinnamon buns etc... we wrote some postcards and generally enjoyed the sunshine, the square, the people, the hustle and bustle of the place. As the sun set later it lit up the whole sky blood red. Both of us were without our cameras sadly.

Night bus to San Chtistobal.

February 23rd
The bus journey had been long but actually we managed to sleep a fair amount. As the day dawned we arrived into San Christobal under orange skies. We checked into Rossco Hotel and were pleased to find the room ready to move in to as well as then boasting a large balcony with hammocks etc... A cat appeared to have taken up residence in the room but otherwise all was well.

By the time we'd had a coffee and toast the sun was shining and it had warmed up a little - we were after all over 2000 metres high. In town we began to arrange various things with tour companies for the following days, then visited the main sites in town - mostly being cathedrals and churches high up on hills and art places in town and of course the hustle and bustle of the central square. There were loads and loads of great cafes and restaurants and bars and we ended up having lunch in a Lebanese place - a throwback to Doha where we dined almost every night at the Lebanese House restaurant near to where we lived.Church in San Christobal

Church in San Christobal

Much of the centre of town is pedestrianaised and therefore made for a very pleasant place to wander. The streets were cobbled and well maintained and the eateries and shops were very colourful and enticing. As afternoon turned to evening the clouds in the sky seemed techni-coloured for a short while and we, along with many other people, snapped photos of them as they hovered in the sky above the large cross in the Zocalo. 270_P2244129.jpg

Our attempt to find the Israeli restaurant we'd seen earlier ended in failure and we ate at a very cheap local eaterie which was actually very nice...

February 24th
We hired bicycles with the intention of riding over the hills to the traditional village of Cahumulla. As we set off the clouds overhead ominously rolled in and as we started upwards the 'sprinkling' that had been forecast began. 'That's good', we agreed, 'we won't get sunburnt'. The ride up took us to about 2400 metres and it was absolutely freezing cold, although, ironically(?), our legs and lungs were on fire. A combination of the steepness, the altitude and also the fact that both of us were suffering a little with colds and coughs meant that the ride was very hard work. We eventually made it to the top and depressingly the road swung downwards again to the small village - we knew we'd have to climb back up!

As the drizzle fell, we parked our bikes and took a walk through the village. A large group of men dressed in white and black sheepskin rug type jackets had all congregated in the square and were in the midst of discussing something very important I'm sure. All the women continued with their work around the place completely ignoring the men and their important meeting. Meeting of men in Chamulla

Meeting of men in Chamulla

They made quite a sight in their woolly rugs. So, Marsha took a picture. A couple of men dashed over immediately and in no uncertain terms reprimanded her for taking photos. And this was the case throughout the village - no photos thank you. In the little church over 2500 candles were alight and the floor was covered in large pine needles. Churchgoers sat on the floor lighting yet more candles. The religion seemed a confused concoction of various different religions, as though there was some hedging of bets going on. However, the prominent theme appeared to be Catholicism. The graveyard alongside the older church further up the hill had different coloured crosses to denote the ages of those passed away. As the clouds and the drizzle blew across it gave the place a very atmospheric feel as though it really had been lifted straight out of the middle ages - and in many ways, it felt as though little had changed since then.

With frozen hands and icicle fingers we ulocked the bikes and struggled back up the hill. Once there, the free wheel down back into San Christobel was good though. And, we found the Israeli restaurant and had a fantastic late lunch - as good as any food we had whilst in Israel.

Marsha was not feeling the best and spent much of the afternoon and evening in bed. I teamed up with a few people from where we were staying and had a couple of drinks round the camp fire in the garden before heading to 'Tequila Zoo Bar' to watch the Mexico vs Bolivia football game that was being screened live on tv. The atmosphere was actually a little subdued as Bolivia were so poor and Mexico were 4-0 up within 20 mins....

February 25th
Sumidero Canyon is less than an hour away from San Christobal. On arrival we boarded a wee boat and sped off along the waters deep into the canyon. It was an ornathologists dream - hawks, herons, vultures and many other varieties of birdlife I couldn't recognise swooped, swam and flew across the water and between the high sided walls of the canyon. The scenery was stunning - and we felt especially smug about the situation as we had had no idea particularly as to what to expect and had only organised the trip as a means of filling the day before our bus left for Guatemala early the next day.

The vertical sides of the canyon soared 600 metres above us into the blue sky. There were some strange looking landforms created by landslides down these steep sided walls - huge overhangs developed from which plant life sprung. It was all very interesting to see. Our boat skipper suddenly slowed and slewed the boat to the right and rattled off some excitable Spanish at us. In the water a large crocodile effortlessly glided through the water before slipping silently from view. Over the next few minutes we came across several more crocs all of which were sunning themselves on the banks of the river. The locals say that they are not dangerous and back this bizarre claim up by brazenly sitting on the banks themselves, swimming in the water and working with small boats on the water's edge.
Croc in the canyon

Croc in the canyon

P2264160.jpgP2264165.jpgP2254146.jpgBirds in the canyon

Birds in the canyon

We arrived back in San Christobal and relaxed in the town and in the hostel before returning to the Israeli restaurant for exactly the same food as we'd had the day before - it was superb though...
Street dancing in San Christobal

Street dancing in San Christobal

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Posted by Patrick H. 17:06 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Cuba, 5th January to 19th January

5th January
Christmas and new year in Scotland and York respectively. Great to be back amongst family and friends. A wedding celebration on the 2nd in York amid the snow was very atmospheric. But, after 11 days of scraping the ice off the windscreen, donning several layers just to visit the dustbin and slipping and sliding around on the snow – we were ready for some sunshine. And so, we booked ourselves a couple of weeks in Cuba. The original plan had been to head straight to that part of the world and keep going. But, 6 months into our travels, and although we had no inclination to start work unfortunately the time had come to put in some applications in preparation for a start in August. And this meant a return to the UK was in order before the end of January.

We flew early from a freezing cold Gatwick leaving behind the wintry showers that had been forecast and arrived into Holguein in the east of Cuba. From there it was only a short drive to the north coast and our hotel – The Blau Costa Verde. We were both tired and managed a little food before turning in early.

6th/7th/8th Januray
We spent the first 3 days at the hotel. The weather was warm without being that hot, but we kept ourselves busy by sleeping, eating, reading, making use of the gym and sorting a few applications out on the computer. I also arranged some tennis games with a fella at the hotel. Wonderfully relaxing as well as doing a little exercise as well.
We had arranged the holiday through a tour company and so all the food and drinks were included in the price. Tempting as it was to make the most of this at the bar in the evenings, we actually didn’t drink too much unlike the vast majority of the people staying there. Instead we watched the entertainment provided which was usually just the wrong side of poor, however, there was no shortage of enthusiasm from those performing.
Sunset from our resort, Cuba

Sunset from our resort, Cuba

Anyhow, we wanted to see a little more of Cuba than simply the inside of a resort and so made plans to head out for a few days. Our Holiday Rep was ‘here to help’ and so it was he we approached first:

Us: We want to go to Santiago De Cuba.
Rep: No problem. We have a tour that leaves most days.
Us: Ah, ok. Thanks. But I think we want to go there by ourselves and stay for a few days.
Rep: You cannot. Our tour only goes for 1 day. Look. (He shoves a tour booklet under our noses)
Us: Yes, we know that. We don’t want to go on a tour. We want to go by ourselves.
Rep: But how will you go there?
Us: Well, we were hoping you might be able to help…

Pause...

Silence….

Pause….

Us: Er, for example, we thought we might take a rental car.
Rep: You cannot.
Us: Oh. Why?
Rep: There is no car hire company.
Us: Really?
Rep: Yes. Sorry.
Us: What about that one? (Pointing to the car rental desk 3 yards away).
Rep: Well, erm. I think it is too dangerous.
Us: Er, ok, right. And how about a bus?
Rep: There are no buses.
Us: Are you sure?
Rep: Yes. (He pushes the tour booklet towards us). Here, look. A tour goes tomorrow.
Us: What about this bus company? (We point to the name of a bus company in our LP book).
Rep: No. It does not go anymore.

Well, anyhow, we ended the fairly pointless conversation shortly afterwards. A few minutes later having contacted both a car hire company and the bus company ourselves and weighing up the pros and cons we decided to book on the bus. That done, we headed back towards the pool past our helpful Rep who was busy giving info to some other people.

9th January
And so, the daily bus picked us up just outside the hotel and took us to Holguin early in the morning. It was our first taste of Cuba. We wandered around the town’s main squares, through the streets and up 475 steps to a viewpoint overlooking the surrounding area.
Up the hill overlooking Holguein, Cuba

Up the hill overlooking Holguein, Cuba

The public areas were very, well, erm, public. The locals gathered in the squares and scattered themselves around the seats idly chatting, playing chess or simply watching the world go by – as we were. The roads were mostly empty except for the occasional 50/60 year old American car rolling by – very in keeping with the dilapidated buildings in town.

As we wandered we spotted an excitable queue of people stretching out of a doorway and down the street. Curious, we investigated and discovered an ice cream parlour was the reason for the frenzied interest. We peered through the windows expecting to see ice cream being dished out for free, or dancing girls or fantastical knickerbocker Glories. But, it was just a sad little featureless place with cheap looking ice cream being dished out by sullen teenagers. There must be more to it we reckoned – and joined the queue. Half an hour later we gave it all up. It couldn’t be worth the wait surely – besides, we had a bus to catch. On the way to the bus station we passed another ice cream parlour; this one was more expensive and had no queue. So we popped in and ordered some sort of sundae each. Once it arrived I discovered that I’d ordered 1 scoop of bland and another of tasteless. Marsha had seemingly ordered mud with a tangy fish sauce.

The bus was about half an hour late which provided the local taxi drivers with more time to pester us to go with them instead in their ancient Chevrolets. The bus to Bayamo took just over an hour and from there we paid a bicycle taxi man to take us to a hotel in the centre of town. He promptly set off in the opposite direction and deposited us at a place on the outskirts of town. We only discovered this on arrival by which time we were a little wet from the rain and couldn’t be bothered to argue.

We changed and caught a horse and cart to the centre of town in search of a Cuban party – something Bayamo is famous for in Cuba, especially on Saturday nights. The first place was deserted, the second contained one sad old waiter who stared at us blankly as we entered and appeared mystified as we enquired about food or parties etc…. In the end we did find a restaurant and later a cabaret place but were refused entry. So we headed back and as we neared our room heard the unmistakeable sounds of music and dancing. We sought out the noise and found out that the most happening place in Bayamo was just yards from our hotel room.

We stayed for an hour or so. Everyone could dance. Now, usually I’m used to being the worst dancer on the floor – but this was a new experience for Marsha. We determined to have Salsa lessons in the future.

10th January
Bus from Bayamo to Santiago De Cuba – the old capital of Cuba. The place where Castro had announced the success of the revolution and now a happening music scene. Rather than stay in a hotel we checked into a Casa Particular – the Cuban equivalent of a B&B. We walked to the centre.

‘Taxi sir’?
So tempting. He was standing alongside a 1950’s Chevrolet. We shook our heads.
’10 Pesos to the Caribbean’, he prompted, sensing our indecision. Averting our eyes from the enormous car we reluctantly and silently moved away. To have given a reply, any reply, would have been all the encouragement the driver needed to begin lengthy bargaining procedures. Not that coasting along in a 60 year old car beside the golden sand and turquoise waters of the Caribbean was an unappealing prospect. But, we had other plans for the day.

The main square in which we stood was a hive of activity. A trio of Cuban men wandered the area singing to anyone who cared to listen, chess players concentrated furiously on their games, old ladies sat on benches and chatted and from the safety of the Grand Hotel balcony tourists looked on and pointed their cameras. We set off away from the centre through the narrow streets in search of one of the music cafes that are scattered around the town. At lunchtime we arrived at a tiny little place with an old wooden sign outside announcing itself as The Casa Tradicionales.

On entering, we found ourselves in a dimly-lit, smoke-filled, little room. Old photos littered the walls, local Cubans sat around on beer barrels and in the corner a group of women seemed to be getting some musical instruments ready. There seemed to be a kind of hush about the place – whispered voices, gentle laughter, clinking of glasses and expectant glances in the direction of the readying band.

We ordered a beer each to fit in with the patrons as best as possible. However, on closer inspection it was clear that every time the Cuban people were going to the bar they were fetching themselves a litre of local white rum rather than the half pint of beer we were ordering. It was clearly going to be some afternoon….
The women started to play. And wow they were good. Everything was in Spanish of course and we didn’t understand a thing but the tunes were rollicking, the singing energetic, their enthusiasm contagious and before long they had a crowd of people up dancing and swinging each other around perfectly in time with each other and the music. Those not dancing clapped along with the beat and called out encouragement. It was wonderfully entertaining and all this in a room no bigger than a lounge – well, in fact, it was a lounge.

The rum continued to flow, the music got louder and more and more people took to the floor and twirled in time. We chatted with some of the people there and were persuaded to take to the dance floor ourselves – obviously without much success, as some of our new found friends began offering their services as dance teachers on returning to our seats. Still, it was fun and what we lacked in ability we made up for in enthusiasm.

A new lead singer took over – a large older lady with a booming voice and a huge personality. She sang directly to the admiring throng of people, manoeuvring her way around the room. Then, to my horror she neared us, caught my eye and stood before me. Gesturing evocatively and thumping out her song in Spanish I simply smiled back and fervently hoped I wasn’t being asked to do anything in particular. Apparently not, amid cheers and laughter she winked at me and moved onto her next victim. I’ve rarely been made to feel so superbly inadequate.

We stayed all afternoon and evening with the young and the old, listening to great music, dancing the day away and gradually getting drunk on Cuban rum. A year away from work to travel just doesn’t seem like enough time when you come to places like this.

We left at dark in search of food having spent one of the best afternoon’s of our trip so far. Finding food was nigh impossible though. Either it was ridiculously overpriced or it was next to nothing but tasted like cardboard. We eventually found an Italian place. The best thing that could be said for it was that neither of us got food poisoning from it.

11th January
Our first journey in one of the old American cars. This one was over 55 years old according to the taxi driver – complete with its original engine, which I could quite believe once we got going. The short drive took us to Morro Castle perched on a hill overlooking the Caribbean Sea. The views were gorgeous. From there by boat we crossed to a little island sitting in the estuary in the middle of which stood an old church. Having demonstrated my nautical incompetence by stumbling over in the boat in an attempt to throw the rope ashore, we eventually made it to dry land. There was actually not much on the island and after visiting a small primary school and checking that the church was indeed locked, we made our way back.
Castle Del Morro, Santiago De Cuba

Castle Del Morro, Santiago De Cuba

Castle Del Morro, Santiago De Cuba

Castle Del Morro, Santiago De Cuba

Our taxi, Santiago De Cuba

Our taxi, Santiago De Cuba

Marsha and our taxi, Santiago De Cuba

Marsha and our taxi, Santiago De Cuba

Seascape, Santiago De Cuba

Seascape, Santiago De Cuba

Back in Santiago De Cuba. Lunchtime. We searched high and low. The eating options in Cuba were depressingly few. Eventually we settled upon an unlikely looking café and ordered some Enteremes. We hadn’t a clue what they were but they were quite expensive relatively speaking and so we presumed we’d be getting something half way decent.
Pieces of damp cheddar cheese on sticks arrived.
Really? This is it?
Not quite.
Some watery ketchup was drizzled over them. Perfect.

We found the right door, knocked and entered. We had arrived for our salsa lesson that we’d organised earlier. Hopeless is perhaps too strong a word – but we certainly weren’t good. ‘Just listen to the music’, he said. ‘Hear the beat, dance to the rhythm’. What rhythm??! All I could hear was this blasted Spanish. Of course with salsa the man is supposed to lead but as I didn’t have a clue as to when the beat started it resulted in a lot of trodden-on-toes. Not that I was the only one experiencing difficulties. Marsha would often as not, in the middle of some tricky manoeuvre, attempt some freestyling and embark on some bizarre spinning… But it was a fun hour.

A further wander through town, an inadvertent queue barge over about 100 people into another ice cream parlour and we finally ended up at a decent restaurant we had read about. All was going well until the power went off. We waited out the half hour until the power was returned knowing that eating options elsewhere in town were severely limited. When power was restored the food was brought out almost immediately and was just the wrong side of luke warm. Still, it consisted of a huge hunk of lamb and we tucked in hungrily.

12th January
Leisurely morning, coffee on the balcony of the Grand Hotel. I had a game of chess with one of the Cuban street players – and won! And, we tried for a second time to learn a little salsa. The lesson was in his house which was small and filled with various members of his family all whom were obviously unimpressed with our efforts. Anyhow, I think we made a little progress and we vowed to continue with further lessons in Latin America once we arrive.
After visiting some art galleries it was time to go – bus back to the hotel on the coast a few hours away.

13th/14th January
Finally some sun. These 2 days at the hotel were spent sleeping in, lying on the beach, swimming in the sea, reading, eating and drinking. We also spent a little time being constructive – writing some application stuff for future jobs and taking off for a couple of runs along the coast.
In the evenings we were treated to some fairly random entertainment pieces up on the stage. It was all very pleasant.

15th/16th January
Havana. The easiest and by far the cheapest way of seeing Havana was by joining a tour organised by our ever so helpful tour rep. Fortunately he didn't join us and as we set off early in the morning from the hotel we were introduced to Jose who was to be with us for the 2 days showing us and the 10 other people on the tour around. We flew into Havana arriving mid morning and boarded our bus.

We were taken around the sights and sounds of the new part of Havana. This included the Revolutionary Square complete with various Fidel Castro propaganda, Government buildings, the Grand Theatre, Cuba's Capitol Hill, the Promenade and the Nacional Hotel. Interestingly the government places were easily the most plush and were completely off limits to the ordinary Cuban or tourist. This is in stark contrast to Western democracies where most government buildings are accessible.

Capitol Hill was the spitting image of the one in Washington - but much better according to Jose, to whom all things American were rubbish. At the Nacional Hotel we learned that members of the Italian Mafia in America had once booked out the whole place for a week. It was huge - and so must have cost a fortune! Anyhow, just before we entered we encountered a tiny humming bird. It was the size of a dragonfly and buzzing around the bushes. Sadly no photos but it was amazing to see. At the hotel we enjoyed a glass of wine overlooking the Carribbean Sea and all the old American cars coasting up and down the road beside the promenade.

As we wandered around the town later it was clear that Havana had seen some splendid days in the past. Some of the buildings were very grand - but clearly now in a various stages of dilapidation. As in Santiago, ice cream parlours and other cheap eating places were overflowing and a handful of other restaurants were otherwise empty save tourists and overpriced.

There was a fair amount of poverty around. People were asking for money in the streets. The living places looked awful at times and Jose informed us that every so often a building would collapse on top of its unlucky inhabitants. Several buildings had trees and bushes growing off the rooves and out of the walls. Some places were having some work done to them but it appeared to be the places that were in prominent positions or perhaps were not so in need of the facelifts anayway. We entered a bar which Hemmingway had frequented. Indeed there were several photos and even a statue of him at the bar. Apparently he is credited with inventing the Daqari - and so Marsha had one. It was expensive and rancid.

Towards the end of the afternoon we were taken to the Habana Mulia Hotel to check in. Once done, we set off out again back to the Nacional Hotel and bought tickets for the Cabaret show that evening.

The Cabaret was a 2 hour long musical/dance/costume extravaganza. The stage was nearly always full of scantily clad women and occasionally men prancing around the place along with other performers wearing massive colourful and feathered costumes. Several singers would belt out Spanish songs most of which sounded exactly the same. It was hard to know at times where one particular scene or act would finish and another start as they were all very similar. Still, although we were reasonably entertained, we were quite happy when it all quite unexpectedly finished. The performers all appeared on stage in next to nothing and took their bows to a massive ovation.

Everyone was then invited on stage for some professional dance training. We didn't move. 2 salsa lessons was hardly enough to feel confident enough to leap up on stage in front of everyone else. And then an awkward looking middle aged Englishman got up. He clearly had no idea what was going on. Perhaps we'll give it a go we thought. Then he was joined by countless other young Spanish people all whom started twirling and spinning etc... in time to the music. The poor middle aged Englishman looked horrendously out of place. We slipped out the back.

After a quiet drink on the veranda we left the hotel and after 5 mins found the Jazz Music Club. Downstairs we were informed that the entry fee included 2 free drinks. Great, ok. We perched ourselves on stools at the bar. The jazz players were beginning to take their places. 'Beer please'. No beer. 'Wine then?'. No wine. 'Gin and tonic?'. Not available. Feeling this could go on for a while we asked what the 2 free drinks entitled us to. Rum. Rum based cocktails or a Pina Colada came the reply.

Anyhow, the music was excellent and sat at a bar in Havana in the early hours of the morning sipping a cocktail, making ourselves sick on a Cuban cigar listening to some jazz was a wonderful feeling. This was what the year was about. We eventually got back to the hotel about 2am.

We didn't meet up in the morning until 10am which suited us fine. The breakfast was good and the lie in was nice. Once we had all regrouped however, we set off into Old Havana. The first stop was the old castle from which we had great views across the city and the ocean. And then into the old streets and squares. Again, like in Santiago, the squares were full of local people hanging out, chatting and playing cards etc... Old buildings with facades and columns faced the squares - it was beautiful and a shame that we hadn't more time to simply soak up the atmosphere of the place and its people. Old, old cars rumbled by. Large groups of young men angrily discussed Cuban baseball stats. Colourful women marched around grabbing male tourists and demanded money off them in exchange for kisses. A Cuban man hovered around groups of tourists and sketched one of them on a pad. His sketches all looked exactly the same - male or female - and had a startling resemblence to Margaret Thatcher. It felt vibrant and exciting, and yet, around the corner there would be a large family spilling out of a tiny decaying house onto the smelly street.

Marsha and I had some free time and visited a market and then strolled up by the waterfront to where we met the remainder of the group and then headed to the airport and back to the hotel.

Havana - a place evoking memories of a once splendid time. As the old cars clatter past huge classic buildings it is hard not to fall in love with the place, however, many of the people clearly live day by day on very little in crummy houses and spend their days queuing for food.
Revolutionary Square, Havana, Cuba

Revolutionary Square, Havana, Cuba

Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba

Hotel Nacional, Havana, Cuba

Capitol Hill, Havana, Cuba

Capitol Hill, Havana, Cuba

Havana seafront

Havana seafront

Church in Havana, Cuba

Church in Havana, Cuba

9P1173913.jpgOld car in Havana

Old car in Havana

Shoe shop in Havana

Shoe shop in Havana

Cabaret!

Cabaret!

Old car, Havana, Cuba

Old car, Havana, Cuba

17th/18th January
2 days at the hotel. The sun shone and we relaxed on the beach. We went for a couple of runs each as well just to make ourselves feel better about all that we were eating and drinking.

2 weeks had quickly passed and we were due back on a plane to the UK. So, as our last evening in Cuba drew to a close we decided to have 1 final drink at the bar.
Well, maybe one more - after all, they are free.
We got talking with some people from Canada. So we had another.
And one more.
19th January
And one more.
And one more...
...and so on...

Goodbye Cuba, goodbye sunshine. It was snowing at Gatwick. Still, we were flying later to Glasgow where actually it was warmer and not snowing.

Posted by Patrick H. 10:59 Archived in Cuba Comments (1)

December 15th - 23rd, USA

December 15th
A day of travelling. From The Belgrave House Hotel in London via Boston to Washington DC. The British Airways crew had declared a strike for when we hoped to return and so I spent an infuriating half hour discussing our situation with the BA 'Help' Desk. The surly lady on the desk was obviously annoyed at having to do her job and give us information and effectively informed me that if the strike went ahead we would lose the flight and would not be entitled to a refund due to the nature of our ticket.... 'Ah, right, thanks. Sorry to trouble you'. Last time on British Airways....

We crossed the Atlantic with American Airlines. Once they had squeezed us into our seats the inflight entertainment started and consisted of 1 rancid film - something about an old man with a flying house - and a lousy lunch and no bar. The 7 hours passed slowly to Boston. We then had to collect our bags, pass through customs and check them in again!!? - this despite the fact we were only transiting. Anyhow, our tiny plane touched down in Washington DC a little after 7pm and by 8pm we were at the front door of Kirsty - a Kiwi friend who now lives and works in the USA.

We were in the States primarily for a wedding due to take place in New York on the 22nd. However, it was also a good chance to catch up with Kirsty in DC and for both of us to visit a couple of cities neither of us had been to before. The 3 of us ventured out into the cold night, had a sushi, chatted and cursed trans-Atlantic airlines...

December 16th
Kirsty left for work early and so we were on our own in the house when we finally got up. It was about a 40 minute walk down to the main attraction. It was a lovely crisp, clear winter's day and DC is a very walkable city. After a quick Subway breakfast we arrived at the back of the White House. It seemed smaller. Round the front we took photos of the place as we'd seen it thousands of times on tv. Several important looking people roamed the gardens and guarded the entrance. And, a lone figure in his tent kept vigil outside with 'Ban the Bomb' signs.
The White House

The White House

Marsha and the White House

Marsha and the White House

The White House

The White House

It is always very interesting and stirring to see a place that has been in the news so much and is so photographed. But, after several minutes, once it was clear that the president wasn't about to take a stroll around the grounds with his family or the Pope etc.... we moved on.

Near the White House a large area of land is given over to commemorate various highly esteemed presidents of time gone by. Nothing yet for G. W. Bush. The Washington Monument stands at 555 feet and is made entirely of stone. It is the tallest stone structure in the world and in its time was the tallest building in the world. It is an imposing structure and is taller than anything else in DC by miles. We walked up to it and found out that we could actually get to the top - so we went up. There were great views down onto the White House, Capitol Hill and the Lincoln Memorial as well as the surrounding water and city.
Washington Monument. DC

Washington Monument. DC

Next, to the Lincoln Memorial via the 2nd world war memorial which was a little too self righteous and over glorifying victory rather than lamenting the millions dead on both sides. Lincoln was apparently a very humble man, but, in death he sits in a throne in a Roman like palace overlooking the surrounding area. A very impressive structure all the same.
Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial

Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC

Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC


We continued to walk and passed the Roosevelt and Jefferson memorials and the Korean War display.
Jefferson Monument, Washington DC

Jefferson Monument, Washington DC

And so, we skirted the tidal basin and were on the way to Capitol Hill when a combination of time, wind, cold and hunger got the better of us and we nipped into the Smithsonian Natural History Museum instead.

This museum is where some of the 'Night of the Museum' films were shot. It was late when we emerged and the sky was a bright orange colour behind the Washington Monument where the sun had just set.
Washington Monument. Washington DC

Washington Monument. Washington DC

Smithsonian meseum, Washington DC

Smithsonian meseum, Washington DC

It was a long way back up the hill home - and it had become icy cold.

Marsha and I had an all American dining experience - The Diner - just up the road from Kirsty's place. It was ok. In actual fact the street was full of really very nice eating places and I commented to Marhsa over dinner that in contrast to previous visits to other places in the USA, Washington DC seemed full of good restaurants and bars. Additionally, unlike other cities, most people around the place appeared to be normally shaped and fit rather than the humungous types that populate most American places.

December 17th
Kirsty knocked on our door as she left for work - as arranged. 'Thanks', we grunted and returned to sleep. Later Marsha and I set off into the cold again. Breakfast at Tyrsst and then an hour's walk to Capitol Hill where we ended up spending several hours. Again, a very impressive building when viewed up close.
Capitol Hill, Washington DC

Capitol Hill, Washington DC

Capitol Hill, Washington DC

Capitol Hill, Washington DC

Inside, the Senate were in session and we managed to get in to watch for a while. 3 senators spoke (Illanois, Washington and another state I didn't catch) all discussing the health bill that Obama is trying to push through. As frustrating as the NHS in the UK can sometimes be, it is still one of the best public health systems in the world - and certainly better than the American one at present.

Almost nobody listened - in fact, I think the only people listening to the senators as they rattled on about injustices etc... were Marsha and I. There were no other senators in the room, just a few scribers, pages and secretaries. The Washington Seanator at one point lamented the fact that no-one was there to hear what she had to say. Then, once she had finished speaking she promptly left the room before the next senator had even stood up to speak...!

Following this we had an hour's tour of the building that took in a short film and then various rooms where the Old Senate and the House of Representatives etc... had sat. Each state is also represented by 2 statues somewhere on the Hill and so these appeared everywhere.

It was well into the afternoon by the time we wrapped up and ventured outside again. Across the road was the Supreme Court which we went into and then the Volger Shakespeare establishment nearby. It was lovely walking about again - albeit very cold - and we eventually made our way back via the White House again to home.

The 3 of us ate at the New Orleans Cafe just up 18th Street.

December 18th
We walked over to Georgetown. A pleasant little district sitting by the river. The houses and shops were all very upmarket but it was nice wandering around. We stopped for some breakfast and then I headed back over towards the Smithsonian side of town whilst Marsha browsed the shops. I visited the American History Museum which, although a little one eyed at times, was a good way to spend a hour or so. Marsha and I met up again and had a couple of hours in the Art museum next door. It was actually very good - at the very least, unlike the London Tate, all the paintings and exhibits required a fair amount of artistic thought and ability. Most of the stuff in the Tate I could put together in half a morning.

The sunset was quality again and we strolled back up the hill via the White House one last time and to Bourbon Restaurant for a good old traditional American greasy burger....

Back at the apartment we were on our own. Kirsty had flown to San Francisco. And, we were leaving for New York by bus in the morning. As we looked out of the window just before turning off the lights we noticed a few snowflakes floating down from the dark sky above. Ahhhh..., isn't that lovely we thought....

December 19th
Outside the world was white. Beautiful. The snow was still falling.
A thought.... we had a bus to catch....
Opening the back door we were hit by freezing cold temperatures and a gusty wind blowing snow into our faces. Pushing open the door Marsha stepped out into the snow - nearly up to her knee. Oh dear....
We checked the internet and found the relevant web page: 'All buses are cancelled today'.

A hasty rearrangement and after having been assured by the confident gentleman at the other end of the phone that all trains would run and be on time, we booked ourselves onto a 5pm evening train to New York. As the snow continued to fall and the bus office repeatedly failed to answer our phone calls we decided to venture out. It was over a foot deep. We struggled to the supermarket to stock up on soups and things for the day ahead.

And then we built a snowman. Neither of us were that pleased with our efforts by the end, but he did look vaguely snowman like. We thought about reconstructing his face and overall body shape to make him a little more aesthetically pleasing but, our hands were cold, and to be honest, we couldn't be bothered.
Our snowman

Our snowman

PC193712.jpg

Later on, with bags on our backs, we trudged through the 15 inch deep snow to the metro stop. Amazingly everything was running fine - until we reached Union Station that is. There were huge delays on all trains heading into and out of Washington. Our train time got closer and closer and then suddenly, out of nowhere, our train was boarding. It was the only train going within even 3 or 4 hours of the schedule. Of course, we waited on the platform for about a week and then the journey took nearly 2 months.

In reality, we arrived into New York about 1.30am. Cold and confused and laden with baggage we negotiated the disaster that is the NY Metro map and managed to find our place to stay - The New York Loft Hostel in Brooklyn.

December 20th
New York is expensive. And so, for the 1st time (or at least the 1st time through choice) on the trip we were staying in a dormitory room - with 14 others. Even this was well over $50 a night.

The snow had fallen in New York as well - about a foot lay outside. But already people were at work shovelling it onto piles off the pavements (sidewalks) and off the roads. It had quickly lost its charm and romanticism and was slushy, mucky, wet and very cold. We took the metro to Madison Square Gardens. Then we walked up through Times Square, the theatre district, via some apparently very famous shops that Marsha said, 'you really should have heard of Macy's' and 'surely you've heard of this one...' Then up 42nd street and 5th Avenue onwards to Central Park. It was a Sunday and crowded with families enjoying the snow. The skating rink was full of people crashing around it. The small slopes had little children whizzing down on trays and bags. Someone had built a snowman, and we had to grudgingly admit to it being better than our rather inadequate attempt in Washington.
Horse and cart, Central Park

Horse and cart, Central Park

Central Park

Central Park

Us in Central Park

Us in Central Park

Central Park in snow

Central Park in snow

PC213751.jpg

But it was soooo cold. And so we had to keep stopping off for coffees etc... Anyhow, we had also arranged to meet up with our soon-to-be-wed friends. Tonight was the stag/hen night.

The stag night was a few beers, watching the Niks play the Bobcats (Basketball) at Madison Square Gardens and then further drinks afterwards. Meanwhile the girls opted for a meal, cocktails and an evening at the ballet -'The Nutcracker'. I think the boys night was definitely the more entertaining of the 2, even if the girls plans were a little more mature... It was great fun though and made us forget the cold for a while!

December 21st
Awoken by various, half naked strangers wandering past our beds at about 8am - such is the life of a dorm room I guess. Anyhow, it got us up and out. We emerged into the slushy snow and slipped and slid to the metro station and boarded for the Straten Island Ferry Port. The Straten Island Ferry is free - and deposits you onto Straten Island. There's nothing much there - and so what's the point I hear you cry!! The ferry route goes straight past the Statue of Liberty and leaves behind great views of Manhatten as well. We actually took the ferry out to the island and hopped straight back onto it to return. The Statue of Liberty stood proudly before us - smaller than I had imagined - but impressive nonetheless. The Manhatten skyline was equally as impressive although it was even better at night as we were to find out the next day.
The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty

Manhatten skyline

Manhatten skyline

But it was so cold. The wind whipped our faces and turned our fingers to ice as we struggled with our cameras to take photos. We asked a few people to take our photo. I suppose the cold affected their efforts, but even so, when asking someone to take a photo of us when the Statue of Liberty is clearly in view behind us, you'd expect that the person might make some attempt to include the statue in the photo rather than block it out altogether.

In the afternoon we were in the audience for the Radio City Christmas Spectacular in the Radio City Music Hall - a very generous present from my sister. It featured the world famous rockettes (who?) and Father Christmas. It was very entertaining - many performers, lots of over the top sets and costumes and loads of singing. Tacky, but brilliant and well worth visiting if you happen to have the chance to go. The Rockettes performed several different and quite complex dance routines and, as far as I was concerned, were flawless.
The Rockettes, Radio City Hall, New York

The Rockettes, Radio City Hall, New York

Afterwards we wandered the New York streets (which were almost completely cleared of snow by this time!) and ended up in Times Square. A video camera was then let loose on a bunch of people singing nearby and we noticed that the images were appearing in the huge screens above us in the square. And so I joined in - and Marsha managed to capture on her camera several pictures of me appearing on the giant sized Times Square screens singing Away in a Manger and the like.
Empire State Building - obviously...

Empire State Building - obviously...

Times Square, New York

Times Square, New York

We met up with the wedding party people at Alfredos restaurant in the evening and were very generously treated to a lovely meal.

December 22nd
Matt and Carole got married underneath the Brooklyn Bridge overlooking Manhatten. As the sun set the clouds turned orange behind the skyscrapers and away to the left the Statue of Liberty appeared to fizz out of the water into the red sky. As darkness came the Mahatten lights shone providing one of the greatest man-made views I have ever seen. It was a stunning backdrop to the wedding and later the dinner and entertainment afterwards. It was a lovely night and all went very well. It ended with a huge Limousine taking 15 of us around the city of New York dropping us off at various hotels - and, well, and our little hostel. Once we had got out, skidded about drunkenly on the ice in our posh suit and frock and then set off in the wrong direction, apparently the Limo driver turned to the other guests remaining in the car and told them that 'I wouldn't live 'ere for a million dollars', and charged off as quickly as possible. Anyhow, we woke up in the morning to the sound of 14 other strangers going about their morning business in close proximity to us - and after a moment's confusion realised we had indeed made it back to our 'hotel' room safely.
Manhatten and the statue at sunset

Manhatten and the statue at sunset

View from the New York wedding

View from the New York wedding

New York wedding

New York wedding

December 23rd
We enjoyed the sights and sounds of New York in the morning - wandering the streets and taking a few photos. It really is a very exciting place. And then sadly it was time to depart.

We were ready seated on the plane bound for London on time. Then a ldy nearby felt that her child was a little too sick to fly and wanted to get off. Great!! About 3 hours later once she and her bags had been removed and we had eventually made it to the front of the flight queue we departed - with no chance of making our connecting flight to Glasgow...

Posted by Patrick H. 04:47 Archived in USA Comments (0)

November 29th - December 14th, Qatar, Berlin, UK

November 29th, 30th, December 1st
Departure from Jordan and arrival in Doha, Qatar. We transited in Bahrain amid much Christmas cheer in the airport - dancing, singing, trumpet playing santas almost outnumbered passengers! And so we were back in Qatar - the place we had lived 3 years previously. It was a decent time of year weather wise - warm enough without being stifling, and, of course, dry.

We stayed the 2 days and 2 nights with Jen and Gareth and their 2 young children. Fantastic hosts - all of them! We spent the days catching up with them and other friends whom we had worked with. Down at the beach, BBQ at home, at the renovated souq and in malls. It was relaxing and very enjoyable and lovely to see and spend time with old friends. As we left late on the night of the 1st, we vowed to be back again to see people before too long - and meant it.

December 2nd, 3rd
Berlin, Germany. We had left late on the 1st and arrived early on the 2nd into Berlin airport. Qatar Airways had not provided their very best plane for the flight and so as we followed the directions to Malane's apartment in the city we were both feeling a little tired. And, after chatting with Malane (friend from Indonesia) for a couple of hours before she left for work, we sat down and watched a couple of films - something we hadn't done in months - and it felt normal and great!

We ventured out to the Christmas markets in the evening. We had been to Berlin exactly 2 years before and had remembered the fantastic markets, food, mulled wine (Gluhwein) and the cold! We each ate a massive sausage in a tiny roll - as is the German way, and, having warmed ourselves with a few mulled wines we headed back home.
Christmas Market in Berlin

Christmas Market in Berlin

The next day, as Malane worked, Marsha and I took in a tour of the city with the New Europe company. It lasted over 4 hours and took in all the big sites you'd expect - the Brandenberg Gate, Reichstag, Hitler's bunker, the wall, Checkpoint Charlie, the book burning square, the Jewish Cemetary and various other attractions. The girl leading the tour, whilst being slightly irritating, was very informative and energetic. It brought the city alive for us - and, apart from the cold, it was a very interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile afternoon.
The Berlin Wall

The Berlin Wall

The Brandenberg Gates

The Brandenberg Gates

PC033645.jpg

Again, several mulled wines and big sausages in tiny rolls whilst strolling the Xmas markets was a very pleasant way to spend another evening in Berlin.

December 4th - 14th
I left for London and Marsha stayed in Berlin. Marsha enjoyed more time in Berlin and more days and evenings out with Malane and also with Carole - a friend who flew over from England to see them. Apparently the weather got worse, but otherwise, a relaxing and highly enjoyable week was spent by all. Berlin is a superb city and as I left I felt very envious in many ways of Malane's city life there.

I, however, was bound for London and spent the next week visiting friends and family in and around London. It was lovely to catch up with people and share a few drinks and the odd curry. Marsha and I then met up in London on the 10th and stayed with Bernie before heading down south the next day. My Uncle very generously put on an excellent 60th birthday party to which many friends and all the family gathered on the night of the 12th.

And, then back to London for the day on the 14th. We split up. Marsha went shopping and I wandered along the Thames. After several hours of that I have found myself in an internet cafe awaiting Marsha - we are off to see a show tonight.

The last week has been very enjoyable. Catching up with friends has been lovely and all the family managed to gather for a great party on the Saturday. Having now spent 5 months on the road it was quite nice to do some normal things - sit on a couch, watch tv, go to an Xmas party, have a pint with friends, buy a paper etc... One of the stock questions we were asked was, 'what has been the favourite place you've visited?' A hard one. So many iconic places, so many quiet out of the way locations that have captured our imaginations. But, you know, today, walking past the Houses of Parliament, the London Eye, past St. Paul's, past Shakespeare's Globe, over Tower Bridge and past the Tower of London - to mention just a few of the famous world reknown sites - you'd be hard pushed to beat London.

Posted by Patrick H. 01:14 Archived in Qatar Comments (0)

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