Getting the highlights touched up in the UK.

1 Jul

Touching down in the UK had me giddy with excitement. Even stepping out into the UK summer (read: driving wind and rain) couldn’t dampen my spirits. (Or perhaps I’ve just hardened up. I did, after all, swim in the Antarctic.). Aside from stocking up on a few small, missed luxuries (like trash-rag magazines and quality shampoo & conditioner) and dying the locks brown after 26 blonde years (another example of travel courage), we whiled away the days with some fun family time.

There was many a delicious home-cooked roast dinner, and cheeky tipples up at the Bakers Arms. We had a night of fish & chips and a DVD with MC’s mum, and raided her seemingly never-ending supply of nuts, crisps and chocolate. Ok fine, I admit, there was no mouse in the chocolate box, it was me that ate the Guylian Belgian shell chocolates. And yes, sometimes 7 at a time. I’m sorry, I’m incorrigible.

But aside from the above, there were a couple of added highlights…

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Bikes and beaches: exploring Baracoa and playas in Cuba.

6 Jun

All signs were pointing to a good time for us in Baracoa when our bus stopped for a short break not far from town and I found a street vendor selling local Baracoan chocolate. The obligatory taste test over a cup of coffee saw me sneakily stocking up our rations.

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A hop, skip and a jump. Camaguey, Bayamo & Santiago de Cuba, Cuba.

28 May

Our Cuban travels continue to migrate east…


We arrive in Camaguey much, much later than we had expected. The rain in Trinidad caused rivers to flood, leaving buses to take a longer route around it. About 4 hours longer, to be exact. This gave us much less time to experience the town, leaving us to taking a stroll through the tiny laneways before finally finding ourselves in our first government-run restaurant for dinner. Not quite understanding how the portions and the menu worked, we haphazardly ordered as best we could. While the food was fairly average, there is very little to complain about a meal for two, consisting of meat, veg, rice, beer, water, and a tip, totaling a mere AUD$7. How is this possible? Cuba has two currencies – one for Cuban nationals and one for tourists. $1CUC (tourist currency) = 25Pesos (national currency) = $1AUD. The intricacies of the system can take some time to get your head around, but the bottom line is services aimed at tourists are charged at a much higher rate because, well, with our stronger economies, we can afford to pay more. Cuba being a socialist country means all Cubans have their basic necessities free – housing, schooling, health-care – and other basic necessities such as fruit, veg and elementary cooking ingredients, are charged in the currency for Cuban nationals – Cuban pesos (for example, one banana costs 1 Peso, therefore for $1 Aussie dollar, you could buy 25 bananas. There is, however, no rule disallowing a tourist nor a Cuban national from exchanging money into the other’s currency and purchasing items with it. And so, this is how we find ourselves forking out so little for a night’s meal.

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Raindrops keep falling on my head… in Vinales, Cienfuegos & Trinidad, Cuba.

24 May

On our final day in Havana, we arise early and take a 1950’s Chevy taxi (as you do) to the bus station. It takes a mere 2 hours to get to Vinales, a tranquil town in the Pinar del Rio region, but given the drastic change in the weather you’d have sworn we’d travelled further. As the rain drizzled around us and the warning of much more in the days to come, our hopes of visiting either Cayo Jutias or Cayo Levisa were dashed. These islands have been named as two of the very few islands in Cuba which remain quiet and without the establishment of large all-inclusive resorts, so we’re a tad disappointed.

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Havana-ing a good time in Cuba

16 May

It’s Saturday 21st May and after almost missing a previous flight to Cartagena we are at Bogota airport in really good time for the short hop to Havana. And it’s just as well, as after lining up to check in, we are turned away as we haven’t yet had our passports stamped to leave the country. So off we trudge through the airport with our belongings on our backs to duly get our stamps and line back up, only to then be turned away again as we don’t have enough Colombian Pesos on us to pay the departure tax. “Departure tax?”, we say in unison, as I’m pointed in the direction of an ATM. Oh yes, departure tax, as in tax to depart, and as in contained in the guide book, under ‘Taxes: Departure’. Excellent pre-trip planning we have done again. Perhaps in Cuba we’ll read the bloody guide book rather than haul it around for exercise!

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Good luck needs no explanation. Cartagena, Taganga & Palomino, Colombia

11 May

Stepping off our plane in Cartagena the intensity of the heat and humidity hits us full force. Even at almost 9pm at night, it’s a scorcher and a welcome change from the crispness of the previous week. Our luck keeps shining on us when we arrive at Hotel Villa Colonial in Cartagena, our accommodation for the next 3 nights. It’s perfectly located, reasonably cheap, impeccably clean, spacious, cool, with a hard mattress (read: no sinking in the middle!) and fluffy pillows. Even better is that, unlike many hotels, it has an excellent kitchen for guest-use and an affordable drinks fridge, which we quickly get acquainted with before retiring to bed.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Cartagena draws legions of tourists and thus, inevitably, aggressive touts and street-sellers. Dodging the unwanted sales and navigating the completely irrational driving and road rules requires skill – feels like we’re playing a game of ‘Frogger’. You need to coyly idle along, scanning for the ideal moment, then dash across, winding and weaving, hoping you won’t become a squashed frog (not the delicious shooter glass kind) in the process.

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Botero and beyond: Bogota, Salento & Medellin, Colombia.

30 Apr

After having been encouraged to take 2 planes, the fast boat, 4 taxis and 6 days to reach Bogota from Lima (flight time 3 hours) I’m ready to put my feet up. Unfortunately, there is the nagging itch that as we were in transit for the best part of a week, it would be good to get out and get to know a place again. So it is that we find ourselves on foot exploring Colombia’s capital, Bogota, on a rainy Monday morning…

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Lost in Transition: 5 towns, 8 days – Nazca, Huacachina, Lima, Iquitos (Peru) & Leticia (Colombia).

22 Apr

Its Saturday April 14, 8pm and we’ve just settled ourselves into our VIP seats on the bus bound for Nazca. Thinking it might be one of the quietest Saturday nights we’ve had in some time, this thought is soon ousted when 5 of the other 7 available seats were filled by a group of barely-out-of-their-teens females and their decibels. Not to worry, I pat our bottle of vino tinto and giant sized bar of chocolate and figure things could be worse. Luck is still with us when we are treated to an in-flight movie, Braveheart. Dubbed in Spanish, with English subtitles, I decide it does no justice to William Wallace’s “Freeeedomm!” speech. Alas, the good and the bad seesaw needs to be evened out, and the bus soon rolls to a stop. Landslide. Nobody moves tonight. No movie, no music, it’s raining hard outside and… we’ve run out of vino tinto…

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Landslide Victory: Trekking to Machu Picchu

14 Apr

Topping up the levels with a hearty dinner in Jacks cafe in Cusco we’re in both in an apprehensive mood; it’s the night before our 5 day / 4 night, Salkantay Trek to the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu. We’ll be camping for most of the trek, and although the rainy season is supposed to be petering out, every night for the last three, has seen massive thunderstorms and huge downpours. It’s been cold too. We’ve shivered ourselves to sleep, after gasping for breath in this high altitude city following the nightly climb up to our hostel on the hillside of San Blas neighbourhood. These factors, combined with the feeling that walking for 5 days just to see one of the new 7 wonders of the world could be an anti-climax, Machu Picchu can’t be that good can it? Well happily, it turns out, that it can..

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Dizzying delights. La Paz, Bolivia to Lake Titicaca to Arequipa, Peru.

5 Apr

The rolling valley that is La Paz is dotted with lego shaped houses, streets smelling of freshly baked humitas and lights haphazardly draped through streets like a badly decorated karaoke bar. Even when we arrive at 5am in the drizzling rain, its already buzzing with vendors selling their wares and mini-vans tooting and carting locals to works.

The city of La Paz hits you like the waft of an Indian curry from a nearby kitchen. Its the ‘hope-you-like-chilli’ variety, choking your nostrils and sending your salivary glands into overdrive. It doesn’t look like much but its spicy, hearty, daring – an unpretentious big city, a melting pot of indigenous farmers, sleek Bolivian businessman, expat extrepreneurs, and camera-snapping tourists – all digging their spoon into the bowl wanting another lick. I can already tell this is going to be better than the average vindaloo.

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