A Travellerspoint blog

Cuba - Santa Clara

26 °C

We headed back west again, and to break up the journey we stopped for the night in Santa Clara. This town is the place where Che Guevara took down an ammunition train, and therefore began the control of the Cuban Revolution along with Fidel Castro. Although this happened a good 50 something years ago (in December 1958), it is a hugely important part of Cuba's history, as they continue to be governed by Fidel Castro's brother Raul. The majority of Cuba's population are living on extremely low wages and rely on ration shops for the bulk of their food.

We were able to visit the site of the train derailment and battle, which has been turned into a place marking the uprising of the Cuban Revolution. Next we took a horse and carriage to the other side of town, which is one of the main modes of public transport in Santa Clara. We jumped out around the corner from the Che Guevara Monument and Mausoleum, and we visited the interesting museum which is housed underneath the statue.

We were also in luck when looking for a place for dinner, and got directed around corner and up a few flights of stairs by a friendly foreigner living in Santa Clara. We found ourselves on a small terrace overlooking the town in a restaurant called El Sol, where we had some of the best food we'd had since arriving in Cuba.

After a few days of sunshine we decided to head to coastal town of Varadero to check out the Caribbean coast.

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 10:16 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Cuba - Camagüey

28 °C

A few more hours on a bus and we arrived Camaguey, as far east as we were going in Cuba. Camaguey is a beautiful bustling town with old buses puffing out fumes down the narrow windy streets. We took a cyclo ride to explore the maze of streets, and our friendly driver Christian showed us around the numerous hidden plazas, winding streets and parks in Camaguey. Although it is inland, the complex streets were designed to confuse invaders, in case the town was taken over by pirates (as was the case with many coastal towns at the time!)

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The house and art gallery of Joel Jover and his wife Ileana Sánchez, on the main plaza (Parque Ignacio Agramonte) was a nice spot to pop into, and the large church on the opposite side of the plaza was a peaceful spot to sit and relax amongst the bustling town.

One night we unassumingly bought tickets to the theatre, with no idea of what was actually on, it turned out to be one of Cuba's largest pop stars (Carlos Varela). The theatre turned into a pumping venue full of young Cuban music fanatics. The band was great, with some very skilled musicians, including his astonishing pianist (see video clip below)!

Posted by TheNomadWay.com 13:51 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Cuba - Trinidad

26 °C

Trinidad is a quaint Cuban town on the southern coast of Cuba. It's 500 year old town with Spanish Colonial architecture is one of the most preserved in the country with cobbled streets and old colourful houses lining the narrow streets. The houses are covered in red tiled roofs and we had a great view across the town from the top of Convent San Francisco de Asís.

Trinidad has a quiet central plaza with several steep streets leading away from it. Around the corner from the central plaza is a sloping street full of steps, and a stage, used most nights for live music and salsa dancing (Casa de la Musica), and we found it a great spot to sip away on Mojitos and enjoy some live Cuban music. There were also some fantastic and affordable dinner combinations on offer, mains with drinks and all sorts thrown in. Plus in practically every restaurant, there were very talented musicians playing away from a corner.

One day we took the rickety old Russian train ride out to the Valley of the Sugar Mills, over a few bridges and through gorgeous green hills, with great views out across the valley. It was a peaceful ride including visits to a couple of old mansions which used to operate as sugar mills. Cuba was the largest exporter of sugar in the world during the 18th and 19th century.

Trinidad is a great town to aimlessly wander and soak up the fascinating Cuban lifestyle of relaxing in the doorway of your old house, in a rocking chair, cigar in hand just watching the people go by.

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 13:39 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Cuba - Cienfuegos

27 °C

After the beating city of Havana, Cinefuegos was a bit of a shock. It's pristinely clean streets and well preserved French buildings felt quite un-Cuban. Cinefuegos has a small town vibe with a gorgeous central plaza which houses a small Arc De Triumph, and is apparently Cuba's answer to Paris!

The town is situated at a bay with beaches and mountains nearby. We spent a day taking it easy and explored the giant peninsula, which the town spreads down, and discovered a couple of interesting old buildings, including the Palacio de Valle. We climbed to the top for a great view over the town and the bay. At the tip of the peninsula sits a small park, with a pergola where we sat and looked out into the calm bay surrounding us. One of the highlights was our charming Casa Particular, another beautiful old building, with a lovey room and en-suite, and a fabulous Cuban breaky (eggs, bread and fresh fruit).

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 13:36 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Cuba - Havana

27 °C

Cuba wasn't on our list when planning our adventure but after hearing from a few travellers how great it was and that things in Cuba are really about to change we started to consider it. Then when Paul's sister started talking about visiting Cuba, we decided to join her and booked our flights!

We flew in via San Salvador to Havana and braced ourselves for something quite different. The country has been run by Fidel Castro under a communist regime since 1959. Due to significant trade embargoes from by the USA and other countries, Cuba has almost been cut off by the rest of the world meaning that they have lived with very little since then. For example the majority of cars are still running from the 1950's and crumbling mansions continue to serve as people's homes. Only the Soviet Union (pre 1991) and China (now) have supported Cuba with products and infrastructure. It's only since Fidel stepped down in 2008 (his brother took over), that Cubans are starting to see change...such as the allowance to operate their own business (2011) and own mobile phones.

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Our first impressions were a little different as we where whisked away from the airport in a new Kia Carnival with driver chatting on his iPhone. But once we made it into the old town it felt like we had stepped back in time. We stayed in a Casa Particular which is a room in someone's home marked by a symbol on their door as there are no hostels in Cuba, and it was a great way to meet and support local people. Our hosts Wilfred and Mercedes were fantastic and very welcoming.

It was great to catch up with Sally (Paul's sister) who arrive a couple of days later. We explored the nearby area, checked out the Malecon and Old Town where USA cars from the 1950's and Russian Lada's from the 70's and 80's are everywhere. It's hard to know how some of them still run, but the locals have no choice but to repair. The old town is huge and has countless beautiful old buildings. Before the revolution, this was a rich country and you can tell...so many of the aging houses and buildings are grand and ornate. The lack of large stores, commercialism and advertising was refreshing, except for when you needed something! We got immersed in Cuba's other love, music. Live music is at pretty much every restaurant and bar, and the musicians are so talented. The late night jazz at La Zorra y El Cuervo was brilliant.

We took a day trip to Vinales, which was fantastic as we got to see how tobacco leaves are grown on a tobacco farm, dried and then how Cuban's hand roll their famous cigars in a factory. This coupled with tour of a rum factory, a boat trip through ancient caves and a view of the giant Mural de la Prehostorica.

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Due to Cuba's rapidly increasing tourist levels, in most large cities or tourist areas we were constantly approached by touters. As a result of the low wages and communist regimen in Cuba, tourism has become one of the only ways to make the extra money many need to get by.

Posted by TheNomadWay.com 22:51 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Panama - Panama City

34 °C

We flew into Panama City, and having few pre-conceived ideas we soon discovered that the city is comprised of a flashy new centre and an old crumbling historical centre. There were many buses running through the city to ferry people in and out, we got to take our pick between the new air conditioned buses, or the colourful old American school buses. It was stifling hot, so more often than not we chose the air conditioned ones!

The old town was left almost abandoned until recently, and now lots of work is being done to restore it's grandeur and it has quickly become the main tourist area. Full of crumbling buildings and empty mansions with gardens taking over the insides, it was a very interesting place to wander through. The charm is that it hasn't yet been made to look perfect, but there are beautiful plazas, streets and buildings amongst the older ones. A nice walkway along the waterfront gives a great view back across the modern sky scrapers of the commercial city centre.

The Panama Canal is an amazing feat of engineering, opened in 1914 to connect the Atlantic ocean with the Pacific, making trade between Europe and the rest of the world a lot easier. There is an inland water system, which has had several giant locks added to it to create the Panama Canal. The whole canal stretches 77.1km. We were lucky enough to see a giant cruise ship, followed by many cargo ships pass through the Miraflores lock where the tourist centre is set up. The centre has loads of info about the formation of the canal, well worth a visit.

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 22:38 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

Panama - San Blas Islands

29 °C

Our stop in Panama was convenient for our forward journey to other destinations, and we also had the opportunity to visit the San Blas Islands. When we were travelling in the north of Colombia we heard lots about the San Blas Islands as it's a popular trip to sail between Panama and Colombia via the San Blas Islands.

Since they recently upgraded the road it's much faster to reach the islands from Panama City (approx. 2hrs in a car, then a short boat ride depending on which island you're heading to), however it is a roller coaster of a road, be careful if you get motion sick! The Islands are an archipelago comprising approximately 378 small islands, of which only 49 are inhabited. They are small sandy islands covered in palm trees, and pretty much define 'tropical island paradise'. We weren't really sure what to expect in terms of accommodation and facilities and we were in for a bit of a surprise. The inhabitants are indigenous and live in a traditional way, which was great to experience.

We payed for an all inclusive home stay with some locals which included all meals, accommodation and boat transport to explore some of the islands. The downside? The facilities were well, rustic. The toilet? Perched directly over the ocean. Shower? A bucket. Still, it didn't take anything away from how beautiful the islands were. Some no bigger that a football field, with palm trees, white sand, crystal clear water, tropical coral and fish, not to mention giant star fish! Camping in a small tent and exploring these islands was fantastic, and we had some great sunny weather. Isla Perro even had a ship wreck from 100 years ago which Paul spend hours exploring. Then a group of us decided to take on the challenge of a swim to a neighbouring island, well it looked fairly close..!

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San Blas is an ideal getaway for back packers, and if you're after something slightly more comfortable we hear there are islands with resorts which are a little less basic!

Posted by TheNomadWay.com 22:30 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

South America - Goodbye!

34 °C

After almost 12 months, sadly our time in South America has come to an end. We've explored hundreds of towns and hostels, rode countless buses, and met brilliant people along the way. We have seen and experienced so much. This continent truly has everything, we only really scratched the surface!

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Some of our great hightlights that we recommend have been:
1. Patagonia in both Argentina and Chile including: Ushuaia, Torres del Paine, El Chalten, El Calafate
2. Carretera Austral, Pucon, Santiago and Valparaiso in Chile
3. Salta and Cafayate in Argentina
4. Salt Flats tour from San Pedro de Atacama to Uyuni in Bolivia
5. Potosi and Sucre in Bolivia
6. The 'Ride and River' journey from Sorata to the Bolivian jungle
7. Machu Picchu and Cusco in Peru
8. Huaraz and Chachapoyas in north Peru
9. Ecuador journey from Vilcabamba to Otavalo, exploring markets, colonial towns, Banõs, Quito and Mindo
10. Galapagos Islands
11. Colombian coffee region near Salento
12. Tayrona National Park and Cartagena on the Colombian Caribbean
13. Rio de Janeiro, in our opinion, South America's best capital city
14. Iguazu Falls

Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions or would like any advise. Goodbye South America, you will be missed! Next up, Panama...

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 01:02 Archived in Paraguay Comments (3)

Paraguay - Asuncion

34 °C

Paraguay - Asunciontal of Paraguay and we weren't really sure what to expect. First impressions weren't the greatest as we trudged down a main street loaded with our packs in scorching humid heat surrounded by loud and smoggy buses racing past! Once we stepped into El Jardin hostel, our view changed. A lovely hostel complete with garden and pool it felt like a different world.

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Ascuncion is unlike any other South American capital city, it feels less hectic and you can sense a great divide between the rich and poor. The roads were packed with Mercedes-Benz cars both brand new and others from the 70's still chugging along. This was mirrored by the housing, shanty areas and opulent houses akin to Toorak in Melbourne.

There were some nice buildings to explore, South America's first train station and once interesting place was the huge 'Mercado Quatro'. The market was packed with alleyways and sold everything from hanging tripe to clothing and owls! Sadly this is the last city for us to explore on our journey through South America.

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 00:44 Archived in Paraguay Comments (0)

Paraguay - Encarnación

32 °C

A hot and humid walk across the Parana river and we found ourselves in Paraguay, South America's second poorest country. Our last country to be explored on this trip in South America. Ciudad del Este borders Brazil and is famous for manic shopping. Thanks to less tax and cheaper goods, Brazillians and Argentinians frequently cross the border to snap up a bargain. We did some shopping and before we knew it, our packs were fuller.

We took a 5 hour rickety and very hot bus south to the city of Encarnación, the gateway to one of Paraguay´s main attractions, the Jesuit Ruins. Paraguay receives a small number of travellers due to it´s lack of ´big´ sights so we decided to find our accommodation when we arrived...Lonely Planet in hand, two cheap hotels are right next to the bus station. Easy. So we thought...Paraguayans don`t have access to the ocean but love their beaches, and it turns out at this time of year the river beach in Encarnación is the most popular place to be.

First hotel, fully booked, second, fully booked, the third, simply had a sign up - booked. After calling at least a dozen others (no one in town knew of any more!), trapsing from one edge of Encarnation to another and four hours later at midnight...we eventually found somewhere to stay (thanks Parana Hotel).

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The Jesuit Ruins, a day trip from the city centre were well worth the visit. Founded by the Jesuit missionaries during the colonization of South America in the 17th century, the sight must have been very impressive until the Spanish, threatened by their power came and put an end to that. The ruins we visited are spread over two sites 12km apart and are in good condition. They are certainly unique to other ruins we have visited in South America and the special thing was that we almost had them entirely to ourselves. To get from one to the other we took a tuk tuk which demonstrated just how genuinely nice Paraguayan people are. Our friendly smiling driver chauffeured us around and asked us to write in his personal book, full of travellers messages and names. It seemed like his proudest posession. We also grabbed ourselves a few mangoes, which are abundent in Paraguay, the trees are brimming, with ripe mangos carpeting the sandy red ground.

Posted by TheNomadWay.com 16:00 Archived in Paraguay Comments (2)

Argentina - Puerto Iguazu

34 °C

Crossing into Argentina, Puerto Iguazu is a much smaller town and we stayed at Hostel Inn for a few days to bring in the new year. With a pool, bar and loads of other facilities it really is a backpackers resort! New Years Eve involved a big cook up, loads of travellers, music, dancing and some lounging in the pool thanks to the warm temperature. A great night. We did try to bring in the new year an hour early, wondering where the countdown was we discovered there is an hour time difference between Argentina and Brazil!

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We spent a full day exploring the falls from the Argentinian side and you could easily spend another. The facilities and walkways are much larger than the Brazil side and you can view the falls from all angles. Up close from the base, the side, and over the top! You can also take a boat that drives almost underneath a section of the falls, where you're garanteed to get soaking wet. The main attraction was reserved for the end, where we saw the 'Devils Throat' once more. Literally breathtaking as we stood surrounded by 260 degrees of pummeling water. A sight that won`t be forgotten!

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 16:00 Archived in Argentina Comments (0)

Brazil - Foz do Iguaçu

34 °C

After a long overnght bus from Sao Paulo, we arrived in Foz do Iguaçu in readiness for one of South America´s big attractions...Iguazu Falls. Every traveller that we had passed recommend we saw the falls from both the Brazillian and Argentinian sides, very good advice. Our plan was to go to the Brazillian side on the morning of our arrival and then cross the border to stay in the Argentinian side that evening. Turns out, due to the lack of buses and time, we stayed in a very basic posada by the bus station. There are plenty and all run by old men! We also returned to Foz do Iguaçu a couple of days later en route to Paraguay.

Despite the hype, the falls were more impressive than what we could imagine...275 waterfalls that stretch for 2.7km, over 80m high on 2 levels. They vary from small streams to monumental amounts of gushing water at the ´Devils Throat.´The Brazillian side gives you a perspective of the entire set of falls from afar as well as some close up paths that wind over the water. The only downside - millions of tourists who all want a photo!

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The town itself had grown from nearly nothing to over 300,000 people since the 70`s due to the increase in tourism as well as the world's largest hydroelectric power generator, the Itaipu dam. Soon to be superseaded by China´s three gorges dam in terms of size, this place is massive! So big that it supplies 95% of Paraguay`s electicity needs and 25% of Brazils. It was the biggest construction of the twentieth century and is now considered one of the 7 wonders of the modern world.

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 16:00 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Brazil - São Paulo

31 °C

It was time to escape the burning heat in Paraty and we caught a bus to São Pulo, Brazil's largest city, with a population of over 19.5 million! It is big!

There is no stand out attraction in São Paulo, but we enjoyed walking through the giant centre, full of weaving markets, highways and plazas. The large Municipal Market was fantastic, a traditional gourmet market, full of deli stores and eateries. We went up to the very top of the Italia building for a view over the megalopolis (go between 3-4pm and it's free) where we could see buildings and skyscrapers sprawling in every direction. Avenida Paulista is the commercial centre, and is a wide street lined with skyscrapers, a sight you don't often come across, in South America anyway. The Museum of Football was also worth checking out, based in the central stadium, it gives you a glimpse into just how obsessed Brazillians are with soccer!

We enjoyed our time in Sao Paulo, thanks to some great food and hospitality. The pizza in São Paulo is world class thanks to many Italian immigrants (much better than anywhere else on the continent). We stayed at the lovely Green Grass hostel, opened by a 24 year old São Paulo couple. The hostel sits around the corner from the metro station which linked us to anywhere we neeed to get to in the city centre and bus terminal, which is also attached to a metro station. The metro was so efficient, that travel was much quicker than we've experienced, even compared to other smaller cities.

On our last day we managed to avoid some of the torrential rain and keep dry to catch our night bus to Iguazu Falls.

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 16:00 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Brazil - Paraty

39 °C

Christmas was looming, so we booked ourselves into a big hostel in Paraty, to meet some people and have some fun.

Paraty itself is a small town on the coast of Brazil, only a few hours from Ilha Grande, full of colonial streets and buildings. We literally had to watch every step we took to avoid slipping over on the giant cobblestoned streets, at least they're original! The town is divided by a river, and lined by a couple of small beaches, however compared to the gorgeous beaches we`d just left behind on Ilha Grande, they weren`t great.

The weather was so hot during the day, but the town had a great buzz to it when everyone came out at night. Many Brazilians come here on holiday and the main plaza was lined full of people and restaurants' tables and chairs late into the evenings.

Christmas eve is a big night of celebraton in South America, so we took our hostel up on the offer of a big Christmas dinner it was cooking, along with other travellers in the hostel, and toasted Christmas day in with some caipriñas (Brazilian cacktails)! Christmas day itself was so hot, that after opening our stockings (in hiking socks - yes Father Christmas found us even in Brazil) we spent most of it at the beach where the only breeze could be found. And then in the evening my superhero Paul cooked an amazing roast in our tiny hostel kitchen, when the temperature outside had come down to around 35degrees! Needless to say this was my highlight of the day...yum!

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 16:00 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Brazil - Ilha Grande

36 °C

We enjoyed a little holiday from our travels in Ilha Grande, with pristine beaches, many walks in green lush rainforest and a relaxed atmosphere we soaked it all up. Finding ourselves a lovely little posada (guesthouse) called Velho Guerreico, with a killer buffet breakfast, we relaxed, we love the feeling of leaving a big bustling city behind and getting out into nature.

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Paul went off on big day treks in the hot and sticky weather during the day, making it so some more secluded beaches over on the other side of the island. Lopez Mendes and Dois Rios were both stunning. I lazed on the beaches and explored the smaller bays near the small village of Abãao.

In the evenings there were a lot of bars and restaurants open with live music and a stage set up. We enjoyed getting some food and beer (yes you can drink alcohol out in public here) and taking it down to the pier, watching the lights of the town over the water and listening to the music.

We manage to pass our time very easily in Ilha Grande, and all too soon it was time to move on.

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Posted by TheNomadWay.com 16:00 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

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