After our epic trip of 2016 to Brazil and Argentina, we were supposed to change continents and for 2017 pick something more to the East. That was the promise I gave to Louveteau who sacrificed his (booked) trip to Australia to stay and set out the nets to catch me when me met. We were toying with the idea of Thailand, or Beijing, or Hong Kong… But here is the thing with Latin America: you leave your heart to it the moment you set your foot in there. And after not seeing it for a year (which is, if you think about it, is a terribly long time to spend without a heart!), you just have to go back.
So we did. Luckily for me, Louveteau was harbouring some politics-inspired dreams to visit the last 100% Soviet country in the world. As for me, anything Latin would do (though I preferred Peru, drooling over the pictures of Machu Picchu). We did not know much about Cuba then but overwhelming sentiment of friends who went there circled around the conditions of hotels and casa particulares. With my birthday around the corner (and our general tendency to combine several countries in one visit and to explore them on steroids), we have added the neighbouring part of Mexico as the second leg of the trip. It promised gorgeous beaches, more civilized hotels and some down time to enjoy it all. (To be completely honest – Louveteau, I hope you are not reading this part, – I chose Yucatan partly because it was promising a few, but not many, architectural monuments, to free up some time for the sun and the beach, which I LOVE and Louveteau, well, not so much.)
Why Cuba, Why Now?
Cuba is unique. It is the only place on Earth, which is completely isolated from time and globalization, and which is also a home to some of the world’s finest art – especially architecture. The gorgeous silhouette of Havana matches in its elegance and sophistication the best streets of Paris, London and St Petersburg. Only that Havana has not been renovated for the last half century, and all this architectural luxury slowly but inevitably sinks in the past.
Cuba will never be like it is now, and there are two main reasons for that. Now, with Fidel gone, and Raoul rounding up his second, and final, Presidential term in 2018, things are bound to change. With Raoul, the members of the government loyal to the ideals of the Revolution – many casting these ideals side by side with the Castro brothers, – will likely go as well. Maybe not all of them, but many, it is hard to dispute with age. At the same time, maybe, just maybe, the heritage of the President Obama, who did a lot to bridge Cuba and the U.S., will continue to develop and open the borders to more American tourists and to more American companies. And once done, it is only a matter of time for Cuba to become another cosmopolitan city with Starbucks on every corner, shopping malls, hotel chains and Chinese taxi cars, all properly air-conditioned. Just like its neighbour across the Gulf of Mexico. So go now: time will never run backwards again.
Also, make sure to check out my 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know (And You Should).
That’s what our 2+ weeks looked like: Paris -> Havana -> Cienfuegos -> Trinidad -> Havana -> Vinales -> Havana -> Cancun -> Chichen-Itza -> Cancun -> Tulum -> Akumal -> Coba -> Cancun -> Havana -> Paris
By the way: which map view do you prefer, this one or that from the last year (you can click to change the scale on both of them)? Do you find them useful in following my adventures and building up your travel routes?
Now, in a good not-so-old tradition of 2016, it is time to share some brief, very brief impressions about every of the key destinations of this trip.
I was completely unprepared for the beauty of Havana. Before my trip, Margarita, my expert art friend, left me with two albums on the city’s divine architecture. I have studied the albums (Rita, I hope you are reading this) but even 4 kg of fine print do not show how gorgeous this place is. And also, how surprisingly serene. Because of Fidel’s famous despise of the market economy and Cuba’s unique place in the food chain of the world, its capital is free of shops, boutiques and other ad hoc points of sales any other capital would be full of. Havana is also full of colors, more than you would imagine. The only works the Old City has seen since the Revolution are that of paint. People of Havana are painting their buildings in all the colors of the rainbow (something all of them in one building).
Cienfuegos is a city on the way to pretty much everything else in Cuba (when you move to the East from the capital) and, unlike all the other cities in Cuba, it was built by the French. These are the only two remarkable facts about it, and I am happy that our guide suggested we spend a couple of hours there and then continue to Trinidad. We spent one hour and a half. Sure, it has some interesting houses, a central square with an old tree, a theather and even a few palaces. It is even listed as UNESCO Heritage. But one hour and a half was enough for us to see it all.
On the other hand, the alligator farm on the way to Cienfuegos is something I will remember for a long time. And then, Playa Larga offers the most beautiful water color ever seen.
Trinidad is very much alike Cienfuegos in a sense of splashes of colourful paint and rows of cute two-storey houses, but bigger. It also offers cinema views on the valley around it, and that only is a sufficient reason to travel there. Trinidad is an ancient capital of sugar plantations, which are still warm today – and provide some view on how the slaves (and the masters) lived back in the days. A less known (and somewhat physically demanding) place in the neighbourhood is park El Cubano with some hidden waterfalls after 1h hike.
Once you think that the Sugar Valley is stunning (we did), Vinales, to the West of Havana, is there to take your breath away. See, Cuba is not famous for its scenery. We think Cold War, Fidel, Havana, sometimes beaches of Varadero, but never the nature. It is stunning, though. The road trip itself is a destination in Cuba, when looking out of the window is like watching a movie. And Vinales Valley, with Soroa waterfalls and fairytale caves of Cueva del Indio, which look as they are carved out from a sci-fi movie… This place is pure magic (and your travel must).
Now, to Mexico… When it comes to the sea, I would take a risk and say that the entire Yucatan peninsula has gorgeous turquoise sea, most often covered in windy curls. All in all, we spent a week there, and I have never seen this sea calm. Surfers’ paradise, for sure, and a question of liking to the rest. If the sea provides more or less the same experience along the coast, the cities offer very different taste to it. Built on a unique piece of land, between the Caribbean and the natural lagoon, Cancun is a full-blown commercial resort, with lined up chain hotels for as long as the eye meets the horizon line. Think U.S. middle class and buffet breakfast. There are even several U.S. malls in the middle of all that. You literally forget that you are in Mexico.
A getaway from all that to see some of Mexico is a 3h trip to Chichen-Itza, probably the most impressive and certainly the best known ancient Mayan city.
Just 1,5h drive away from Cancun, Tulum is an all different experience. Its waterfront is filled with small bungalows and boutique hotels, stashed comfortably between palm trees and sand dunes. It sums up to a much more private, personal even, experience, when you can be the only person swimming in the sea. No buffet breakfast here, everything is healthy, trendy, bio and a la carte. For the people sharing the beach with you, think New York Upper Eastside. The only common thing between Cancun and Tulum, apart from the turquoise sea and amazing food experiences, is both are 100% resort areas and 100% for foreigners. So it would be a bit of a stretch to say that by going there you experience the real Mexico (I would need to go to Mexico city now).
Mayan Ruins of Tulum are considered to be less impressive than that of Chichen-Itza but I have enjoyed them more. Ok, the stones’ constructions are of a lesser scale, but the scenery makes up for it – and more. Somewhere in between Cancun and Tulum is the Mayan city of Coba (Coba is not just the highest Mayan pyramid you can climb, it is actually a city!). Larger by territory (and higher in constructions) than Chichen-Itza, Coba is oddly the most private experience of all the three, with its endless walks in forest. I still like Tulum the most.
Looking forward to tons of multi-colored photos and stories behind them? I do!
Where to start?.
P.S. *Inspired by Discover WP Challenge.
The greatest adventure of all… For those of you who has ever visited my blog the answer is obvious: WANDERLUST. Travelling the world, living in different places, getting to know people, cultures, ways of being. Getting to know oneself: discover talents, passions, things that really make us feel we breathe, – but also learning the hidden truth, learning about our limitations, our fears, our boundaries. And shifting them, with every new trip, with every newly bought ticket, with every new pin on the map of visited countries. And, of course, sharing those journeys, in geography as much as in spirit, with the ones we love, the ones we trust to make these travels with us. That, for me, is the greatest adventure in the world. What’s yours?