Salar de Uyuni; An otherworldly experience

If you look up any organised tour of South America, Machu Picchu and the Inca Trail is inevitably there. It seems no trip to the continent is complete without a walk through this mythical city. All well and good, but I now would argue that a trip to South America is not complete without a trip to the Bolivian altiplano and the Salar de Uyuni. It is amazing.

A and I signed up for a three day 4WD trip across the high plains, which would take us from San Pedro de Atacama, Chile and drop us in Uyuni, Bolivia. On the way, we were promised spectacular views of the Andean altiplano landscape; mountains, lakes, rock forests and even flamingos. The rave reviews we had heard from other travellers only cemented our determination to see this place.

We left our hostel early, sometime around 7am, and found ourselves waiting outside the tour offices in freezing temperatures. It may have been the desert but until the sun rises, you may as well be in the Arctic. It was slow-going that morning; delays at the tour office and then again at the Chilean immigration post meant we didn’t really get going until after 10am. The first part of the journey was uneventful, most of the time was spent staring out the window at the ever-changing landscape. As we climbed through the highlands, I again felt the effects of the altitude and prayed it was not going to ruin my trip.

After half an hour or more we came to the Bolivian immigration post. Set amid rock and snow on an icy Andean slope, the post was little more than two basic rooms, all cement and no heating. I did not envy the officers assigned to this location, but then the view from their office window was spectacular. In a nearby hut, breakfast was served. I made a beeline for the hot chocolate, more for the opportunity to hold something warm in my hands than for any true desire to drink. After breakfast our Chilean driver introduced us to Martin, our Bolivian driver, and then bade us farewell. Passports stamped, visas in place, Martin ushered us on to the waiting 4WD. The morning delays at the Chilean immigration post had put us decidedly behind schedule and Martin was eager to get going.

The day proved something of a whirlwind tour of the altiplano as Martin tried to make up time. Our first stop was the entrance of the Reserva Nacional de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa  where we paid our entry fee and took a short walk to the Laguna Verde (Green Lake). Sitting at the foot of volcanoes Juriques and Licancabu, the lake was a shimmery pale green color. It was mostly frozen – but I am told that in summer, when there is less ice, the water turns a bright emerald color.

Back in the car, we sped across the Dali Desert (so named because the rock pillars there resemble those depicted in the paintings of Salvador Dali), skirted the Laguna Salada and came to a stop at the thermal baths of Polques. Here Martin invited us to take a dip in the baths.While some brave souls did just that, I just didn’t fancy stripping down to my bikini and trotting across the frozen ground to have a soak.

Back in the car, one more photo stop at the Sol de Mañana Geysers, and then we pulled up to our accommodation for the night. It was again very basic; all cement and no heating. In the late afternoon as the shadows grew long, I began to wonder just how cold the night would be. We were now 4800m above sea level – the highest I had ever been – and I was genuinely struggling with the altitude. My head was pounding – despite taking painkillers – and I couldn’t think straight. A and I did break out the cards and attempt a game of memory, but even that was too hard for my slightly addled brain.  

I went to bed right after dinner, but not before thoroughly preparing myself for the cold. Dressed in thermals, a fleece, tights, socks, gloves a scarf and a hat, I slid into a sleeping bag and then piled six blankets on top of me. Though it doesn’t seem possible, I was still cold that night. I lay drifting in and out of sleep for hours, every so often rearranging my blankets in the hope they would somehow magically become warmer. They didn’t. I asked Martin in the morning how cold it had become the previous night. Around -15 degrees, he told me. Figures.

The second day was less hectic. Our first stop was Laguna Colorada, so named because it is red. Yes, red. An impossible but unmistakeable shade of brick red. We spent some time walking around the lake and the frozen tundra, and gazing out at the water and wondering just what was behind this natural phenomenon. Light-sensitive phytoplancton, if you’re wondering.

Another hour in the car and we came to the Arbol de Piedra (Stone Tree), a pyramid shaped rock that seems to have literally grown from the earth. Around the “tree” a variety of equally surreal rock formations.

Back to the car and then on to the “Route of the Jewels”, a set of three lakes strung out across the altiplano. The lakes themselves are stunning, often reflecting mirror images of the Andean peaks which rose behind them. Aside from their obvious beauty, there was a second attraction to these lakes; flamingos!

Stalking gracefully through the lakes were hundreds of these pale pink birds. We watched from the shore as they waded through the shallows, their heads bobbing above and below the surface as they fished for food. We followed the flamingos for quite some time, waiting, cameras poised for that perfect shot. Most of the flamingos seemed to prefer keeping their heads underwater, but one or two obliged us.

I had been told there would be flamingos, but then I was still surprised and just a little bit delighted to see them. Curious too. What the hell was this tropical bird doing in these freezing conditions?

We drove on. It occurred to me that despite spending the best part of two days in a car, looking out the window, I was never bored. Not once. The landscape was continually evolving. At one point the pale rocks and dunes convinced me we were driving on the moon, at another point the rough red craters and rock pillars suggested we were on Mars. The altiplano was often otherworldly, but it was always beautiful.

That night we slept in a hotel made entirely from salt. The walls were made of bricks cut from salt, the furniture was carved from salt, the floor was covered with ground salt. The window of our room looked out on the white stretch of the Salar de Chiguana, a smaller salt flat that hinted at what was to come. It was something of a novelty, and one which I mos definitely enjoyed.

The second night I was again worried about the cold. A, bless him, found some extra blankets and literally wrapped me in them before throwing more blankets on top. That night was much better, I did in fact sleep.

The morning was clear and blue, a perfect day for visiting the salt flats. Our first stop was a small rocky outcrop, Isla del Pesdadores. Sitting by itself in the salt flat, the island is home to nothing but giant cacti and a few llamas. Scrambling up and around the island, we found some great viewpoints from which to look out on to the flats.

The Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world, spanning 10,500 square kilometres. But the figures don’t tend to make much sense, until you are actually out there. In the salar proper, the brilliant white flats stretch out to the horizon and beyond and you simply can not see the edge. Against the blue altiplano sky the flats are stark, immense, overwhelming almost.

I paced around the flats, marvelling at the flat cracked surfaces. And yes, I did actually pick up some of the white crystals and lick them. I couldn’t help myself, I just had to. They tasted like salt. And then of course, the flats made for some really fun photos.

The Salar de Uyuni was just astounding, and the clear highlight of the trip. I should say it was the highlight among a string of natural treasures hiding in the rugged altiplano. This landscape, though rugged and unforgivingly cold, is without a doubt one of the most beautiful and exotic places I have ever encoutered. After seeing it, I don’t know why the guide books don’t rave more about it, why the salar isn’t the number one tourist attraction in South America. All I know is that no itinerary to South America is complete without it.

Hunting penguins

We signed up to the boat trip on the promise of penguins. Humbolt penguins to be exact. Who doesn’t love penguins? They are a ridiculously cute breed of bird. So a boat trip around the Reserva Nacional Pinguino de Humbolt – a marine reserve just off the coast of Chile – sounded like a fantastic day.

We started out early, picked up from our hostel in La Serena, and spent the best part of the morning driving to Los Choros, a tiny fishing village where brightly coloured boats lined the shore. After negotiating our way from the jetty to the boat – which was being pushed every which wave by the rising tide – we were off. I was very excited at the idea that I would soon be seeing penguins.

As we approached the first island – Isla de Chanaral – our guide was cheerily giving us a basic lesson in biology, listing the animals and birds that could be found here. I was scanning the waters for the playful birds, but found none. Where were they?

We drew closer to the island, into a small cove, where we had our first animal sighting of the day – sea lions. They weren’t hard to spot, there were hundreds of these beasts lying prostrate on the rocks in the sunshine. A few of them eyed us suspiciously as we cruised by, and one or two roused themselves enough to bark a warning at us.

The next cove contained birdlife – cormorants and boobies (feel free to snigger childishly at that name, I do every time). Again they were interesting, but again they they were not penguins. I was starting to get quite anxious.

“Look there, a penguin!”

I turned my head in the direction our guide was excitedly pointing, and there on the distant shoreline, standing on a rock was a fuzzy grey blob.

“Donde?” I ask. Where?

“There, there,” said our guide. “You can make him out because his stomach is white.”

They steered the boat closer to the island, closer to the grey blob.

I looked again, staring hard and then yes, I saw the white spot, and then I saw him! He was small and greyish and even though I couldn’t make out his face, I am sure it was cute. And then just when I was getting really excited about seeing a penguin in the wild, the little bastard turned his back on me.

I doubt it was personal. But it may as well have been because the instant, he reverted to fuzzy grey blob. Without seeing the white spot on his stomach, I couldn’t distinguish his grey back from the grey rocks around him.

“That’s how they camouflage themselves,” our guide explained helpfully.

My short-sghted eyes stood no chance of against this highly-evolved back-turning camouflage technique; he was gone. My Humbolt penguin had humbly bolted, and I was left feeling just a little let down. Where were the hundreds of boisterous penguins tap-dancing on the shore? Why weren’t they waving and beckoning us over? I wanted Happy Feet and all I got was a shy fella who didn’t want a bar of us.

Ten minutes later, however, we did see two curious sea otters who made up for the lack of penguins. They were cute, really cute, and they swam around the boat once or twice before clamouring behind a rock and them playing peek-a-boo with us.

Shortly after we pulled up to the second island, Isla de Damas, the one island within the marine reserve that we were actually allowed to walk on. The waters were every shade of blue, and the beaches were marvellously untouched. We wandered all over the island, following sandy paths to vantage points where we could sit and watch the waves crash on rocks. A – ever the surfer – was giving me an appraisal of the waves. I was still looking for penguins. Unfortunately none came out of the water to wave at me.

On the way back to the boat I told A of my minor disappointment.

“What were you expecting?” he asked.

Oh I don’t know. Hundreds and hundreds of smiling penguins tumbling and diving all around us? And maybe a penguin shooting itself out of the water, landing it the boat and giving me a high-five with it’s flipper? (Okay, no, I didn’t expect that. But how unreal would that have been!)

“Well, when you think about it, penguins are wild animals. Wild animals that don’t like humans and that can swim away as soon as they hear a boat. It kind of makes sense we didn’t see many.”

Damn you logic. Damn you Happy Feet.

Guess I should just be grateful for the fuzzy blob who was either brave enough, deaf enough or stupid enough to stay put.

Still, he could have waved.

Fun, but hardly an enriching experience

Costa Rica; the spanish name directly translate to “rich coast”. The name is well deserved. From the moment we crossed the border from neighbouring Nicaragua, everything became a little richer. From greener pastures, to better roads, to the number of shiny SUVs on the road, the difference between the fortunes of Costa Rica and other Central American countries was stark.

Decades ago, while other Central American countries were experimenting with various forms of socialist regimes, Costa Rica hitched its wagon to that of  the US. And for this they have been rewarded in spades. The country is stable and prospering and has been able to make the most of its stunning cloudforests and jungles. And they are stunning.

Except after the heat, the crowds and the general hum and buzz of the rest of Central America, Costa Rica seemed just a little safe, and dare I say it, dull. In fact the most chaotic thing in the country seemed to be labyrinth-like border crossing with Nicaragua. Navigating that in the rain with a 20kg backpack was definitely a challenge.

One of our first stops was Monte Verde, a town that is renowned for its ziplining. I admit to some degree of disappointment while walking down the main street of this town…souvenir shop, souvenir shop, tour agency, souvenir shop, tour agency, Tex-Mex restaurant, souvenir shop. Where were the dirt-cheap hole-in-the-wall cafes where every meal came with the thrill of salmonella roulette? Where were the second-hand clothes shops blaring out offensively loud and bad Latin-pop? Where were the rusting taxis with optional door-handles? There was none of that here, no it was all too nice for any of that.

The ziplining was great fun. Hooked on to cables, we spent two hours whizzing through and over the Costa Rican cloudforest. The best part was the final cable – the “Superman” – where both our chest and our feet were hooked to the cable so that we were hanging horizontally. Strapped in, we were then sent flying super-hero style along am 800m cable that traversed a valley. As I rushed along the line, arms outstretched, I really could believe I was flying – the only reminder that I wasn’t being the metal whir of the bracket going along the cable. It was incredible, but A and I do remember having the same thought as we looked down at the lush valley hundreds of feet below: “I really really hope this cable doesn’t break…..”

The other main attraction of Monte Verde was the surrounding cloudforest and the animals within. We joined a nightwalk through the nearby Santa Elena Reserve, and I was delighted at the number of creatures we came across. We started at dusk, just as the fireflies were putting on their evening display. As we tramped through the forest, fireflies zipped and dashed past us, impressing us tourists. (Did you know fireflies aren’t actually flies? They are actually beatles, and bigger than you would think.)

It’s hard to pick a highlight of the night. There was the grey sloth we saw snoozing in the tree tops, the coatimundi that dashed past us, the tiny blue hummingbird that we saw protecting its eggs in its nest and then the baby green viper which almost looked cute until our guide told us it was the most deadly animal in the cloudforest. The highlight was definitely not peering into a hole to see a hairy squat tarantula peering back at me. Those things just make my blood run cold.

After Monte Verde it was time to go to La Fortuna. Once again we were confronted with a town that seemed to have the sole purpose of serving tourists. We signed on for a standard day tour of the area which included Arenal Volcano and some hot springs. What we got was an afternoon of unintended hilarity thanks to our over-enthusiastic guide.

Listening to him as we walking through the cloudforest reserve,we could tell this guide thought he was a cross between Bear Grylls and David Attenborough. He was patently neither and in reality was much much closer to Russel Coight. (For the unintiated click here for some brilliant clips). At one point, spying some wild limes he proceeded to try and knock them from a high branch by throwing a stick at them. He completely missed the first and second time, but undeterred tried again, and managed to get the stick lodged in the tree. Solution? Another stick! This time it ricocheted back at him, forcing him to quickly dodge it. All the while he was completely oblivious to a handful of low-hanging limes within easy reach. A nice US tourist helped him out with that. It went on like that for much of the day.

Our last stop of note was Turriabla for some white-water rafting. Thankfully this town seemed to have a reason to exist beyond the tourists, and there were cheap restaurants and cafes aplenty along with a really really good icecream store. Our white-water rafting took place on the Lower Pacuare River, where we had Class III and IV rapids to contend with. I had no idea what that kind of classification meant – and still don’t. I just know there was lots of rushing water, lots of rapids and lots of paddling at the direction of our guide. We spent three hours paddling down the river and leaping left or right or down into the boat at the command of our guide. In between the rapids we jumped into the cool water and floated downstream by ourselves, taking in the beautiful rainforest that lined the banks. It was a great day.

Costa Rica was the last stop on the first part of our trip. It was lot of fun, but all very safe and, despite the posters advertising “adrenalin-fuelled adventures”, all very supervised. It was also a hell of a lot more expensive that the rest of Central America, and I’m not convinced the price hike is that justified. Costa Rica is a nice place to see, but not really my ideal destination and not a place I’ll be heading back to anytime soon.

How to count Salsa style

“Uno dos tres, cinco seis siete”

Christian, my salsa instructor is counting out the beat for me, moving his feet in time.

One two three, five six seven.

Something is wrong here. I listen again. Yes; something is clearly missing. The number four to be exact. I try to concentrate and follow his instructions, but the absent four is bothering me.

Donde esta numero cuatro?'” Where is number four? I stutter out the words, hoping they make some sense. His answer is not satisfactory.

“There is no number four,” he laughs.

For someone with a fairly solid grasp of counting, this makes no sense at all. No four? That’s not how counting works. There must be a four – it can’t be skipped, because then five is technically the four, and the six becomes the five and…well it just doesn’t work that way.

I suggest an alternate count, the more traditional one two three, four five six. Christian is shaking his head. “No, no, no, one two three, five six seven,” he insists. This salsa lesson is quickly going south.

“But there must be a four somewhere. Where is it?” I plead as I mistime the steps, tread on his toes and tangle my arms in the cross.

With some exaggerated gesturing and more insistent (and slightly impatient) counting from Christian, I work out that there is a four; it’s a pause in the rhythmn, and you don’t move your feet.

“Oooh, you mean one two three pause five six seven,” I say.

“Si,” he nods, probably more out of a desire to shut me up than anything else. But now that I have the count, I can find the beat, and the steps start to flow.

Left right left, pause, right left right.

Soon enough I have this down and quickly enough we move through a cross, and then on to the turns. Christian is smiling again – it seems I have not entirely disappointed him as a student. We move on to double turns, walks and hand drops and then on to the slightly more complicated moves of combs and sobreros. I’m slightly pleased with myself, particularly when I watch another student across the dance room struggle for 20 minutes to get the basic step.

I leave the classroom after an hour, happily worn out from my dancing. That night a group of us from the hostel are heading out to a local club for the weekly salsa night. As soon as we get there I’m out there, hovering by the edge of the dance floor, waiting for someone to ask me to dance so I can show off my salsa skills.

I am asked, by Gerry the man who organised our tour of Tajamulco, and as the upbeat music starts I’m listening for my cue to start the basic step. I miss it, and the next cue, and the next, leaving Gerry to step on my toes as I forget to move my foot backwards in time. The crosses and turns are equally disasterous and even my basic step is completely out of whack. The problem, I realise, is that the music is so fast that I just can’t keep up. After lurching and bumping and crashing around the dance floor I am relieved when the song finishes and I am able to slink off to the bar and order a beer. I suspect Gerry is also entirely relieved to rid of me.

At the table, nursing a beer and a slightly bruised ego, I watch the locals dancing – particularly the women – trying to pick up tips. Without exception they are all amazing dancers; I watch as they swing their hips effortlessly, as they whip through three and four turns at a time, as their arms slip through the most intricate moves with ease.Their salsa is not a sedate walk-through of steps, crosses and turns; it is fast, fierce and damn sexy. All of my prior smugness at picking up the basic steps fades away and I come to the disappointing conclusion that I will never, ever dance like this.

The only consolation is that – judging by the haphazard shimmying of my hostel friends – neither will most white people. Really it’s time to face the facts; Gringos just can not dance.

My kind of day, my kind of paradise

“I think this is paradise,” A said.

We were standing in a valley at the edge of a series of natural limestone pools filled with turquoise water that gently spilled down from one pool down to another. Yellow butterflies danced at the water’s edge. To our left and right the valley walls rose steeply, covered by rich green Guatemalan jungle.

I giggled and nodded. “Yep, this is must be the place.”

The place was Semuc Champey, a natural wonder just outside the tiny town of Lanquin. It was yet another place that had not been on our radar, in fact we hadn’t even heard of it until we got to Belize. Our Lonely Planet Bible had let us down somewhat. But after a fellow traveller spent half an hour describing it as the most amazing place he had seen in Guatemala, we had to go and see what the fuss was about.

At our hostel – Zephyr Lodge, amazing place – we signed on to a tour of the Kan’Ba Caves and Semuc Champey. We were up bright and early the next day and herded into the back of a ute with the six others on our tour.

I knew this was going to be my kind of day when the first thing our guide asked us to do was to grab hold of a rope swing and launch ourselves into the river. I had done this many many times as a kid, up at Millstream, and took great delight in it again. Ice-cold water aside, it was a brilliant start to the tour.

Next up was the caves. I was a bit sceptical when we were all handed a candle to see with, not least because the caves are in fact filled with water. But that was soon forgotten as we waded and swam through the chambers, at that point it became something of a challenge to see who could keep their candles alight the longest. Through the soft-lit chambers we charged, candles raised in one hand, scrambling up rocks, inching through tunnels, climbing through waterfalls, leaping from ledges into rock pools and swooshing down the naturally-formed waterslides. By the time the two hours in the cave had finished, I was positively a 10-year-old again.

Back out in the daylight the tour guide asked if we wanted to jump off a bridge?!?? Did I ever! And so on a 12m bridge the 8 of us lined up, considered the drop and the cold waters rushing below us. A was quick to leap off the bridge and into the water, I wasn’t far behind. First that sweet feeling of flying, and then the icy river wrapped itself around me, and then the slight feeling of panic as I surface with my bikini top wrapped somewhere around my neck. A hasty rearrangement was all that was needed.

“You want to jump again?” asked the guide. What a stupid question! A didn’t need to be invited, and this time rather than jumping from the flat of the bridge, he was jumping off the railings. Show off. I decided to play it safe and take my second leap from the same part.

Later that day I decided to send my mum a smart-arse email that read something like: “Dear Mum, you know how you used to ask me that annoying question ‘If everyone jumped off a bridge – would you?’. It appears the answer is yes. Yes I would. Twice. Because jumping off bridges is SO MUCH FUN.” I’m sure she appreciated that.

Next up came the hike, and of course, the best outfit in which to hike through the Guatemalan jungle is a bikini. (And I would like to point out here that I was not alone in this.) Forty minutes up a hill and we were brought to El Mirador where we got our first glimpse of Semuc Champey. I counted about seven stacked limestone pools with the most pale blue water I’d ever seen. It was so beautiful and I was bubbling with excitement at the prospect of swimming there. I couldn’t get down to the valley fast enough.

Standing down there, at the waters edge, we paused just briefly to take in the scene in front of us before launched ourselves into the water. And then for the next hour we all splashed about like 10-year-olds at a water park. We scampered about the pools, we jumped off rocks, we swam under waterfalls, we floated on our backs and gazed at the sun and there were even some piggy-back pool jousts going on. We smiled and laughed all day.

And then for the grand finale, our guide played his trump card. He led us to the last pool, and pointed to a rushing waterfall. “You want to jump off it?” he said. This was not such a silly question – it was more than 15m high and the lead up to was slightly awkward, you couldn’t just inch your way to the edge, stand there and decide whether or not to jump. It meant taking two steps and leaping out as far as you could to avoid rocks. So did I want to jump off it? Of course I bloody did!

With their masculinity clearly at stake, all the boys lined up to go first. I hung back and waited for my turn, watching them and listening to their excited whoops as they plummeted. My turn. I looked out into the pool – deep breaths, deep breaths – took my steps and jumped. My God, it was high. So high that I actually had time to clearly form the thought “This is quite a long way down”. No matter, a millisecond later I had hit the water in a perfect pindrop. I surface to cheers, with a grin plastered across my face.

Soon after it was back home and, like weary children after a hard day’s play, most of us went and took a nap. Now not that I’m going to start ranking countries or tours or attractions, but this place, this “Hidden Water” as the Mayans called it, is one of the most magical and joyous places I have encountered so far. I wish I could go back!

More than a tourist trap

If truth be know, I always prefer to describe myself as a traveller. It sounds so much more intrepid and exciting than that other T word. But let’s face – whatever my preference, I am still very much a tourist, and like every other tourist I happily trot off to see all of the tourist attractions. Red Square, Berlin Wall, Chichen Itza; tick, tick, tick. I’ve come to accept the crowds and the cameras, and enjoyed many a ubiquitous guided tour.

But every now and then, there’s a tourist attraction that surpasses expectations. It becomes more than just a guided tour, it becomes a memorable experience. That is what happened for me at the Actun Tunichil Muknal cave just outside of San Ignacio, Belize.

San Ignacio was not in our original travel plans, but we heard so much about this cave from other travellers that we decided a detour was in order. I’m so glad we did.

The ATM cave system was used heavily by the Mayans for many ceremonies and rituals; it’s chambers and ledges are littered with ancient ceramics and the remains of human sacrifices. To see them involved first a 40 minute hike through the Tapir Mountain Nature Reserve, to the cave mouth, and then another two hours swimming and scrambling through the caves. The scrambling, swimming and climbing was always going to win me over but what took this tour beyond merely another show-and-tell was our guide, Martin. Of Mayan descent, he spoke with such eloquence and pride about his ancestors that you couldn’t help but be moved by his words.

At one point he had us turn off our headlamps and walk single file – one hand placed on the shoulder of the person in front – through the cave in the dark. I cannot stress how dark it was – you could not see your hand in front of your face. And then – as we waded through the waist-deep water in the black – Martin began to sing a Mayan prayer which echoed all around the chamber. It was truly beautiful moment.

Soon afterwards he took us to some rock formations which he – after leading tours through the cave for years and years – had learned to “play”. Tapping gently on different parts of the stalectities, he was able to create a rippling melody that left everyone amazed and delighted.

When it came to explaining the significance of the relics, Martin again had all the knowledge. He told us the stories of Maya – how they lived, who they worshipped, what this cave meant to them. He told us the stories of the human sacrifices – including the Crystal Maiden – who willingly gave up their lives for their beliefs. What I loved about him was that he would give you the official explanation – devised by learned anthropologists – and then he would tell you what he thought. His interpretations often made as much sense – if not more – than all the academic theories.

The tour left us quite exhausted – four hours hiking, swimming and climbing will do that to you. But it also left us with the distinct knowledge that we had just visited a holy place, as holy as any church or mosque that you may care to step into. It was a cave and it was a tour, but at the end of the day it was also a very spiritual experience.

Cuba…well it’s complicated…

Where to start? Where to start? To wax lyrical about the splendour of Cuba would be to underestimate the level frustration and general annoyance I felt on a daily basis fending off the touts in Havana. To write it off as a country full of nothing more than con-men would be to underestimate the delight I felt while dancing at the salsa bars, hiking through the forests or swimming at the beaches. I guess the most honest description would be to say Cuba is an astonishingly beautiful country, but you need patience and a sense of humour to travel there.

Havana is a wonderful place to explore. It’s in a state of elegant decay, with its grand buildings plainly showing the toll of time. But there is still beauty to be found here, mostly down the side streets and alleyways of Old Havana. Here there is a litany of bars, art galleries, museums and restaurants where you can happily lose days. I took great delight in knocking back $3 mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio the same bar frequented by one Ernest Hemmingway. I was hoping that by some feat of time-travelling osmosis, some of his literary genuis may have rubbed off on me. But so far, it seems not.

The other Havana highlight for me was the elegantly quirky Playing Card Museum, where more than 2000 cards are displayed. Decks decorated in all kinds of manner were pinned up around the rooms – my favourite being the pack that was adorned with 1980s pop idols. George Michael never looked so good.

And of course there were the cars. The grand old 1950s American cars that patrol the streets are a tourist attraction within themselves. They look fantastic, to the point where even a reserved person like myself couldn’t help but drape oneself across them and pose for photographs. The cars have been maintained well, on the outside at least, with bright paint-jobs that have usually been polished to a high gleam. Driving down the highways in of these babies to the beach was pure joy.

But while the city was bustling, it was also exhausting. With every Cuban now after the tourist currency – convertible peso – it feels like everyone is after your money. You can’t walk 10 metres in Havana without someone trying to offer you a taxi, a horse-ride, cigars or food. There are also plenty of scams about. Cubans will “befriend” you in the street, try and convince you to go along to a “salsa festival” or a “cigar festival”, in the hope of getting you to set foot in their friend’s bar, shop or restaurant. We learned the hard way that if you do set foot in these places, you’ll end up paying for it, either in massive service charges, or commissions. We also heard stories of extra drinks being placed on bills. In the end, every time a Cuban approached me I instantly assumed I was about to be taken for a ride, and almost always tried to politely fob them off instead of listening to them. Which was actually a little sad. But I know I’m not the only one who felt this way.

Out of Havana there were much less touts, which is why I enjoyed Trinidad and Viñales so much more. Trinidad – or at least the centre of it – was like a town preserved in time. The cobblestone streets were lined with gorgeous colonial houses in pinks, blues and yellows, which made strolling through the place a great way to spend time.

My favourite place here was the Casa de la Musica, a small bar on the steps of the town square that played salsa all afternoon. In the evenings it was the place to be, a place where locals showed the crowds of tourists just how salsa was done. I was told by one local that “Salsa is in the blood of Cubans”. Standing here, watching the locals step and twirl with the music, I could well believe it. They were fantastic to watch. After a few mojitos I was happy to give the salsa a try, and found though I wasn’t entirely incompetent, I certainly could not swing my hips like the Cubans. And yet they made it look so easy!

What did surprise me about Cuba was the natural beauty of the place. I had heard much about the bars and jazz clubs of Cuba, but nothing about the beaches and national parks. The beaches were the perfect stereotype of a Caribbean beach. Long stretches of soft white sands lined with palm trees, while the sea is best described as tranquil pale blue waters. Fruit and coconut vendors walked the beach, along with the odd pizza vendor. If that didn’t take your fancy, then you only needed walk a few metres to a beach-side bar selling good food and strong mojitos. As I said, the perfect stereotype.

Travelling in Cuba is a unique and beautiful country and I’m so glad I ended up experiencing it. I do think everyone should go at least once, and soon, because there are growing calls for reforms within the country, and I think eventually the Castro regime will have to give some ground. When that happens, I don’t think the Cuba that I saw will continue to exist. Within the next 10 years I’m willing to bet that Havana will have its first McDonalds and probably a Starbucks next door, and the quirks (even the frustrating ones) that make this country what it is will be ironed out.

When is a church not a church?

I’ve stepped inside many a church in my time. Living so close to continental Europe for so many years I was lucky enough to see many of the grandest churches going around – The Vatican, Notre Dame, Berlin Cathedral. I’ve even be known to bow my head and offer a prayer of thanks (though I’m still not entirely convinced anyone was listening).

However, I’ve never been so delighted to step inside a church as I was went I visited the Catholic Church of San Juan Chamula. It’s in a Mayan village, just outside the Mexican town of San Cristobal (which is worth a visit just to look at the ambar in the jewellery stores – amazing stuff).
On the outside, San Juan is a very very ordinary and rather run down Catholic Church. Anything but impressive. However, I now absolutely adore this church.
When you step inside however you quickly see this is no ordinary Catholic Church. Sunshine pours in through the windows, on to a concrete floors which is void of any pews or any place to sit. Instead the floor is covered in masses of pine needles and lumps of wax, from the hundreds of tiny candles that are stuck to the floor. Bunches and bunches of marigolds are placed at the feet of the icons of various saints, along with the odd shot of mezcal and packet of cigarettes. To top it off, our guide reassured me that mass hasn’t been said here in more than 30 years.
It is the most un-church like church I’ve ever been inside. Our Mayan guide tried to explain how this place came to be, and how the Mayan belief system has reconciled itself with Christianity. I really hope I don’t mangle the Mayan beliefs of the local people in my summary…. When the Spanish came to this town they razed the existing Mayan temple, a place of offering to the Mayan Gods. In its place they built the Catholic Church, and began preaching this new religion. But the Mayan attitude to the introducted religion was perhaps unexpected by the Spanish; it went something like this:
We have heard about your God. You revere your God like we revere our Gods. You pray to your God like we pray to our Gods. Your God is the source of all light and life, as are our Gods. In our minds, they are equal. They are the same. The temple you razed was a place of offering, the church you built is also a church of offering. We may use the name of your God, and kneel in your church, but it really makes no difference what we call him or where we kneel, because they are the same. We will always be worshipping our Gods.”
Like the temple that stood before it, it remains a place of offering. Along with offering prayers to Mayan and Christian Gods, the Maya people come here for traditional healing. So local shaman come here to conduct ceremonies which involve rubbing eggs on peoples’ bodies and sometimes even the sacrifice of a chickens. So here, in this tiny town, is a Catholic Church which is barely a church at all.
I love this church, I love knowing that places like this have survived, and that the descendants of this conquered race can still find ways to keep their culture alive.

Lets go surfing now

There was an Australian sky that day. The kind of sky you see in summer, when there is no cloud in sight and it is an impossible shade of blue. It’s the kind of sky I only ever associated with home. That is until I found myself floating on my back in the waters of Carrizalillo Cove, Puerto Escondido, staring up at the 100 ft limestone cliffs as they stretched into the bluest sky I have seen since I left Australia. Taking in the beauty of this little cove made me giggle, it was so stunning.

I could have spent hours floating on my back in those emerald green waters, but decided instead to once again test my surfing abilities. I am a proud on-again-off-again-can’t-really-be-arsed not-really-a-surfer chick. I’ll pick up a surfboard once or twice a year just to see whether my total lack of practice has enhanced my surfing abilities. Usually the answer is no. Usually it takes me about half an hour to just remember where to put my feet.
But at Carrizalillo Cove, that was not the case. Maybe it was the sky, but that day I stood up on my very first wave and surfed to the shore. No one was more shocked than I, especially when I did it twice more in a row. I admit, I had plenty of help, in the form of my surf instructor who was helping me catch the waves. But after a few more waves I decided I was going to try this by myself. I struck a new deal with my instructor; he was only to call out instructions, and was not to touch my board.
And that’s when it just got hard. Really, really bloody hard. Every wave he would call out “Paddle paddle, paddle, faster, faster” and I would paddle until I thought my arms be wrenched from their sockets, and I would still miss the wave.

“You didn’t paddle hard enough,” he would say.

“But I tried! I can’t help paddle harder,” I would protest, holding up my weak girly arms as evidence. In the end we agreed I did not have the arms for surfing. I thought as much.

Elsewhere in Puerto Escondido, A was having the time of his life surfing at beaches for proper surfers. On the first day he hit Zicatela Beach, home of the Mexican pipeline, and spent a few hours catching the waves. The next day he went back, only to learn exactly why this beach is renowned among big wave surfers. With the sets rolling in at double- and triple-head high, it was only the pros out there. After spotting a few snapped leg ropes and broken boards, he made the wise decision to head to La Punta, a smaller break around the corner.
We fell into an easy routine at Puerto. Staying at a beachside apartment with Lisa and Ali , two girls we had met in Oaxaca, our day consisted of the following; wake up, eat, beach/surf/swim, afternoon nap, wake up, eat, beach/surf/swim, sleep. And of course the only place to sleep during the day is a hammock. We “got our hammock on” every day on the balcony for hours. It was in said hammock that I had the insightful epiphany that every home needs a hammock and made the resolution to ensure my next home is suitably outfitted with one.
We were only meant to stay in Puerto for four days. We ended up staying six, and even then we were debating whether or not our friends would miss us if we didn’t show up in Cuba as planned. In the end we decided they probably would, and so it was with some sadness that we said goodbye to Lisa & Ali, the hammocks and the beaches, and started a cross-Mexico dash to reach Cuba.

Music, mezcal and mole

The whole point of heading to Oaxaca was to learn Spanish. What we ended up with was a basic ability to converse, an addiction to mole, an education in the arts of making and drinking mezcal, and about half a dozen new drinking buddies. A few of them were from Perth, and of course, Perth being what it is, at least one of them knows my sister. They went to school together. Of course.

One of our most memorable excursions was to a small bar that one of the girls – Lisa – had found the previous evening. It had a sweet deal going on, for every beer you ordered, they gave you a small plate of tapas, which was actually really tasty. So more than three beers effectively gets you a meal. Four beers and you don’t really care if you eat any more or not. The live salsa band was amazing, and it was enough to just sit back and listen to music. By halfway through the night all the girls in our group were out on the floor, attempting to salsa, having been cajoled out there by the local guys. I saw some poorly disguised giggles as we stepped on our partners toes or spun in the wrong direction, or generally took out anyone within 2 metres of us. Regardless, they must have liked us because in a gorgeous display of gentlemanly behaviour, they bought all of us roses at the end of the evening. (Australian men, please take note.)
Of course mezcal being the local drink, we had to go and find out what it was all about. I had wrongly believed that mezcal was in fact a version of tequilla, but a tour of a mezcal factory in nearby Teotilan put paid to all my misgivings. We learned that like any good whiskey or scotch, good mezcal is actually put through an ageing process of anywhere up to 12 years. In the factory shop we were given samples of mezcal of different ages, ranging from straight from the still, which was  pure rocket fuel, to the 12 year old mezcal that slid down your throat without any burn. We were also introduced to the crema de mezcal which comes in numerous flavours, including pistachio, hazelnut, coffee, burned cream and strawberry. At last count I had sampled close to 10. When we walked out of that factory we were – predictably – very happy mezcal converts.

And then there was the food. Or most importantlyspecifically, the mole (pronounced moh-lay). This is a thick rich sauce that has anywhere up to 30 ingredients, including fruit, cinnamon, chillies and assorted spices. The process to make mole is a long one, it takes days in fact. There are about half a dozen or so different varieties but my favourite was mole negro – which had dark Oaxacan chocolate as one of its ingredients. You wouldn’t think chocolate sauce poured over chicken would work but it really, really does. After the first time I tasted it, I was hooked, and was regularly scanning menus for this dish – trying to sample as many varieties as possible.

My addiction to mole also left me wanting to write letters of complaint to every Mexican restaurant I have ever set foot in back home. I’ve never seen it listed among the tacos, nachos and burritos and I want to know why! At the very least I’m determined to learn how to cook this dish, even if it does take a week every time.