The three Havanas

Havana Street 1At Havana airport, we got through customs ok although they asked us strange questions on whether we had more than one passport. Baggage claim took longer as it was so disorganised. A couple of distressed Russians couldn’t find theirs. There was lost luggage in piles and they kept changing the carousel.

Once out our driver took us to our guest house within thirty minutes driving a blue Swiss made Chevy from the 1950s. On the way there, we could see they were on the road everywhere and he pointed out a Buick for Mike once we told him his surname.

My first impression of Havana in the Vedado area was that it was similar to some other Latin American cities, a mix of grand houses and apartments in need of repair. My second impression east of Havana Viejo where our friends Monica and Mike K were staying was more a feeling that I had stepped back in time, perhaps to Naples after the war. My third impression of Havana was that I was in Europe surrounded by piazzas and beautifully restored 18th and 19th century buildings. Havana is definitely on the cusp of change.

Our guest house was a comfortable focal point at the end of each day. La Colonial 1861 is a beautifully restored white building managed by Armando from Spain. With a cigar in his mouth and a kiss on the cheek we were warmly welcomed and given lots of fantastic tips. The guest house is located in the Vedado area, a quiet area by the Malecon, where the wealthy used to live. We also noticed how Armando cares for a few dogs making sure they are taken for a walk every evening. They look very well cared for more to our welfare standards compared to the poor skinny strays we see.

One of the most useful tips Armando gave us was how to get to Havana Viejo like a local. We stand on the corner of the main road, Linea, on the look out for an old Chevy, Ford or Buick. This is different from a taxi which charges more. The driver is on the look out for passengers standing at intersections and if he has room he will stop for you. In response, you check he is going in the same direction as you, in our case Habana, and give him the intersection you want to stop at, usually a calle. This only cost us 1 CUC total for the two of us compared to 5 – 10 CUC for a taxi service – and much cheaper than a tour ride. Beware that some will still try to get an extra buck out of you though so confirm the price before you get in. We were nervous at first but took to it quite easily once we knew it was quite a normal and safe thing everyone does. Plus a great way to travel with the locals. Just one thing to remember is to close the door gently because you don’t want it to fall off and always get out on your right.


On our first night here we were excited to meet up with our European friends, Monica and Mike K, and stayed up late catching up with them at a Paladar on the Malecon. In general, a Palador is a restaurant in someone’s home. The Palador Torresson at Ave Malecon No. 27 had tables on their balcony with a view of the Malecon though it’s so dark you can’t see the sea. Not much lighting but we saw an American cargo ship pull out of the bay disappearing into the dark distance. The meals are simple but good, vegetable soup, rice with beans, grilled fish and salad plus the ubiquitous and refreshing iconic drink, the Mojito. I think this is all I’m going to be drinking while I’m in Cuba!

On our way back to La Colonial we took a local car again from Neptuno, near the Casa de la Musica Habana where there was a queue of beautiful young things, some transvestites, ready to salsa dance all night from 11pm to 5am, obviously the place to be seen if you’re a local. In the Vedado area young things queue up for the Fabrica de Arte, one of Armando’s favourites and a more contemporary musical scene. Both are pricey if you’re on a budget and especially if you’re a foreigner where everything is double the price!_MB02955web



Merida, Mexico

Our last stop on this Mexican journey is Merida, the white city in Yucatan, so called for its white palaces of yesteryear on the grand avenida. One of these ornate palaces is now the Museo de Antropologia which holds Mayan artefacts. Visiting the Museo prepared us for our tour to Chichin Itza.

The Chichin Itza, at the mouth of the well, site is one of the best renovated archaeological sites. It was the low season but still busy enough to pass the crowds as we meandered around the temples, serpent carvings and the cenote, a very deep natural limestone well about 40 metres wide. Apparently human skeletons have been found at the bottom when it was dredged around the 1930s. We had a very informative guide who explained the significance of the site and the Mayan state of mind, switching between Spanish and English for the English group we were in, with a lovely young Melburnian couple, Andreas and Athina on their honeymoon and a couple of Danish sisters. By the end of it though we suffered a bit of heat stress and the market vendors only added to our stress although they were funny with their comments, “cheap, almost free amigos.”

Then we enjoyed a delicious buffet lunch. I have really been enjoying their variety of soups always with lime and avocado and the yummy fruit juice drinks. In the afternoon, we went to another cenote that you could swim in. It looked dark and cold and there were fish in there apparently. Mike and I were unprepared but we could see how much the other tourists enjoyed it. Although our guide said we could go nude we didn’t believe him.

Overall we enjoyed the atmosphere of Merida on the weekend the most. It’s a university town with lots of entertainment. On Saturday evening a stage, chairs, market and food stalls were set up right in front of our hostel. It was for Noches Mexicanas! And since it was the night before Valentines Day there were a series of romantic and sentimental songs performed by solo singers in Mexican dress. There were dance performances by dance troupes who came from different areas of Mexico. The Chihuahua dancers wore Spanish style fluffy dresses and cowboy hats. The cowboy hat actually originated in Mexico. Mike said the dance was a cross between tap-dancing and a ho-down. Then on Sunday various streets were closed for markets and cyclists, young and old. The elderly ones were being cycled in a special seat while the toddlers had training wheels.


One thing about Merida is that it is not the best place to shop. Oaxaca and San Cristobal were much better for that if shopping is your thing. Just a lot of souvenir trinkets here although the vendors all seem to know more English.

At our hostel, we befriended friendly Bart, a New Yorker gringo who’d been travelling and living in Mexico on the cheap for the past six months. Happy and safe travelling Bart!

Thanks to Bamba Experience our independent travelling using the hop-on-hop-off on bus vouchers went smoothly. We organised our own schedule with them according to how many days we went and a couple of tours. It was easy to communicate with them via email and they responded quickly emailing our vouchers so that we could use the reference number to get our bus ticket. I would definitely recommend them if you come to this part of the world.


Mizuljul Waterfall
Waterfalls and ruins.

Leaving San Cristobal early at 5ish we boarded a tour mini-bus full of Mexican tourists, a couple of German backpacker girls and only two Aussies (us). We drove on a winding mountainous road through the jungle. Mike felt travel sick so with his ginger gum he sat at the front. We drove through more jungle villages where the locals were out and about (indigenous women in different clothes), fields of corn and maize and a military police stop with a sign indicating they were there to protect us from the drug wars. Oh!

The first stop was the Agua Azul waterfalls. It really was greenish but it probably depended on the light and season. Sadly there was some rubbish in there. These were really a series of waterfalls cascading at different levels and as we stepped to each level the footpath was lined with souvenir stalls all the way up. Surprisingly the vendors didn’t yell out too much. Maybe they were tired of it.


We befriended a Mexican tourist, named Aristotles, and his lovely family who come from the Chihuahua region. He said that the Chiapas region we were visiting had left-wing anarchists in control and that people in general are very independent minded. I’m not sure about the anarchist thing but I think it is a good thing for indigenous people to value their independence and their rights. In hindsight, I think he was referring to the Zapatistas. He also said that the men camped in front of the cathedral at San Cristobal were anarchists waiting to graffiti the church once it was renovated. This is a complex region that we are travelling through. Later on I read an article in a Spanish magazine talking about how families in the poorer villages sell their daughters as brides at the tender age of 14 years old. It is not all pretty here but I gathered that from the accumulation of many small clues that the tourist centres can’t really hide anyway.

Most assume that I’m some kind of Mexican as I’m able to respond correctly and briefly most of the time but when they speak too quickly in a thick accent I don’t follow as well. Mike says being with him is a dead give-away too. The women and children always look him up and down in some kind of awe.

The next stop was the Mizuljul waterfall which was spectacular because you could walk behind it. Mike took a vertical landscape shot. It felt good to be outdoors smelling the fresh air here. We got our colour and warmth back. It was becoming increasingly humid. We were hearing strange bird sounds. We pinned one sound to a black-bluey bird with a long tail feather.

The Palenque ruins was the last stop that I had been waiting patiently for all along. Right in the middle of the jungle that had been cut back to reveal a series of impressive pyramid temples was the archaeological evidence of the great Mayan civilisation. Of whose descendants we were seeing everywhere. In fact, I understood that the pueblos still spoke their own Mayan descendant language/dialect. And there were still trees growing out of the pyramids at the back! It was a spectacular site._MB02187web

We retired to the eco Yaxkin Hostel while the Mexican travellers returned to San Cristobal with the same driver. He would have been driving for more than 10 hours all up and when I asked him how he felt he said he was used to it. The hostel private room with a bathroom was new and comfortable but why was there an air conditioner and a fuzzy TV in the room if it was eco-friendly. The only green thing about it seemed to be that we could hardly see because of the low voltage lights. Mike reckoned it was a cover for being cheap. The wifi only worked in the lobby and sporadically. You can tell where it worked by looking at where all the backpackers were seated.

The next day we realised that we were in some old buildings that they had converted. When I opened the door I saw a tail-less native creature, not sure what, (a Mexican rodent?) scurry off into the foliage. Some local cats ran off too. At the back of the buildings there was a laundry and rubbish. There were dorms above the reception. Next to the reception was a communal open kitchen. Then we realised we were in La Canedas, a kind of tourist jungle village full of other hotels and restaurants which weren’t busy at all during the low season. It was connected to the town by a bridge. Expecting to see a river we saw a marsh, a slum, a pig and more rubbish. Strange place!


We saw our first mosquito here but with all our preventative measures – coils, cream and mozzie zapper – they didn’t get us. But the most wonderful thing we saw in the evening was a pretty hummingbird hovering near flowers.

San Cristobal De Las Casas

_MB02083web_MB02064aWebIn San Cristobal de las Casas everyone’s talking about Papa Francisco who is arriving on the 15th February. No wonder we have been seeing posters of him in front of every iglesia. It seems that at the end of every long cobbled street there is a church or cathedral and with banging or fireworks at night to celebrate a religious event. No wonder the pope is coming here!

In the zocolo, they have been sprucing up the cathedral and prettying up the square with colourful lights. There are some men in tents parked in front but we’re not sure whether they are waiting for the Pope’s visit or if it’s some kind of protest. In every pretty cobbled calle with its high footpaths, there are indigenous women, young and old, carrying armfuls of textiles to sell. I actually felt overwhelmed by the amount of textiles here. At other times when I saw women carrying baskets on their head it reminded me of my dear late grandmother, always in traditional dress, and my older aunts who carried goods on their heads in mountainous Italy too.

It is the indigenous women and female children who are always so distinctive. Men are ordinary. The women wear different coloured fabrics according to which pueblo they are from. In Zinacantan (meaning land of the bats), a pueblo we visited, they wore long shiny dark skirts and a purple/pink brocade shawl to symbolise bat wings, their traditional totem. It was easy to get there for 16 pesos with the collectivo and we were in fact seated with these traditional women. Other women we saw wore long black shaggy skirts and they come from Chamula. From these pueblos, they all come into town to sell their wares. The men seem to do the driving, small business and construction work.
Zinacantan Girl

A skinny Zinacantan girl who claimed she was 14 years old but who looked much younger invited us to her home after I had given her a few coins. As we kept walking up the hill, higher and higher, I asked her some simple questions about how many brothers and sisters she had, whether she went to school or worked. Minimal responses but I gathered that she didn’t go to school. She took us to a room full of textiles that she said her family made. We were immediately given a sales spiel by her plumper older sister. How could I explain that not all tourists come here for a shopping expedition when probably this is the only kind of work the women do, that it is a main source of income. I couldn’t but it’s a shame that there was little more to the interaction. After our purchase we returned to the zocolo and I saw a wall of information explaining the signs of pregnancy.

Walking around the lively local markets near our hostel and around the Santo Domingo church was interesting. Often the traditional women of the pueblo either turn their backs when they see a camera or ask for 20 pesos but little do they understand that Mike is interested in street life, the men with their carts, bicycles and tricycles, the things they sell and curiosities we don’t have back home. We had a nice chat with a man who sold grain grinders to use at home. That’s not a thing back home at all._MB02087web

The only museum we visited was the Na Bolom Museo which is an important cultural centre here. It was the house of a German and Swiss anthropologist and journalist who had settled there in the 1930s to study the indigenous people. It is a beautiful building with a garden and we ended up chatting with a couple of Americans, one of them a musician who was living there and played the piano for us, and a British man who had the same symptoms of altitude sickness as we did.

San Cristobal, high in the mountains, is at about the same altitude as Mexico City but I have been feeling ok this time. It is also colder at this time of the year so we bought a colourful Mexican blanket to wrap ourselves in on top of all of our other layers of clothing. Of the shower in Hostel Akumal Mike said “it’s just one degree warmer than stone cold!” But Angel (and his friends) our hostel host was so friendly and easygoing that we forgot about that and it seemed to warm up. All in all, we just loved hanging out in San Cristobal.

Please donate to Hands4Others to help install safe water and sanitation systems in Zinacantan.


My tiredness completely lifted in Oaxaca, about 1000 metres lower than Mexico City so I think it was a touch of altitude sickness that I had suffered.

We were pleasantly surprised by Hotel Aitana booked via the Bamba Experience accommodation site, an 18th century colonial building, with a lovely inner courtyard. It was excellent value and a short walk to the zocolo (centre). Our room was warm except for only one thing – the shower is not hot only lukewarm. Brrrr!

I was enchanted by the beautiful colonial buildings and elaborate cathedrals as soon as we started walking around. On Sunday the square was crowded with families, tourists and the indigenous people of the surrounding pueblos. There was a political gathering to protest privatisation of water and education. A friendly Canadian told us there was always a protest in town. The indigenous women wore bright woollen cloaks/gowns over their clothes and the men wore cowboy hats as they listened with weathered and weary faces. The equally bright children were chasing bubbles and birds and playing. It was a lovely vibe.

The markets in and around the Benito Juarez market were full of fresh food, pretty hand made blouses and textiles. I finally found a small blouse (probably a large children’s one) after looking around. They are all big. I think they keep the small sizes for themselves! Overall I couldn’t tell if the locals were reserved or cold. They didn’t smile much when we asked questions. It appears as if they are more interested in our money than a cultural exchange. But who knows what they would really be like if you lived there. After all the Canadian we met had married into an Oaxacan family.

We finished off our first evening in Oaxaca with a cerveza listening to music and a good long sleep.

On our second day we set off for the Museo de las Culturales but it was closed on a Monday so we went to the Museo de Textil instead. Intricate baskets and beautiful textiles hung in an old building next to the main cathedral. We also saw an environmental themed photography exhibition of cute girls wearing traditional clothes with carefully placed vegetables in their hair. It sounds funny but they were gorgeous! Once again we enjoyed people watching at the zocolo which was less crowded now that it was Monday.

We visited our first archaeological site at Monte Alban, important for being the first city state of the Americas. I had seen an archaeological site from the air as we were descending also and wondered if that one was Mitla. They all seem to be perched high on top of a hill. Tourist information helped us get there easily. For just 70 pesos for two people the collectivo took us up and after a couple of hours brought us back. It was a good way to avoid the pricey tours they keep peddling at the hotels. Just look for the manned stall behind the restaurants and in front of the supermarket in the zocolo.



Day 3 in Mexico City

_MB01940webToday we watched the gigantic Mexican flag being raised ceremoniously by the military in the equally gigantic square. Then we saw Diego Riviero’s mega mural at the Palacio Nacional, a complex and colourful representation of Mexico’s history.

It was a lively and noisy day overall as there were not only small street market stalls selling lots of cheap trinkets but also Chinese New Year celebrations. Mexicans dressed in Chinese costumes and performing the lion dance at the Cultural Centre. I wondered if they had any Chinese ancestry at all or they just love celebrating. There were lots of replicas of European archaeological objects in this centre (Roman and Egyptian) which we initially mistook for the entrance of the Palacio. It is an enormous palace with several functions. It had numerous garden inner courtyard and who knows how many rooms in the buildings within its walls. Be prepared to hand in your ID when you enter and to collect it when you exit and to see soldiers in uniform at every corner. Entrance was free though.

So much of the architecture seems influenced by the Aztec aesthetic, the markings in the stone wall, the pyramid slant of the church building, the ruins of the Temple Mayor and just the general sense of bigness.

In the Madero plaza, Mexican families, couples and tourists mingled and watched all manner of performances. Disney characters, Edward Scissorhands performers, rock bands and so forth. So this is what Mexicans like to do in the city on the weekend. The Museo of Belle Artes was also busy with the locals. The centre was busier during the day on Saturday than the other days in fact. During the week it was mainly busy at peak hour which seems to begin at 3pm. Some train carriages are dedicated only for women and children during this time.

As to our general condition, Mexico City is at a high altitude with low humidity so wondering if this is the reason for our dry nose, mouse and throat. Or is it the pollution? We’ve also been lucky to have water to shower. Apparently the week before we came there was no water in the whole city! That’s why our hosts have not only provided us with several bottles of drinking water but also a bin size of water supplies with a lid. It would be tough to live in this city!

We have loved staying at Casita La Roma in Roma Sur and our hosts have been easy to contact when we had questions. Roma Sur is also livelier today with market stalls on the main road and musicians in restaurants. However, our casita is always quiet as all the casitas in our little courtyard are actually small businesses: beautician, lawyer, doctors. We always felt secure here. In general, it’s a safe residential neighbourhood. Tomorrow we’re off to Oaxaca.

Day 2 in Mexico City

_MB01841webWe woke up late but stayed awake today. The first thing we did was go to the very comprehensive Museo de Antropologia. Not only were the Teotihuacan stone artefacts impressive but so were the organised archaeological objects of the indigenous groups of Mexico. We were particularly interested in the Oaxaca region where we would be heading next. I was just getting a taste of how much there is to explore in Mexico and how little time we had to do it all on this trip.

Just outside the museo we had tlacoyos for lunch. Finally Mexican food! It’s a crispy maize pancake with bean sauce, cheese, onions and chilli if you want it. It was delicious.

Next we headed to the colonial centre which was overwhelming.  Mike prefers only one museum per day but in the centre I could see how many more museums there were. It was fascinating to be walking through this huge area surrounded by 500 year old buildings, churches and palaces built on top of and from ancient Aztec stones. Every calle had it’s own speciality, perfumeries in very old buildings in one calle, cameras in another and so on, some with old art deco signs. Long interesting streets everywhere. Every building was fascinating, the post office and even Sanborns. There are plazas everywhere too. We stopped for a coffee at the Church of Santo Domingo but the biggest square is in front of the Palacio Nacional.  Here in the metropolitan church a black Jesus hangs on a crucifix just near the entrance. The church is huge and attached to other small churches.

As we walked around, I was moved by the homeless people so kept some coins handy in my jeans pockets so I could hand them out, even if they weren’t begging. They responded most gratefully.

From the Zocalo station we made our way back to our casita and finished the evening with a local hearty meal of soup, rice and chicken, again with bean sauce and cheese. Nothing strange happened today. We were well satisfied. Now to get Mike to another museo tomorrow!

First day in Mexico City

_MB01873webWe woke up in our Casita La Roma, a little quiet oasis in a massive and polluted city, with anticipation for the day ahead. Our young, professional hosts had warmly welcomed us here last night. All the colours of our casita spoke a Mexican liveliness so this is what we expected of our day.

First a coffee out as the cute casita wasn’t stocked with basics. It was cooler than what we expected outside. Sadly the closest one we found was Starbucks and instead of getting the cappuccino that I’m sure I ordered with clear articulation we got a frothy milk weak latte instead. Huh?

After studying the Subway map we set out for the Frida Kahlo house. It was easy to navigate the subway. For just 5 pesos each we travelled underground in what look like rectangular orange tin cans from Chilpancingo to Centro Medico to change to the line for Coyoacan. It was hot in those tin cans and Mike being head and shoulders above the rest got a lot of stares. From Coyoacan, it was a 15 minute walk to the famous Casa Azul. Every Mexican we spoke to in order to make sure we were heading in the right direction was very friendly and helpful.

Luckily the queue on a Thursday wasn’t long. In Casa Azul, you can see some of Frida’s wonderful and painful art works, her early photography, her studio and gardens with fountains and a general sense of how she lived there. There was also a temporary exhibition on the corset with some of her beautiful dresses which had only been discovered in a closed room in 2004. She took up the matriarchal Oaxaca style of dress to perfection. Elaborate and colourful pieces which did express her Mexican liveliness despite being bounded by corsets.

We walked around the Coyoacan area a bit admiring the well-to-do houses until I started to feel flaky and needed something to eat so missed Trotsky’s house. Mike wanted to head towards the Colonia Centro too. On our way to the station the oddest thing happened. A woman got in front of me and spat on Mike’s hand from behind and then sped off into the crowd. What the?!

Jet lag overtook me again a few times on our journey in the Alameda Central and I had to sit down in the park, a wi-fi zone. Following Mike we found ourselves in a small and odd Chinatown. Mexicans selling pan de vapor, steam pork buns. We turned right and Mike found himself in his element – a street full of repairers and recyclers. Everything being repaired – electric motors, power tools, fans, washing machines – so he started snapping.

I had to take a nap back in Casita La Roma, unable to be imbued by its’ liveliness quite yet. After all it had taken us almost 24 hours to get there and I was still adjusting. In the evening, refreshed from some down time we explored the Roma Sur area. We were surrounded by lots of little eateries, cafes, restaurants, doctor surgeries, a hospital, small businesses. We now knew where to go for a real coffee the next morning. The best thing is being able to walk around with the locals in their daily life without any hawkers or tricksters around.

This first reading of our Mexican posts will have to get your imagination working. The photos will be posted much later as we decided to go technology light on this trip – just a digital camera and an iPad.