Tulum, Mexico

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  • Visited February 2019

Tulum has become a prime spot in Mexico for tourists and for that reason I wasn’t sure if it was going to be my kind of place. Having spent months travelling round Mexico, enjoying places such as Guanajuato, San Cristobal and Valladolid, prior to my visit Tulum just sounded like an expensive tourist haven with nothing distinctive to offer me. Although having a good time in Tulum can be much more expensive than some of the other parts of Mexico, I did actually have a great experience and I’m glad I spent time here.

Your visit to Tulum can be tailored to meet your needs and your budget. If you are looking for a luxury beachside resort and don’t mind paying a premium rate for your ocean view, then you can easily find that here as multiple hotels and resorts line along the coastline. If you are travelling on a budget like me then you are likely to have to stay in Tulum town, an hour’s walk from the beach itself. Bikes are easy to rent here though (around 100 pesos per day) and most people use their bikes to access the beach and Tulum’s Mayan ruins – one of the most iconic images of Tulum is of the ruins perched overlooking the beautiful blue water. From Tulum town a taxi to the beach should cost no more than 150 pesos each way if you don’t want to walk or bike it. A minute walk from my hostel I was able to get a colectivo for 15 pesos.

The beach in Tulum consists of lovely golden sand though seaweed lining the shore is regarded by some as a problem. I didn’t mind it myself as it looks natural but high end beach resorts try to clear the seaweed away, leaving it pilled up in mounds, so their guests can capture unspoilt beach Instagrammable photos. One thing to be aware of is the lack of public beach access. The majority of places along the coastline charge for beach access so you will need to be careful about where you go at the beach if you don’t want to end up forking out an expensive fee. The Santa Fe entrance for a public beach is close to the ruins so this is a popular area. My favoured place to go was OM Hotel which is free to enter and you can buy cheap food (tacos, quesadillas etc) and drinks here – it gets very busy so go early to snap up a free-to-use sun bed. For those of you who don’t mind paying for ‘luxury’, you might want to check out Coco Tulum – on the day my hostel buddies and I visited, we were quoted 700 pesos just to access the beach! Shocking. As the weather was cloudy though, we were allowed to sit in the swing chairs for no charge, as long as we bought a drink. A glass of wine was 250 pesos and a beer was 120 pesos. Ouch. As lovely as this place was, my advice is save your money and just go to OM Hotel down the road (just keep in mind that this is a cash-only place and ATMS in the area charge ridiculous withdrawal fees so get your money out in town).   

Tulum town is quite compact. There are loads of eateries, bars, shops and supermarkets around so you will be able to find everything you need here and I really liked the street art dotted around the place, giving it some character.

My Itinerary:

  • Day 1 – Beach day – spent time at Coco Tulum and Om Hotel
  • Day 2 – visited Cenote Corazon del Paraiso (so-called as it is heart-shaped) organised by my hostel. Twenty of us went and we paid 250 pesos for entrance, food and all you could drink. Lots of fun!
  • Day 3 – A trip to the Mayan Ruins of Coba. See details below.
  • Day 4 – a trip to Akumal. See details below.
  • Day 5 – hangover day (free drinks nights in the hostel the night before…). Watched movies in a hammock all day.
  • Day 6 – Beach day – Om Hotel.

Visiting Coba

Coba is known for its large pyramid and it really is worth a visit.  My friends and I were told we could get a colectivo to take us there but we had problems trying to locate where to catch it. My advice is to take the second class bus from the ADO station in town (we took Mayab there – the bus was packed so we had to stand all the way there – and then Oriente back – 50 pesos each way). The drive time is around 45 minutes and you will be dropped off a minute’s walk from the entrance. You get the bus back from the same spot. Entry into the site is 75 pesos. 

Visiting Akumal

Akumal is a coastal resort about 25 minutes drive away from Tulum. My friends and I ended up visiting Akumal by mistake but it was a happy accident! We set out to go to the Gran Cenote and had been told you could catch a colectivo to it. We stopped several buses on the main street in Tulum town, were directed to keep walking to other stops and eventually a driver told us to get in. After 15 minutes he stopped and told us to get out – we were not at the Gran Cenote but another cenote on route to Akumal and Playa del Carmen. Not pleased to have been misled, we decided to continue on to Akumal, which is a really lovely beach and a great spot to snorkel with turtles. The colectivo was 35 pesos each way. We paid 100 pesos entry into Tsuuk Parque Natural and then paid 150 pesos to use a sun lounger all day. We were quoted 500 pesos to snorkel with turtles with a guide but were happy to just enjoy the beach. Definitely worth visit.

Foodie Recommendations:

As with Tulum itself, you can find multiple food options to suit your budget in the area. Here are some places I particularly enjoyed in Tulum town:

  • Sabor de Mar – fantastic seafood place. The shrimp salad and shrimp tacos were amazing! I ate here a couple of times.
  • El Rincon Chiapaneco – budget-friendly and very tasty local food (located next door to Sabor de Mar).
  • El Mariachi Loco – very touristy and not cheap but the food and service were both excellent.

*Note – I was surprised to be charged 560 pesos at the airport when leaving Mexico. I was expecting to pay an exit fee but I had apparently not been given the correct visa when I entered Mexico from Belize. Tourists usually receive a visa with an allowance of 180 days which is what I had been given when I entered the first time at the airport. This time I had entered by land, after taking a shuttle from Flores, Guatemala to Chetumal, Mexico (via Belize) and had only been given a 7-day visa. I’m told it is at the discretion of the officer at the border as to how much allowance you are given. At the border, the official was on the phone the entire time, did not speak to me at all about how long I was staying and nowhere on the visa slip did it say I only had 7 days allowance. This meant when leaving Mexico I was charged for over-staying my visa as I had spent longer than 7 days in the country. Lesson learned. Always check what time allowance you have been given rather than assuming you have been given the 180 days you are entitled to.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

CONNECT with me: Instagram @uncaged_artbird

Bacalar, Mexico

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  • Visited February 2019

Bacalar is an open secret – I confess I hadn’t heard of it until I began travelling around Mexico but once in this amazing country, it’s clear that this lakeside town is an essential must-do on any Yucatan coast traveller’s itinerary. Located beside Laguna Bacalar, also prettily known as the Lagoon of Seven Colours, the town itself is cute and compact. There is a fort to visit, Fuerte de San Felipe, which is now home to a museum, and a town square with a few bars, restaurants and shops dotted around. The real star of the show though is obviously the lake – it is absolutely stunning! Find yourself somewhere to stay with a dock, hammocks, and prepare to spend your days watching the light dance on the waves of the lake, enthusiastic paddle boarders and kayakers traverse across the vast multi-hued blue waters, and various boats shuttling tourists around on pricey boat trips.

I made food for myself during my stay at the second hostel as it was not conveniently located to the town but I do have one foodie recommendation for you – Mango Y Chile, a vegan restaurant, that makes burgers, tacos and smoothies. My falafel burger was huge, delicious as well as healthy, and I loved my mango smoothie. Go treat yourself!

Another highlight for me was the street art dotted around the town – see pictures below.

*there are only a few ATMS in Bacalar and they don’t always work so keep that in mind when you come, especially if you have to pay for you accommodation in cash on arrival like I did. There are two ATMS in the town square and one in the OXXO.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

Street art pictures:

CONNECT with me: Instagram @uncaged_artbird

Flores, Guatemala

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  • Visited February 2019

Flores is a lovely little Guatemalan town located on an island within Lake Peten Itza. Cute and compact, you can walk around the entire Island within an hour or so. Most people come here to explore the Mayan ruins of Tikal, and my friend Meghan and I were no exceptions, however Flores itself is very charming so come for a night or two. It is picturesque, there are some nice bars and restaurants situated along the waterfront, and it rocks a low-key vibe.

Getting to Flores is easy. We took the overnight bus which entailed a shuttle collecting us from our hostel in Antigua, Barbara’s Boutique Hostel, and other travellers from various hostels around the city, and then being dropped off at the bus station in Guatemala City to catch the night bus. We took the Maya de Oro first class bus at 9pm which meant we had reclining seats, a blanket, and a toilet on board. I didn’t get any sleep as I can’t sleep when I travel at night but at least I was comfortable. Unlike the first class buses in Mexico, snacks or drinks were not included so remember to pack what you will need for the journey. Our bus arrived in Flores at 5 am, earlier than the scheduled time of arrival as there were no traffic hold-ups, and a shuttle was waiting for the passengers, ready to drop us off at our accommodation. Luckily our hotel was very welcoming at that hour, letting us rest in the foyer and leave our luggage until we could access our room. They had originally said that our room would be available at 11 am but seeing how tired we were, they kindly let us into our room at 8.30 am. 

Our schedule

  • Day 1 – we explored the town and caught up on sleep.
  • Day 2 – we had a much-needed relaxing pool day at our hotel and an evening meal in the hotel’s restaurant, Achiote.
  • Day 3 – we visited Tikal National Park.

Visiting Tikal

Tikal is one of the premier sights for travellers exploring Guatemala. The UNESCO site states that Tikal National Park is, ‘In the heart of the jungle, surrounded by lush vegetation, […Tikal is] one of the major sites of Mayan civilization, inhabited from the 6th century B.C. to the 10th century A.D. The ceremonial centre contains superb temples and palaces, and public squares accessed by means of ramps. Remains of dwellings are scattered throughout the surrounding countryside’. See the site for further contextual information UNESCO

Tikal can be an expensive experience. Tour operators in Flores you quote you various prices for guided tours. Shop around for the best price. We were not interested in having a guided tour so we managed to get a transport-only deal with a tour operator for 80 Q (return). We were told to wait by the Peten sign for the bus at 12 noon and the bus arrived on time. The journey time was around an hour and 20 minutes. When we arrived at the park, we all had to buy an entrance ticket for 150 Q (remember to bring your passport with you as you need this to buy the ticket). To see either sunset or sunrise at Tikal, you have to pay a further 100 Q.

There are limited food options at the park. Your cheapest option is the cafe that sells lacklustre sandwiches for around 20 Q. Bring your own food if you can, especially if you have special dietary needs.

The park itself was bigger than we expected. A guide would obviously be able to take you round the main sites and give you information about everything but were able to see the key things we wanted to by ourselves and were happy with that. Tikal is an impressive set of ruins and well worth a visit.  There are accommodation options at the Park (The Jungle Lodge Tikal, The Jaguar Inn Tikal and The Tikal Inn) but a day trip was fine for us.

Some Flores foodie recommendations:

  • Achiote – located in our hotel – we enjoyed breakfast and a delicious evening meal here (with muchos red wine!).
  • Cool Beans Cafe – super chilled place with hammocks to snooze off your post-food coma. We enjoyed a lunch here.
  • Maracuya Restaurant – vegan/vegetarian restaurant – so lovely! Tasty food in a lush setting.

*Budget accommodation option – I hear good things about Los Amigos Hostel. You have to book direct on their website to reserve a bed.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

CONNECT with me: Instagram @uncaged_artbird

El Paredón, Guatemala

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  • Visited January 2019

Looking to stay in Paradise? Look no further. Get yourself to the sleepy fishing village of El Paredón in Guatemala. A blog reader suggested I go (thank you Bar, who blogs on http://www.bwildnfree.com) and I’m so grateful for the recommendation. I spent eight blissful days there and didn’t want to leave. Largely off the beaten track for most tourists coming to Guatemala, you will probably find that you have the beach to yourself. The unspoilt black sand beach gets incredibly hot between 12 and 4 pm so take some covered shoes with you if you want to walk on the beach during that time period otherwise save your beach walk for the early morning or evening. Most people come here to surf, lie in a hammock and relax so El Paredón is the perfect place to come to escape the outside world and de-stress.

With a population of around 1,500 people, tourism is only just beginning to impact here which is part of the attraction of visiting. There is not much to do in El Paredón but in the village itself you will find tiendas (small shops) selling snacks and toiletries, and a couple of eateries. Everyone is friendly and welcoming and there is no pressure on you to part with your cash unlike in more developed beach resorts. The one not-for-profit organisation La Choza Chula does excellent work to ensure that the local community benefits from the growth in tourism by training local tour guides to run various tours for tourists. With them, you can go fishing in the mangroves, learn to cook traditional Guatemalan food, learn how to make bracelets, or visit a sea turtle feeding ground (you can also release baby turtles if you visit in season). The tours contribute to the conservation of the local environment as well as providing an income for the community. There are no souvenir shops but you can buy locally made t-shirts, bags and bracelets at the La Choza Chula shop. There are no ATMs here so make sure you bring enough Quetzales with you. There is however an internet store – the majority of accommodation does not provide WiFi – though you may prefer to have a digital detox and unplug whilst in El Paredón. That said, Paredon Surf House where I stayed has strong WiFi and could be a great place for a digital nomad to base themselves for a while. 

Though El Paredón is a quiet village, you can party daily at the Driftwood Surfer Hostel on the beachfront. I personally would not choose to stay there as it’s a party all day hostel and there are nicer places to sleep elsewhere but all are welcome at the Driftwood and it’s a fun place. Go there if you are looking for a good time.

Suggested Eateries in El Paredón:

  • Yoli’s – behind Paredon Surf House. Some of the best value food in town.
  • Priscilla’s – the place to go for fried chicken apparently.
  • Sandra’s – offers breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • Soul Food Kitchen – Thai and Indian food.
  • El Tiburon (in the Pacifico) – pizzas made in a brick oven.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

CONNECT with me: Instagram @uncaged_artbird

 

 

Lake Atitlán, Guatemala

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  • Visited January 2019

Described as the closest place to Eden on Earth, Lake Atitlán, the mystical and mysterious lake that fills a large volcanic crater in Guatemala’s Southwestern highlands is considered by many to be the must-see destination of Guatemala. The lake itself is vast, with a luminescent beauty that can calm the soul of some and evoke weird dreams in others. It is certainly a peaceful place that provides an opportunity for travellers to unwind, contemplate life and reconnect with themselves if that’s what they’re looking for. Amongst the tranquility though, travellers can also find a good time in a few well-known party hostels. The lake is surrounded by villages that offer different experiences to travellers so consider what you want from your visit before booking your accommodation.  Most travellers will arrive by shuttle into Panajachel, a busy town with plenty of places to shop and eat, before travelling on by boat to their chosen village.

Here is a summary of the key villages to help you make your choice:

  • Santa Cruz La Laguna: This was the village I chose to stay in and was by far my favourite of those I visited. Two hostels are based here and both offer excellent views of the lake. Both provide family dinners (a three-course meal for a fixed price) as there are limited eating options in Santa Cruz. Iguana Perdida, where I stayed, has better accommodation options though, with dorms and luxury private rooms available. Free Cerveza has a treehouse dorm and tents for ‘glamping’ but a friend stayed there and showed me pictures of black mould in the tent he stayed in. Not nice. Free Cerveza also has an age restriction for guests – no over 40s allowed. As their name suggests, they give you a free beer on arrival and two hours of free beer between 5 and 7 pm if guests sign up for the family dinner. As attractive as free beer sounds, I’ve been told that it is common for travellers to spend a night at Free Cerveza and then move over to the Iguana. Other food options in Santa Cruz include Cafe Sabor at the top of the hill, run by local students and providing good food with a spectacular view; Holy Tortillas which does a tasty breakfast; and Arca de Noé which is next to the Iguana. All three places have WiFi which is handy as the Iguana has a no WiFi policy (but does have a computer room for guests) and Free Cerveza charges for WiFi.
  • San Marcos – this hippy Mecca consists of yoga retreats, holistic centres, and cafes/restaurants catering to the gluten-free vegan crowd. It has one main street leading up from the dock with some pretty street murals. In San Marcos you can partake in a cocoa ceremony that claims to open up hearts, enhance meditation, give energy and encourage creativity. Circles Cafe has lovely but expensive smoothies and I hear it does good food. I thought I would like San Marcos more than I did – I personally found it quite pretentious.
  • San Pedro – the party village of the lake. Travellers come here for a good time. There is lots to do here so if somewhere like Santa Cruz is too quiet for you, then San Pedro might suit you better. Its view of the lake is not as nice as Santa Cruz though.

Taking Boats

The main way to get between villages is by boat. There are public and private boats. Public boats run fairly regularly until 7pm – so keep that in mind if you head to San Pedro to party but have accommodation booked in another village. Don’t ask the boatmen how much the boat costs when taking the public boat because you will end up paying more than you should. For example, the boat from Panajachel to Santa Cruz costs 10 Q but I have heard of travellers being charged up to 25 Q for the journey. Santa Cruz to San Marcos should be between 15 to 20 Q and Santa Cruz to San Pedro should be between 20 to 25 Q.

*Just a note if you get seasick. Make sure you bring your medication with you. Most of the lake crossings I made were fine but one day the lake was very choppy even though it was a beautiful sunny day and I had a very rough ride to San Pedro and back.

Activities

The hostel I stayed in in Santa Cruz can arrange Spanish lessons, weaving and cooking classes, hiking, yoga, kayaking and has a dive centre for those looking to dive in the lake. It is a cheap place for beginners to learn to dive but perhaps not the easiest place to do it for the first time. Many divers come to the lake for altitude diving. Other than that, the lake is a great place to hang out in a hammock, enjoy a beer and watch the sun go down. 

Selection of pictures from my stay:

CONNECT with me: Instagram @uncaged_artbird

Antigua, Guatemala

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  • Visited December 2018/January 2019

Antigua, a small gem of a city surrounded by volcanoes and known for its well-preserved colonial buildings, is an absolute delight to visit and stay. In fact many travellers come here for a few days and find themselves sucked in by Antigua’s charms and extend their stays, like I did. Antigua is a very easy place to be. There’s plenty to do and see and numerous restaurants/cafes and bars catering to tourists so you can have a good time here. Reminiscent of Mexico’s San Cristobal (which I also loved, see my post here San Cristobal) but with generally a warmer climate, I spent most of my days just wandering the streets, visiting boutiques, churches and snapping lots of pictures as this is a particularly instagrammable city. The volcanoes provide an impressive backdrop, challenging yet rewarding hikes and spectacular views when you reach their summits. You haven’t really experienced Antigua if you haven’t scaled at least one volcano in the area and seeing lava cascade from a volcano at sunset is unforgettable.

If you want to climb a volcano there are two main choices. The most popular is a day trip hike to Pacaya which involves a very steep one hour 30 minute climb to the top (so you will need to be at least moderately fit). We did the 2pm pick up from Antigua to Pacaya (you pay the tour company for the bus – we paid 60 Q then you pay 50 Q for the entrance ticket when you arrive and a guide leads the group up) which meant we got to be on the volcano for sunset and the views were unbelievable. You get to toast marshmallows on hot lava rocks and then walk down in the dark (you can use a torch or your mobile phone to help you) which is atmospheric, returning to Antigua around 9pm. You need to take a warm layer of clothing with you as it can get cold and windy at the summit. The other option is to do the overnight trip to Acatenango volcano (which provides views of Fuego) and entails five hours hiking on day one, camping overnight, hiking up for about an hour on day two before descending. As I have the chronic medical condition fibromyalgia, I judged the Acatenango trip to be a bit much for me but really enjoyed the Pacaya day trip. I’ve been told that tour companies in the area provide coats, hats, sleeping bags, tents etc for hire for those that want to do Acatenango but again, you would need to take warm clothing with you as it’s very cold at night on the volcano.

In addition to the volcano views, you can’t wander around Antigua and not see a church. The main church that should not be missed is San Francisco el Grande, built in 1542 – the oldest church in Antigua still holding ceremonies. Within the complex you will find the church, the ruined monastery, the tomb of Hermano Pedro (a Spanish missionary and Guatemala’s only saint), and a museum dedicated to the man himself. Entrance to the church and tomb are free but it costs 8 Q to enter the museum and ruins. The museum is well worth a visit as it displays clothing and artefacts that belonged to Hermano and you really get a sense of how revered he is by the people of Guatemala. Other key city sites include the iconic archway Arco de Santa Catalina, the Iglesia de La Merced, Iglesia y Convento de las Capuchinas, Casa Santo Domingo, and the climb up to the Cerro de La Cruz, for a view of the city and Volcan Agua. The cavernous Mercado is an enjoyable way to pass time in the city, see the locals and pick up some bargains – you can buy everything in this market! Art lovers should stop by La Antigua Galeria de Arte, a free gallery which showcases 80% work from Guatemalan artists, and there is some great work on display on both floors and you could always pop in to Nimpot afterwards, a large warehouse of local arts, crafts and textile products, if you want to buy gifts. Items are marked with a price, rather than requiring you to haggle, so good for those who don’t enjoy bartering for a bargain. The rather dramatic Holy Week floats are sheltered opposite and also worth a look. The gate was only open one day I was in Antigua but you can see some of the floats through the gate and they are quite something.

If you tire of roaming the city streets, a fab option is to visit Santa Teresita Hotel and Thermal Spa. It’s around a 20 minute drive from the city but you can Uber it there and back without issue (there is free Wifi at the Spa). You pay for a package – we did the Piscine Relax package for 380 Q which gave us access to 11 thermal pools, the jacuzzi, and a 50 minute massage (one of the best I’ve had). We also got lunch at the cafe, thinking it would be just a small snack I ordered quesadillas, but the portion sizes were large and delicious. Overall, it was an amazing treat day. Highly recommended!

Another recommendation I have is a trip to Hobbitenango, the Middle Earth of Guatemala. About 20 minutes away from the city centre, go up the mountains to enjoy all you can eat lunches with spectacular views, and to see the hobbit-style casitas you can rent to stay overnight.

In terms of restaurants/cafes and bars, you are spoilt for choice in Antigua. Here are some I visited during my stay:

  • Fridas – Frida Kahlo-themed restaurant. Had lovely Baja Fish Tacos for lunch one day and evening snacks and cocktails in the bar with friends another time. Service was excellent on both occasions.
  • Por Qué No? Restaurant and Bar  – one of my favourite places in Antigua. This place is tiny but the food is delicious and well worth queuing to get in (expect to queue, it is always packed out).
  • Caoba Farm – a lovely farm to table restaurant. Go on a weekend for the farmer’s market, live music and chilled vibes.
  • Toku Baru – a firm favourite with the backpacking crowd. Budget-friendly International eats.
  • Kombu Ramen – best ramen I’ve ever had!
  • Cafe Sky – fab place to grab a glass of wine whilst watching the sun set.
  • Cactus Tacos – Great place with live music. Always busy. Loved my shrimp quesadillas. Our server was attentive and hilarious.
  • Rincon Tipico – the place to go for affordable Guatemalan cuisine.
  • The Londoner – decent pub grub and live music. Good for those missing a taste of the UK on their travels.
  • Y Tu Pina También – This place offers all day breakfasts and I really enjoyed my Huevos Rancheros and smoothie after a late night out the previous evening. Service was not great unfortunately.
  • Samsara – good vegan options and excellent smoothies in a hippie vibe. Service was OK.
  • Cafe No Se – my favourite late night venue. Cool, candle-lit dive bar.
  • Monoloco – busy American Sports bar. Not cheap. Tasty food though (sliders, chicken fingers etc) and good service.
  • Lucky Rabbit – perfect choice for those looking for a late night lively bar option (though places close at 1 am in Antigua). It has two rooms offering different music (latin pop in the main room and electronic house in the smaller room) and party goers can get the bus to the Saturday night after party (in a disused swimming pool) from this venue.

Antigua is a beautiful, though not necessarily cheap, city to visit so don’t be surprised if you don’t want to leave…

Selection of pictures from my stay:

CONNECT with me: Instagram @uncaged_artbird

Havana, Cuba

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*Scroll down for tips on how to survive and enjoy travelling in Cuba

  • Visited December 2018

Havana is a city of contrasts and for me there are two faces to the city: ‘Havana Pretty’ and ‘Havana Sh*tty’. Some parts are chic, some parts are shabby chic and some parts are just plain shabby, but that’s Havana and I loved it, flaws and all. Most tourists come to Havana and they never really venture beyond Habana Vieja, the old town, but that’s a real shame. There is much beauty to be found amongst the areas of ‘real’ Havana and if you choose not to explore them then you haven’t really experienced the city at all. At no point did I ever feel unsafe in any part of Havana so I encourage you to leave the touristy old town and roam the whole city. Havana is a large, widespread city, so I would recommend focusing on exploring the sites area by area. Transport options include old American cars, bike taxis, Coco taxis (a yellow motorised vehicle for two passengers), public bus and walking. Havana does have a bus tour, which I think is a hop on hop off service but I didn’t bother with this as I prefer to walk everywhere as much as possible.

Suggested Activities

  • Visit the Jose Marti Memorial at Plaza de la Revolución. The best views of the city are from the top of the tower. It’s 1 CUC to walk around the base and 4.50 CUC to access the tower. The famous Che Guevara mural is opposite.
  • Visit the cemetery – El Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón – which is huge and has some stunning tombs and memorials. 5 CUC entry.
  • Visit the Hotel Nacional de Cuba which is steeped in mafia and old Hollywood celeb history.
  • Tread in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway – visit the Hotel Ambos Mundos to see the room he used to stay in and write (5 CUC entry), drink a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio or a daiquiri at La Floridita (he is credited with helping to invent both).
  • Spend time people-watching in the plazas: my favourite one was Plaza Vieja but the other key plazas are Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza de Armas.
  • Take a stroll along The Malecón – if the water is calm enough. When I visited the Malecón was off limits.
  • Stroll along Calle Oficios and Calle Obispo – you will find historical buildings, old pharmacies etc, and restaurants/bars offering excellent live music.
  • Visit Callejón de Hamel, especially if you are an art fan like me – it’s a cool alleyway showcasing the work of artist Salvador Gonzáles Escalona: Afro-Carribean street art murals and sculptures.
  • Museum hop – Havana has excellent museums: Museo de la Revolución, El Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes etc.

Recommended Restaurants/Bars

There is more to Havana than the tourist traps of La Bodeguita del Medio and La Floridita….

  • Azucar – Plaza Vieja – serves good food and amazing cocktails. I splurged on a bespoke gin and tonic on one occasion and it was fantastic! Nab a seat on the balcony to catch the sun and people-watch to your heart’s content. There is a tapas bar on the corner next to Azucar (the name has escaped me…) which is also good.
  • El Chanchurro – a cool place with the tongue-in-cheek slogan that Ernest Hemingway never visited. Tasty food and decent cocktails. It’s only a small place so expect to queue outside to get a table.
  • La Cava in the Teatro – touristy but my friends and I had a good time here. We had the set menu which included a main meal and a drink but if you want to treat yourself you can indulge in the after-dinner package which includes a cigar, rum and coffee. The lovely thing about this is the server comes to table, presents the cigar and smokes one with you whilst giving you information about Cuban cigars, how they are made etc.
  • La Taberna – Plaza Vieja – fab little place to grab a snack, cocktails and enjoy live music on an evening.

Travelling around Cuba gives you an insight into what travel must have been like back in the day when travellers didn’t have constant access to WiFi, smartphones and Apps that make life easier. It’s not always easy though so here are some tips to help you.

TIPS: How to Survive and Enjoy Cuba

  • Read up on the history of the Cuban Revolution before you go and make sure you are familiar with Jose Marti, Che Guevara and Fidel Castro – all three men are revered in Cuba and it will help you to know and understand their roles in Cuba’s history before going.
  • Download the Google Translate App and download Spanish offline – or take a Spanish friend with you like I did 😉
  • Download Google Maps offline or Maps.Me to help you navigate your way around the country.
  • Take a currency other than US dollars with you – preferred currencies are the British Pound, the Euro or Canadian Dollar.
  • There are two currencies operating in Cuba but the reality is tourists are expected to use the CUC whereas locals use CUPs so you don’t need to worry about trying to use two currencies at the same time. Always check the change you are given though to make sure you haven’t been given CUPs instead of CUCs (one CUC is roughly 25 CUPs).
  • You can use your bank cards in some restaurants etc but expect to pay in cash everywhere else.
  • There are ATMS in Havana but you may not find many others in the rest of the country. When using an ATM, know that some only distribute 5 CUC notes, or only 10 CUC notes, or they may limit how much you can take out in one go (if your transaction is declined for example it does not mean you have insufficient funds, it just means if you want to withdraw a large sum that you may have to do it in more than one transaction and pay a charge each time).
  • Book your first night’s accommodation in Havana using HostelWorld, Booking.com (see my home page for a promo link…) etc and then your casa will help you book accommodation in the next place you want to go to.
  • Contrary to rumours there is food available in Cuba and you can eat very well here. The only difference is there are no convenience stores like 7Elevens for you to grab a quick drink and snack and no fast food places like McDonalds so you will always eat in restaurants/bars.
  • It can be difficult to find and buy bottled water. Believe it or not, beer and cocktails are easier to find. Get water when you can. Your casa may have water for you to buy or buy bottled water when eating out.
  • Most public bathrooms do not have toilet seats because post the collapse of the soviet union, Cuba underwent a time of extreme hardship and toilet seats are expensive to buy and considered a luxury. Expect to pay to use toilets in most places – 1 CUC is the usual cost – and you may be given toilet paper when you pay, though it’s a good idea to always carry a packet of tissues to use when travelling.
  • Solo travellers – hostels are not really a thing in Cuba though there are a couple in Havana (I’ve heard they are not good…). You will have to stay in casas and when travelling alone that can get costly as you will have to pay for the whole room, rather than just pay for a bed.
  • You are expected to have travel insurance and a return ticket to enter the country. If you are not sure of your plans, just book any flight out of Cuba that you can cancel within 24 hours of buying and then book the flight you really want when you are there.
  • You will need a tourist card to enter. We bought ours at Cancun airport for 360 pesos.
  • Take any toiletries and medications you need with you as you may find them hard to get in Cuba.
  • Download the Culture Trip App – a great site that recommends things to do, places to eat and so on, and you can save articles offline to use when you are in Cuba. I found this to be invaluable.
  • Overall, just have realistic expectations and understand that the people of Cuba are very proud people that have experienced times of poverty and hardship. There are still times today when you may not have bread as part of your breakfast buffet because there is a shortage of flour or no eggs because the host hasn’t been able to get them. Cuban people are warm and welcoming and if you reciprocate that attitude, you will enjoy excellent hospitality and hopefully make some new friends during your time in Cuba.
  • Cuba may not be the Caribbean paradise that most tourists envision before visiting but it is an incredible country and only by travelling around (rather staying put in the Varadero resorts) will you see all that it has to offer.

Selection of pictures from my stay:

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