I thought a trip to Central America whilst everyone else was talking Melbourne Spring carnival and planning Christmas was a good idea, hum ? The news that Cyclone Patricia had swept across Mexico two weeks prior to arriving should have been a warning but I fobbed it off as “it’s a big country and the cyclone season should be over.” Our arrival in Cancun, the Mexican party town was into torrential rain and palm trees bending madly in the wind. We spent our first days catching colds, swatting mozzies, drinking umbrella drinks and sweating profusely. Great…
We hunkered down watching the wrath of the wind and rain.
So our resort days over it was time to toughen up and move to the Intrepid hotel in Cancun. The local bus plonked us in town with Sally full of a fever and struggling in the oppressive heat. We spot the hotel one hundred metres away and then delirious, she spins and collapses on the footpath. A kind local guy and a policeman help us and some ten minutes later she is well enough to walk across the road, rest at a shop before attempting the final fifty metres to the hotel.
The tour meeting was in parts as not all the group had arrived. It seemed like a pretty good group but there were still a couple of late arrivals to come. Of course at least one of them had to be a little weird, border nutcase. The likelihood was high and I wasn’t disappointed.
The next morning our mini bus arrives, a small rear luggage rack is loaded wrapped and tied down. The group is excited to be on our way, the guide Chimi, full of big smile and layback attitude throws the line “just check out the back every so often to make sure the luggage is secure.” This comment will bite him on the arse. The bus is full of excited chatter and an hour in we take a sweeping bend towards Chichen Itza. There is some talk between the driver and Chimi, they drive on. An Italian girl sitting at the front understands Spanish and without telling others knows something is not right. Suddenly we pull off the freeway, they jump out and check the luggage before heading on another half hour. More talk then we stop again. “Can you guys please confirm your bags are on the rack ?” We get out, the Italian girl confirms her bag is missing. We race back but everyone knows that it will have long gone, her brand new stylish bag full of European clothing etc. She also knows that they had commented on a car flashing them…… She has nothing except her day bag and her passport, she is as cool as cucumber where most would be howling. Then very carefully she tells them they must buy her some clothes and don’t take my calmness for weakness. The chatter is gone the drive to Chichen Itza completed without a word from the rest of the group.
Chichen Itza with some mystical cloud thrown in…..wooo.
We wander through the ruins at Chichen Itza it’s impressive having been reclaimed from the jungle but of this style, the Egyptian pyramids are a hard act to follow. Of course we all get soaked when we are the furthest from the bus. We sit in warm but wet clothes into Merida. The Mexicans are fun people always smiling and up for a good time. The towns are full of bands playing, cold beers, tequila and spicy food. People dance spontaneously and free of inhibition, this lack of inhibition is foreign to most Westerners. I drink like a Mexican whilst Sally sleeps and tries to recover.
Horse drawn carriages to Cenotes, once carried hemp for making rope.
One day is spent swimming in cenotes, a series of underground limestone pools of pristine clear water, deep underground. Small horses pull even smaller wooden carriages on narrow track to these cenotes. We lower ourselves gingerly on a series of hand made steel ladders made from old train track. You wouldn’t get away with it in most parts of the world.
They have fed a small light down into the gloom and we swim and dive with startled bats swirling about overhead, catfish rub against your legs. It is quite an experience.
We drive further on to Palenque where some of us do a jungle walk which includes sliding on your belly through underground tunnels formed when fig trees roots grow and break into ancient buried houses long ago lost to the jungle. It’s more a commando course than a tour. The finale is the guide trumpeting and squealing to howler monkeys high in the tree canopy. They scream back from above but stay where they are safe, true survivors. He tells us they will pee on you given the chance, we move on. We leave wet and covered in mud.
From Palenque it’s a long drive to San Cristobal and this is Zapatista territory, a rebel group who stormed and took San Cristobal in 1994. They represent the local Mayan people and cause the government great embarrassment. We found out the hard way. An early morning waterfall visit was extended when the driver received a call of a road block an hour further on. We mooched about with the word that the rebels would go home at 6pm for supper. We were in a four km queue at the roadblock at 6pm, they didn’t go home. It started raining, we became restless and fidgety, they wouldn’t leave, you might call it a Mexican standoff. Maybe 9pm someone whispered. We ate a local roadside stall out of all his edible products and a nearby drop toilet did a lifetimes work in a night. 9pm came and went. Some cars turned and left, our driver walked, found holes in the queue and drove forward, by 10pm he had jumped the whole 4 kms to the front of the blockade, 150 Zapatistas were milling about in heavy rain. They held a vote as our driver and guide watched from a distance then it was over except it wasn’t. The tangle of vehicles, mainly large trucks were caught in a jam and it was 11pm before we moved and 2.30am when we finally parked at our hotel. Our driver had left home at 6.30am that was 20 hours and 20,000 speed humps ago. Most of us slept into the day and only got excited when the drinks menu was presented at dinner.
Near San Cristobal is a small town of San Juan Chamula, there a small church has become renowned for its mixture of Catholicism and local Mayan beliefs. There is a priest one day per month for baptisms otherwise they run their own shop. We walk into a church of marble floors strewn with fragrant, fresh pine needles, hundreds of flickering candles, vast arrays of flowers, steady chanting and offerings of Coca Cola ( burping is seen to dispel bad feelings, a terrific marketing ploy Coke ) Chickens are sacrificed their necks stretched in the church with the occasional throaty squawk. It’s just like central casting. The best for me ? They take the dead chickens home and barbecue them for dinner, waste not want not !
A rhythm soon starts up when you are on the road, the way you pack, the way you grab sleep when you can and the acceptance of difference. It’s certainly been different.
Just when we have an understanding of Mexico we slip into Guatemala, it’s hilly, green and the weather changes often as clouds cling and then let go of the nearby mountains. We are staying in Panajachet next to a beautiful lake and a dawn boat-ride leaves us at a boutique hotel clinging to the cliffs over the lake. We puff up the stairs from the jetty and then turn to face the sparkling water…wow. Breakfast tastes so good, looking out onto the lake as small ferries ply the waters. After much surrounding poverty this seems rather decadent almost Amalfi coast chic. It reminds us all of life elsewhere, taunts us with deft service and Western food. We don’t fight it in fact we embrace it stretching out on deckchairs on the balconies facing the water. Then reality strikes and we are off to a small village of artists. Most of the group part with reasonable size sums of money yet all appear happy, the art is rather unique and they have met the artists involved. The town is adorned in large painted walls by many local artists and the place has a really distinct, positive vibe to it.
That afternoon we head to a nearby town for a home stay. What a contrast from breakfast. We congregate in a rubbish strewn town square as local boys thrash about playing life and death football on a rough pitch. Our families walk us to various homes, ours is unfortunately some hundreds of meters back up the steep wheezy hill. Their view onto the lake below is worth a million dollars, their belongings by contrast wouldn’t add up to more than a few hundred bucks yet they seem happy. Their five-year old daughter is feverishly busy and has us colouring in, counting in Spanish and reciting her English words. Their dog Oso, a chow-chow breed looks more like a lion than a dog with its wild mane of hair and has Sally bluffed for the whole stay. The wife dresses Sally in the traditional costume and she looks rather, hum….Guatemalan !
Not sure about the home stays ? Not sure, but I do know the families get money for our visit but it doesn’t sit quite right with me a bit too intrusive.
The following day we bounce into Antigua, a UNESCO city. It’s in grid formation and busy, the building facades are old and crumbling and appear to be barely intact. Behind these facades are many beautiful homes with lush gardens and highly decorated interiors but from the street you see nothing. The roughly cobbled streets work as one giant sped trap or tripping hazard for gawking tourists. We find some amazing bars, the best has us crawling through tiny openings into a rabbit warren of darkened rooms with go-go cages wrapped in bud lighting. Much has happened here, the room is full of wild characters…plus our group. The guide tells a story of a group he brought here who spent the whole night in the go go cage, he found out later they pole danced back home for real money. I think he was hoping we’d been inspired by his story but I’m a lousy dancer even if half drunk !
Headed to nearby Pacaya volcano. It erupted earlier this year and a few years ago took out 1200 local houses in nearby villages. As we climbed to 2300m we could see the top half-clad in cloud with smoke escaping. Locals follow you with horses sure that Westerners will surrender and saddle up before reaching the top. A horse’s nostrils blew warm air on the back of my neck till I reached the top and the radiating heat of the volcano. The weird award for the day was the guide toasting marshmallows in cracks in the ash as the molten heart of the mountain seeped burning hot breath into the atmosphere. A group of young dudes clutching snow boards on the not so soft volcanic ash also had me chuckling. Talk about variety.
No snow here bro, we rip up the volcano ash !
An overnight stop at Rio Dulce for a riverside stay. We start slapping our arms and legs before we have reached reception, we are all a series of mozzie welts. We are upgraded but the two plank walkway to the room is both submerged and blocked by a very large iguana who is wider than the walkway.
A boatman is hailed and Sally and I spend much of our stay Isolated from the group unless we arrange our boatman. Sally whistles up some icy beers and we lay back listening to the water and watch turtles scurry about in the shallows. Later we stare up into the night sky through the swirling ceiling fan fighting to keep us cool. We wake to a whole new series of welts and itches.
Back in another small bus and into Flores. It’s a touristy town on a small lake and our stepping stone for a night walk into Tikal National Park the following day. It’s two thirty am when we find ourselves getting out of a perfectly comfortable bed. We bounce along with a local guide into the National Park then walk for just under an hour by torchlight up two hundred wooden steps built against a Mayan temple and a viewing platform across the treetops. It’s still pitch black when we finally arrive. Sally gasps onto the platform and makes out the others already sitting waiting for the dawn. Chimi, she whispers a little too loudly ” You said we would be the only ones ! ” you can hear the sniggers. We sit and wait and as the dawn comes, other temples begin to appear through the mist, peaking above the trees. Then It begins, a symphony of jungle noise, monkeys scream, jaguar roar, birds squawk loudly it is thunderous and brings the jungle alive. It continues for some six or seven minutes and then stops just as abruptly, another day has begun. We sit blown away not by the vista but by the energy, the jungle’s lungs screaming. I feel rather humble. The morning is followed by zip lining, just for something different our group races and screams like howler monkeys across the tree tops but I have a weak belly and am best kept at ground level for the sake of others below as much as for me.
As the sun rose, the animals screamed in jubilation…another day.
We move on to San Ignacio and a new country, Belize. It takes a while to get used to speaking English again. It’s weird, they are the only English-speaking country in Central America complete with an old image of the Queen on their paper money. The town is old and dusty, full of rickety old timber dwellings hungry for a lick of paint and decaying before your eyes in the tropical climate. So warm that I eat my ice cream cone inside the a/c of the shop for fear of dripping more than I eat.
Sally’s father is very sick in England and we arrange for her to fly there. A taxi bounces us for two hours to Belize City airport where the tail of the parked jets soar high above the rather insignificant airport building. Although the driver has been paid well for this return trip I must listen to two hours of how little he makes all the way back to San Ignacio. He picks up hitch hikers along the way which I find rather novel.
Up early the next morning to visit the ATM, a living museum of Mayan relics inside a nearby mountain. We get kitted out in helmets, waterproof head lamps and water booties and slosh along a path following the river and regularly crossing it. The water is fast-moving and we slip and slide on the large smooth boulders. Finally we reach the mouth of the cave and slip into the water. We need to swim the first fifty metres before the water level drops enough to wade and scramble. And so it goes swim, wade, scramble your way against the flow of water for a km into the middle of the mountain.
We lift ourselves out of the water and onto a ledge then stumble a few hundred metres along some sort of path. Our guide turns his light-beam into the dark instantly illuminating a sprinkling of broken terracotta pots which once were filled with food offering cooked inside the cave. High up he turns his beam onto bleached skeletons partially submerged and set in the sediment. A skull here, a full body nearby every bone from fingers to torso all as they would have been laid out as an offering to the gods, it sends a chill into the darkness around us.
Our guide, Patrick to the guys, Brown Sugar to the ladies hands out slices of molasses cake. It is my first food today. In the pitch black and after the commando course journey to get here it is the most delicious thing I have ever eaten. We turn for home and slide, bounce and feel our way back to the water and eventually light at the cave entrance. We’ve made it, back to civilisation. Everyone is abuzz it’s been an amazing experience. Before I can get out of my bathers our bus takes us on to Belize City in time to catch the last ferry to Caye Caulker. We just make it after an issue with our tickets but the problem washes away as the sea breeze blows over us and the night begins to reflect off the water. Caye Caulker is sandy streets, a Caribbean lifestyle and plenty of dark rum, we eat BBQ fish and slurp on plastic cups of rum punch. What a day.
Caye Caulker is also an hour or two from fantastic snorkelling and although it’s too windy the first day the next day finds us lying on the deck of a sailing boat with a crew of experienced divers. We dive three times, first amongst coral and masses of coloured reef fish, then in deep water with, what ? Sharks ??? Yep 6-8ft sharks but of a catfish type. We demand our tour leader be a true ‘leader’ and suggest, no demand he enters the water first. They are feeding bait to the sharks on another boat, once we are in the water the sharks appear to be almost standing on each other to reach the burley bait. I can tell you all this because I saw it myself but I also made sure there were at least two decent meals, I mean people between me and those sharks. Australians have been eating shark, we call it flake since forever, I figured this was their chance for revenge. We soon got brave although when one circled and faces you, well it’s not like spilling popcorn watching Jaws ! Giant stingrays and larger fish swarmed but they only ate what the sharks spilt. On our final dive we spot a green backed turtle grazing, ignorant of the fuss he has caused, on the grassy floor. He is about a metre round and is a ferocious eater we float mesmerised by him before swimming back to our boat. The sails are set for home, the sun dries our salty skin and we sip rum punch all the way back. Many choose an early night or did the punch choose it for them.
The tour is almost over, a few lazy days by the beach at Tulum and then a party night in Playa Del Carmen, our finale at the famous Coco Bongo nightclub.
Caye Caulker, Belize and a slice of Heaven.
It seems all of our group know about it except Sally and I but its a three-tiered, part theatre, part drinking hall, part television studio, part circus with about 1800 semi naked people shaking their thing. Your ticket buys unlimited drinks and well, I tried to make sure I wasn’t short-changed. I left at 2am and am now trudging to the bus station under very heavy skies with a matching heavy head for a bus to Cancun airport to meet Sally who has flown back from seeing her sick father… Later today we should fly to Havana, Cuba. Except it doesnt happen that way and Sally misses her flight and we don’t reconnect for another 24 hours.
It’s only a forty-five minute flight to Cuba from Mexico, an island which under the shout of Viva from Caestro’s revolution in 1959 then turned its back on most of the world. America squeezed it with importation bans in 1960 but somehow they stood defiantly against capitalism. The first thing I noticed was that everything was dated pre 1959, the buildings, the cars, the courtesy.
Everything takes time here because the people get paid a small amount whether they do the job well or poorly. They expect the Government to support them in schooling, health and assorted other of life’s necessities. The money exchange is most people’s introduction to this languid attitude. You are ushered from the main terminal out into the tropical heat to stand in a slow-moving queue to change euros to CUC, the Cuban tourist currency yes its a seperate currency to ensure maximum pain for visitors. Dripping with sweat and surrounded by enthusiastic touts I clutch my new currency, keeping one eye out for a kind looking taxi driver ?
Old Havana city is an hour away and I speed in a suspension free, clapped out taxi towards a city I could tell I would love. My hotel for the first few days was one of the classics, the Hotel Sevilla. Al Capone stayed her, Fidel had a glass of lemonade here to celebrate his leadership, I’m sure Hemingway bought a drink here at some point. It would be the only bar in town he didn’t drink at if so. It’s was very old world, stylish of a time and my refuge until Sally arrives.
The rooftop dining room at Hotel Sevilla.
I headed out into the street, to immerse myself in the laneways, the footpaths in absolute disrepair forcing most to walk on the roads, dodging tricycle taxis, lumbering, exhaust spewing trucks and an array of vintage cars, Buicks, Chevrolets, Cadillacs all in rainbow colours and all being nursed by an owner-cum-mechanic. The interiors plush with white leather and glossy automobile paint, not a skerrick of plastic in sight.
The laneways revealed open doors to tiny homes, locals live their life in full view of anyone passing. You felt like wiping your feet for fear you’d dirty their floor. People simply yelled up to friends hanging from balconies or oblivious inside. Everything needed mending or had been mended, nothing was simply replaced when it could be tinkered with and given a few more years. You couldn’t buy a replacement anyway. It is intoxicating so much life lived in a bustling city. Our cities are far less lived in. For us, its orderly apartments, shopping malls and office towers, here it’s intermingled, blurred at the edges and borderline chaos.
Just a few running repairs on his bicycle taxi.
I wander on my own and am befriended by anyone and everyone, sadly it usually ends with a catch, an offer of a taxi, an offer of a bar with good music, my cousins art studio. Everyone’s hustling for the tourist dollar but always with a smile. A woman with two children in tow who is on her way home from school pickup offers to show me a nearby music hall. Ten minutes later we have walked four blocks as she babbles away. “I need a boyfriend” she announces, I am unsure I heard right, I walk on ignoring the comment. “Here is the Buenavista Vista club, playing tonight, buy some tickets” she demands, as her children race me up four flights of marble stairs to a stage area. Thanks but no, I reply. It’s getting sticky I need to break away, she senses this and announces that I should buy her some milk for her trouble. I find myself in a shop with barely any stock. She bundles five containers of long life milk onto the counter. I put two away and hand over some money, she disappears and I head back to the hotel bewildered. I grab a couple of beers and a meal and slink back to my room.
The next day I re-enter the fray, expand my understanding of the city. Visit the harbour, its famous lighthouse. Late afternoon Sally finally arrives and we spend the early evening immersing ourselves in the laneway lifestyle, the Hemingway bars awash with Havana Club. Later still we sit at a nightclub table listening to some members of the Buenavista Social Club grooving and shaking their thing. Yes I did go back and buy tickets but without the demands of the local woman. The night is abuzz, we head back to the calmness of our room, I’m half drunk from the Havana Club rum, half drunk on life. You find yourself dipping into the street life but needing a refuge from it too. Like parts of overflowing China, like throbbing Mumbai, too much to absorb. You take little sips and withdraw.
I repeat…I did not inhale.
We travel up North to Vinales out into the lush countryside. We leave flat farmland for small mountains and rich soil. We stay at Casa Marilyn, I had emailed Marilyn months ago, she sent photos of her house and herself ? And a series of concrete busts on her front fence. I feel like I know too much. She arranges a horse and jinker out to a tobacco farm, I have hurt my foot and cannot put weight on it. A taxi picks us up, drops us at a deeply rutted, slippery track glossy from overnight rain. Our driver flicks the reins and our small strong horse pulls the three of us up the track. The jinker slips wildly sideways and then jerks forward the horse desperate for purchase. Each time this happens the driver whispers “no problemo” he can smell our fear.
We arrive intact and are greeted by the farmer’s son, a young, lean cowboy with a broad smile a broader hat, he’s wearing gum boots with spurs. He talks us through the growing, picking and drying of the tobacco and then rolls some big fat cigars. Hands them around. I puff away on the best cigars in the world. You can smell the rich local earth, the taste of being dipped in port. I puff and feel the dizziness overtake me and sit down in the dark drying house with sunlight seeping through the external planking.
Our horse waits quietly then somehow delivers us back from where we came. The downhill track causing the horse to go steady, to take the jinker’s weight on his shoulders, I feel the weight movement transfer through the horse’s body, sorry horse.
Time to head to Trinidad, we hang at the bus terminal and get sold a better deal, a shorter ride for a few more pesos. A minibus. The next day it arrives, it’s not a minibus at all but an old Cadillac with three rows of seats. Sally feels duped and takes the guy to task. Well you wooses won’t speak up she retorts to the five of us guys. We all known we’ve been done over now, our expectations were as she said, a minibus. We bounce along in silence.
Inside, three rows of seats and seven of us…squeezy.
There are four German boys with us, a total of seven plus bags. It’s tight, very tight. The front seat Germans have had a night on the coco-loco, a fresh coconut filled with that damn rum. The old car is happy when we leave the twisting turning road and it clears its throaty exhaust and torpedoes forward, down the empty, three lane highway. The driver holds his nose to the big German, your friend stinks, holding his nose. The German replies “is it his feet on the dashboard, fromagio ?” The driver shakes his head, no, he gestures to his mouth then to his arm pretending an injection like hospitale…. Finally the German gets it, he turns to his friend in English, “he thinks your breath smells like hospital disinfectant. “ We all roll about except the offender, squeezed against the driver. It gets worse two hours in and on the outskirts of Havana we change cars, into a Chevy, it’s much smaller our baggage fills any small gaps, everyone falls silent trying to cope and knowing we have three more hours of confinement. We are all relieved when we catch a glimpse of the sea and soon old Trinidad, its wealth built from vast plantations of sugarcane comes into sight. There is some good dancing on display in Trinidad. The local men with their snake hips and natural swagger have a line of international girls to twirl around, brush against and strip bare with their eyes. All the while gulping down endless bottles of cheap Havana rum.
A six-hour bus trip back to Havana and the end of our time in Cuba it’s been exhausting and exhilarating in the same breath. We head out for a last glimpse of the city. We choose a bright red 1951 convertible and the car shakes then rumbles to life and onto the Prado down to the sea wall and along the famous Malecon to Hotel Nationale. There it’s a mandatory mojito whilst sitting in oversized rattan chairs just like any corupt Central American presidenta.
A country caught at the crossroads. Peasant farmers, rural life still dependant on horses and bullocks, the young wanting more, seeing wealth in these new tourists and wanting a slice of it all. Freeways empty of cars due to the cost of vehicles and petrol to run them. Shiny old American convertibles ferrying tourists through laneways filled with builders’ rubble a symbol of progress and the new-found tourist dollar. So many grand Spanish buildings in a state of decay, their facades blemished with black sooty residue from the tropical climate.
We pass schools that become dance studios at night with the sharp clack of heels on wood drifting far out into the night. The hustle, the bustle, the tropical decay, the music everywhere and the happiness of the people make for quite some experience. The Americans will be here soon, get in now.
Don’t judge Cuba against our vanilla Western standards. Get out there and feel the charismatic, intoxicating Cuban vibe for yourself.