A Travellerspoint blog

29. Revolution is in the air

Havana, Cuba

overcast 18 °C

15th May 2012

Imagine you are in a large city of significant historical importance. Huge colonial era buildings line the pavements in a state of disrepair. Plaster peals off the buildings as you walk along the cobbled streets. Metal balconies have turned to rust and exposed electrical cables pass overhead. The building at the corner has partly fallen down and the debris has, long since, been cleared away. On the road a 1956 red vintage Chevrolet drives past followed by a mint green vintage Plymouth. A motor bike and side car are right behind.

Five minutes later a boy on a cycle rickshaw stops to ask if you want a lift. Politely declining, you look around and notice people standing in their doorways: old ladies dressed in floral prints and gentleman wearing white vests and mis-buttoned cotton shirts with the occasional hat. The younger generations linger on the streets. The girls dress in short denim pants and tank tops, the boys in jeans and t-shirts.

The street hums with noise. You walk on, turn a corner and come across a grocery store. You peer through the window and notice all the shelves are bare. You continue on, turn another corner and find yourself facing a row of freshly painted multi-coloured buildings housing tourist shops. Number plates and artwork adorn the walls, whilst pushy shopkeepers are desperate to show you the stock. The shops are full of revolutionist memorabilia from Che Guevara t-shirts and canvas hats to the latest opinion on political theory from Fidel Castro. As you take it in, your mind wanders back to the looming images of Che Guevara and Castro that beam down on you from Revolution Square as you enter the city. A smile crosses your face. This is a nation with a unique revolutionary past and its evident everywhere.

You turn another corner and a large square opens out. A church sits on one side of the square opposite a restaurant alive with throngs of tourists eagerly gorging on fresh lobster and Havana rum. Music dances around the square. The lively tempo of a Cuban band bursts out from the restaurant across the street. It draws you closer. A five-piece band comes into view. Four gentleman play the guitar, an organ and some castanets while a lady with a powerful voice sings. It’s a catchy melody. People start to take to the street and dance. You stand a while and watch the scene. Before long someone grabs you and drags you in.

The song ends and you walk off to find something to eat. After dinner you weave your way through the unlit streets back to your casa. The family you are staying with is up, clustered around a big square TV encased in a wooden box on legs. After a brief conversation in Spanish you go into your room and open the doors onto your balcony. You stand in the hot evening air watching the street below. There are no lights on the street, just the odd ray that comes from a TV set inside someone’s home. People wander back and forth. Cycle rickshaw drivers pull up for the night and sprawl themselves across the back of their rickshaws to go to sleep. The city is still intoxicating by night. You step back into your room, pull the doors and shutters closed and climb into bed. It’s time to sleep so you can see it all again tomorrow.

Posted by Jayne Breckon 03:18 Archived in Cuba Tagged cuba havana havana_rum things_to_see_in_cuba things_to_see_in_havana havana_viejo che_guevara Comments (0)

28. Pirates of the Caribbean

Sailing from Colombia to Panama

sunny 35 °C

2nd April 2012

It’s 5.30 in the afternoon. As the sun begins to drop I board Wildcard, the boat that will take me to Panama. It shares the same name as the boat I sailed around the Whitsunday Islands on, seven years ago. For the next five days, this boat is going to be home. There are eighteen of us on board, including three members of crew. The first thirty-six hours will be spent at sea, and I’ve heard some horror stories from other travellers about this part of the trip: terrible seasickness, five metre high waves, strained boats, on board sewage systems giving up and more. We have all been instructed to take seasickness tablets and as far as I can tell everyone has. The sun sets, we cast off, and head out into open water.

At sea, everything is calm, and after a while most of us drift off to bed. I wake early the next morning and realize the boat is rocking gently from side to side as we bob over the waves. I go up on deck with a bowl of cornflakes. In every direction, as far as I can see there is open water. I train my eyes on the horizon looking for dolphins. Slowly everyone gets up and joins me. The waves are gentle, rising and falling softly. It is an unusually calm sea, according to our captain. This is only the second time, in five years, that it has been this calm. We lounge around on deck and enjoy the sun.

The following morning I’m woken by the sound of the engine being switched off. I jump out of bed, check the cabin window, change quickly into swimwear and go up on deck. We have arrived at the San Blas islands. I stand on deck and survey the scene. A small island lies about fifty metres to my left. White sand surrounds a dense interior of palm trees. The island can not be more than a hundred metres in length. Debris from broken trees lines the shore, giving it character. Another island is fifty metres to my right. Here, the sand gently slopes away from the palm trees into the crystal blue waters. I look over the side of the boat. The water is transparent. I can see right to the bottom.

I hear a splash as the captain jumps overboard. He swims to shore and holds up an enormous starfish. I can’t wait any longer. I dive straight in and let the warm water envelop me. Daphne follows. We swim to shore and sit on the beach. We can’t believe how beautiful this place is. One by one, everyone else wakes and does the same.

We stay anchored here all day. The girls congregate on the beach for a yoga session whilst the boys play ball. We spend the day swimming, snorkeling and exploring the two islands. The matriarchal indigenous people of Panama – the Kuna, come by to say hello. The women bring bracelets and jewelry and the men bring fresh supplies of lobster, crab, fish and beer. Dinner that evening is a feast.

After an early morning swim and breakfast the next day, we set sail for another group of islands. On the way, we pass shipwrecks, islands with a single palm tree, and dolphins. There are more boats here, but the setting is just as beautiful. We are not here long when we are told that immigration has closed for Semana Santa (the week before Easter). That means we have three extra nights on the boat. The group takes the news with mixed feeling. Cabin fever is starting to set in amongst a few people.

That night we combine alcohol supplies, and start playing drinking games. We are laughing, singing and dancing when one of the other yachts hears the party and rows across to join us. As they climb aboard, a girl misses the step and falls into the sea. She pulls herself out but arrives sodden. The party is in full swing and resembles a nightclub scene. The white lights that hang around the canopy and the front of the boat illuminate us as we dance.

The following three days are spent doing more of the same: snorkeling over reefs and wrecks, swimming, diving from the front of the boat and sunbathing on beautiful islands. Every day without fail, as the sun begins to fade, two large rays come and patrol our boat. Drawn by the light, they swim backwards and forwards around the boat. Every now and then we see a darker, much faster shadow that forces all the fish to dart under the hull of our boat. We suspect it is a game fish or a shark.

The only thing that breaks the pattern is a rainstorm on day five. The skies gray over and the rains begin to pour. After five days at sea with only seawater to bath in, our skin is sticky with sea salt and our hair matted. The storm offers a welcome break. We stand up on deck with a collective bottle of shampoo and everyone lathers up. It is delightful.

Our final stop is immigration, an island with a single hut on it – the immigration office. First thing tomorrow, we’ll be stamped into Panama and set sail for the mainland.

Posted by Jayne Breckon 01:24 Archived in Panama Tagged sailing caribbean panama colombia san_blas caribbean_sea san_blas_islanads sailing_panama_to_colombia wildcard sailing_in_the_caribbean wildcard; Comments (0)

27. From Coco Plantations to Pablo Escobar

A journey through Colombia

all seasons in one day 40 °C

7th March 2012

The jeep pulls up at 8.30am. Two hours later, there are ten of us heading out of town. It’s a hot day and the realization that we’re about to take on a five day trek through the jungles of Colombia starts to dawn. We turn down a small dusty dirt track, full of giant potholes. It’s pretty uncomfortable but the convoy vehicle in front looks a lot worse. We stop, eat quickly and then set off on foot for the jungle.

The weather is dry making the ground underfoot dusty. We tackle the first hill aggressively, climbing at a good pace. At the top we take in the scenery – lush green forests, coffee plantations and rolling hills. The hills are pocketed with patches of empty, scorched land. These are the old coco plantations destroyed by a US backed government campaign to eradicate the coco crop. As always these things find a way to survive though, and as we pass a new plantation we stop to examine the leaves. It’s hard to imagine that this tiny leaf causes so many problems.

We arrive into camp around 5pm after stopping to swim in a river along the way. Tonight we are staying in hammocks adorned by mosquito nets. It’s not the mosquitos, but the cold that wakes me at first light. It's set in all along my back. We eat breakfast, pack silently and set off on foot again. We go deeper into the jungle today and almost instantly the scene changes. Suddenly dense trees hug the narrow trail we are following, occasionally blocking the path or forcing us to trip over their huge roots. We cling to the sharp edge of a cliff as we inch our way over a huge rock with nothing but a narrow ledge to place our feet on and a steep twenty metre drop to our left.

We spend the next two hours weaving our way uphill. The intensity of the sun and the moisture from the jungle means water pours out of us. We are in serious risk of dehydrating if we don’t keep enough liquids down. As we weave our way through the jungle, we cross a number of rivers, but our biggest is yet to come. When we arrive the water is knee deep. At the right time of year, just after the rainy season, this river can be waist high. We step into it, it's refreshingly icy. Holding our belongings above our head, to keep them dry, we trudge across it. It's not far over the other side when we make camp. Tonight we will sleep in rows of tiny wooden beds. The mattresses are damp from the humidity and the beds are exposed to the elements on every side, but I still sleep incredibly well.

On the fourth day we set off for La Ciudad Perdida. As we begin to climb the 1200 steps to the ancient city, the ruins start to take shape through the early morning mist. Round circular platforms open out on either side. Mossy stones mark the area where a market would have been in 800AD, 650 years before Macchu Pichu was built, in neighbouring Peru. At the top of the steps, the largest of the 169 terraces sprawls before us. As we walk out onto it, the jungle below stretches out as far as the eye can see. The distinctive characteristics of the terraces rise up to our left and yet another platform opens up to our right. At the top, watching us, stand three armed guards. They are here to keep the area safe. In 2003, a group of tourists were kidnapped after visiting La Ciudad Perdida and kept in the jungle for 102 days by guerilla forces. Today armed guards patrol the area to prevent it happening again, although today, Colombia is a very different country to the one it was almost ten years ago, and theres virtually no threat of the same thing happening again.

We climb up to the guards to take photos. Once we are up there, we notice that there is a hidden camping ground with tents strung amongst the trees. They can watch us silently from here without us ever knowing they are here. We return to camp and start making our way out of the jungle. It’s a long hike, but we make it back to camp in good time. After a cold shower in the creaky wooden huts, we settle in for a hearty meal and another night on a damp mattress. As people start to drift off to bed, we are alerted to a plague of ants that have descended on our camp. As the black swarm spreads over the beds like a spilt glass of water, the guides frantically try to stop them. Fire is thrown at them, water is thrown at them and someone tries to brush them away. We are told they come once a year and there is nothing to stop them when they do. Luckily, just as I am contemplating a sleepless night, it begins to rain outside. One of the many things I have learnt about the jungle on this trip, is that ants have a remarkable ability to sense rain. A hundred ants can be ferrying bits of broken leaf backwards and forwards but at the first sight of rain, they drop the leaves and run for their nests. This means we have been extremely lucky and will at least get some rest tonight. As we climb into our beds, the rain continue to fall. At times it is so loud that it wakes me from my sleep. Not being able to fight it, I get up and stand and watch it. Others are doing the same.

When the morning comes, the rain has eased slightly. We have a long day ahead of us but within a few minutes, it has gone through our waterproofs and we are soaked to the skin. The path ahead is muddy, the rivers flow faster and the humidity has not eased up. It is going to take us a long time to get back.

Out of the jungle and back on the Colombian trail, the next stop is Medellin – until recently one of the most dangerous cities in Colombia, off bounds to almost all. Having checked into my hostel I sign up for the Pablo Escobar tour – the chance to meet his family, visit one of his homes and understand a bit more about the worlds most notorious drug baron. Our first stop is a bomb destruction site – targeted by the Cali cartel, the Medellin cartel’s biggest rival. Derelict and in a state of disrepair, the building stands covered in iconic graffiti. Next we move on to the family’s private burial site where Pablo lies alongside his mother, overlooking Medellin. Our last stop is a family residence, one of many we are told. Outside we see two of Pablo’s vintage cars, his Harley Davidson and photographs of him descending the steps of his private jet. Inside this gated property, we see bullet holes hidden behind photos, secret hideouts behind bookshelves and a collection of memorabilia setting out the story of his life. Pablo’s nephew greets us inside. He recites tales of being on the run in Germany and England, recalling how unsafe it was in Colombia for his family. We sit and listen for a while, its interesting to hear this side of the story.

Later that night, in the comfort of the hostel, a group of us watch a documentary – the Tale of Two Pablo’s. It tells the tale of drugs and football in Colombia, a world cup victory that wasn’t meant to be and a very tragic ending. During my time in South America I've seen a lot of things that relate to preventing the drug trade, but here in Colombia, I've meet the family of one of the most famous drug baron's in the world, got to know a city that was once so dangerous it was off-bounds to the rest of the world, seen the efforts the US goes to, to tackle this at the cause, and held in my hand the tiny leaf that kicks it all off...

Posted by Jayne Breckon 02:36 Archived in Colombia Tagged colombia medellin colombia_travel ciudad_perdida the_ciudad_perdida the_lost_city colombia's_lost_city ciudad_perdida_trek trekking_in_colombia trek_to_the_lost_city pablo_escobar pablo_escobar_tour things_to_do_in_colomiba things_to_do_in_medellin travel_in_colombia travelling_in_colombia things_to_see_in_colombia things_to_see_in_medellin coco_plantations coco_leafs Comments (0)

26. Experiencing Carnaval in Rio

sunny 35 °C

18th February 2012

Picture the scene: you've got a beer in hand, you've been out for several hours and you're dancing like you've never danced before. There's the deep sound of African drums all around you and everyone's singing the same song. Behind you is an immense float kitted out with eighteen massive speakers. On top of it are four singers, singing their heart outs.

You look up and around to take in the scene: as far as you can see there are people everywhere. You stop for a second and take off your mask. The guy dressed as a woman in front of you continues to samba away with his partner. The girls dressed in matching alice in wonderland outfits, behind you, continue to dance, and the guy next to you dressed as an Indian, continues to shake his feathers. The beach is to your left, but you can not see the sand for the sea of umbrellas that line it. At the end of it, a dramatic mountain rises from the sea. Behind you an enormous rock separates two of the worlds most famous beaches: Copacabana and Ipanema. You look at the time and realise it's five in the afternoon. You're at a block party, and you realise that you've just sambaed the length of Ipanema beach. The party doesn't look as though it's dying down anytime soon. You try to take it all in as the sun bears down on you. You can feel the energy. You can not help but move your feet to the sound of drums and take in the intoxicating happiness of everyone around. This is Rio at it's finest.

You put your mask back on and keep going. A couple of hours longer and you'll be going home to get ready for the night.

10pm comes. You've showered, changed, eaten a little and had a little rest. You leave your hostel and head to a different part of town. You get there and head to one of the hundred fruit cocktail stalls that line the street and every corner. Caipirinhas all round. The fresh lime, three table spoons of sugar and almost half a bottle of cachaca that make up your drink, provide the perfect anecdote for the scene. Everyone is drinking them.

You and your friends start to walk around. Before long you've bumped into someone you've met before travelling: remarkable given the size of the crowds. You head to the stage to listen to the music where everyone's dancing. You stay a while.

Later you're stood underneath the infamous Lapa arches chatting to friends. The boys in your group suddenly report that they have had their wallets and phones stollen. Someone snatches at one of the girls necklaces and grazes her collarbone. Someone forcefully grabs your purse out of your hand, but drops it when they realise it only contains coins and lip gloss. All your paper notes are tucked safely in the side of your bra. You get your purse back.

You decide to move on somewhere else. You make your way through the crowded streets past all the samba bars to the bottom of Lapa steps: immortalised by Snoop Dog in his video. Groups of musicians entertain people and samba music spills out from the bars as you pass. You arrive at the bottom of the steps and buy another drink from one of the stalls there. You look up. People are sat everywhere. It's a cool scene, but it has an edge. Child drug dealers sit on the side, watched over by eager barons. They're addicted to whatever it is they're selling- you can see it in their eyes. It's sad, but this is Rio's uglier side. You move well away from them and linger for a while taking in the scene.

Eventually you move on somewhere else. You begin to feel tired. You look at your watch it's four am. You convince yourself, you can keep going. You find some more music and stay out for another hour. By then everyone's ready to go home. You walk back in a big group and climb into bed as it's getting light. In a few hours, you will be up and starting it all over again. Only tomorrow night you will head to the sambadrome to watch seven of the best samba schools in the world, give their everything for a chance to be crowned the 2012 champion.

Posted by Jayne Breckon 10:20 Archived in Brazil Tagged rio_de_janeiro rio_carnaval rio_carnival rio_carnaval_blog rio_carnaval_review carnaval_in_rio lapa_steps things_to_see_in_rio; things_to_do_in_rio; Comments (0)

25. Standing at the end of the world

Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

semi-overcast -3 °C

10th January 2011

It's 10pm, and I've been on a bus for seventeen hours already. I'm driving along a wide open road with nothing around except baron planes on either side, as far as the eye can see. The only thing I´ve passed is a scattered handful of bleak looking towns, none of them where you would want to end up. It appears that the road to the end of the world feels just like that. The supposedly mesmerising Route 40, which brought me from Bariloche to El Calafate before here, was anything but mesmerising. Baron, wild and soulless, the windy planes rolled by almost hypnotically for thirty long hours.

Eventually, after days on the road, the landscape slowly turns to dramatic mountains. It's 10pm and still not dark. As the light begins to fade, the bus weaves its way through a steep mountain pass. An eerie mist sets in and transforms the dramatic landscape into something almost mythical: it is like a film set. This is the end of the world, and I feel as though I've reached it.

The bus pulls into Ushuaia, the most southern city in the world and the gateway to Antarctica. Ushuaia sits on the Beagle Channel surrounded by snow capped mountains. It is dark when I arrive and extremely cold. I´ve made the cardinal sin of arriving in Ushuaia without any accommodation and, therefore, spend the next two hours walking around trying to find somewhere. When I do, I check in and bed down for the night.

The next day I go to see the penguins (affectionately named penguinos in Spanish). As the boat approaches Martilla island, the penguins can be seen everywhere. We remain silent and cut the engine. Several birds take to the water as the boat glides onto the shore. One-by-one we all climb ashore.

Two types of penguin can be found on the island. The first is the Magallanic penguin, which migrates to warmer waters during the winter. The second is the Gentoo penguin, which stays on the island all year round and can also be found in Antarctica. At the moment, there's an unusual guest to steal the show: an Antartic King Penguin, almost twice as tall as the others, and approximately 1000 kms away from home. He is not camera shy and takes centre stage as the group photograph him. According to the guide, he only recognises the Gentoo penguins: the Magallanic penguins are not inhabitants of Antarctica therefore, the King Penguin does not recognise them.

The group stands watching him for a while. He walks closer and without warning stretches out his neck, opens his beak and lets out a serious of loud, sharp squarks. He listens for a response, but there isn't one. He tries again, arching his back, stretching out his wings, and craning his neck. I feel sorry for the poor guy. He huddles close to another penguin for warmth. She is presumably female but is only half his size. Apparently he will find his way home eventually.

At the breeding nests, it is delightful to see little balls of grey fluff huddling up and tripping over one another. Protective mothers watch their young and guard the entrance to the nests where young lay sleeping. They move their head from side to side as they use both eyes to fathom out who you are. There are plenty of nests around, so it must be a rich breeding ground.

The following day I take a boat out in to the Beagle channel. The channel separates Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia and opens out into the Drake passage, beyond which lies Antarctica. As well as the wildlife, the main attraction of the boat trip is Les Eclaireurs - the lighthouse at the end of the world. Standing on top of a small island, is the cone shaped, red and white lighthouse, set against a backdrop of stunning snow capped mountains. It is impressive to see and feels an achievement to make it here.

Back on shore, I find the sign that denotes Ushuaia as the end of the world. I take the customary photo and head back to my hostel. Tomorrow I begin the journey from here to Mexico and eventually home.

Posted by Jayne Breckon 22:29 Archived in Argentina Tagged patagonia ushuaia tierra_del_fuego penguins_patagonia things_to_see_in_argentina lighthouse_at_the_end_of_the_wo things_to_see_in_patagonia things_to_see_in_ushuaia el_fin_del_mundo things_to_see_in_tierra_del_fue things_to_do_in_tierra_del_fueg les_eclaireurs Comments (0)

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