La Habana Ooo La La

La Habana Ooo La La

My Mojito in La Bodeguita My Daiquiri in El Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway.

Hemingway may have been onto something in the 1950s, but so many things have changed since his departure. Both bars are now caricatures of their former selves. Think about it, back in Ernie H’s day, these were local bars, with people going there to meet people, hang out, and perhaps even have a meaningful conversation with a local. Nowadays? Not so much.

El Floridita is a throwback to some serious first-season-of-Mad Men style, but with fruity drinks that ol’ Don Draper would sneer at, I convinced B. to join me there for a drink. The signature Daiquiri is 6 Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC). Around the bar (packed three deep in standing room), tourists from around the world snap selfies and play with their smartphones. Many are somewhat rushed because they need to get back to their cruise ship. As for La Bodeguita? We literally couldn’t get in, because the tourists were overflowing into the street.

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Walk five minutes south from there, and things change. Away from most of the main tourist sites and historic squares, there’s a strip of bars with a healthy mix of locals and foreigners. Our favourite place has a little sign over the door that says “Aqui jamas estuvo Hemingway” – “Hemingway was never here”. Inside, another sign has a crossed-out wifi sign and says “Hablen entre ustedes”  – “No wifi, talk among yourselves”. In other words, our kind of place. Daiquiris are 3.50CUC, and the Mojitos are 3.00CUC, and are much better in quality and value than the ‘historic’ bars of Havana. Hemingway was a pretty cool dude – I’d imagine he would gravitate to this sort of a bar if he were alive today, rather than going to the themepark versions of his old haunts.

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Havana may not be Cuba’s music capitol but it sure holds it’s own. Around every corner, music is blasting from homes and restaurants. Tips are customary if you find yourself at a restaurant or bar with live music.

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Being in Havana is a distracting blend of the old, the new, and the now. The old is all around you by way of old 1950s cars smelling of gasoline and putting down main city streets. The new is the signs that American and Cuban relations are improving (albeit in fits and starts) and you see this by all of the Americans visiting the city. The now is how the Cubans live. Despite being a bustling city of over two million people, there is a strong sense of community in Havana. Everywhere you go, everyone seems to know each other. Neighbours actually talk with each other, people play dominoes in the park. Don’t get me wrong, smartphone zombies exist too, but I somehow think there’s a healthier balance of screentime and genuine interaction here than in many of the cities I’ve visited. Things have certainly changed since Hemingway’s time, but just like the vintage cars, the best elements of Cuban culture are still running strong.

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Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

Puerto Viejo, Costa Rica

It took me so many years of unbareable Canadian winters to finally do what so many Canadians do – escape the winter… well, at least for a week. I wanted a place where the only worry I would have is not putting on enough sun screen. This dream came true when I took my first trip to Costa Rica.

I know many people who go “down-south” consistently every year. They book their all-inclusive vacations at the most opportune time and they get great deals. They get off the plane, get taxied to their resort, and set up at the beach with unlimited drinks at their fingertips. For me, it’s just not how I want to experience a different country. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve done it (see my post on my experience in Mayan Mexico), but I crave a different type of holiday. Instead, I want off the beaten path, somewhere that is slightly unknown, but still known enough… that’s what brought me to Costa Rica.

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Instead of heading for the tourist-laden land of Jaco, B and I rent a Suzuki Jimny and made our way to the opposite coast, the Caribbean. I don’t want to say traveling this way was a breeze. The rental car agency took three hours to get us a vehicle (some people had been waiting longer) and when we finally got on the road, well, let’s just say driving on Costa Rican roads are not for the faint of heart (or for those afraid of heights). Having said that, I wouldn’t have traveled any other way – except maybe by motorcycle. After one wrong turn that took us back to Limon twice, we finally arrived at our destination: Puerto Viejo de Talamanca.

Surfing. Chocolate. Reggae. PV has it all. A little more off the beaten path than other spots across the country, you get a much different experience here than you would any where else in the country. With a thick influence of reggae culture, it’s a laid back, surfing crowd that is drawn to this area. PV is home to Salsa Brava, Costa Rica’s heaviest wave and I’m told that surfers flock from all areas of the world to surf it. While I’m not a surfer by any means, if you’re interested in riding your first wave in Costa Rica, there are many beach side stalls along Playa Cocles that are walkable from the town itself – or by popular transport in PV, bicycle.

If you do plan to walk to Playa Cocles from PV – take the forest path starting at the end of town near Hot Rocks. It’s not best to trek this with flip flops, as there are a number of snake species in the area that you likely don’t want to step on, but you’re almost guaranteed to see some type of wildlife, whether it be some howler monkeys or a toucan or two. Once you’ve pretty much made it to the beach, take a break for a beer and/or snack at Tasty Waves – there’s an opening in the bushes to get back to the road.

The beach is not the only thing to do in the area. Our #1 highlight of the entire trip was divided between two attractions in the area. The first (not in order of favourtism because both experiences were #1 in our books) was the Jaguar Animal Rescue Center just outside of town, and Caribeans Chocolate tour.

IMG_0418The Jaguar Animal Rescue Center is in one word – amazing. Run by volunteers, this center rescues native animals in the region and re-integrates them back into their natural habitat. Some animals are badly injured and cannot be re-integrated but those that do are released in to a safe area at first and then back into the wild. The work of the volunteers changes daily whether it be hanging out with the monkeys, or sitting with a sleeping jaguar, to feeding and cleaning the animals… all of their jobs are so significant and everyone genuinely looks happy to be a part of it. I’ve already told B many times, that the next time we visit, I’m doing this. The staff are extremely knowledgeable and show you every corner of the rescue. At the end of the tour, you’re free to walk around on your own but keep in mind, it’s only open in the mornings. We went as soon as they opened as other visitors had suggested that time to be best.

IMG_0432An equally amazing experience in PV was going on the Caribeans Chocolate Tour. I’ve done significant research as part of my MBA on fair trade coffee and it was my goal to go on a coffee tour while in the country (sadly, that didn’t happen but this chocolate tour was beyond my expectations). We learned not only about how cocoa is produced, but the history of chocolate making around the world, how to taste chocolate for all of its complexities, and the business of cocoa in the region. I know what you’re thinking – please, tasting chocolate? But it’s true! I did not appreciate the different elements that live within a small piece of dark chocolate until I took this tour. Not only that, but the owner of the farm (originally from Florida) explained fair trade to the group and how he works hard to ensure all those he purchases additional cocoa from are compensated well above market price (even higher than the fair trade market price). In order to create different chocolate flavours, he purchases cocoa from various indigenous tribes around the area. Since working with them, they are now more interested and involved in the chocolate made from their cocoa than ever before. Near the end of the tour, the owner takes you up to the tasting plateau which offers stunning views of the valley and serves you a range of chocolate including a traditional Mayan chocolate drink – all laid out and prepared by his wife. I haven’t been on any other chocolate tours, but I don’t know how any other could possibly compare.

IMG_0326The whole PV experience would not be complete without mentioning our accommodations. After the long trek from San Jose, we finally arrived at our destination: Cashew Hill Jungle Cottages. Just at the back-end of town atop a hill, is situated the most amazing set of cottages I have ever stayed in. When we arrived at the bottom of the hill, I was nervous that we wouldn’t get up it but we did and were welcomed by Andrew, the owner. He’s young, hip, knowledgeable, and so welcoming that I felt as if I had known him for years. His two dogs, Stella and Harley, are there to welcome you as well – fyi: in Costa Rica, there are dogs everywhere – in PV, larger dogs for security. Our cottage overlooked Salsa Brava and despite a few ants (which is to be expected in a rugged jungle setting), there was literally no care in the world. Hungry? No problem – grab a starfruit from your balcony. Have some bugs? There’s a gecko for that! Tired? Chill out in your own hammock for hours on end. Everything you care and worry about back home simply melts away and here is a place where you can truly chill out and relax.

Puerto Viejo wasn’t our only stop on our trip but it was certainly the most memorable. It’s now been too long since we’ve been there and I’m itching to go back.

Mayan Mexico

Mayan Mexico

I’ve never been someone who quivers at the thought of rappelling down a mountain, or climbing up to the top of a tower and looking down – never… until I went to Mexico.

Mexico has always had my interest. Even as a young girl, Mexican food was always my favourite (well, what I knew of Mexican food anyway!). I just never really had the opportunity to go, until B and I wanted to take a trip with two of our close friends. After running through our list of options, we all agree on Mexico, just outside of Playa del Carmen. My first time doing an all-inclusive!

When we arrive, we pack into a hotel shuttle which takes us to our resort. It’s close to a two-hour drive from the airport and it’s dark by the time we reach our resort in Xpu Ha. Our resort is made up of a series of cabins, and has a wildlife “sanctuary” intertwined throughout the resort. It’s a resort that has seen better days (which is why I’m choosing not to name it), but the staff are friendly and after the first pool day, we’ve made friends with the entertainment staff who quickly know us by first name and call on us to join them in dancing, pool games, and trivia. We’re there for a full week and to keep busy, we devise a week of pool/beach days at the resort with bi-daily trips outside of the resort.

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Our first day trip is to Playa del Carmen. The resort has a “free” shuttle to the city, with an hour jewelry “tour” built in. I use the word “tour” lightly because really, all it is is a large room with jewelry to buy. While we don’t buy anything, we do get a free souvenir with our name written out with traditional Mayan script which is pretty cool.

Playa del Carmen is a resort city, a package tour paradise. A blend of night clubs, souvenir shops, and tour operators are all within walking distance. There’s a disbelief amongst Canadians and Americans that Mexico is dangerous – but I felt perfectly safe in this little piece of paradise.

After some Chicken tacos and some tequila tasting and education, we wander the streets before heading back to the resort for dinner. I’m not used to working against such a timeline and I know I’ll be back to Playa before we leave.

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Day three is a resort day and we split our time between hanging out with the animals and relaxing by the pool. While relaxing by a pool and having drinks served to you at a whim is nice, I’m craving a bit of adventure. I want to climb Coba, and go Zip-lining – thankfully, there is an excursion for that! In addition to three zip-lines, we can kayak, rappel down a mountain, AND swim in a cenote – what more could a girl want? On day four, we leave our resort by 8 a.m. and we’re on our way to our adventure.

Our tour is organized by Alltournatives and they’re great! After picking us up, we make our way to our first adventure stop – kayaking, cenote, and zip-lining. While the kayaking was a bit of a joke (we’re pretty avid kayakers), it was a nice start to the day. After the short journey, we take a short trek towards an enclosed cenote for a swim. If you haven’t swam in a cenote, or are unaware of what it is, it’s basically a natural sinkhole which creates secret swimming holes. The Yucatan Peninsula is famous for them and are sacred spots in the Mayan culture. Because of this, after our swim (which was incredibly refreshing), we attend a Mayan prayer ceremony. After a blessing from a Mayan elder, we continue on to zip-line #1.

I wish I had photos but the tour does not allow for cameras during the adventure portions of the excursion – which actually makes a lot of sense – Go Pros are permitted but I didn’t have one just yet. Moving on to our next adventure, we’re transported to a location just a few kilometers down the road. We’re led to a second zip-line which then brings us to our rappel down the mountain. The Zip-line was a blast so I volunteered myself and B to rappel first. Having done rock climbing multiple times, I thought this was going to be a breeze. I get all geared up and set myself up to back towards the edge and just like that, I freeze. I freeze hard. I can’t move. My palms are sweaty and I can’t move. Despite the staff urging me back, I freeze and demand to be removed from the ledge. And just like that, I don’t rappel down the mountain.

Still shaking from the rappelling incident, we head to lunch (which is provided as part of the tour). Lunch is buffet style and made of traditional Mayan dishes – all of which are fantastic. After a little shopping, we head to our final destination: Coba. Like Chichen Itza, Coba is an ancient Mayan city where visitors can explore the historic ruins. Unlike other ruins in the area, you can still climb the Pyramid in Coba (for now) and that honestly was one of my biggest draws to visit. You can explore the park by bicycle, on foot, or hire a rickshaw to take you around. We opt for the cheapest option – on foot and it’s hot. By the time we arrive to the foot of the Nohoch Mul Pyramid, I’m over heating and burnt to a crisp, but keen to do the climb anyway.

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Because the steps are so small and fragile, you pretty much need to climb with your hands and feet to ensure you don’t lose your balance. To ensure that you don’t get in people’s way, you climb up on the right, and shimmy down on the left. Halfway up, I have a great idea to stop… bad idea. I take one look back and freeze. Until this point, I HAVE NO FEAR OF HEIGHTS. It’s like something snap in me and my knees go weak, and my palms are sweaty and I can’t move. I urge B to continue on and after some debate, he agrees. As people make their way past me, I realize that I can’t even move to get down… and I start to panic. Tears are rolling down my cheeks, my heart is pounding, and I panic. After a random stranger stops to ask me if I’m okay, I swallow my pride and gather enough courage to scuttle my butt over to the left and make my way down to the bottom. I’ve never felt so happy to be on solid ground.

Day five comes quickly and I’ve had my fill of unlimited drinks, pool time, and resort life. By the end of the day, B and I have a breakout plan to adventure without organization. On day six, we have breakfast with our friends and make our way to the entrance for the resort. We ask the guards to flag us down a collectivo – local bus – that will take us into Playa del Carmen. We’re lucky and are picked up on our first attempt! Cramped into the little van with a handful of locals, we make our way to the city. Upon our arrival, we wander some of the streets we missed out on our first time around, looking for some lunch and figuring out our plan. After a short time, we settle on taking the ferry to Cozumel, but first, a quesadilla!

The ferry is just under an hour and it’s simple to get tickets. You can purchase ticket right at the dock and line up from there. We sat on the top deck near the back and before we knew it, we were in a different part of Mexico. The ferry drops you off in San Miguel and you’re in the centre of town. The island is very small and accessible, and strangely different from the mainland with a slightly more Spanish flare to the architecture. After exploring the main town for an hour, we decide to rent scooters and explore even more of the island. There are multiple vendors so renting a scooter is easy, and affordable. After we settle on a shop, we make our way to the country side. Getting outside of the city centre was the best part of our trip. The island is easy riding, with so many opportunities to stop and enjoy the views. Untouched beaches, the open road, and warm breezes make me wish we had spent our entire trip on this little island. By the time we return the bikes, we miss our ferry and have to wait for the next one – putting us back in Playa after dark.

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We wander the streets, making our way to the collectivo stand to head back to the resort for one last dinner. The drivers stand outside of their van calling out the destination names. With my limited Spanish, I find the collectivo heading towards our resort and the driver urges us to sit up front. He knows the hotel well and drops us along the side of the road directly across from our resort’s entrance.

Little did I know that just seven days in Mexico would teach me such lessons about myself – mainly that I am afraid of heights and not all resort experiences are created equally.