Saturday, March 21, 2009

Journey to Cuba

Cuban currency:
In short, Cuba has 2 kinds of currencies. The first is pesos cubanos (Cuban pesos) or simply pesos, this is the official Cuban currency in which Cubans get their official salary. With this currency one can pay in the markets, in most of the street corner cafetarias, and for other things sold on the street. The interesting part is that some of the daily goods are not available in Cuban pesos. Cubans have to go to a La Cadeca (money exchange office) and buy Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), which cost for about 25 national pesos each. Only then can one buy the "luxery" items, like shampoo, furniture etc.

If you are a tourist, then all services and products are priced for you in Cuban convertible pesos (CUC), and let me add here that it is very expensive to be a tourist in Cuba. 1 CUC is roughly equivalent to 1 US dollar. Locals generally assume that tourists are all very rich, so tipping 1-2 CUC for every move is expected (in tourist areas).


My journey to Cuba started with an overnight bus from Palenque to Cancun (13 hours!). I didn´t want to stay in Cancun for more than i necessarily had to, so i organized my time accordingly. By plan i had about 3,5 hours after i arrived in Cancun bus-station to get to airport and board my plane. My overnight bus was of course very late (seriously, of all the times to be late!) but everything worked out in the end, though narrowly. There´s a straight bus from Cancun bus-station to airport, which saved me (40 pesos).

You need a tourist card (= visa) to get into Cuba. You can have it made in Estonia / send your documents to Helsinki OR you can be self-organizing and buy it in the Cancun airport. They sell them in "Cubana" airlines booth and it costs about 240 EEK (260 Mexican pesos) as opposed to 500-750 EEK via previously described options. Of course you can do that only if you don´t have a direct flight to Havana. But, i wonder if they sell those tourist cards also for example in London airports, which are often middle-stops in flights to Cuba.

My journey to Cuba continued with orienting in Cancun airport´s TOTAL chaos, which curiously enough seemed to be focused only behind airlines check-in counter. There was about 8 times more cargo waiting to be checked in than people actually flying. Huge boxes of air-coolers, stereos, TV´s etc, plus mucho mucho just bags.

Cancun airport was depressing. It was filled with (most likely wealthy) women in their 40´s-60´s who seemed to have had a beach holiday and somewhere down the line forgotten that excessive sun is bad for you and tanned themselves into a dried-skinned-raisins. There´s something very sad about tired half-naked saggy sunburned skin, with possible liverspots and all. I predict some of the same women will be cruising the beaches in Cuba´s hottest beach resort Varadero and having money-driven love-affairs with local entrepreneurial young guys.

Glad (or maybe i should be scared?) to see that there are still airports left in the world that don´t make you throw away yout perfectly good bottle of water prior to the security checks only to offer you a chance to buy one again at greatly inflated prices afterwards.

In last 2,5 years i´ve had exactly 34 flights from/to very different countries with all kinds of different airlines. But my flight to Cuba was by far the mosty surreal of them all. The plane was tiny, dirty and seemed about 20 years too old (Yakovlev YAK-42). I´m a bit shamed to admit, but i even said a small prayer before taking off. You can never have too much luck when it comes to air-travel :). Flight to Cuba illustrated well why flight attendants are usually slim (women). While i´m all for the curvy figure, i also like that my flight-attendants do not get stuck between the seats in case of an emergency.

The plane´s "keep your seatbelts fastened" light didn´t work, so the flight-attendant just yelled at random intervals through intercom "Cinturones!" (seatbelts) or something like that. The safety demonstration was as usual, except that the girl reading the instructions through the intercom bursted into laughing every once in a while. They announced everything in Spanish and English, but the local dialect of English is like the one in China. After they are through with their speach, you at some point realize that there were couple of words that sounded familiar ... "Wait! Were they talking in English?".

I had a rare seat - on my right side was an engine and on my left side a big intercom speaker. Those two worked in flawless symbiosis to insure my instant migrane & deafness :). The room for your legs was so small that you could pretty much forget trying to shove your handbag under the seat and overhead compartments were of course crammed with all those millions of bags people were dragging with them. My knees were cramped against the seat in front of me and God only know how all those XXL-size mamas managed, next to them i was like a flee. For obvious reasons the flight attendant didn´t even bother telling anybody to put their luggage away from their laps.
It was actually a fun ride, very colorful and absurd, yes, but fun nonetheless. And i shouldn´t be ungrateful for the oppurtunity to actually fly to Cuba, the alternative is to paddle my way down to Havana.

The custom's check in Havana airport was quick but very serious. I was asked to remove my glasses and let my hair loose to resemble maximum to my passport photo. It felt like you do not want to make any sudden moves because they might get annoyed and deport you back to where-ever you came from :).

Havana airport taxis are famous for ripping off tourists (though, which airport taxis in the world aren't?). In order to get to Havana city (about 25 km ride) you can either take an expensive taxi or local P16 bus. The bus goes from the domestic flights terminal which is kilometres away from international flights terminal (or so i had read). To get there you need also a taxi, which kind of defeats the purpose on saving money on taxis in the first place. So i decided i will just try to find somebody to share the taxi with and split the costs. Found an elderly German couple who was OK with the plan and soon we were on our merry way. I didn´t have any reservations pre-made or even any hotel info with me, so i was just making it up as i went along. The Germans wanted to go to Havana Vieja district (Old Havana), so i thought it's just as good as any other. The taxi ride turned out to be very cheap for me, because the Germans only wanted me to pay 5 CUC from a 25 CUC bill. I wasn't about to argue and point out that i was willing to pay the actual 1/3 of the bill :).

Havana Vieja is a lovely part of town, but not so lovely in darkness and off the main streets. I wandered around there for an hour or so with my big bag (and heavy, i must mention) trying to find a suitable/available "casa particular". March seems to be somewhat of a high season in Havana, because one after another they were all full. Finally around 10 pm i found Anita's place and that concludes my long journey from city of Palenque to Cancun to Cuba to bed to rest.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Viva la Cuba!

OK, in 40 minutes i´m getting on a bus that takes me to Cancun. As soon as the bus arrives (the journey of 16 hours! - i´m sooo going to die), i will have to get to Cancun´s airport and hop on a plane to Cuba. I really hope that the bus doesn´t get delayed :).

No blogposts for next two weeks, since "Cuba" and "available internet" don´t exactly fit together.

I was just thinking today that if indeed i did get bit by a malaria-carrying mosquito in Palenque, then i will get to try out the Cuban health-system :).

The Palenque. The Great Mayan city

Ancient Palenque ruins (dating back as fas as around 500 AD) are considered the most exquisite example of Mayan architecture. Hundreds of old ruined buildings are spread over 15 km2 area in the jungle and only a small compact area has been excavated so far. The forrest around these temples is still a home for howler monkeys, which could be heard as well.

Everything you see in Palenque was built without metal tools, pack animals or use of a wheel.

I went to Palenque already early morning, as soon as the gates opened. I wanted to explore the ground and get photos without big tourist groups walking around and ruining them :).

As said, most of Palenque Mayan ruins are still unexcavated in the jungle. Tourists are led mostly to the cleaned-up constructions, which are indeed very nice. They are restored and safe and pretty and neat. But if you venture from the main attractions more into the jungle, you will see a bit the "other" Palenque. The ruins still burried under wild nature, trees growing right on top of them. Those trees are very old, their roots go deep, but somehow they don´t seem to do much damage on the building, they rather co-exist together. The raw jungle-Palenque is cool - the roots and rock are intertwined, small passages to discover, all under the shade of very gracious trees. The nature is alive around you and air is very fresh. And the best part - the nearest tourist is about 1 km away!

I think i sat in the raw Palenque for about two hours enjoying coolness of the shaded rocks. And during this time not a single person came. Oh, what a paradise!

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Camping in the jungle. Palenque, Chiapas

city of Palenque´s biggest attraction is beautiful complex of Mayan ruins outside the city. I decided to camp out on jungle grounds, rather than staying in the city hostel. I hitch-hiked a ride outside the city and rented myself a very simple jungle house (the emphasis on simple). Predicting a mosquito attack, i covered every accessible part of my skin with mosquito repellent, after which i smelled accordingly. Hope malaria-carrying ones flew right past me, since i have seemed to misplace my Malarone tablets somewhere.

Camping ground had little roads taking you to differents parts of camping area

One of the nicer cabana houses

The local restaurant "Don Mucho" (can you guess by the name which ethnic cuisine it offers? hehe, italian/mexican) was pretty decent. But much more decent was the little concert of local musicians. I was particularly awed by the drum-guy, who played simultaneously 3 different bongo drums, banged something regularly with his right leg and also carried a light conversation with the guitar guy during the whole concert. Turned out he was of Mayan decent, named Galdo.

So, my very first jungle cabana, right there in the middle of jungle.
The cabana was .. unique. It had 3 windows, excuse of a lock and an air-fan with a wire glued to the wall, but cut from three places. Don´t think they worry their little heads too much about cleaning the cabanas or providing any level of even illusion of security. At least there was electricity and windows had curtains. * One could also get a more fancier cabana, but since it was just a place to crash for me, it wasn´t so important to get a nice one.

But the surroundings - they were just lovely. It was like music to my ears, nightly jungle-noises mixed with somebody´s soft guitar playing from one of the nearby cabanas. With a risk of sounding too much like Mowgli, I´d say it felt like home :).

He-he, my super super fancy cabana :)

Security system

Communal showers

* For the information: I stayed in El Panchan camping ground, in one of the cabanas "mas economicas". 100 pesos (about 90 EEK) a night/double bed/communal showers. As long as you have your own sleeping bag with you and you don´t want to go to shower, you´re ok :).

Photo-journey from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque

Indigenous people of Mexico are often somewhat outcast and looked down on. They wear proudly their sometimes extremely complex handicraft clothing and live in little villages and remote towns. They are said to have a hard life in those remote rural areas, but i wonder is it necessarily an unhappy one?

The road from San Cristobal de Las Casas to Palenque went through many villages and little towns and i was photographing everyday life from the side. Forgive me for occasionally very bad image quality, the moving bus is not the best base for steady photography :)

Note that not only is she carrying firewood, but also a child on her back.

It´s nice to see that the old tradition is alive in most parts of the world: women work all day long and men chill out :) So far i´ve seen this in India, Morocco and partially also in China. Seems that Mexico honours fully the long-lived tradition.

Washing hair

Roadside memorial for somebody, most likely for an accident victim

San Cristobal de Las Casas

Everybody kept telling me that i will absolutely L-O-V-E San Cristobal de Las Casas. And guess what? I didn´t. The town itself is lovely of course, but not the atmosphere. At least not for me. I think it had more tourists than locals and frankly, if i´d want to see an abundance of Americans/Germans, i´d go to States/Germany. The attitude and prices of the merchants were in balance with the % of tourists: somewhat agressive and high. And March isn´t even a tourist season in San Cristobal.

I might not of course do justice to San Cristobal, because i only had one full day to spend in it, but it´s not like there would be less tourists if i would stay for a week. The central city is being propped up for tourists: houses freshly painted, cute benches, new pavements, flowers etc, but if you venture a bit outward, you see that it´s not at all what real San Cristobal is like.

I think that the architecture and intended mood of San Cristobal is quite similar to Oaxaca, minus the massive tourist attack. So can i go back to Oaxaca, please?

I think a good illustration of San Cristobal having waaaay too many tourists was the fact that i met two Estonian girls at the bus station (Tervitused, chicas!). I scared them half to death by saying "hello" in Estonian, they said they will never comment people randomly loudly in Estonian again :).


Indigenous child selling handicraft

Children at the local school

Indigenous woman

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