A Travellerspoint blog

February 2014

More Mexico

A Whirlwind Mayan Tour

sunny 34 °C

For the past few days we have been racing around some of the numerous Mayan ruins that are scattered throughout the Yucatan peninsula. First to Tulum – one of the most popular, expensive (and crowded) sites because of its proximity to the major beach resorts of Cancun, Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. Tulum’s main claim to fame is its location by the sea…
Onwards now, a 300kms drive to Chetumal, the capital of the state of Quintana Roo, to visit the Museum of Mayan Culture. The outside looked impressive - even the band was playing when we arrived…
– but the museum was closed!

Next stop; a three and a half hour run to the ruins of the city of Kohunlich which date from 100 – 900 AD…
The Temple of the Mascarones (masks) is a magnificent building which is guarded by four beautifully carved masks of the gods…
After a night’s stop in the tiny village of Xpujil, (don’t even try to pronounce it), we make a pre-dawn start to visit the cream of the crop. It’s still early morning when we arrive at the totally deserted ancient Mayan city of Calakmul near the Guatemalan border as a long walk through the steamy jungle awaits us. We have driven for three hours mainly on a twisted and rutted single lane track through the jungle and can easily imagine ourselves with Sylvanus Griswold Morley, the American archaeologist and Mayanist scholar, who cut a path to this once great city in 1932 on behalf of The Carnegie Institute in Washington.

In October 1932 Morley might have written:

Dear Mr. Carnegie
It is inconceivable to me that the ruins of such a great city as that at Calakmul should have been so hidden so deep in the jungle that none knew of its existence until now. Yet, it is apparent to me that no man has ascended the great pyramids nor walked these paths for some four or five centuries past.
The jungle hereabouts is as dense as any in my experience and is home to a great multitude of wildlife including all manner of vicious insects and flocks of flambouyant turkeys…
While above us in the canopy troupes of howler monkeys rent the air with their terrifying calls…
Only God knows what magnificence once lay here. My observations and measurements suggest it may have been home to fifty thousand Mayan souls for upwards of a thousand years. There are so many structures lying ’neath the forest floor and entangled in the roots of great trees that we may never know for certain…
The city was occupied in 600 BC and from the hieroglyphs on the many stellae it seems that it was once the regional capital rivalling the great city of Tikal which lies over the border in Guatemala. Much excavation will need to be undertaken to unearth this great city.

Yours Sincerely
Sylvanus Griswold Morley

It would be fifty years before any serious excavation was done at Calakmul and most of the estimated seven thousand structures are still covered by jungle. Very few tourists make it as far as Calakmul, (it is at least a five hour drive from any large town) so those that do so are rewarded by having the magnificent place to themselves. For once we didn’t have to dodge the touts, the trinket salesmen, the guides or the great gaggles of daytrippers, and we didn’t have to be sneaky to get some perfect photos...

Next stop - the regional capital, Campeche, where we will be taking a couple days off from clambering over thousand year old rock piles to explore an expansive colonial city and chill out by a pool at the seaside.

Posted by Hawkson 14:14 Archived in Mexico Comments (5)

When You Come to Cuba…

An invitation by ode

sunny 31 °C


When you come to Cuba – as you ought:
And wonder at grandeur that speaks of past wealth
Look past the rough to seek the smooth
Find beauty in all, buildings both great and small
And search for the riches still to be found,

When you visit the Cubans – as you must:
You will find peace and harmony in their homes
Generosity and love in their hearts
Joy in their music
And sweet succour in their food…

When you come to Cuba – as you could:
Abjure the glitz and gluttony of inclusive resorts
Forswear the fancy tourist bars
Decry the hamburgers and fries
Eat, drink and live with the locals and you will find their joy.

When you walk through the countryside – as you surely can:
Pay heed to the sugar, the coffee, and the tobacco man
And thank nature, man’s labour and above all the sun
For this luxuriant tropical land…

When you come to Havana – as you should:
Find tranquility in its leafy bowers
Seek coolness under the shady boulevard trees
And richness in its kaleidoscope of colours, scents and sounds…

When you rest at Ambos Mundos – as well you might:
Visit Hemingway’s digs and remember with glee
If you can hear the bell toll
It tolls not for thee…

Ernest Hemingway lived at the Ambos Mundos Hotel in Havana for seven years in the thirties and wrote three books including parts of his classic "For Whom the Bell Tolls.". James Hawkins stayed in the adjoining room for one night in 2014 and wrote this blog!!!!

Our world is full of exotic and interesting places that we plan to revisit one day, but rarely do we stumble across a jewel with which we so enamoured that we plan our return before we have left – Cuba is such a gem.

Hasta luego Cuba – we will see you again soon.

Posted by Hawkson 16:38 Archived in Cuba Comments (4)

Cuban Cohibas

A taste of tobacco

sunny 30 °C


Not far from the hustle and bustle of Havana, in a verdant valley midst mountains of karst, lies a tranquil corner of heaven where the sun shines daily on the fields of sugar, tobacco and pineapples; where the farmers' oxen plough straight furrows; and the gentle folk have a smile for everyone and a room in their house for all. If god had wanted the world to be a happy place he might have made it all like Viñales in western Cuba, and had he wanted people of all colours and creeds to live in harmony he would have made them Cuban. If ever there was a place where we could give in to the rocking chair it would be here with our hosts, Osveldi and Layani, on the terrace of their delightful casa particular under the mango and orange trees of the Viñales Valley…
Life is as sweet as the sugar canes that grow here alongside the coffee, bananas and coconuts. Can there be a more heavenly place? Just take a look at the stunning vistas of mountains…

And here’s Sheila after a stiff climb squeezing a rejuvenating and refreshing glass of sugar cane juice to give us the energy to climb back down to the tobacco fields…
The beautiful Viñales Valley is a popular tourist destination; with tobacco factories, caves, beaches and sugar plantations to visit. This is one of the many limestone caves which was once inhabited by runaway slaves…
And here is a tobacco farmer rolling his own Cohiba cigar…
But nowhere on earth is perfect, and so, every few years nature whips up a hurricane in the warm waters of the Caribbean and scours this bucolic landscape. In preparation, the farmers build thatched shelters that can withstand the ferocious winds where they and their families can ride out the storm…

But townsfolk can only pray as their roofs and belongings take to the air. This famous colonial restaurant, the Don Tomás, (circa 1887) was totally dismembered by a hurricane in 2008, but the owners faithfully rebuilt it…
The food is fabulous; the prices are so low that we thought they had made a mistake with the bill, and the traditional Cuban entertainment was delightful...
Viñales is a small town with a big heart and the lovely people who live here gave us a
very warm welcome – we will return.

Posted by Hawkson 06:17 Archived in Cuba Comments (3)

Trinidad de Cuba

A very old city in the New World

sunny 29 °C

Trinidad de Cuba is a quaint city on Cuba’s south coast that has become a museum of colonial architecture without even trying…
The ancient cobblestone streets lined with gaily painted stone houses are simply home to the many Cubans who live here…
And the historic edifices in the central square still bear the hallmarks of their builders who first came from Spain 500 years ago…
The bell tower of the Franciscan monastery overlooks the square and gives lovely views of the town and surrounding sugar plantations with the ocean as a backdrop…
But the monks who built the monastery in 1730 would be horrified to discover that today their ecclesiastical creation is a museum dedicated to the counterrevolutionary bandits who fought against Fidel and his guerrillas in 1959.

The city of Trinidad was built on the backs of slaves who toiled in the surrounding sugar plantations and these stocks in the museum of architecture were once used to shackle the slaves during the arduous voyage from West Africa…
Slavery had long been outlawed by the 1950s but many Cubans were still economic slaves at that time; forced to work in poor conditions for little pay to satiate the greed of foreign plantation owners. Fidel Castro and his Argentinean amigo, Che Guevara, are sill worshipped everywhere in Cuba as the revolutionary leaders who freed the workers. However, the sugar plantations that made Cuba famous, and the owners rich, are still here in the surrounding valleys, but the American embargo and declining prices caused by a world glut, has left the industry a shadow of its former self.

This was once the owner’s hacienda of a thriving sugar plantation…
And here is the tower from where the owner or slave master would watch over his plantation workers…
While this is the house where Castro and his compatriots planned their revolution in Trinidad…
The provincial capital of Cienfuegos is another well preserved historic city on the south coast of Cuba. While less picturesque than Trinidad it has many large colonial buildings including a magnificent theatre built by an unscrupulous Spanish plantation owner with the unlikely name of Tomás Terry. It also has the only triumphal arch in the whole of Cuba…

Now we leave the south coast and head to the western province of Pinar del Rio – a six hour journey along virtually deserted 6 and 8 lane divided highways in a modern air-conditioned bus with just two other passengers.

Posted by Hawkson 14:51 Archived in Cuba Comments (2)

Driving Miss Sheila

sunny 29 °C

Not everyone knows that James once drove a 1923 taxicab around the historic streets of Bath in England, and even chauffeured actress Joan Collins for a while, so here in Havana he couldn’t resist taking the wheel of this 1961 American beauty with another lovely lady passenger…
But pre-revolution American cars are ten a penny on the streets of this historic city…
And there are even a few old English bangers like this nifty little Morris Minor from the 1950’s…
Today there is no shortage of modern vehicles from Mexico, Japan and Europe, but no Yankee wheels have taken to Cuban streets since the 1962 American embargo following the Missile Crises. Although many of the old American gas guzzlers have been kept in showroom condition for more than fifty years, (not an easy task considering the tropical airs of the Caribbean), many of them are rust buckets needing some TLC…
It is estimated that there are some two million vintage American cars on the roads of Cuba. However, before you rush down here to snap up a bargain you should be advised that the locals know exactly what their rough diamonds are worth.

While everyone loves riding in the Yankee monsters the most favoured transport along the pedestrianised streets of old Havana are the tricycle rickshaws …
Gaggles of energetic young men gather at each corner and good-naturedly offer inexpensive trips around the town. For longer distances there are numerous bus companies offering a good service on air-conditioned modern coaches, although many of the locals still drive ox-carts and bikes.
Travel for tourists in Cuba is easy and comfortable but travel for locals is a different story. Their ‘buses’ are mainly cattle trucks or semi-trailers, (artics to our English readers), pulling old forty-foot shipping containers filled with wooden benches, or horse-drawn carriages like this ‘Omnibus Nacional’ in Cienfuegos…
The sugar farmers' ox-carts and plows are picturesque, while many people ride horses or in carts. For them it is a hard way of life but for us privileged northerners it is yet another opportunity for James to take the reins in the tobacco fields of the Viñales Valley to drive Miss Sheila…
See you soon - if the horse doesn't bolt.

Posted by Hawkson 15:35 Archived in Cuba Comments (8)

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