A Quick Blast Through Mexico

Mexico was never really a big part of the travel plan, the reason for coming here was Cancun was the easiest and cheapest place for myself and my girlfriend to meet coming from Canada and Europe. We didn’t intend on doing anything here really.

This changed when I found the Cancun Underwater Museum which looked incredible to someone like me who’s addicted to scuba diving!

It wasn’t possible to dive the museum on day 1 so that fell to going to the beach. And wow what a beach, crystal clear blue sea and white powdery sand.

Sadly, the many hotels that are on the beach try to deny access to non guests and there are limited public access points.Luckily for us, once you are on the beach it can be easy to use some facilities at hotels. Thank you very much Ritz-Carlton, you make a tasty margarita and have a luxurious pool! As silly as it sounds, I’d actually be tempted to book one of their hotels one day now as I know how good they can be while the Melia that denied access I might avoid. Funny how little things like that can influence your opinion!

As for the museum, it felt a bit like a wreck dive with many different cement sculptures. The idea of the museum is that is will eventually become the home to a new coral reef on top of the artwork and help reduce to the pressure on Cancun’s other coral reefs, a very nice idea I think.

Immediately after a short descent to 10 meters we came to an inspired replica of the terracotta warriors. Some of which you can put your regulator up to and purge bubbles through the sculpture so it looks like they are exhaling underwater! The sculptures are already developing plant life on them which perhaps takes away a bit of the drama but is good for the longer term plan.

Later in the first dive we came to a sculpture of a VW Beetle (a car formerly made and still loved in Mexico) as well as a cube of bricks. Both were already becoming home to small fish.

My favourite part of the experience came in the second dive. I didn’t realise the museum was spread over such a large area so when we came to a sculpture of a man at a bar, writing something with a tankard near his hand and a dog asleep by his feet I was really taken aback. It’s nice that for someone who grew up in Lancashire and Yorkshire there is a little part of home sat at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea!

Photo from Brits at their Best

On the way to the border with Belize where this trip was really planned to begin we stopped off at the town of Tulum – known for its Mayan ruins by the sea. However it wasn’t these that we enjoyed the most (especially after a visit to Tikal in Guatemala, but more on that in a later post).

All around the coast in this area are features known as cenotes. This is where the limestone rock collapses due to the vegetation above and to form a hole down into water running below. Near Tulum is the Grand Cenote where you can swim down into the caves with tropical freshwater fish (like you may have in an aquarium at home) as well as with terrapins. It really was a refreshing and well needed experience after the cycle from town in sweltering temperatures.

Cenote

Although a bit touristy, Tulum was a fairly relaxed place with one of my favourite treats of the tropics – sugar cane! And I’m not sure you’ll see a better sugar cane juice vending stand than a converted VW Beetle! It was an especially good addition to a mojito!

Sugar Cane Beetle

P.S. If you’re reading this before you leave Mexico to enter Belize and are using the Lonely Planet guidebook for Central America. There might be a couple of things I can clarify.

1. For a bus to Belize from Chetumal you need to go from the new market, not the bus station in an old American style school bus.

2. When leaving Mexico you may be charged 200 Pesos to leave via land. If you arrived via air be persistent as this tax should be included in the cost of your air ticket and therefore not be valid. If you are reluctant to get your wallet out they should just wave you through.

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A Quick Blast Through Mexico

Mexico was never really a big part of the travel plan, the reason for coming here was Cancun was the easiest and cheapest place for myself and my girlfriend to meet coming from Canada and Europe. We didn’t intend on doing anything here really.

This changed when I found the Cancun Underwater Museum which looked incredible to someone like me who’s addicted to scuba diving!

It wasn’t possible to dive the museum on day 1 so that fell to going to the beach. And wow what a beach, crystal clear blue sea and white powdery sand.

Sadly, the many hotels that are on the beach try to deny access to non guests and there are limited public access points.Luckily for us, once you are on the beach it can be easy to use some facilities at hotels. Thank you very much Ritz-Carlton, you make a tasty margarita and have a luxurious pool! As silly as it sounds, I’d actually be tempted to book one of their hotels one day now as I know how good they can be while the Melia that denied access I might avoid. Funny how little things like that can influence your opinion!

As for the museum, it felt a bit like a wreck dive with many different cement sculptures. The idea of the museum is that is will eventually become the home to a new coral reef on top of the artwork and help reduce to the pressure on Cancun’s other coral reefs, a very nice idea I think.

Immediately after a short descent to 10 meters we came to an inspired replica of the terracotta warriors. Some of which you can put your regulator up to and purge bubbles through the sculpture so it looks like they are exhaling underwater! The sculptures are already developing plant life on them which perhaps takes away a bit of the drama but is good for the longer term plan.

Later in the first dive we came to a sculpture of a VW Beetle (a car formerly made and still loved in Mexico) as well as a cube of bricks. Both were already becoming home to small fish.

My favourite part of the experience came in the second dive. I didn’t realise the museum was spread over such a large area so when we came to a sculpture of a man at a bar, writing something with a tankard near his hand and a dog asleep by his feet I was really taken aback. It’s nice that for someone who grew up in Lancashire and Yorkshire there is a little part of home sat at the bottom of the Caribbean Sea!

Photo from Brits at their Best

On the way to the border with Belize where this trip was really planned to begin we stopped off at the town of Tulum – known for its Mayan ruins by the sea. However it wasn’t these that we enjoyed the most (especially after a visit to Tikal in Guatemala, but more on that in a later post).

All around the coast in this area are features known as cenotes. This is where the limestone rock collapses due to the vegetation above and to form a hole down into water running below. Near Tulum is the Grand Cenote where you can swim down into the caves with tropical freshwater fish (like you may have in an aquarium at home) as well as with terrapins. It really was a refreshing and well needed experience after the cycle from town in sweltering temperatures.

Cenote

Although a bit touristy, Tulum was a fairly relaxed place with one of my favourite treats of the tropics – sugar cane! And I’m not sure you’ll see a better sugar cane juice vending stand than a converted VW Beetle! It was an especially good addition to a mojito!

Sugar Cane Beetle

P.S. If you’re reading this before you leave Mexico to enter Belize and are using the Lonely Planet guidebook for Central America. There might be a couple of things I can clarify.

1. For a bus to Belize from Chetumal you need to go from the new market, not the bus station in an old American style school bus.

2. When leaving Mexico you may be charged 200 Pesos to leave via land. If you arrived via air be persistent as this tax should be included in the cost of your air ticket and therefore not be valid. If you are reluctant to get your wallet out they should just wave you through.

Getting to know Cuba

I don’t even know where to start with Cuba. As I write this I’m in a poky little airport on the island of Cayo Largo with an inexplicable 2 hour wait for a plane that is already on ther tarmac and all the passengers in the terminal sipping mojitos or cold beer. But then perhaps inexplicable is the best word to describe this country?

I’m not going to profess to somehow be an expert after a few days in Havana or just over a week in a decent hotel on a tropical island but you start to notice things here. Havana has to be one of the most photogenic cities around, with crumbling colonial architecture left to decay since the Revolution in 1959, thousands of old American cars on every street corner and beautiful people everywhere you look.

Classic Car

There’s no Americans here (and I mean it in the nicest possible way but it’s kinda nice) due to frosty relations between the two countries which have even flared up during this trip thanks to comments my the Miami Marlins coach saying he loves Fidel Castro, something he has since been forced to apologise for. To be honest I don’t really understand why it should be such a big deal, Cuba as a nation couldn’t pose any less of a threat to the USA at this point in time.

Alas, back to this strange place. You can feel the lack of resources through the nation, whether it’s making old Plymouth’s and Lada’s keep running, the limited items in the shops in front of which huge lines suddenly form when stocks come in or the continued use of ration books. Despite this, I’ve come here as a tourist and stayed at a very nice hotel where virtually everything seems available.

Potentially more strange are the conversations you have with people in Cuba, there’s an acceptance their country is comparatively very poor with places such as the Canada and Europe and that their confidence in Fidel and Raul is perhaps waning (for want of a better word). Many people I have spoken to have outwardly complained about their leadership and said the country will only improve when they are both dead. It almost feels like there is the potential for an event similar to the Arab Spring here. But, and there is always a but, Cuba is home to 12m people, 5m of whom are said to be in the police and will inform on dissidents who can be detained without charge.

Let’s move onto the currencies of which Cuba has two, the peso and the convertible peso or CUC (which is pretty much equal to a US Dollar). Local people are paid in pesos while tourists must convert their money into CUC. Items in many if not most shops are priced in CUC so many Cubans will have to change their money into CUC to buy items. Those items due to restricted supply actually turn out to be incredible expensive, I saw a bottle of shampoo for sale in a supermarket (albeit one in an upmarket district of Havana) for 11 CUC. I just didn’t expect that in a poorer country before I arrived.

Because of this, there’s a thriving black market here for almost everything. Meat which costs a fortune in the supermarket will be hawked by anyone who can get their hands on some through methods which are not neccesarily legal.

This black market even extends to jobs. Based on people I’ve spoke to, a typical job in Havana might pay you anywhere between 300 and 700 pesos per month, that equates to 12-30 CUC or US$ per month. That is not much to live on! This makes jobs in hotels highly valued due to the comparatively lucrative tips one can earn. Jobs in most hotels are said to require the employee to speak a second language, preferably English. Many staff in the Melia Havana hotel I stayed in could not speak much English (nor it seemed French as my Spanish is currently very poor) .Yet people I met who conversed in very competent English complained that they were unable to get a job in such hotels as their English wasn’t deemed good enough and those in the hotels had gained the jobs through ‘informal’ relationships.

I’m pretty sure I’ve only scraped the surface of the country, if that. I’m not sure I understand why the incredible Capitol building isn’t used more for the government (unless they don’t like that it looks like the White House other than for tourism purposes). I haven’t got a clue why when tourists are such a lucrative source of income to the country that more is not done to get them to spend money (hint: more souvenirs or tours about the Revolution would be an excellent idea Mr Castro.)

I’ve probably sounded a touch too critical about Cuba but I really don’t want to. I love the place, the people have been so friendly, Havana and Cayo Largo have been incredibly beautiful and any country which gave the world the mojito deserves some credit! How many cities in the world will you find a scrapyard containing old steam locomotives you can climb all over but rusting away just yards away from an such an incredible capitol building?

El Capitolio

Heck, in Cuba you have an international airport that has it’s own beach at Cayo Largo, where you can hear the annoucements as you swim, if I hadn’t already cleared security and be in the bar writing this I’d be back out there catching the last few rays of the day.

Time isn’t a particularly relevant thing in Cuba, so I think I’ll have another cerveza while I continue waiting for my flight….having seen the ageing Soviet plane I’m about to get on, I might need it!

P.P.S. I survived!