Read more about the article Vinales – Cuba
Vinales Valley - Cuba

Vinales – Cuba

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Tobacco plantation land

Still tired upon recently landing in Havana at the start of this trip, but it was either this date or never to come to the west of the country and visit the UNESCO World Heritage listed Viñales Valley and the amazing landscapes of the tobacco plantations. Unfortunately the tours from Havana are not daily hence the reason it was for us only feasible on this day. We knew there was not going to be time to plan a tour that includes a day or two in this region, and even if enough time is what I had, I would have never consider in doing so and preferred to booked an organised tour here and visit as much as possible all in the same day. After all, for us spending any further day in that region was not really necessary considering we were going to be visiting the entire country.

Just a few notes for this place, since it’s better described below in what’s included in a tour: This is the region where the best tobacco in the world grows, and from where the most expensive and famed cigar brands take the plant. Halfway into the journey from Havana and the landscape start to change for beautiful tobacco plantations and wooden houses, by the backdrop setting of the mountains, however this is only a small sample of what’s about to come. The truly amazing landscapes are at the Viñales Valley where you will find the famous karst mountains, one of only 3 places on earth having this same formations.

In the subject that relates to tobacco, I need to explain you something very important. Basically you tour guide will strongly emphasise and encourage you to buy cigars in this region, especially at the shops they will bring you in Pinar del Rio claiming that it’s the cheapest shops where to get the good cigars in the whole of Cuba. That’s fine and it’s true, however it’s extremely difficult to 100% know what you are buying is the right deal or not. Of course the most desired cigars are the Cohiba Esplendidos. These are very precious in the Western World (say Europe for example), and might be very tempting to buy in Pinar if you are thinking in selling afterwards. Well be careful and don’t be fooled, from personal experience we got a box of 15 Cohiba, but when we brought them to an expert to take a look hoping for a trade deal, we found out one was having already a bug that could spread to all other cigars, and the use of green leaves which in a Cohiba this is NOT possible. So yeah, there you go, like anywhere else in the world no matter whatever they try to sell you, it’s difficult to trust 100% that you are getting the real thing. The cigars were still valuable don’t take me wrong, however I would recommend you to buy them at a state shop. (more…)

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Read more about the article Havana – Cuba
Havana - Cuba

Havana – Cuba

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Rome of the Caribbean, Paris of the Antilles

One last flight and trip for the year 2017, the beginning of a longer holiday until mid January. A year full of surprises and great travelling experiences which will be hard to beat to such an extent as this one. 91 planes, 21 countries, 7 of which never been before, and 92 cities. If this sounds mad and crazy, let me tell you in the year 2016 that was 99 flights; my all time record, yet the combination of kilometres in the air were 144577. 2017 topped anything I’ve ever done before with 186422. Yes, I keep a record of every single flight I’ve done in my life with all its details:, airport names, flight number, booking reference, aircraft model, airline, date, time of departure and arrival, miles, kilometres and even the cost for each flight. If I would only manage to calculate the hours in the air that would come to a shock I am sure.

Anyway, statistics apart, now it’s time for what really matters: the capital city of Cuba, Havana, or La Habana as it is known across the non-English speaking world. For so many years one of the most desired trips ever, but always been so in generally “prohibitive” in prices during the time of the year we wanted to go, December/January hence the reason why we usually went instead during this period of the year to Central America. Nevertheless, even though we managed to grab a nice flight deal with Iberia, the hotel situation was a very different story. In Cuba, you will end up in one of the most expensive places considering the already lower than average standards, quality and service you will receive.

With Havana being the starting point for a big trip discovering the entire country west to east, you won’t want to leave. This city is somewhat unique, like the country itself, a real time capsule, for the good and for the bad, where even some of the bad things you will experience are memorable part of the trip, many turned into beauty. The 4th largest metropolitan area in the Caribbean (or the West Indies as it’s also referred this region too), is also the city with the most number of historic sights, splendid colonial architecture and some of the nicest and warmest people with the most relaxed and most peaceful life. No rush for anything. Beware and learn about this, just simply merge with the locals and chill-out; everything takes its time, probably way too long; however as a tourist you should take advantage from this and enjoy the peaceful snail-speed life. Welcome back in time to the 1950’s. (more…)

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Read more about the article Buffalo – USA
Buffalo - USA

Buffalo – USA

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The Queen City, City of Light

Although not originally in my plans, it was a terrible temptation not to come here and let the occasion go. After all, what other occasion I will see to reach Buffalo? Perhaps no other than returning to the Niagara Falls in the American side then. So as the plan developed when I was researching information about the Niagara Falls, it turned to our luck that during the Christmas season they do a show of lights projections in the falls, visible anyway when at dusk. So what to do the rest of the day after visiting the falls in the morning and waiting for the night to come? Buffalo seemed to be the right choice. At only 35 kilometres from the falls, and although considering the border crossing since we came from Canada side, it was way, way worth it. The very good side around this region are distances. We were barely 170 kilometres from our base, Toronto. And even the border to cross into the USA took little over 15 minutes altogether! Returning into Canada took around 5.

Now, Buffalo you might ask, why? Well, believe it or not this is one of the cities long time in my wish list. There are more such cities I wish to visit in the USA alone, for example Detroit, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Baltimore, Portland… I am heavily in love with industrial architecture and everything to do with the art-deco style and movement. Some of these cities are simply unique jewels on this, with Buffalo no exception.

Further to this, if you see its perfect urban plan, legacy from the early 1800’s where avenues and wide tree-lined streets radiate and meet at grand squares and a grid system branching out from downtown, you immediately appreciate a city with a great taste for design. This is the work of Joseph Ellicott, the same architect of Washington D.C. The only difference between one with another are the buildings. While in the nation’s capital these are grand neo-classical structures, generally low-rise; Buffalo was the playground of architectural styles being the most imposing the art-deco.

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Read more about the article Niagara Falls – Canada
Niagara - Canada

Niagara Falls – Canada

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The most powerful waterfall in North America

A first time ever trip to Canada could not be without coming to one of the most spectacular natural places on the planet, the Niagara Falls. So yes, while planning Toronto I did know this will have to be also part of the deal on the trip, even considering our rather very short time, just 4 days in total. Still, good enough to enjoy both beautiful Toronto over the Christmas period and the awesome falls. In this case, with 2 different views, one during the day time, and the other during the night with the amazing Christmas light show installation. Now this was the real deal, the truly winter wonderland.

Before I continue, let me also add some notes in here about the falls itself for someone like us, having been to the grandest of the waterfalls in the planet, the Iguazu. Niagara is when comparing, tiny. In height and especially size, however the major drawback I see in Niagara are the hideous, horrifying constructions right on the edges of the falls! How on earth did this get allowed remains a mystery. It is actually hard to even capture a nice picture without anything man-made visible. But building high-rise buildings, hotels and casinos by the edge is just very, very wrong. How to turn one of the most impressive natural heritages in the planet into an amusement park, that’s all they’ve done. Whenever you get to Iguazu, and likewise my friends who have been to Victoria Falls in Africa, you are completely surrounded by nature, where man-made structures are restricted to the minimum in order to enjoy what you are really supposed to enjoy, the nature at its finest.

The falls are shared by both Canada and the United States of America. The best side is the Canadian from where you can enjoy the horseshoe in its grandest and luckily to everyone, without any hideous extra construction. You will enjoy an absolute clear view; although when looking towards the American Fall from this same side (Canadian), you get to also see the viewing point towers and hotels by the edge. Worst is the Canadian side in this though from the USA side, with views to all the high-rise buildings, viewing towers, casinos and other paraphernalia built by the edge, and a limited view towards the horseshoe. (more…)

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Read more about the article Toronto – Canada
Toronto - Canada

Toronto – Canada

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The New York of Canada

As unexpected as it sounds, planning a trip to Canada this year was never considered, however returning one more time to New York City was the plan to enjoy once again the Christmas rush and feeling in December. But with such sky-high air fares and way over an already higher average fare for a hotel, it was definitely not optional. Instead, why not Toronto? I cannot believe it I gave it a miss for such a long time. Now all I am thinking is in returning, see more, and enjoy the city in another season other than winter, and other places in this huge country. What a great choice for coming here! And no matter how cold it was (well actually not much colder than back in London anyway), it was still well worth it and not just for Toronto itself, but for being able to see the Niagara Falls during the winter and the Christmas light display during the evening and nights in December, and a brief visit to Buffalo in the USA with a dinner at the mandatory Anchor Bar, the birthplace in 1964 of the now worldwide dish fried chicken wings.

So with Canada, I mark the country 88 visited. I know Canada is vast, and Toronto and Niagara as just a tiny point in the immensity of the country, but that’s another number anyway to add in the list. And from today, it is just 2 weeks to be in country 89, Cuba. From the deep of the winter cold, to the nice summer weather in the Caribbean. How wonderful is to travel. I wish I could be on holidays the rest of my life just travelling.

Toronto is the largest city in Canada, and one of the 4 largest in North America considering its metropolitan area and population. While originally settle by indigenous people, the first Europeans to come were the French, who built the Fort Rouillé in the area now occupied by the Exhibition grounds in the mid 1700’s, however it were the British who truly developed it from 1793, who named it York until 1834 when it was renamed as Toronto. Nowadays, it is said to be one of the most multicultural and cosmopolitan cities in the world, often ranking among the top 3 in the list. (more…)

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Read more about the article Cancun – Mexico
Cancun - Mexico

Cancun – Mexico

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The Riviera Maya

Our last 2 days in Mexico we decided to spend them resting in Cancun. After all the previous busy and tiring days, we though the best we should do was to have a well deserved rest in between, before continuing on to Belize for a short stop followed by a busy week in Guatemala and a final resting days in Panama. But from our original thoughts to what the reality unfortunately was, it’s a big difference.

The weather. It really ruined what was meant to be sun, beach and pool for two days. The freezing blizzard happening in North America pushed too much south and while temperatures were not cold in Cancun, we did not get see a ray of sun at all. Thankfully we could enjoy the beach on the first day. Very warm water and nice outside temperature, just big clouds but no rain. Only towards the end of the day it is when the strong wind and heavy rain started. That was the end of our beach time the following day.

In any case, if you plan in coming to Cancun around the same time of the year as we went, be aware that the chances of rain are quite high. Other months of the year are better but then you need to be careful during the hurricane season. It’s kind of a lottery to be honest. We were unfortunate in this occasion. (more…)

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Read more about the article Uxmal – Mexico
Uxmal - Mexico

Uxmal – Mexico

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Oxmal, Three Times Built

Another day and another Maya city: welcome to Uxmal. The 4th pre-Columbian archaeological site we visit in this trip so far, and sadly meaning only one more left to go. This is quite different to Chichen Itza even the distance separating both is not that big and both are of Maya civilization. The main difference is the architectural style. Although structures are always repeating on every city; final decoration, sculptures and finishings are not the same. While Chichen Itza has a wide mix of styles, Uxmal is entirely Puuc.

How can you easily spot what is Puuc architecture? Notice the intricate mosaics made of stone on the upper façades of the constructions. This is something unique to this style and the finest examples are found in Uxmal, the largest city on such style.

Being around half of the size of Chichen Itza, and so near to many other Maya cities, it is easy to actually visit more than one in the same day. In fact and as I will explain below in the section how to visit the site, there are Sunday tours where they take you to 5 cities. This is called La Ruta Puuc (the Puuc Route). (more…)

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Read more about the article Chichen Itza – Mexico
Chichen Itza - Mexico

Chichen Itza – Mexico

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At the Mouth of the Well of the Itza

Welcome to Chichen Itza. The third pre-Columbian archaeological site we visit on our tour, and one of the finest of the entire Maya civilization for the size, history and how well preserved it’s been kept and excavated. An UNESCO World Heritage listed masterpiece. Incredible to see how some of the constructions seem to have been built recently, but in fact, they are even 2000 years old. Of course it’s been greatly restored and rebuilt, adding back the missing stones taken over centuries for the use on other constructions like the Spanish did for churches and cathedrals upon conquering the region and founding new cities.

The site is still not fully excavated, but it’s one of the most uncovered and studied Maya cities in the region, including as far as Guatemala. The jungle in here is not as dense any more as it used to be years back, something that helped in the other hand to uncover and discover new constructions. This is a subject I will come across again when talking about Tikal in Guatemala because in there that is the totally opposite side of the coin, pristine thick jungle where 80% of the ancient city still lies under the jungle.

From all the structures in the site, two will get your look immediately for being in perfect shape. The Castle (El Castillo) pyramid and the ball court. The pyramid is so well preserved that you can see the snake effect on the stairs, for this you will need to look to it sideways and there you will see the head of the snake and the body all the way up to the top. (more…)

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