Location: Croatia and Montenegro, Europe
Well, we have come to the end of our '8 month' journey, ending it with a few weeks in Croatia and Montenegro.
Independant travel has taken its toll somewhat, but over the last two weeks we have been able to relax a bit more, enjoy great fresh local food (and wine of course!), take in some great vistas, and do a few day treks / trips to inhale some fresh air (which was much need after Cairo's smog!), and it's been an ideal way to finish up. It is now moving into to winter here, so you cant help but relax, as most things / offices are only open a few hours a day (or closed), so your biggest challenge is actually trying to guess which ones!
The Dalmation coast of Croatia is Nick's mums homeland, so it was also good to retrace her steps, but the place is full of history, medievil old towns and coastline, so we can see why it has become a hotspot for travellers in any event. The weather was generally fine and mild but not warm enough for swiming, so unfortunately no snorkelling (Ianko and Jezabel with the gear your gave us, but we will put it to use back at home were we are pleased to note summer is coming!) in the beautiful aqua coastal waters.
We managed to add to our 'forms of transport used' list by hiring a scooter on Korcula Island where it was blowing a gale and threatend to blow us off the top of a few hills as we rode across the island. At the end of the day we got back unscathed and enjoyed doing as the locals do. We hired a car again, this time to drive down to Montengro from Dubrovnik and then back to Split, and whilst the roads are fantastic panoramic curving coastal roads, the lunatic drivers make it a little hard to enjoy. We figure that because of the good roads and nice new powerful cars, the locals think they can overtake anywhere, but for this to work at times you need to slow down to let them overtake or pull to the side a little as they overtake on your side of the road coming right at you!
Location: Cairo, Egypt
Today is the last of our 15 full days here, and must say I am almost relived because Cairo (in particular) takes it out of you - the history, monuments and temples are amazing, but almost as amazing is Cairo's traffic, heat and the touts!
We were pretty knackered after travelling through South and Central America independantly, so decided to sit back and do Egypt by tour, although not the first class type. We spent our time in historic Cairo, Pharaonic Aswan and Luxor along the Nile, pilgrim Mt Sinai and tranquil Dahab, so covered almost all parts of Egypt other than the Western Desert and Alexandria.
Away from the Nile delta, Egypt is so dry and dusty that it is hard to imagine that in the time of the Pharoahs that these guys ruled for so long. Even more impressive that they were able to create such amazing monuments in this climate, but it is the dry heat that has the amazingly preserved them for 3000+ years.
After all we have seen though I think the thing that stays clearly in our minds is the traffic bedlam in Cairo - you need to be crazy or stupid (or both!) to drive in this city, even worse to be a pedestrian crossing the street! One of our tour guides explained that the traffic lane markers are only for decoration, and that you only need to obey traffic lights if and only when the traffic police instruct you to?! We had a taxi one night that drove without the lights on, and when we asked why he said there was no need "...the city has lights?!" and this was after he paid his way out of a fine for not wearing a seat belt. We had a jeep taxi in Dahab that firstly pushed along our second car when it ran out of petrol (after only 2 minutes) and then dropped a muffler when we were flying across the rough dirt track to a snorkeling point north of town. One thing is for sure though...you better have a working car horn, and a good one at that! The next thing that sticks in your mind are the touts that try and drag you into their shops/bazaars or overcharge you...but you almost get used to that!
We have also added to our 'modes of transport' list which now includes feluccas, donkeys, riverboats and of course the craziest taxis!
Actually it is all a bit hard to put words too, so just look at the photos!
Location: Havana, Cuba
Due to the lack of internet access in Cuba we have had to do everything on the blog at the end of our trip here - so here goes with one big Cuba summary...
We have spent nearly 3 weeks here, but it is not nearly enough to understand this place, its people, its government, or even scratch the surface of the sites and places to visit.
What we have seen tells us that the place is definitely beautiful, but is a challenge to get around. You can get on a organised tour, but that would be easy (and crowded), or try and do it yourself, but that costs - Cuba is expensive. Luckily we met Basqe and Spanish couple, Ianko and Jezabel, at immigartion at Havana airport, and effectively decided to hire a car together on the spot. You need to speak some Spanish (road signs have largely yet to be discovered here), be patient (some ´roads´ had us driving at 18km an hour, dodging cenote size pot holes, and spending more time on the dirt alongside the ´pavement´!), and have an adventurous spirit.
Cubans are a resourceful lot, and although the socialist system provides the basic medical, food, schooling and housing, most need to find other means to improve the quality of life. So that means you get regularly hassled by jineteros (touts) trying to flog you cigars, accomodation, care hire, guide services (ie they join you in your car on the trip!), or a place to buy good / cheap food, and always for a commision! Accomodation, other than in expensive hotels, is via Casa Particulares, which are actually rooms in peoples houses, and that is a little weird at first, but after a while quiet enjoyable in that they cook for you and you get to talk about what is happening in their lives and Cuba. The biggest complaint from many Cubans is the lack of freedom/flexibility, either due to government controls or just lack of money. Cars, buildings, infrastructure, everything is old and just holding together, so although the current regime has improved the lot of many Cubans since the corrupt Batista government of the 50´s, it now looks to be struggling somewhat. Who knows what is going to happen when Fidel passes, although cant see it becoming the next state of the US - the people are prepared to stand up for themselves.
So what else have we done...
- swam and snorkled in/on the most amazingly clear waters
- did an introductory scuba dive (Jodes)
- ate too much fried chicken (Nick) and good greasy street pizza
- ate lots of good seafood (Jodes)
- driven 1,300km and bused another 1,500km
- practiced/improved our Spanish on/with Ianko and Jezabel
- stayed in a lots of peoples houses (Casa Paticulares)
- listened to some good live music
- had (in Jodes case) free Salsa lessons from exhuberant locals
- saw (maybe the best collection) of colonial places in Old Havana
- smoked good Cuban cigars
- drank good amounts of beer, rum and mojitos
- seen and read lots about the revolution, Fidel, Che and co..
Unfortunately we haven´t seen much of that famed Cuban street music, but last night had the fortune to eat out with a live band and have a little old guy from the street dance salsa - he had the legendary Cuban hand and hip movements!
Best that you just check out the pictures on the blog and get here yourself before it all goes and changes.
PS Ianko and Jezabel, thanks for sharing the car with us, helping to improve our Spanish and interpreting where necessary with the locals and for Nick´s birthday present.
Location: Central Amercia Summary, Central America
Well, our 2 months in Central America are all but up and we are off to Cuba for 3 weeks tomorrow.
Again we thought we would try and do a summary of the region which is easier said than done...
Hot, humid with afternoon thunder storms and obviously no need to check at our hostels first for hot water (24/7 or at all!).
We loved Mexico (food, beer (but not much in the way of wine!)ruins, culture and super buses) to the extent it probably rates as our second favorite overall destination to Argentina, but were surprised and disappointed (maybe naively?!) at some of the human rights abuses that we became aware of along the way.
We really liked Guatemala and Belize as well. Although Guatemala was cheaper, the Mayan´s more traditional, and Tikal was truly impressive, the food and buses were not as good (very important for long travel!). Belize was more expensive than everywhere else, but had lots of interesting/diverse stuff for a small country/population, had some really cool rasta locals, and (surprisingly) won Jodene´s vote for the Hot Sauce of the trip, although since then we have been impressed with the Habanero stuff the Mexicans are producing in the Yucatan. Belize also gets the prize for our first and (maybe?)only 'drive through cemetary' on the main road running through Belmopan.
Honduras? Probably unfair to say much given we were only there for 2 full days, but provided us with one of our most memorable moments on the chicken bus to the border when the drunk (at 8am) luggage guy at the back of the bus tried a few one liners on Jodes whilst I was sitting alongside!
Location: Valladolid, Mexico
We leave shortly for Isla Mujeres just out of Cancun for a few days on the beach before we fly out to Cuba to check on Fidel´s wellbeing.
After Merida we had a few spare days so headed south west to Campeche, an old colonial town where in the late 1600´s they built a wall around it to protect it from pirates! It´s a quiet place but nice for a few days to see the historical stuff, and although our hostel room was hot, at least the place had a rooftop terrace right adjacent the town´s main plaza and cathedral to give exceptional views - pity about the hostel's bikes which we tried to hire but found we couldn´t peddle far...with the rear brake fused to the rim!
Next stop Valladolid, another small town on the way east back to Cancun which we stayed in because we couldn´t pronounce the other places on the way like Tzucmuc, X'calcoop, X'kalkdzonot and Dzitnup! It is situated close to the ruins of Chichen Itza and many cenotes (underground caverns / waterholes).
Chichen Itza was nice, but like Uxmal and Tulum (and very different to Palenque, Copan, and Tikal) a little sterile as much of the ruins are roped off so you cant get too close...but maybe we are just getting a little 'ruined-out' ?!
The cenote at Dzitnup was great, a tiny hole in the ceiling to let the sun in, and when it did, it light up the cool, clear blue waters beautifully.
In a few days Cuba, where internet may not be as accessible, but keep checking the site anyway!
Location: Merida, Mexico
After relaxing at the beach for a few days we have now headed a little in land to Merida which is the capital of the Mayan Yucatan state.
Nice friendly people here, many of whom took time out to talk to us and had surprisingly good knowledge (compared to many others we have met over the last 6 months) of English, Australia and New Zealand - most wanted to talk about The Crocodile Hunter who we didn´t even know had died (poor bugger) until the Cuban consulate in Cancun told us the other day.
Merida is hot, but has lots on interesting colonial places and street food (they have Saturday and Sunday fiestas here everyweek!), so we tended to venture out in the morning and evenings, and spend the day in our airconditioned room...which doesn´t have a ceiling, only a wall between it and the other room?
Saturday's fiesta highlight was the Mariachi band that ended the night (along with the food), and that came after we went to a local restaurant for lunch that sell beers at slightly inflated prices (but no more than in a mid range restaurant) but provides you with food at no cost - great idea! At the same time they have live music and the whole thing appears to be an opportunity for the locals to get together, talk and dance. We stuffed ourselves with 3 rounds of drinks which was followed by 3 rounds of local food and it all ended up costing us around A$25 - if people are coming here you must go to Eladio´s!
Just over an hour away are the ruins of Uxmal, which are quite interesting with combination of pyramids, palaces and detailed stone facades / carvings.
PS We hope / think Steve Irwin was swimming with different rays to those we cajoled with in Caye Caulker, Belize!
Location: Tulum Beach, Mexico
We are now back in Mexico and headed straight for the beach at Tulum and were rewarded with white sand beaches and lovely azzure waters...and higher prices!
We have got the hang of haggleing now, so manage to get a bungalow (cabaña) right on the beach for close to A$35 per night - the only catch is that electricity only runs from 7 to 11 at night all along the beach, but no matter, you get prime beach front, good swimming and are lulled to sleep by the gentle breaking of the waves on the beach less than 50m away!
All we have done here is lounge around the beach, read and eat, disrupted by a 2 hour round trip (walking!) to the nearby Mayan ruins of Tulum which are tiny but wonderfully located above the beach.
Iguanas rule the shoreline (often found lazing in the sun on the rocks in between the cabañas) and clothing appears to be optional which would be fine other than the lack of ´fashion police´ on the beach to stop obvious non-appropriate disrobers!
4 days here and we now need to head to Cancun to sort out our Cuban visas before we head inland (Merida and around) again for some more cultural and gastronomic exposure. We hope to avoid staying in Cancun as we understand it can be very touristy and expensive.
Location: Caye Caulker, Belize
On the way here we passed through Belmopan on the bus and saw what I think is my first drive through cemetary - the main road goes straight through it and some plots are right up against the curb!
Belize is famous for its Cayes (keys) and barrier reef which stretch along the countries small coastline. The waters are clear and a lovely aqua / azzure, hence a big attraction to divers.
We have come to Caye Caulker, one of the larger but cheaper cayes - it's beaches are ok, but just offshore there is good snorkelling and further out the more popular diving sites. The place is soooo laid back, helped by the relaxed attitude of the funky Creole speaking locals who appear to spend most of their time cruising around the island on their bycycles in between stops for a chat with other locals - everybody knows everybody!
Our first adventure was unplanned - a 45mile trip to the outer reef snorkelling with a diving tour, and it hit the budget hard. Destination the Lighthouse Reef, Half Moon Caye and the Blue Hole which is an amazing sink hole which apparently was once a cave in a mountain when this area was above ground, but has since collapsed and the sea has risen, so the what remains is an underwater cave with stalacmites and stalagtites rimmed by a coral reef - its a magnet for divers. We were the only 2 snorkelling on the trip, so we had our own private guide.
Next we wanted to do some snorkelling on the local reef (less than 1km out) and all but one tour offered the same thing, but the one that didn´t sailed out to the reef sites rather than use power boats - that sounded pretty cool to us...and would add another item to our list of modes of transport on this trip! We sailed out to 3 points, Coral Garden (ok but no Barrier Reef), then Shark and Ray Alley were as the name suggests you swim with sharks (but don´t fret Mum they were only 1m odd nurse sharks) and rays, and then Hol Chan Marine Reserve which was pretty special - lots of big fish and moray eels. To make it even better we had more cool guides, local rasta types so plenty of groovey tunes on the boat, then on the way home endless rum and cerviche (coured fish) from lobster and conch caught fresh at our first location - those that know me now that I didnt bother with the cerviche´(Jodes made up for me though!)...but the rum went down a treat!
All underwater photos are on disposable cameras, so unfortunately nothing for the net - sorry!
Because of that and our underbudget spending getting slimmer and slimmer, we abandoned an embrionic plan to extend our holiday and chill out in the Sicillian Islands for 3 weeks. Oh well, at least now we can spend up and enjoy the rest of our planned adventure.
Back to Mexico tomorrow and more beach time on the Carribean Sea at Tulum.