Highlights of Ecuador

Highlights of Ecuador

Unfortunately, I could only spend 10 days in Ecuador and I was sick while I was there, so could not travel around too much. I think this is a country that deserves more than 10 days, as it has many attractions.

My first stop was Otavalo, where I eagerly shopped at its famous market and enjoyed seeing people dressed in traditional clothes, men wearing hats and trisas, and everybody proudly displayed his identity. I also went to the nearby city of Cotacachi, which is only a 30 minutes bus ride away.

My only other stop was Quito, the capital, whose hystorical centre I found really well preserved and where I visited the Plaza Grande, the Palacio del Gobierno, the Cathedral and the Monasterio de San Francisco and Museo Franciscano.

I then took a 10 hours bus ride to Guayaquil, where I stopped for one night en route to Peru. I was glad I was not spending more time in Guayaquil. It was terribly hot (and a shock, coming from the chilly and rainy Otavalo and Quito), and the entire city was infested with cockroaches – I am really afraid of them, as you can read on this post.

Here you can find more posts about Ecuador.

Take me back to Cuba

Take me back to Cuba

Yes, I know my first few posts after coming back from Cuba sounded like I was a nerve wreck. I probably was. I admit I did not get much of Cuba while there, and with my “rich white girl” (ok, I am a girl and I am white but I am definitely not rich) it was hard to understand the point of view of someone whose daily life is a challenge to get by. All I did while there was trying not to get ripped off, which made me defensive and not very communicative. I should have relaxed, and live like a Cuban, I suppose. Quite simply, enjoying whatever I could get.

Now, sitting in front of my computer screen all day, living the hectic life, feeling the need to communicate whatever I do, however I feel, and to check what’s happening in the world, now that I have embarked on yet another task which keeps me connected with the world – this very blog – I can say I miss Cuba, and I want to be taken back there. I miss that simple life, where people talk face to face, or by phone. Where computers are not a must-have, where food is bought fresh every day, and there are only local products, where there’s not the problem of having to choose between a million kinds of cereals, shampoos, lotions and what not. Yes, I miss all that. I miss that tranquility.

And the mojito I made yesterday for my friend who celebrated her birthday at a local bar is only a demonstration of that. She’s been to Cuba several time, she is terribly in love with it too. She knew this was going to happen to me too. And when I was acting as a bartender and I handled her the fresh mojito, and told her “take me back to Cuba”, she laughed, knewing this was coming.

If you want my two cents, I think that every single day you spend in Cuba you should try to put yourself in the shoes of Cubans. Try to communicate, try to appreciate their life, try to understand their problems and share yours. Ask, listen, don’t act like a typical tourist, don’t expect to “buy” things as you would do in your own country, don’t expect the same kind of services you’d get back home.

No matter how much money you have, you can’t buy Cuba, Cuba is not for sale.

Budget accommodation in Cuba #2

Budget accommodation in Cuba #2

Casa particular Cuba – pronto!

After a long day on a bus, you have almost reached your destination, wherever that is in Cuba, and you realise that despite your best efforts you still do not have any accommodation in town. It is highly unlikely that this is going to happen, as your landlords from the previous casa have surely asked you if you need a casa in your next destination, have offered the casa of their friend, cousin, sister, or whatever. They definitely know someone there and they are most likely willing to make the reservations for you. But, you never know.

You shall not worry. As soon as you step off the bus, you will see what literally looks like a wall of people offering rooms in casas all over town. These is what how we were welcomed in Baracoa:


Baracoa welcomes us

We thought it was so bizarre to see that we could not resist taking pictures.

The same scene is going to happen in any bus station in any city or village you visit in Cuba. Do not think that just because people are there, looking for guests, the casa is not going to be good. Casas have to all follow certain standards. They are all going to have ensuite rooms, they are all going to be very clean. Those who are not on guidebooks obviously have less business and they need to go look for tourists directly. To landlords it is a major achievement to appear in a guide! Our landlord in Cienfuegos (Eugenio) was by far the nicest person we met, very modest and very sweet. He told us that one day he was at the bus station, as usual, looking for tourists. He found one, walked him home. He noticed the guy kept writing and writing, and assumed he was a writer. A while later, his name and house appeared on the Lonely Planet (which is where we found him!) and he is now doing much better. But that is how he started.

What happens if you do not like the room you got or if the casa you thought you made reservations for is fully booked? Again, this happened to us. We just left our bags at the casa and knocked at any door where we saw a sign that said “arrendador” (these are clearly visible). Landlords are usually keen to let you in and take a look, and in case they have no availability, they will send you to a neighbour where again you will be able to take a look. The overall process can last for as long as you wish – it is up to you to take the first room you find, or to look for something you like better. In Trinidad we even negotiated the price of our room – but this is not a common things to do. We managed to do so only because were literally were the third guests at a very new casa. In Baracoa we left the first casa where we stayed (Casa Elvira, in Frank Pais) as we could hardly sleep at night – the room faced the street and it was very very loud. When we woke up, at 7:30 am, we got dressed and knocked at another casa (Casa Yalina y Gustavo) and Yalina was so sweet at telling us that yes, she finally had a room for us, so we fled Casa Elvira.

All in all, you never need to worry about accommodation in Cuba. You will find a casa, even when the city seems fully packed. You will not be left sleeping in the street. There is always someone who has a room, or a friend, a relative or neighbour who has one. It is just a matter of slightly adapting, but as I have said before, the standards are always quite high so you should not worry!!

Check more of my Cuban adventures here.

Take a holiday break – relax in Cuba

Take a holiday break – relax in Cuba

Forget cell phones, whatsapp, facebook, wireless connection: just have a good time!

Ah, the pace of life as it used to be back in the days – how I miss that.

Before travelling to Cuba, my friends recommended that I stay in touch with them! After all – they suggested – you are going to log on the internet every now and then, check your email, look at your facebook page.” You see, I sit in front of a computer screen all day, every day – or so it seems. I thought to myself: what is the point of going on holidays to exotic places if I end up living the same life I live at home? I promised myself that I would cure my facebook and cell phone addiction, knowing it would be fairly easy to do in Cuba. I purposedly only topped up my cell phone with 15 euro, knowing I would most likely be unable to top up from Cuba, and warned my parents and friends not to call me, but at most send text messages (roaming is waaay too expensive), and I promised I would send a text home every so often. It is very difficult to get Cubacell sim cards for foreigners, so I had to make do with whatever credit I had on my cell phone.

Wireless basically does not exist in Cuba, so checking emails on the cell phone was not an option. And bless for that! People in Cuba like talking on the phone. Anything is done over the phone. Want to book a room in a casa particular? You call, ask questions, see what they have to say. Want to have informations on buses? You call, or go to the station. Front desk at travel agencies have no computers. When you book a tour, everything is done manually, and via phone. Computers are so rarely seen, and the internet connection so slow anyways, that I never even considered for a moment to get on the web. It would have been a waste of money, time and energy. So, I relaxed.

Whenever I wanted to call home, I would go to an Etecsa point, top up an international calling card, and make the phone call from a phone booth. If Etecsa was closed (such as at weekends, or after office hours), I would have to wait till the day after.

I learned to wait. I learned to switch off, to forget about my phone (I left it off for days!). I learned to take my time in talking to people and ask for directions and explanations – after all, there was no google, wikipedia, or anything similar to easily access information. I had to take it easy, one way or another. So I did.

With all the difficulties I found in travelling around in Cuba, where there hardly is any free commerce, where even when you have enough money you can hardly find what you need, I can say that the lack of easily accessible communication made my life nicer and my holiday a real break. At times the electricity would go on and off and at 9:30 I had to be in bed, nothing else left to do but talking to my just as exhausted sister. Have I missed anything? Has the world stopped just because I could not observe it through a computer screen, a cell phone, tv, read it on a paper or whatever else? Surely not. But I can promise you, the day after I was so rested.

Just… chillax!

Care to know more of my Cuban adventures? Read my other posts.

Speaking Spanish in Latin America

Speaking Spanish in Latin America

Latin America is incredibly easy, I must admit. Talking to people is fairly easy too. With a few exceptions that only confirm the rule, people are truly friendly. At times shy, yet friendly and ready to help if you need a hand. A lady followed me around in Ipiales, Colombia, after she realised I did not understand her directions. Yet, at times they confuse me. It is not just a matter of understanding the language, which in theory I do. They speak Spanish all over, but words change between countries so each time I cross the border I have to switch my listening mode, pay more attention, learn new words and get to understand the accent. I have been learning ways of saying “cool”. In Colombia and Ecuador, they say “chevere”. In Costa Rica they say “pura vida” and the equivalent in Colombia is “buena onda”.  Words for “parking” change, and so words for “rent” – some say “alquilar”, in other countries “arrendar”.

San Jose, Costa Rica

Imagine having to ask directions in Spanish, in Costa Rica – photo courtesy of Alquiler de Caches (flickr)

The hardest Spanish to understand was by far that spoken by Nicaraguans – could be because they are very reserved and hardly talked to us or because they speak so very fast? Easiest were the Costa Ricans. In Colombia, accent varies greatly from place to place, but this is normal, the country is simply huge; and at times I have to ask them to speak more slowly! But when they do, you will manage to listen to all sort of wonderful stories. I was sitting in a square in Getsemani, one of the oldest “barrios” in Cartagena. It is a gathering place at night, for children who play football, residents who want to have a chat and enjoy the fresh breeze coming from the sea, and travellers who want to enjoy local action. I remember just asking the man sitting on a bench whether he minded if I sat next to him. He did not, and in fact he told me he used to be the mayor of the barrio, and started recollecting the history of it, explaining about its secrets, its renovation, and telling me a bit about the culture and way of life of the inhabitants. I have thus learned that Cartagena was built specifically to allow the breeze from the sea, and that at around 2 pm all locals sit on chairs outside of their homes to cool down a bit, and sometimes they rent those chairs to passers by (or so I understood). How funny!

Turtles in Tortuguero

Turtles won’t talk!

However, imagine getting lost in Central or South America. Any time I ask for directions, I get confused. In all Central America, whenever they mean to say “go straight”, they use the expression “todo recto”. In Colombia, they say “derecho” which I automatically confuse with “derecha” (right). Add to this the fact that at times they speak incredibly fast, that they start stopping and asking other people and get talking even faster, each with a different opinion and each eager to help, and here you have me, getting even more lost but having a great time seeing how people are so nice!

Surely, something that all Latin America shares is a sense of timing and distance that to Europeans is hardly understandable. You may ask the same question, ie “how far is…?” to ten different persons within 2 minutes and they would give you all different estimates. Somebody would tell you “ohhhh it is very far” and when you ask “ok, how far” they reply “very far!”. If you ask for an estimate in chilometers (“far” to Europeans means almost nothing!), they would just as easily give you different views. The same distance, to some would be 5 km, to others 10 or even 15! And surely they never recommend walking there, “porque està lejo!” – because it is far (even though it may be no more than 15 minutes walk). Estimates of timing are not different. The person selling you a bus ticket may tell you that travelling to your destination is only 2 hours, then the bus driver would tell you 3, and surely, you will get there in possibly 4.

Lesson learned: always allow plenty of time to travel even the shortest distances and enjoy the ride.

Check my other posts on communication.