Back in Canada

Back in Victoria, BC, after a two month return home to Canada by land beginning in Mérida, Yucatán and continuing through Cuba, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, then all the way back up through Guatemala, México, the U.S. and finally Canada.


Chetumal, Quintana Roo, México

As we stepped off the Cubana Ilyushin Il-62 plane at the Cancun airport, I literally kissed the ground in happiness. The airport was crowded with people snacking on good Mexican food and the sound of shouting and laughter filled the air. After all the episodes of trouble, dengue fever, and trying to figure out what the hell was actually going on, it was easy to lose sight of just how great a country México is, and after Cuba, coming back to México felt like coming home.

After arrival, the first challenge is getting from the airport to the Cancún bus depot. The shuttle bus drivers' union has a strangle-hold on travel from the airport in Cancun. They charge 75 pesos per person one-way from the airport via the major hotels along La Zona Hotelera to the station. If you happen to be living on a wage of 50 pesos an hour, this is practically highway robbery. However, it turns out that the shuttle bus drivers only have a monopoly on travel from the airport; travel to the airport remains entirely unrestricted. Those who take a few minutes to sit and relax out front of the airport for a few minutes will notice that there is a clever way around this racket.

Following the example of the locals, we hauled our backpacks across the parking lot, headed out the gates of the airport, and started down the highway in 36 degree heat. Within moments a taxi skidded to a stop, and the driver, nervously glancing out the rear window, motioned to us to get in.

We didn't. Instead, we stood at the window asking "cuanto cuesta?", to which he shouted "no importa! vamos amigos!".

Still we didn't get in. "We'll pay 50 pesos... for the two of us."

Looking insulted, he replied "Are you crazy?! I won't do it for less than 70 pesos each!"

Glancing back toward the airport we told him "That's ridiculous, the bus is 75 pesos, and besides we don't have that kind of money. We live in Merida; we're not rich turistas norteamericanos."

A shuttle bus flew by honking its horn while the driver shook his fist at the taxista.

"Bueno! 110 pesos para los dos! Vamos!"

At 110 pesos, we were still overpaying by Mérida standards, but given that we were a 16km walk in scorching heat from the city, I was pretty sure we weren't going to get much of a better deal.

At the bus depot, we bought tickets for Chetumal, 5 hours to the south, then made a dive for the nearest yucatecan restaurant. After weeks of oil-drum pizzas and roast ham & cheese sandwiches in Cuba, I savoured every last bite of my poc-chuc. We finished our horchata, then climbed into the bus for the trip to Chetumal.

Confined by the jungle to the southeast corner of Quintana Roo state, and squashed between the sea and the Belizean border, Chetumal is the last outpost of civilisation before crossing into the jungle to the south. Until the end of the 1970s, like much of pre-Cancun Quintana Roo, it was essentially a free zone in relatively lawless territory. Trade with British Honduras (now Belize) was the foundation of the local economy, and earned it the title of the territory (now state) capital. The historical importance of trade gives the city a distinct feel from colonial Merida. You can still spot the occasional wood-frame house, and the city has a relatively modern atmosphere.

Previously named Chactemal, the city had served as a Mayan capital since pre-Columbian times. The first Spanish missionaries arrived the 16th century, and the Conquistadors followed soon after. By 1544, the city had fallen to the Spaniards and the remaining Maya fled into Belize, leaving the city all but abandoned for the next two centuries.

At the turn of the 20th century in 1898, Porfirio Diaz, then President of Mexico, ordered the establishment of a port at the mouth of the Rio Hondo in order to quell the flow of arms across the Belizean border and into the hands of the Maya. To this end, the city of Payo Obispo was founded by Othon Blanco with the help of Mexicans from the surrounding areas. The economy developed quickly and the city grew into the territorial capital by 1915. In 1936, the city renamed itself to Chetumal, which it remains to this day.

All along the waterfront of Chetumal is a gorgeous walkway. Unlike the shimmering blue waters of the north-eastern coast of the Yucatan, the water here was more reminiscent of the murky green ocean back home on Vancouver Island. The locals are adamant that the water is horrifically ugly, but I suppose when your bases for comparison are Playa del Carmen, Cozumel and Cancun, that you can afford to be picky.

After sunset, as we wandered through the town, snacking on fresh tamales, we were stopped by a couple of old men sitting in chairs on the sidewalk in front of a saddle shop. They stopped us to ask where we were from and what brought us to Chetumal. We explained we were taking a trip to see Guatemala and part of Honduras before returning back to México.

"Why do you want to go to Guatemala? It's a dangerous. It's poor. They have nothing. Pickpockets are everywhere, and the people have no dignity left. Life is cheap in Guatemala, they've been surrounded by civil war and death for 30 years. It's a beautiful country with a terrible history."

That night, we checked into an 80 peso hotel. The employees were huddled around the television furiously debating México's loss to the USA in fútbol.

"The giants defeated us midgets! Look at the size of their players. And the Americans don't even care about fútbol! Can you believe this?! This is an insult!"

We tried to console them by mentioning that Mexico would be guarateed to put Canada to shame. It was the best we could manage. It didn't help much.

They shut off the game, and we got to sleep early. Just after the stroke of midnight I woke up and, in a final farewell to the bugs I had picked up in Cuba, I threw up (in order) the dinner tamale, followed by the entire plate of celebratory Poc Chuc I had eaten that afternoon. I felt surprisingly better, and fell sound asleep excited about the next day's 12 hour trip down a narrow dirt track road through the jungles of Belize and into northern Guatemala.


Trinidad, Sancti Spiritus, Cuba

Photo Gallery

Looking down on the ocean from the rolling hills a kilometre away, Trinidad is a small, traditional town whose population of 50 000 takes great pride in its home. Founded by Diego Velásquez in 1514, Trinidad became a stopover for explorers and trading ships travelling to and from México. During the 17th and 18th centuries, its economy largely depended on trading contraband with pirates. The buildings are in incredibly good shape for their age, most of which are at least two centuries old. It’s not too tough to see why Trinidad is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Trinidad is about five hours from Havana by bus, and as with everything in Cuba, there are two buses: one for Cubans, with a several hour long line-up, and one for people with dollars, with basically no wait at all. Upon pulling into Trinidad the bus was swarmed by masses of locals offering a room in a casa particular. We ended up being shown one house, but it had been freshly painted that afternoon and the fumes were pretty rough, so we set out wandering down the streets in the dark. By sheer chance, we ran into an old grandfather carrying a bucket and pushing his bike up the rickety cobblestone streets and when we asked him if he knew of any places to stay he said that in fact, we could stay at his house. This is how our planned two-night stay in Trinidad ended up turning into a week-long stay in paradise.

Roberto and Elda, their daughter Mercedes, her husband Eddy, and their 11-year-old son Saúl made our stay in Trinidad one of the most relaxing visits we had to anywhere in our travels. We would have breakfast every morning in a little courtyard off to the side of the house, spend the mornings wandering the cobblestone streets in search of pizza, and the evenings falling asleep to the sound of Cuban salsas, merengues, and cha cha chas drifting through the window from La Casa de la Trova across the street.

While most of the old town is centered around the main plaza, cathedral, and clock tower, most of the action seemed to center around the plaza in the newer part of town down the hill. Old men sitting on park benches sharing a bottle of rum, school children eating peso ice cream, and the occasional black market cigar salesman trying to pass off some cigars smuggled out of the local factory all milled about the plaza in the hot, sticky heat. A bunch of us sat on our park bench watching the old men on the bench across from us get progressively more drunk from their homebrew, before eventually falling asleep.
One thing that anyone visiting Cuba can be assured of is eventually being offered a taste of homemade rum. My guess is that neither the recipe nor the distilling of this rum has changed much over the past few centuries, so you can be assured that your experience will be as blindingly nerve-wracking as that of the colonial sailors plying the waters of the Caribbean in the 1600s. Following the initial jolt of fermented cane sugar hitting your stomach like a rock is the slow nauseating feeling of vertigo creeping over your body; after that, a strange queasiness, and finally recovery and swearing it off for life... or at least the next day.

A few days into our stay in Trinidad, as we walked down a dark street off the plaza, we heard music pouring out through a half-open gate. Peering inside we were greeted with the sight of thirty or so people packed into a small dirt courtyard, and a small band of grizzled 80-year-old men playing salsas on their guitars and trumpets. People had pulled up some old wooden benches and were serving mojitos made (I swear) straight rum, some sugar, and crushed mint. A woman named Blanquita invited us in, offered us some mojitos and yanked us up off the bench to teach us some salsa while chickens scuttled around our feet. It was probably my most vivid memory of Cuba.


La Habana, Cuba

Yo soy un hombre sincero de donde crece la palma
Y antes de morirme quiero hechar mis versos de alma
Guantanamera, José Martí
Havana is a city of contradictions. It’s simultaneously one of the most beautiful and most run down cities in the world. It’s hard to imagine how things could be any worse, or any better given the Cuba’s political past and present. Havana, along with the rest of Cuba, is the way it is almost purely because of politics — some of the most complex politics on the planet. If you like history or politics, Cuba is for you.
Cuba’s troubled history begins long before the Cuban Missile Crisis, or even before the Revolution of 1959. Ever since Christopher Columbus set foot on the Isle of Cuba on October 29th, 1492, one nation or another has been fighting over the country. For over half a millennium now, politics have affected almost every aspect of life in Cuba. It’s amazing that despite all this, Cuban culture is felt worldwide through its music, dance, and artistry.

Fast Facts

Before we get started, here are a few quick facts to clear up a few common misconceptions about Cuba:

  • The US embargo was put in place on October 19th, 1960, two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was the result of the US Eisenhower Administration’s plan to overthrow Castro. This was the result of Cuba nationalizing a lot of property sold to the US by Cuba’s former dictator, Fulgencio Batista. In 1963, after the end of the Missile Crisis, the Kennedy Administration imposed a travel ban on US citizens, preventing them from visiting Cuba. Here’s an Economic Embargo Timeline, if you’re interested.
  • in 1959, a group of Cuban revolutionaries, including Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, led a popular uprising to overthrow Fulgencio Batista, the totalitarian dictator who led Cuba from 1934 to 1959. Under Batista, more than a third of the land in Cuba was sold off to US interests. In several cases, teachers who worked to alphabetize rural villages were tortured and killed by Batista’s private police force, for fear that a literate population of farmers would be more likely to favour local land ownership, and oppose the dictator. Cuba is now a communist country, and Castro is the elected head of state. Elections are supervised by international monitors. They work very differently from other western electoral systems, however, since there is only one party. Like Canadians, Cubans elect local representatives, who select a party leader. In practise, Castro has been re-elected President by party officials in every election since the Revolution. Here’s some more information on elections in Cuba.
  • Today, Cuba’s population is highly educated. The current literacy rate is approximately 97% — the same as Canada’s. Before the revolution, the overall literacy rate was 23.6%. Castro’s guerrilla manifesto of 1957 included an immediate literacy and education campaign, with the slogan Revolution and Education are the same thing.
  • It’s illegal to form a party other than the Communist Party, and people live under fairly strict supervision by the government compared to most western nations. The movement of Cubans is restricted by the government. The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs maintains a fact page on Cuba, as does the CIA in the United States.
  • Cuba’s media is not entirely restricted, and Cubans can tune in to Miami and Mexican radio stations. The national newspaper, Granma is published by the Communist Party and is available online in several languages.

I was going to include a quick whirlwind tour of the history of Cuba here. I started on it, but by the time I got to the late 19th century it was already ten paragraphs long. Instead, if you want an excellent point-form history, have a look at A History of Cuba. If you want something more in depth, specifically focusing on US-Cuban relations, the multi-volume set A History of Cuba and its relations with The United States by Philip S. Foner is excellent.

Arrival in Havana

The flight to Cuba was probably the craziest flights I’ve ever experienced. We boarded the ancient, Soviet-built Cubana Yak-42 jet in Cancún and took our seats. The first thing we noticed as we sat down was that the safety instruction cards were printed in Russian. The second, and more alarming thing we noticed was that smoke was slowly filling the cabin. The flight attendants assured people that it was just steam, and that it was totally normal. By the time we landed in Cuba, The cabin was filled chest high and we couldn’t see our knees anymore. We got off the plane as quickly as possible, were packed into a rickety old East-German bus and carted off to immigration.
Once in Havana, we checked into Hotel Flamingo where we stayed for our first two days while we explored Havana. Across the street were a bunch of featureless, utilitarian, crumbling apartment buildings, which are apparently identical to the ones that were built across the Communist Block countries during the Soviet era. You’re surrounded on all sides by relics of the Soviet era: East German and Polish buses, Russian radios and record players, and tons of North Korean equipment. It’s fascinating to see a country that exists almost entirely apart from the US. When it comes to the States, it’s as though time stopped in 1959. The only Chevys and Buicks to be seen are 1950s models. All new cars are Ladas, Yugos, Polski Fiats, or Chinese and North Korean imports. Supposedly push-by shootings from Ladas aren’t as big a problem here as they are in Russia.

Old Havana

La Habana Vieja is something amazing to see. Walking down the streets of Old Havana, you’re surrounded by some of the most incredible architecture you’ve ever witnessed. What’s even more incredible is that it’s crumbling all around you. Ornate gargoyles and balconies have decayed and collapsed with age; the paint is peeling, and everything is covered in a thick layer of dirt and grime. Broken windows are everywhere, and yet people continue to live in these buildings that elsewhere in the world would have long since been condemned.

Another thing not to be missed in Havana is sitting in the park in front of the Museo de la Revolución and eating freshly roasted peanuts out of a rolled up newspaper. For one peso, you can buy salted peanuts from street vendors, rolled up in an old copy of a page from Granma, and sit back and watch kids play baseball in the street.

Baseball is everywhere in Cuba. You can’t turn around without seeing a game going on. Baseball equipment, on the other hand, is hard to come by. This doesn’t stop anyone from playing the game, however. A rock wrapped in rubber bands makes a pretty decent baseball, and we saw a lot of kids who could hit some amazing runs with a broom handle baseball bat. If you visit Cuba, something that’ll make any kid’s day is a baseball. Pencils and pens make nice gifts too.

Dollars and Pesos

There are two things that everyone who visits Cuba should do. The first is to experience live Cuban music, which you can read about in the Trinidad section. The second is to convert some dollars to Cuban Pesos. Cuba has three official currencies: Cuban Pesos, US Dollars, and Cuban Convertible Pesos. The Cuban Convertible Peso was introduced to reduce the dependency on actual US dollars, but are worth exactly one dollar in Cuba, and exactly zero dollars off the island. Cuban Pesos are a soft currency, and as such, have no practical value as an exchangeable currency; however, exchanges do happen at wildly fluctuating rates. We got 26 pesos to the dollar.
Cuba has two economies that don’t overlap even remotely. Hard-currency stores charge US prices in US dollars and sell high-end items. Bottled water is about $1.00 a bottle, soap is $0.50 a bar, and meat and cheese are similar in price to what they would be in Canada or the US. However, Cubans are paid in pesos at a rate of about 200-400 pesos a month — about 8 to 16 dollars. That makes a bottle of water worth somewhere around 10% of your monthly paycheque. Try the math with your paycheque. Soft currency shops sell local goods, such as fruit and vegetables, for pesos.

The reason you should convert some money is that finding a place to spend your newly acquired pesos will force you to discover a whole part of Cuba you might otherwise never have seen. Cubans buy things in soft currency at markets or shops that sell in pesos. The items you can buy for pesos are universally locally produced items such as locally farmed foods, small pizzas baked on the street in oil drums converted to wood ovens, and some ice cream. A pizza, which is basically a piece of bread with a little tomato sauce, some oil, and bit of salt on it, sells for 3 pesos, which is about 12 cents US. The reason it’s so cheap is that peso goods are subsidised by the work you do for the state. Basic food staples such as beans and rice are part of your government supplied rations, and can be obtained with your ration card at certain shops. When you can find it, food sold on the street is usually in pesos. Food in paladares¹, hotels, and touristy places is almost universally in dollars.

The Rich and the Poor

The one thing that struck us immediately was the uniformity of income in Cuba. In México, there are two extremes: the extremely rich and the extremely poor. The middle class is tiny compared to Canada, where the middle class is the norm. In Cuba, almost everyone lives in something that is not exactly poverty, but at the same time they have basically no buying power. They have what the government gives them, and little else. The income difference between a street sweeper and a specialist doctor is about $7 a month vs. $15 a month. No matter how you cut it, the $8 difference doesn’t buy much. It’s hard to get imported goods no matter what, and what you can get is often on the black market.
Although under communism employment is universal and housing is provided by the state, there are still people who turn to begging because it can be far more lucrative than work in a factory for $8 a month. As a result of the incredibly tiny incomes in Cuba, jineteros² have become more numerous, and will follow you wherever you go, trying to drag you to a restaurant or shop where you’ll spend your money. A lot of people on the street beg for soap or toothpaste when the police aren’t watching. One man told us he’d do anything, even get down on his knees and beg if it would make a difference.

Given all this, was the trip to Cuba worth it? Without a doubt. We met some absolutely wonderful people, and learned a ton about Cuban history and politics. The government isn’t the oppressive dictatorship many people would like to believe, and it’s certainly an improvement over Batista’s brutal dictatorship; however, things could certainly be a lot better than they are, and Castro isn’t exactly known for his spectacular record on civil liberties. The Cubans we met were friendly and welcoming, not to mention incredibly good dancers. When we ran into difficulty getting cash out of our Mexican bank accounts due to the embargo, one family we stayed with offered to reduce our room rate, and give us a cheap ride to the airport so we didn’t have to pay the taxi fare. Falling asleep to live Cuban music every night was worth the trip alone.


¹Paladar: a small independent restaurant. One of the allowed forms of capitalism in Cuba.
²Jinetero: Literally a “jockey.” Jineteros will approach you and offer to show you a restaurant or store. In exchange, the restaurant charges you extra for your meal and the jinetero gets to keep the surcharge.


¡Feliz Navidad!

Took a two week trip through southern México for Christmas. Starting in Mérida, southwest into Campeche, Tabasco, Veracruz and then Chiapas. Stopped to visit the Mayan ruins at Palenque, followed by some of the villages around San Cristóbal de las Casas. From there, it was northeast back onto the Yucatán peninsula, to Tulúm, then onwards north again to spend Christmas swimming in the Caribbean on Isla Mujeres in 30 degree weather. After a few days, it was westward again to Chichen Itzá and Valladolid before finally returning home to Mérida.