Puerto Vallarta & Sayulita, Mexico – October 2014

Upon leaving Mexico City we took the short one hour flight to Puerto Vallarta which is a popular vacation resort on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. We would spend a week in a place called La Cruz de Huanacaxtle’ located 30 minutes north of Puerto Vallarta at our friend Mikes place.

179The plan was just to kick back and relax for the week before we made the big move from Vancouver to Dubai at the start of November.

La Cruz de Huanacaxtle is a quaint fishing village made up of older Mexicans and retired expats just enjoying the relaxed atmosphere of the Nayarit. We spent the majority of our time in Puerto Vallarta and the fishing village of Sayulita.

Puerto Vallarta is situated around a bay with beautiful beaches, lush jungles and sparkling waterfalls offer many opportunities for the adventurous, while five star resorts, world-class shopping and gourmet restaurants satisfy even the most sophisticated traveler. Stretching from the south end of Old Town to central downtown, a newly extended and refurbished boardwalk along the ocean, called the Malecon, passes by any number of shops, restaurants, and hotels, and often plays host to mimes, breakdancers, clowns and artists.

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While in Puerto Vallarta we also charted a private boat from a local fisherman and friend of Mikes that took us to the Marieta Islands where we went snorkeling and experienced the thriving marine population.

The main attractions to recommend seeing would be:

– Banderas Bay which is one of the largest and deepest in the world and can be admired from many of the surrounding hills exuberant in lush vegetation. Located right at the mouth of the Bay, straddling both sides of the River Cuale lies a charming and picturesque little town with true Mexican spirit, in PV.

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– For those who just want to relax, Puerto Vallarta’s many golden sand beaches offer one of the best ways to experience the beauty and magic of the Bay of Banderas.

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The Marieta Islands  are a group of small uninhabited islands a few miles off the coast of Nayarit not far from La Cruz. I would say this probably the number one tourist destinations in the area due to the abundance of marine life populations thanks to the islands being protected from fishing and hunting by the Mexican government.

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Sayulita is hailed as a popular off the beaten path travel destination and mecca for surfing in the area. Sayulita is the crown jewel of the pacific coast mainly due to its natural beauty. It is very similar to Puerto Vallarta but much more tranquil and untouched.

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The cheap fish tacos are delicious and fresh from the ocean which can be perfectly washed down accompanied by a few Coronitas! The locals are very friendly and have a wonderful array of local arts and crafts for only a few pesos. The cobbledstone streets are a highlight which make this place so charming and welcoming.

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It was the perfect vacation needed for us to reflect on the year while not worrying about the impending move to the middle east and everything else that comes with it…

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Cuba – For Beginners

Aside

As we walk the cobbled streets and squares of Old Havana, our ears assailed by the sounds of live salsa and jazz, our noses by roasted coffee and cigar smoke, random Cubans keep wishing us ‘happy holidays’.

At first, it seems they’re living up to their famously friendly reputations. But a pattern emerges; the affable welcomes and toothy smiles foreshadow another question (usually: where are you from?), then an invite to a friend’s shady bar, a meal at a restaurant, an offer of knock-off rum; even a request to spend some quality time with their denim-hot-pant-clad girlfriends.

We’d been warned about these CUC-hungry Cubans by Rolando, the loquacious owner of Havana’s most popular backpacker hostel (called Rolando’s) and fountain of knowledge on this extraordinary, and, at times, extraordinarily baffling, Caribbean island.

The cause of some of the confusion — and the motivation for the street hustling — is Cuba’s twin-tiered monetary system, where the CUC (or ‘Cuban Convertible Peso‘) runs in parallel with the CUP — the Cuban Peso, also known as ‘the crap peso’.

Whereas most Cubans are paid in lowly CUPs and buy their daily goods from CUP-only establishments, CUCs are primarily for tourists, who pay for accommodation, dining, transport, souvenirs and other goodies in a currency with 25 times the value of the CUP (one CUC is $0.97).

For Cubans, earning CUCs can mean the difference between existing on the breadline to living in relative comfort. Tourists desperate to feel rich should exchange some CUCs for CUPs.

The financial apartheid cultivated by the dual currencies doesn’t fit well with the egalitarian ideals of the 1959 Revolution, whose mottos (especially Che Guevera’s ‘Hasta la victoria siempre!’) are still flaunted on roadside billboards and street graffiti.

But Cuba — a communist nation with an increasingly capitalistic zeal — is a mass of contradictions; a place capable of leaving you exasperated one minute, enchanted the next.

We’d flown to Havana from Cancun. The journey was only an hour, but it felt like we’d time-travelled back 20 or 30 years. Unlike Cancun, there are no McDonalds and Starbucks. Internet access is sparse, slow and expensive (Facebook and Twitter addicts, prepare for detox). It appears, more than anywhere else I’ve been, that people make their own fun. From dawn til well after dusk, groups of men, women and children linger on street corners, chatting, laughing, buying, selling, singing, dancing or playing baseball, backgammon and chess.

Salsa-esque grooves, and cooking smells, drift from open windows and doorways of dishevelled, peeling colonial-era properties that look as if they could crumble and tumble any moment.

Every other vehicle is a colourful, vintage 1950s Chevy, Buick or Cadillac. Some purr … but most cough and splutter. Watching them motor past the iconic Capitol building, or beside the Malecon, the seemingly endless seafront promenade, are the ultimate in Havana cliche.

Seeing the Cuban capital, warts and all, on foot, from its beautifully restored core to its down-at-heel backstreets, is an exhausting, but exhilarating sensory feast — far preferable, to us, than lounging in the old mojito-and-daiquiri-spiked hangouts of Ernest Hemingway (La Floridita and La Bodeguita del Medio), which are crammed almost exclusively with elderly Americans and Europeans.

The best way of mingling with ordinary Cubans is to stay in casa particulares — spare rooms in Cuban family homes. Humble but homely, a casa’s décor and furnishings are usually old-school (think grandma’s flat) but the welcomes are warm, the food great value for money and the conversations about the country’s past, present and future fascinating.

The last few years have seen drastic changes to Cuba’s economy, with around a million state workers laid off, as the government strives to stimulate private enterprise. Casas are just one route to self-employment. Others include opening hole-in-the-wall pizzerias, shoe-shining businesses and boutique fashion stores.

As absorbing as Havana is, especially in this time of flux, see the back of it and swap its noise, clutter and pollution for the fresh air and dreamy pastoral landscapes of Vinales, a sleepier than sleepy town where days can be spent hiking and riding horses in the Avatar-esque countryside, and evenings perfect for lazing on veranda rocking chairs, book in hand (recommended reading includes Che Guevera: Writings on Politics & Revolution and The Island That Dared by Dervla Murphy).

Cuba’s main tourist resort of Varadero, a 20km-plus spit of beach, lined with all-inclusive hotels, is very couply, languid and a bit like Cancun — only without the fun stuff.

Far more rewarding is Trinidad, a stunningly photogenic colonial town, sporting uneven cobbled streets, colourful churches and mansions, a blaze of street music and entertainment and restaurants dishing up delicious chunky lobster for a pittance.

Hemmed in between scenic green mountains and sparkling blue Caribbean waters, Cuba becomes the go-to ‘happy place’ for travellers intrepid enough to visit.

5 Top tips when visiting Cuba

Five tips for Cuba

1. If you’re staying in casa particulares, bring a English-Spanish dictionary. Many hosts’ English is rudimentary at best.

2. Internet addicts prepare for detox. Cyber access in Cuba is sparse, slow and fairly expensive (averaging 8CUC an hour).

3. Cubans are generally friendly, but be wary of random ‘helpful’ locals trying to spark up a conversation, especially in the tourist centres. Chances are they’ll be trying to hustle you or sell something.

4. Before taking a taxi, or other form of private transport, agree on a fare. Meters aren’t used.

5. Exchange a few CUCs for a wad of CUPs. You never know when you’ll need them.

Seattle – Washington

“Life happens over Coffee”

I was now taking the relatively small journey of a few hours north into my third US state of Washington; the Evergreen state!

Again I fell on my feet with a rideshare as one of the boys from Portland was headed up to Seattle too. I for once had planned accommodation ahead of time too. I was Couchsurfing in West Seattle at a girl’s house called Mila. I won’t use her real name for purpose later on the blog.

Mila had recently returned to Seattle from a year away in Europe and Cost Rica volunteering. I’m led to believe I was her first couchsurfer since she had been back. The premise of Couchsurfing is it’s free to stay at their house; it is a nice way of helping out poor travelers too.

I was very impressed with the house and even more so when I walked out onto the veranda and saw the stunning backdrop of the mountains totally surrounding the neighbourhood. I had fallen on my feet here I was thinking. Mila was pretty awesome too.

We got on really well, chatted about our previous travel experiences and because we were very close in age we had the same interests. I initially was only going to stay for a few days for the weekend but ended up staying for nearly ten instead.

The first night she invited me out to watch a movie in the park.  Footloose was the planned film – which I had not seen. All in all it was a pretty decent night and the film was actually not bad.

I have always been fascinated by Seattle. I’ll also admit I used to enjoy watching the movie 10 Things I hate about you! This film is in my favourite collection, so I decided I would go to some of the filming locations like I did with The Goonies.

Seattle is a Beautiful city. Surrounded by the Ocean, snow capped peaks and national parks it really is a gem of a place. Seattle is famous because of the fortune companies that are based there too: Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon.com and finally Starbucks. Everywhere you go, you are greeted with a Starbucks!

So back to Couchsurfing. I wasn’t sure what to expect from it and what the specific rules are with hooking up with your host and what not. Anyways to cut a long story short – we did. This is probably a fundamental rule break but there are no rules so I can see on the website 😉

So instead of Couchsurfing, I had upgraded to a lovely double bed with some extras thrown in!

I managed to see all of the main attractions of Seattle such as Pike Market and Sky Tower or needle tower as it’s also known. I even went to the only legal marijuana festival in the world http://www.hempfest.org not that I smoke but it was an experience to witness.

After nearly 10 days in Seattle and probably over staying my welcome not that Mila was complaining I’m sure. It was time to move on.

One month of travel up the West coast had flown by and gone like a dream. I spent no more than $70 on travel from LA to Seattle and no accommodation costs.

My next step was to head to Canada; a place I had never been to but always wanted to visit due to its natural beauty. My starting point would be Vancouver.

Portland – Oregon

“Hey you guys”

I was in the car ready for the mammoth 20 plus hour journey it would take to get to Portland from San Fran. This just shows the pure size and vastness of this Country when two neighbouring states can take nearly a day to get to.

Never the less, the roadtrip was pretty epic. It was really good seeing Sam again after several years and meeting Kristian and Lisa. They were also from Portland, Lisa being an Au Pair from Germany and soon to return home after two years in Oregon. Kristian was a Portlandia native and a top man..

We left San Fran around 10am and headed over the golden gate bridge and up the long coastal road, this would add several hours onto the journey but the sights would more than make up for it.

We stopped off at the Redlands Woods – a national park with trees dating back hundreds of years. We made a stop at a specific tree – a tourist hotspot. This particular tree would allow you to drive your car through it, it was that big.

As sunset approached we reached the tip of California to a small coastal town named Clam Beach. We had a little dip and sat and chatted for a while before heading back in the car up to Crescent City for our final stop before crossing the border to Oregon.

Once we reached the state of Oregon it was pitch black and felt like we had been driving forever. We still had a good 6 hours to go. We had arrived in Portland in the early hours of the morning.

Again, with my great planning – I had not booked any accommodation as I wasn’t sure when I’d be arriving; luckily Kristian had his own place he rented with Matt and Keldon – all friends from Washington University. Anyways they let me bed down in the basement.

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The journey which took near on 20 hours had cost me $20 in fuel, that’s all they wanted and would take no more. Roughly speaking, I spent £13 in travel expenses amassing 700+ miles and a free accommodation.

Having got to know the guys really well and obviously making an impression on the boys they said I could stay for as long as I wanted. The basement was pretty neat with a ping pong table. This was mainly used to play beer pong!

ImageThe evenings were what I looked forward to the most; beer pong what an invention! Hours and hours spent throwing the little plastic ball into the cup of beer and then drinking the shots and being ridiculously hung over the next morning. I actually felt like I was at in a fraternity – the American’s certainly know how to party plus one little German girl too.

My stay in Portland was not all about partying. During the days I did the usual. Have a nice lay in, drink some coffee, walk around see some sights, take some pictures, grab some food, drink some more coffee etc. You will notice a pattern starts to emerge as the months go on!

One day which will live long in the memory is my trip to Astoria. This had been a dream of mine since I was a little boy as this is where The Goonies was filmed. My favourite growing up and still is to this day.

The film is shot in the stunning Oregon scenery and picturesque setting of Astoria – a little port town bordering Washington State. Once I had arrived I was not disappointed and felt like I was 10 all over again.

Sadly Mouth, Chunk, Sloth and the Fratelli’s were nowhere to be seen – I did visit the County Jail and the Goondocks house to double check but still to no avail!

Portland was different to SF and LA. Oregon as a state is stunning, lush green forestry, waterfalls and enjoys a much slower pace of living compared to LA. Portland as a city might not be as picturesque as the surrounding areas such as the mountains but it has character, personality and is captivating place.

Before I knew it I had been in Portland for over a week and was ready to move on to pastures new further up the coast. I had always been intrigued by Portlandia and have no idea why. I just knew it was one place in the US I had always wanted to visit along with my next stop; Seattle.

Sam, Lisa, Kristian, Matt and Keldon – this one is for you. Thanks for the fond memories.