Cuba!

The streets are alive with music! It’s everywhere, from the bands playing in cafes, the busker with his saxophone on a stoop to the radio playing in someone’s car. You cannot escape the musical beat that pumps its way around Cuba. This is an island full of life, soul and music, and you just do not want to leave.

Music everywhere!

Music everywhere!

Walking around Old Havana is like walking around a time capsule, the architecture, and the cobbled streets and of course the 50’s cars. It’s a city that exudes life. With the streets being narrow you find very few cars in and around the old squares which adds a tranquility to your wandering. One thing I found surprising about Havana and Cuba in general is their attitude to tourists, they are friendly and will ask you to look in their shop as you pass but there is no hassle, life just goes on in Havana. You would never think you are in one of the most visited destinations in the world. The streets are filled with people going about their business; in fact we are probably an inconvenience to them with tour groups filing through on walking tours. It’s by far one of the most relax capital cities I have ever visited.

The Capitol Building in Havana

The Capitol Building in Havana

With such architectural variety, from the colonial to the art deco you could wander around for days taking everything in. The amazing thing I found about Havana is, if a city was protected by UNESCO it could almost feel a bit Disney – everything a little too bright and shiny – but it doesn’t. The buildings are crumbling around you, a huge amount of restoration is going on, but people are still living in these buildings and life goes on. This is one of the contradictory things about Cuba and one of things that left me asking more questions. The Old City is protected and there is a huge amount of preservation going on but you have so many people living in these cramped buildings. Yes they are building new housing outside the historic centre but then you are in the suburbs and have to travel in (on highly unreliable public transport). Having all this amazing architecture protected is a privilege and it’s a reason tourist’s love Havana but with houses in need of dire repair how good is it for the actual Cuban people when they are being relocated out of their homes.

The colourful streets of Havana

The colourful streets of Havana

Even the rain cannot dampen the spirit of Havana

Even the rain cannot dampen the spirit of Havana

The stunning architecture of Havana

The stunning architecture of Havana

IMG_6034Havana is a city with so much to see and take in that it can be hard to leave, but leave you must as there is still so much of this country to see. Setting out we headed to Las Terrazas, a community and nature reserve named a biosphere reserve in 1985 by UNESCO. It’s a beautiful place. This community tries to be as self-sustaining as possible and was a dream of Castro’s soon after the revolution when he ordered a reforestation programme due to the heavy deforestation that had been taking place over the centuries. It’s like a small paradise in a bubble, the standard of living here is higher than in much of Cuba but you cannot simply move to Las Terrazas, there is a waiting list as they do not want to over populate the area. It’s a great example of what can be achieved by a community working together and by using what they have around them to attract visitors it creates an income for the community. I would certainly not hesitate going back and staying within the community for a short time in their hotel, the Hotel Mako. Leaving the lush green forests we headed further west to the Vinales valley and its stunning karst landscape which is encircled by mountains and dotted with spectacular dome like limestone outcrops (mogotes). The moment you descend into the valley and you get your first view of the mogotes you want to whip out your camera and start taking photos, but resist you must because there will be plenty of opportunity for photos in this photogenic landscape. With much of the land being fertile this is a key tobacco growing region, but also home to more than one organic farm that is striving to promote vegetables and growing your own, something Cubans need to take on board because eating their greens is something they are not doing. If more people grew their own food then they wouldn’t need to rely so heavily on rationing as they would be able to supplement their food much more easily, but with a diet focused on rice, beans and meat getting them to eat their greens may be a long term project for the government. In fact the food at one of these organic farms was the best food I had the entire time we had in Cuba, farm to table in a matter of hours!

Vinales doesn't have a bad angle

Vinales doesn’t have a bad angle

The stunning Vinales

The stunning Vinales

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A beautiful organic farm

The all important tobacco leaf for the Cuban cigar!

The all important tobacco leaf for the Cuban cigar!

Vinales is one of those places I could have quite happily meandered around for a few days but alas our time there was short and having done a cave tour and tobacco farm visit we had to leave after 2 nights. With the quaint little town full of paladars to try this is definitely somewhere to take your time, rent a bike, go for a walk, explore the valley do not rush it. With the forests and valleys done we headed towards the coast and the colonial town of Cienfuegos, the only town in Cuba to have been settled by French colonists. The long roads, colonnaded walk ways and squares this is a chilled out town. The brightly coloured buildings entice you to explore.

Treasure Lake on the way to Cienfuegos

Treasure Lake on the way to Cienfuegos

From Cienfuegos it’s the perfect opportunity to head into the mountains and to Topes de Collantes National Park. Here you are overwhelmed by the views you get climbing high into the mountains to the dense forest that cover these mountains. There is an abundance of flora and fauna and the birds, oh the birds, if you like birds this is the place to come and look. As someone who isn’t too bothered by twitching, having hummingbirds flutter around you is just breath taking, stunning miniature creatures.

The serene world of the Topes de Collantes

The serene world of the Topes de Collantes

Watching the world go by at the pace of a hummingbird

Watching the world go by at the pace of a hummingbird

Disappointingly we had to leave being this landscape and head down to the coast and the beautiful town of Trinidad. This sleepy colonial down a short drive from white sand beaches is an ideal place to settle down for a couple of days. Take in the colourful cobbled streets, enjoy the delicious food of the paladars and take your book down to calm crystal waters of the Caribbean. Trinidad is an ideal place to relax and take in everything you have experienced in Cuba so far.

The colonial square of Trinidad

The colonial square of Trinidad

Cuba

The brightly coloured houses and cobbled streets of Trinidad

The brightly coloured houses and cobbled streets of Trinidad

IMG_6289Before heading back to the happening city of Havana we headed to Santa Clara, the home of Che. His memorial and mausoleum is the main point for passing through. It dominates. It certainly made me wonder what they have planned for when Fidel dies. It certainly makes you think about the part he played in the revolution, his drive and passions for the communist and socialist movements. He is much more than just a face on a t-shirt that has become a bit of a fashion statement. This is a man who is an idol, a founder of modern Cuba, the respect for this man can be felt as you enter his mausoleum and walk around his memorial. It’s certainly thought provoking. Cuba

The monumental Che

The monumental Che

Arriving back into Havana I scrambled to fit in the last bits of sightseeing but just didn’t have enough time. There are still lots of galleries to explore, streets to wander and bars to try out. Cuba is a country that just keeps on giving, the friendliness of its people, its culture, and the way it makes you think about your perceived thoughts about its politics. There are so many reasons to return to Cuba. I have so many unanswered questions, and things will only keep changing and evolving there, especially if the continuing talks with the USA hold. Hopefully things will not change too quickly for the sake of the people and the islands innocence. Cuba

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Costa Rica – adventures in Manuel Antonio

Sitting on a white sand beach, the pacific ocean lapping at my feet, all around me is rainforest. The monkey’s play in the trees behind and on a fallen tree sits a stunning blue and green iguana. This is paradise, this is Costa Rica!

It’s a country only the size of Switzerland but is home to a range of ecological systems, countless wildlife species and fabulous white sand beaches. It offers so many reasons to visit.

Having no army means that the country spends its money on education and the environment instead of guns and tanks. This of course makes for a happy and positive population. With 26% of the country National Parks and protected it just reflects how important having 5% of the world’s biodiversity is to them and of course for everyone else its a key reason to visit this fabulous country.

I found myself leaving San Jose for the Central Pacific Coast for Manuel Antonio National Park, which is one of the 28 National Parks and Biological Reserves in the country. Sitting right on the Pacific Coast it’s where rainforest meets beach.

First stop was a mangrove river cruise in Guacalillo. We boarded our boats and before we even moved we were surrounded by the most stunning Scarlett Macaws. Flying above our heads from tree to tree in their pairs the colour of their feathers brightening up the sky. The colours were mesmerising. It always amazes me how the guides manage to spot animals in the forest when travelling at speed on a boat, but spot the guides did. Soon we were gazing upon water walking lizards, monkeys, birds of all kinds and then those giants of the river, the crocodile. Huge creatures just lounging in the sun until they disappear into the murky water just their eyes at the surface. It’s at this point you are glad to be in a large boat. Being out in the mangrove was a wonderful introduction to the huge amount of wildlife that Costa Rica holds, this small section of river that we journeyed on was teaming with life, truly amazing.

Heading out into the mangroves

Heading out into the mangroves

Scarlett Macaws

Scarlett Macaws

Water walking lizard

Water walking lizard

Racoons!

Racoons!

Don't disturb a sunbathing crocodile

Don’t disturb a sunbathing crocodile

Costa RIca

Costa Rica

As much as I would have loved to have spent many more hours journeying deeper into the mangroves it was time to leave and continue our journey to Manuel Antonio. Luck was clearly on our side because the moment we got back to the jetty the heavens opened and the much talked about rain of the rainy season started and did not stop until morning. This was epic rain like I have never seen, and rain we would continue to see every afternoon while in Costa Rica.

Travelling along the coast, passing through the beach towns that are frequented by the residents of San Jose at the weekend we eventually reached Manuel Antonio. Very few hotels actually have access to the beaches and those on the coast side vie for sea views. Many are perched on the cliff side or surrounded by forest. I spent the next two nights at the Hotel El Parador. It was a charming hotel with a colonial decor, dark wood and high ceilings. The main building offered spectacular views of the coast and the bays it created, the adult pool looking out over the cliff. The hotel offered a range of rooms, from the basic garden rooms which were ground floor and as the name suggests look out onto the garden. The rooms go up in grade offering more spectacular views of the sea and bays. The suites go as far as to have a hot tub on the balconies, a great place to enjoy the views. With a jam-packed itinerary we didn’t have much time to lounge around the hotel, but one evening we did spot the local toads and frogs making themselves at home in the main pool, an odd sight indeed!

The rain held itself back for our first morning in Manuel Antonio and the clouds cleared ready for us setting out on a catamaran tour. The 2.5 hour tour takes you out into the Pacific along the coast, the hope was to see whales and dolphins but they did not come out for us. Disappointed but the spectacular scenery made up for it. The rainforest spilling over the cliff edges into the ocean, this was true nature at its best. The blue sea crashing against the cliffs. Natural beaches etched into the bays offering an entrance into the dense rainforest, this is paradise. Going out onto the ocean of course means you can snorkel or swim in the warm waters, eagerly needed by everyone having sat in the hot sun for too long. After a refreshing dip and fish kebab cooked by the crew we headed back to shore because the afternoon was to be spent in the National Park, something I was greatly looking forward too.

Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park

Manuel Antonio National Park from teh Catamaran

Manuel Antonio National Park from the Catamaran

Inside the park is a beach, one that we had seen from the catamaran and this was to be our destination. The national park is currently going under quite a bit of work to make more trails for visitors so they can get deeper into the forest, something I definitely want to go back and experience. As we followed the main path into the park we were only a few hundred meters from the entrance when a troop of Capuchin monkeys appeared. They were crossing the path and were so at ease with us all being there. Not tame but not bothered by us at all. They were happy to pass between us on the path to get to the trees on the other side. This was odd for me having only experienced the Amazon Rainforest before where animal sightings are scarce in the dense forest. There was a Capuchin monkey standing right next to me – truly amazing.  As we carried on eyes peeled for any other sightings we soon found the one thing I really wanted to tick off my list, the sloth! High in the trees there he was climbing higher to get his leaves. He was just as I had imagined, long limbed, shaggy fur, the quizzical faces, my first sloth in the wild and he did not disappoint.

Capucin monkey's

Capuchin monkey’s

Costa Rica

Sharing the path with leaf cutter ants

Sharing the path with leaf cutter ants

Just a sloth hanging around

Just a sloth hanging around

Just this one path from the entrance to the beach was full of life, the path shared with leaf cutter ants going about their business, monkeys, sloths, beautiful birds and then the white sand beach, the trees spilling out onto the sand. As we walked along the sand we came across a fallen tree now the sun lounger for two impressive looking iguanas, one such tremendous shades of blue. Fallen coconuts being lapped by the waves on the beach. This is paradise. As I took everything in sitting on the sand there were more Capuchins behind us in the trees. I had only been in the park a couple of hours, imagine spending a few days here, or staying in a lodge within one of the national parks.

Manuel Antonio National Park beach

Manuel Antonio National Park beach

Beautiful blue iguana

Beautiful blue iguana

If you love wildlife, oh hell, if you are vaguely interested in it then this is the place to come because you cannot escape the wonders it offers. Of course there is so much more on offer than beaches and wildlife. Costa Rica is building a reputation for quite the adventure destination, be it zip lining through the forests, rafting on rivers or light trekking, there really is something for everyone in this tiny country!

South Africa – Cape Town

When you arrive into Cape Town the landscape is dominated by one thing, Table Mountain! It’s ever present when you are staying there and the views from it are beautiful. Situated on the coast of the Western Cape, the ‘Mother City’ as it is known due to its historical role in the development of modern South Africa, has golden beaches, a national park at the heart of the city and is multicultural with many stories to tell.

There is so much to see and do on the Cape Peninsula, you are surrounded by history, a beautiful national park, wildlife and of course the winelands. I had just over four days in the Cape and it was not enough. This is a destination where you could quite happily spend a week or two exploring the beaches, walking through the various parts of the national park and of course head to the winelands. Instead of rambling on about it, here are some of my favourite photos, hopefully they will give you an idea of just have stunning it is. I have fallen for Cape Town and will most definitely be returning to carry on exploring and getting more of its fantastic food and wine!

Cape Town

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a fabulous development of shops, restaurants and entertainment

The Victoria and Alfred Waterfront, a fabulous development of shops, restaurants and entertainment

For something a little more challenging why not walk up Table Mountain rather than get the cable car - not for the faint hearted as its steep and hot but the views are well worth it - Cape Town at dawn!

For something a little more challenging why not walk up Table Mountain rather than get the cable car – not for the faint hearted as its steep and hot but the views are well worth it – Cape Town at dawn!

Cape Town and the ever dominering Table Mountain from the ferry to Robben Island

Cape Town and the ever domineering Table Mountain from the ferry to Robben Island

Cape Town is full of architectual diversity thanks to its colonial history and more recently becoming the world design capital for 2015

Cape Town is full of architectural diversity thanks to its colonial history and more recently becoming the world design capital for 2015

While in Cape Town we went on a walk around one of the townships, it was incredibly eye opening to meet the people who lived there, see how things are and how they are changing.

While in Cape Town we went on a walk around one of the townships, it was incredibly eye-opening to meet the people who lived there, see how things are and how they are changing.

One of the ingenious ways that people are making life better for themselves in the townships is by using old shipping containers and turning them into shops and business, such as hairdressers, clothes shops and street food venders.

One of the ingenious ways that people are making life better for themselves in the townships is by using old shipping containers and turning them into shops and business, such as hairdressers, clothes shops and street food venders.

night time at the V&A Waterfront

night-time at the V&A Waterfront

One of the best things about Cape Town is that you are only short taxi rides from the next town. Just around the corner from Cape Town is Camps Bay, a fantastic spot to go and watch the sun set. There are sea front restaurants and bars a plenty to enjoy it from.

One of the best things about Cape Town is that you are only short taxi rides from the next town. Just around the corner from Cape Town is Camps Bay, a fantastic spot to go and watch the sun set. There are sea front restaurants and bars a plenty to enjoy it from.

Around the Cape Peninsula

The scenery around the Cape is just beautiful, so hard to capture on camera but I tried, this is up the road from Houts Bay.

The scenery around the Cape is just beautiful, so hard to capture on camera but I tried, this is up the road from Houts Bay.

One of the highlights of the Cape Penninsular are the terribly cute Cape Penguins at Boulders

One of the highlights of the Cape Peninsula are the terribly cute Cape Penguins at Boulders

so many penguins, so little time!

so many penguins, so little time!

The Cape of Good Hope!

The Cape of Good Hope!

The beautiful beach at the Cape of Good Hope

The beautiful beach at the Cape of Good Hope

The rugged coastline of Cape Point, just beautiful

The rugged coastline of Cape Point, just beautiful

The Cape Penninsular- where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic

The Cape Peninsula where the Indian Ocean meets the Atlantic

The Winelands

Beautiful Colonial Stellenbosch

Beautiful Colonial Stellenbosch

One of the best things about Stellenbosch, other than the wine were the sculptures that were dotted around the streets, an interesting way of exhibiting art and a great insight into the minds of young south african art students

One of the best things about Stellenbosch, other than the wine were the sculptures that were dotted around the streets, an interesting way of exhibiting art and a great insight into the minds of young south african art students

The beautiful landscape of the Winelands of the Western Cape

The beautiful landscape of the Winelands of the Western Cape

wine tasting in Franschhoek

wine tasting in Franschhoek

Blue skies, stunning landscape and wine tasting, this is the place for it!

Blue skies, stunning landscape and wine tasting, this is the place for it!

I very much recommend a trip to Cape Town!

This was the end of my South African journey, and I can say I fell in love with the country and its people who are all so welcoming. I will most definitely be going back!!