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Viñales – Enchanted Land of Tobacco

Havana was great and all, but after spending four nights in the the busy big city we were ready for some country time.  Our señora in our casa particular arranged for a taxi to grab us in the morning for the ride east.  The shared cabs only cost about 10% more than the Viazul buses and get you there way faster with their door-to-door services.  We were picked up by an old blue 1950s Buick – a wobbly, feel-the-springs-in-the-seat, smell-the-exhaust-in-the-cabin, but still-watch-music-videos-on-the-dashboard kind of taxi.  No seat belts in Cuba, but the AC worked somehow.  We rode with a pair of students from New York, who were on a whirlwind tour of the country.  Outside the city we felt like we had gone back in time.  Horse-drawn carriages and tropical farms of bananas and sugar cane.  Everything was green and lush and it was hard to believe that there wasn’t an abundance of all foods on the island.  We were headed for Viñales, the land of the worlds finest tobacco.

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Rain storms over Viñales, Cuba

After about a three hour drive we arrived at our new casa, a cute pink house run by Cary and Anay, a mother and daughter.  Like all the houses in Viñales, it had rocking chairs on the front porch, from which you could lounge and people-watch the day away.

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Viñales, Cuba

Day two we rented bicycles and headed out into the countryside of Parque Nacional Viñales.  The grand moros (rocky hills) were all around us.  Instead of the mountains raising from the earth, underground rivers had caused the valley floor to fall creating the dramatic landscape.

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The Cuban countryside

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Riding bikes past La Cueva El Palenque

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Transportation

A few miles outside of town we came to La Cueva del Indio, one of a series of many caves in the area.  The cave tour is accessible through a restaurant and costs 5 CUC.  The caves had a nice walking path through them that led to a boat ride down an underground river.  It was nice except for a super-obnoxious family in front of us.  Seriously, who yells in caves and moves precariously-balanced rocks around trying to find a lens cap?

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The underground river at la Cueva del Indio in Viñales, Cuba.

Once back in town we headed down a side street to the edge of the village where we were found an organic tobacco farm.  We took a tour (in Spanish) where they explained the growing, drying, fermenting, and rolling processes of Cuba’s famous cigars.  They also explained the difference between organic and chemical tobacco production.  At the end we tried some of the organic Monte Cristos dipped in local honey.

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Organic tobacco drying house

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Traditional tobacco drying house

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Fields of tobacco

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Telling us about Monte Cristos, Che’s favorite cigars!

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Rolling a cigar.  They use four leaves and honey to hold it all together.

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Packs of cigars in banana leaf packs

We only had the bikes for one day so headed out again in the other direction to the strange and epic Mural de la Prehistoria, a strange giant painting on the cliffside.  Apparently it took several painters many years to complete.

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Mural de la Prehistoria

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On day three we decided to go for a hike.  We walked past the turn off for the Mural then after about one more kilometer took a right turn and headed towards Los Aquaticos, a village on the hillside.  The Lonely Planet had some general directions but we asked some farmers along the way, brushing off several dudes who wanted to guide us up there.  The views were fantastic along the way and we felt at peace amongst the country animals and fields.

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Carrie’s new bestie!

At the top there was a small blue ranch house with a view of the valley.  They sold delicious  coffee grown on site that you could sip while enjoying the scenery.  A cute pig snuggled up to Carrie.

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Royal Palms

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The view from Los Aquaticos

You could hike up farther but it was growing late in the afternoon and we were satisfied with our adventure.   After eating dinner we took a nap then went out late to the government-run dance hall.  Every town had at least one of these places with a salsa band and bar and lots of people.  We really need to learn some moves!  Until we do, it’s still fun to watch everyone boogie down.  Viñales was an all-around great time, with lots of nature and fun nightlife!

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Let’s salsa!

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Havana’s Rumba Paradise

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Havana is a paradise for music and art, and on our Sunday there we decided to check out an amazing little spot for both!  Callejon de Hamel is a short block in central Havana that’s also the center of Afro-Cuban culture in the city.  Eclectic and artsy, it almost seems like the Burning Man of Cuba.  Funky art galleries, rapping buskers, recycled street art, Santería icons, performers, and wall-to-wall people enjoying the lively atmosphere.

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“I am art among the arts, and in the hills, I am a hill.”

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Bathtub art

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At the end of the alley was a whole rumba group.  The crowd was thick but we gradually made it close enough to see most of the action.  The rhythms were free-flowing and improvisational, each drummer vibing off the others.  The singers chanted, and other percussionists danced maniacally with maracas.  Check out the video below!  We loved it!

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Enjoying Havana

We had been trying to go to Cuba for awhile.  We had the whole plan set to go before we were officially allowed to, but easing of the restrictions made it easier for us.  Our flight from Mexico City set down after dark and we had our visas and passports and we couldn’t wait to get out there exploring.  They took our picture at customs then we waiting in the muggy airport for a long while waiting for our luggage.  Everything was painted USSR red and the women customs agents wore tight khaki army skirts along with fishnet tights and heels.  The agents led basset hounds around the airport, making people drop their bags while the dogs circled them.  The form we signed made it very clear we were not to bring drugs, guns, or pornography into the country.  Our taxi driver was waiting for us with our name on a sign.  She would take us to our casa particular in Centro Habana.  First we had to change money.  Cuban locals use the peso, while foreigners have to change their cash into Cuban Convertible Pesos which equal $1 or 24 local pesos.  They charge 10% to exchange dollars so it was cheaper for us to bring Euros and trade them for CUC (Cuban Convertible Pesos).  All the local shops use pesos while tourist areas only take CUC so after you get the CUC you can trade a little bit to pesos to spend on snacks and ice cream and such.  It was confusing and redundant, like many things we would find in Cuba.

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Our taxi was a red ’50s Chevy with the inside refurbished and a big TV screen that played loud reggaeton music videos.  It was awesome.  In Cuba travelers have two options for accommodation: government-run hotels or private “casas particulares” which are rooms in private family homes.  Kind of like AirBNB, the casas are much more affordable and friendly than the overpriced, stark government hotels!  In Havana we stayed in a fifth floor apartment in the center, with a nice lady whose Spanish was understandable.

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Breakfast at our casa particular

The first thing I noticed in Cuba was the lack of billboards.  The only thing resembling advertising was political propaganda.  There’s about a 50/50 ratio of old/new cars in the city.  The stores had dim lighting and the shelves were sparsely stocked with dusty goods.  No Coca Cola!  Only a national soda brand.

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View from our bedroom window in central Havana

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In Havana it seems like everyone is always out and about, living their lives outside.  Every building is a different color and in a different state of disrepair or renovation.  The cars were the same, with the freshly-painted old classics always full of tourists driving loops around the city.  As we walked through Habana Vieja (Old Havana), enchanting live music flowed from almost every cafe, even at lunchtime.

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Surprisingly, we were never really hassled; we just had a lot of friendly people want to know where we were from.  We walked and walked, seeing the old castles and fortifications that kept the pirates out.

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Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro

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Catedral de San Cristóbal de la Habana

It was super hot on our first day in the city (high 80s) but the sea breeze coming off the Malecón (sea wall) helped a bit.  The Malecón is where everyone gathers at night to hang out, drink beer and rum, and see and be seen.  On our second night the wind picked up and sent waves over the wall in dramatic fashion, closing the road and sending careless tourists running for dry ground.

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West of the Malecón lies the Vedado neighborhood.  Newer than Havana Vieja, Vedado is home to the large hotels, sprawling residential areas, and the city’s best nightlife.

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We found a Beatles themed rock club called Amarillo Submarino where they had a great rock ‘n’ roll cover band.  It used to be illegal to play all English music, but times have changed in Cuba.

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Our favorite spot in Vedado was the Coppelia ice cream shop.  The place is shaped like a giant space ship and was opened in the ’60s right after the revolution.  Always busy, you have to wait in a long line where they have a one in-one out policy.  They try to usher foreigners into a separate area, but do not be led off course because the locals’ area is the real deal!  Once inside you will be ushered into one of four rooms, seated at shared tables and served whatever ice cream flavors they feel like at the time.  Each room has different flavors, so cross your fingers when getting seated.  Oh, and the scoops are one peso each, or about 4 cents.  Since the ice cream is so cheap, everyone orders at least 1o scoops apiece!  On the best night we got a choice of mint or chocolate mint flavors, on the worst the choice was between guava, banana or plantain.  It’s also a great place to people watch and witness the redundancies of the communist workforce.  There are bored bouncers in several different locations, servers, scoopers, bussers, water pourers.  It takes a simple ice cream shop to a crazy level of complexity.  Never did it stop being strange.

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Coppelia

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We did NOT order enough ice cream on this night

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That’s more like it

Havana is a city of layers, never lacking in character or interesting encounters.  The people are full of life and resiliency, pushing forward despite everyday struggles that are sometimes unbelievable.  I don’t think you could see the same Havana twice with so much change happening at every moment.  It did make us appreciate just how easy we have it, the simplicity of just going out and buying whatever, whenever.  But then again, is that how things are supposed to be?  Is that ability to freely spend really necessary, or is it just a lie created to fill fat pockets?  I think the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Barrancas del Cobre!

We set up a driver to take us to the Barrancas del Cobre (Copper Canyon) the night before but after waking up early and waiting around for him, we ended up having to call him and wake him up.  Once there he drove us to the center of town where we switched to a different car with a different driver.  This guy was a real Mexican cowboy with white hat and pointy snake skin boots.  He drove fast out of Creel on the road which follows the famous tourist train, El Chepe, into the the deeper parts of the canyon.  The views were magnificent as we passed through small towns of tiny log cabins and indigenous people looking for rides.  This area was home to the Tarahumara (or “Raramuri” as they call themselves) people, famous for trail running (check out the book Born to Run) and the women’s colorful skirts.  Supposedly it is also a hideout for many narcos, as we were advised by our Mexican friend from the area keep to the main road.  We headed for Parque de Aventura Barrancas del Cobre, the adventure park, and stopped about 10km out to check out a mirador (view point).  The view was grand, reminding us of the US southwest with its pines and high desert colors.  There was a family of indigenous people selling pretty jewelry, woven blankets, and baskets made from maguey leaves.

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Up ahead was the park.  We paid 20 pesos each to enter and were left off at the lodge overlooking the canyon.  He was were you found a restaurant/bar, many shops, along with the “adventure” part consisting of a seven-zipline route with hiking, a rappel and ropes course, and the world’s longest zipline that took you three km into a point in the center of the canyon.  From there you rode back to the lodge on a teleferico (cable car).  Edward Abbey would have rolled over in his grave, but this is Mexico and they don’t always have the same ideas about conservation and such.  To our eyes it seemed like the adventure park actually brought many more tourists (hence more money to the area and the locals) to Barrancas del Cobre than would otherwise come.  Hopefully the increase in tourism is helping with conservation.  The ziplines were quite expensive for Mexican standards and few of the locals we asked had actually tried it.  We ended up buying the seven-zipline and rappel course as a package, and were ushered off to get harnessed up.  First up was a 48-meter rappel onto a ledge below, woo!   Next we followed a path which involved climbing rebar steps bolted into the sides of the rock hanging over gaping chasms, then a rope bridge, a Tarzan swing across a chasm, a four-wire bridge, more rebar traversing, a windblown tightrope bridge about 100ft off the ground, then finally up a chimney.  It was way cooler and more thrilling than we imagined, and the guides practiced safe procedures.

 

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Back on top we were told that the zipline wouldn’t start for 45 min so we would have to wait, problem was that we needed to leave with our driver before then.  After expressing our frustration, they agreed to let us do the ZipRider, the world’s long and fastest (2.5 km long and reaching speeds up to 80mph) zipline for the same price, which we were glad to do!  After waiting behind a family of 16 (it went two at a time and took 2.5 min to get to the bottom), and some standard Mexican slowdowns (they had to wait for the cable car to bring the harnesses back up) it was finally our turn.  Here is a video of our ride!

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The view from the end of the Ziprider

Back up top we looked for our driver, who was nowhere to be found.  We got worried cause we were late, but of course he was just later than we were.  We got some delicious gorditas while waiting.  On the drive back to Creel, we stopped at Divisadero, the main train stop with a cliffside hotel and gorgeous view into the canyon.  Back in town we got some chicken soup since it was cold and had a chill night, buying bus tickets and souvenirs, very glad we had came to this place far into the depths of Mexico.

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Crafts market at Divisadero

Hotel Temazcal in Creel, Mexico

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Hotel Temazcal is a cozy refuge in Creel, easily accessible to all the Copper Canyon (Barrancas del Cobre) activities.  The friendly staff can help you arrange tours and recommend local restaurants.  They also offer periodic “temescal” sweat lodge ceremonies, which we sadly couldn’t try out because we weren’t there on the right day.

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Our room had a comfy queen bed, ample storage space, an awesome loft area with a large mattress (would be great for kids!), TV, bathroom, and super-nice floor heating to keep it nice and toasty.

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The hotel has a DVD and book library you can browse, as well as a common kitchen for cooking and always-available coffee and tea.  Added bonus:  two super-cute chihuahuas, Nacho and her baby Hueso, who will follow you around trying to convince you to play!

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Services:

Free coffee and tea

WiFi

Hot water

Heat

Tourist information

Book and DVD exchange

TVs in rooms

Sweat lodge once a week or for groups of 5+ people

Address: Bakusuki S/N
Barrio Campo de Beisbol (Detrás del Centro Avanzado de Salud)
Creel – Municipio de Bocoyna
33200 Chihuahua

Phone: +52 635 4560990

Email: info@hoteltemazcal.com

Website: https://www.hoteltemazcal.com/

Prices:  Single or Double- 500 pesos

Family Suite- 700-1200 pesos

A New Adventure, Day 1: San Diego to Creel

We woke up at the crack of dawn without getting much sleep because we were so excited to finally put our backpacks back on and do some adventuring!

I feel like I’m finally doing what I am meant to do again!  It’s been a long year and half of helping other people travel (my job is Assistant Manager at a hostel), feeling a little bit more bored by the routine of it every day.  I’m happiest when I have a light pack on my back and a plane ticket in my hand!

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There is now a pedestrian bridge (Cross Border Express) from the San Diego side of the border into the Tijuana International Airport.  The cost is $15 per person, but it’s super convenient as opposed to crossing on foot and having to take a Mexican taxi to the airport. I slip in and out of sleep on the flight from Tijuana to Chihuahua, catching glimpses of the turquoise-blue passage over the Sea of Cortez, then dry, craggy, cardboard-brown mountains jutting violently out of the flat, barren desert.

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Chihuahua at first glance seems like the Wild West of Mexico.  Lots of men wearing owboy hats and giant belt buckles, very few gringos.  We had  to use an ATM to withdraw pesos because there was not even a “casa de cambio” in the airport.

Chihuahua is close to Juarez and the landscape reminded me of the scary, violent scenes from “Sicario” as we rode into town on a taxi.  I think it’s much safer, although not very touristy.  Our friend from here warned us to stay in the main tourist town of the Copper Canyon (Cañon del Cobre), Creel, and not spend any nights in the small villages, as that’s where we could get kidnapped.  Creepy.

Our taxi quickly dropped us off at the office of Autotransportes Turisticos de Noroeste.  The ticket saleslady said something about our trip being slow but our Spanish was not up to par enough to understand why at that moment.  On the bus, the city ended quickly and we rolled through open desert with mountains in the near distance.  About an hour outside the city at the first toll plaza we saw the protest.  People and trucks were blocking the highway in both directions.  Apparently the price of fuel had been raised 20% overnight and everyone was mad.  We had to wait about an hour before they let our bus through.  The bus was slow and we had to wait at another roadblock; the mountains got bigger and trees started replacing the cacti as we got higher.  It looked a lot like northern Arizona.

After roughly seven hours (should have only taken 4.5) we rolled into Creel, a cold and sleepy town after dark.  Hotel Temescal was welcoming and warm, with super-cute Chihuahua pups to play with!  Some authentic food at Restaurante Veronica was exactly what we needed.  Zach got “El Norteño”, a cast-iron skilled of beef, cheese, and veggies, a traditional local dish.

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Hueso, the cutest little Chihuahua in Chihuahua!

We dropped into bed early, happy to have made it through our first big travel day and ready for more adventures!

San Jacinto and Idyllwild, California

From our campsite we looked down over the dusty towns of the Inland Empire, imagining their residents choking in the thick layer of smog that was ever present.  But the air on the mountain was clean and as the sun set over the desert below, the stars shown brightly down on the lights of the towns, like scars strewn across the desolate landscape.  We went to bed early as we sometimes do when camping, not having brought firewood and wanting to wake early to hike the peak.  We left the cover off the tent so we could fall asleep under the stars in the brisk mountain air.  Peaceful dreams came fast.

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We stayed at the Marion Mountain Campground.  There were only a few other people staying there, all quiet and keeping to themselves.  We picked site number 8 because it overlooked the valley.  It wasn’t a very shady spot and didn’t have trees for our hammock, but the view was worth it.

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We made some breakfast in the morning and decided NOT to go on the 12 mile round trip hike to the summit of San Jacinto Peak.  The weather man was predicting possibilities of rain and being caught on a giant mountain in a thunderstorm is not one of our favorite things to do.  So we went to the ranger station in Idyllwild town and they recommended the Deer Springs Trail to Suicide Rock, a more manageable hike to some white rocks overlooking town.

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The hike was moderate and peaceful, with only us on the trail.  Lizards of various sizes ran away as we made our way upwards, there were also birds and chipmunks scurrying about.  Once at the top there was indeed a few perfect places to off yourself.

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I climbed to the highest rock over looking the biggest drop and looked down on the town of Idyllwild, hidden beneath me in the pines.  The iconic Tahquitz Rock was across the valley.  We ate some snacks and took some Go-Pro shots.  We started back down with a lot of morning left and were down the hill before noon, glad that we didn’t do the big hike.

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The Idyllwild town monument

Our car took us back to town where we grabbed some tasty sandwiches at Idyllwild Bake Shop & Brew.  There were lots of interesting people walking around; climbers, outdoors people, Asian tourists, old hippies.  We checked out a few of the smalls stores.  They had few customers but very friendly shopkeepers.  We especially liked the pet shop where the owner told us that Idyllwild was the most dog-friendly town in America and gave us a magnet of Mayor Max, the golden retriever.   We were tired from hiking and wanted to take our boots off, so we headed back to camp and relaxed for the rest of the day.  The city life had destroyed our connection with nature, so we were happy to take it back for a day.