Week 51 – Varadero, Cuba to Quito, Ecuador

This week we realised that we haven’t properly backpacked since August 2016, and I think it’s going to take a week or two to get back into the swing of things. All around North America we were spoiled by having a car where we set the GPS and we were on our way. We’ve taken two flights this week with many more to come (much to Anna’s delight!). The most enjoyable flight of our whole trip so far was the early morning flight from Havana to Quito which required us to be at the airport at 3:20am. Sleep is overrated.

Map 51
Our travels this week – pretty much straight south!

It was sad leaving Anna’s parents house. After six weeks we were ready for the next adventure, but I really appreciated the opportunity to get to know Anna’s parents better. They didn’t kick me out after the first week so I’ll take that as a good sign. At Toronto airport we had our last Tim Horton’s coffee and donut, marking the end of Canadian visit. The three hour flight to Varadero was nice and easy, followed by a rather exciting taxi ride from the airport as we overtook every car, truck and bus in sight.

Cuba wasn’t on our list of places to visit, but when Anna’s brother Tom advised they were going to stay at an all-inclusive resort for a week, we thought we’d crash the family vacation. I first met Tom, Marlena and Gabriel when we stayed with them in Milan in April, and then we stayed with them again in Calgary in October. Surprisingly, they agreed to let us join them once again for our third visit within the year so we booked five nights at the same resort. We stayed at the Bellevue Puntarena Beach resort which was on the western end of Varadero beach. The resort was a bit run down like most of them in Cuba, but it had two large pools and beach frontage.

The weather wasn’t the best for the first two days being mostly overcast with windy gusts and the occasional shower. It’s funny how the weather affects your view on things because we seemed to be more critical of the state of the resort and the food. Once the weather cleared up and we were able to enjoy some sunshine our outlook improved significantly. Except for the coffee situation. It was impossible to find decent coffee at the resort, with it normally being lukewarm and weak. How I longed for the hazelnut roast with half n half (coffee cream) that we’d been drinking for the last six weeks!!!

I didn’t leave the resort for the five days we were there, with the exception of walks along the beach. I was enjoying the sunshine and warm weather after our snowy escapades in Canada. Anna and Marlena had a girls day out on Monday and went to Havana to look around the old town. I invited Anna to have her first go at writing something for the blog, but she politely declined. She has included some pictures down the bottom with captions.

So most of our time was spent between the pool, beach and buffet which was fine with me. All-inclusive extends to alcohol but surprisingly I didn’t drink too much. Their strategic manoeuvre of serving beer in 8oz cups proved successful, because after a few drinks you wouldn’t feel like going back to the bar. The crazy Russians found a way around that, they’d either ask for 8oz cups full of straight spirits or they’d ask for drink bottles to be filled with beer. On a whole the other guests were pretty good, it was just a couple of Russian groups that were there to get wasted. It didn’t bother us though, if anything it provided some entertainment.

Speaking of entertainment the resort had a nightly show which varied from dancing to live bands to sport. We went to one of the Cuban dancing shows which was hilarious because all the oldies jumped up on stage to give it a try – not so successfully I’ll add. There were other activities planned each day but we were too cool for that. We were enjoying spending time with Anna’s nephew Gabriel at the pool or beach. On our last day we went out on the catamaran for a quick sail around the beach. It would’ve been nice to go out every day but the wind only settled down just before we left.

Sadly it was time to farewell the Guzowski’s and head to Havana in preparation for our flight to Quito. Since we had a 5.20am flight we stayed in a small homestay right next to the airport. We managed about 4 hours of sleep before the alarm went off at 3am so that’s better than nothing. The plane was only 20% full so I found some empty seats and managed another hour of sleep. It was a bit bumpy so Anna white knuckled it and didn’t sleep a wink.

When we arrived in Quito we were impressed with how nice and modern the airport was. Unfortunately the pleasant feeling stopped there when our bags came onto the carousel and we could tell that someone had been into them. I opened mine first to discover that all the contents had been disturbed and the charging cable for our laptop had been stolen. Next we checked Anna’s bag and she had a small box with jewellery that she normally has in her carry-on but forgot to pull it out in the early morning dash. Well it was gone. Not a huge loss in $$$ but in sentimental value it was very disappointing. Oh well… lesson learned. It seems most likely that the bags were rifled through when they were sitting in Havana airport after we checked them in. We lodged a report with TAME airline but they didn’t seem to care that much.

Our first day in Quito was spent racing around travel agents looking for a last minute deal for a Galapagos cruise tour. There are plenty of agents in town but they all seemed to have varied pricing and just when we’d settle on a boat someone else would swipe the cabin before we could lock it in. We ended up booking a 5 day cruise on a luxury class boat for a good price. We would’ve liked a longer trip but availability was disappearing quickly so we had to lock it in.

Our second day in Quito was spent racing around banks trying to get our hands on cash to pay for the boat. The agent charged 8% surcharge to use a credit card so we were motivated to do our best to get our hands on cash. We went to different banks but none were able to withdraw funds from our account. After calling our bank in Australia asking them to raise our withdrawal limit we were able to scrape the money together with 7 atm withdrawals on 4 different cards and exchanging some currency. It was stressful but we made it work.

Today is our last day in Quito and we were finally able to do some proper sightseeing. First we went up the Teleferico which is a gondola that climbs up the side of the Pichincha Volcano. Quito is already the highest capital city in the world with an elevation of 2,850m but the gondola takes you further to 3,945m. In a way it’s a blessing that we were occupied for the first two days sorting out the boat because it helped us to acclimatise to the altitude before heading up further. The ride up provided an excellent vantage point of the city and how it has sprawled along any relatively flat area. The city is surrounded by beautiful mountains. We hiked up to 4,200m for some photos but that was enough for us, you could definitely feel the effects. The scenery was stunning though and we’re glad we went up.

After this we headed to the historic old town which is UNESCO world heritage listed. The town was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century on the ruins of an Inca city and many of the original churches, convents and plazas have been preserved. Despite the earthquake in 1917, Quito has the best preserved and least altered historic centre in Latin America. Not surprisingly, walking around through the streets took us back to our time in Spain and at times I could’ve sworn we were in Toledo or somewhere like that. I think overall Quito has surprised us with how nice the city is and how safe it feels. There are police everywhere which is comforting. We did the cliché tourist thing and followed the lonely planet walking tour all through the old town and then checked out the crafts market on the way back to the hotel. If we were coming straight home we would’ve bought some things but we can’t carry it around for another 2.5 months.

Well that’s about all I have to report for this week. We fly to San Cristobal tomorrow and start our boat tour on Monday. We’ll have 3 more nights on the Galapagos Islands before we head to Lima so hopefully we’ll have some wifi for next week’s blog post.

Adios amigos,

B&A

Fail of the Week

Having valuables in our checked luggage is probably the biggest fail of our trip so far and one that we definitely won’t repeat. I didn’t realised that a charging cable for our Mac was considered a “valuable” until we had to buy a replacement for USD120! Anna was beating herself up over the jewellery but there’s nothing we can do about it. After almost 12 months of travelling something was bound to happen. At least now we’re more aware for the rest of South America.

Meal of the Week

On our first night in Quito the owner of the hotel directed us to an Equadorian restaurant for dinner. I’d say it was a little too touristy for our liking but the food was very nice. We had Empanadas, potato and cheese soup, grilled sausage and potato and cheese patties.

More photos

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