Journey Stage 1: Caye Caulker to Mexico
We learned that the most 'efficient' way to go was to take the daily ferry from Caye Caulker to Chetumal, Mexico, which lies on the Mexico-Belize border. Then we'd hop on a flight from Chetumal to Mexico City. There was one catch - there's only one ferry per day from Caye Caulker to Chetumal, and only one flight per day from Chetumal to Mexico City (or to anywhere for that matter).
The daily ferry leaves Caye Caulker at 7am, stopping in Ambergris Caye. It then supposedly departs from there around 8am for the 90-minute ride to Chetumal. This would have put is in Chetumal around 9:30. The daily flight to Mexico City leaves from Chetumal at 11:20, so we thought we'd be there with time to spare.
Of course, we did not take into account Belizian Time (i.e. the notion that schedules are meaningless). It turned out that the customs guy who stamps your passport in Ambergris Caye had overslept and didn't show up for work until around 8:30. This meant we pulled out of Ambergris about 40 minutes late. To make matters worse, the boat driver told us the trip to Chetumal would take closer to two hours that day due to the windy conditions and passing thunderstorm. We told him about our flight and he promised to do his best.
After a tumultuous ferry ride through very choppy water and rain, we ended up pulling into the Chetumal pier just a shade under two hours later, around 10:30. This left us with 50 minutes until our flight. Next, the Mexican customs agents had to line up everyone's luggage on the pier and wait for the drug dogs to sniff through them all...twice. Then, we had to go through the standard immigration procedure at the pier, which included paying $25 each to enter the country. Fortunately, they brought us to the front of the line due to our flight!
We ended up clearing customs around 10:45 - 35 minutes before our flight. We found a cab driver at the pier who, fortunately, was willing to take US Dollars and also had a heavy foot. He got us to the airport in about ten minutes (we tipped him well!), just as our flight check-in was closing. We made it with literally one minute to spare!
So if you are thinking of taking the ferry from Caye Caulker to Chetumal and then catching the only flight out of Chetumal that same day - YES, it is possible, but NO, we do not recommend it!
Journey Stage 2: Mexico City
Our flight on Interjet was wonderful! They provide tons of leg room and free tequila. We met a really nice lady from Argentina on our flight named Patricia. She had lived in Mexico City for a year and was going to back to see some friends. We spent the entire flight talking about traveling in Argentina and Cuba - she had a lot of suggestions! She also gave us a recommendation on where to eat that night in Mexico City. After we landed, the three of us decided to split a taxi to Zocalo, the historic old town of Mexico City. This is where our hotel was located.
It was supposed to take us 15 minutes to get to our hotel. It took 2 HOURS, and we didn't even get all the way there. We eventually got out of the cab and walked the rest of the way through the jammed packed Saturday markets in Zocalo. This was our introduction to Mexico City traffic, which after all of our travels, now holds the title of the worst we've ever seen. Lesson learned - if you show up in Mexico City on a Saturday afternoon, stick to the subway.
We booked one night at the Gran Hotel Ciudad de Mexico, one of the city's beautiful old hotels. It sits just off the central Zocalo. Here are some photos of the building and the surrounding area:
We took Patricia's recommendation and hit up Cafe de Tacuba for an early dinner. This old restaurant, a few blocks from our hotel, offered a huge menu of traditional Mexican dishes at great prices. After a long day of stressful traveling, chili rellenos, tamales, tacos and guacamole were just what we needed. Mexican food makes everything better!
The next morning we headed back to the airport to catch our flight to Cuba. Fortunately, the traffic was non-existent early on Sunday morning so we made it to the airport in about 15 minutes. We bought our Cuba visas, checked in for our Interjet flight, and soon were off to Havana.
The flight was uneventful, although at one point the crew made an announcement that the Cuban government requires them to disinfect the interior of the plane and its passengers before arrival, in order to eliminate pathogens. Then, a flight attendant walked up and down the aisle dousing everything with some sort of aerosol spray. After visiting 40 countries, this was the first time we'd seen anything like this.
We arrived in one of Havana's older airline terminals. Going through immigration was a little strange, as you are only allowed to go one at a time (usually Chris and I go through immigration together), and you have to go into a small vestibule with the immigration agent where you wait while they examine your documents. If you pass muster, they unlock a door on the other side of the vestibule and you exit. Then the next person comes in.
Once we passed through immigration and collected our bags, we found our taxi driver who had been called by our Casa Particular (B&B). He showed us where to exchange money, and then we were off to our Casa. As a side note, the exchange rates at the airport are among the worst around, so it's best to exchange as little as possible there, then hit one of the official Cadecas in the city later on.
Upon exiting the airport terminal, we saw a small parking lot surrounded by lush green countryside. The parking lot wasn't completely full of old 1950's American cars as we'd hoped. The cars in Havana are a mix of old American cars from the 50's, lots of small Soviet-made Lada sedans from the 70's and 80's and increasingly, small late-model Hyundais and Kias from Korea. There are also a handful of German luxury sedans cruising around. Our taxi was one of the Hyundais.
Casa de Haifa y Pavel
When Cuba was opened to tourism in the mid-90's, there was a shortage of decent hotels available for people to stay. The government's solution was to allow Cuban citizens to apply for licenses to rent out extra rooms in their homes. These houses are known as Casas Particulares. We had done a bit of research online and knew we wanted to stay in the Vedado neighborhood (just west of central Havana) because it's a nice neighborhood that is close to my family and only a short taxi ride from old Havana. We found a place online that had received great reviews called Casa de Ana y Pepe. Ana, who has one of the oldest continuously operating Casas in the city, was booked (as she usually is), but referred us to a house around the corner called Casa de Haifa y Pavel. We booked a room here for just $30 per night. This is about the average rate for nice Casas Particulares in Havana and represents a great value relative to traditional hotels, where prices are similar to those in other countries. And while Casas are a bargain for travelers, they're also a great source of income for Cuban families, who typically earn an average of about $12 per month from government jobs. Best of all, you get to stay with a Cuban family and see what life is like for ordinary people there.
We were greeted by Pavel, who was excited to have only his second set of American visitors ever! He is a biochemistry professor at the local university and hosts frequent classes and study sessions at the house. Pavel enthusiastically showed us to our room. Our place was around the back of the house with its own entrance, terrace, kitchen and bathroom. The room also had A/C, which we didn't need as it got very cool at night.
One night, we all stayed up late discussing the latest American movies and TV shows, about which Pavel and Haifa are much more knowledgeable than we are. Apparently many movies from the US are available in Cuba even before they are available back home. This was just one of many fascinating tidbits we'd discover about Cuba over the coming week.
A couple of nights during the week when we weren't with my family, we ate dinner at Ana & Pepe's house. We had read that the Cuban restaurants can be very expensive and the food is usually sub-par. Ana & Pepe cook meals every night for their guests as well as guests from other casas in the neighborhood, and the prices are reasonable relative to restaurants. So we ate twice with them and got to know them a little better and met other travelers from Hong Kong, Germany and Italy. Like most Cubans, Pepe loves to dance and after dessert he threw on some salsa and gave his guests dancing lessons!
The thing I loved most about Pavel & Haifa and Ana & Pepe was how welcome they make you feel. It reminds me so much of my own family. For example, anyone who visits my grandparents' house is greeted with "welcome to your home in Puerto Rico!". Well, it was the same in Cuba. Both couples insisted we think of their homes as our Cuban homes and by the end of our stay we felt like part of the family.
Stay tuned for the next couple of posts, where I'll introduce you to my family and take you on a tour of the neighborhood and old Havana!