A Travellerspoint blog

Memphis

"I was walking in Memphis."

Without Elvis Presley, there wouldn't be very many tourists in Memphis. It does have the famous street of the blues on Beale street, but that's about it. We stayed downtown and the city seemed very down at heel. Many shops and even whole skyscrapers were boarded up. It was very quiet.
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Elvis grew up in Tupelo a dirt poor town a little outside of Memphis. One day the young Elvis, working as a truck driver, turned up at Sun Recording Services in Old Memphis and recorded a song for his mothers birthday. It didn't inspire the owner, Sam Phillips, who had a distinct preference for the blues, but the office manageress thought that Elvis 'had something.' I think all the girls know what that was.
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Elvis attempted a few other recordings at Sun but they didn't really make the grade until he tried "that's alright mama." The song became a hit and Elvis was signed to the Sun records label. Sam Phillips would later sell Elvis' contract to 'colonel' Tom Parker, an outright con-artist, as he needed the money to keep his studio running and he preferred blues music anyway. He wasn't to know at that time that Elvis would become the phenomena he was.
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We visited Sun studios and did the tour. It's surprisingly small, but still functions as a recording studio. It was interesting to see and hear all the artists - before and after Elvis - who were discovered by Sam Phillips: Johnny lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and many others.
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That evening we went to Beale Street, the home of blues. The street was on lockdown after a shooting earlier in the week so there was a heavy police presence. Beale Street is Memphis' Bourbon Street, but not quite as good. There's street drinking, cocktail stalls, tourist shops and, of course, blues bars. At least that's what they call themselves. Inside the music was simply FM radio rock and roll favourites. Even BB Kings' band was playing pub rock standards, albeit with a little more enthusiasm. This too was reminiscent of Bourbon Street - New Orleans is famous for jazz, but the bars all played boring ,rock standards. It's was all a little underwhelming to tell the truth so we retired to our dodgy hotel in downtown. We had an early morning appointment with the King.
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Graceland, Graceland,... I'm going to Graceland
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Let's be honest here - we'd only come to Memphis for Elvis. Shelly is a huge fan and this was a pilgrimage for her teenage idol. When Elvis hit the big time he bought Graceland, a suburban mansion on the outskirts of Memphis. The house had been built in the 1930s by a well-to-do doctor. The property came with acreage and was set back from the road so it offered the Presley's some privacy. He moved his parents into the house with him.
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The house was modified over the years, especially out the back, where Elvis built a gym and studio. The house was decorated in excruciating 1970s style - not a good era at all - and this is all preserved as he left it. It's quite a museum of kitsch.
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It's surprising how small the place really is, given today's stars live in multi million dollar mansions. It's really just a modest two storey suburban house by today's standards.
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Elvis and his family are buried in the backyard, beside the pool. I still find it hard to believe he died at 42. That's so young really. But that's drugs for you.
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Graceland is a tourism machine. It makes money like a casino and is a well oiled machine. Apart from Graceland itself there is Elvis' car collection, his planes, his clothes, his archives, a display of movie memorabilia, and much more. Every museum has a gift shop ("exit through the gift shop") and surprisingly every gift shop had differed products.
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I am only a passing fan of Elvis but I found the whole thing fascinating. It's a must see in Memphis. Afterwards we ate a very late lunch at one of Elvis' favourite diners, Marlows Ribs and Burgers, which was filled with Elvis memorabilia and looked unchanged since the day Elvis died. It was excellent. Then we hit the road to Nashville.

Posted by paulymx 02:46 Archived in USA Comments (0)

Vicksburg

"I am following the highways, down the rivers, past the cradle of the civil war. I'm going to Graceland." Paul Simon, Graceland

In 1862 the US went to war with itself. Up until this time wars were fought mainly between armies. Occasionally some towns and civilians got in the way but in the main, casualties were primarily military. The south was primarily agricultural and had a smaller army, while the north has the advantage of men and industrial might. But the south was better led and this was decisive and during the first years of the war the southern armies under Robert E Lee repeatedly trounced the armies of the north. Normally this would have resulted in the defeated party treating for peace and some form of political settlement bringing the whole sorry mess to a close, but Abraham Lincoln was not about to go down as the last president of the United States so he opted for a new strategy. He replaced his incompetent generals with two ruthless men, Ulysses S Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. Grant and Sherman changed the face of war. Grant simply smashed his army against Lees in battle after battle, absorbing catastrophic losses, but never conceding ground as he knew his losses in men and materiel could be replaced, while the Souths couldn't. Sherman led his army down the Mississippi River and burnt every southern city he came across to the ground.
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So, when you read that Natchez and Vicksburg are charming southern towns, know that the authors are lying. Both were burnt to the ground by Sherman's army and have never really recovered.
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Vicksburg is famous as the site of a terrible siege. The Union siege lasted over a year, destroying the city. The signs of devastation are still there to be seen 150 years later. The confederate and union trench lines are now a national monument. We drove through the park, quite startled at the size of the place. Near the Mississippi River is the remains of the USS Cairo (mispronounced by every American there as 'cay-row'), an armoured river monitor. The Cairo was part of the Union fleet attacking the city from the river when she struck a mine and sank. The wreck lay at the bottom until discovered again in the 1960s and was raised and preserved.
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We spent the night in a motel and hit the road first thing in the morning as there isn't anything else to see in Vicksburg.
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Posted by paulymx 10:31 Archived in USA Comments (0)

New Orleans

The big easy....

Part of the reason we chose to stop in Merida was that it had an international airport with flights to the US. We booked a flight to New Orleans via Dallas that should have had us in by about 9.30pm that evening.

Merida airport is very small but we almost missed our flight. Neither Shelly or I heard the call for our flight even though we were sitting right beside the gate. One of the staff had to come and get us and escort us aboard. The stewardess kindly advised the whole plane that "the Markham's' are now aboard so we can take off." It was little embarrassing.

The descent into Dallas was a little rough thanks to a storm system, although the weather around the airport seemed pretty clear. Texas has somewhat unpredictable weather at this time of year. We were expecting the immigration checks coming from Mexico would be painful as usual, but the processing couldn't have been smoother. It was in fact the smoothest we'd encountered in the US, probably because it was largely automated. But arriving at our gate, we were disappointed to discover our flight had been delayed an hour and was due to leave at 9pm. Oh well. We wandered off to the foodhall for dinner - tacos! When we got back the flight had been pushed back to 9.30pm. Great! Then 10.30pm. Now, not so great.

American Airlines handling of the delays left a lot to be desired. The staff continually provided dubious updates and contradictory instructions. Two other delayed flights were directed to the same gate as ours, resulting in total chaos as no one knew which flight was leaving where or when. Everyone was terribly frustrated.

About 11pm American Airlines advised that the plane for New Orleans was ready but they had no pilots and so were flying them in from another airport. The weather had turned by this point so no one knew when they would land. It didn't help ease the frustration. The pilots finally arrived near midnight and it looked as though we might finally get away by about 1am. It was a relief to board the plane at least.

I'm not sure when we left but it was late. I think we arrived in New Orleans a little after 2am, but then - grave disappointment - all our luggage had been left in Dallas. In fact, due to weather problems in Dallas planes had been backed up all day and people's luggage was simply not being shipped. So we joined the 30 other people who's luggage had failed to make the plane filing a lost luggage claim. This took ages because the baggage handlers had actually gone home and the clerical staff had to pack up the luggage rolling around on the carousels because their owners were either still in Dallas or had arrived earlier in the day. What a debacle!
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We arrived at our hotel a little less than enthused at 3.30am. The hotel staff were very sympathetic and helpful, giving us a bag of spare toiletries so that we could at least clean ourselves up, and with that we crashed.

Really New Orleans
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We had a food tour booked at 11am the next morning but our bags still hadn't arrived so we had to rewear our clothes. Disappointingly, the skies opened up with torrential rain at 10am and showed no signs of let up. Our umbrellas and rain coats were in Dallas of course, so we had to buy a couple of ponchos, not that that helped keep us particularly dry.
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After a fraught run across town, ducking from landing to landing to avoid the rain, we arrived at the tour meeting point and... the rain stopped. Thank you God! The tour, led by a retired school principle who shared an equal love of food and history, was excellent, and when we returned to our hotel three hours later we were very pleased to find our bags. Thank you God again!
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That night we indulged in that particular New Orleans tradition of street drinking as wandered Bourbon Street. New Orleans allows street drinking as long as the container is not made of glass. All the bars offer their drinks in plastic 'travellers' cups.
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After a good loosening up we set off to Coops Restaurant. Ten years ago we'd washed up at Coops after a particularly big night, rather tired and emotional and ate what we believed was 'The Worlds Best Fried Chicken in the World.' It was worth the double superlative. Of course, sober heads later prevailing, we could never be sure that it wasn't our hangovers that had swayed our judgement. We were determined to put Coops to the test.
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We arrived to find the place packed and a queue outside. We slipped inside to read the chalkboard menu on the wall and sat down temporarily at an empty 8 seater table by the door. When the waitress saw us she bawled us out for sitting down without permission so we skulked outside. The group ahead of us in the queue, who were about 8 people, were agitating to claim the table. The waitress, who's attitude could be said to be a little 'fiery', didn't appreciate these customers' comments and a furious argument erupted, leading the whole group to storm off. Suddenly we were at the head of the queue - two please! Another couple came up behind us and registered their interest in a table for two, and then we all waited out on the sidewalk. A minute later the waitress came out with a proposition - if we all wanted to sit together we could have the big table, otherwise a table for two could be about 30 minutes. We elected to form a party of four. It turned out to be a very good night. Our table guest turned out to be the lead singer in a band called, 'Cookie Cutter Killer' and he was in New Orleans to celebrate his birthday. We had a night of great conversation and - YES, I am happy to say Coops Fried Chicken IS THE BEST FRIED CHICKEN IN THE WORLD. Their jambalaya is pretty damned good too.
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The next day were a little slow moving so we had a late brunch and cocktails at Napoleon's, one of New Orlean's oldest bars.
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Then we wandered into the newer part of town to visit the National World War Two Museum. The museum gets saturation advertising in New Orleans, especially the 4D movie presentation "Beyond all Limits", narrated by Tom Hanks. Unfortunately, neither the museum, nor especially the movie, are very good. Both provide a very propagandistic and factually incorrect interpretation of World War Two. The movie is, I would say, pretty dreadful and Shelly fell asleep within minutes, that's how bad it was.
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That night we hit a tiki bar for the usual lethal cocktails and walked away with a set of glasses - something else to pack in our bag!
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The next morning we moved hotels. We'd decided to stay another night to make up for the one we lost because of the flight. The second hotel was near to the World War Two museum so it meant another trek across town - so we took a cab. The Old 88 was a magnificent restoration of an old warehouse and quite spectacular. When we got into our room (early) we were kicking ourselves that we didn't choose this hotel first off. We'd looked at it several times on Booking.com but always thought it was a little too far out. It was, but it was so good it made up for it. It was also just across the street from a Popeyes, so lunch was sorted!!
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Why is it that Australia only has the shittest American fast food, like McDonalds and Burger King, while great fast food chains like Popeyes don't get a look in?
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We shopped, wandered the streets, visited the garden district and generally wore ourselves out before we headed into the Jazz bars at xx that night. I was wearing my bowling shirt with the naked lady and got grabbed by a couple of burlesque dancers who were spruiking for a show. I was keen but Shelly wasn't so much :(.
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The next day we picked up a hire car from Europcar, just up the street from our hotel. It was time for a road trip!

Posted by paulymx 14:15 Archived in USA Tagged new orleans Comments (0)

Mexico

Reprise

We returned to Cancun from Havana but stayed in the Mexican part of the city near the bus station. The hotel, although cheap, was new and luxurious. Unlike the resort area, this part of the city was bustling with real life. Mexicans are very social and family orientated and the nearby park was filled with families and food stalls so we wandered around and had some street food. The food was great (except the sweet corn coated in sour cream and cheese - that was just too much!). It was great to appreciate the simple things.
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The next day we took the bus to Valladolid, a 'hero' city of the revolution. The population is primarily Mayan and we felt a little giants. The weather was stinking hot and walking the streets was exhausting. Near to our hotel was a large cenote. You can visit and swim but we chose to simply sit at the restaurant and observe - our lunch was so enormous we'd probably have sunk straight to the bottom had we gone in.
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We wandered the streets, admired the cathedral and did some souvenir shopping. I bought an embroided Mayan shirt, which I thought looked great but Shelly remains rather dubious.
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During the evening we walked down to the old monastery of San Bernadino of Siena to watch the nightly light show. The narration was in Spanish but the gist was easy enough to follow - times have been generally tough for Valladolid. The Spanish conquerers oppressed the Mayans of the Yucatan, which resulted in several peasant revolts, which were brutally suppressed. In the later 19th century Valladolid was the centre-point for the anti-imperial revolution, which bought more conflict and destruction to the area. After the overthrow of the imperial government, Valladolid became an industrial and agricultural centre, before becoming the cultural capital of the region it is today.
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We considered several destinations after Valladolid, but the constraints of time, distance and money meant Merida was only really viable destination. We'd visited Merida 10 years earlier and had liked the place alot. We did several day trips from there, including the magnificent Mayan temple complexes at Chichen Itza and Uxmal and a trip to see the flamingoes at Celustun. This time we were just going to take it easy.
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As in Valladolid, the weather was shockingly hot and stifling. Shirts were saturated through moments after venturing outside. Foolishly I suggested we walk from the bus station to our hotel as I'd misread the map and thought it was only a few blocks. It proved to be more than ten blocks. Fortunately the hotel had a pool so we went straight in to cool off.
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Our time in Merida was largely spent looking for souvenirs and wandering around looking for restaurants. There are a lot of restaurants in Merida taking a contemporary spin on Mexican staples and the food is excellent.
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After a couple of days it was time to bid Mexico adieu. I miss Mexico, the vibrant pulse of life and its amazing food. I don't miss the heat though.
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Posted by paulymx 02:29 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Cuba

Land lost in time

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Our Cuba trip was organised online as we could not find any travel agents able to assist. We booked a one way flight to Havana and two nights accommodation at the Hotel Plaza. We'd stayed at this very hotel last time and although it looks beautiful, knew it was pretty run down, but it was one of the few Havana hotels you could book online.

Havana is famous for its old cars and one of the first thing we noted was how many more there were on the road. 10 years ago they were scattered about the city, often derelict and seeing one driving was something to note. Now the streets were full of them. Raoul's economic reforms allowing people to use their vehicles and houses for tourism purposes has been an incentive to Cuban vehicle restorers. However, not all cars are what they seem to be. Many an old car is actually a body transplanted onto a modern car chassis and engine. We drove in a 1957 Ford Customline powered by a four cylinder Toyota engine. Raul's reforms have done much good to give Cubans a new source of income and incentive to keep so many old cars on the road, but it does have its own negative effect. You cannot take two steps without someone calling out "taxi!" After a very short time this becomes extremely frustrating.
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The US invaded Cuba in 1898, seizing the colony from Spain. The colony was already run down under the Spanish and the US did little better. The colony was handed over to landed interests and the mafia, becoming a haven for corruption. The common people remained basically serfs.
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Fidel Castro led a guerrilla war against the Batista regime through the 1950s, until president Batista fled the country. Castro implemented a socialist revolution which focused on education, health and land reform for the rural poor. The US has never been able reconciled itself to the Cuban Revolution and attempted invasion, assassination, subversion, sabotage and an illegal economic embargo on the country. Despite this, Cuba's revolution has largely been a success with a first rate socialised education and medical system, second to none in the region - albeit at significant cost.
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Havana
Old Havana is a tourism gem. The sad decay of the old city has a romantic, atmospheric quality (that's great if you're a tourist or photographer but less so if you're a resident). Each street and alley is a photo opportunity. The city's ruin made me ponder the failure of the communist system here in Cuba.
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Several causes are immediately obvious. First, after many of the upper and middle class landowners fled the country after Batista's downfall, the government seized the vacated properties and handed them over to the working class. Many of the new tenants would not have had the resources to maintain the buildings, which progressively decayed. Secondly, the government, which took responsibility for state housing, had more pressing priorities in education, health and defence than ensuring the plaster facades on 19th century mansions was maintained. And thirdly - and most importantly - the illegal US embargo against Cuba has prevented any investment in the country and what was probably seen as a temporary housing measure in 1960 has been maintained longer than it was ever intended.
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However, while pondering the deplorable state of the city it suddenly dawned on me that the condition of Havana was not all that different to the conditions in other Caribbean islands. The islands we'd visited on the cruise were all 'capitalist' but their public buildings were often in similar condition. The difference with Havana was only one of size - Havana is enormous. Living conditions in the countryside were comparable - clapboard and wooden shacks, rarely with glass windows. The difference for Cubans is that they have first rate health care, free education and housing, which most Caribbean islanders don't. It's important to remember.
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After two days in Havana we took a day excursion to Vinales, a national park in the best of the island. I won't say the sights of Vinales are a must see. There is a cave excusion, a giant mural painted on a cliffside, a visit to a tobacco plantation and some great scenery.
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Trinidad
The next day we took a taxi to Trinidad in the south of the island. The journey takes 4 hours and cost us 100CUB each. Four of us were crammed into what I think may have been a Hyundai or Toyota; it was hard to tell as most of the badges were missing. As were door handles, seat belts and air conditioning. It was an interesting drive though. There were lots of trucks ranging the highways; a strange mix of Russian GAZ, Romanian, East German and Japanese vehicles, some new, some very old. Horse carts were common off the highways in the rural townships.
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Trinidad is a pleasant little town on the Caribbean coast full of rough cobblestone streets, pastel coloured buildings and old cars. It's quite different from Havana. We stayed in a hostel; basically a B and B in someone's house. The family had converted three rooms into self contained flats. The rooms were comfy and the hosts enthusiastic and lovely, although they spoke no English and we no Spanish.
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Trinidad was a lovely to wander, but quite hot and the sun was fierce. It was interesting to note that most houses had a full length window opening onto the street enclosed by a wrought iron cage that projected a foot out into the street. The windows had no glass, allowing breeze to enter their homes, but the projecting cage allowed them to see and speak to their neighbours without leaving their home.
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After a night of bar crawling and street drinking we left the next day for the beach resort area of Varadero The travel agent we'd organised the trip through was insistent that we must see Varadero, which is the area most European package tourists visit. In hindsight we'd have been better off staying an extra night in Trinidad.

After breakfast our taxi arrived at the hostel. The taxi representative had promised a modern, safe car with functioning seat belts, and airconditioning. The car that was presented to us was anything but. It was smaller than the previous car and already held two occupants - Ana from Slovenia and Paolo from Italy, who were popping over to Cuba for a quick 10 day trip. We all had large suitcases and we watched in consternation as the rep and driver packed and unpacked the cases into the boot. Despite trying every possible arrangement, there was always one suitcase left over. Never mind! A new taxi was called, slightly larger and the farce repeated itself. After another 15 minutes pushing and shoving all the bags were jammed into the boot, albeit at the cost of breaking a seam on Paolo's bag. Once we settled into the car we realised this car was in even worse condition that yesterday's car. The left hand windows were jammed up (there were no handles either) and the right windows were jammed down. Seat-belts and door handles were missing. Air-conditioning was provided by the missing right hand windows. The driver spoke no English so we all had an animated discussion about the constant lying and misrepresentations of the taxi reps. It's especially galling when one considers that the average monthly wage in Cuba is about 50CUB. This trip was costing us about 150CUB EACH! Taxi drivers (or probably their reps) make VERY good money in Cuba.

Fortunately Ana, Paolo and us all got on well as the trip was about to take a turn for the worst. The journey takes 5 hours and an hour out of Trinidad the driver gets a call. The hostel had called to say I'd left my laptop behind. Shit! I am usually very diligent checking the room when we leave but it had been covered by a pillow that had fallen off the bed. To go back meant adding two hours to journey. Ana and Paolo kindly agreed it was best to go back now and after much debate we did. When we arrived back in Trinidad I thought we'd go back to the hostel but instead we had to deal with the taxi rep who was determined to extort as much as he could from us 'for his time.' We eventually got back to the hostel where the owner's mother happily handed over the laptop and a Caribbean guide book we'd left behind. I told her she could keep the book and she was very happy, giving me a big hug and more business cards "for next time." I gave her a tip too. I tipped the rep too, evidently not sufficiently as he made a big fuss about how much time this had cost him - not that he actually had to do anything - but we finally got away. The return cost us nearly two hours.

Varadero was not worth spending 8 hours crammed in a shitty car with no air-conditioning; although it was a pleasure to meet Ana and Paolo. We arrived at our resort late because no one knew where it was. The resort was probably built in the 1980s for Soviet and East German package tourists and they've barely changed anything since. The room was huge and could have accommodated a whole family. We hit the pool, swam and relaxed.
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We expected that there would at least be a bus or shuttle back to Havana from Varadero (its about 2 hours away), but it seemed we might have been the first people who needed to go to Havana. The hotel staff had no idea and couldn't help so there was nothing for it but to go out and find a taxi driver. Just outside the resort there was a couple of American classics lined up so I walked over to the car I liked most and asked the driver if he'd take us to Havana airport. I was a little surprised when he said yes and asked only 85CUB (I was so used to being fleeced by taxi drivers by then). The car was a 1956 Ford Customline, but now running on a Toyota four cylinder light truck engine. Although this car was old it's doors and windows worked and it was extremely comfortable. He took us along the coastal route rather than the highway so we enjoyed a bit of sightseeing along the way. He got a deserved tip. It was a great finish to our Cuba adventure.
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Posted by paulymx 02:12 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

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