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Oaxaca, Mexico

Oaxaca (pronounced; ‘Wah-haca’) is a city in southwestern Mexico famous for its cuisine, cultures, indigenous peoples and crafts and has been our favourite place on our journey so far. There was a special magic to be felt here and we both got a sense of authentic Mexico. The zocalo (or main square) is the main hub of activity with  local mayan dancers, trumpeters, live bands and jesters entertaining onlookers. Oaxaca cuisine is world famous and many renowned chefs visit the region learning about the signature Mexican dishes that originated here. As agriculture is the primary industry in this region and the climate is favourable, farmers can grow corn, agave, peanuts, coffee and a large variety of fruit and vegetables and there are food stalls dotted all over the city offering up the most delicious fresh produce. We had the tastiest beef tacos here from a street vendor which were cooked as we waited.  Even better was the phenomenally low prices, with 10 tacos costing us a mere €5. A visit to Oaxaca cannot be completed without a visit to the infamous Juarez Mercado in the town centre, an indoor market bustling with people selling just about anything. You’ll find everything from roasted grasshoppers (famous Oaxaca crunchy snack full of protein!) to dried chillies to whole raw chickens to jewellery and handbags.   

One of our treasured memories on this trip so far was definitely our swim in the famous Hierve El Agua. It is made up of two mineral pools sitting on a cliff edge surrounded by natural limestone rock formations. The name in Spanish is “the water boils” relating to the way the water bubbles as it travels through the springs which we were told had medicinal properties for the indigenous Zapotec peoples. It is located remotely so it takes some time to get there but once you hike around the salt waterfalls in the humidity you are certainly ready for a dip in the natural pools. We spent a few hours here as part of a full day tour of the area which included a local Zapotecan family weaving business, Mitla – an ancient archaeological site, a mezcal distillery and Tule tree – the widest in the world!

Highlights:

  • Trip to Hierve El Agua, A MUST SEE!
  • Sample some of the local Mezcal in a margarita
  • Smell and taste the flavours at a street vendor
  • Visit the local Juarez mercado
  • Hang out in the Zocalo at dusk and savour the atmosphere
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Mexico City/Puebla, Mexico

The overwhelming feeling flying into Mexico City from Cuba was one of shock, the sheer size of this place was mesmerizing. We later found out that the population of Greater Mexico city is over 21 million making it one of the biggest cities in the world.However, coming from Europe we recognised many similarities between Mexico city and any other major European metropolis. There is a lot see and do in the city but like any capital, it is full of global multinational companies and financial institutions and so we decided to stay on the open top bus tour for the whole route allowing us to see the city in three hours! Before we arrived in Mexico we were slightly apprehensive about our safety so we did our research on which neighbourhood to stay in. We decided on the Roma area of the city and we felt very safe wandering through this leafy suburb, even at night.The Mexican food was one of the things we were most looking forward to coming from Cuba and we were craving some spice after 10 days of fairly bland cuisine. Our first meal certainly didn’t disappoint, some tasty beef Tacos dripping with spicy salsa verde accompanied by two refreshing cervezas, Corona and Pacifico.Luckily we landed in the city during the build up to Dia De Los Muertos or Day of the Dead. The main Avenue, Avenida Paseo de la Reforma became pedestrianised and numerous colourful exhibits lined the streets. They were all designed by local artists and included some colourful giant skulls and interactive displays. We also visited the Anthropology museum which is in Chapultepec Park. It is the largest and most visited museum in Mexico and it tells the story of indigenous Mexican people from before Columbus to the modern day and boasts many important Anthropological artefacts and relics.  While travelling south towards Oaxaca we stopped off in a nearby city called Puebla. It sits beneath the vast Sierra Madre mountain range and is only two hours from Mexico City. Puebla was an important city in the Mexican War of Independence as it was where Agustín de Itúrbide marched his army into to declare Mexico an independent country. Cinco de Maya also has its roots in Puebla with out numbered Mexican forces defeating the French army on the 5th May 1862. We enjoyed wandering through the streets here and sampling the local mezcal which is a type of Mexican tequila made from the agave plant. 

Highlights:

  • Open bus tour of Centro Historico in Mexico City
  • Visit to Anthropology museum 
  • Sample the local tacos and cervezas
  • Visit to Santo Domingo in Puebla
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Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, a picturesque, colonial town full of colour and life in central Cuba has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988 together with the nearby Valle de Ios Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills).  We loved strolling though the historic centre which is lined with cobbled streets and elaborate buildings. During our walking tour, we were told that Trinidad had 56 sugar mills and as many as 30,000 African slaves working in the surrounding valley durnig the 1800’s. It was a major industry during this era and so the buildings here reflect the wealth of the landowners at the time. On reflection, we found that Trinidad is still reliant on its former glory and the local economy now depends massively on tourism. 

Highlights:

  • Walking tour with a local guide giving us a history of Trinidad’s colonial past and how it compares to life today
  • Visit Museo Historico –  the best views in Trinidad. Climb the spiral staircase to get a picture perfect view of the town to one side and the Escambray mountains on the other. 
  • Visit Museo Romantico – Once the home of a rich sugar baron, this museum showcases various items that belonged to the Brunet family and is another great vantage point of the town
  • Spend a day at Playa Ancon beach for an afternoon soaking up the sun. However, the water temperature is 30 degrees Celsius so don’t be expecting a refreshing dip!
  • The food was surprisingly good here and we had some delicious local dishes. Avoid the tourist traps and do your research when it comes to dining out. We had lovely fresh snapper fish, Ropa Vieja (Shredded beef) and some great homemade hummus.
  • Taste the local cocktail Canchanchara which was the drink of Trinidad in the 19th Century and was used to cure illness. It is made with honey, fresh lemon juice, soda water, ice and of course the most important ingredient, Vitamin R (rum). 
  • Casa de la Musica – Every night at 9pm locals and tourists head to the stone staircase at the Plaza Mayor to grab a drink, listen to a local band and maybe even have a salsa! 
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Cienfuegos, Cuba

Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos, a city named after José Cienfuegos, Captain General of Cuba from 1816-1819  is a city located on Cuba’s south coast.  We stopped here en route to Trinidad to break up the long journey from Viñales. Cienfuegos is an industrial town but the historic centre boasts a number of notable buildings and monuments such as José Marti Park, Cienfuegos Cathedral and Tomás Terry Theatre.  Outside the town centre, you can take a walk out to the Punta Gorda. This is a flat boulevard that leads out to the water and is ideal for watching the sunset. We spent the afternoon strolling through the old colonial streets but we were happy to be just spending a single night here. 

Highlights (Limited):

  • Walk to the Plaza Mayor and appreciate the impressive buildings
  • Catch the sunset at the Punta Gorda
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Viñales, Cuba

Approx 2 and a half hours drive in a colectivo taxi away from the hustle and bustle of Havana sits Viñales, a lush countryside town in the west of Cuba.  Being from Ireland we are used to seeing green fields and agricultural land, however the beauty of this sleepy town rests in its lush valley, vast tobacco plantations and colossal rock formations. Valle de Silencio (The Silent Valley), an UNESCO World Heritage Site is a haven for tourists but also is an important region for many tobacco farmers. The most popular way to explore the valley is on horseback and you can learn en route how a cigar is manufactured, how coffee beans are produced and how local honey and rum is made. We were lucky enough to visit the town on a Saturday night when it was a hive of activity and became fully pedestrianised. Local people set up food and drink stalls along the streets offering freshly made cocktails such as Mojitos/Pina Coladas, fresh snacks such as popcorn and hot food such as pizzas and every sort of pork you can think of!

Highlights:

  • Horseback ride to the Valle De Silencio
  • Try the local Pina Coladas made with fresh pineapples and coconuts
  • Watch the sunset over the Mountains 
  • Sample a local hand-rolled cigar
  • Taste the local organic rum
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HAVANA, CUBA

People talk about visiting somewhere for the first time and how different and diverse it can feel for an onlooking tourist. However, I have travelled all over the world and can honestly say that Havana is the most authentic city I have set foot in. The vibrant colours, sounds of chatter, car horns, music and the distinct aromas wafting through the air stimulate all of the senses. Life here is simple and almost takes you back to an era where social media or image obsession did not govern society. The division of social classes is not as noticeable in Cuba and so most people have a reasonable standard of living.  However, those working in the tourism industry definitely have an upper hand over the government-employed workforce.  Emotion in Cuba is expressed through their music, be it through; dance, singing, playing instruments or just tapping along to the sounds in the street. Havana is a haven for musicians. The streets here though are the real heartbeat of the city and the most enjoyable part of Havana for us was just savouring the local atmosphere. It is a very safe place and walking for 10 minutes down any street you could find kids playing marbles/football/baseball, men selling fruit/meat/kittens/cigars, groups of men playing dominos, women attending their shops and elderly people keeping an eye on affairs from their windows or front porches. Its almost as though life hasn’t changed here in the last 100 years!!

Highlights:

  • Cycling tour around the west of the city visiting John Lennon Park, Revolution Square, Christopher Columbus Cemetery & Habana Forest
  • Historical Walking tour to learn about the rich past of Havana
  • Try the local Mojitos, Cuba Libres or Daiqiuris 
  • Listen to the live Cuban music at Hotel Inglaterra, El Floridita or Plaza Vieja
  • Salsa lesson in Reliquia Bar