Home > Travels > Isla Mujeres and Castro’s Kingdom

Isla Mujeres and Castro’s Kingdom

August 3rd, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

Our first order of business upon landing in Cancun was to hop a ferry over Isla Mujeres, which translates as “The Island of Women”1.  Our friends are house sitting on the island and were able to put us up for the night.  Like Tracy and I, Anne and Mike are world nomads, but in their case it is indefinitely so, a fact which I find delightfully hard core of them.

Our “hop a ferry” motion was actually a 7 hour journey from the moment of stepping off our plane, consisting of immigration, customs, a bus wait, a bus ride, a taxi ride, a ferry wait and ride, plus a few errands.  Accordingly, our friends were so very much the welcome sight when we arrived around 9:30pm.  The upside to the long travel day is that I slept like a baby on the futon in their delightfully appointed (yet wickedly warm) living room that night.

The next day was a very vacation-like day of island life.  Breakfast consisted of exceptionally delicious coconut pancakes at a place called the Mango Cafe.  Midday was a jaunt to the beach featuring every aspect of perfection you would expect in your standard issue platinum-grade beach: white sand, turquoise waters, palm tree shade, and guacamole & beers never more than 100 steps away.  Evening was burritos on the street-facing terrace of a restaurant located on what I would call “tourist row”: the pedestrian street lined for blocks with lovely street-facing restaurant terraces.  Night featured beers under the stars whilst on the rooftop terrace back at the house.  A perfect day in paradise, and our hosts, as folks who have been living outside of the US since December, were the perfect people to spend the day swapping stories, perspectives, and ideas as we embark internationally.

A word about outdoor showers: they are one of the most delightful ways I think one can experience running water.  On the rooftop terrace of their house, there is an outdoor shower.  Third floor, above the tree line, and with views of the Caribbean Sea to both the east and the west.  If you ever have the opportunity to take an outdoor shower in the tropics, especially if elevated views of nature are involved, do it.  It is brilliantly refreshing, a veritable communion with Earth and its majestic scenery.   When a bird squawks in the distance, it’s like being cat-called by God.

The next day our gracious hosts dropped us off at the ferry as we set off for the Cancun airport once more, this time to fly to Cuba.  Now then, it turns out that going to Cuba is, well, kinda frowned upon by the US state department.  So we didn’t actually go.  Nope, during that week we had earmarked for it, we just laid low in Cancun.  Fortunately for this narrative, however, we met a couple named Ron and Jaycee who just went there and told us all about it2.  So I’m going to co-opt Ron’s story and use his words as my own to describe what he saw and experienced there.

Our first impression of the efficiency of Cuba’s industry was a poor one: our Cubana Airlines flight was, after a gradual sequence of push-backs to the departure time, 8 hours late.  This got us into the country with a local time of 1am.  Add on the usual dance of entering a country and it was 2:30am when we left the airport.  Finding a taxi was no problem, and after piling in with another couple we met at the airport we headed off into Havana.

At that early hour the Cuban countryside had a peaceful, almost magical feel to it.  The air was sweet from the nocturnal perfume of tropic vegetation.  Our cab driver narrated with prideful knowledge the make and year of the numerous classic cars we passed: a ’48 Chevrolet here, a ’54 Chrysler there, and so on.

“Where are you staying?” he asked us.  “No idea: a friend recommended we start at the Hotel Nationale, but since it’s so late we wouldn’t get to enjoy it much.”  It was one phone call and about 45 seconds later he said “I’ve got you set up at a Casa Particulare3, I’ll drop you right off.”  Ten minutes later we pulled up to an unassuming 4 story apartment building whereat a fellow in his mid-40s was sitting on the steps.

After paying the fare and bidding our companions safe travels, we were quickly escorted in and up the stairs by our host, Jaime.  In his 4th floor home we met his wife, Katty (pronounced Katie) who eagerly greeted and welcomed us with energy and awakeness seldom to be expected for strangers barging in at 3am.  We were shown where to find water in the kitchen and then swiftly escorted to our room, complete with wall AC unit and its own connected bathroom.  After being bid goodnight we breathed a collective sigh, and admired how refreshingly simple and nice it was to make such a smooth landing into an above-average foreign country, especially at the late hour and having made zero preparations.

The next day was a joy.  Our hostess laid out a varied spread for our breakfast, consisting of guava, mango, cucumbers, eggs, fried pork, juice, coffee, bread and butter.  Our host then walked us out street side and got us a taxi taking us to central Havana.

After changing money in one of the hotels on Parque Centrale, we were relieved of our first peso by way of a photo op with a compelling Castro4.  We wandered the tree-lined plazas, took in the architecture and well-preserved cars from the 40s and 50s, and marveled the degree to which being here was like stepping back in time.

After a ride on the top level of the obligatory double-decker sight seeing bus, taking in all form of tastefully executed nationalist propaganda (turns out they’re still really big on Che here), we stopped in a cafe for a snack and our first sampling of Cuban rum.  It was, much like the many to follow, about the best mojito I’ve ever tasted.  I’m usually a vodka man ma’self (it just agrees with my system much more than any other), but Cuban rum to me was uncommonly good, in all categories of taste, buzz, and the feeling afterwards.

In our inspired state we walked 150 paces to the waterfront, a lengthy series of rocky outcroppings that, amid the milder setting sun, was dotted by hundreds of locals reveling in and around the water.  I was content to just sit and watch from my little patch of rock, enjoying the cool air and happiness about.  My love meanwhile struck up a conversation with a local, a sort of language exchange wherein he practiced his English while she practiced her Spanish.

When the sun hung low and dinner time felt near, we wandered along the waterfront in search of a suitable venue.  We soon noticed a restaurant visible only by its second floor veranda, and decided it would do.  A great find: setting sun, sea breezes, then candle light marked our meal.

That marks the gist of our first day.  I would love to tell you that the remaining 4 were quite so charmed, but our experience fell sharply from there.  To illustrate why, I’ll enumerate the conditions which I feel are necessary in order to have a really good time in Cuba (as opposed to offer up a string of whiny tales of what exactly disenchanted us, which I could also do but I think few would care to read).

Here they are:

1. A really good handle on Spanish.  We’re historically pretty solid with our ability to comfortably get by in Spanish speaking countries, but the Cuban accent is different enough to be quite disorienting.  We found even our hosts to be quite difficult to understand for all but the most basic things.  Furthermore, strong Spanish would make a fine defense against gringo taxing which, in Cuba, we found to be well above par rampant.  Over charging and “accidental” short changing happened with almost comical regularity.

2. Plenty of money and ability to access it.  Our Casa Particulare was about $35 US a night, but got old after a while (you’re essentially someone’s house guest).  Not caring about money would have meant some fancier hotels and going out to nice restaurants or clubs, which would have been nice: the novelty of Cuba wore off by about day two, when it then became clear we were in just another Central American city with its fair share of poverty, decay and pollution5.  The problem is that, for a US citizen, what you’re willing to pack in cash is all you have to work with: there’s no way to get more when you run out, because your credit or ATM cards can’t be used.  Accordingly, we felt compelled to be ere on the conservative side in our budgeting.

3. Native family or friends.  There are actually two distinct currencies in Cuba: one for the tourists, and one for the locals.  Pricing is way different between the two,and it seems to split the country by its commercial offerings into two separate worlds.  It could be merely a lack of savvy on our part, but this seemed to make the tourist bubble quite difficult to penetrate indeed.  Knowing a native I think opens up much more of Cuban culture, beyond what is setup as for tourists to play (not that that’s not great, see again my account of our day one).

If you meet at least two of these conditions, you’re probably all good to go.  If you meet only zero or one of these conditions, you might want to skip Cuba: it just got old for us quickly, and thus we wouldn’t recommend it to a friend.

Further damning to Cuba (though certainly not fair as this certainly needn’t apply to everyone) is that our trip ended with me getting sick.  The rounds of marching about the high heat and sun (93F in the shade) while exploring the town found me getting a cold sore on my lower lip, which our hosts reason got infected to subsequently cause my fever and diarrhea6.  On the plus side, they were able to hook me up with a course of antibiotics without batting an eye.  I recovered just in time for our flight back, delayed this time by a mere 3.5 hours.

So that was Cuba.  When we returned to Cancun it seemed positively bright, clean, and modern by contrast.  We were told that we had to go check out Cuba soon, while it was “still all Communist and AWESOME”.  I so wanted to dig on Communism, but alas our rough experience has that desire fall short.

Thanks Ron, for that account.  Looks like Tracy and I dodged a real bullet by being law-abiding citizens!  For photos detailing the country obtained by perfectly legal means, visit Tracy’s blog.

Tomorrow is the fourth and final wedding that Tracy and I are attending this summer.  Time to get my game face on and tend to my preparations: I’m officiating the ceremony.


  1. I like to think that this naming was a smart effort on the part of the island’s tourism board, wishing not to be outdone by Cancun in its promise to collegiate spring breakers of abundant drunken hookups.  (“Hey dudes, we should totally go to the Island of Women!” “Yeah!”  “Woo!” etc. etc.)  I’m fully prepared to be proven wrong on this one: the comically-colored glasses through which I sometimes view the world do but entertain, and are not threatened by contradicting facts.
  2. Like me, Ron is also 6′ 5″, and married his yoga instructor.  Unlike me he and his wife had a General License for academic, research and religious travel, with which it is perfectly legal to visit Cuba.
  3. A Casa Particulare refers to a privately owned home that hosts tourists, as opposed to a public one.  The government of Cuba wants your money if you’re a tourist, thus it is illegal to lodge in just anyone’s home.  Thus your options are a hotel, a public lodging house, or a registered Casa Particulare.
  4. I have digitally altered Ron in that photo to look more like me.
  5. Incidentally, there is a real downside to the abundance of really cool classic cars.  Whether you like or hate the environmental lobbying groups that have passed the host of mandates on clean emissions for automobiles in the US, a trip back to a land of abundant 40s- and 50s-era cars makes it clear that those mandates are, well, kinda nice.  Formidable clouds of smog bellow from each car’s tailpipe as they accelerate from a stop, and the net effect is evident to anyone breathing within 30 feet.
  6. My friend succinctly summarized my situation as being trapped in a “Communist Herpes Deathtrap”.  Not a kind or even fair phrasing, but hilarious enough to include as part of the poetry of this report.
Categories: Travels Tags:


  1. August 7th, 2012 at 15:49 | #1

    My thanks to Ron for his account of travel to Cuba. I have always wanted to go and this satisfied my curiosity. If someone using my name ever travels to Cuba it will be a case of identity theft.

  2. Aprille
    August 7th, 2012 at 16:17 | #2

    Wow – so glad for this account. I’ve always been curious about going to Cuba – especially since we’re not “allowed” as the rebel in me says “oh really? and who says I can’t?”.

    I’ll stick to the more diversely scenic and cultural adventures in other parts of the world that are on my bucket list.

    BTW – #6…hilarious is right!

    Off myself on Friday to Cancun. My first time. Looking forward to the beauty and peace of it. I’m not much of a beach bunny but the resort looks gorgeous and I’m sure I can find something to do when I don’t want to sizzle under the Mexican sol!

    Hugs to you both!
    Looking for your next post…

  1. No trackbacks yet.