Friday, 30 March 2012

How to Travel Cuba as a Backpacker!

Here are some top tips on how to travel Cuba on a budget:

As the spiritual home of everybody’s favourite Revolutionary, Che Guevara, and one of the last Socialist nations standing, Cuba should be Backpacker gold!

So why isn’t it?

Cuba Travel Guide
Cuba Travel - Viñales Valley
One of the main pre-requisites of a popular Backpacker destination is cheap travel! While Cuba is a relatively cheap country, it certainly isn’t geared up for Backpackers. Fidel’s government makes mucho dinero out of their tourism program, and they want it to stay that way.

At the same time, as you might already know, Cuba operates a dual currency system: the Peso (CUP) for Cubans and the Convertible Peso (CUC) for tourists (affectionately pronounced “cook”). As might have been expected, this has created a situation where CUC is in high demand and the basis for a huge black market. In short, Cubans love the cook. For many, scamming tourists is their primary source of income. Others will simply bombard you with everything from horseback trekking tours to $40 boxes of cigars, and more.

All this combined is why the guidebooks say you’ll need $100 a day in least. Sadly, for the majority of people who travel Cuba, this is actually an underestimate. However, there is hope still! Just as the first backpack-toting pioneers found a way, so shall you. Be smart and follow these simple steps from someone who knows, and you’ll be able to fully enjoy Cuba without it breaking your bank:

·         Plan in advance! “Freedom” and “spontaneity” sound fine in theory, but as far as Cuba goes; it’s easier said than done.

·         Bring all the maps, addresses and directions you might need. Eg. tourist information, bus stations, accommodation, etc. It might seem stupid now, but once you land in Havana, with no clue where to go and nobody willing to help, you’ll be happy you took the time to do it.

·         Pack light. Cuba is hot. A light backpack, sensible shoes and some sun lotion will make walking around a lot more enjoyable.

·         Learn some Spanish before you go.

·         Avoid Hotels, which, if you’re reading this, are presumably over your budget. Though beware, once you do this you are on your own. You’ll find there’s little help and assistance available to those who aren’t patrons of the hotels.

·         Stay in Casas Paticulares, the Cuban equivalent of the B&B or Guesthouse, with the advantage of a genuine insight into real Cuban life.

·         Though this might not be the best or the safest advice, unofficial Casas Particulares can be much cheaper (since there’s no cut for the government) and you can also negotiate the price. Just be careful.

·         Ask to boil tap water to refill your bottles.

·         Avoid Internet. It is slow, costs $6 for 30 minutes and is basically non-existent anyway (only in some hotel lobbies)!

·         Avoid “Tours”!

·         Trust no-one!

·         Rum is (almost) cheaper than water! Even the big hotels wouldn’t rip you off for Cuba’s national drink!

·         Get your cigars handmade, from the source (eg.Viñales), for a fraction of the tourist prices.

·         Unfortunately, Cuban “supermarkets” are not for tourists, but be sure to pop your head in anyway. Honestly, you haven’t lived until you’ve been in a Communist supermarket!

·         Though you’re not allowed to take the same intercity buses as locals, buses are still pretty cheap. (Still, prepare to pay ten times more.)

·         Despite what some people say, it IS possible to walk to Havana airport, or take a cheap bus some of the way. Otherwise it’s a $20 taxi ride, minimum.

·         Be open-minded and relax!

·         P.S. Don’t forget the $25 departure tax.

Or, if you don’t fancy all that, and you want to make the most of your time in Cuba, there are some new companies like Holiday n Adventure that offer considerably cheap Cuba tours. That way, everything is taken care of for you. It’s not really backpacking, but then what the hell, some people aren’t Backpackers.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

I've Been Through the Desert on a Horse with No Name

The flight attendant woke me and kindly offered a row to myself, in the back. A look at the poor couple beside me and all was clear. It seems I'd fallen madly asleep on them, drool included. How embarassing.

Still, a free row to myself.

I hadn't slept more than an hour in weeks. But now I'm on holiday...and I don't know when I'll be back.

I had a beer in the airport bar (tipping - that's going to be a bitch) then stepped out into the warm, Los Angeles evening. I watched the creamy tricolour sunset slide down the sky, tasting the sweet rose red and feeling the cool deep blue. Magical. Surreal. Like it or hate it, there is nowhere in the world like LA.

About then it hit me. Up until then there had always been one obvious path in my life; a right and a wrong choice. Now, suddenly I was overwhelmed with the infinite possibilities. Perhaps this is what real freedom feels like? I didn't know what to do or where to go.

Then my brother (I hadn't seen him since I was a young boy) rolled up in a polished black BMW and we raced off through the maze of freeways and the LA night.

My brother came here looking for the American Dream. In England he was a nothing, he tells me. Here he has the car, a Hooters girl for a girlfriend, and a big house in the hills, with sprinklers and constant sunshine and all the things people dream of. We talked about the cost of tyres for the BMW.


I woke up, with no idea what time it was. It felt good, not having somewhere to be.

David, a family friend and nicest guy you'll ever meet, showed up and took me in search of bikes. By the end of the day I'd bought, registered, insured and AAA'd an immaculate Honda Shadow. 1100cc. Silver. Low mileage. Original owner. The guy had really looked after it. Finally though, being to old and too sick to ride anymore, he wanted it to go to a good home.

"Just wait one minute!" He said, when he heard about the trip I had planned for it, and disappeared into the house.

A few minutes later he came limping out again with a bundle in his arms. Helmet, leather gloves, jacket, riding shades, waterproofs, and a whole host of cold weather gear. "Here, you'll need these. On the house." A real nice guy. An ex-cop actually. The license plate holder read "Baker to Vegas" - a police and armed forces run. "All the time you've got that on there, you're not gonna get pulled" he said.

We'll see, I thought. I have been known to ride pretty fast.

I thought about christening the bike "Silvia" but it didn't stick. She never did get a name.

Everywhere we went, david told people about my trip, with much more enthusiasm than I could manage. "Isn't that just every man's dream," he'd say. "To just take off on a motorcycle around America!" That's how I'd felt about it in the beginning. But now it had begun, all I could think about was how I didn't want it to become a handful of memories, dead and gone, a story or two for the dinner table. I wanted to be on the road forever.


Venice Beach
Venice Beach. Artists, musicians, homeless people, jewellery makers, African shamen, medical marijuana doctors, fitness freaks, break dancers, boarders, freespirits demanding hard American dollars for the photo you took with them or the burned CD they forced on you just moments before assuring you it was free. "Donations!" Welcome to America! A guy roller-blades past playing electric guitar in a dashiki with an amp on his back. All kinds of crazy little stalls and stands.

Passing a shop called "Indiginous" something made me stop. It was the first time I'd heard Native American drums, and it stayed with me. In the bookstore I bought a dog-eared copy of Tristessa (yes, a Kerouac fan...big surprise) and asked the girl on the counter if they had anything on Native American culture. She smiled and I realised she was Native American. Pretty too.

Come with me! I wanted to say, but of course I just smiled back and said nothing.

I buried myself in the books instead.


That evening David told me about his own adventures to cool cities like Austin, Albuquerque, Atlanta. He gave me a map of the US and a water canteen.

"This'll save your life," he said. (He was right.)


One night we went out to Hollywood, cruising Sunset Boulevard - "The Strip". In a bar called The Rainbow I met Ron Jeremy, an old "acqaintence" of my brothers. Ron, I was told, is a porn star, famous for being able to suck his own...LA. The centre of the World! Where everyone who matters lives.

On a serious note though, the LA lifestyle was calling to me. I started to see how easy it would be to move here...


Another night in LA. Time is dragging on. It's been almost two weeks and I'm still here. We go to a party in West Covina. I'm not good at parties but I get a "40" of cider in me and I'm good. I swim in the pool, relax in the sun, speak to a guy who's in a tribe, but the best thing I did that day was speak to Holma. Holma's in his 80s and blind, so he looks through you when he speaks to you. He grew up in a small town in Massachusetts. I guess he had to move to California for work or something, but he misses the rushing rivers and the great forests. He lives just down the road and takes me to his garden. It is a jungle of plants and cacti, towering over the fences of the neighbours gardens.

Here he keeps pigeons. Hundreds of pigeons. He has trained them to come to him, to carry messages, and so on. It's a nice place to be.

Back at the party I get drunk and play beer pong and cards and crash somewhere...


In the morning (afternoon, really) I stopped in on Holma to say goodbye, then checked over the levels on the bike, loaded my gear and set off. I had a late lunch with my brother in Hooters on the way out of town. He seemed down about something. Then I hit the freeway and went looking for Route 66.

The city sprawl began to fade behind me, replaced by the golden hills that give California its name: The Golden State...

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

The "Notes from the Road" Manifesto - Welcome!

Dear Reader,
Notes from the Road is something I’ve been meaning to create for a long time; a place to share travel stories, tips and general wisdom, away from the rhetoric of the travel industry. Here, you won’t find anyone trying to sell you a backpack for £1000...just useful advice and inspiring experiences to keep you fuelled whether you’re planning a trip or on the road as we speak.

This blog might be of interest to any of the following:
·         Wayward Wanderers
·         Vagrants
·         Vagabonds
·         Ramblers
·         Rogues
·         Revolutionaries in the Making
·         Exiles
·         Itinerants
·         Nomadic Peoples
·         Travellers
·         Gypsies and Gypsy Wannabes
·         Beats
·         Poets
·         Philosophers
·         Storytellers
·         Buskers
·         Rock Stars
·         Dreamers
·         Drifters
·         Outlaws
·         Bikers
·         Rebels without Causes
·         Hobos
·         Tramps
·         Train Hoppers
·         Hippies
·         Backpackers
·         Restless Souls
·         Procrastinating Students
·         “Creative” people
·         The Bored and/or Curious
·         The World Weary
·         Bohemians
·         Romantics
·         Buddhas
·         Celts
·         Native Americans
·         The occasional Quaker
·         Banditos
·         Night Walkers
·         Drinkers
·         Party animals
·         Recluses
·         Madmen
·         Punks
·         Pilgrims
·         Down and Outs
·         Squatters
·         The Rich and the Poor
·         Hikers
·         Mountain Climbers
·         Lovers and Fighters
·         ...and various other “Open-minded” Persons

As you can see, this blog isn’t exclusive. Nor is it prescriptive. We welcome all kinds of travel and anything that might interest you, though the focus will tend to be on the journey and the act of travelling itself; the interaction with the land, the fleeting encounters and the moments you’ll remember forever, whether of misery or ecstasy!

We hope you enjoy it, and feel free to get involved!