Return to Havana

March 10, 2017

After a half day in the Viñales area, we spent the rest of the afternoon travelling back to Havana, with a brief stop at a roadside café. We got back to the Hotel Sevilla at about 3 pm and dropped our bags in our room before heading out for a last look around Havana. We did wander along a few streets we hadn’t seen before, and then returned to the hotel.

Our old Volkswagen!

Our old Volkswagen!

Tonight we were all going out for a farewell dinner, which was planned for the Havana Rum-Rum restaurant. It was located in the Old Town and so was very close to the hotel, and it was very different from the other restaurants we had been eating at. For one thing the tables weren’t wobbly! But mostly we weren’t eating “criollo food”, which is plain food which comes from local farms.

Havana police headquarters

Havana police headquarters

Rosemary had pork chops, which turned out to be pork ribs, and Paul had Octopus a la Gallega. Both were very good. Rosemary’s piña colada was very good too, and Paul’s caipirinha must have been made with strong rum because it almost knocked him flat before the food arrived! But it was a very good Cuban restaurant experience.

Hidden café in Old Town

Hidden café in Old Town

March 11, 2017

Today was our last day in Cuba, and we were leaving early in the morning whereas most of the British contingent were leaving late in the afternoon to catch overnight flights home. So after breakfast we said our goodbyes to some of our group and then went to fetch our bags and check out. We thought we would have time to say goodbye to Ruth, but as it happened our taxi was already waiting, so we were out the door before seeing her.

At the airport, check-in was quick once we figured out which was the Air Canada lineup. Leaving the country was quick too; a stamp in our passport and a return of our visitor visa was all we had to do. Security was likewise very straightforward so we were soon at our gate. We met São there and chatted with her until her flight left.

We also exchanged our remaining CUC’s, which was an interesting experience. We gave the clerk our money and asked for Canadian dollars. But she only had a $100 Canadian bill and we didn’t have enough CUC’s for that. Paul offered a $10 Canadian bill to make up the difference, but she couldn’t do it that way. Okay then, we said we would take UK pounds instead. We can always use them. But no, she didn’t have any pounds. Only US dollars and euros. Luckily we didn’t mind euros, so that’s what we ended up with.

Finally they called our flight—not at the gate the screen said—and we were on our way home. Goodbye Cuba!

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Viñales

March 8, 2017

After a day of driving from Santa Clara, we finally reached our hotel in Viñales, Rancho San Vicente, at about 6:30 pm, and there were already six tour buses parked outside. After signing in we went to our room, which was a sort of row house in a block of four on the far side of the road. The room was well-appointed but some of the lights weren’t working because they were plugged into bad sockets.

Restaurante La Rosa

Restaurante La Rosa

Rather than eating at the hotel, for dinner we walked a short distance along the road to Restaurante La Rosa, a very new-looking place. The meals there were very inexpensive but very tasty, and both of us had piña coladas, which were very good. After dinner we returned to our room to get ready for our day at the beach tomorrow.

March 9, 2017

Going to the beach was something new for us on this trip, but it seems like you can’t go to Cuba without visiting the beach. So we were up early again, so we could get to the ferry before the crowds arrived. We had breakfast, and then we had a few minutes to spare. So we walked down to the little creek next to the hotel grounds, where we watched a pair of Cuban Green Woodpeckers excavating a nest site.

At 8:15 am the bus departed, to take us down to Palma Rubia on the coast. Once there we had about an hour to wait until the ferry left, so we spent the time checking out the fish swimming by the dock and the birds in the nearby fields.

Unidentified fish next to ferry dock

Unidentified fish next to ferry dock

Waiting for the ferry

Waiting for the ferry

The boat left at 10 am and it took a bit over half an hour to cross the channel to Cayo Levisa, in calm seas with no wind. Upon arrival we were given a welcome drink of watermelon juice and then a brief orientation of where things were. Cayo Levisa was a typical beach resort with bars and restaurants and a white coral beach, so we and Ruth found ourselves a palm-leaf umbrella and three lounge chairs and settled down.

Cayo Levisa pier

Cayo Levisa pier

Beach at Cayo Levisa

Beach at Cayo Levisa

We didn’t do much and there wasn’t much to see, so eventually Rosemary went into the water for a swim with Margaret and Fiona, floating around for quite a while in the warm water. But Ruth and Paul never went into the water. Lunch was at 12:30 pm, the usual Cuban buffet lunch. At least it was included in our tour price.

Paul and Ruth on the beach

Paul and Ruth on the beach

After lunch the three of us decided to for a walk along the beach, instead of just sitting around. The high tide mark on the beach had a row of shells, at first just scallops but later snail shells as well, and there were several types of crab. After a while we reached the end of the beach, where there was a sign pointing to “Punta Arena”, so we carried on along a path through the mangroves. It was a nice way to spend the afternoon, rather than sitting on the beach.

To Punta Arena

To Punta Arena

Sponge on the beach

Sponge on the beach

At the point there was a flock of Black-bellied Plovers flying around, and also a group of well-camouflaged Wilson’s Plovers chasing each other around with strange churring calls. There was also a make-shift bar, which actually had a barman who was eager to sell us mojitos and Cuba Libres. We declined those and headed back. The return journey didn’t seem to take very long, which was good because we were getting a bit hot by now.

Wilson’s Plover

Wilson’s Plover

Rather than sitting on the beach we went to sit in the lounge area near the dock. Here it was cool because a breeze was blowing through it. We still had a while before 5 pm, which was when our ferry was scheduled to leave. The return trip was a bit windier; the two of us got a seat on the upper deck but Ruth was on the lower deck and got soaked by a wave breaking over the boat!

Marooned jellyfish

Marooned jellyfish

Back at the hotel we had showers (our water was nice and hot) and then the whole group went for dinner. We decided to go to the same place as last night, and tonight we had a buffet-style meal with plates of various foods brought to our table for sharing. We had a good time sitting around chatting and laughing with everyone. Once done we returned to our room to write up our journals before going to bed at 11 pm.

March 10, 2017

Today was the last day of our tour. But we weren’t slacking off, we had another busy day. Right after breakfast we went on our first excursion, a visit to the Cueva del Indio.

It was just a short walk along the road from the hotel; it wasn’t open when we arrived but José had made a deal that our group could go through early. Soon some of the staff arrived, and our local guide took us down into the cave. This cave was a very large one with well-lit walkways which we followed down to an underground river, where we boarded a motorboat to complete our journey.

Cueva del Indio trip

Cueva del Indio trip

The boat took us for a short tour of the underground river, with the guide pointing out interesting features like the upside-down champagne bottle. It was a nice little trip.

Cueva del Indio exit

Cueva del Indio exit

Then we checked out of the hotel and met at the bus. We were off to Viñales, where we met our local guide and did a walking tour. Here we were in the heart of Cuba’s tobacco industry, where the best cigars come from. Our guide took us through the fields, pointing out various kinds of tobacco plants and explaining the harvesting method. The area is a World Heritage Site, so all harvesting and manufacturing is done traditionally.

Viñales barber shop

Viñales barber shop

We watched the workers harvesting the leaves and hanging them over a wooden pole, which was then hung in a barn-like structure to start the drying process. After leaving the barn we headed over to the farm house to watch the farmer roll dried leaves into cigars. We were given the opportunity to try smoking a cigar too, but let’s just say that neither of us will be taking up cigar smoking!

Harvesting tobacco leaves

Harvesting tobacco leaves

Ruth sampling a cigar

Ruth sampling a cigar

On the way back we stopped at a bar which specialized in Coco Loco cocktails. It’s made by cutting the top off a fresh coconut and adding rum; it’s not one of the better rum cocktails according to Paul, who tried a lot of them. While we were there we were entertained by their pet hutia, who was named Panchito. He was very cute and seemed very interested in some of our day packs.

Panchito the hutia

Panchito the hutia

After a half-hour stop in Viñales we headed out, stopping for lunch at a roadside café named Balcón del Valle. It had a lovely view over the Viñales valley and the mogotes, the bumpy hills around the valley. The sandwiches were not that bad either. But after that the rest of the afternoon was spent heading back to Havana.

Lunchtime view at Balcón del Valle

Lunchtime view at Balcón del Valle

Last lunch of the tour

Last lunch of the tour

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Santa Clara

March 7, 2017

Yesterday was a busy day, but today would be a different kind of busy day; we were up early to have breakfast before our long bus ride to Santa Clara. The trip would take about ten hours.

Sugar cane field

Sugar cane field

So the bus departed at 8 am and for most of the day we retraced our route along the main highway. There was no sightseeing other than out of the bus window, but we did stop every couple of hours to have a break. Some stops were at roadside cafés so that we could buy drinks or ice cream. And we did stop in the midst of all the sugar cane fields to take photos of an old steam locomotive which used to transport cane to the processing plant.

Historic sugar-cane locomotive

Historic sugar-cane locomotive

We finally got to our destination at Hotel Los Caneyes in Santa Clara at about 6:30 pm. After being shown to our rooms we headed over to the dinner buffet. What a spread to choose from! Everything from quails’ eggs to prawns to rabbit. The dessert buffet was equally impressive, with four flavours of ice cream and numerous cakes, and there was even red jello. Sitting in a bus all day plus huge buffet—a guaranteed weight-loss plan!

Hotel Los Caneyes

Hotel Los Caneyes

March 8, 2017

We still had a lot more bus-riding to do, but first we had to see the sights of Santa Clara. So we were up at the usual time and headed over to the (massive) breakfast buffet.

Che Guevara Mausoleum

Che Guevara Mausoleum

Our first stop was the Che Guevara museum and mausoleum in Santa Clara. We arrived just as the museum was opening, so we had the whole place to ourselves. The museum chronicled Che’s life starting from his early childhood, and it had a lot of artifacts and photos depicting him at various stages of his life. He was trained as a doctor, which came in handy while in the rebel camp in the Sierra Maestra; he even did dental work there.

To Victory, Always

To Victory, Always

This was all very serious: no bags, no cameras, no raised voices allowed.

Inside the mausoleum were Che’s remains along with the remains of 37 other guerilla fighters who lost their lives in the failed Bolivian revolution. Outside, it was decorated with scenes from Che’s career, particularly the Battle of Santa Clara.

From here the bus took us to Parque Vidal, where we started a short walking tour. It was here where Che’s troops fought against Batista’s army, who were holed up in a government building. The bullet holes are still visible in the façade of what is now the Hotel Santa Clara Libre.

Hotel Santa Clara Libre

Hotel Santa Clara Libre

Next we walked through the streets to an open-air museum which depicted some derailed boxcars. In the boxcars were photos and descriptions of the battle on December 29, 1958, which was basically the end of Batista’s dictatorship. At this battle Che and 300 young revolutionaries armed with rifles, Molotov cocktails, and a bulldozer managed to defeat thousands of heavily-armed government troops.

Monument to the bulldozer

Monument to the bulldozer

Then it was back into the bus, where we drove through more fields until late afternoon. Then we stopped at the Soroa orchidarium, a welcome break. It had originally been set up in the 1940’s by a Cuban lawyer, and it was preserved intact through the revolutionary period. Our guide led us through a small greenhouse containing numerous orchids from small to large, and then around the paths with more orchids and other showy plants. We also saw some new birds which we hadn’t seen before.

One of many orchids

One of many orchids

View from the orchidarium

View from the orchidarium

We finally reached Viñales at about 6:30 pm.

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Santiago de Cuba

March 5, 2017

After returning from the Sierra Maestra our trusty bus met us at Bartolomeo Masó, and we headed towards Santiago de Cuba, where we would spend the next two nights. The trip took almost three hours and took us along some bumpy highways at first.

Back to civilization again

Back to civilization again

Our hotel in Santiago de Cuba was not in the city centre but on the outskirts, near the zoo. It was the Hotel San Juan, so called because it was on San Juan Hill. This hill is all that anybody remembers about the Spanish-Cuban-American War. We did some laundry and then it was time to go out for dinner.

View from our room’s front door

View from our room’s front door

José had made us a reservation at Salón Tropical, a paladar near the centre of the town with a very good reputation. When we arrived there we were shown to a rooftop patio where a table was set for us. First course was a delicious beef vegetable soup which was so full of veggies that it was like a stew. This was followed by a salad composed of cooked green beans, beetroot, cabbage, and tomatoes. For the main course we both chose sea bass, which was accompanied by sweet potatoes, a mashed potato and vegetable roll, and of course rice and beans. This was artistically presented on a black square plate.

Sea bass for dinner

Sea bass for dinner

And dessert was amazing! A strawberry mousse layered over a kiwi mousse over sponge cake, topped by raspberry puree. So tasty and, once again, so beautifully prepared. It was probably the best meal we’ll have on this trip.

Best dessert in Cuba

Best dessert in Cuba

March 6, 2016

José had warned us that we might hear the zoo’s lions roaring, and indeed we did hear them roaring at 6:15 am. However we didn’t have an early start today, so we slept in until after 7:30 am.

The breakfast buffet was similar to the one we had in Havana, so there was something for everyone. Our bus picked us up at 9 am, and we went over to the Plaza de la Revolución. This square is mostly dedicated to Antonio Maceo, with just a tip of the hat to Fidel Castro; the huge statue of Maceo on his horse is quite imposing but the paved area where people would stand and listen to speeches is smaller than Havana’s. (His horse had two hooves in the air, which by now we had learned meant that Maceo died in battle.)

Plaza de la Revolución

Plaza de la Revolución

Antonio Maceo

Antonio Maceo

We had a short time to wander around here before we headed off to the Moncada Barracks. It was here that Fidel Castro and 118 other revolutionaries unsuccessfully tried to attack the Batista government. There wasn’t much to see here except the bullet holes, since all the barracks in Cuba were turned into schools as ordered by Fidel. Across the street was a row of Art Deco houses which were in very good shape.

Barracks turned into a school

Barracks turned into a school

Art Deco houses

Art Deco houses

Back on the bus, our third stop was the Cementario Santa Ifigenia, where a vast number of Cuba’s heroes are buried. The central focus is José Martí’s tomb, but now Fidel Castro’s tomb has been incorporated. We had a local guide, José, to show us around. First we went to Fidel’s grave; he was cremated and his ashes were interred with a very large granite rock as his tombstone.

Fidel Castro’s tomb

Fidel Castro’s tomb

José Martí’s tomb

José Martí’s tomb

There is an honour guard posted 24 hours per day (three for Martí and one for Castro) and we watched the changing of the guard. With military music playing the soldiers goose-step out; the maximum height for the soldiers is 175 cm so that they will be able to get into the entrance of Martí’s tomb.

Changing of the guard

Changing of the guard

After this the local José led us on a tour of some of the other notable graves. He was very knowledgeable, not only about the cemetery but also about Cuban history. We noticed that this cemetery was more formal than other cemeteries we had visited in Latin America.

Bacardi, the rum dynasty

Bacardi, the rum dynasty

Maintenance men at work

Maintenance men at work

Finally—a busy morning!—our José led us along a shopping street from the Plaza de Marte to the city centre, showing us various small cottage-industry style shops, although the Cubans still don’t seem to be into shopping and there wasn’t anything for tourists to buy. We ended up at Parque Céspedes and were directed towards some places for lunch.

Shopping mall in Santiago de Cuba

Shopping mall in Santiago de Cuba

We decided on the Hotel Casa Granda, which was right next to the park, but it was very busy. So we ended up asking permission to join a lady at her table. It turned out that she was from Santiago de Compostela in Spain, and she was involved with the International Documentary Film Festival which was taking place this week. She wasn’t a film producer, though; she was giving one of the lectures. She must have had a lunch voucher from the festival because she was shocked at the amount of food being delivered to her!

Santiago Cathedral

Santiago Cathedral

Padre Pico steps

Padre Pico steps

We had a while before the bus came for us, so Ruth and the two of us went for a walk, following part of the walking tour from our Lonely Planet book. As in Trinidad it took us through a rather impoverished part of the city. We went down quite steeply through the Tivoli neighbourhood, ending up at the harbour, where there was a small park. Unfortunately there were children begging there. But we didn’t have much time, so we had to walk back up to Parque Céspedes fairly quickly.

Peruvian hairless dog

Peruvian hairless dog

Ship in port at Santiago de Cuba

Ship in port at Santiago de Cuba

Back at the hotel we wrote up our journals for a while, and then went for a walk over to San Juan Hill, which we could see from our front door. This hill was the last battle in the Spanish-Cuban-American War, and since Cuba was Spain’s last remaining colony in the Americas, Spain had to take its ships and go home. Up on the hill there were plaques of various ages, each commemorating a different group of people, but this war seems to be only history now to the Cubans, having been overshadowed by Castro’s revolution.

Statue for the Cuban peasant soldier

Statue for the Cuban peasant soldier

At 5 pm we took the bus out to the Castillo del Morro, a fortress outside the entrance to Santiago’s port, to watch the sunset ceremony. The fortress is a UNESCO World Heritage site and sits atop a 60-meter-high promontory, and the views were lovely overlooking the Caribbean on one side and Santiago Bay on the other.

Santiago Bay

Santiago Bay

Not long after we arrived, the ceremony began. Six men came marching in, dressed in the white uniform of the Mambises, the Cuban peasant militia. Two of the men split off and came up to take down the flag, while the other four primed and loaded the cannon, all with military precision. This was quite a production, and when they finally lit the fuse it seemed to burn for a very long time. So when it suddenly went off with a bang, we all jumped!

Lowering the flag

Lowering the flag

Loading the cannon

Loading the cannon

Sunset from the fortress

Sunset from the fortress

Dinner was in a paladar named Ire a Santiago (whose name might come from a poem by Federico García Lorca). The view from the rooftop was really nice and, unlike last night, it was more protected from the wind. The dinner was okay, better than a lot of dinners we had had, but unfortunately it suffered in comparison with last night’s dinner. But the musicians, a guitar player and two singers, were good.

Dusk at dinnertime

Dusk at dinnertime

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Sierra Maestra

March 4, 2017

The bus met us outside Camagüey’s food market and off we went towards the eastern mountains. We stopped briefly in Las Tunas for lunch and then continued through the landscape of sugar cane and cattle farms towards Bayamo. As we travelled the roads became narrower with more potholes. This took all afternoon, but finally we could see the Sierra Maestra in the distance.

Agricultural advertising, Cuban style

Agricultural advertising, Cuban style

When we reached the edge of the mountains we stopped at the village of Bartolomeo Masó. We had put a small amount of overnight requirements into a day pack and left everything else in our main packs, which would stay with the bus tonight. We, on the other hand, would be whisked into the mountains in jeeps.

Our jeeps

Our jeeps

Well, “jeeps” is what our tour information said. They actually turned out to be vans, brand-new Korean nine-passenger vans! It took about 20 minutes to reach Santo Domingo, our home for the night. At our hotel we were greeted with Cuba Libres and then assigned our rooms. Each room turned out to be a little cabin. Really very nice!

Our cabins

Our cabins

After settling in we walked down to the river, where the water level was really low. However there were numerous Cattle Egrets there and also one Snowy Egret. We went down a path to the river’s edge and found a Spotted Sandpiper and a possible Green Heron, although it flew away too quickly for us to be sure. And just up the river we spotted a Kingfisher. But it was quickly getting dark so we headed back to our little cabin.

Little Blue Heron

Little Blue Heron

Belted Kingfisher

Belted Kingfisher

Dinner tonight was probably our worst so far. Very bland and uninspiring, right down to the canned fruit cocktail for dessert. Paul’s main meal was “tuna”, which was just what it said: a can of tuna, fortunately sans can. Rosemary had pork steak, which became slightly more tasty when dipped in mustard. And we all had boiled bananas, which just weren’t good at all.

Our bathroom lizard

Our bathroom lizard

March 5, 2017

Today was our day to hike to Fidel’s rebel camp. So after breakfast we all squeezed into the “jeeps” and were driven up what they said was the “steepest road in Cuba” to Alto de Naranjo. Here we met our local guide, Jorge, who would lead us to La Comandancia de la Plata, which was where Fidel Castro and his small group of rebels hid out back in 1956.

Sierra Maestra forest

Sierra Maestra forest

Northern (Cuban) Flicker

Northern (Cuban) Flicker

The trail started out through a lovely pine forest and then switched to cloud forest. Jorge was very knowledgeable about both bird and plant life; his English was also really good considering that he was self-taught. It was a fairly easy walk, but it was lucky the weather was dry or it could have been slippery. At the halfway point we arrived at a farming homestead whose residents had helped the rebels hide from Batista’s army. Here we paid 5 CUC for a permit so that Rosemary could take photos while at the mountain hideaway.

Rest area at the farmhouse

Rest area at the farmhouse

From the farm the trail continued downhill for a bit and then we started to climb. The first building we came to was a guard post. Jorge explained the layout of the camp, and then we climbed up to an open grassy area. Castro purposely cleared the trees from this area to simulate a farm, so that Batista’s army wouldn’t target it. The ploy worked because no bombs were dropped in the area.

Guard post

Guard post

Just above here there was a newer building which housed a museum. In it there was an old movie projector, a sewing machine, a typewriter, and other 1950’s artifacts. There was also a 3-D map showing the trails and rebel buildings. Not far away was the house that Castro first used, which later became a hospital and then a storage building. It was here that we finally got to see a Great Lizard Cuckoo. Jorge had seen a pair in the trees, and using his phone to produce a bird call he flushed them out so we could see them in flight.

Museum exhibit: letter from Fidel

Museum exhibit: letter from Fidel

We then climbed a short distance to see that house that Castro lived in, complete with his double bed and a large propane refrigerator. It was quite amazing to see this mountain hideout, still intact after all these years.

Fidel’s house

Fidel’s house

On the way back we stopped at the farmhouse, where we were served a banana and a cup of tea. From there it wasn’t far back to the trailhead. We had heard a pygmy owl on the walk, so near the end Rosemary asked Jorge if he could call one. So he played the call on his phone and, sure enough, one flew in and perched in a tree for us!

Cuban Pygmy Owl

Cuban Pygmy Owl

Then the jeeps took us back down to Santo Domingo, where we had showers and lunch. But much to Rosemary’s dismay there was a tick starting to embed itself on her waist! Luckily we had tweezers with us, and after a few attempts she managed to get it out intact. Lunch was uninspiring, as expected, and after lunch the jeeps took us down to Bartolomeo Masó, where we met up with our trusty bus.

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Camagüey

March 3, 2017

This morning the tent was a bit wet, not from rain but from dew. However the inside was basically dry, except for a few slightly damp things. For breakfast we had scrambled eggs, bread with honey, and tea, and then we packed up our bags and waited for our Russian truck to come.

In the meantime we stood outside watching the birds in the flower bushes and finding some new ones, including Red-legged Honeycreeper and Tawny-shouldered Blackbird. As we were doing that the barman called Paul over to the side of the building to show him a “cabrero”, as he called it. A very pretty bird, but Rosemary hadn’t seen it yet so he called her over. Its English name used to be “Stripe-headed Tanager” but the ornithologists found that it wasn’t actually a tanager so they renamed it “Western Spindalis”.

Western Spindalis

Western Spindalis

Anyway the Russian truck retraced our route back down to the main highway, where we transferred back into our regular Chinese bus, saying goodbye to Topes de Collantes.

Goodbye to Hacienda Codina

Goodbye to Hacienda Codina

From here we continued along the main highway to the Valley of the Sugar Mills, which used to be full of sugar mills until the slaves rebelled and burned them down. But the owner’s mansion was still there at Manaca Iznaga, as was the 42-meter-high bell tower. The tower was built so that the owner could watch over the slaves, and it had two bells, one to tell the slaves to stop working and the other to signal that a slave was escaping.

Valley of the Sugar Mills

Valley of the Sugar Mills

We had a half-hour stop so that we could wander through the craft stalls and then climb up the tower. From the top the view was supposed to extend to the Caribbean, but today it was too hazy to see that far.

Ruth and Paul milling sugar

Ruth and Paul milling sugar

Back on the bus, we carried on for about half an hour to Sancti Spirítus for lunch. Luckily for us it was prearranged that the owner of the Meson de la Plaza restaurant would come to our bus and take our orders. We were surprised that we could get chicken sandwiches from him! So we had another half an hour to wander around the beautiful town before having lunch.

Sancti Spirítus pedestrian mall

Sancti Spirítus pedestrian mall

Schoolgirls in their uniforms

Schoolgirls in their uniforms

We walked over to the main square and then down to the hump-backed bridge the town is famous for, but it was very hot so we didn’t spend too much time in the sun. Our chicken sandwiches came with a side salad, and the band playing was really good, so it made for an enjoyable lunch break.

Wall sculpture in Sancti Spirítus

Wall sculpture in Sancti Spirítus

Parroquial Mayor church

Parroquial Mayor church

The rest of the afternoon was spent on the bus, travelling to Camagüey. As Explore had warned, we had been bumped from the Hotel Colon and moved into the Gran Hotel. Which was very nice anyway. When we arrived the hotel gave us a welcome cocktail, this time a Cuba Libre. Then we got our room keys and headed upstairs to our room where we did chores like charging camera batteries and having showers. Our room had an extensive view over two of Camagüey’s seven churches and a large part of the city, but we found out that other people’s rooms didn’t have good views at all.

Iglesia de La Soledad, Camagüey

Iglesia de La Soledad, Camagüey

Dinner was buffet-style at the hotel and we had piña coladas to start. These rum cocktails are not bad at all! The buffet even had a dessert section, which made it very good value for 12 CUC. After dinner we went up to the rooftop bar to look at the view.

Piña colada

Piña colada

Night view of Camagüey

Night view of Camagüey

The hotel’s guest relations director had told us that there would be a display of “water dancing” at the pool at 9 pm. Not synchronized swimming, she said, this was artistic dancing. So we went along to have a look. It was actually good, three couple who danced in bathing suits in and out of the pool.

Water dancing

Water dancing

March 4, 2017

We had a complicated and confusing itinerary today, because we would be heading into the mountains again. After packing up (in a more complicated way) we had our breakfast and then headed to the bus to stow our bags.

View over Camagüey

View over Camagüey

Next we had a tour around the city on a fleet of bici-taxis, after walking a short distance along the street devoted to movie theatres. Our bici-taxi driver was named Rafael and he and the other drivers took us in a long snaking train through the labyrinth of streets, stopping at various squares. At each stopping place we got out and had the opportunity of wandering around and taking photos.

Riding in a bici-taxi

Riding in a bici-taxi

Back street in Camagüey

Back street in Camagüey

One of the squares had some sculptures around it, which had been made by a local artist, Martha Jiménez. One of them was of three fat ladies sitting on chairs gossiping; it was extremely well done. At Plaza San Juan de Dios we had time to have coffee and look around an area with a few craft stalls. Rosemary bought a handmade clay sculpture of the local church, which came in a handmade customized cardboard box!

Martha Jiménez statue

Martha Jiménez statue

Camagüey’s beggars have caught on to the fact that tourists are being told to take soap and pens to leave with people in Cuba, and they come up to you and ask for those things. We gave one woman some soap outside the Gran Hotel and then she asked us for soap in two other squares. But José said that they have a route through the tourist areas and that she wasn’t actually following us.

Plaza San Juan de Dios

Plaza San Juan de Dios

At the end of the tour the bici-taxis dropped us off at the big open-air food market, so we could see how much it would cost to feed yourself after your government ration had run out. By our calculations you could live quite well on 1 CUC (or 24 CUP) per day if you were a vegetarian, but buying meat would make your food expenses shoot upwards. Not to mention that the meat was outside on the tables with thousands of flies hovering around!

Open-air market view

Open-air market view

Beans for sale in open-air market

Beans for sale in open-air market

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Topes de Collantes

March 1, 2017

We were up at our usual time, 6:45 am, to finish packing and have breakfast. Today we were heading to the mountains of Topes de Collantes National Park for some hiking, and the bus was picking us up at 8 am.

The first part of the trip to the mountains was in our own bus, and then we transferred into a Russian truck (painted in camouflage colours) which would take us up into the park. It was an open truck but at least we were facing forwards so it wasn’t hard on the back. Definitely windier though.

Our Russian truck

Our Russian truck

From the main road we went gradually uphill past cattle farms at first, and then past coffee plantations as we got higher. Some of the hills were really steep, so the truck drivers did a lot of gearing down. We saw a few cyclists labouring up the hills as we roared by.

View over the Caribbean

View over the Caribbean

Once at the visitor centre we met our local guide, Alexey, and he gave us a quick talk about the area before we loaded our bags into the Russian truck. It took us a short distance uphill to a trailhead, from where the truck left with our bags and we headed up the trail with our small backpacks on. The first part of the trail was reasonably level but it soon climbed quite steeply to a low pass. Along the way Alexey would stop and point out various trees and plants, telling us about their medicinal uses—one reduced cholesterol in the blood, one produced insulin against diabetes, and so on.

Trail through the forest

Trail through the forest

Our guide Alexey

Our guide Alexey

We may have been in a national park, but there were coffee plantations and small farms with pigs and chickens. We stopped at one of the farms and the lady there brought out a basket of fresh, ripe bananas for us. From there we went down, soon reaching the road leading to our destination. The hike was supposed to be 9 km according to our tour description, but Rosemary’s Strava measurement said it was 3.4 km. Quite a difference!

Our group at the top of the hill

Our group at the top of the hill

Our home for tonight was Hacienda Gallega, which was in a lovely location next to the Rio Melodioso. The building was for food and drink, and next door was a camping area. There were tents set up on concrete platforms, with wooden roofs above them to keep off the sun and rain. Most of them had tears or broken zippers, so we opted for one which was reasonably intact. We dumped our packs inside and then went down for lunch. There were fruit slices to start, followed by tomatoes, cucumbers, and sliced meat along with an interesting style of pizza. Not your typical crust, but more like a corn bread topped with white cheese and ham bits. It was very tasty.

Our tent site

Our tent site

After lunch most of us set of on a hike to the local waterfall. Some of our group were sick, and we were hoping that John’s flu wouldn’t make the rounds. On the hike we were joined by David and Beatrice, a pair of independent travellers who had been put with us for administrative convenience. David was a keen birder so we could compare notes about what we’d seen so far.

Rio Melodioso

Rio Melodioso

The hike followed the river upstream through lush forest, sometimes close to the river and sometimes higher up the bank. Those of us who were birding got left behind, but José stayed with us as “end man” and found us the Cuban Trogon which we had missed this morning. After some quick walking to catch up, we all came to the swimming area, which was a lovely lake with a small waterfall above it. Some of the group went for a swim in the lake, and a few of us went on for another few hundred meters to the much taller waterfall.

Swimmers in the lake

Swimmers in the lake

Waterfall “El Rocio”

Waterfall “El Rocio”

That was well worth the effort, because Alexey pointed out a hutia, a very large endangered rat which was similar in size to a beaver. It was perched high up on the cliffs next to the waterfall. On further examination of photos it looked as if there were three hutias up there. We stayed at the falls for a few minutes and then returned to the lake to wait for the others to finish swimming. After they were out of the lake Paul noticed a small bird splashing about, which turned out to be a Least Grebe. David was very pleased with that because it was a lifer for him.

Hutias on the cliff

Hutias on the cliff

Least Grebe

Least Grebe

Back at the camp we had a drink and waited for dinner, which was at 7:30 pm. Tonight we had chicken with rice and potatoes, accompanied by the usual fruit and veggie plates. Dessert was guava puree accompanied by white cheese. After dinner it was dark, so we went up to organize our tent. We had brought lightweight sleeping bags and light bag liners, which were quite enough for the temperature here.

March 2, 2017

We had to get up quite early this morning, but that wasn’t really a problem because there was a large gathering of chickens and roosters on the grassy slope where our tents were located. The roosters started crowing at 3:30 am and every half-hour after that. Breakfast was at 7:30 am so that we would have an early start for today’s hike.

Black-throated Blue Warbler

Black-throated Blue Warbler

After loading up the Russian truck we climbed up to our seats and headed out. The first part of our route took us back to the main road, past the park centre. We stopped at a roadside stall to buy fruit, and also bought some nougat, sesame bars, and a honey peanut bar, all homemade. Must support private enterprise in Cuba! Back on the bus we continued along the road to a coffee demonstration area. Here we did a short walk through the garden, learning about the different varieties of coffee, and then headed across the road to the coffee shop and museum.

Roadside snack stand

Roadside snack stand

Alexey showed us some of the implements used while processing the coffee beans. They are not in use today, of course, but had been used in earlier days. Outside the museum there was a small shop selling souvenirs, and on display were several hand-painted pictures of birds, which were all really good. We bought a lovely picture of a Cuban Tody.

Coffee tree on display

Coffee tree on display

Coffee-processing equipment

Coffee-processing equipment

Before long we were at the start of the trail, the Sendero La Batata. (The batata is a freshwater shrimp which lives in the local streams.) We walked through lovely forests with groves of bamboo scattered among the trees. The route wasn’t flat at all, it had us going up steeply in places and down just as steeply. We did see some good birds, as Cuba is full of wintering warblers at this time of year. After a couple of hours or so we arrived at our camp for tonight, Hacienda Codina, just in time for lunch.

Cuban Green Woodpecker

Cuban Green Woodpecker

Cuban Trogon

Cuban Trogon

We had a welcome cocktail, which this time was the house specialty. Its name was “Jincila” and it included ginger roots and honey. Today we had a light lunch, just soup and fruit, because tonight we would be having spit-roasted pork.

Welcome cocktails being made

Welcome cocktails being made

Hacienda Codina was located in a lovely setting, with lots of birds and flowers. We opted to sleep in a tent rather than on the veranda, so we found a tent which was in quite good shape, in particular with a working zipper! We stashed our bags in the tent and then got ready for the afternoon walk.

Magic Carpet Trail

Magic Carpet Trail

The walk was a short one, taking us on a circular route to a viewpoint from where we could see Trinidad and the Caribbean. On the way back we went by the area where a man was turning the spit to cook the pig over a charcoal fire, and took a group picture here. This was our dinner being cooked, and when dinner arrived the pig was excellent, flavoured with orange.

Our group with dinner

Our group with dinner

At dinner we asked Alexey about his name, and he told us that he was born in the days when the Soviet Union was a friend of Cuba. Lots of people got Russian names in those days, he said. He said his came from a Russian pilot but he didn’t elaborate on that.

After dinner somebody found a box of dominoes in the hacienda, so we took turns playing. These dominoes didn’t go from 0 to 6 like the ones we remembered from when we were kids, they went from 0 to 9. So it took us a little while to get used to 7, 8, and 9. And the rules we were using removed most strategies so winning a game was basically down to the luck of the draw.

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