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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Trinidad

February 27, 2017

Today we were heading out on the road-trip portion of our tour, so we were up at 6:45 am to get packed. Next stop: Trinidad. Our departure time was set for 8:30 am; our bus had 24 seats for 14 passengers, quite comfortable seats, but more importantly it had air conditioning! Next stop: Trinidad. So we headed out of Havana on the national highway.

The highway took us through the middle of the country for a while, and then we turned off onto a smaller road. In Australia we made our first stop, only to buy sandwiches for lunch. Our choices were ham, cheese, tomatoes, or any combination!

The road took us into “Bay of Pigs” country. That was an important turning point in Cuba’s history and there was a lot of evidence of it still, including large signs celebrating victory over the US’s proxy invaders.

We stopped at Cueva de los Peces, a place where it was possible to swim in a cenote, a pool made by the collapse of the ceiling of an underground river. Along with Ruth we sat on a lava rock to eat our sandwich and watch the wildlife, including several lizards. There were a few birds in the trees which were hard to see, but at the back of the restaurant there was a small flock of Blue-headed Quail Doves. Very pretty birds. After lunch we walked across the road to see the bay, where several people were snorkelling in quite choppy water.

Blue-headed Quail Doves

Blue-headed Quail Doves

We left there at 1 pm to travel just a short way down the road, to Playa Girón and its museum, which was all about the invasion. The museum displays were all in Spanish but José took us through it and did the explanation. It seemed that the Cubans were poor and not well-armed, but the invaders were not well-organized and the Americans were ambivalent about supporting them properly. Our visit was quite short, so soon we were on our way to Cienfuegos to do a brief tour of the main square.

First Great Defeat of Yankee Imperialism in Latin America

First Great Defeat of Yankee Imperialism in Latin America

British-made Cuban warplane

British-made Cuban warplane

Cienfuegos is a UNESCO World Heritage city, and it’s beautifully painted and restored. The central square, Plaza José Martí, was surrounded by several arts organization buildings in French or Italian colonial style, including the Teatro Tomás Terry. The city hall had been freshly painted but the police stationed outside it wouldn’t let us in, perhaps because Paul was wearing sandals.

Cienfuegos city hall interior

Cienfuegos city hall interior

Polski Fiat

Polski Fiat

The day was really hot by now so getting back onto the air-conditioned bus was a relief. We now had an hour and a half drive to Trinidad, which would be our home for the next two nights. We would be staying in a casa particulare, which meant the house of a Cuban family. The bus dropped us off shortly after 5 pm at Hostal Emiliana y Martin, along with Ruth and São. We had a room with a double bed and plenty of time to settle in. The place was a bit noisy, though, because they had a 3-year-old boy.

Hostal Emiliana y Martin

Hostal Emiliana y Martin

For dinner tonight we were eating at the casa, so we could have a true Cuban meal. First course was soup, which was maybe a kind of pea soup. Next was chicken for Rosemary and fish for Paul and Ruth, accompanied by rice, chips, and mashed-up corn. (São had been sick since arriving in Cuba and was still not eating.) On the side we had a plate of tomatoes, cucumbers, and shredded kohlrabi. Dessert was flan. All very tasty and definitely lots of food.

At 9 pm José came by and picked us up with the bus; our destination was the open-air Casa Musica, which is located about the Plaza Mayor. Every night there is a band playing there, and there’s the option of going up the wide staircase to the dance area (where the action is) or staying in the main square. The band played for about 20 minutes without stopping for each set, and the dancers were spinning and bouncing the whole time. We stayed to listen for about an hour before heading back down the hill.

February 28, 2017

Today we had the whole day in Trinidad. The alarm went off at 6:45 am, but we had time to lounge as breakfast wasn’t until 7:30 am. The bus came by at 8:45 am and took all of us over to Parque Céspedes to begin our walking tour of the city.

Ford taxi in Trinidad

Ford taxi in Trinidad

We walked up a residential street, General Linu Perez, which was a very ordinary street. We passed by a small school, where José explained the education system in Cuba. And then we stopped at a ration shop, or “bodega”; every Cuban gets a monthly ration book which allows them to buy a certain amount of staples (rice, beans, sugar, eggs, etc.) at a very low price. One could possibly survive on this ration. The book expires at the end of the month, so people were using their coupons up today before they expired.

Ration shop

Ration shop

José also told us how employment works in Cuba—most people work for the state, but recently more private businesses have been allowed to open. For example our casa particulare operator, Emiliana, was trained as a doctor. So it seems that she can make more money opening her house to paying guests rather than being a state-employed doctor.

Trinidad street scene

Trinidad street scene

The street at this time of the morning was quite empty, so we were able to take lots of pictures of the old cars and colourful houses. At the end of the street was the Iglesia de Santa Ana, which had been partially destroyed by a hurricane in 1812. Outside the church had been the old slave market, and José told us about how slavery had worked in Cuba.

Iglesia de Santa Ana

Iglesia de Santa Ana

Then we walked uphill towards Plaza Mayor, but first we passed through a craft market. Naturally we had to buy something, we had lots of money! This area is known for its pulled-thread work on table cloths, so Rosemary bought one table runner and one small table cloth, for 15 CUCs. Also at this market she bought a small purse which had been crocheted incorporating pull-tabs from beer cans. An unusual way of recycling them!

Craft market wares

Craft market wares

Our next stop was Plaza Mayor, where José pointed out all the fancy houses and gave us a brief history of each. We then continued around the next block to end up near the Museo de Historia, which was the end of our walking tour.

Plaza Mayor

Plaza Mayor

After José told us about the optional activities for this afternoon we went in to see the museum, which housed furniture from colonial times along with some regular exhibits about Marxist politicians. The mansion dates from the late 1820’s and it displays furniture, beautiful glassware, and figurines all in neo-classical style. We also saw our first hummingbird, the Cuban Emerald, which was flitting around the flowers in the inner courtyard. There was a tower in the museum, so we climbed to the top, fortunately just before the bus tours poured in, and there was a great view over the city and down to the Caribbean.

Cuban Emerald

Cuban Emerald

View over Trinidad

View over Trinidad

By now it was getting close to noon, so we headed over to the area where banks could be found, so that Ruth could change some money. And not a moment too soon, it was the last day of the month and they were closing early! But she did manage to squeeze in at the last minute.

Vegetable seller

Vegetable seller

We had lunch at a panaderia named Dulcinea; besides finishing our leftover sandwiches from breakfast we tried some fancy pastries, which were very tasty (and inexpensive).

After lunch we walked back to Parque Céspedes to meet up with José; he was leading the trip to the beach, and we didn’t want to go to the beach but we did need to find out tonight’s dinner arrangements. We chatted away for quite a while before he arrived with some of the group who had gone for salsa lessons. We found out that we would be picked up at 7 pm, so off we went for a walk.

Santería shrine

Santería shrine

This time we were going to be following a walk described in the Lonely Planet book. Back at Plaza Mayor we headed past a Santería temple and the Antiguo Convento San Francisco de Asis and onward to the outskirts of Trinidad, the Barrio Tres Cruces. The houses here were definitely not as fancy or as big, and the cobbled roads were in much poorer state. Outside several of the houses there were horses tethered, and we saw a couple of men wearing short rubber boots with spurs attached! The whole walk was only about 2 km in length, so we were soon back near Plaza Mayor.

Horseman in Barrio Tres Cruces

Horseman in Barrio Tres Cruces

We had a few hours before dinner, so we headed back to our casa to do some laundry. At 7 pm we went out to the corner to meet up with José and the others. Tonight was going to be a group dinner at a local family-run restaurant; as it happened it was very close to our casa so José just walked down the hill to get us. The restaurant was named La Ceiba, after the huge ceiba tree which towers over the tables. It was very busy and in order to reach the table you walk through the owner’s house.

Ceiba tree

Ceiba tree

This was the first time the whole group had dined together, so we met people whose names we didn’t know yet. In the spirit of “When in Cuba drink rum cocktails” Rosemary ordered a mojito and Paul tried a canchánchara, which is a Trinidad specialty. The mojito was stronger in the rum department then the ones we had made ourselves in Havana, and the canchánchara was honey-based and not nearly as strong as it smelled.

La Ceiba restaurant

La Ceiba restaurant

The menu was quite extensive, and Rosemary ordered the house special, honey lemon chicken. But when the food arrived, it was quite shambolic. We were to find out that the normal procedure in Cuban restaurants was for the waiter to bring a plate and ask “Who ordered the chicken?” This works fine when the menu has only one chicken dish but when there are several chicken dishes it doesn’t work. Eventually everybody got a dish which contained something like what they had ordered, but Rosemary didn’t get honey lemon chicken and she wasn’t the only one to get the wrong plate. But everything was really good and no one minded too much.

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Havana

February 25, 2017

People had been telling us we should go to Cuba “before it gets changed too much”. So here we were on our way to Cuba. We had taken the red-eye flight to Toronto, so naturally we didn’t sleep too well. But while sitting in the Toronto airport, waiting for our Havana flight, we snoozed a bit. The flight was late in leaving, which worked to our advantage. Not only did it leave late, but our pilot appeared to get lost in the taxiways and was then sent to the back of the takeoff queue.

Arriving in Havana we went through immigration quickly and because we had taken only carry-on baggage, we didn’t have to wait for checked baggage to arrive. Outside the weather was very different from Toronto’s—hot and sunny instead of cold and rainy. We weren’t travelling independently this time; we were taking the Explore “Cuba Libre” tour so our Explore greeter was there to meet us. We were soon sorted out with a taxi ride to the Hotel Sevilla, but before leaving the airport we each hastily exchanged $600 into CUC’s, the Cuban currency for foreigners.
The ride into Havana took about 30 minutes; the traffic was busy in some spots so our driver was continually changing lanes. He actually signalled each time!

The Hotel Sevilla, where we would spend the next two nights, was a lovely old building with Moorish tiles in the décor. Historically Ernest Hemingway stayed here, as well as Al Capone. Our room wasn’t ready yet, so we sat in the lobby on lumpy couches which had been reupholstered but still retained the old springs. At 3 pm we got the key and went up to room 421. It was definitely old style, but it did have air conditioning and a firm mattress, so that was the important part.

Hotel Sevilla lobby

Hotel Sevilla lobby

Our hotel was quite close to the ocean, so we headed in that direction. Watching the old cars drive by was interesting; for the most part they were brightly coloured and in good shape. They mostly dated from the 1950’s but we did see a lot of new cars as well. When we got to the point, across from the old fortifications, we were disappointed because there were no pelicans there, not even any gulls! But along the Malecón were several brides and their grooms, cruising along in some of the old cars with their tops down. And farther down the coastline there was a cruise ship docked. Not one of the giant floating city kind, but we were still surprised to see it.

Havana street scene

Havana street scene

From there we wandered around the Old Town, looking at the various Art Deco buildings, plazas, and churches, checking out some restaurants as possible dinner places for tonight. There was quite a mix of old historical buildings, people’s houses, and bars and restaurants. We spent quite a while with a man who was selling colourful paintings of a street featuring the sign of El Bodeguita Del Medio, one of the famous bars in the area. He really wanted to sell us one of the paintings, of course, but we really didn’t want to buy anything on the first day of the tour.

Havana Old Town

Havana Old Town

Back at the hotel we waited for the rest of the tour group to arrive from their British flights. Finally just before 7 pm we decided to give up and go out on our own, but just as we were leaving, a bus pulled up and there they were. Paul’s aunt Ruth was there (we had told her we were going on this tour and suggested she might like to come along, and surprisingly she did). She decided to go out with us and brought along Fiona, one of the other group members.

Havana Cathedral

Havana Cathedral

We set off back to the Old Town to a restaurant which we had seen earlier, but by the time we got there it was full. Eventually we all decided to just go back to the hotel for dinner. We didn’t want to go to the hotel’s fancy rooftop restaurant but the bar had a food menu so we ordered from that. Unfortunately it took about 45 minutes for the food to arrive, and it wasn’t all that warm. And Paul’s meal didn’t resemble the menu’s description at all, except for the presence of chicken in both! The menu’s French fries were missing, but the plantain chips which actually arrived were better anyway.

Tomorrow morning at breakfast the tour finally starts. It will be good to get going.

February 26, 2017

We slept really well last night, but fortunately we had set the alarm to beep at 6:45 am or we would not have woken up early enough. Downstairs in the breakfast room we were both surprised at the variety of food we had to choose from—sliced meats, lots of fresh fruits, hot items like eggs and sausages, as well as cereals and yogurt. Definitely something for everybody!

Street near Hotel Sevilla

Street near Hotel Sevilla

We were finished breakfast by 8 am, so we had plenty of time before the tour’s initial meeting. So we went for a walk around the block to check out the area. Then at 8:30 am the whole group met by the pool and our leader José told us all about the tour, where we would be going and what we would be doing. No surprises here, it was we’d already seen in our tour summary. He also told us how the money works in Cuba (which is kind of complicated) and other useful things like that.

El Prado

El Prado

At 9:30 am we all set off in the bus, on a short tour around Havana. Eighty percent of Cuba’s tour buses come from the national tourist company, Havanatur, so they all look the same. And there are hundreds, thousands, of them. So we had to take care to remember the bus number (3532). We drove past Parque Central, where there is a statue of José Martí—the first of many we would see in Cuba because he is their number one hero. Also here was the Hotel Inglaterra, Havana’s oldest hotel. We continued on to the Plaza de la Revolucion, where Fidel Castro famously gave a speech over four hours long! José told us the history of the plaza and described the various buildings surrounding it. At the highest point was a very large monument to José Martí. José also told us that three popes have visited Cuba and they all spoke here at the plaza.

Martí monument by Plaza de la Revolucion

Martí monument by Plaza de la Revolucion

Che is everywhere in Cuba

Che is everywhere in Cuba

Moving on, we drove through the Vedado district, which was built up in the 1950’s and settled by well-off people so it had buildings on large lots. We carried on along the Malecón, seeing our first pelicans, and then through the tunnel under the bay to the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. We had a few minutes to walk through the fortress before we had to carry on.

Old cars on display

Old cars on display

Havana from the fortress

Havana from the fortress

From here we started on a walking tour, with the Plaza de Armas as our first stop. We were somewhat familiar with the area because we had explored it yesterday afternoon, but the others had arrived in the evening and so they hadn’t seen it yet. However José gave us a brief history lesson before we headed off along Calle de los Oficios to the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis. This square was first created in the 16th century, when Spanish galleons stopped at the adjacent quayside. It is here where they filled up fresh water from local springs. Continuing along, we headed to the Plaza Vieja, which was laid out in 1559. It is surrounded by beautiful buildings as well as Gaudi-inspired art nouveau.

Street musicians in Old Town

Street musicians in Old Town

Just at the corner of this square was the Café Taberna, where we had a cocktail-making lesson. We all lined up at the bar and learned how to make a mojito (sugar, lemon juice, crushed mint leaves, sparkling water, Angostura bitters, and of course rum) and a Cuba Libre (rum and coke with ice). They weren’t difficult at all, especially the Cuba Libre!

Ready to make mojitos

Ready to make mojitos

Mojito: Job done

Mojito: Job done

Now we had no more tour activities for the rest of the day. We went off with Ruth to look for a restaurant for lunch; José had recommended the Café Paris but it was extremely full. So the three of us decided to go back to find La Dominica, which we had been full last night. It was full again now, but after a while some groups left and we were able to get a table. Ruth and Rosemary shared a Parma ham pizza while Paul had spaghetti carbonara. The meal was really good; the pizza shell was excellent and very crispy.

Sancho Panza statue in Old Town

Sancho Panza statue in Old Town

After lunch we headed back to our hotel and went up to our room to have a rest, which actually turned into a siesta. About 6 pm we decided it was time to get going, so we went down to meet up with Ruth. First we walked down to the point, where we had walked yesterday, enjoying the evening breeze. From there we headed over to the Plaza de Armas and actually found the restaurant which we had noticed yesterday, La Mina. The food was good and inexpensive, and the mojito that Paul had was just as good as the ones we had made ourselves earlier today.

Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso

Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso

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New Zealand

In November of 2015 we visited New Zealand. We had been thinking about New Zealand for a long time, because of the excellent hiking and the interesting wildlife. But we didn’t start booking things until September, so when we tried to book the Milford Track we found that the next available opening wasn’t until March!

So all right then, we booked the Routeburn and Kepler Tracks instead. And we booked some time on offshore islands, where some of the native birds still survive: Tiritiri Matangi, Kapiti Island, and Stewart Island.

We’ve published our diaries and photos in the web pages section, starting here: New Zealand 2015.

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Return to Tana

November 1, 2016

We were travelling today, back to Antananarivo for the end of our trip. Our flight to Tana had been changed from 4 pm to 1:10 pm—apparently this is typical behaviour for Air Madagascar—and so we had to be at breakfast at 6:45 am. After breakfast the boat came to pick us up, and luckily the tide was quite high so only a few feet of wading was required.

Farewell to Anakao

Farewell to Anakao

The boat journey to Toliara to about an hour or so, and our zebu carts came out to meet us. They all delivered us safely to the dock, where we were met by a bus which took us back to the Victory Hotel. There we changed into our walking shoes and repacked our bags, and then headed for the airport. We arrived at 11 am to check in, which was plenty of time because it wasn’t very busy—there was only one flight coming in and one flight going out today.

Zebu cart to go to the dock

Zebu cart to go to the dock

Our plane was a Boeing 737—you don’t see many of them these days—and there were no seat assignments so there was a lot of maneuvering by people who wanted to get on first. But somehow Paul managed to get an aisle seat in an emergency-exit row! The flight took about an hour to get to Tana; we were met by the bus from Au Bois Vert and soon we were back in the coolness of the forest surrounding the hotel.

Paul was still not feeling well so he drank a bottle of oral rehydration salts and took a Cipro tablet, then spent the remaining part of the afternoon relaxing. Dinner was at 7:30 pm, and tonight we had the pleasure of watching a musical group singing and dancing to traditional Malagasy music. After dinner we chatted for a short while but soon went back to our room for an early night.

November 2, 2016

You’d think that once we got back to Tana, we’d just fly home the next day. But no, Explore has this day as a contingency day in case the flight from Toliara gets messed up. Which is a definite possibility. But we were happy to have another day in Madagascar.

Private school in Antananarivo

Private school in Antananarivo

So after breakfast we boarded the bus to go to Ambohimanga, where the former kings and queens of Madagascar used to live. The name means “Blue Hill” or “Beautiful Hill” and it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site now. The bus took us through Antananarivo along very busy crowded roads and through some very poor areas. After a while we reached the outskirts, where the houses became larger and more elaborate. In the inner city the houses were more like shacks, with no running water and poor sewer systems, and Hery told us that after a heavy rainstorm there would be raw sewage running in the streets.

Ambohimanga palace compound

Ambohimanga palace compound

At the palace we were met by our guide, who told us the history of the palace and its residents. The king’s palace was basically a traditional Malagasy hut, but of course a large version to befit a powerful man. And his throne was just a small stool. But after his reign the Europeans arrived and redefined luxury, so the adjacent queen’s palace was a small but traditional European royal residence. The kings and queens are long gone but even today some practitioners of the old religion come to the king’s palace to sacrifice a duck or a goose. It was a very interesting tour and a nice way to spend the morning.

Queen’s palace

Queen’s palace

View from Ambohimanga

View from Ambohimanga

For lunch we ate at the restaurant next to the site. The food served was a smorgasbord of local products: several cuts of zebu meat, chicken, fish, salads, and of course rice. All very tasty. We also had entertainment provided by a band and dancers. Despite the warm outside temperature the cooling breeze made it very pleasant, and Paul’s stomach was finally prepared to accept food again.

Band and dancers

Band and dancers

As we left we stopped at the gift shop and surprisingly there was a Madagascar Scops Owl sitting on a tree outside it, guarding a nest with at least one chick in it.

Madagascar Scops Owl

Madagascar Scops Owl

Then we returned to the bus to continue on to the Lemurs Park. The trip to the park took about an hour and a half and upon arrival we quickly got our guide and headed off on the trails. This park is on the outskirts of Antananarivo and it’s devoted to housing lemurs which have been rescued from being pets, and their goal is to raise awareness of the plight of lemurs and Madagascar wildlife in general.

Coquerel’s Sifaka

Coquerel’s Sifaka

As we walked along we could hear loud claps of thunder overhead, along with short sprinkles of rain periodically. The lemurs were fun to watch as they interacted with each other; they were all habituated to people so they basically ignored us. So much so that one of the lemurs leaped right between us, hitting Rosemary in the face with its tail on the way!

Radiated Tortoise

Radiated Tortoise

On the way back to the hotel we stopped off at a mall to shop for Madagascar chocolate. The mall was bright and modern and wouldn’t have been out of place in Britain or North America, but here it seemed kind of strange. And the supermarket didn’t really have much chocolate. From there the traffic was terrible; we didn’t get back to the hotel until after 7 pm so dinner was late at 8 pm.

November 3, 2016

The tour finishes today and we’re going back to London. But our flights don’t leave until the afternoon so this morning we went on a visit to a local vanilla producer. It was only a short walk up the road to her house, which was behind a locked gate.

First of all she gave us a short presentation on the production of vanilla. Vanilla is a type of orchid which takes three years to produce its seed pods. In Madagascar it has to be hand-pollinated by human workers because the bees who normally do that only live in Mexico. The best vanilla comes from the north-east, where she gets most of her beans. Not only are the roads really bad in that area, but the plantation is twelve hours walk from the nearest road! But despite that, vanilla rustling is still a problem.

Madagascar Red Fody

Madagascar Red Fody

We didn’t know what Agriculture Canada would think of vanilla pods so we bought some powdered vanilla and some more chocolate bars. Back at the hotel we finished packing and left for the airport at 1 pm. Our flight was at 5 pm but most of the others had a 3:20 departure on Kenya Airways. We didn’t have any problems going through immigration and security and police check, but a lot of people were called down to the baggage area to account for “contraband” in their luggage. And we heard of some who paid a bribe to deal with the problem.

End of the tour

End of the tour

The Kenya Airways flight had been delayed yesterday and the day before, and it was delayed today as well. So our Turkish Airlines flight left before theirs and headed off to Mauritius. Then Istanbul, then London, where we arrived early the next day. And it rained the rest of the day there. London in November, what can you expect?

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