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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!