Unst

May 18, 2017

We were up early this morning because we were moving on to the “North Isles”. Last night we had been shopping, and then a couple of ladies who were heading home gave us some more food. So we weren’t going to starve!

Lerwick Youth Hostel

Lerwick Youth Hostel

So we packed up, had breakfast, and headed to the ferry. The route was easy enough to follow, first A970 and then turn onto A968 where the big sign pointed to the ferry. But shortly before we reached the ferry terminal the car went “ping!” and a yellow exclamation mark appeared in the dashboard. A tire pressure warning light. The car’s operating manual said to stop driving immediately. So we carried on to the ferry terminal and then looked at the tires, which all looked fine to us.

So after we boarded the ferry which would take us to the island of Yell, we asked the deck hand about a place to repair tires. Yes, he said, R. Robertson and Son in West Sandwick, and he told us exactly how to find the place. It was easy enough to find it, and after a lot of discussion about what the tire pressures should be a younger guy showed up who knew exactly what to do. He topped up the tires and reset the alarm, mumbling something about how Volkswagens did this sort of thing.

Five minutes later we were on our way to the next ferry. Our first ferry trip had lasted 20 minutes and the next one, to the island of Unst, took only 10 minutes. We were first off the ferry and within 10 minutes were at the Gardiesfauld youth hostel in Uyeasound. There was nobody there but the whiteboard in the lobby indicated that we were expected and that we had room 6. It was almost lunch time, so we unloaded the car, deposited the food in the kitchen, and put our bags into the room.

Uyeasound harbour

Uyeasound harbour

The view from our room was great, looking out over a grassy area and down to the water. It looked like a good place to stay for the next three nights. We had made our lunch earlier so it was just a matter of unpacking it and eating it.

After lunch we decided to go for a walk to Muness Castle. We were unsure how far away the castle was but the day was sunny with very little wind and so it was very enjoyable. It was all road walking, and fortunately for us we had a map so we knew approximately where to go. It was definitely farther than we had thought, eventually turning out to be 5 km one way. But we saw several species of birds including a beautiful Golden Plover.

Golden Plover

Golden Plover

Muness Castle is the twin of Scalloway Castle, in that both were built at about the same time and were owned by closely-related avaricious lords. Like Scalloway Castle, Muness Castle was a ruin, but it was still provided with interpretive signs. We explored around the castle for a short while and then retraced our route to the hostel. The walk back was faster, but not that much faster because we were still seeing new species of birds, including the rather surprising Arctic (Black-throated) Loon in the sound.

Muness Castle ruins

Muness Castle ruins

We were the only ones staying at the hostel tonight so we had the whole kitchen to ourselves. We used the potatoes we had been given this morning, and along with carrots, left-over sausages, and pasta sauce we produced a good dinner. Alison, the hostel warden, came by and collected our money so we were set. She also mentioned that we might see otters if we walked along the beach. So we walked a short distance along the beach, but soon came back because it was getting chilly.

May 19, 2017

It was still cloudy this morning when we got up, but the predicted rain hadn’t started yet. That was a good thing. So after breakfast we made our lunches and filled our flasks with tea and headed to the north end of the island, to the Hermaness Nature Reserve. For most of the way the road had two lanes so driving was easy. But after we turned off near Haroldswick the minor road got narrower and narrower until we reached the visitor centre. Luckily for us we met nobody coming the other way!

The visitor centre was housed in part of the old lighthouse shore station, and it had an excellent display about the seabirds in the area. It also had a “Recent Sightings” board which, unfortunately, hadn’t been updated recently. Anyway, back at the car we put on our hiking boots and gathered our packs.

Lighthouse shore station, Hermaness

Lighthouse shore station, Hermaness

To get to the cliffs we walked along the path uphill, which changed into a boardwalk across the moorland. It was early in the nesting season but already we could see numerous Great Skuas sitting on prospective nesting sites. The area is said to be one of the best places in the world for the Skuas, locally known as “bonxies”, to nest, and that certainly seemed to be the case. But fortunately for us they didn’t have chicks yet so they weren’t inclined to attack passers-by.

Gannets near Hermaness

Gannets near Hermaness

It didn’t take long to get to the cliff edge, where we turned north to follow the coastline. We had to drop down quite steeply and then side-hill around Hermaness Hill to an area overlooking some rocky sea stacks. Hermaness is also famous for its gannets, and they were flying back and forth in their hundreds, with thousands more sitting on the stacks. In fact almost all of the birds there were gannets, along with a smaller number of fulmars and a few puffins. We didn’t see nearly as many puffins as we thought we would, but it was difficult to see them because we were above them.

Puffin on the cliff

Puffin on the cliff

We were surprised to see a sign which warned you not to wear waterproof trousers on slopes which lead down to cliffs—if you fell then you could slide right over the edge. We’d never thought of that before. But the predicted rain hadn’t arrived so our waterproofs were still in our packs.

Farther along we came to another sign, which politely requested that we return the way we had come, rather than continuing over the moors and harassing the Skuas. From here we could see the lighthouse on Muckle Flugga, which is the famous northernmost point in the UK, so we did indeed turn around. It was after 1 pm so we found a somewhat sheltered spot to sit and have lunch. We had an enjoyable time eating and watching the birds below us.

Muckle Flugga lighthouse

Muckle Flugga lighthouse

Back at the car park we headed back to the hostel. We made a brief stop at a Viking longhouse and boat replica, which were still under development, and then at the hostel we made some hot chocolate and sat in the conservatory to drink it and enjoy the view.

Viking ship replica

Viking ship replica

On our way out to Hermaness we had noticed a Shetland pony with a baby foal in a nearby field, so after dinner we went out for a short walk to look for it. We did find it and admired it for a while before returning to the warmth of the hostel. Last night we’d had the whole hostel to ourselves and it was so quiet! But tonight we had several other people staying there. Oh well…

Shetland pony with foal

Shetland pony with foal

May 20, 2017

We woke up this morning to find that the predicted rain had finally arrived. So rather than going out on a walk we researched the museums. After packing our lunch we put on our rain gear and headed out to the car, driving up-island towards Baltasound.

Our first stop was at Bobby’s Bus Shelter. Several years ago the local council removed the original bus shelter, but 6-year-old Bobby wrote to the council to ask for it to be replaced because he and his friends used it as shelter while waiting for the school bus. He was very happy when a new shelter was built so in return he started to decorate it. Bobby is grown up now but nowadays a local group looks after it, redecorating it periodically.

Bobby’s Bus Shelter

Bobby’s Bus Shelter

Nearby was the Keen of Hamar nature reserve, which was nearby at the end of a farm road. Luckily the rain had stopped so we didn’t get wet while we explored the lunar-like landscape. The area is made of fractured serpentine rock so the soil is very sparse and not even good for sheep. So it still supports a lot of wildflowers. At first glance you couldn’t see any flowers but upon closer inspection we saw lots of tiny clumps of pink, yellow, and white blossoms. Most of them were moss campion, which we find at high elevations back home. But there were a few others starting to come out and we think we saw Edmonston’s Chickweed, which is found nowhere else in the world!

The rain was still threatening so our next stop was the Unst Heritage Centre. It was a small museum but a good one. Part of it described the heritage of Unst, starting with the Vikings and moving on to the crofting and fishing days. There were also other displays, including a replica of a school classroom from the early 20th century and another about the Muckle Flugga lighthouse.

Farm house at Skaw

Farm house at Skaw

From there we headed up a long single-track road over the moors to Skaw, the site of the UK’s northernmost house. It was raining hard so we sat in the car there and had lunch, all the time being buffeted by the wind and pelted by the rain. But we decided to go for a walk anyway, heading out to the beach and along the headland to an old radar station. The rain had let up a bit now, so we spent some time looking at the birds. In a large flock of oystercatchers we saw a bird which was almost all white. At first we just assumed it was a gull but upon closer inspection it turned out to be an oystercatcher which was almost pure white! We never saw one like that before!

Leucistic Oystercatcher

Leucistic Oystercatcher

Next stop: the Unst Boat Haven. Another museum, sure, but this time all about wooden boats. Most of the boats had been carefully restored and came with historical documentation. There was a ton of other boating accessories including a “dog buoy” (made from a dog’s skin… ewww) which is apparently very rare.

The rain was pelting again so we decided to go for tea at Victoria’s Tea Rooms, which is (wait for it…) the UK’s northernmost tea room. After a nice pot of tea and some cake we headed back to the hostel. It wasn’t time for dinner yet so we sat in the lounge and read for a while.

Paul had had a cold for several days and today it turned into laryngitis. This is very annoying. The German woman who was staying in the hostel with us was a speech therapist and she said that the treatment was to stop speaking, which is a hard thing to do.

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Lerwick

May 15, 2017

We were up early to catch the Tube to Heathrow, arriving with plenty of time to spare. We hadn’t been to Terminal 5 before and it was quite interesting. Nobody at check-in to tag your bags; you put them on the belt, tag them, and scan the tag yourself. And nobody at security to scan your boarding pass, you do that yourself too. At least there was somebody at Pret a Manger to sell us a cup of tea—for now, anyway.

Rosemary went over to the British Airways counter to ask about our return trip. For reasons unknown, they had changed our flights so that we would now have a 4½-hour layover in Glasgow. We didn’t look forward to that, but luckily they could make more changes so that the layover would be more like 1½ hours.

Our flight to Glasgow took about an hour, and it was raining quite a bit when we got there. We got a sandwich at the one and only café inside security, and eventually we were summoned to Gate 5, which was a small concrete room in the basement. On our flight to Sumburgh we actually got a cup of tea and a Tunnock’s Caramel bar as a snack, and as we flew into Sumburgh we could see part of the islands from the air. Luckily for us it wasn’t raining here and the weather was actually quite decent.

Welcome to Shetland

Welcome to Shetland

We quickly got our bags and located the man holding a sign with our name. He sent us off in a van to the Bolt’s car hire office, and soon we were in our cute little blue VW car. After going the wrong way initially, we finally got onto the road to Lerwick. It turns out that you really do have to drive across the runway to go that way, and yes, there’s a man who lowers the barriers when a plane is using the runway!

It was a very straightforward route to Lerwick, and we found the hostel quite easily. Once we found somebody to let us in (next-door at the community centre) we had a quick tour of the building before getting our room.

The wind was really strong, and the Shetland flag which we could see outside our window was standing straight out in the window. We headed over to the Co-op to buy groceries, which took a while as we had to do meal planning as we went through the aisles. Back at the hostel we had our dinner and then headed out for a walk to the harbour, since it still wasn’t raining.

Lerwick harbour

Lerwick harbour

The first thing we saw was a big ship which we initially thought was a ferry, but it soon turned out to be a National Geographic Expeditions cruise ship. As we were looking at it we met a Norwegian man who had sailed his boat over from Stavanger, in really bad weather. Shetland has a Norse history, so they have May 17th (Norway’s national day) celebrations, and that’s why he came over. It’s down in Scalloway so we’ll probably go there on the 17th. We chatted with him for a while and then continued our walk down towards the point.

But the wind was blowing so hard that we could barely walk, and it began to rain lightly, so we returned to the hostel to have some hot chocolate.

May 16, 2017

It was hard to get up this morning, so we were still having breakfast while the cleaning staff were waiting to wash the floors. We made our lunches and headed down to the ferry docks.
It was a nice day today, clear with a bit of cloud on top of the hills. So our plan was to go to the Isle of Noss to see the nesting birds. To get there we took the 10-minute ferry ride across the sound from Lerwick to Bressay, and then walked straight across Bressay to the Noss boat launch. It was quite windy, at times very windy, but at least the sky was clear and the newborn lambs were bounding around with their mothers.

Ferry to Noss

Ferry to Noss

By 1 pm we reached the crossing to Noss, which was said to be served by an “inflatable ferry”. Our ludicrous imaginings were soon replaced by an ordinary Zodiac with a crew of two, the warden and a helper. Their dock on the Bressay side was rather sketchy, with the south-east wind blowing big waves over it, but after a few attempts the boat landed successfully. We donned life-jackets and jumped into the boat. The trip across the channel didn’t take very long and getting off at Noss was much easier.

The warden took us into the visitor centre and gave us a brief overview of the island, showing us the track to follow. The track was easy to find but you did need to be careful of the rabbit holes.

Northern Fulmar

Northern Fulmar

There were puffins ahead so we decided to head on to the cliffs rather than stopping for lunch. The first birds of interest that we saw were eider ducks, and we watched them for a bit before continuing. Finally we found a sheltered location by the cliffs where we stopped for lunch.

Murres (Guillemots) on a cliff

Murres (Guillemots) on a cliff

There were small cliffs with fulmars and bigger cliffs with murres (called “guillemots” in Britain) crowded wing to wing. We saw an occasional puffin but it was not until after we had finished our lunch and headed farther up the hill that we saw several more. We had been told that the puffins were nesting and would mostly be in their burrows, but we might see a few. Which we did—there were about 20 of them on a small offshore island. It was fun sitting on the hillside with the little birds quite close by.

Puffins courting

Puffins courting

Continuing up the hill we came to the next sight, which was a huge cliff which housed a gannet colony. It was quite amazing to see all the birds perched on the ledges; the cliff was about 200 meters high and it was totally white with bird guano!

Noup of Noss with gannet colony

Noup of Noss with gannet colony

That was quite a sight but it was getting late, so we headed back to the reserve headquarters. The last boat was at 5 pm and we got back there at 4:30 pm, but most likely the warden keeps track of how many people are on the island and tries not to leave people there overnight. It was just as hard landing the boat on Bressay this time and we had to wait for five or six large waves to pass before it was safe to clamber out of the boat. We said our goodbyes and thanks and headed up the hill.

We had 5 kilometers to walk to get to the ferry, and the walk seemed quick. Part-way across the woman who had helped with the boat stopped and offered us a lift, but we declined. It was lucky we did because we then saw an Arctic Skua (called “Parasitic Jaeger” in North America), which we hadn’t seen yet.

Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger) in a field

Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger) in a field

As we approached the dock for the Lerwick ferry several cars zoomed past us, up the hill. We knew this meant the ferry had just arrived. As we got closer to the dock we could see the boat was still there, but would we catch it or would we have to wait an hour? Suddenly several more cars zoomed past us, towards the dock. Clearly they knew what time the boat would leave! But then the boat-helper woman pulled up beside us, having dropped off her passenger. “Four minutes!” she yelled. “Do you want a lift?” Well yes, this time we did want a lift, and she dropped us off at the dock at the last possible instant.

We ended up back at the hostel at 6:30 pm and made our dinner. That was a popular time for dinner so people in several groups had all eight stove burners in use at once. But it all came out right in the end. Afterwards we processed the day’s photos and wrote the day’s journals; bedtime was 10:30 pm.

May 17, 2017

Feeling more rested this morning, we got up just after 8:30 am. At least we were out of the way of the cleaners! Today’s plan was to go to Scalloway to see the museum as well as to attend the memorial service for the 44 Norwegians who lost their lives while travelling on the “Shetland Bus” during World War 2.

So after breakfast we made our lunches and headed out. First stop was the Loch of Clickimin (it’s an eBird hotspot) to see what birds we could find. There were a lot of Tufted Ducks but nothing else of significance. However we also stopped to look at the Clickimin Broch. A broch is a round structure built with rocks, apparently for people to live in but according to the sign its exact use is unknown.

Clickimin Broch and Loch

Clickimin Broch and Loch

We carried on down the road to Scalloway, which wasn’t very far. Parking was easy to find, close to the museum. The service wasn’t until later so we walked through the small fishing town, right down to the end where there was a marine training centre which was run by the local university. It was all pretty quiet. In the windows of a local merchant there was a mural which had been painted by some school-children. From it we could figure out which buildings had been used during the war as command posts, communication houses, and storehouses.

Norwegian flag in Scalloway

Norwegian flag in Scalloway

We sat on a bench outside the museum to eat our lunch; the day was sunny but the wind made it cold. However we had chosen a sheltered spot so lunch was very nice. After lunch we went to look inside Scalloway Castle, which of course is a ruin now. In the old days it would have been heated by peat fires but today it was colder inside the castle than it was outdoors!

Shetland pony outside Scalloway Museum

Shetland pony outside Scalloway Museum

Then we visited the museum, which is quite new, having been opened just five years earlier. It was really quite good; much of it was devoted to the Shetland Bus. This was a World War 2 operation which connected Britain with German-occupied Norway, bringing fugitives out of Norway and sending back guns and saboteurs. It was a very small-scale operation but it made the Germans station more troops in Norway to try to keep things under control.

Shetland Bus ceremony

Shetland Bus ceremony

We wandered along the street to the memorial and found people setting up speakers and flags. Precisely at 3 pm the service began with a brief introductory speech; there were about 50 people in attendance, many of whom were Norwegian. After the wreaths were laid a local woman, who was born in Kirkenes, gave a speech. She told us of her childhood in Kirkenes during the war, of her house having been bombed, and of having to stay in the shelter and being rescued by the friendly Russian army. At the time she couldn’t understand why her father called it “freedom” when through her young eyes she only saw no house, no food, and cold weather. It was quite moving.

Shetland Bus wreaths

Shetland Bus wreaths

After the service was over we went back to the museum to have tea and goodies. It was a great way to spend a relaxing day.

On the way back to Lerwick we thought about stopping for groceries, but instead decided to return to the hostel and walk over to the Co-op. This time around we made a list, so we had a better idea of what to buy!

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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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