Wednesday 16th January 2008 Off once more
As last time, the taxi arrived early for this trip - to Cuba, via Calgary! It was a starry sky as we left at 5.30am for Savacentre, which was a pleasant surprise after all the wet and windy weather we had been having.
I slept all the way to Gatwick, where we prepared for our 11.15 am flight to Calgary, via Glasgow. We took off a bit late, and the fine morning became cloudy, but cleared as we neared Glasgow, so we were able to enjoy the splendid scenery, with smatterings of snow. The ground was very saturated, with lots of standing water.
We stayed on board while the plane was refuelled and more passengers got on, and initially appreciated looking out to the mountains, with a stunning clear blue sky, more fitting for Arizona. We were looking forward to being underway again, when the pilot announced that they had nearly finished refuelling, and we would soon be off. This announcement was promptly followed by another, stating that the tanker had run out of fuel, so was going off for more!
Hence we had a much longer delay, and things became tiresome. We didn’t take off until 2.45, and by now we were feeling hungry, after our early start, having eaten only a sandwich. The icing sugar coated mountains looked wonderful as we left Scotland and headed off across the cloudy Atlantic. We were beginning to wonder if we would be served any food at all – but at 5.00 pm we eventually got our meal. We were well ready for it!
With no individual screens, and no idea what was being shown on the general screens, time went slowly, and we did plenty of reading! We crossed the snowy wastes of Greenland and then the never ending iced sea of Hudson Bay, which we had visited at Churchill in October. We supposedly reached land again near Churchill, and looked down onto surreal patterns of snow and ice below. Finally we reached the square fields as we neared Calgary.
We landed about an hour late, just after 4.00 pm local time – 11.00 pm to us! Simon was there to meet us, and drove us back to his house, where we met up again with Laure, and Manolo, who was his usual bundle of 2 year old joy!
We managed to last out until 10 pm before retiring – 5.00 am to us!
Thursday 17th January A day with Manolo
They had said that there was a chance of snow, but we were still surprised to see it snowing heavily just after Laure had left for work. It was apparently the first real snow since Christmas!
Later in the morning we walked out to a nearby park with Manolo, where he had fun playing with a selection of large toy trucks which are just left in the play area for children to play with. He didn’t complain about his large thick mittens, which hindered his dexterity!
In between enjoying ourselves with our happy little grandson, we got our bags organised for our trip to Cuba tomorrow, where we expect the weather to be a little warmer!
Friday 18th January To Cuba via Montreal
We were up at 4.20, and left at 5 o’clock for Simon to drive us to Calgary Airport for our 7.00 am flight. We crunched across the freshly fallen snow to the garage, then enjoyed the warmth of the car for our drive through the silent city, looking lovely in the snow.
As we had expected, we took off half an hour late because they had to de-ice the plane (surely they knew it was going to snow!), as they had done on a previous flight last year. Boarding a plane is never as much hassle in a quieter airport, but I was still singled out for an extra security check – this time it was my shoes which caused a problem – the same shoes which I have worn on all flights for the past couple of years!
We were soon flying east over the beautiful snowy landscape. We were given a drink, and plenty of offers of drinking water, but it became apparent that we weren’t going to be given any food. We had to suffice with a couple of cereal bars!
We had individual screens on this flight, but unfortunately the flight map wasn’t working. We both watched a beautifully photographed and acted film called ‘Into the Wild’, about a young graduate who gave away his life savings to charity before setting off across America in search of the true meaning of life. The unexpected ending left us feeling really moved, especially as the young actor reminded us of Tom. It was based on a true story.
Our descent to snowy Montreal was horribly unpleasant because of the turbulence. We instantly noticed that everything was spoken and written in French. Because of our late departure and landing, we didn’t have as long to wait for our next flight as we’d expected. We bought a mediocre sandwich, once we found that we could pay by card, as we couldn’t locate our Canadian money (in our main bags!!).
Our flight left at 4.00 pm local time – we had moved on 2 hours, but were now the same time zone as Cuba. Once more we flew over snowy countryside before flying down the east coast, where we could make out large cities and many wide rivers below, but once again no flight map, and by now it was dark.
The individual screens caused problems at first, but finally we did watch an entertaining film called ‘The Nanny Diaries’, about a young nanny in Manhattan.
It was after 8.00 pm when we arrived at Varadero. After our individual ‘interrogation’ (coming from England via Canada seemed to throw the woman), Adrian went in search of money so that we could pay for a taxi to the hotel. Almost everybody else seemed to be on a tour, and by the time we’d got the money, the last of the few taxis had just left. After much confusion and deliberation, we got a lift in a minibus with another gentleman from Montreal, who had joined us.
We couldn’t see much in the dark, but were delivered safely to Hotel Acuazul, which we are booked into for the next few days. After being shown to our room, it wasn’t long before we retired for the night!
Saturday 19th January We meet up with old friends in Matanzas
We woke early and looked out from our little balcony to see the sun rise above the buildings and the palm trees. A man was busy putting up a line of flags outside the hotel.
Breakfast was a pleasant surprise in its variety and content – and we had been hoping to lose weight!
We had read that there was a bus to Matanzas, where we had arranged to meet up with our old friends Dennis and Maureen Yell. They had moved from Hermitage 17 years ago, and it was almost that long since we’d seen them.
The hotel tour lady told us, as the receptionist had last night, that there wasn’t a bus. Therefore we had to go by taxi.
The drive was mostly near to the waterfront, with the blue sea beyond, and the blue sky above. Our driver dropped us by the cathedral at about 10 o’clock. We had arranged to meet up at 10.30, so thought that we’d walk ‘around the block’. It became immediately apparent how friendly everybody was, and offers of taxi, guide, cigars etc were continually given us. One such chap, Elio, was particularly persistent, and was offering us a taxi ride back later. At this point I heard my name being called – and there were the Yells, just arriving in their taxi. As their driver didn’t speak English our chap jumped in to assist. He walked along with us to the next corner, where he said we could meet up later for our respective taxis.
We then set off to explore, bumping into Elio many times! We made for Libertad park, looking much like so many Spanish and Central American Squares, and wandered round it more than once before settling on a place to have coffee. We were immediately joined by Pedro, a tall African looking man. He tried to be helpful, and sat with us while we ordered our drinks – there was no tea for Adrian, despite it being on the menu. We had read to be prepared for this kind of thing!
There was much chatting to be done, as we caught up on 15 years news, and chatted about our respective travels. We left the café and wandered through the streets of this very ‘real’ crumbling and partly restored town. Cameras were set to work! It seemed to be a very happy place, with a ‘live and let live’ feel.
We meet up with Maureen and Den – long time no see
We just enjoyed wandering around and taking in the atmosphere. We reached an open air market by the river, where some unusual vegetables were attractively displayed.
Back at Libertad Square we located the Pharmacy Museum, housed in the former home of the Triolett family. It was like going back in time to see the cupboardfulls of bottles and medicines attractively laid out – a real gem of a place. By the time we’d finished looking around downstairs, the upstairs part – the former home - was closed for lunch, so we made our way across the road to café Libertad, recommended by Lonely Planet. It was certainly popular – but served only hamburgers, with either buttermilk or juice to drink! Hardly haute cuisine, but genuine!
We wandered the streets a bit more before returning to the ‘pick-up’ spot. The Yell’s taxi driver was there, so we soon said our goodbyes (they were returning to England tomorrow) with promises to meet up again soon. Our man wasn’t there, so we enjoyed a bit of ‘people watching’, and Adrian bought me a little rosebud from and elderly gent with his bucket of flowers for sale. We were bombarded by other people offering us a taxi back to Varadero, and were on the point of accepting when along came Elio. He said that he’d been looking for us, and would soon be back. Sure enough he was, and we got into a taxi, but a row ensued between him and the driver, so he told us to wait, and he’d be back with another one. We got a bit fed up with waiting, so took the offer of the other group of people, and set off in an old fifties car, with an even older driver. Despite our misgivings, things went well – until we reached the outskirts of Varadero, and he indicated that he would turn round! It seemed that he wasn’t allowed to go any further (we had had our suspicions!)
We (I) decided that we’d walk the rest of the way, but it was further than we’d thought, so when we passed a small café just before our hotel, we both opted to stop for a beer!
Back at the hotel, we made our way to the pleasant pool for a swim. The sun was just going down, and Adrian had had to return to our room for our towels, as there were ‘no towels’. The pool was quite cool, and any thoughts of having a warm bath afterwards were dispelled, as the water from both taps was cold!
We walked out later and decided to eat at the little café where we had had the beer. Our meal of fish/shrimp was excellent. Adrian had his first mojito, which was a hit, and I liked the price of my whisky. There was reasonably priced Cuban wine, but we just settled on a glass for me, as the waitress wasn’t sure if it was dry (it was), and Adrian had a beer.
We were entertained by three ‘strolling musicians’. They came to our table first, and we both joined in enthusiastically with playing the maracas when invited. The three were a small Oriental chap on maracas, an attractive African-featured man with grey moustache, and a good looking ‘Rozanno Brazzi’. Unofficial entertainment extended to a slightly built elderly gent, seemingly inebriated, who continually came to us and others and chatted like an old friend.
Back at the hotel, we saw that there was ‘Cuban Music’ by the pool at 9.45. We made our way there at around 10 o’clock to find nothing yet happening (Monumental Verbena again). After 10 minutes or so the group arrived on stage, to a great ‘rishmatish’ and started up, but a shout was given and a young chap rushed up then dashed off for more electrical leads etc. Finally after, another long delay, they launched into a Spanish sounding medley, but by now it was too late for us, so we didn’t stay long.
Typical Cuban scene - Matanzas
Sunday 20th January So this is Varadero
We were disappointed to find it was cloudy and very windy when we woke up, and sadly it didn’t improve. Even breakfast didn’t seem so good!
Nevertheless we proceeded with our plan of a trip on the open topped bus, which toured the whole of the Varadero peninsula. This is the most touristy part of Cuba.
We had just missed a bus – they should come every half hour. There is a timetable, but as we found out, it wasn’t worth worrying about. We looked at some of the craft stalls opposite while we were waiting.
The bus is ‘hop on hop off’, $5.00 per person. As we wanted to check out our tickets for a bus to Havana, we got off again after a couple of stops. We located the bus depot, and after some difficulty found the right place to book a ticket.
When we had booked into our hotel, they had taken Adrian’s print-off of our booking. On the reverse side was the booking for our next hotel at Viñales. He asked for a photo copy, but the girl said the copier wasn’t working. He tried again yesterday with no luck, but this morning they gave him the copy of the next hotel. As we went to book our bus ticket, Adrian became quite confused as to what day it was. As the man wrote down our names for Tuesday 22nd, I found the piece of paper which said that we were booked into Viñales from 21st! We hadn’t yet paid the man, so he was able to rub out our names from the list, and book us for tomorrow! Just in time! We weren’t able to book our onward bus journey to Viñales from Havana, so have to hope that there is still room when we reach Havana.
We walked back up to the main road to catch the next bus. One should have been coming along in a few minutes, but we ended up waiting over half an hour, and then it was a single decker bus! This rather defeated the point of the exercise, especially as we had to stand at first, so couldn’t see anything!
We soon got a seat. The bus was very busy, and the ride wasn’t very exciting. We just drove past the many hotels which make up this narrow peninsula. Most of the hotels were housed in their own vast grounds. We were glad to be in ours, which is at least surrounded by ‘real’ Cuba.
We reached the end of the peninsula, and began the return journey. Part way back, we decided to get off and get something for lunch. The only thing nearby was a ‘fast food’ café, and almost the only thing they sold was pizza. We ordered one each – about the worst we have tasted – and sat down at a covered table to eat it. It had been raining while we were on the bus, so everywhere looked really dismal. A loudspeaker was playing the most excruciatingly distorted music, so we stopped no longer than necessary.
We made our way to the beach behind. This made up for everything – turquoise sea, white sand, and not a soul around on this dreary day. We both tried the water, which wasn’t cold, but today wasn’t a beach day.
Varadero beach to ourselves
We had a quick look around the market stalls by the bus stop before catching yet another bus. After a while we were in luck, and got front seats on top, so we stayed on to complete the loop, alighting near our hotel. We had found out that we were near the largest craft market, so had a look around. Much of the stuff is ‘kitsch’, and all very similar, but I did buy 3 tiny carved hummingbirds.
Back at the hotel, I had a short swim. We then returned to Casa del Chef, where we ordered a mojito each. These came in small tumblers, not the fancy glass of last night, and they had run out of straws – not quite the same!
Later we wandered along to the Casa del Chef again for a drink, intending to eat at another restaurant a bit further on. Just as we were about to leave, the atmosphere became so jolly that we decided to stay. A large group of locals had come in, and our musicians had arrived, and started playing with the locals, who had moved to the outside area, as the rain had now stopped. There was a very large Cuban sitting with his wife, and he smiled and laughed all the time – he reminded me of my distant cousin Ben in the Marquesas.
We ordered lobster, and a bottle of wine. As time went on, the ‘minstrels’ joined a group of local men, and it was a bit like a folk club. Some of the previous group had joined in with their percussion instruments, and it was all very happy. There was a pretty Spanish looking lady with a percussion instrument, but she also had a lovely voice, as did ‘Ben’. The musicians had played for us earlier, and I was fascinated by the drummer, who played on the side of the 2 drums for much of the time – he let me try. Our Chinese man, who seemed to be the quiet one last night, became the leader tonight. Other guests had left, so we just revelled in this unique situation before eventually wandering back in the damp evening.
I had seen that there was ‘Aqua Ballet’ on tonight, and wanted to know what it was, so I wandered down to the pool. It was raining hard, but the performance was amazing – I’d never seen anything like it. The young people performed ballet moves by the pool, before diving in and continuing their performance underwater, emerging again with great grace to continue.
Monday 21st January To Viñales via Havana
The alarm went at 6.15 am, but we were already awake. It was another wet and windy morning. We went down to the bar, where we ordered a tea/coffee, and asked for a sandwich in lieu of breakfast, as we had been told we could. The man said no at first, but after asking, went off to get our sandwich. When it came, it was an unappetising warmed ham(?) and cheese sandwich, which we only ate half of! Our porter had asked us about a taxi, and was ordering it for 7.20, but no taxi came. At first we weren’t very worried, as the bus didn’t leave until 8 o’clock, but by 7.30 we were a bit anxious. Our man had telephoned numerous times, and stood out in the rain, trying to hail a taxi. By 7.45 we were getting really worried. I went out to the deserted street, while our man made yet another phone call. When I saw a taxi approaching, I waved frantically, and he pulled in. We got to the bus depot with just a few minutes to spare. I headed for the bus while Adrian dealt with the taxi driver and the luggage. We managed to get seats across the aisle, but just afterwards the bus was completely full, and left on time at 8 o’clock. We hadn’t dare think what might have happened if we hadn’t caught it, as there was no other way of getting to Havana, and then on to Viñales.
The windows of the bus soon steamed up, so we couldn’t see much, but later they cleared. As we were often near the sea, we could see the waves crashing up. Matanzas didn’t look so attractive on just driving through, and on such a dismal day – it just looked like the crumbling town that it was.
We reached Havana at 10.30, but it was 11.15 by the time we reached the bus station. We passed many of the fine monuments, but also much of the crumbling city, which made us think of some of the cities in Southern Italy.
We had bought a large bottle of water at the hotel, and had put it on the luggage rack, but when we reached Havana we couldn’t find it, which was annoying, as drinking water is a problem.
Adrian dashed off to book tickets for our onward journey to Viñales, and was pleased to find that there was still plenty of room. The bus didn’t leave until 2 o’clock, so after a bit we ascended the stairs to the ‘cafeteria’, which was devoid of any food, but on enquiring we found that we could have a ‘sandwich’. This was a heated cheese, ham and burger sandwich – the staple food of Cuba it seems! We washed it down with a beer.
The bus was pretty full by the time we left (on time again). Once out of Havana (which we will be visiting later) we passed through mostly flat, rural country, with hills to the north. We saw fields of tobacco being grown, and passed a lot of livestock – cattle, horses and goats – the former two often pulling carts.
The man put on a video of an unpleasant American film, which I didn’t watch, but couldn’t help but hear. On the first bus, the television was set at a 30º angle to its casing, which would have made watching interesting!
We drove through the largish town of Pinar del Rio, which looked very lively, and had pretty pastel coloured houses.
A ‘camel bus’ – built to transport loads of passengers
By now the sky was clearing, as we climbed up to the town of Viñales. When the bus stopped, we looked out to see about 30 or more people all standing with their cards, touting for business and hoping that people would come and stay in their house. We already had a hotel booked, so while Adrian got the bags, I got a taxi. Joseito drove us out to ‘La Ermita’, a pleasant but rather posh (for us) place set overlooking Viñales wide valley, with its lumpy hills beyond.
The ‘hotel’ is spread out, with many steps to walk up and down to get to our room. We had to walk past the attractive pool. All seemed very nice, but we did have a big problem in making the safe work. We don’t usually bother with safes, but as money is such a difficulty in Cuba (no ATMs, so much cash on hand) we have had to.
Out on the balcony, 3 swallowtail butterflies flew past, and a tuneful bird alighted on the rooftop. We walked across to the bar, where we enjoyed a mojito. Later we made our way to the restaurant, where we were served by ‘Adrian’s Auntie Olive’ instead of the attractive young waitresses of Varadero. The menu was rather restricted, and my ‘chicken of Viñales’ tasted nothing like it, and the ‘vegetables cooked to your choice’ was tinned mixed veg! Not very impressive! Desserts were ‘rice, French toast or fruit and cheese’, but fruit was ‘off’! We asked if we could have the meal put on our room bill, but this was not an option! All the trappings, but they haven’t quite got it right.
Tuesday 22nd January Around Viñales
We looked out early to see a lovely sky, and the day turned out better than the last two, and was quite warm and sunny in the afternoon.
The breakfast wasn’t up to much, and the coffee pretty awful – I resorted to instant decaf. We went up to find out about tours, but discovered that the jeep tour into the hills wasn’t on – they had no jeep at the moment! The guided walks couldn’t go today because it was too wet underfoot.
We opted to walk down into Viñales and see what we could find. It was a pleasant walk for a couple of kilometres as we gradually descended to the small town. Most people said ‘ola’ as they passed.
The main street was bustling with people. We very soon came upon the bus stop – we had seen in Lonely Planet that a ‘hop on-hop off’ system operated here too. A bus was almost due – and this time it came on time, so we decided to ‘hop on’. The ‘guide’ gave an occasional commentary and told us what we were passing. We went into the limestone hills, and stopped by the mouth of a large cave, set up as a dining area like one we had been to in Mexico. The bus stopped by another cave entrance before returning to the town. It actually made 4 ‘legs’, one of them being up to our hotel, so we used that to return in the late afternoon.
We went up to another hotel viewpoint, and passed the National Park and then on to the ‘Prehistoric Mural’. We got off here, and went to view the large mural, which is painted onto the 617m high rock face, and features prehistoric animals and large figures of early man in a 120m long painting. It was designed in 1961, and took 15 men 5 years to complete.
The huge ‘prehistoric Mural’
It is set in lovely grounds, with a highly recommended restaurant, so that’s where we had our lunch. We were served a ‘traditional meal’ - roast pork with beans and rice (of course) and other trimmings. Pudding was ‘chocolate blancmange’, but I had to opt out of the coffee, as it came sweet. We were entertained by a group of six black musicians, but they lacked the spark of the Varadero group.
Back on the bus we chatted to a young English chap we had met earlier. He was a solicitor from Wimbledon, but was taking 9 months off to go round the world. He reminded us of Sara’s Chris, Aiden Taylor and Hugh Grant.
We got off in town, and found that we couldn’t book our return bus to Havana for Friday until tomorrow. We’d thought about hiring a car for one or two days, but the chaps were ‘out of the office’. When they finally returned, the chap said that you could only book a car for immediate use, so we intend returning in the morning although we wanted to pay by visa and their machine had ‘stopped’ working. We’d spied a small supermarket of sorts, and in there bought a supply of drink – water, rum, whisky and wine, along with some corned beef, cheese and biscuits, which we intend to eat for supper tonight.
Back at our hotel, we both had a ‘refreshing’ swim in the beautifully located pool, before our first short laze in the sun.
Adrian then had a brain wave that perhaps we could hire a car from the hotel, so we went up to enquire. After much deliberation and sorting of difficulties, we managed to hire a car for the next two days (and pay by visa!).
We came back to eat our rather frugal supper, enhanced by our bottle of wine, sitting on our pleasant balcony. We had seen a small pink frog on the light above our door.
Wednesday 23rd January By car to a beautiful beach 130 km
It was a surprise to wake to a really misty morning, but this later turned into a beautiful day. After breakfast, we got ready for our lift down into Viñales, where we were able to pick up our little car. We should be able to drive it down to Viñales on Friday morning, when we catch the bus back to Havana. We still weren’t able to book the bus – the man said to arrive on Friday and it would be OK. Let’s hope that it is!
We headed off to the National Park Visitors Centre, where there were information boards in Spanish and English. There are lots of walks you could do from here, but at this time it was still misty. We hadn’t been able to obtain a map – the car hire man had rejoicingly given us his last leaflet, but the map in it was minimal.
We drove out of Viñales, enjoying the quiet of the countryside. Chickens scampered across the road, often followed by a brood of little chicks. Bullocks pulled carts of all sorts, including a stash of tobacco leaves. We saw 2 young owl-like birds of prey, and two vultures spreading their wings. We just revelled in the tranquillity, and by now the mist was clearing.
Rural scene near Vinales
We came to the small village of El Moncada, where there is an entrance to a huge cave system. We didnt visit this, but close by we stopped by the memorial to Los Doce Malagones 12 locals who had foiled a counter revolution in 1959. The huge poured-concrete memorial of one of the men had been erected in 1999.
Huge statue at El Moncada
We had to pay $1 each to enter, and were shown around a museum in the small building which the men had used. The lady showing us around was most upset that we couldn’t understand much of her Spanish, but we did get the gist of it. By now it was really hot, and we enjoyed seeing more birds and flowers. The lady picked us each a large yellow hibiscus flower. There was a grand waterfall and fountain set up by the statue, unfortunately not working, as so many things here.
We now continued on our pretty route to Caya Jutias, which was luckily well signposted all the way. Perhaps this was because it cost $5 each to enter (plus $1 fee to ‘mind the car’). We headed out along a long causeway to a beautiful white sandy beach. We stopped to look at a metal lighthouse, built by USA in 1902, before continuing to ‘the beach’.
The restaurant ‘specialising in seafood’ was closed for restoration, but there was a little thatched shack on the beach. After a swim in the glorious turquoise water, we ordered the ‘filleted fish’ on the menu. They looked at me in astonishment, and said that it would be an hour. (they were barbecuing chicken). We were already pretty hungry, but busied ourselves walking along the lovely beach, with its coral and shells. While I had a second swim, Adrian rested in the shade. We did eventually get our meal – you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful situation.
We now set off back, through the town of Santa Lucia, where we literally went round in a complete circle before finding the right road out. This road defied description in its surface – or non surface. The potholes were numerous, large and deep. It was like driving a slalom course avoiding them! Needless to say we saw virtually no other cars, and the scenery was lovely, with the ‘lumpy’ mountain range to the south. We passed through one or two humble, pretty little villages.
Finally we arrived back at Viñales, where we found that the banks were already closed (we needed to change some more money into Cuban, and the hotel exchange had ‘no money’). The shop where we bought water yesterday was closed, and back at the hotel, the shop there had just closed (still only 4.30 pm), so we couldn’t get any drinking water. Wonder of wonders though – our blocked sink, which we had complained about both yesterday and today, had been cleared.
I went for a quick swim and then we sat out on our balcony with a drink, enjoying the last of the sun.
In the evening we took advantage of having transport and drove down into Viñales to dine at Casa de Dom Tomas – the oldest house in Viñales, and the place recommended to eat at. We had the house cocktail – trapiche, and ate the house speciality which was a type of paella with lobster and other meats. The full moon shone down as we drove back to the hotel. We enquired about the internet, but it wasn’t working!
Thursday 24th January We drive to Soroa and Las Terrazas 300km
It was a beautiful morning, with mist in the valley. We went over for breakfast, and left at about 9.00 am. The shop in Viñales wasn’t open (is it ever!), so we couldn’t buy any water. Adrian went into the bank as we had to change some money into Cuban – this took almost half an hour.
We intended to drive today to Soroa and Las Terrazas, taking the scenic route there, and returning by the ‘motorway’. With a lack of maps, and virtually no sign posts, we knew that this wasn’t going to be easy. In fact the first road we took out of Viñales didn’t go!
We settled down to enjoy the rural atmosphere – men on horseback wearing wellies (which made us think of Lesotho), bulls pulling carts, tractors and horses pulling truck-loads of people.
I stopped to photograph the pretty pink trees we have been seeing.
It was a very long way, first north (often signposted to another island beach Caya Leviso), and then on to Bahia Honda. This was the first town/village where we found a name. We knew that the road we wanted was soon afterwards, but had to travel the road three times before we found it, having asked about 6 different people.
We often wondered if we were on the right road – the surface, or lack of it, compared with yesterday’s, with dreadful potholes again.
Eventually we came to the turn off to Las Terrazas. This is now a Unesco ‘biosphere reserve’, having been a former agricultural area which had fallen into neglect. It was a bit like being in rainforest. We stopped to eat at Casa Union, and afterwards walked around the surrounding gardens, which made us think of Central America with its coffee and ginger plants. We ate fried pork with ‘crisps’ – an apology for chips. Adrian had a beer, and I had a reasonable glass of house wine. Two elderly gents provided a bit of occasional music, one singing, and one on guitar.
We drove on to Banos San Juan, where I had a lovely swim in a swimming hole with little waterfalls coming into it. Lots of locals were enjoying themselves here. I even had a second swim at another ‘hole’ – a glorious spot.
Refreshing Banos San Juan
We now left Las Terrazas and made for nearby Soroa. A hotel has been established here, but we were looking for the orchid gardens, which had been built between 1943-53 by a Spanish lawyer Tomas Camacho in memory of his wife and daughter. The setting and lay-out were wonderful, with numerous paths and steps, but we didn’t see many of the supposedly 700 orchid species in flower.
We had even more trouble in finding the waterfall ‘Salto del Arco iris’. When we did (and paid yet another fee), it was a long walk through primeval forest, up and down steps, to the top of the falls. We couldn’t see much of the falls, but we weren’t up to climbing down, and then up, the long way to the bottom. It was now 5.00pm, and we had the long drive back to Viñales. After a few kilometres we came to the motorway. As there was not one sign to indicate that we were there, we crossed over it, and had to return – still not a sign!
It was a Cuban motorway, which meant horses and cars, pedestrians, cattle and cyclists – often travelling in the opposite direction to the carriageway!
The drive was sometimes made difficult by the setting sun, and by the appearance of obstructions – people, vehicles etc in unexpected places.
There was a lovely golden sky as we neared Pinar del Sol, which we bypassed to take the road up to Viñales. We came to an unsigned junction, and it was here that we met Tomas and his brother Ernesto. They asked for a lift to Viñales – still 12 km. They said that they had been waiting for 3 hours for a lift. (We see people waiting for lifts everywhere we go)
Tomas spoke excellent English – he said that he was an economist, and had to learn English. He had plenty of chat – he said that Cuba was in a very bad way. When I said that the people seemed happy, he said ‘Only Cubans laugh as they die’. He seemed a bit of a ‘wise guy’, and he asked us where we were eating tonight, as his family ran a restaurant. And so we ended up driving to this house, which was set up as a restaurant, and booking a meal for later this evening.
Then it was back to La Ermita to unload the car, and sort ourselves for our 8.00 am bus to Havana tomorrow.
We returned to the restaurant for 9.00 pm to find that the other group of people there, who were just finishing their meal, were on the ‘Explore’ trip – we had debated whether to travel with them or Imaginative Traveller. They seemed a nice group, with a ‘fun’ leader, and had had a good time.
Then food started arriving for us, and there was lots of it! Plates and plates of fruit, rice, yucca, salad, and then the lobster. There was enough to feed a family of 6 for a week! I had asked for no garlic or onion, but Adrian’s lobster came laced with garlic. It severely affected me just by drinking from the same water bottle as Adrian. We enjoyed a nice bottle of Soroa white wine, which was somewhat expensive. Needless to say, there was no sign of Tomas, who said that he would be there, and would pay for our drinks!
We returned to our hotel at 10.30, and spoke to the black night guard in the car park. He liked to listen to the radio, to learn about London and other foreign places – we think on the world service. Sadly his AA batteries were flat, and there were no new ones to be bought anywhere.
Friday 25th January We take the bus back to Havana, and watch a beautiful ballet in the evening
The alarm went at 6 o’clock so that we could get organised for our 8 o’clock bus to Havana. As Adrian took the bags over to the car – a long journey of very many steps, the sky gradually lightened. The moon faded and the sun rose as we left the hotel. We’d managed to get a bit of breakfast, although the coffee hadn’t yet arrived, so I had to have some instant decaf.
We passed lots of people as we drove down into Viñales. All went well as we handed back the car, and booked our tickets for the bus. Again it left promptly at 8.00 am. We’d looked out to the little village square while we were waiting. A hen with her 7 small chicks walked along the path and up the steps to the square.
We took the winding road back to Pinar del Rio, and once out of there travelled by the motorway to Havana, passing the fields of crops, especially tobacco at first.
We stopped at the same little shack as on the way, and I was able to get a coffee, and a bottle of water. Tomas had asked for some water yesterday, and had taken one of our bottles. We now had none left, and one is not recommended to drink tap water in Cuba. My few purifying tablets had run out. Once again, we had to try to avoid all the people smoking the instant they got off the coach.
We reached the bus station in Havana at 11.30, but by the time I’d visited the loo, all the taxis had gone. We were soon directed to a small minibus, where the driver told us to give him the money in secret because of the police. He was not an official taxi.
We found the entrance to Hotel Lincoln, where in 1958 racing driver Juan Fangio had been kidnapped by Castro on the eve of the Cuban Grand Prix, as a political protest (they were going kidnap Stirling Moss but he was on his honeymoon!). The hotel seemed like something from a sleazy 30’s movie. We were glad that Imaginative Traveller has booked in here tomorrow night, or we might have wondered what we’d come to! Like everything around it, the hotel was crumbling. While we booked in, with a very quietly spoken man who we could hardly understand, the song ‘I will always love you’ in Spanish emanated from the 24 hour bar ‘Los 3 Monitos’ (the 3 monkeys).
The man took us and our luggage up in a tiny lift (capacity 8 people, but they would have to be small) to our barren room, where he said the safe didn’t work, but he still gave us the key. We opened the shuttered windows to look out onto more of crumbling Havana, and then made our way up to the 9th floor – the roof – to try to get some lunch. I asked for a menu, and 5 minutes later the waiter came and said that there wasn’t a menu, but they had chicken or pork. Not wanting a large meal, we asked for a chicken sandwich, which surprised him somewhat! We ordered a beer, and after a while, the meal arrived – a large plate with chips and salad as well as the sandwich. We could look out on all sides to Havana below, and to the sea in one direction. We were the only people eating there.
We walked out to explore a bit of Havana, walking first along the Malecon, the road beside the sea (built in 1902), until we came to a fort. There were plans on the ground of the many forts which had stood here, the first in the 1500s. There was a wild hooting of car horns, and an old fifties car went by, with the bride sitting erect on the back, her white dress flowing. We wandered through a square to a park which led to the Museum of the Revolution.
Football in front of the Museum of the Revolution
We didn’t visit today, but just took in the atmosphere, with a bit of the old city wall outside, and several of the strange looking ‘tuk tuk’ taxis, and the bride’s car once more.
We were now in Prado, a wide street, where it all seemed to happen. Along the centre was a wide walkway, like in Barcelona
In the shady ‘Prado’
We wandered down here until we came to ‘Central Park’, a small leafy park with a marble statue of Marti in the centre, which was just completing being nicely cleaned up. There were some splendid hotels nearby, and the ornate Grand Theatre. We walked into the entrance, and on impulse bought tickets for the National Ballet of Cuba for tonight.
The Grand Theatre
Next to this building was the Capitol Building, looking very grand, and much like the one in Washington.
Opposite here we found a small shop, with very little in it, but we did manage to buy a large bottle of water.
We now thought that we’d take a cycle taxi back to the hotel, but at $5, this was no cheaper than a taxi, and even then he stopped before the hotel (everybody in Cuba seems to be ‘on the make’).
Later we walked along to the theatre, stopping on the way to have a meal in a local place, where the only meal was a set one – fish/chicken with the usual extras – more than we needed.
Once we reached the theatre, there were crowds of people everywhere. We made our way to what we thought were our seats, but just to be sure, I asked the usherette. She took us right around to the other side, where the next person showed us back to where we had been! There did seem to be a lot of confusion about seats. The theatre – apparently the oldest one in the western hemisphere – is really grand, with five lots of tiered seats at the sides. We were in the stalls, near the front. There were lots of little girls all dressed up in their best – some aspiring ballerinas!
We didn’t know what ballet was being performed, but it wasn’t long before I realised that it was the Nutcracker! What could be better! The performance was absolutely fantastic, with beautiful dancing and just stunning costumes. It was a real feast for the eyes, and mine actually felt quite damp! Impossible to describe, but sometimes you have to get it right – and it only cost $20 each! And it was only on for 4 nights too!
As we walked back to our hotel, we realised that it must have rained while we were inside. It had been a glorious evening.
Saturday 26th January Confusing hotels in Havana
It was a beautiful morning as we ate our breakfast ‘up on the roof’. The breakfast was actually quite good. In the crowded lift (only one of the two are working, and have been for years – for all the guests and the workers!) we met a lady from Denver. She was with a small group, and was very chatty. We were surprised to find Americans here, but she said that you could come if you were there for religious reasons. We didn’t find out what religion, but they were all really nice. She told us that she was 64, and came from Tuscumbia, Alabama, the home of Helen Keller. We said that we had been to Helen Keller’s home last year, which really pleased her.
After breakfast, we thought that we’d ask at the desk if we would be changing rooms, as from tonight we would be with Imaginative Traveller. That’s when the fun started – and the problem wasn’t solved until after midday! Not only were we in a different room, but a different hotel!
The ladies at the desk had no note (on their scrappy bits of paper booking system) of either us or Imaginative. One lady took our voucher, and didn’t return. We waited in the lobby (we later found that there was a very large and grand lobby, but it is being refurbished, and at present is about 4 feet wide!) for an absolute age. I had another ‘Imaginative’ piece of paper in my hand, which was very lucky, as a couple came in and noticed it. They were Jim and Heather from White Rock, Vancouver, and were also on our trip. They were equally confused, but had stayed at the Plaza Hotel last night, where the staff didn’t have a booking for them for tonight. We walked back with them to the Plaza Hotel, where we met Annina from Zurich, also on the trip, and also confused! Adrian managed to phone Alberto, the tour leader (Jim had been given a piece of paper with more info on it), and he said that he’d meet us at Lincoln Hotel at midday. We walked back there, where we saw our American friends having a drink at the outside café. We joined them, and chatted some more. Lana had sent someone off to get Helen Keller books from the library, as she wanted to give one to the Helen Keller museum, and one to a friend. She said that if the man had managed to get three books, she’d give me one. She was true to her word, and left it at the front desk for me, as they were soon leaving. We went to pack our bags and luckily I noticed the book when we came down, and asked the ladies for it.
Sure enough, Alberto turned up, and tried to explain the situation. As the Lincoln was being refurbished, and following complaints from clients, Imaginative had changed to the Plaza Hotel (but the Lincoln was still on all the info!)
We took a taxi to the Plaza Hotel, and sat in the large impressive lounge until we had our rooms allocated. We then went with the other 3 to nearby Inglaterra Hotel, where we ate lunch – my shrimp salad was good, but conversation was difficult as the music was loud.
We left on our own to visit the enormous Capitol Building, having walked around it first, and looking at the five steam engines which Adrian had spied behind a fence, in a rough parking area. The man there said that they were his, and asked for $1 each from us for looking at them!
We took an unguided tour of the opulent Capitol building, which was built in 1926 for $17million and had been used as the parliament until Castro’s time, but is now just left as a museum (he was having none of that in a communist country).
The dome of the Capitol Building
Latest Digital Technology on the Capitol Steps
We wandered back to the Plaza Hotel, where for the first time we were able to use the Internet, so sent a message to our 4 kids, and also to Lena to say happy birthday. We had been given a card, and had entered the words ‘Scratch here’ (in Spanish!) before uncovering the number! Adrian looked up about our proposed trip to Antarctica next January, to find that the cabin we had booked had been sold, so we were offered one on another deck. We hope that it’s still available!
Sitting in the lounge were the Explore group from the other day, spending their last little while before being driven to the airport to fly home. We chatted to them, and found that they’d really enjoyed their trip.
We met more of our group – David and Eileen from Manchester
Kiki from Notting Hill, originally from Ghana
Wendy from Toronto
Fiona from Hong Kong
After our introductory meeting, we all walked out to a restaurant where we ate prawn kebabs and were entertained by a group of musicians and dramatic Cuban Flamenco dancers.
It was a great evening. We wandered back along the atmospheric streets, arriving back at Hotel Plaza at midnight.
Sunday 27th January A tour of old Havana
We went up onto the roof for breakfast, sharing a table with David, Eileen and Wendy. Again there were great views, including the adjacent grand Bacardi building, and also a wide selection of food.
In the lobby we met the last of the group
William and Grace from Hong Kong
Simon and Angela from Birmingham
Brian from Wigan
We set off for a tour of the old town of Havana, with Alberto leading us.
We walked first down the Prado to the sea front, and then into Havana Vieja – the old town. It was really atmospheric wandering along the old colonial streets, and good to see that much has been restored.
We visited the 4 squares – Cathedral Square, where we peeped into the catholic cathedral and heard the lovely singing of a Sunday service;
This is Havana
The attractive Cathedral Square
Plaza de Armas, where Adrian was besieged by 3 young women in costume, who posed with him for a photograph, and then extorted money from him;
Plaza de San Francisco de Asis, where the church dating originally from 1608 is now a concert hall, and Plaza Vieja, which had originally been a market place, had been converted into a parking area under Batista, and is now being restored to its former grandeur.
Smartly renovated Plaza Vieja
The tour ended here, and several of us made for the Taberna de la Muralla, where we ate lunch (I had excellent ‘shrimp cocktail, the others had hamburgers) and drank draught beer. It rained heavily while we were eating.
On our walk we had stopped by Hotel Ambos Mundos, where we took the lift to the top floor, and drank daiquiris. This was Ernest Hemingway’s hang out, where he supposedly began writing ‘For whom the bell tolls’.
After lunch we left the others and made for the Museum of the Revolution, where, although much of the labelling was in both Spanish and English, I still felt bewildered by it all. We did see the yacht Granma which had brought Castro and 81 others from Mexico to Cuba in 1956.
In the evening we all walked out to a restaurant which entailed walking up lots of stairs. The place was quite smart, but the ambience wasn’t so good. We both ordered small meals – Adrian had a prawn cocktail similar to mine at lunchtime, and I had chicken soup, which wasn’t brilliant. We got back to the hotel at 10.45 – nobody took up Alberto’s offer of going on to a bar.
Monday 28th January We travel to the south coast at Trinidad
This is the day that Cubans celebrate the birth of writer/poet and revolutionary hero Jose Marti (1853 - 1895). Hence our 8.30 departure was delayed by about half an hour, as the bus couldn’t get through the streets, which were blocked by the parade of schoolchildren. It did mean that we got a chance to watch the children assemble, most in their school uniform, but some dressed in costume, so we didn’t mind.
Statue of Jose Marti in Central Park Havana
When our bus arrived, with driver Benedicto, we were pleased to see that it was very smart, with plenty of room. We set off towards the southern coast, through flat country with fields of sugar cane. While we were travelling, Alberto gave us a non-stop talk on Cuba’s turbulent history. It was difficult to take it all in, and most people confessed to dozing a bit.
We stopped at a wayside café surrounded by exotic flowers for loo/coffee before continuing to Cienfuegos, known as ‘the pearl of the south’.
We walked along the pedestrian street to the large and attractive main square, which was surrounded by lovely Spanish looking buildings – the capitol building, the cathedral, a theatre and a college.
Main Square, Cienfuegos
None of these were open on this public holiday. We walked back along the street, and had a non-salubrious hamburger and orange drink before exploring some more of the streets. The town is situated on a large bay, and we walked to both sides of the peninsula it is on. We were then driven by bus to the end of another peninsula, Punta Gorda, where we stopped by Palacio de Valle, a beautiful building where we ascended to the roof where there were splendid views.
Palacio de Valle
While most people enjoyed a mojito, we were entertained by a lively group of 5 rhythmic musicians.
We now continued to the town of Trinidad, driving through it to our hotel Costasur on the Ancon peninsula. We were given a welcome drink of a ‘barcardian’ (rum and coke), and were just in time to catch the sun going down from this lovely location.
We sat with Annina and Kiki again to eat our ‘all inclusive meal’, then moved on to the pool area and sat with Brian with another drink (or 2! – all drinks included).
Tuesday 29th January The delightful town of Trinidad
We left after breakfast at 9 o’clock in the bus, for a morning tour of Trinidad. This delightful little town, another World Heritage Site, dates from 1514. The streets are cobbled, and the houses painted in pastel colours.
Alberto took us into a ‘ration shop’, where a board showed the prices and amount allowed of certain rationed goods. On the spartan shelves were a few bars of soap and lots of packets of cigarettes.
There were lots of stalls in the cobbled streets selling crocheted items and linen clothes, and I succumbed to buying one or two! I also bought two tiny Cuban drums.
We walked into the vast Catholic church, which had a statue of Christ from Veracruz, Mexico. It had been bound for Spain, but the boat got stranded off the Cuban coast, and the statue ended up here!
We had a drink at an outside bar where there was a band playing, and dancers performing – they even got us up to join in.
We were driven back to our hotel for lunch, where we sat with Alberto and Benedicto.
Alberto in his England shirt
We now had a free afternoon to enjoy this lovely setting. I swam in the pool, then we both made for the beach, where we swam in the sea and lazed on strange but comfortable plastic loungers. With a free drink beside us no wonder it was 5 o’clock when we left!
We were able to use the Internet, sharing our hours ticket with David and Eileen. I just managed to catch the sunset, before we both had a stroll along the beach.
The dining room was very crowded at suppertime, and some of our group weren’t allowed in until it had cleared a bit. The disaster was that they’d run out of white wine, in the ‘all inclusive’ hotel. I even tried the bar, but that had just run out too. We had a glass or two of red, before that ran out as well!
At 9.00 pm a group of us set off in the bus for Trinidad. We walked along the cobbled streets until we came to the church. We sat on the hard cobbled steps beside the church, where we were entertained by a Cuban band as we drank our mojito/beer. A lot of locals got up to dance, and we admired their energy and expertise. Dancers came here to be seen, and their dancing was like sensual jiving! Just before we left, an African drumming group was playing, and I liked their music. We got back to the hotel at midnight.
Wednesday 30th January Through former sugar country to Camaguey
We left at 8.30, having set the alarm for 6 o’clock. We were being driven to Camaguey today, but our first stop was at the Valle de los Ingenios, not far from Trinidad. This whole area had been a sugar cane area in the 19th century, but now the sugar cane fields lie desolate. During the Russian era (1960-1990), output had been increased until the whole countryside was sugar. With the fall of Russia and the depression of world sugar prices, Cuba’s main export collapsed and half the population is out of work. We stopped at Manaca Izmaga, where there was a ruined 44 metre high tower which some people climbed. The tower had been a look out to watch over the slaves. Beneath it were more stalls selling the fine embroidered cloths.
On the bus, Alberto told us how ‘the system’ works in Cuba. He described the 4 possible candidates to succeed Fidel Castro, and we took a vote on it.
After driving through more flat former sugar lands, we had a nice late morning stop for loo/coffee. The toilets had lovely flower blooms decorating them, even if only a tiny trickle of water came out of the taps! While I drank my coffee (the coffee at breakfast was weak and cold!), Adrian finally succeeded in buying a map of Cuba.
We continued through the town called Florida to our destination – Camaguey. Our hotel, the Plaza, is right opposite the railway station.
What do you mean a train is coming!
We had lunch of pasta/pizza before setting off as a group in ‘bicitaxis’ to see some of the town. Our cyclist, Alexandrio, spoke a little bit of English, and seemed intelligent. He said that he had 3 small children, but as he was working every day, he didn’t see much of them. At one point he had a flat tyre, so we had to divert to a little ‘shop’ to pump it up.
The streets of Camaguey (which dates from 1514) are like a labyrinth, apparently to confuse the pirates who attacked the town. The town had initially been built nearer the sea, but had moved inland to foil the pirates. We made several stops at different squares, most of which had statues in. One was to local Independence war hero Ignatio Agrimonte. There were other more modern statues in another street, taken from real characters of the town. Beside the one of a man reading a newspaper, was the actual man reading his!
There were several large churches in the town, and apparently Catholicism is strong, particularly after the pope visited in 1998 (it had been more or less banned until then - officially anyway). We walked through a farmers market, where there were stalls of fruits and vegetables neatly arranged.
We stopped by the last square and walked back to our hotel, savouring some of the atmosphere.
One man and his statue!
Later we walked out together to a family restaurant, where we were rather cramped, but my fish was good as was Adrian’s lamb. After that we walked on to a bar for a drink.