A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: samoline

The end of the road

A few relatively quiet days to finish

sunny 30 °C

Linda and Al waved goodbye on Monday morning, leaving the Heselev/Hughes clan all alone. We had a couple of relaxed days before heading off ourselves.

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Linda and Al starting their long journey home

The rest of that day was very relaxed indeed – we walked around old Trinidad some more, did some souvenir shopping and had a rest in the afternoon. We watched the sun set behind a church while listening to a great band on a rooftop bar.

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The main ‘modern’ square

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A sunsmart goat

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Watching the sun set

And after dinner we popped our heads in to the plush Iberostar Hotel, which amazingly offers free wifi for its guests (unheard of in Cuba, pretty much). Unfortunately not free for us.

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Clearly Monday was too relaxed, because we overcompensated a bit on Tuesday. Our host Jesús (plenty of jokes there: ‘you need help from Jesus’, ‘he’s a miracle worker’ etc.) helped us hired bikes and we rode off to the beach. It was about 16km on rubbish equipment, but it was pretty easy, with a lovely sea breeze as we cruised along the coast.

The beach was the nicest we’ve visited, by a long way, but then that’s not really saying much. It was very aesthetically pleasing but possibly a bit boring – no waves, and no appropriate sand on which to play cricket or build sandcastles. I’m sure you share my pain. We walked and swam for a few hours before deciding we’d had enough (although Dad needed some convincing that he’d had enough too).

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The ride back was less easy. The lovely sea breeze had turned into a stiff headwind, and the gentle hills on the way there seemed to have turned into the Alps, and the afternoon sun was oppressive. We struggled back into Trinidad.

We had a drink in town but were too tired to do much else. Mum and I went for a bit of walk, though, and Ro and Mat went to a salsa class run by a very exacting teacher, so I suppose we struggled through.

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Trinidad is lovely, but it feels extremely touristy at times, and as a result, even Dad’s seemingly endless enthusiasm for Cuban music had worn off. If we heard Guantanamero one more time someone was going to get hurt. Luckily we found a restaurant that had a band comprising of two guitarists, a drummer, a clarinettist and a brilliant singer. A good change-up.

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Wednesday rolled around and we got up early to go back to Havana. Jesús rose again to make us breakfast, and we were all ready to go by 7. Except the taxi didn’t turn up until nearly 8, giving us a chance to take a few more photos (as if they were needed, really):

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The tardiness wasn’t a problem in the end, because we made great time, and Mum had an hour to lunch with us before she had to go to the airport. Havana to Cancún to Houston to Frankfurt to Heathrow (and then to Aberaeron) is her itinerary; possibly even more demanding than ours. Good luck Mum, and say merry Christmas to everyone in Wales!

The final four had half a day to spare though, and we wanted to make the most of it. But we were tired, it was raining, and a couple of things were closed for seemingly no reason. We did a few things: we saw a photography exhibition, wandered the old city, and popped into a fabulous shop full of 1930s and earlier goodies, including postcards from Melbourne and Ballarat.

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Rosie and her mate Simón Bolívar

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More Havana architecture

For dinner, Dad was keen on a restaurant in Calle O’Reilly, which Barack Obama had eaten at when he was here a few months ago, and was obviously pretty popular. We’d tried to make a reservation in the afternoon, but they said they didn’t take any. So we just turned up early and got in – only to find out reasonably quickly that we were at a different O’Reilly’s.

We found the right one eventually, and the guy on the door looked apologetic when we said we didn’t have a reservation, as if he was going to say that we were out of luck. But we squeezed in, luckily, because Matilda rated it the best food she’d had in the whole country.

And then we took a taxi to Vedado, a newer part of the city, driving down the Malecón one last time. We had an ice cream, visited a pretty cool bar (we could have been in Melbourne save for the prices) and the girls kicked on to finish their time in Havana with a bang.

Posted by samoline 23:08 Archived in Cuba Comments (1)

The Holy Trinidad

To the colonial city of Trinidad. Entry comes with lots of pictures

sunny 31 °C

But first we stopped at Guanaroca Lake, famous for its flamingos and birdlife. Another charismatic guide – she’d learnt English from American movies and kept saying ‘Jesus!’ and ‘My god!’ – showed us the mangroves, crabs and plants on the walk in.

And then we took a boat ride on the tranquil lake, spotting cormorants, storks and eventually flamingos. They let us get way too close; clearly we were disturbing them, because they kept walking and then eventually flying away. The flying was pretty spectacular, though.

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Apparently around April to May, there are ten times the flamingos. Many migrate to Florida for the winter, if I understood correctly.

Then to Trinidad. Our taxi driver was playing American music quite loudly for most of the journey, so Rosie asked where Cubans get their foreign music. The internet access isn’t good enough to download songs, and we don’t think there’s anything for sale.

The answer is paquetas, or packets, containing a USB of (presumably pirated) movies, music, TV shows and others from the States, Argentina, Brazil and the rest of the world. For US$1, you can get 1GB of an assortment of these, reasonably up to date and apparently random. We asked who produces them, and who’s making the money, and he didn’t know. It’s fascinating how Cuba’s isolation doesn’t stop people from getting what they want.

Anyway, Trinidad is a very pretty colonial town that reminds me of a couple of the Brazilian mining towns Caroline and I visited about a year ago (http://samoline.travellerspoint.com/114/). Unfortunately Caroline isn’t here to agree or disagree with me.

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The view from the terrace of our casa

We took a walking tour with the extremely knowledgeable Javier, who answered hundreds of our questions as we visited squares, art galleries, restaurants, churches and bodegas (ration stores). The colonial buildings of the old city, built with sugar money from the 19th Century, transitioned into a more modern city, without cobblestone roads and with bigger blocks.

Rosie had the camera and took hundreds of photos, mostly of smiling people:

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People are allowed to throw their wastewater on the street on Saturdays (from sinks and things, not sewage), so there was a stream running down many roads

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We bought an artwork from this bloke (similar from the one behind)

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Prices at a bodega (ration store). A pack of cigarettes costs seven pesos, or about AU$0.35

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This building was supposed to be completed in April 2016, but it barely looks like construction has started. Someone has cheekily graffitied ‘2056’ next to the completion date

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The main old square, and above that, the art gallery occupying one side of it

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Rosie and Javi in the door to our casa

We had been recommended the Casa de la Música (House of Music) for after-dinner beats. The bands were ordinary, though, and more worryingly, there appeared to be a fire a short distance away, because there was ash flying through the air and smoke was clearly visible. (We asked the waiter, who said it was under control.)

If that smoke wasn’t enough, we were getting faces full of cigar smoke from over-enthusiastic tourists who have clearly convinced themselves that they are Cubanos. I was coughing all through the next day from all the passive smoking.

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The next day was Linda and Al’s last with us. We celebrated or commiserated by driving to Topes de Collantes, a protected area of mountains and rivers. Our 1951 Hudson Jet struggled up the steep hills at around 20km/h, but we made it eventually, seeing some interesting sights along the way.

Like the view from this lookout. Just below the summit, as it were, there was a man with a tarantula, which Linda gamely picked up twice (unfortunately no photographic evidence was taken).

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And we saw this very Soviet-looking apartment block, complete with rusting playground, built in 1970. Someone was getting a haircut out the front.

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Our guide, Junior, helped us practise our Spanish and we headed through coffee plantations and over streams, past oxen and eucalypts, culminating in a brilliant waterfall and a gorgeous – if very cold – pool at the bottom. We had it nearly to ourselves at the start, but tens of others came in as we were leaving.

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After a bit of a rest, we headed up to the tower of a nearby church to see the sunset. We were a bit late, but still got some reasonable shots.

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Posted by samoline 21:07 Archived in Cuba Comments (1)

The French, a fort, and a farewell

A couple of days in Cienfuegos

sunny 32 °C

We packed up and left Playa Larga, trying to understand the ramblings of the manic hostel owner with limited success. Our taxi driver seemed to know most people living around Cienfuegos, beeping and waving at just about every second car, and giving friendly gestures to people sitting in the street. We saw many more pro-Revolution billboards in that part of the world than we’ve seen elsewhere, too.

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Che was a 'gentleman without fear or blemish'

It was stinking hot in Cienfuegos city, and we had a merciful rest next to a fan after we arrived. Even our host in the hostel had a small towel to wipe his brow. But soon we headed out on a city tour, with a charismatic guide, Lesley, who spoke incredible English.

She told us about the arrival of the French in 1819, and how the Spanish let them set up a colony there as long as they dotted lions around the city to remind the people that they were in a Spanish colony. The rigid structure of the road system – even-numbered avenues and odd-numbered streets, each block 100 metres by 100 metres – was put down to the exacting French settlers, too. It makes the city pretty easy to navigate.

We saw French architecture (not that I can really distinguish colonial Spanish from colonial French buildings) and a few Art Deco blocks. Other highlights included the library’s original edition of Don Quixote, beautiful buildings around the central park, and an arcade with some billiards tables for Al. He was scathing of their condition, though.

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The range of architecture in Cienfuegos

Unfortunately, in the middle of that tour Caroline had to go back to the hostel to pick up her bags and leave us for good. She was heading back to Havana to fly home and go to work (see previous entry).

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Caroline starting her long journey home

In the evening, while I pined for my departed novia, we went to a little garden off the central park where a well-known local ‘oldies’ band was playing. They had some great tunes, and the oldies who had made it out – and there were quite a few – weren’t shy in getting up and dancing. One charmer, Shimon, had a few dances with Rosie and Mat and warmed everyone’s heart with his beaming smile.

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Rosie and Shimon

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Unusually, we had no specific activities planned for the next day. We all went for a walk along the Malecon (seafront boulevard) in the morning, then split up. While the others went into town to do some shopping, I walked the other way along the water to Punta Gorda, a breezy and stately neighbourhood to the south.

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Renowned 1950s/60s Afro-Cuban musician Benny Moré sang the Cienfuegos was the city 'that he liked best'

I saw grand clubs, lovely sea views, and houses that looked like they’d been transported from plantations in Louisiana (both would have been French, so they’re possibly very similar, I suppose). There’s also a completely over-the-top manor house, plastered with Moroccan touches, built by a wealthy and possibly crazy Spaniard in the 1910s.

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In Punta Gorda

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The almost absurd Palacio de Valle

The group reconvened in town and we all caught the ferry across to the heads of the bay. The boat was packed (and had far too few life jackets for the number of passengers) and Matilda felt a bit dehydrated/claustrophobic/exhausted and literally fainted in my arms before we’d even left.

She made it over to the other side but didn’t feel quite right, so we took it easy and didn’t explore too much. Not that there was much to explore. The only real attraction was the castle fort, built to protect the area from raiding pirates in the mid-18th Century, nearly a century before the city itself was founded. The museum inside was a bit rubbish but the views were great.

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The other highlight though was the views of Ciudad Nuclear (yes, Nuclear City), a Soviet-Cuban project of a nuclear power plant with nearby apartments built for workers. It fell through after the collapse of communism, and the empty apartment blocks stand abandoned, and look very eerie on the horizon. Unfortunately you can’t visit.

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Ciudad Nuclear

We returned to Cienfuegos, and sat in the park in the late afternoon, catching up on some internet time. Dad met another new friend, Gareth, from North Wales but now Perth.

In the evening some of us caught a horse-drawn cart back down to Punta Gorda for dinner. Our driver was a bit eccentric (the person guiding the horse, not the horse itself). After he worked out that my girlfriend wasn't there, he suggested I go dancing to ‘meet’ Cuban women. I assumed arguments about fidelity would be tossed aside, and my Spanish vocab isn’t good enough anyway, so instead I settled on saying that I can’t dance. “No problem,” he said, “after two, three mojitos, everyone can dance.”

And then we passed an Australian tourist he’d driven earlier, and he called out to her that we were Australian too, and she waved. That was fine, but then we passed East Asian tourists, and he called out “China! China!” to which he received confused shakes of the head and grimaces from the back seat.

Undeterred, he called out to the next group “Japan! Japan!” and when he got a confused nod, “Konnichi wa!” We were fairly glad to get out.

A nice dinner with views over the bay, and that was it for Cienfuegos.

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Posted by samoline 19:17 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Vamos a la playa (again)

South to the infamous Bay of Pigs

sunny 27 °C

We’re now in Playa Larga (long beach) at the northern tip of the Bay of Pigs, the site of the unsuccessful CIA-supported attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro in 1961. A small number of Cuban exiles landed on this beach in the ill-fated expedition.

That’s about the most exciting thing that you can say about the beach. It’s reasonably long and not very crowded but it’s narrow, and the water is an unappetising yellowy-green. The town itself is drab, and stiflingly hot during the day.

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One of the many propaganda signs on the way to Playa Larga

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We passed through 'Australia' on the way!

I’ll go back a bit first, to build up to the most interesting/amusing story of the first day. Our driver at Las Terrazas told us it would be five hours to Playa Larga, in his fairly cramped and airless van. Less than three-and-a-half hours later, we pulled up at our hostel. Mum was fast asleep still, because she’d taken a sleeping pill to get through the trip.

Fast forward an hour and we’re on the beach. Mum promptly lays down a towel next to Dad and falls asleep. Meanwhile, a bikini-clad woman behaving strangely comes up to us four kids, and asks us for money for clothes. (This is not very common in Cuba. People certainly aren’t rich, but their needs are generally taken care of.) We say ‘no, sorry’, and keep going.

When we get back to the parents, the same woman is sitting down next to them, talking at Dad – he hardly speaks a word of Spanish, she doesn’t speak a word of English – while stroking Mum’s hair as she sleeps. Dad’s not telling her to go away, though. He’s OK with continuing the ‘conversation’, as it were. And Mum’s evidently quite happy with the attention (or too unconscious to complain). So there’s a woman, possibly drunk or on drugs, patting Mum’s head, while asking Dad for things as he shrugs his shoulders. We didn’t get a picture, but the scene will be forever burnt into the album of our memories.

Later in the afternoon we went for a longer walk around the bay, followed for the entire journey by a very cute stray dog that was keen for us to throw things for her. We had mojitos and limonadas in a beachside bar, and wandered home.

After dinner – a whole snapper, freshly caught – two friends of the hostel owner turned up and played some music on a guitar and bongos, and got us to play traditional percussion instruments. Evidently we weren’t very good, because they took them off us reasonably quickly. But it was an amusing and entertaining evening anyway.

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We found out the next day why this is a popular destination, when we went to the reef, just off the side of the road ten minutes from town. Our hostel owner turned into a snorkelling guide and took five of us out, feeding hundreds of fish, looking at a ‘shipwreck’ (a deliberately-sunk fishing boat), and picking up starfish. It mightn’t have been as good as the Great Barrier Reef, but it was a lot cheaper (AU$13 each), and there wasn’t a long boat trip to get there.

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Ro, Mat and Mum took the more adventurous option and went diving. They only got to a depth of 4m, since the younger girls don’t have licences, but said it was excellent anyway. (The water was so clear that I think we would have seen much the same things, but don’t tell them that.)

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The snorkelers also went for a quick dip in a natural pool, formed by a long fault in the rock that runs through the national park.

In the late afternoon, we went on another outing along the Bay of Pigs. Our taxi driver dropped the three divers off at another beach. The rest of us – minus Al, who’s a bit unwell – made it to the town of Playa Girón. This was where most of the ‘mercenaries’ landed in 1961, and today it houses the Girón Museum, which tells the story of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

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Our taxi

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It’s hardly neutral, with pretty damning language towards the ‘unscrupulous’, ‘imperialistic’ enemies. It denounced the invaders as being part of the bourgeoisie, or being criminals, and paid tribute to the brave soldiers who were defending their homeland. It was an enlightening exhibition, even though we had to translate everything from Spanish (good practice).

Back in Playa Larga, the electricity was cut off to the whole town, supposedly because of a car accident involving a power line. We’re still waiting for it to come back on before we eat Caroline’s last dinner with us :(

This is the end of the bulk upload. We’ve done it now because Caroline has just arrived home, after a gruelling series of flights. So this is the last one for the time being - there’ll be a few more to come around the Christmas period when Sam arrives home. ¡Hasta pronto!

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Caroline

So, I may not have managed to write a blog during this trip (Sam's far too efficient), but I have managed to upload all these blogs despite my jetlag-addled brain. My trip home went remarkably smoothly given it involved four flights, five countries and three different immigration/customs. I'll need a bit of time to recover before the next adventure!

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Posted by samoline 01:29 Archived in Cuba Comments (2)

Lotsa trees in Las Terrazas

A day in the ‘eco-village’ of Las Terrazas

sunny 33 °C

Between Havana and Viñales there’s a lot of agriculture – coffee, tobacco and vegetables, mostly. But there’s a patch of lush vegetation, which was conserved and restored in the 1960s by early environmentalists, concerned about deforestation in Cuba. They also built a reservoir and constructed much-needed housing to form a village in the early 1970s.

The town of Las Terrazas is doing pretty well today, supporting 1200 inhabitants and attracting thousands of tourists from Havana. And it’s not hard to see why, with this sort of landscape:

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Unfortunately, if you want to go deep into the jungle you have to book a guide a day ahead, and we were only there for a night. But we followed the road about 7km in the heat and humidity to a disused coffee plantation, run by the French many years ago. There were pretty good views from there, too.

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The remains of the coffee plantation

We had lunch at the plantation, although they had very few of the items listed on their menu (not even white rice). When Rosie’s order was rebuffed for the third time, she asked the waiter, “¿Que tiene?” or “What do you have?”. Being sassy is a sign of progress in a foreign language.

The food they had was nice, though, and there was a band playing just for us. Obviously we looked like we would give them reasonable tips.

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We caught cabs book down that mountain and across the village to the Baños (baths) of San Juan. They’re actually just natural pools in a river, rather than baths per se, but very refreshing nonetheless.

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Re-energised post-bathes

For dinner we went to a vegetarian restaurant that has been in the village for years. We’d just been to another vego place in Viñales, and the menus looked quite similar. The introductory page was word-for-word identical, and the main courses were too. Dad asked, and found out that the Viñales place is an unauthorised copy (the food was probably better there though).

The next morning we had a quick brekky, used the internet for a tick – access here is limited, and relatively expensive – and headed off to the beach again.

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Morning mist in the Las Terrazas valley

Posted by samoline 01:09 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

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