A Travellerspoint blog

Down in the valley

West to Viñales

all seasons in one day

The rain kept coming as we left Havana, and water was splashing over the sea wall, flooding the Malecón. We were lucky to be heading off.

The weather wasn’t exactly sunny three hours away in Viñales either, but at least it wasn’t raining much. We settled in to our casa particulares and unpacked. In Cuba, there aren’t many hotels, but locals are able to rent out rooms in their houses for tourists. They’re a relatively cheap and sociable way to travel, and the hosts are usually happy to cook or wash your clothes for a fee.

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Hanging out at the casa

In Viñales, nearly everyone seems to rent out rooms in their house – according to the Lonely Planet there are nearly 300 accommodation options in the small city (of about 12-15 thousand people). It’s a quaint little place, with rocking chairs on every porch, and tractors and horse-and-carts regularly cruising the streets.

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Wifi is available in the main square!

There wasn’t much time to relax though, because we were off on another tour in classic cars. Our softly spoken guide took us to a lookout at a hotel, which gave great views of the valley, shrouded in cloud though it was. He seemed personally aggrieved that the weather wasn’t better.

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The amazing mountains surrounding the city are limestone formations called mogotes.

Then we were off to a tobacco plantation, as if we hadn’t had enough at the cigar factory the previous day. We met the Politically Incorrect Tobacco Farmer, a colourful personality who had interesting ideas about a cigar’s effect on male fertility (‘good for making babies’).

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They explained in greater detail how they choose the more flavoursome leaves for stronger cigars, and milder leaves for others. And then offered us a puff, which some people took up. Roaming chickens and dogs and plentiful pictures of Ché made for a quintessential Cuban experience.

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Finally we made it to one of the caves in a mogote. Popular among tour groups, you walk through a section of the cave, then catch a boat along a natural pool to see formations. We saw such unconvincing likenesses as the ‘upside-down champagne bottle’ and ‘profile of an Indian face’, and ‘Colombus’s three ships’.

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Back at the casa particular, our host made us a delicious and extravagant dinner, “the best we’ve had so far” according to Dad. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but it was great to have a home-cooked meal.

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Osniyel was our guide the next morning. He wore jeans, a cowboy hat and gumboots, and appropriately, worked with horses. Indeed, it was in this capacity that we met him – he was taking us on a horse ride around the valley.

Only Mum, Al and Caroline had any horse-riding experience, really, but they still decided to put me on Niño the stallion, who Osniyel explained was “tranquil but very strong.” I didn’t see his tranquil side much. He certainly wasn’t as tranquil as Caramelo, Matilda’s horse, who the guide said was “the slowest horse in all of Cuba.” We can still hear Osniyel’s cries of “CAR-A-MELLOOOOO!” echo around the valley, urging the horse to hurry up.

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At the halfway mark we stopped at a cave, and looked again at the unconvincing likenesses in cave formations. Our guide was staggered that we were from Australia, and asked us what animals we had other than the kangaroo.

Anyway, it was somewhat enjoyable even if we all finished very sore. I did spend more time trying to stay on the horse than I did enjoying the views, which was a bit of a shame, because the views were pretty nice.

In the afternoon, just as it started to rain, we set off to the Grand Cave of St. Thomas. It was a steep and slippery climb up to Cuba’s largest cave system, and it certainly was grand inside. The inappropriate and overfamiliar guide detracted from the experience a bit, particularly for Matilda.

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And then on the way back, the rain really picked up, to a dangerous extent. The taxi carrying Linda, Dad, Rosie and Mat had a few problems: the string attaching the windscreen wiper broke off, so the driver had to open his door to see. Then smoke started to come in through that open door, leading to fears that the engine might explode. They made it back, just.

Later in the evening, the survivors put their near-death experience behind them as we checked out the Viñales nightlife. It apparently consisted of one fairly ordinary live band, and one fairly ordinary and crowded bar.

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On Sunday morning more taxis picked us up – not quite the same vintage or as cobbled together as the old classic cars, probably from the 70s – and drove us to Cayo Jutías, a beach 66km away on Cuba’s northern coast. The road had so many potholes that the drivers were heading to the dirt just off the side to avoid them.

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The beach itself was good, but not brilliant; perhaps the recent weather had churned up the sand and washed some away. We had a good day nonetheless, bobbing up and down in the calm waters, reading books, and exploring the mangroves, disturbing hundreds of crabs along the way.

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The drive was nice, too, even if it was very slow, with plenty of classic Cuban country scenes. Just before we got back into town we checked out the giant 1960s ‘prehistoric’ mural, which took 18 artists four years to paint. We all essentially agreed with Matilda’s opinion that those years were a complete waste of time.

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Off again tomorrow, to another nature-filled destination, Las Terrazas.

When we left the next morning, Mum left behind some toys for the kids, pens and a calendar, and our host was absolutely thrilled:

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Rosie and Niurkis, our host

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This one doesn't really fit anywhere in the blog, but I just had to include it

Posted by samoline 00:33 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Havana go back there already (parte dos)

The second of our two days in the Cuban capital

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Our second day was just as busy as the first. Leyanis picked us up again in the morning, and took us to a cigar factory in modern Havana. The cigar-smoking guide told us about the great conditions the workers have, and how the factory maintains such a high quality for the many brands of cigars they make. He didn’t mention any health concerns.

We did get to chat to some of the cigar rollers and cutters, and they seemed happy enough. Perhaps it was the five free cigars they get to take home every day. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take pictures of them working.

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The gift shop

Our tour of the modern city continued in beautiful vintage open top cars, a Buick and an Oldsmobile. The hot sun belted down with no roof to protect us, but that didn’t rain on our parade. It’s a pretty luxurious way to travel.

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The Macindoes and I split off into the Buick with new guide who I’ll leave unnamed, because he was a bit more critical of the regime than his counterpart. As a recent university graduate, there was no prospect of work in his field, which relies on reasonable internet access. He said that Cuba was ‘forty years behind’, but even that was better than five or six years ago, when they were much further behind still.

Anyway, he took us to some lovely parts of the city, including the imposing and Soviet-like Revolutionary Square, complete with giant faces of Ché and his lesser-known fellow revolutionary Camilo Cienfuegos. The 144-metre monument, the highest point in the city, has a lift inside that has been out of order for five years, we heard.

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The Capitol - renovations ongoing for the last 6 years

We saw the Colón Cemetery, which was going to house the body of Cristóbal Colón (better known as Christopher Columbus), but he never actually made it there.

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Colón Cemetery's grand entrance

There’s an urban forest, which is quite nice in the photos, but the river running through it is very polluted and a bit smelly.

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And we saw the newer, posher districts, which have the biggest and most luxurious houses, and today host embassies from around the world.

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At the National Hotel (facing the USA)

After a delicious lunch served by the angriest waitress in the world, we walked across to the Museo de la Revolución, the Museum of the Revolution. It’s hosed in the former palace of the president, which I suppose is quite poetic given the change in power.

Their slogan outside roughly translates ‘all the history’, which isn’t exactly true – it’s fairly partisan, as you might expect. There’s no mention of the firing squads in the Revolution’s early days, or the collapse of the Soviet Union and economic stagnation.

But it was very interesting nonetheless, hearing about the final years of ‘democracy’, and the popular support for Fidel, Ché, and Cienfuegos. There are tanks, boats and planes used by the 26th of July movement, an early name for the revolutionaries, and parts of American planes shot down over the Bay of Pigs.

It’s fairly anti-USA generally, really, including these caricatures of Reagan, Bush Sr. and Bush Jr. The upside-down book was a nice touch, I thought, even if the rest was a bit distasteful. The captions say something like: “thank you, cretins, for allowing socialism to develop and thrive.”

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The eternal flame

While Ro and Mat went to a salsa lesson, Caroline, Mum, Dad and I went to a nearby bar that had a fantastic band playing lively Cuban music. The flautist/saxophonist was possibly the most talented musician I’d ever seen.

The musicians we saw after dinner were possibly even better. We went to a jazz club where the band kept swapping members and instruments in and out. The drummer (not the one pictured), trumpeter and the singers were unbelievably good. Matilda, who is a bit prone to hyperbole to be fair, said she didn’t think there could be anyone better in the world – certainly better than any of the singers we hear on the radio. We caught a taxi back and arrived home well after midnight. We’re such party animals.

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(Speaking of party animals, Ro and Mat went out afterwards, and only got back after 2am. Unfortunately for them, the hostel’s door was locked, nobody was answering the door, and it was raining extremely heavily. Eventually Dad heard their screaming and went downstairs to let them in.)

Posted by samoline 23:43 Archived in Cuba Comments (0)

Havana go back there already (parte una)

Two beautiful, busy days in Cuba’s capital

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Followers of this blog will know that I have a habit of comparing places, and often ranking them. This often isn’t really fair – it’s hardly a controlled trial, and might be heavily affected by the weather, health, and luck – and each place should be appreciated in its own right, and not compared to some other town.

Having said that, Havana compares very favourably to all Latin American cities we’ve been to, maybe on a par with Buenos Aires and behind only Rio de Janeiro. The architecture here is charming, the cars are charming and the people are charming, and the atmosphere is lively. It’s a lot like stepping back in time.

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Stepping back in time to when tobacco ads were still allowed...

A large part of this is the embargo, and the economic paralysis this has caused. The colonial era buildings are only now being restored, and the vintage cars are abundant due to import restrictions after the Cuban Revolution (1959). Incomes are low and people can’t afford air conditioners, so they wander out onto the streets at night to cool down.

Perhaps it also explains why people are so friendly, and why the music is so great. With limited internet and TV, Cubanos socialise, and jam on their bongos and saxophones rather than stay inside. We were asked many times on a short walk around the city where we were from and whether we were enjoying Cuba (and when we say Australia they always say ‘Ah, Australia! Kangaroo!’).

On the way from the chaotic, ancient airport, Vladimir the taxi driver – named after Lenin, not Putin – told us the model and year of all the vintage cars. The oldest was from 1948, still going reasonably smoothly.

From what we’ve heard, the people are friendly but the food leaves a lot to be desired. Our first dinner was pretty good though: delicious Spanish cuisine on a rooftop overlooking the old city. Good start to the next section of our trip.

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The mural in our hotel showing the street back when the Spanish were still around

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Rooftop breakfast at hour hotel
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On our first full day we had to change our money over. ATM access is limited, and very few places take credit cards, so you have to take buckets of cash – Canadian dollars and Euros preferred, because US dollars attract a 10% fee. This is easier said than done though, because lots of locals want to change their money too, and the queues at the casa de cambio are long and slow. (Don’t necessarily take any of this as travel advice; things are changing very quickly here so make sure you check with an up-to-date source.)

The queue meant we were late to meet our guide, Leyanis. She was tiny but lively and idealistic, and she showed us the best sites around the old city. It was a hot trek, but we saw some great street art, more incredible colonial architecture, and plenty of important historical monuments.

There were grand plazas, bars visited by Hemingway, and small parks that we learned were the sites of collapsed buildings. We even ducked into a synagogue. We learnt, too, about the restoration project, which aims to strengthen and beautify the buildings of the old city. There’s a fair way to go yet, but the photos below show the difference it makes.

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This window is where parents could place unwanted babies to be looked after by the orphanage

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Sam modelling a kippa, Cuban-style

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What was also striking was the number of tourists, and in some ways, the amount of services geared towards tourists. I reckon there’s been a recent spike in tourism, likely because it’s high season and certainly because just weeks ago, direct flights have started from the US.

We said goodbye to Leyanis, had lunch, and made our way back across the city to the arte Cubano section of the fine arts museum. For a small and relatively poor country, they punch above their weight in creative endeavours, and that came through in some of the brilliant art from the colonial period to today.

And then, just in time to see the sunset, we made it to the Malecón, or seafront boulevard, for a magnificent view of the city and the bay.

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As if that wasn’t good enough, we went out for dinner in a fairly posh area of the city, driven in 1950 and 1954 Chevrolets. As Al said, “this is living.”

He wasn’t so keen on the crowded bar we went to after dinner though, and neither was I really. The Floridita was another of Hemingway’s haunts, and the supposed birthplace of the daiquiri, so it’s a special place, but after a long day we were ready for bed.

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Posted by samoline 23:06 Archived in Cuba Comments (1)

Over the moon in Cancún

The Heselev/Hughes clan arrive (eventually) for a day of beachside fun

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View The Mexicube on samoline's travel map.

Warning: we’re about to do a bulk upload. Please read them all if you’re bored, or a masochist. Otherwise, you can peruse the pictures, or read the first Havana blog. That’s not a bad one.

But you can do whatever you want. Don’t let a blog tell you what to do. Live your own life.

As mentioned in the last edition, my family were slow to get to Cancún, as they missed their flight in Houston. While we spent the night in luxury, they were stuck in a Houston airport hotel, resulting in this conversation:

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But they arrived safely the next morning (without their bags, which somehow got stuck in Houston too, but they did come later), exhausted and excited. The Marriott somehow thought that Rosie was a Marriott Rewards member, which clearly she’s not, so her and Matilda got an upgrade to the top floor. Not a bad view from there:

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And Mat and Ro made the most of it too

A few of us went down to a convenience store to buy some snacks, and Mum bought a few beers to drink on the balcony. When we got back, Rosie realised the beers were non-alcoholic, not exactly Mum’s favourite. So we hatched a plan: I, the teetotaller, would pretend to really like the beer, and see what Mum thought. Our faces should have given it away, but Mum was extremely surprised, and didn’t notice the lack of alcohol until she’d finished a whole can herself.

We swam in the sea and in the pool, and the new arrivals had a nap. In the evening we caught the bus into town, following the recommendation of a friend. On the long, hot, crowded bus ride, Mat and Ro managed to sleep with their heads banging against the window.

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The next morning, we went for a quick swim, then packed up and headed out of Mexico.

Posted by samoline 23:00 Archived in Mexico Comments (0)

Ruined for ruins

A ruinous* tour of the Maya sites of the Yucatán *Not according to the traditional, or indeed correct, use of that word

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View The Mexicube on samoline's travel map.

Sam

We left you in Cancún last Thursday night, and we left the city early on Friday morning on an organised tour. We met our driver, Raymundo, the burliest Mexican I’ve ever seen, and our diminutive and knowledgable guide Ricardo, who would be showing us around for the next three days.

Our first stop was Ek’ Balam, black jaguar in Maya, a ruined city that reached its peak in the 8th Century. Only a part has been excavated, but this area includes the Acropolis, a huge multi-platform building with decorative friezes and spectacular views over the surrounding jungle.

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Looking down on a couple of the other buildings

We dropped in on Valladolid, a pretty colonial city with a nice church, convent and main square, where we devoured corn-flavoured ice cream, complete with real bits of corn.

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The garden in the convent

And in the late afternoon we made it to Mérida, a bigger and probably more beautiful colonial city, also with a big cathedral, lively main square and grand municipal buildings surrounding the plaza.

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The Cathedral

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The Governer's Palace

After dinner, we joined the crowds in the street next to the square to watch ‘the ball game’. Sometimes called Pok-Ta-Pok but sometimes left unnamed, this game was clearly played at Mayan cities for generations. Some cities have more than ten elaborate ball courts built specifically for the purpose. But the rules have got somewhat lost in time, and nobody knows exactly how it would have been played.

We saw the best guess. There were more pre-game activities than the AFL grand final, with smoke, speeches and ceremonies. The game itself was a bit of a let down. It consists of two teams trying to pass a big, heavy, bouncy rubber ball through a two-metre high hoop, using only their hips. It looks very difficult, but also a bit boring – it’s not that hard to see why it died out. There were two goals, but they took a while to come.

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The next day we sprinted off early to Kabah, a relatively small but stunning ruin that we had almost entirely to ourselves. (There’s so many in this area that tourists are spoiled for choice.)

We saw the Mayan-style arch that was one of the entrances to the walled city, and then walked around the partially reconstructed palaces, replete with symbolic masks as decoration, and iguanas sleeping in the morning sun.

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Then over to Uxmal (pronounced ush-mal), a huge Mayan city that our veteran guide said was his favourite to visit on the whole peninsula. It was incredibly hot and there was a lot of walking up stairs, but what was really breathtaking was the architecture. From the bold oval pyramid, to the gargantuan plaza surrounded by four awesome temples and everything in between, it was awe-inspiring, and in the top couple of sites we’d seen.

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By the time we reached our hotel, it was late in the afternoon. But there was no rest. After a quick swim we were off to the sound and light show at Chichén Itzá, one of the New Seven Wonders of the World (the archaeological site, not the sound and light show). We wandered around the site first, seeing the great pyramid and gigantic ball court in semi-darkness, and then had our minds blown by high velocity lasers and eardrums destroyed by high volume speakers.

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The light and sound show did ruin the surprise a bit for the next day, I thought. We went back and saw the whole site in daylight, but having seen it the previous night there was less of a wow factor. It's a difficult life. Even so, it was pretty great, and the pyramid of El Castillo is spectacular.

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Skulls decorating one of the altars

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The 'Temple of a Thousand Columns', which actually has many more than a thousand according to Ricardo

We finished the grand tour with a swim in the pool of Cenote Ik Kil, another of those limestone sinkholes that have crystal clear, cool waters. It wasn’t that busy, and the water was suitably refreshing.

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Lunch, and then a long drive back to Cancún, where we said goodbye to Raymundo and Ricardo until next time.

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Ricardo is pretty short

The rest of my family were supposed to arrive in the evening, but thanks to US Customs they missed their final leg, and were stuck in Houston. Unfortunately for them they also missed out on this:

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Due to Mum wanting to spend all the money on her salary sacrifice card, we’re staying at the Marriott for two nights, and it’s pretty, pretty good.

Anyway, better be off to see if the Heselev/Hughes clan have made it. This will likely be our last entry for a while, given the difficulties with internet access in Cuba. We'll have a mega update when we get back. Adiós amigos!

Posted by samoline 06:01 Archived in Mexico Comments (1)

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