04/08/2013, Shelter Bay marina, Colon.
Mexico and back to Tuatara.
Among our souvenirs from Cuba was an unhealthy dose of streaming colds for us both. Alan felt the worst, don't men always, so we piled out of the airport bus in Cancun spotted a good hotel across the road and were soon back in the western world, internet, TV, takeaways and a well stocked pharmacy down the road. The heavily armed police inside and outside the Cancun airport had also been a reality check, we didn't know whether to feel safe or worried. It is a little scary how soon armed guards and police everywhere, even at the supermarket becomes the norm and they become invisible. We never felt unsafe or threatened the people of the Yucatan seemed a friendly helpful bunch of amigos.
We flew from Havana across to Cancun on the Yucatan peninsula. Cancun is nothing to write home about but it is the gateway airport for the hundreds of beach resorts along the Caribbean coast at Playa del Carmen and Isla Mujeres. We weren't in Mexico for the beaches we wanted to visit Mayan Mexico. The buses in Mexico are a comfortable, air conditioned, cost effective pleasure to ride in. Our first long distance trip was the 4 hours from Cancun to Merida. The long flat highway through uninspiring scrubby landscape was a little boring, I was a little worried the driver would fall asleep with boredom, no corners, very little traffic and not even a loo stop.
Merida however was far from boring, although very hot, the temperature in the 30s everyday. Merida reminded me a lot of Trinidad in Cuba, Spanish colonial buildings, pretty plazas and music. We arrived on Sunday in time to spend the afternoon wandering the market in the Plaza Grande, we sat in the cool of the Cathedral to rest our colds, had a heart stopping moment when our bank card took a bit too long to slide out of a money machine and generally filled in time until a traditional dancing display started in front of the lovely pink Municipal building. Every night of the year in Merida there are free musical events. On Monday night we returned to the Plaza for more traditional dancing and on Tueday night we went to Plaza de Santiago for dinner and listened to the dance band and watched couples twirl around the plaza to their favourite 50s dance music.
We spent 3 nights in Merida a night longer than we had planned. We don't usually stay in the pool type hotel but the Yucatan Vista Inn was in our price range, our colds had slowed us down and Merida was a lovely place to be. The pool was a cool haven from the afternoon heat. The region is winding up for the hotter wet season, a trip earlier in the year would have been better but our timetable was not geared that way. Wandering around in the cool evening admiring the lit up colonial buildings and plazas, Merida was busier with locals and tourists than in the day time. We weren't the only ones hiding from the daytime heat.
We visited the Mayan ruins at Dzibilchaltun just outside Merida and were a little disappointed they weren't as impressive as the write up said. Maybe if we had been there a few days later on the 21st of March when the sun shone through then arch way on the temple we would have been more impressed. On the solstice we were at Palenque and were impressed and amazed. Mayan pyramids and ancient history amongst rainforest just as I imagined.
Palenque is an 8 hour bus ride south of Merida. Another lovely ADO bus, two movies this time and loo stops for which my bladder was eternally grateful. We didn't need the movies really as the scenery improved the dry scrubby plains turned into rolling green pastures full of cattle, real life cowboys rounding up cattle on horseback, a few acres of palm oil here and there, glimpses of rainforest, rivers and little towns.. We had moved from the Yucatan to the Chiapas region, still a Mayan stronghold even today the population is 60 % Mayan.
Palenque is the Spanish name, according to my Lonely Planet the Mayan name was more likely Lakamba and was first occupied in 100BC and flourished until about 740AD and finally abandoned around 900 AD. The site is about 15sq km but only a small amount, relatively speaking has been excavated. The area has many temples the tallest one being the Templo des Inscripciones. We climbed the steep steps of this temple and others getting some great views and lots of exercise. These Mayan pyramids had us wondering which is more grand and awe inspiring the pyramids of the Egyptians or the Mayans. Difficult to say but that fact that the modern Mayans hadn't succumbed completely to tourism and put a paved road at the base of their Pyramids won my vote. Although there are still souvenir stalls dotted throughout the site, the noisy howler monkeys in the tall trees are more intriguing then the smelly desert camels of Cairo.
As I have said we were at Palenque on solstice, also Alans birthday, and as we wandered around we came across a Mayan solstice ceremony at the base of the Templo del Sol. The small group of white clad worshippers danced in a circle to the beat of a drum, turning to face the four points of the compass. We couldn't understand it completely but we could tell this was not a tourist demo and the few of us watching, sat quietly in the shade until it all got a bit repetitive and our attention wandered to our lunch deprived stomachs.
The next day we started early on the next leg of our Mayan journey. In Palenque we booked a two day trip that got us to two more Mayan sites in Mexico, a night in a Mayan Cabana, a trip down the river to Guatemala where we met a bus to take us to Flores the closest town to the towering pyramids of ancient Tikal. The van picked us up at 6am and we found we were about 30 years older than everyone else in the van, the youngsters slept the hour or so to the breakfast stop we enjoyed the scenery more farms cattle rainforest and little towns. I can understand the lure of the US for some Mexicans after seeing the one room shacks and poverty in some of those places.
At Frontera Corozal we got on a small river boat and went for 22 kms up the Rio Usumacinta to Yaxchilan. We climbed the steep steps to the Acropolis and here we could imagine Indiana Jones bursting out of some secret tunnel or come crashing out of the jungle searching for lost treasure.
After our return trip down the river the van bumped past road workers to Bonampak. The men were fixing potholes with concrete mixed on the side of the road. The empty cement bags along with tree branches were then used as road makers to warn motorists of the wet concrete.
Bonampak is a small Mayan site, the draw card is the beautiful frescos inside
the Templo de las Pinturas. The day had been long, hot and interesting we were pleased to be staying near Frontera Corozol instead of taking the long trip back to Palenque as most of the others were. Our Mayan Cabana was beside a pretty little stream and waterfall. We did worry about the mosquitos getting through the narrow gaps in the wall boards. Thanks to running the fan all night we had a comfortable mosquito free night.
Next morning we had a very civilized 8am start, we were picked up by that days van from Palenque and deposited by the Rio Usumacinta again. The river boat took us up stream this time to Bethal where we entered Guatemala. Reminded us of when we entered Laos from Thailand, river and boats nearly identical. The bus from there to Flores was a very distant cousin to the Mexico buses. No AC and narrow seats but we survived.
Flores is situated on the banks of Lago de Peten Itza, in fact where we stayed was on a little island connected to the mainland by a small causeway. Flores was even hotter than Mexico.
"hot! This is only 35deg wait until next month it gets to 45deg!"
We didn't intend to wait. The next morning we caught the 4.30am bus to Tikal for a cool morning walk along some of the 10k of rainforest shaded paths. We arrived at Tikal at 6am just as the mist was clearing, a coati (looks a bit like a raccoon) snuffled through the damp grass and peacock coloured turkeys picked up bugs all oblivious to our camera clicks.
The bus/guide combination ticket was an excellent idea, we got to Tikal in the cool and before the crowds and our guide Donald Gonzales, " my name is easy to remember, just think of Donald Duck and Speedy Gonzales", gave us all the information we had missed on our guideless wandering at Palenque. The towering steep sided pyramids, the tallest about 61 metres are surrounded by tall rainforest.
Only one can be climbed to get a view across the tree tops at the other pyramids. Our guide left us there and we found our way back to our start point and the bus stop. Tikal had lived up to all the hype we were not disappointed. Donald had told us a theory as to why Tikal had been abandoned, the Mayans had cut down all the trees to make way for agriculture and for cooking etc, there is no natural source of water, so no trees, no rain, no water to keep the huge reservoirs filled. Seems like a familiar story.
We had been at Tikal nearly 5 hours, the day was getting very hot, we were surprised at the number of people just entering the park in the heat of the day. We were ready for a sleep.
Forget Egypt go to visit the Mayans in Mexico and Guatemala a much more pleasant and dare I say it more awe inspiring visit. Pyramids and rainforest a great mix, thanks to Lasse and Lizbeth of S/V Hilda for giving us the inspiration for this trip.
Easter was approaching and our minds were wandering back to Tuatara and the Panama canal transit, Guatemala was hot and the cooler coast of Belize was tantalizingly close by. We looked at our options for getting to Caye Caulker an island in the Barrier reef system of Belize. Another early start 5am bus to Belize city and a ferry to Caye Caulker we could be there by lunch time the next day. By this time early starts were becoming the norm so off we went the next day to Belize.
The bus arrived at the ferry terminal just enough time to buy a snack and get on the ferry. Caye Caulker is a flat sandy island surrounded by blue sea. The roads are all sand only golf carts for transport not that you need it, everything is in walking distance. Alan was going to do some diving but the weather was a little rough so trips out to the Blue Hole where he wanted to go were cancelled. He decided to do some snorkeling instead. A morning trip out to the reef had him swimming with and handling stingrays.
We ended up having 4 nights on Caye Caulker a few days of holiday, something we haven't done for a long time. Usually our land trips are for seeing things and going places, we enjoyed the change of pace.
We flew out of Belize City on Good Friday, the ferry back to the city skimmed across the shallow water. We could see the bottom nearly all the way, no wonder we only saw catamarans anchored by the island.
Our flight took us to San Salvador where we changed planes for Panama. Being Good Friday not many people were flying. There was just 6 of us plus flight crew on the 94 seater plane to Panama city. Even though there was no one in first class they wouldn't let us shift not that we were crowded where we were!
The next afternoon we were back on Tuatara at Panamarina. Tuatara was safe and sound ready for moving to Colon and Shelter Bay Marina where we are now waiting for our canal transit on the 16th April.
www.pancanal.com you may see us going through.
Cuba Part 2
28 March 2013
Trinidad on the south coast is the third oldest city in Cuba. Now a World Heritage site but in pre Castro times this lovely Colonial town was already recognised as a National Monument. Havana and Trinidad are the two must sees for tourists, after those there are many other interesting places to visit in Cuba. We only had 10 days so decided on just 4 places and spent a few days in each. Cuba is a big island and travelling between places can take time. We had three nights in Trinidad we took our time wandering the cobble stone streets, admiring the pastel coloured houses and enjoying music in the cool of the evening. The south coast was a lot hotter than Havana, we were glad of the little courtyard off our room for afternoon siestas.
The elegant Colonial buildings around the Plaza Major are mainly museums and art galleries but in the 18th Century they were the homes of Sugar plantation owners. The surrounding country side was the main producer of sugar in Cuba although now tourism produces more income in the area with the sugar industry in decline. The pretty plaza is overlooked by the huge Cathedral, Iglesia Paroquial de la Santisima Trinidad with its plain but impressive interior. We went into the Architectural museum, a large restored house dating from 1735. The lady guiding us only had Spanish and we said,"no we don't need a guide, we only have a little espanol ". But she insisted and chatted a way in Spanish while we read the English labels. When we got around the corner out of sight of the main desk she produced a bag of embroidered cloths. We got the message, did we want to buy. Well as it happened I had already looked at some in the street. The beautiful cloths seemed a speciality of the area, I succumbed to one of hers it was lovely and better price than in the shops outside. Deal done, she indicated I should put it in my bag, out of sight, she stashed her bag and we continued on as if nothing happened!! One way for her to earn a little more money to go with the tips she gets from her guiding.
In the streets on the edge of the Plaza is a market for local people to sell their craft, jewellery, paintings, embroidery and some other ingenious items made from recycled cans. Cans turned into cameras that pop out a face, the tabs from cans combined with crochet to make little clutch bags and much more. While discussing these things 3 other NZers heard Alans, "bloody brilliant" and accused us of being Aussies!!! We soon corrected them about that, we couldn't be too rude as its always great to meet our fellow countryfolk and there doesn't seem to be many NZers in this part of the world. We had a nice chat over lunch, saying we may see them again in Trinidad, which we didn't but we did see them days and many miles later in Guatemala.
Being on the coast, Trinidad has some nice beaches so we decided to take the tourist circuit bus out to Playa Ancon and also visit the small marina. We knew that Patrick and Amanda had moved on to Cienfuegos but we would take a look anyway. The marina is only very small and the channel in is quite shallow so not many boats can get in. We found we did know someone there...well sort of, the yacht Tana Vika, we had never met but they come up on the Magellan Net from time to time.
"Come aboard for a cup of tea".
We spent our time between buses chatting, we never did get to the beach. Tony and Angela were off to Vinales by bus the next morning. That morning we had just booked a ticket to Vinales on the same bus. So we ended up spending the next few days in Vinales with them. It was nice to have some travelling companions for a while, Tony and Alan could talk boats for hours while Angela and I enjoyed the scenery.
Vinales is the tobacco growing area of Cuba in the Pinar del Rio province west of Havana. Valle de Vinales is full of green tobacco fields surrounding limestone hills called mogotes. The bus ride from Trinidad was a long one, through brown countryside and sugarcane fields. This is the dry season, the country side is very dry, that is until we climbed the last hill and looked down into the pretty green valley. Tobacco and maize fields dotted with small farm houses and thatched tobacco drying sheds. The bus driver had not said a word for about 9 hours but the proud way he said.
"Valle de Vinales"
as we crested the hill I could tell this was his home.
The town of Vinales is quite small every other house seems to be a Casa Particular and as the bus pulled up there was a bit of a scrum of Casa owners vying for customers. Carlos in Trinidad had booked us into Maria Luisa, "famillia", so we quickly spotted our host holding up our name and away we went, leaving the melee behind. We got down the road and realised Angela and Tony had been dragged off in the opposite direction by their marina "famillia "connection and no arrangements had been made for sundowners. After settling in we walked up the mainstreet , Vinales town is small there is really no where else to go but up the mainstreet! We soon spotted Tony and Angela arranging transport to Havana to meet their daughter 3 days later. Alan and I looked at each other.
What time are you going to Havana on Saturday?"
"in the morning."
We soon had a taxi sharing arrangement going , they would drop us at the airport and carry on into Havana . Going down to the marina had been a good idea. With all that organised we went off to decide what to do for the next 2 days over a cerveza or two. Peter and Raewyn on Saliander gave us their Cuba Lonely Planet back in the San Blas islands and also told us about Vinales so thanks to them we thoroughly enjoyed our time in the green Valle de Vinales.
Day one, the four of us shared a taxi tour of the outlying area. There is normally a tourist bus that does the rounds of all the places to see, but for some reason it wasn't operating. The taxis had taken up the slack and were doing the same circuit. We visited caves where runaway slaves had hidden, at Indian River cave we walked in and boated out, just a short distance but very pretty. We drove up to a hilltop hotel and had a magnificent view of the valley then drove up the opposite end for another view of the Mogotes rising from the valley floor. My Insight Guide to Cuba tells me that the mogotes are hard limestone hills which were left when the softer rock eroded eroded over millions of years. After taking a look at Fidels Mural de la Prehistorica which he had painted in 1960 on the rock face of a mogote. The mural is meant to show the emergence of Socialist man from the primal wilderness. Not sure that I saw that but it made a good backdrop for a photo of an ox in the field. Early in the tour we teamed up with another taxi tour, that driver could speak English ours couldn't so it was a good idea.
Shortly after leaving Fidels inspiration we turned up a farm road and stopped outside a farmhouse and tobacco drying shed. A little diversion from the bus route. We didn't mind after all part of the reason for going there was to see where the great Cuban cigar comes from. We don't smoke but Cuba without cigars is like New Zealand without hokey pokey icecream. Our English speaking taxi driver gave us a tour of the drying shed which was full of racks of drying leaves. We then went around to the back of the house to have coffee and a cigar rolling demonstration with of course the punch line which was buying cigars. The tobacco farmers have to sell 90% of their crop to the government at a set price which is to put it bluntly...is stuff all. The other 10% they can smoke or sell. The tobacco the farmers keep they dry then preserve in what I would call a marinade, which included lots of natural juices...I cant remember them all but there was rum,pineapple juice and guava amongst others. The tobacco is put in this marinade between two palm leaves and left for at least 50 days. The leaf is then pliable and ready to roll. The selling point for the farm bought cigars is that the process is all natural/organic where as the factories use chemicals to speed up the process. Now don't quote me on all this, I didn't write it down and we have done a few more things since then...a bit of memory fade! The farmer gave us a puff on a cigar...not that we know anything about cigars except you don't inhale. After buying a few cigars the tour was over and we returned to town for a 10 peso pizza for lunch.
We thought we would rock the afternoon away on the front porch of Maria Luisa before meeting Tony and Angela for sundowners. The front porch of every house in Vinales seems to have at least 2 rocking chairs ready and waiting. A place to watch the world go by..that is if you can find an empty one.
For sundowners we chose a bar that had live music from late afternoon to late night. That day the afternoon band, was led by an 84 year old patriarch/singer, the remaining band members were either his sons or grandchildren, a talented bunch. Between sets he chewed on fat cigar and came to talk to us. His children and many grandchildren are all talented musicians or singers. His grandson in Switzerland has started up a web site and posted videos of the band on UTube. Cuba may be an internet wilderness but with overseas contacts the music gets out. We enjoyed the music until it was time to return to the Casa for our evening meal of fresh fish.
Day two we had arranged for a guided walk into the valley. Our guide, Adrian picked us up at the Casa and we shared the walk with a couple from Austria. The Tana Vikas had a different guide from their Casa and went up a different valley than we did so we compared notes when we got back and found that each walk was the same but different. Adrian could speak excellent English and as we wandered up the uneven dirt track he stopped and explained the use of different plants, told us about the history, the farmers, the cock fights and tobacco farming. Cock fighting is illegal but still happening, a group of men passed us one carrying a cock under his arm. They disappeared into the hills. We noticed the bird had had the feathers shaved off both legs, apparently to keep it cool while fighting. The poor bird was shivering, such a cruel sport.
We passed oxen ploughing the fields, no tractors here. One farmer was using his team of two to pull a simple wooden contraption that cleared the sticks out of the ploughed earth. There was a trail of birds following behind to pick out the insects, an easy lunch.
Farmers were picking the tobacco, hanging the leaves on frames ready to take into the sheds.
Adrian filled in some gaps in our knowledge of tobacco leaf preparation when we visited a drying shed. Then onto another tobacco farmer more rolling demonstrations, but I must say not as good as the day before and the cigars were more expensive. We left a tip for his time and Adrian guided us back to Vinales again. I really enjoyed being out in the country side a nice change from towns no matter how pretty they are.
We had arranged to meet the others after lunch and we wandered town, visited a 100 year old garden and decided to take up our 84 year old musician's invitation to meet his wife of 53 years. We eventually found No 57 and were enthusiastically invited in for coffee, a tour of the garden and more importantly we met his wife. A lovely last afternoon in Cuba.
The next day we flew out of Havana, we had spent our last CUCs, passed on the Saliander, Cuba Lonely Planet to Tana Vika and were ready for the next stage of our trip...Mexico.
We have wonderful memories of our Cuba trip and both of us wholeheartedly recommend you go to Cuba and gather some memories of your own.
"Look at that one."
What make is it?"
"Did they really come out in that bright green?"
"At last a pink Cadillac."
For the first 3 days in Cuba we took numerous photos of Classic American cars. Stopping to look at them all until the novelty gradually wore off, there is more to Cuba than classic cars.
Friendly people, beautiful buildings, some crumbling some being restored, music, bumpy roads, comfortable tourist buses, blue water, lobsters, Che photos everywhere but none of Fidel, horse carts, bicitaxis, beggars, history, Hemmingway, cigars, proud poverty and much more. You really need to go and experience Cuba for yourself, I can only write about our experiences.
We arrived in Panamarina on a Friday and left for our trip the following Tuesday morning. A busy 4 days organising the boat, sourcing and booking flights and accommodation. By Sunday afternoon most of the booking was done which was lucky as the power at Panamarina went off just as I put the last load of washing in the dryer. No power for 24 hours also meant no internet. The only thing outstanding was confirmation of our Cubana Air flight out of Havana. That was a bit of a worry as we had been told that we needed that information to show immigration when we arrived at Havana, along with copies of our health insurance. As it turned out neither documents were asked for at Havana. No power for the printer to print all things needed for travelling including our boat papers so we can return to Panama without having an onward air ticket. Panamarina is not a true marina, the boats are on fore and aft moorings, which means rowing a few metres to shore and the office is shut Sunday and Monday which meant having to take our own printer ashore (our inverter is not working). Late Monday afternoon we noticed the dock light turn on...power at last. We loaded the printer and computer into the dinghy, paddled ashore and printed off everything including the Cubana ticket which popped into the In box just before the computer was turned off.
8am Tuesday morning our journey to La Habana began with a lift to shore by marina security, a 10 minute car ride to the bus stop, a 2 hour bus ride to Colon bus station where we had time for a quick snack before jumping on the bus to Panama city 3 hours away. The Colon bus station is not a place to linger so we were grateful that buses to Panama went every 30 minutes. $12US each for 5 hours of travel, not bad. We arrived at the huge Albrook bus terminal hungry and ready to stretch our legs. Lunch was easily found in the expansive food hall in the next door Mall. Probably one of the biggest food halls we have ever been in, I think there was every fast food known to the western world as well as many yet to make their name on the world stage. The long lanes of shops got the blood flowing through our legs while we searched for a shop to buy another camera. We eventually settled on a little Sony for those times when we didn't want to wave around the big camera. It has a nifty panoramic photo setting which we didn't realise until we got to the hotel, a setting that we have used quite alot on this trip. The last vehicle of the day was a taxi across town to our hotel, no energy left but to collapse on the bed and watch TV until dinner. The 6am alarm ding dong had been a long time ago and the alarm was set for 4.30am for the shuttle to the Panama, Tocumen airport.
Hunger drove us downstairs for dinner where we found out that the world in Central America had changed, Hugo Chavez the President of Venezuela had just died. The people at the bar were glued to the TV and the waitress told us very solemnly that Chavez had died. The next day while waiting for our change of plane in Costa Rico the TV s streamed the grief of Venezuala, outside flags flew at half mast. This was obviously a big deal in the region but in Cuba the death of their good friend had the fullest affect. The whole country was in official mourning, no music allowed anywhere. After a couple of days and talking to some Cubans we realised Cubans were worried, Chavez was the source of their oil, would his successor continue the support. The memory of the hungry years after the Soviet support pulled out, is fresh in minds of Cuba.
Cubans are poor some more than others and for a committed socialist country I was surprised at the number of beggars especially in Havana, doesn't socialism look after everyone, well apparently not. Whether you are a Doctor or a dish washer the difference in pay is very little, tourism jobs are better paid in that tips are available. Everyone earns between 20 and 30 CUC a month which is equal to the US$. Very little to live on even in low economy Cuba. Not surprisingly our guide in Vinales had given up being a teacher to walk people through the beautiful Vinales Valley. At 10CUC per person for our group of 4 he earned about a month and a half teacher salary in 4 hours. There are two money systems in Cuba, very simply, tourists have to use CUCs which are pegged to the US$, 1 to 1. Yes I know they don't like the US but it is very convenient to use the US$ as a currency indicator. Cubans use peso Cubanos which tourists are supposedly not meant to have but we had been advised to change about 10cuc, that got us 240 pesos, which lasted us for 10 days of lunches and a few tips for photos here and there. The Cubans want the CUCs so they can have access to more luxury items that are only sold in certain shops. Once we got our head around the money it was easy, hole in the wall restaurants produced 10 peso pizzas, meat and cheese sandwiches and guava juice for lunch, CUCs for everything else. Another separate currency seemed to be soap, except we were expected to produce it for free so that they could sell it on. We knew about this before we arrived and decided not to take part in this or any form of begging. With all that sorted we got on with the job of enjoying Cuba.
The Taxi from the airport delivered us to the door of our Casa Particular along the Prado in Havana, just on the edge of the old city.
"I hope this is ok, it looks a bit derelict."
I felt a bit like Alice as we stepped from one world into another. The derelict entrance way turned into a serene world of blue shutters, stained glass, cool tiles, an elegant lounge of piano and chandelier, rocking chairs and pot plants. Welcome to Alieda y Kenia our first Casa Particular. It seemed too good to be only 30CUC a night but no, we discovered that Casas ranged from 20 to 30 CUC a night throughout Cuba. A Casa Particular is a private house which has 2 or 3 rooms to let to tourists, they have to be registered and pay a set monthly tax whether or not they have guests. There are also hotels but for a close to the people experience the Casa is the way to go, we liked every Casa we stayed in and the people who ran them. Casa Carlos Colonial where we stayed in Trinidad was full of beautiful antiques, Manuel y Melbis at Cienfuegos was modern kitsch and potplants, Maria Luisa in Vinales was country with a touch of elegant antiques. All our rooms had ensuites so no walking around a strange home in the dark. Our Havana Casa was the most beautiful, the stained class windows above the 3 metre high interior doors were lovely examples of Cuban speciality known as vitrales. Tall blue wooden doors opened into blue and cream bedrooms. The 5 metre high stud was crowned by a matching blue wooden ceiling. The Casa is owned by Kenia a lively Cuban/German who conversed in a mix of Spanish/English and German and the more excited she got the more mixed it got. Although fun, the place achieved a more serene atmosphere when Kenia disappeared back to her other house and left us with the quietly efficient manager. We could use the elegant lounge but felt more at home using the rocking chairs and patting the cat in the tiled reception/dining area.
Food is always an interesting aspect of travelling, sourcing a variety of food in Cuba is obviously difficult , shops are virtually empty and although meals are big and of good quality there is a huge amount of meat and cheese on the menu. Lunch time sandwiches had a good amount of filling, the downside being it was just meat and cheese centimetres thick. The amount of filling we discarded would fill another sandwich. Evening meals consisted of big portions of meat or fish with rice and small amounts of vegetables. We chose to eat sandwiches and pizzas for lunch as two sit down meals a day was just too much. Breakfasts in the Casas were big enough to set you up for the day, a big plate of fresh fruit, the ever present guava juice, fresh bread and honey as well as eggs cooked in your favourite way. After three breakfasts in a row with eggs and meat sandwiches for lunch my stomach was complaining, something had to go. When I refused the eggs I had to harden my heart and think of my health rather than the disappointed look on the hosts faces. Most didn't seem to mind that I didnt want the ham with breakfast, but no eggs that was impossible, how could you get through the day without an egg for breakfast!
The best meals we had were in the Casa Particulares except for two restaurants, one in Havana and one in Cienfuegos. In the Casas we got three course dinners for 10cuc each, Manuel and Melbis served up soup and a huge grilled fish accompanied by potatoes and salad. They gave us a choice of rice or potatoes. Alan told them he would love potatoes as we had not had any for days and was missing his favourite vegetable. They took that on board and served potatoes done 3 ways!! We tried to refuse dessert, after all we had only managed half the fish, but we got ice cream anyway. The Blue Bahia restaurant at Cienfuegos served up another good meal accompanied by live piano music provided by their visiting Canadian friend.
The places to eat in Cuba for real Cuban food are in the Casa Particulares or in the family run Paladar. The Paladars started as family run restaurants in the front room or hall way of a home, just a few tables. Up until 1994 they were illegal, they then became legal and are now the best place to eat. There doesn't seem to be alot of them. Donna Blanquita, where we ate in Havana has spread out of the front room and on to the balcony giving a great view of the usually busy Prado. At Blue Bahia we knocked on the front door and were ushered into the front lounge which had been altered to fit in a bar and a place for the piano. We had a great evening at Donna Blanquita with Patrick and Amanda who were in Cuba on their yacht, Egret. They had great news, their crossing of the Atlantic without rudder had won them two prestigious yachting awards in England. They had also given us a little mention in the article they have had published in the Ocean Cruising Club magazine which has one of my photos of the mid ocean diesel transfer on the front cover.
We booked our first 3 nights in Havana through www.casaparticularcuba.org , Leo has several hundred Cuban Casas on his books, we looked through the site and selected one. That one was booked so he booked us into the delightful Alieda y Kenia. The first morning in Havana Leo came to see us and spent half an hour making sure we knew about the money system, how to get around, prices to pay and left us with a list of his contacts throughout Cuba. A fantastic service along with the pre arrival email he sent us full of information such as the cost of taxi from the airport, he also suggested bringing some clothes in our hand luggage as, "sometimes (not always) luggage to Cuba can get delayed, especially if getting connecting flights." Happily ours arrived with us. When we moved on to Cienfuegos we rang the next person on the list and he sorted out our accommodation. In that way we got passed around from Casa to Casa. Cuba is a network of families and friends, someone always knows someone with the service you want even if it is at the other end of the country.
We mainly travelled by bus between places. The buses are modern comfortable coaches, called tourist buses in Cuba as only tourists can travel in them and tourist cannot travel in local buses. Some of the roads away from the main highway are not the best so well sprung seats are a necessity. Rental cars are from $70 CUC a day and up so just for two that is an expensive way to travel and the bus system is so reasonable and easy, hiring a car is not necessary. We did travel the 80 kms from Cienfuegos to Trinidad in a 1951 Chysler Van. We asked our host about getting a taxi to Trinidad so we could stop along the way so of course he had a friend who turned up the next day with his taxi. Well he had a taxi sign in the window but I am not sure if he was legal as he drove very carefully past the few police posts we saw along the way. As it turned out there wasn't really anything that great to see along the way, don't believe everything you read!!! We enjoyed the journey and got him to stop to pick up a couple of hitch hikers. A mother and her little boy who went nearly all the way to Trinidad with us. Hitch hiking is very common thing for Cubans to do, there is not a lot of traffic on the road so some must have to wait a long time for a ride. We said we could pick up more but our driver seemed to think two was enough.
Trinidad is a delightful town despite the tourist feel to it. The town is one of the tourist jewels of Cuba. By the time we got to Cienfuegos, music was starting to make a comeback and by Trinidad the air was full of it again. In Trinidad we met some other New Zealanders and got to know Angela and Tony from the English sailing vessel Tana Vika. More of that in Part Two.