Tuesday, 23 May 2017

Cuba - Back to Havana with some history along the way.

Very reluctantly we said goodbye to the lovely town of Trinidad and boarded the bus for the return trip to Havana. Luckily there was to be plenty of interest, and a couple of history lessons, along the way. 
The attractive tower with an ugly history

Our first stop, about an hour from Trinidad, was at Manaca Iznaga in the Valle de los Ingenios, now a UNESCO world heritage site for its beautiful natural scenery, the ruins of sugar mills and slaves quarters and the fading, elegant haciendas of the early mill owners.   It was from the dozens of sugar cane plantations in this valley that Trinidad gained most of its wealth in the 19th century.  There is still some sugar cane grown here however most of the mills were destroyed in the War of Independence and the Spanish-Cuban-American war of 1895 to 1898. Plantation owners moved to other parts of Cuba but over time the sugar industry has declined and is now merely a shadow of what it once was.

View from the tower of the linen market and slave owner's hacienda

The Manaca Iznaga plantation was bought by Pedro Iznaga in 1795, a ruthless man he became extremely wealthy through slave trafficking. Today the plantation is a peaceful place.  A linen market, displaying exquisite hand embroidered, snowy white, table cloths, clothing and bed linen, lines the entry to the spectacular 44 metre high tower which overlooks the estate. We climbed the tower to drink in the panoramic views over the surrounding countryside whilst learning of its ugly history as a watchtower to oversee the plantation slaves, make sure they worked hard and didn't escape. Sobering to say the least.

The linen is  all hand embroidered.  I bought beautiful dresses for my grand daughters and a snowy white  table cloth
  After pondering the terrible injustices Iznaga's slaves suffered, and taking a quick stroll through his cool, spacious mansion, now containing a restaurant,  we boarded the bus to continue to our next destination, Santa Clara and Ernesto Che Guevera's tomb. As I have mentioned before, all tourism in Cuba is government owned and operated so it came as no surprise that we were shown a documentary on the life and 'heroic' deeds of Che Guevara on the bus before we arrived at his mausoleum.

Che Guevera's mausoleum, no photos are allowed inside. Note the size of the people walking by
The  size and surroundings of the mausoleum are an indication of how much he was and still is revered in Cuba, if not by everyone at least officially. Entry to the tomb is up a grand staircase and the tomb itself is cool, cave like, dimly lit and silent.  Along with Che's tomb there are 38 other niches containing the remains of  guerillas killed in the unsuccessful Bolivian revolution along with Che. Each niche is decorated with a single fresh red carnation while Che's plaque is the most prominent and boasts several red carnations.  Alongside the tomb is a small museum, dedicated to him, filled with his belongings, memorabilia and photos. The large bronze statue of Che, looking out over the countryside at the front of the mausoleum is certainly impressive.

The only type of billboards you ever see in Cuba
Unfortunately time was of the essence and we still had a long way to go to reach Havana so the mausoleum was all we saw of Santa Clara. Ironically the city Che freed from Batista's corrupt rule and converted to conservative and socialist  is now considered to be one of Cuba's most edgy, go ahead and rebellious of cities. With a strong youth culture, Cuba's best rock festival and students at Santa Clara university testing the limits of censorship it is known as a city that sets trends and inspires creativity.
We finally arrived in Havana after a 4 hour drive through flat, fairly featureless countryside mesmerised by the lolling head of our guide as he gently dozed for much of the trip.  Well, there was one feature and that was the number of burnt out or burning cars we saw along the highway.  It seems keeping those old cars on the road can be a risky business.  It wouldn't surprise me if they were successfully repaired to drive another day.  Needs must!

As we drove into a busy Havana our guide proudly pointed out the stadium the Rolling Stones had performed at during their visit to Cuba.  It was clearly a big deal. As luck would have it I found the video of the Rolling Stones concert, Havana Moon, on the plane as I flew home.  What a fantastic concert, if you get the chance, watch it.

Late in the day we arrived back in the heart of Havana.  It's always good to come back to somewhere familiar and there was still some sightseeing to do.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Cruising the Carribean, snorkeling, and meeting iguanas

Having shivered all night due to an over zealous air conditioning unit I was really looking forward to spending the day under the hot Cuban sun. What better way to do that than to cruise on a catamaran across an impossibly blue, sparkling,  Caribbean sea. While most of our group of 12 had elected to go hiking, four of us opted for this cruise as an ideal way to spend our free day. Leaving from Marina Trinidad, about 20 minutes from the town, the boat was taking us to Cayo Blanco, a small reef island famed for the quality of it's diving and snorkeling.

With about 30 people aboard  the large catamaran we sailed out through green bushy headlands and onto a completely flat ocean.  After each claiming  a spot aboard we lay back to relax, chat, enjoy our surroundings and listen to the piped, toe tapping Cuban music.  This was the Caribbean and it was as perfect as I could have imagined.

Our catamaran at Cayo Blanco. The beaches there aren't great but the snorkeling and wild life are fantastic. (photo: Lynelle House)

What a perfect way to spend a day

After around two hours we arrived at Cayo Blanco.  Some people opted to land on the island but most stayed aboard to travel to a good snorkeling spot.  I love snorkeling, I love being immersed in that dreamy other world under water and here the quality of the coral and tropical fish was thrilling to say the least. After a good half hour in the water we headed back to the island for a lavish seafood, buffet lunch, served by the boat crew.
Snorkeling in a pristine sea.  Me in the middle, back to the camera  (photo: Lynelle House)
  Then it was time to relax before the homeward journey. I was idly watching a group of hermit crabs scurrying about when one of our group  said "Come and see this"  As I rounded the corner I saw several large and very tame iguana sitting on the restaurant deck, making themselves quite at home and waiting for the leftovers of our lunch.   I was thrilled. I had never seen iguana before and they were so calm, so tame, we were able to get within inches of them.  They were the perfect icing on the cake of a wonderful day.

There were thousands of hermit crabs, all climbing over each other

It was thrilling to spend some time with the tame iguanas on the island

Then it was time for the return trip.  It had been glorious hot, sunny weather all day so the crew set up sunshades over the decks for people to rest under and before long everybody  was  relaxed and sleepy, some snoozing quietly.

Playa Ancon
Once ashore we were met at the marina by our tour bus driver who drove us the short distance to the lovely golden sands of Playa Ancon, said to be the best beach on Cuba's southern coast.  The rest of our group was there sunbathing and swimming, so we joined them to share stories of our day as a brilliant sun slipped gently towards the horizon.

Lovely end to a brilliant day (photo: Lynelle House)

  The large resort hotel on the beach looks impressive at first glance but take a closer look and it is run down with broken toilets, cracked and weedy walkways and a general air of neglect.   Cuba is so short of money that keeping  infrastructure in a good state of repair and maintaining assets is not seen as a pressing priority.  It is just as well the island's beauty makes up for it.  We had had a marvelous day, felt completely relaxed and content and were well pleased with our choice to cruise the Caribbean.

Right: Thumbs up from our guide, Omar.  I asked him if it was OK to put his photo on this blog. He said it was, as long as it made him look good!

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Trinidad, Cuba - Experience life 200 years ago

It is 7am and I am sitting on the rooftop terrace of my Casa Particular in Trinidad.  The view is down a narrow lane and out to sea.  The sun is rising and bathing the brightly coloured casas lining the street in a golden glow.  Two roosters are calling to each other from neighbouring properties and a dog is barking far enough away to not be annoying.   I can look right down into tiny courtyards as families bustle about making breakfast or hanging washing on lines, their conversations floating up on the still air. A  horse towing a small cart clip clops over the cobble stones and a passing vendor selling bread calls out for buyers. I am captivated.  It is as if I have been transported back a couple of hundred years and in reality I have been.

View from our Casa

Settled by Spanish explorers in 1514 Trinidad has had a colourful history, from its origins as a small farming community to a hideaway for smugglers and pirates and then as a centre for the booming sugar milling industry of the 19th century.  When the sugar industry was decimated, due to conflicts and fires during the war of independence, the town became a rural back water, largely unknown and ignored by the rest of Cuba. One of the few good things President Batista did was to pass a preservation law  in the 1950s in order to maintain Trinidad as an historical site.  Today it has UNESCO world heritage status and is considered to be one of the best preserved, and least altered, historical towns in the Americas.
A Trinidad taxi
If you have anything to sell you sell it from your front room
The best thing to do in Trinidad is to just  stroll.  The locals love to be out on the street, or sitting on their doorsteps, so there is always something colourful to see.    Make sure you wear flat, comfortable shoes, though, the ancient cobblestones are uneven and challenging to walk on.  All the streets in town lead  to Plaza Mayor where there are some fine examples of French colonial architecture.  There is also a craft market to the side of the square. 

Doing the mending

Dominoes is a popular pastime

At night Plaza Mayor becomes a lively hub for the town with $2 mojitos served from a hole-in-the-wall bar and crowds of locals and tourists mingling and chatting.  We had a great time hanging out there but it was also where we saw an unpleasant side of the local bureaucracy.  Our delightful and totally professional guide, a black Cuban, was approached by the police and questioned.  He was asked for his identity card and his details were rung through to headquarters.  When all details checked out he was left to continue his evening.  He told us later that this happens all the time.  He thinks it is because he is black and that the authorities are suspicious as to why he is hanging out with foreign tourists.  Later in the evening more police entered the square. Fortunately our guide spotted them coming and quickly removed himself from our group in order to avoid more hassles. We all felt bad for him and were a bit subdued after this incident. It had burst our happy 'tourist' bubble a little and shown us the dark side of an authoritarian government.
Plaza Mayor, Trinidad

Plaza Mayor becomes a fun and lively gathering place in the evenings
 It was in Trinidad, at Cafe Jazz, that I had my best meal in Cuba,  lobster with a delicious sauce all for the price of a cheap hamburger in New Zealand.  The entertainment was great too with a cool singer crooning well known jazz standards in both English and Spanish.

Late in the evening a few of us decided to make our way back to our casas  and got horribly lost, no hardship, though, because the streets are so picturesque it really seemed to be a shame to be heading home to bed anyway. We noticed the streets had water running down the centre of them.  When we asked our guide about this he said that it is the waste water from the houses which is released every evening, it is the drainage system that has been in place for 200 years.

Warm glow at sunset
Trinidad's primitive drainage system

I highly recommend Trinidad if you want to experience a town almost frozen in time.  It is  picturesque, quaint and charming but this also means there is little infrastructure for today's modern lifestyles.

Here are my recommendations for Trinidad:

ACCOMMODATION: Casa Carmen Y Pupito - spotlessly clean, wonderful, kindly hosts, good location and excellent breakfast.  I would stay there again
DINING: Trinidad Jazz Cafe - Great ambience in a lovely building, attentive and friendly service, delicious food, inexpensive

I am also on Facebook @ A Wandering Widow - Solo Travel  I'd love to see you there.

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Kayaking on Okahu Bay, Auckland

I had been waiting for a day like today to go kayaking.  We often get still, clear, sunny, autumn days here in Auckland, it is my favourite season and perfect weather for  kayaking so today was my chance and I took it.

What bliss it was to be paddling and drifting on such a glorious day. As Rat said in Kenneth Grahame's Wind in The Willows   "Believe me, young friend, there is nothing - absolutely nothing - half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats." I have to agree with Rat, I love being on the water  and will find any excuse.
As far as I am concerned today I had a pretty wonderful morning!

I hired my Kayak from Ferg's Kayaks, Okahu Bay  www.fergskayaks.co.nz 
Kayaks can be hired by the hour ($25) or they offer two kayak tours :
  •  A 3 hour tour which across the harbour to Devonport and Cheltenham Beach and includes a climb up Mt Victoria. 
  • A 6 hour tour, for experienced kayakers, to Rangitoto which includes a climb to the top.
(Cuba posts will resume next week)

While city workers are hard at work........

I wonder what the story is behind this badly neglected boat....have they forgotten they own it?!!

The shag keeps his eye on me as I circle him - probably worried I'm scaring the fish away

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Cienfuegos - Cuba's Pearl of the South

It was late in the day and a large golden sun was setting over the glittering waters of Cienfuegos  bay when we arrived in town and pulled up outside what can only be described as a Moroccan fantasy.    The Palacio de Valle, built in 1917 by a Spaniard, Acislo Blanco, is a mix of  many different styles from Gothic to Romanesque, Baroque, Italianate and Mudejar. It appears he couldn't decide what style he liked best.

Palacio de Valle, Cienfuegos
 There is a riot of ornamentation everywhere you look, stained glass windows, heavily carved and ornamented ceilings, statues, sphinxes, towers and turrets. We wandered through the palace and then made our way up a steep spiral staircase to the roof top bar.  Dusk was falling and it was magical looking out over the bay, rose coloured clouds drifting across the sky and a cuban band playing while guests lingered over drinks.  Batista had plans to turn the palace into a money making casino but his plans were scuppered by the revolution.  For a number of years it sat empty until it was converted into the restaurant, events centre and tourist attraction it is today. The palacio is really rather bizarre but I like to take things as I find them and enjoyed my visit there, not judging it but simply appreciating it for what it is.

Three photos of Palacio de Valle (photo above: Lynelle House)

The main avenue, Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos is considered to be the most elegant of Cuban cities, often referred to as Cuba's Pearl of the South.  Settled by French colonisers, rather than Spanish, the elegant 19th century buildings in the heart of the city lend it a sophisticated 'mini-Paris' feel.  It is  the most affluent city in Cuba with a UNESCO World Heritage listing, which provides funding to help preserve the city, and it also has income derived from several important industries located around the bay. Cienfuegos has an attractive waterfront edged with some grand pre revolutionary mansions  and a relaxed seaside feel.  It is also the only place we saw anything remotely resembling a shopping street as we know it, however thankfully devoid of chain stores. I am sure there are other shopping streets in Cuba but we never saw them.  The pleasant, shady, leafy avenue running through the centre of town and down to the magnificent Parque Jose Marti was a great place to stroll and, fortuitously for me, had a large, modern shoe shop where I was able to replace my broken sandals with a pair of beautifully hand tooled leather sandals for only $10.

Elegant French colonial buildings surround Parque Jose Marti

Parque Jose Marti is the heart of Cienfuegos with the Arch of Triumph (Arco de Triunfo), celebrating Cuba's independence and  reminiscent of the much bigger Arc de Triomphe in Paris, framing the statue of Jose Marti, Cuba's beloved poet and revolutionary.  The square is surrounded by elegant Parisian style buildings and there are shady trees and benches scattered here and there, well used by tourists taking advantage of the wifi in the square to catch up with news from home. As I rested there the voice of an opera singer floated from the Theatre Tomas Terry. What could be better than sitting in the shade in an elegant square under a clear blue sky, relaxed and happy and listening to opera?
Parque Jose Marti

A Cuban Ration Book
Elegant and all as Cienfuegos is we learnt more about the harsh reality of life for Cubans when our guide took us to visit a Ration Shop.  This is where Cubans go to collect their monthly allowance of rations to supplement their tiny incomes of $25US per person, per month. There seemed to be very little stock on the shelves and the rations provided are just the basics like oil, rice, beans, matches, and eggs.  Allowances are carefully worked out depending on family size, the age of children and the elderly.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, milk is severely rationed.  Often goods are late arriving at the store so the allowance carries over to the next month which means a family must survive without that basic item for the time being.  Nowadays there are other ways of buying goods but you need to have money to do this, and most Cubans don't.  This is where posing for photos for money or guiding, taxi driving or any tourism job  where you get tips, or even begging comes in. There is also a thriving black market in Cuba known as mercado negro, where unlicensed people sell fish they have caught, fruit they have grown and sometimes goods they have stolen. Battering is also a common way of trading. Rationing was meant to be a temporary measure when it was introduced in 1962 but has now been in place for 55 years. There is nothing romantic about strict socialism.

Inside a Cuban Ration Shop (photo: Lynelle House)
As we walked back to our bus we passed the statue of one of Cienfuegos' beloved sons, the musician Benny More (1919 - 1963)  Benny, born near the city, became a huge national and international star, his music encapsulating the feel and the rhythms of Cuba. In his song, "Cienfuegos" there is this line "the city I like the best". So beloved was Benny throughout Cuba that more than 100,000 people attended his funeral.  I tip my hat to Benny.  I too love Cuban music and I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to Cienfuegos.

You can hear Benny More by opening the link below.

Monday, 10 April 2017

Cuba - It's not all mojitos and salsa lessons

Typical rural home (photo by Diana Kim)
 Until relatively recently all tourism ventures in Cuba were government owned and operated, even today every tour bus on the island is owned by the government.  In the 1990s it was decided that the best way to develop the Cuban tourism industry was to enter into joint ventures with foreign companies, who would then, hopefully, invest in much needed infrastructure. At the same time the law was changed to also allow locals to open and operate their own small businesses. Nevertheless the country is still struggling to keep up and provide the facilities required of a modern, booming, tourism industry.  We discovered this on a number of occasions, none more so than at a toilet stop we made on our way to the Bay of Pigs.  What looked like a perfectly respectable, modern restaurant from the outside had the worst toilets we were to come across in Cuba. The women's toilets had cubicles without doors, were unflushed, dirty, with toilet paper strewn about and water across the floor.  They were so bad that several of our group preferred to wait until the next stop. Toilet paper is never provided in Cuba, you must take your own, and it cannot be flushed away due to a primitive sewerage system (it must be placed in a separate receptacle).  Nevertheless we did get good coffee served at this restaurant, although no milk.  Due to a very poor production level ( approx 50% of what is needed) the supply of milk, in Cuba,  is restricted to children, the ill,  the elderly and pregnant women. 

As our journey continued we were shown a documentary about Fidel Castro. This government made film portrayed Fidel as a perfect, almost god like, hero. I have read extensively about Cuba, Batista, the revolution and Fidel Castro, and feel I have a good understanding of the country's history, but don't feel qualified to make too much comment here.  What I will say, though, is I know a propaganda film when I see one.

I don't know about you but when I visit a place previously  know to me only through historical news footage I expect to find it in a similar state.  I remember being surprised by what a large, modern, fully developed city Hiroshima was when I visited.  The same went for Darwin, previously known to me through footage of the terrible Cyclone Tracy of 1974.  Somehow I was expecting a dusty, scruffy, mangled town, not the lovely, fresh, tropical city it is today.  Silly of me, I know! 
The Bay of Pigs, peaceful and beautiful

I'm not sure what I expected to find at The Bay of Pigs (Bahia de Cochinos) the location of the USA's ill considered and ill fated attack on Cuba in 1961.  What we did find was a large, sleepy bay its turquoise waters filled with bright tropical fish. On a hot day it was just calling out for us to dive in.  The coastline is rocky and steep so a dip requires climbing down a ladder into the sea.  Despite the glorious weather the sea was turbulent, five minutes in swimming and we had had enough so spent the next half hour lounging in the warm tropical sun. 

A relaxing day in the tropics at the Bay of Pigs

Giron Museum (photo: Diana Kim)
 Refreshed we continued our journey, past large billboards bearing propaganda messages, to the Giron Museum.  This museum displays artifacts and photos from the Bay of Pigs Cold War skirmish with the USA.  It is quite moving to see the photos and ages of some of the Cuban casualties and there is a film entitled "The First Defeat of US Imperialism in the Americas" on show.  It is interesting to learn of the clever  tactics used by the Cuban Air force as the battle progressed. We had a Spanish speaking guide and although our guide translated her words it came across clearly that this recent history is still very raw and that the Cubans' triumph over a super power is a source of great pride to them.

A British Hawker Sea Fury, used by the Cuban Air Force
In pensive moods and pondering what we had seen and heard today we continued on towards our next destination, Cienfuegos.  We passed through a large village as the day turned to dusk.  There were no cars in the village, just horses and carts, children were playing in the street, women were gossiping, men were returning home from work in the fields and the nearby power plant.  I wondered about their lives, how they viewed the revolution and whether it had improved their lot.  There was a lot to think about as the day drew in.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Salsa lesson in Cuba

Poor girl, you could see it written all over her face - "Oh, no! Not another group of stiff uncoordinated Europeans!"  Here we were crammed into a tiny dance studio on the main street of Vinales for a salsa lesson. Our instructor's task was to teach our group of 12 three simple salsa steps in half an hour.  Easy, you might think?  Ha!  You should have seen us!  The instructor was right, we were stiff and unco but trying our best under the bemused and watchful eyes of our guide, Omar and bus driver, Eddie.  You could see them thinking "What the....!" 
Salsa lesson
 In the end Omar could stand our bumble feet no longer and disappeared.  We thought he had nipped off to play a game of dominoes, one of his favourite pastimes, but, no, he soon returned with two large bottles of rum and a plea for us to have a drink and maybe relax a bit.  Our young instructor  chewed gum throughout and spent quite a bit of time reaching under her tiny mini skirt to hitch her knickers up over her pregnant stomach. She took the lesson with an air of resignation and boredom and you could see her thinking "Why do I bother?" The whole front of the studio was open to the street giving passers by a great view of our feeble efforts.  Many stopped to enjoy the spectacle and, to be fair, some called out their encouragement. For a while we were the best show in town.  Eventually we learnt the 3 simple steps and then it was time to put them into practice.  Omar and Eddie joined in to dance with us, Omar pleading with everyone to "loosen up".   Ahh, but there is no competing with those Cubans who have music and dance flowing through their veins and dance with their whole heart and soul. As the saying goes "They dance as if no one is watching".

The band played, our guide, Omar, (centre)  sang with them and we danced in the street.  Fun times!
Later we crossed the street to have dinner at a nearby restaurant.  With live Cuban music there we suddenly got the urge to dance and  before long we were all dancing in the street, literally stopping the traffic and having the time of our lives.  Was it the lesson that filled us with confidence or was it the rum? I'll  never know, what I do know is that we were enjoying dancing  and after leaving the restaurant we continued dancing late into the night at the Salsa nightclub in the main square of Vinales.