South America Post 4 Cienfuegos, Trinidad and time to leave!

Our night was spent in Cienfuegos, a city in south central Cuba, founded by Fench families in the 18th Century. It has a beautiful waterfront, and on arrival we were taken on a slightly bumpy ‘bicycle made for 2’ taxi ride around the city.

The buildings in the centre are architecturally very different to the Spanish style in Havana, and although the city has many rather tired buildings, they are working hard here to attempt to restore the centre.

Many of the most stylish buildings are now Hotels or Clubs, which only tourists, or wealthy Cubans can afford. And that is the paradox here. It is a communist country, but we could see that there are some people making a lot of money here, while some of their countrymen are very very poor. Equal shares for all? I don’t think so.

We constantly observed shortages. In one town, there was no fuel, in another, no bread, in another no cooking oil.

We went into a supermarket in Cienfuegos. There were just 4 aisles. One aisle had just toilet paper. Another, rows and rows of tinned tomatoes, ketchup and a basic tomato sauce, plus some packets of beans. Another row was cereal and water. Another was locally made colas and pickles.

There was some very expensive meat in a freezer.. and a good selection of alcohol, which was surprisingly cheap. Suddenly we realise how we take the vast array of choice in our shops for granted. Speaking to some local people on the waterfront, they told us they buy most of their meat, cheese etc on the black market as it is cheaper and better.

Our accommodation, Casa Oriente, was lovely. The family made us so welcome and cooked us a gorgeous dinner of prawns with coconut.

The next day, after exploring the city with Tony, we headed for the hills! We had brought colouring pencils, shampoos and toothpastes from home which we gave out in the poorer mountain villages. People seemed so grateful it was embarrassing. We wished we had brought more. These things can be obtained here, but are expensive and poor quality, so people don’t. Toothpaste is £8 a tube, and a cheap toothbrush £6.

Our first stop was a beautiful waterfall, El Nicho, where a local guide led us on a walk explaining all the plants and birds. The air plants covering trees were particularly impressive!

And a weird lizard!

Then on to Trinidad, an old town that was so isolated that the first road to reach it didn’t arrive until 1953. Most of the streets are still cobbled. The architecture is amazing.

All 17th and 18th century. Very colourful, with huge windows that have floor to ceiling, ornate iron screens over them, which keep people out but let the breeze in.

The oldest buildings have wooden screens.

We loved it here, exploring the Cathedral and old family houses. The main square buzzes with music and people, and we joined the crowd, having a Mojito and a Daiquiri!

Wifi is mainly available in public squares like this. You must buy a Government card and use it to log on.

Our accommodation was in Hostal Gisela y Wilfredo. They were so friendly, and cooked us a super lobster dinner which we ate on their roof terrace, with our own salamanders keeping the bugs down!

Next morning, we visited a pottery, and sampled another Cuban rum based drink… La Canchanchara – at 10.30 am! This was necessary to relax our inhibitions enough for a 1 hour salsa lesson. Suffice it to say, thanks to our super teacher, we did well learning the steps, but the required wiggling and shimmying needs a lot of work! We won’t be on Strictly Come Dancing anytime soon!

An afternoon visit to the lovely beach at Playa Ancon was followed by watching the sunset from the roof terrace and a leisurely evening amble.

No supper, we are too full! Dominoes is widely played with a passion!

An early start for our return to Havana, via some old steam trains for Chris to play in

(Health and Safety is an unknown concept here!!), and an old sugar cane plantation village where we tried sugar cane juice. Then Santa Clara, an inland city which was a key victory in the Revolution.

The rebels had been moving westward. Santa Clara was their biggest objective. Che Guevara was leading this rebel group. Battista’s government sent an armoured train containing weapons and engineers to Santa Clara, to move east towards the rebels. Che’s men destroyed the railway line 1km east of the city. As the train moved east towards this point, rebels inside the city lifted the track there with a Caterpillar bulldozer! The train saw the track was gone and reversed back to reach the city, hitting the blockage and derailing. All were captured.Some carriages remain as a museum.

It was a huge victory and Che Guevara has Super hero status. A huge mausoleum and statue overlook the town.

Che was a socialist who grew unhappy with Russian communist influence in Cuba, and in 1965, left to go to fight with rebels in Bolivia, only to be killed there soon after. His body was found in the 1990s and brought to Cuba.

Finally, back to Havana for a night, before our flight tomorrow. Tonight we have an ‘in room gecko’ for mosi control.

A long walk, watching cruise ships arriving and departing. Tourism is the lifeblood of Cuba. It has felt very safe here. They need and love tourists, but if you come, please try and use locally run businesses rather than Government owned or international ones. We spoke to some people at a restaurant who told us that the Army control 70% of the tour companies here. Finally, a last Mojito at the Art Nouveau Hotel Inglaterra, soaking up the sights and sounds of this bustling, musical mixed up country.

Motorways can be empty…but full of potholes.

Our accommodation was always clean, but often with a 1960’s feel! Here is our guide Tony outside our Hostal in Trinidad.

Surprisingly, and thankfully, each one had air con! Everyone was friendly, the food was better than we expected, the buildings were a mix of ornate splendour, simple dwellings, and ghastly, Russian built blocks of flats.

I was tickled by the rows and rows of washing lines we saw, full of vibrant colourful clothes!

It sums up Cuba – vibrant and colourful!

(With our guide Tony, we have been trying to follow the news anxiously due to the Venezuela situation. Tony because the Cuban Government are asking people to sign a paper to say they support Venezuela’s current PM, and could potentially be called upon to fight there. Us as we fly to Ecuador via Colombia which seems to feature centrally in the USA’s aid plans!)

South America Post 3 Cuba – Vinales and Bay of Pigs.

Leaving Havana we drove along the Malecon, the sweeping Atlantic seafront that once was home to the best hotels.

We stopped at Fusterdoria, a suburb where the Cuban artist Jose Fister decided to create a tribute to Anton Gaudi as a way to rejuvenate his impoverished village. The result is a Gaudiesque mosaic art park, and also, all the front walls of his neighbours properties are decorated by him too!

Driving west, the lack of cars became increasingly noticeable, even on the highways. Bikes, and ponies pulling carts were common sights. As were hitchhiker’s… loads of them. Whole families sometimes with no other way to get from A to B. Bizarrely, on the highway, there were spots where a sign suddenly reduced the speed limit from 100 kph to 60, often at bridges where hitchhiker’s waited in the shade. Frequently police lurked here, giving speeding tickets. At other spots, there were fake inspectors, trying to scam a fine from unsuspecting tourists.

Our next stop was Las Terrazas Biosphere reserve, a vast area of forested hills created after the revolution to provide homes for poor hill farmers. After the revolution in 1959, **** trees were planted and homes built. It is now a wonderful place, and a UNESCO biosphere reserve.

This tree is called the tourist tree because it is red and peels!!

We visited an old coffee plantation and saw some beautiful birds, including the Trogon, Cuba’s national bird.

A great lunch at Buenavista cafetal was followed by locally grown coffee at El cafe de Maria, overlooking the village, watching Emerald humming birds to our right, while Turkey Vultures landed on the grass to our left to scavenge the chicken feed!

A visit to an artisan paper maker was followed by a stop at a beautiful Orchid garden.

We drove on, finally reaching Vinales, a pretty village in the heart of Karst scenery… large, and rare outcrops of limestone rock forming dramatic hills, just as we had seen in Vietnam.

We also discover that here, we are as far from southern South America is as we are from London.

And we chose not to go for a ride on the bull!!

Being a communist country, Cubans have had little access to world news until recently, and have obviously been told a lot of things about how great their country is. So we are frequently told that things are the biggest in the world, the first in the world, the finest in the world. We weren’t sure if Tony was a bit upset that we had seen Karst scenery somwhere else!

Staying at Nenita’s bnb, we had a good supper, then walked into town where the main street was cordoned off for Saturday night festivities. There was a definite theme to all the stalls!

Night times are interesting here. Loud conversations, often accompanied by music, can go on into the small hours. Dogs bark whenever anyone comes close to their patch, and ignite a chain of barking up and down the street. Nearly everyone has chickens, which start crowing around 4.00 am. The room fridge gurgles and rattles, and the aircon or fan whirrs and clicks. And of course, there is the tiny, but dreaded sound of the whining mosquito. Walls and windows are thin and sound carries. Oh where are noise cancelling headphones when you need them? Chris of course sleeps blissfully through most of it. However I am never a good sleeper, and in the 5 days we have been away, have already finished 4 books on the kindle! Luckily, I’m usually quite awake the next day, even after just 4 or 5 hours sleep!

On Sunday, we explored the area, starting with a boat trip in some dramatic caves – Cueva del Indio.

Then we visited El plaque de Los Cimarrones, caves where escaping slaves would go to hide. Then to a huge (120 metres x 180 metres) outdoor mural depicting prehistoric life, in honour of all the fossils and early remains that have been found in this area.

All the while seeing local farmers driving their horse drawn carts, and using oxen to plough the fields.

Another super lunch at a local restaurant, La Carreta, (we had been warned that the food was not great in Cuba.. we beg to differ!)

Then to an organic farm, which grows fruit, vegetables and tobacco. We were taken through the whole process of cigar making. 90% of their leaves go to government factories, but they keep 10% to make beautiful handmade cigars.

The wrapping leaves are marinaded in lemon and honey, and the mouth end of the cigar is dipped in honey before you smoke it. Chris smoked one… well a little… he will bring the rest home for special occasions! With that beard he just needs a green uniform and he could join Che Guevara’s rebels!

A last walk into town for a light snack of some tapas at Olivos cafe….well ‘light snack’ just doesn’t exist here! The diet is heavily centred around rice and black beans, but there is meat and fish and loads of fresh fruit and veg.

The weather has been great 27 – 30 degrees but with a breeze. Very few mosquitos, but we still used our amazing bed net as it only takes one to cause havoc!

Tomorrow we head to southern Cuba, where the mosi count will increase, preparing us for what lies ahead in South America.

So, a 400km drive to the South through farmland and plantations to our first stop at Playa Largo. Tony, our guide is excellent company, providing an entertaining commentary of explanations of the things we are seeing, and funny stories. He is very knowledgeable, and proud of his country.

We have left the Atlantic coast and are now on the Caribbean Sea coast. Our knowledge of Cuban history was very limited, so we were interested to hear the Cuban version of the Bay of Pigs incident. After the revolution, many wealthy Americans lost their homes on Cuba. Eisenhower ordered a force of mercenaries, some of whom were Cuban themselves, to invade Cuba, landing at the Bay of Pigs, a quiet, undefended area. However there was a spy amongst them who got word to Castro. He moved army units down in secret and was ready for them. He himself rode in a tank, and claims to have fired the shot that sank the ship. Every town here has huge signs claiming ‘This was the first time Americans were defeated in the Americas’, or ‘The invaders only reached this point’.

It was over in 72 hours, and there are memorials everywhere to the Cuban people who died.

Castro never let on that it was a military operation. He claimed it was just the Cuban people rising up to defend their land. Interestingly, Kennedy did not support the invasion.

However it was enough for Castro and Russia to decide to bolster Cuba’s defences…with nuclear missiles which precipitated the Cuban missile crisis, where the world literally teetered on the brink of nuclear war.

Nowadays this an area for recreation, with good diving, and a gorgeous natural pool, 70m deep and full of fish.

And of course, time for another lunch… this time with local crab and lobster! We are not splashing out .. the meals are all included in the tour.

Chris had his first sight of the Caribbean sea, and Anne paddled in the Bay of Pigs. They have mass crab migrations here in breeding season, blocking the roads. The crabs are black and orange. We saw one, which was too fast for a photo! Wild pigs used to congregate here to eat them, which is what gave the bay it’s name.

Our final stop was in the Zapata forest where we met Orlando. A local man who led us into the forest, and with eyes like a hawk spotted birds where you would swear there was nothing. It was wonderful. The greatest prize was seeing a bee humming bird. The smallest bird in the world. Just 5cm long.

My favourite was the ridiculously pretty Tody.

Another great day.

SA Post 2 Havana, Cuba

We arrived in Havana, Cuba in the midst of an apparently unseasonable rain storm of biblical magnitude. Just like everywhere else we have visited in the last few years, the locals told us ‘this shouldn’t be happening at this time of year’. Global warming in action?

Our flight with KLM was excellent. The food was lovely and the lie flat seats very comfy. I even watched 4 films, but highlights were clog cruet sets, and being given miniature Delft pottery houses containing gin! This is a tradition dating back to 1949 and a new design is added each year.

We were met at the airport by Felipe, manager of Wij in Cuba, a small local tour company. His colleague Tony will be driving and guiding us during our stay.

Our bed for 3 nights is in a Casa Particulares in the heart of Old Havana. This is a room in someone’s home.

This one is simply furnished, very clean and with a very blue loo!!

Also ample breakfasts which take care of our 5 a day in one go!!

Arriving late in the evening, we have only glimpsed the city, but can already sense the faded glory, and the passion for music… salsa rhythms resonate from shops, cafes and verandas.

What will we discover tomorrow?

Thursday started overcast, and a cloud burst had affected parts of Cuba. Tony took us on a super walking tour of Havana, gradually introducing us to some history and culture. Yes there are amazing old American cars everywhere. The best ones are pressed into service for tourist trips. More impressive are the 30 and 40 year old Fiats and Ladas, covered in rust but still struggling on.

Sometimes people are shocked in countries like Cuba, because everyone seems to be ‘on the make’. Shortchanging you a few pesos, short measures on the drinks, 5 minutes less on your 30 minute ride. Chatting to local people, we found out that Government employees are paid the equivalent of US$20 per month. People explained that this wasn’t so bad when you got coupons which ensured you got essential foodstuffs, access to Doctors and medicines etc. That has all but gone, but the incredibly low salary remains.

To put this into context, a 20 year old Lada could cost 30,000 US$. Medicines seem really scarce and hugely expensive, even for basics like Aspirin. Some food stuffs are very dear. There are shortages of basic items, and very little choice of brands or quality. Currently soap is in short supply, and it is common to see queues outside shops.

So what might you and I resort to as a way of making those dollars go a little further. A job on the side? A little fiddle here and there? Even professionals like Doctors and Teachers need to supplement their income somehow.

Havana was founded in 1492 by Christopher Columbus, and ruled almost continuously by the Spanish until 1898, apart from short period of British rule in 1764 . Then Britain gave it back to the Spanish, swooping it for Florida!! Then in 1902 Cuba became Independent.

Havana’s architecture is grand. Many buildings were erected during opulent Spanish rule, and photos of Havana’s heyday show it prominent on the World stage, visited by celebrities. Sadly, many of these buildings are falling apart. Many would be condemned in Britain, but faint lights, or some drying clothes show them as still lived in. UNESCO are helping with some restoration, and parts of Havana are returning to their former glory, but it felt as if the luxury hotels and restaurants they now house are mainly benefitting tourists, overseas multinational owners, and some local fat cats, rather than reaching the majority of the population. Having said that, without tourism, Cuba would be lost at present. It is just important to try to direct your tourist spending to local people.

Highlights in Havana are:

The Cathedral, built in 1777:

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The 19th century pharmacies.

The 16th century aqueduct:

The old fort and walls:

The old sea terminal, now used for massive cruise ships:

The wooden pavement, put in so the carriages would make less noise, not disturbing the Spanish Officers during their afternoon siesta!

Beautiful squares with 18th and 19th century Spanish, or Art Nouveau buildings.

This last one shows where the slaves would have slept.

The revolution museum containing the story of the revolution, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban missile crisis.

Women played a large part in the revolution, some holding quite senior ranks.

Also the story of Che Guevara.

Rather strange to visit another site where vehicles and missiles were on display, partly hidden by palm trees, and it was a chilling reminder of perilous times.

We also drove along the Malecon, the coastal promenade, in a 1951 Chevrolet, with waves breaking over the road. The driver immediately turned off the prom for fear of damage to the car. Not surprising, as we later found out that with an original engine, these cars could be worth 80,000 dollars!

The high waves after the rain shows how vulnerable Cuba is to storms and rising sea levels.

References to Ernest Hemingway are everywhere. He had a house here for many years, and was a great sea fisherman. He wrote ‘The Old man and the Sea’ here. We visited his farm house in Cojimar, which was charming, and saw the bars where he drank his Mojitos and Daiquiris.

Hemingway’s bathroom with scales and his weight written on the wall!

Anne has discovered she quite likes a Mojito if it is not too strong!!

We were led to believe that Cuban food was bland and uninteresting, but so far we have been very pleasantly surprised, having some very nice meals.

Not too many birds around, but we have seen Pelicans, Frigate Birds and Turkey Vultures.

We feel very safe here, and walk happily at night in central Havana, despite limited street lighting and the biggest potholes in both pavement and the road surface that we have ever seen. It is a loud, bustling, musical city, whose vibrancy is infectious.

Tomorrow we leave Havana and head west!

SA Post 1 .. Here we go again!

So Chris and I are getting ready to welcome our house sitters, who do a great job looking after the house when we go away. They are coming because we are about to embark on the third part of our fragmented ‘Gap Year’, which has in fact spanned 9 years so far. We have brought trip 3 forward a few years due to family circumstances, and a realisation that this one is a trip we want to do while we are still as healthy and strong as possible.

Planning it has made me wonder where my urge to travel comes from.

Both of my Grandfathers were seamen, each serving for many years in the Navy and Merchant Navy. So they certainly travelled! My father proudly told me how, in the 1920’s, he and 2 friends cycled to Portsmouth and persuaded a boat to take them to France. They then cycled round Brittany, sleeping in barns, and caught a boat back! Aged 13! So travel could be in the genes!

But my travel bug was fuelled by a large book my father bought me in Leather Lane Market when I was about 8. It was about countries and their people, and every page was a treasure trove of landscapes, architecture and cultural images that were so different to anything I had ever seen. I have vivid memories of a picture of the Taj Mahal, one of Orang utangs in Borneo, and a double page spread of Venice. And I knew that I wanted to see them all! In fact, there was hardly a page in the book that didn’t make me go WOW! Even though, at 8 years old, the furthest I had travelled from my home in London was Worthing, about 70 miles away!

My first real travelling was done on a school cruise at age 11, visiting Florence, Pisa, Ephesus, Antalya, Santorini, Malta and Lisbon. I was hooked.

Luckily Chris is now hooked too!

So this time we go to a continent that is new to us. It has the potential to be the most challenging of our trips, but holds the promise of some wonderful encounters with diverse wildlife, scenery, climates and cultures. Certainly we have the opportunity to see many of the pictures that my 8 year old self dreamed of.

We are off to South America… with a stop in Cuba on the way! Sadly (but not surprisingly), this is a Bimble without Boris!

We should be used to the packing now, but the beds are strewn with clothes and kit, and we are trying to work the magic that will make it miraculously shrink and fit into our bags. Our super mosquito net is definitely coming.

We’ve had all the vaccinations we can, and have even had some Spanish lessons so that we can try to have the courtesy to communicate a little in their own language. Chris says all he needs is ‘Una cerveza por favor’!

Once again, we are using a Multi trip ticket from Travel Nation., with the long haul segments business class, this time with KLM and it’s associated South American airlines. 17 flights for less than 1 business class ticket to Sydney. The rest is planned and booked by us, using local accommodation and tour guides so the money we spend stays in the country.

We’ve just spent a super, laughter filled weekend with all the family which included a fabulous Moroccan meal, lots of games including Human Buckaroo… sorry Tracy… how you slept through this was a miracle!!!

I cannot end this preamble without mentioning the ‘B’ word! Brexit! Our return is just after the deadline. Whatever will we return to? Still in the EU? Out with a deal? No deal? Or just a postponement of the uncertainty?

As most of you know, our blog is our diary. We are very happy to share it. If you have received notification of this blog post, then you are all signed up and ready to receive the posts from this trip. They may be at erratic intervals because internet is very variable in some locations.

We look forward to having you join us vicariously on our trip. We love your comments and messages, and we wish we could sneak you all inside our bags…but it would play havoc with our weight allowance! XX