Sad to leave the Sacred Valley, we headed for Cusco, located at 11,510ft, staying 1 night at the lovely old Andean Wings hotel, formerly a Spanish villa. Breathing was noticeably harder here, and most hotels have oxygen available.Cusco means navel, because it was the centre and capital of the Inca kingdom, which at it’s height stretched to Chile, Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina. We had just 1 day, so chose to do an excellent walking tour with Inka Milky Way! Our guide was excellent, it is a beautiful city and we learned so much.There were once 15 Inca palaces in Cusco, but when the Spanish came, they demolished them, and used the stones to build Spanish colonial style buildings and churches.One Inca wall remains, plus recently discovered Inca Palace foundations, showing a symmetrical pattern of rooms, and a water system.Outside town is Sacsayhuaman, an Inca citadel with amazing walls all with the mortar less construction.Later, I visited the Cathedral, which is really 3 churches in one. The Gold and silver decoration is dazzling, as were the intricately carved wooden choir stalls and screen.We have been learning how, when the Spanish invaded, they imposed Catholicism on the local people. Many adopted it, but retained their allegiance to their original deities, gods of Sun, Moon and Patcha Mamma, or mother earth. So it is not unusual to see Inca imagery and local customs entwined with Catholic symbolism in churches. In Peru, Guinea pig, or Cuy, is a very popular food. (We have eaten Llama , Alpaca but resisted the temptation of Cuy..partly because it is very expensive!) To return to the cathedral, inside is a huge painting in Rennaissance style, done in about 1750 by local artist Marcos Zapata.However the food in the painting is not fishes and bread, but Guinea pig and potatoes!! No photos were allowed, but I sneaked these!Following our tour, we embarked on a cookery course. Jesus took us on a very informative tour of the market, which was built by Gustav Eiffel! Outside, he explained that street food is a main way to eat in Peru, and many people will take meals this way, especially breakfast.Inside the market, masks were popular. These were designs from the past when the locals mimicked their Spanish rulers, depicting them with big noses and moustaches!These were some of the highlights:The jelly stall… including a creamy cow bone marrow one!Many different potatoes… including ones which are freeze dried by being left outside, high on the altiplano, where it is hot in the day and below freezing at night. They keep forever. Just rehydrate and use.Drying is a very popular method of preservation. This rather unappetizing stall sold very dried fish!Every part of the pig is eaten.And not for the squeamish, aborted Llama fetuses are dried, and sold to be used as offerings to the Gods.Many varieties of Quinoa…. (now we know it is officially pronounced ‘keenwah’), which we saw growing everywhere…it is very pretty crop.55 varieties of corn, and popcorn is hugely popular (excuse the pun!)We bought many exotic fruits and vegetables, and returned to his studio for our cooking class.First, and most important how to make the perfect Pisco Sour.Then we made: 3 types of Ceviche.. raw fish cooked simply by placing it in citrus based marinade. All were gorgeous.Then, a potato souffle, Quinoa Risotto and a 3 fruit dessert.It was good fun and yummy!Next day and another adventure. I had booked tickets on the recently revived 10.5 hour train trip up through the Andes from Cusco up to Puno, on Lake Titicaca (12,650 feet). We splashed out at £150 each, but we had no idea what to expect, and as you know, Chris loves trains, so it was an early Anniversary present.It was fantastic. The time literally flew by! A beautiful train with a partly open observation car made viewing the stunning scenery a real pleasure.As we travelled there was frequent tooting, as there are no level crossings, and people, animals and vehicles freely cross the tracks. Not everyone was happy… dogs howled and many children covered their ears!!Plantain and corn nibbles, plus tea coffee and water were freely available. Then, welcome Pisco sours (at 10.30 am!!), really superb local musicians and dancers who did 2 different shows, and a fashion show of baby alpaca clothing!Audience participation was actively encouraged.The guitarist was a secret rocker, and we had the slightly surreal experience of him launching into Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry numbers between the Panpipes!!A great 3 course lunch, with wine, and afternoon tea were all included in the price.And, the loveliest toilets, kept spotlessly clean throughout. Take note British railways!We also stopped at the highest point on the route, at 4,139 metres or 13,698 feet where we were able to buy some handicrafts made by local people.We passed through Peru’ Guinea pig breeding heartland, and learned that 65 million are consumed here each year!We literally drove though the market in Juliaca, and as we passed, stalls were re-erected on the track. Many things were left between the rails for us to pass over. As soon as the train had gone, the track was filling up again. But Peru, like most South American countries, has a massive poverty problem. A close look showed large sections of the market selling things we would throw away as rubbish.Decrepit housing – 22% of peruvians have no direct water supply! And these shacks are the toilets for the nearby housing.We also saw people washing clothes in the rather murky river.Throughout our trip we have seen terrible poverty, and social divisions, but again in Peru we were told that by using local firms and small businesses, we were helping the economy, and reaching the lower paid in the society.Still, we felt guilty, returning to our lovely journey! We arrived in the city of Puno, on the shores of Lake Titicaca, in the dark, and were taken by taxi to Mirador de Titicaca… our hotel. We knew it was a little out of town, but not that it was up an almost vertical dirt road!!We knew we were high, as we were out of breath just walking to the loo!! It turned out we were just over 4,000 metres! Luckily, apart from a slight headache, tiredness and breathlessness, we escaped the worst side effects of being at such a high altitude. It is a very real problem, and most hotels, and the train, have oxygen cylinders at the ready.Apparently, at this height, oxygen saturation drops to 65-75%. Normally, doctors get worried below 94%! The hotel was lovely, but we would have to wait until morning for a view of the highest navigable lake in the world!
Landing in Buenos Aires in the early evening, on our taxi ride to the hotel we were instantly impressed by the abundance of parks and attractive balconied buildings. It had a more European feel than anywhere else we had been, although the music emanating from shops, cars and parks was decidedly Latin American!! Our small hotel, the Grand Petit Casa would have been right at home in Paris. Tall, narrow and with a tiny, ornate lift that must have been 90 years old!
Invaluable as we were on the 3rd floor. It was in Recoleta, a central and safe district.
Buenos Aires is on the huge River Plate Estuary, and was founded in 1540. It expanded in the 18th century due to successful cattle farming, and in 1816 gained independence from Spain. It has always been a city of immigrants, and is very multicultural. By the early 1900s it was a booming city, with a great love for European art and design, so many buildings have a marked influence from Art Nouveau, Art deco, often in a French style.
Britain built their first metro line, with very ‘London underground’ tiling! Beautiful French style coffee shops abound, with elegant style, stained glass, and amazing cakes! One even had it’s own tango theatre!
We just had to sample them… for research purposes of course!
Having only a few nights in Argentina, I wanted to make sure we had sampled the ‘Best Steak in the World’ claims from every angle, so tonight we were booked into Don Julio’s Parilla, apparently quite renowned, as you have to book months ahead or queue outside. When we arrived at 7pm, there was already a queue, even though the restaurant wasn’t yet open! They eat late in BA. Some don’t open until 8 or even 9 PM!
I had booked to sit at The Bar, which meant you watched them cooking the steaks. Oh my! Sourced from grass grazed Hereford and Angus cattle, these steaks were incredible.
Huge in both length, width and height, they also looked delicious. Our waiter thoughtfully suggested we share, as each steak weighed over 16oz!! They tasted Amazing!
Next morning I had booked Elisa, a local guide who promised to take us to see some ‘hidden treasures’ of the city, rather than the usual tourist trail like the Casa Rosado where Eva Peron addressed the crowds!
First we wanted to visit Recoleta cemetery, famous for it’s ornate mausoleum, created as the 19th century, wealthy families vied to outdo each other, even in death!
Eva Peron is the most famous inhabitant, finally buried here as Eva Duarte, in her family vault. After her death from cancer, aged just 33, in 1952, her body was embalmed and lay in state, but after the military coup, her body disappeared. In 1971, it was eventually traced to Milan, where it had been buried. It was returned to her husband, in exile in Madrid, and eventually back to Argentina and buried, 5 metres below ground, to prevent ‘interference’!
This poignant tomb is of a young woman who died on her honeymoon in Austria. The mausoleum is a recreation of her bedroom, with the girl in her Wedding dress outside with her dog.
Sadder still, are the memorials dotted all over Buenos Aires to the 30,000 people who ‘disappeared’ in the dirty war, during US backed military rule between 1974-1983.
Elisa was true to her word. We visited El Ateno, a beautiful bookshop in an old theatre;
A huge Victorian gothic building in the heart of the city, that we assumed was a museum, or the town hall, but which turned out to be a hugely extravagant building to house the waterworks! These pictures show what the inside was like, and the grand exterior!
Then the stunningly beautiful church, Basílica María Auxiliadora y San Carlos, built in 1906, and where the current Pope, Francis, was baptised.
It is unusual because the stained glass windows are all floral, bearing a striking resemblance to William Morris designs!
It is also where a certain Carlos Gardel sang in the choir. Unknown to us, he is a legend in Buenos Aires. Tango music had it’s roots in the immigrant and poorer sections of BA society. Not just music, but songs with powerful, sad, or sometimes amusing lyrics are a huge part of society here, and Carlos was one of the most loved singers. His picture is everywhere!
Tango was banned during the military years, seen as subversive. Now it is back, with dance halls, outfitters and classes everywhere, appealing to young and old.
We went to a rather edgy steampunk style hall, where a lesson was taking place. We watched in awe, but I only filmed a snippet!
They had an interesting line in chairs too!
The streets in this neighbourhood, San Telmo, also have a decorative style of decorating their houses called fileteado!
Theatre Ciego has a new lease of life as a theatre for the blind. Each performance is in darkness, encouraging the audience to use their other senses.
This street has some interesting benches.
We were completely fooled by these, completely baffled as to why you would leave fabric seats outside. Until we felt them! They were solid! Brilliant.
Then Tango lessons on the pavement!!
We visited a buzzing market, one of many, where really fresh produce mingles with the delicious aroma of hundreds of freshly baked empanadas!
Finally, in a quiet neighbourhood, a tiny barbers shop, run by a 4th generation family. They have preserved the barber shop as it would have been 60 years ago, including equipment and products!
This device once gave you a perm… how I am not sure!!Barber shops were centres for singing, and every week locals gather here to listen to some old tango singers from another era. We were the only tourists, and were made very welcome. It was a lovely atmosphere and a privilege to see.
Chris resisted the pressure to shave off his beard… in the old fashioned way!!
Our last night in BA was spent in Restaurant Roux, named after the sauce, not the famous chefs! We had a wonderful meal, in a restaurant full of regular patrons, judging by the hugging and kissing that was happening as each one arrived. Despite their horrendous inflation, (prices have increased by 50% in a year), the pound is still strong, so our wonderful meal was about the same as a 2 course pub meal at home.
We loved Buenos Aires. A slightly edgy, vibrant, elegant city.
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‘Amazon Rainforest’ evokes wonderful images of a huge, fast flowing, muddy river surrounded by towering, dense rainforest teeming with life. We knew we had to visit. Although the fact that the teeming life includes a vast array of insects, spiders and snakes was slightly disconcerting.
The Amazon basin is vast, covering an area nearly equal to the whole USA. It extends into 8 countries. The Amazon river is formed from several main rivers and many small tributaries, all originating in the Andes.
There is some dispute as to which is the longest river in the world between the Amazon, Nile and Mississipi. The Amazon is over 4000 miles long. What is not disputed is that in terms of volume of water, the Amazon wins hands down. It’s estuary is 205 miles wide, and it discharges over 200,000 cubic metres of freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean PER SECOND!!
Our easiest access point was in Ecuador. Easy being a relative term.
We took a local flight over the Andes to Coca. There we were met by the wonderful staff from La Selva eco lodge. It was Carnaval fiesta day. The locals were enjoying themselves, spraying foam and water everywhere!
For us, the next 4 days were to be some of the most amazing travelling we have done.
Firstly, 50 miles down the huge, brown, fast running Napo river in an open sided motorised canoe dodging sandbanks and floating trees!
Then a walk through jungle to a still and silent chocolate brown creek, where paddle canoes waited to take us on a mystical 20 minute ride into a huge lagoon.
Our lodge was at the far end. This is the only way here. No roads. Everything, supplies, water, fuel, laundry is transported by boat, 3.5 hours to Coca.
I will confess that after reading horror stories of people waking up with tarantulas on their pillows in the budget rainforest accommodation, I did go for something a bit more comfortable, but didn’t realise how super La Selva would be.
All staff were Ecuadorian, and many were from the local community. Our room (and loo!) had no windows… just mesh to let air in and keep bugs out. Temperature is between 75 and 95 degrees F all year round. Humidity is 80% plus.
The food was amazing, and locally sourced. Everything was quietly organised like a well oiled machine. We were issued rubber boots which hardly left our feet for the next 3 days.
The high humidity meant we got used to a permanent damp feel to both us and all our clothes!
The solitude and silence were immense. Especially at night. It was almost overwhelming. Then it would be broken by bird song or the eerie sound of the Howler monkeys, or warring Caymans in the lake.
Every day, and night, we were taken out in our small group of just 7. Us, and 5 lovely people from Massachusetts, USA. Hello ladies!!
We had Edwin, a Naturalist, plus Medardo, an unbelievably eagle eyed native guide, with us all the time.
They pointed out things we would never have seen, and constantly explained fascinating details about the wildlife, and also the plants and trees, and their uses, especially in natural medicine. This fungus is peeled apart to reveal a cool gel used to treat burns.
This black sap heals wounds.
This seed case is a comb, and the leaf below can be folded and twisted without it breaking. One use is to wrap food before cooking.
This is a place for people who can be ‘Wowed’ by tiny things and details. There are relatively few mammals, many of which are highly reclusive, so sightings are unlikely.But the tiny things are incredible. Tiny frogs and toads with amazing leaf coloured camouflage….
Then turn them over and WOW!!
We loved the fact that nothing was stage managed. There was no point where we felt that we saw something because it was enticed by food. Medardo would swiftly pounce and suddenly be holding a frog, but never harmed them at all. Everything was wild and natural. The guides were as excited as we were when something was spotted.
I had to curb my natural desire to jump up and down and squeal with excitement!!
We started in at the deep end with a night walk. Head torches and bug spray on, we set off.
Our photos often don’t convey size, but believe me, some of the insects were HUGE… just as many frogs were tiny.
These bugs were 4 inches long!
This was the weirdest Caterpillar ever!!!
We saw capuchin monkeys, too fast to photograph!
The highlight was 2 Tarantulas. The bigger one scuttled into it’s hole, but this one was more obliging!
At about 5 inches across, I mentally thanked myself for booking the better accommodation. Phew!
The next few days were spent doing various jungle walks and canoe rides. Here are pictures of some of the creatures we saw.
This is a Howatzin, a large and very unique bird. No links to any other species, they eat semi toxic leaves, and therefore exude a terrible smell! They can dive underwater to escape predators, and young birds have hooks on their wings so they can climb around in trees!
The great Tinamou is very elusive. This one was asleep…with eyes open.
These were Howler monkeys, hanging on with long prehensile tails. Their eerie calls could be heard echoing around the forest.
The Great Potoo…
A spectacled owl!
The jungle is a place of survival. Camouflage is one defence. This is a toad!
Large numbers and team work are another. These ants worked as a team to carry this insect leg.
Some ants were huge. The bullet ant is feared. It is an inch long.
This Is a huge Owls eye butterfly…. confusing to predators
Or Maybe have viciously sharp spines….
Or enough poison to put a human in hospital, although you are less than 1cm long….
Or Just be horribly sneaky… this fungus seeps in through the insects pores, grows inside it, reaches it’s brain and turns it into a sort of zombie. The insect then walks to the sort of location which is ideal for the fungus to grow, and dies. 😱
Or just walk away! This is the walking tree. It apparently searches for light by casting fast growing roots in the direction of the light. It then loses the roots on the darker side and literally ‘walks’, possibly up to 8 metres in a year.
The lodge has a tree top tower which was so much higher than I expected, and every step and landing was metal that allowed you to see down.
My vertigo screamed NO!However I used NLP and somehow got up all 120 feet of it. We still weren’t at the top of the canopy but it was sensational.
There was a beautiful double toothed kite building a nest in the Kapok tree we had climbed, and we saw lots of birds around us! Magical. Getting down was accomplished by following Chris and singing ‘Walking on Sunshine’ to myself! My mantra song!
When rain or land slips occur, they sometimes expose mineral rich seams in the clay riverbank. These ‘Clay licks’ are then frequented by hundreds of parrots, who use the minerals to counter digestive disturbances brought on by consuming certain seeds and fruits.
We were lucky enough to witness this, and also stunning Macaws visiting a freshwater spring. Beautiful but unbelievably noisy and argumentative!!
We also visited the local community, and amongst other things, tried blowpipe blowing!
Our lodge leases land from them and supports their education and health programmes. Many of the lodge staff are from the village.
Our final night included a canoe paddle in pitch darkness to see night fishing bats and the Caymans, …or at least see their eyes reflecting back in the torch beam. The largest can grow to 9 feet long and they hunt at night. Rotten picture but you can see the body outline and the eyes!!
The lake also contains Pirhanas. We tried fishing for them, with beef as bait! Despite lots of nibbles, and a nearly catch for Chris, I have to show you the one caught by our guide! Eek! Those teeth!
Now we are being paddled silently along the chocolate creek for the last time.
Everyone seems lost in their own thoughts, genuinely sad to leave this magical, faraway place.
(Our remoteness was brought home to us when, after nearly 4 hours boating upstream, we arrived in Coca to find our flight back to Quito was cancelled due to storms. Edwin organised a bus, and within 30 minutes we embarked on a 6 hour road trip across the Andes!!
Our transfer to our next destination, in the cloud Forest, had waited at the airport, and then drove us through torrential rain and lightening for 2.5 hours. We arrived at 9pm after 14 hours of adventure!!! )
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!)
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.
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
We like to ensure that our travel days are holidays as well, so we look for interesting things on, or near, our route. At the NE corner of the Adriatic, in Italy, we found 3 little gems.
Firstly, the Riserva naturale della Foce dell’Isonzo is a bird reserve where a 2km walk took us past summer breeding scrapes, and wetlands where wintering birds were starting to arrive. We have also never had such great views of snipe, and, bizarrely, Carmargue ponies!
Then, the drive to the pretty town of Grado, and across the causeway, waving a sad goodbye to the azure sea. The next seawater we encounter will be the colder, and greyer, English channel!
Just north of Grado is Aquileia! This was once the Roman regional capital, and main trading port, long before Venice existed. They are still uncovering ruins, revealing remains of a huge city. They are only ground level ruins, but a short walk revealed the site of the forum, and the vast remains of the Roman wharves, dock ramps and warehouses.
Best of all is the church, or Basilica, which was built in 1031 on the site of an early Romano christian church . Bishop Poppo, in 1031, had a red tiled floor laid over the original 4th century floor. That has been uncovered and is stunning! It is the largest paleo christian mosaic floor in the world. The detail is remarkable.
But look up too. The intricate wooden carved ceiling is 15th century!
The basilica had another treasure – the crypt of frescoes. More stunning wall and ceiling frescoes, painted in the 12th century, preserved because they are away from light.
Really worth a visit, and it set us up for our long journey north into Austria.
Being us, we don’t do things the easy way. We chose to go due north, taking the less used route over the beautiful Carnic Alps. Autumn colours were everywhere. Gorgeous.
Having reached Austria, we decided to take the route over the Gross Glockner pass, as it was a glorious day. Be warned. This is not for the faint hearted, nor a dodgy vehicle. You climb, and descend, steeply up to 9000 feet, with 38 hair pin bends! Just short of the highest point, Boris appeared to give a little hiccough. We had visions of spending the night up thete, but thankfully a few minutes rest to cool down and he was fine. Stunning, if bleak views from the top!
Then down to the glorious scenery of the lake at Zell am See, and the luxury of the Seeland campsite, which had a super restaurant – I had the best fresh trout I have ever eaten, while Chris went for a meatier option! Then the luxury of hot showers, with underfloor heating!
Next morning, we walked around the Lake to the town. Our amazing luck with the weather continues!
Zell am See is in the very traditional Tyrol, so no shops open on Sunday. St Hippolyte church was built in 1514, and is worth a visit.
Then we set off on our long drive through Austria to Switzerland. To use motorways and some other main roads you need a Vignette. Austria do a 10 day pass, costing 9 euros, for vehicles under 3.5tons, like Boris!
Beautiful scenery all the way.