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.

12. Twists and turns and roads that are possibly not meant for Campervans? Lumbier to Itxaspe via Hondarriba

We awoke to find a very normal looking campsite in the daylight, if rather empty. We set off promptly for our main objective of the day – The Foz de Lumbier!  A foz is a gorge!

Parking was easy by the entrance, and as we started to walk towards the gorge, a huge bird swept through the sky and flew through the opening in front of us… a Lammergeier. The largest vulture in the Pyrénées with a wingspan of 2.7 metres! Fantastic, especially as they are only occasional visitors to this gorge. The main residents were waiting for us around the corner. Griffon vultures. Lots and lots of them at different places along the magnificent gorge.20150909_094544Flying, soaring on thermals or just perched on the crags, they were amazing to see. 20150910_100642We saw egyptian vultures and a booted eagle too. The sky was also alive with Crag Martins and Swifts. You could walk the whole length of the gorge, because amazingly a railway had been laid high along one side, and the path followed the old track. Through 2 long tunnels as well! It was incredible from start to finish for both the spectacular scenery and the birds. 20150910_110008Total cost…2 euros for parking!

We had been expecting rain by 11am, and so had planned to spend a wet afternoon in the city of Pamplona… BUT by 11am it was still sunny so we changed plans and headed up into the mountains for some more walks, birds and scenery.

Next stop the Foz de Abayon about 10km up the road. Not possible to walk here, but the view from the mirador was so beautiful.20150910_122846

And still the sun shone, so we decided to test Boris on mountain roads and follow a tour I had found in a book!!

Chris was a hero for braving it! He drove miles and miles through gorgeous valleys and hills, with twists and hairpin bends everywhere! Spain has used it’s EU money wisely, and the roads are really good quality, they just kept getting narrower! Suddenly we were on a remote pass on top of the Pyrénées. The views were awesome, but there were some very menacing clouds in one direction.20150910_153714

We were aiming for a nature reserve…the Bosque d’Irati, in one of the most remote and untouched forests in Europe. We got there in the end… the very end of the road! Truly in the middle of nowhere.

We did a 4 mile hike through beautiful natural forest. 20150910_165531It had a Jurassic park feel about it, and that was only compounded when we saw a stunning Salamander on the path. Ok…it isn’t a dinosaur…but you don’t see one of those everyday.

Our other remote hope was to see a very rare bird… a white backed woodpecker. Suddenly we heard a bird calling. We scanned the trees and there it was. We were able to watch it for about 10 minutes. 20150911_110321There was not another person for miles. It was an astonishing place.

We then had to drive 24 kms back along the twisty road… still having dodged the rain, but the pass was in cloud for our return. As we descended out of the mist we went by a really isolated farm, where all the sheep had newborn lambs!20150911_110109

Another 35kms of twists and turns brought us to Roncevalles and Camping Urrobi.   This was an excellent site and enabled us to catch up on all the usual ablutions and jobs.

Friday September 11th

We had a lie in!! Set off at 11.30 and headed on across the Pyrénées. More twists and turns but then… a small autoroute with tunnels to iron out the bends. A welcome rest for Chris’ arm muscles and for my vertigo… I was a quivering mass of jelly on some of the bends yesterday! I must say though,  that there is so little traffic on these roads that we had hardly any need to stop or reverse on the narrow ones.

Our first stop was the Jardin botanique de Senorio Bertiz, high in the mountains. Laid out in the 19th century in a tiny corner of his vast family estate (which is now a national park), it was a sweet garden with many thriving  examples of trees from around the world.  We picnicked here in the hot sun and watched pied and spotted flycatchers swooping by.

Then we headed down out of the mountains, knowing that we also left peace and tranquility behind. We hit the Atlantic Coast at Irun so that we could visit an unlikely bird reserve. It is in the centre of town, sandwiched between the airport and the railway depot!

Txingudi (This is not a spelling mistake. We are now in Basque country. .X’s everywhere!)  is, however,  an internationally important wetland, especially at migration time, when it serves as a stop off point and watering hole for migrants on their long journeys north or south.

It was a magical place as it also looked out onto the Bidasoa estuary with Hendaye in France to the right and Hondarriba in Spain to the left. We added several birds to the list here, but the stand out one was an Osprey perched on a pole in the harbour eating his recently caught fish.

We then drove round to Hondarriba where we had been told we could park for 10 euros in an aire. As we drove in, the roads got busier and busier. Obviously something was ‘going on’.  We reached the aire at the far end of town which was part of an enormous carpark by the beach. There were campervans everywhere. We found a space and it was time for Google!

It turns out we had arrived on the final day of the 4 day festival of the Virgin of Guadaloupe, a major event in the Basque town’s calendar, because she saved them from a seige by the French.

We couldn’t see where to pay so I went to ask the van next door. They were french, and asked me if I knew why it was so busy. I knowledgeably explained about the festival….but left out the part that they were celebrating escaping the french!!

Anyway…the good news was…there was no charge for the night’s stay!

We walked into the town. 20150911_194328It was a truly delightful old town of Basque houses with little verandas. 20150911_195724Definitely worth a visit. The whole town was en fête,  and there were lots of photos up of the previous day’s parade, where everyone was in Basque national dress. 20150911_195943We came upon musicians, singers, dancers, a fair, a market, and hundreds of people everywhere enjoying the party.

We came back to Boris, when, at 10.30pm, the whole car park shook and several van alarms went off. The fireworks had started. We had a grandstand view from Boris.. wasn’t it kind of them to lay on such a great welcome!

Saturday September 12th

We had been worried that the party would make it a noisy night, but all was quiet and we slept well. The new mattress topper in Boris is SO comfortable!

A grey day with rain forecast. We planned to go to a Basque boat building museum in San Pedro but another fête meant parking was impossible so we headed to Carrefour to do some Spanish shopping and fill up with fuel…79p a litre! Even with all the mountain driving Boris is still managing nearly 30mpg which we are very happy with.

I secured a reservation for lunch at a traditional Basque restaurant Agorregi jatetxea Continue reading “12. Twists and turns and roads that are possibly not meant for Campervans? Lumbier to Itxaspe via Hondarriba”