A Caribbean Adventure: Cuba, the Bahamas and the Turks - Andy Webb
Sunday 5th August
We arrived after a 9 hour flight into Jose Marti International Airport, a well organised, clean airport, there were no problems getting our bags. We avoided the large queues of tourists lining up for money by heading upstairs to departures where we only had to wait about a minute. Cuba, rather confusingly has 2 currencies, one for tourists (CUC - Peso Convertible) and one for locals (CUP - Cuban Peso). One CUC is about £0.54, while one CUP is about £0.02, its worth noting that cash is king, so I brought a mix of GBP and Euros to change.
We were rather easily herded into a surprisingly modern taxi and for a price of 25CUC (£13) we had a ride into the centre of Habana (Habana being the Cuban spelling for Havana). Out of the window, old patched up cars competed with shiny new red and yellow taxis, crumbling buildings came into view, vast wide avenues lined with trees, brief glimpses of revolution art were in way of a teasing introduction.
We were dropped off close to Obispo and after a little orientation we found our Casa Particular for the first 3 nights. Casas are the Cuban version of B & Bs where you stay with a Cuban family, renting a room, in some food is also available. I rang the bell, hopeful that it would get answered and we wouldn't then be traipsing around Habana trying to find alternate lodgings. After a tense 3 minute wait a smiling lady appeared at the door, her name was Elena and we were shown into a rickety lift. It was clear from the start that our very limited Spanish and her very limited English would mean an interesting array of hand gestures as way of conversation. Our room was nice and compact with its own beer fridge, air con, shared bathroom and a spectacular view of a concrete wall and an oil drum.
After sorting ourselves out we headed out into a nicely warm evening for some exploration. Obispo is Old Habanas' main street closed to cars, lined with restaurants, bars, shops and a fair share of vacant plots. We invested in a couple of cans of Cristal (the local beer) and headed in the direction of anywhere looking very much like tourists. Old Habana is beautiful bathed in the early evening sun, there was a wonderful glow about the place. We headed down to the Maleceon via Prado a wide tree lined Avenue. The Maleceon is famous for those classic shots of old cars driving past with large waves crashing into the sea wall behind. Today, though, the sea was calm and as far as the eye could see the sea wall was lined with Cubans basking in the sun, the more adventurous were diving off rocks into the sea
Not quite up for diving we headed back for some food passing the tanks at Museo de la Revolucion. We were recommended a place by some friends of ours who had been to Cuba a couple of years back. Tucked away in a street just behind Obispo was La Julia, a cosy family run palador (private restaurant). Our order was taken and within minutes we had a table full of rice, black beans, chicken, friend plantain, salad and fruit. The food was wholesome and tasty, although I was surprised that the food wasn't spicy in the slightest. Our meal with drinks came to about £11, a bargain!
After dinner we checked out La Lluvio de Oro, a large beer hall with high ceilings and a thriving energy. we were treated to a lively Cuban band and some obligatory Mojitos before turning in for a much needed sleep accompanied by the noisy drone of the air con and a slightly worrying petrol smell.
Monday 6th August - Habana, my birthday
It was nice not having a plan or an agenda, so we decided to head out and see where we ended up. First stop was breakfast at El Mercurio, an elegant Cafe Restaurant, reminiscent of the grand coffee shops in Paris. My birthday breakfast consisted of an Omelette with chorizo, ham and cheese washed down with fresh orange juice and an excellent Cuban coffee.
Nicely fed we headed up into the already searing heat to explore, I was glad that common sense had finally prevailed and I'd bought myself a hat. Back on Obispo we were starting to become familiar with the locals, the beggar with a dog with a telephone receiver attached to its ear, the newspaper man who would try and sell you the same newspaper each time he saw you even if you'd already bought one. Also prevalent were the many stray dogs, all looked badly malnourished and sick, but despite this they seemed content enough. Despite sporadic attempts to come and eat in our restaurant, where are you from, I have cigars amigo especially for you, I was nicely surprised that there did not seem to be too much hassle for visitors. I narrowly avoided getting a piece of masonary stuck in my head/hat as some demolition work was going on and instead of cordoning off the area, there only safety measure appeared to be to sit and watch.
We meandered down the side streets away from the hustle and bustle of Obispo, where kids played ball in the street, old cars rested or rusted, people sat around watching the world go by, in fact, it seemed that there were more people lazing about than working. We arrived at the Camara Oscura which was supposed to offer 360 degree views of Habana, we entered the lift, initially there was some confusion about whether we got in or whether we had to pay, as it turned out you paid at the top. We were told when we paid that the lady would call to us when the photograph was ready, we weren't quite sure what that meant, did it mean we would have our picture taken, we weren't sure so we headed out on to the roof to spectacular views of Habana.
After a while we realised that the woman hadn't called us so we headed in where she looked agitated and gestured towards a door, not thinking I opened it and interrupted a demo of the Camera Oscura, the guide didn't seem phased and invited us to join us must to the casternation of the grumpy woman. The Camera Oscura allowed amazing 360 degree close ups of Habana and an interesting history lesson aswell, an introduction to some of the buildings.
When he finished the guide started again just for us and we got the whole experience to ourselves, we discovered that the Camera Oscura had actually been made in London, so there you go.
After our history lesson which I promptly forgot we headed down to the Plaza Vieja for a beer at Taberna de la Muralla, an Austrian run pub/brewery, the only place in Cuba to get freshly brewed beer on site. We were treated to live music by Trio Los Astros, who gave us our own personal show, which inevitably ended in us buying their CD, well I thought, its good to support local musicians. If we had kept up that trend though, by the end of the trip, I counted we would have bought about 47 CDs. It was nice to while away a couple of hours people watching, in particular, we tried to discover what a man in a disabled buggy was selling in long thin white cones, were they large joints? People did not appear to be smoking them, later we discovered they were roasted nuts.
More walking around, we passed Grandma, probably the most photographed old woman in Cuba, she has featured in the Lonely Planet and on Globe Trekker, I declined to take her photo favouring an interesting abstract shadow on the wall nearby. We tried to get into Bodequita del Medio, where Hemingway used to drink, but it was full of tourists wielding flash cameras and mojitos so we opted for Cafe O Reilly around the corner. Cafe O Reilly was a nice enough place with a balcony overlooking the street, some live music and a resident cartoonist who immediately decided I was his main subject, as a result I decided to draw him in a plan to swap artwork rather than pay. Unfortunately my drawing skills were considerably worse than his and I was soon the owner of a caricature that I didn't particularly like.
We took a stroll down to the Rum Factory in a more rundown area of Old Habana, only to find the place just about to close so we headed back for a brief but late siesta before dinner.
Again, more strained, limited exchanges with our host, I was beginning to get really frustrated by my lack of Spanish, how much is it, where is it, my name is, how are you, I would like to have doesn’t really get you very far at all. So it was that I started speaking my strange English abroad often with a strange accent and a few Spanish and French words thrown in, this served only to confuse everybody, including myself, even more.
Tony, the guy who we booked the Casa with popped round to see how we were settling in, we had bought him 2 vest tops from London which he greatly appreciated. He tried to give us quite a sobering warning about the dangers of Habana, I can happily report that we did not experience any problems although we did take necessary precautions, e.g. wearing money belts, leaving cards and other cash locked away in the room, not taking cameras/bags out at night. We got him to sort out our accommodation in Trinidad for the day after next.
We headed to La Patio for my birthday dinner, a lovely place overlooking Plaza de la Catedral, our seats overlooked other diners although on the other side we had a very tasteful concrete wall. We opted for a nice Chilean white wine, I can't remember what food I ordered but the service was rather slow and forgetful, the food nothing spectacular, but all this was made up for the movie of the square playing below. Its great watching other tourists sometimes, trying to guess the nationality, trying to guess whether someone is married, divorced, having an affair...Dogs would intermittently interrupt the music play fighting. One lady, obviously quite tipsy from some wine, decided to put on a one woman dance show, the rest of her table seemed distinctly unimpressed, she really seemed to be in a world of her own. The band however, had noticed her and made an immediate bee line for her after they had finished armed with CDs, unfortunately for them, she didn't even tip them and they went home disappointed.
After dinner we checked out Cafe Paris which had the obligatory photo of the Eiffel Tower, it was jam packed with other travellers. The Pino Coladas were very tasty and the house band very lively.
Tuesday 7th August - Central Habana, Vedado
The bad guts had started, I never learn, it’s always the ice. Not to be dispirited we headed out and had a VERY cheap breakfast of Pizza from the hole in the wall, our slice of pizza cost an extortionate 1p and it was quite nice aswell! Feeling good from such a bargain, we headed off into Central Habana, down Neptuno the feel is much more downtown, buildings are more decrepit, their are less tourists, people queue for rations, keys fly off balconies onto unsuspecting pedestrians below, traffic buzzes past. The temperature was well into the 90s, I had already sweated an Olympic swimming pools worth as we headed off Neptuno down to the Maleceon where the temperature was even hotter. We must have been the only tourists walking on foot, everybody else opting for air conditioned taxis. The sea side of the Maleceon was cordoned off in readiness for the carnival, this explained all the people the night before.
Nearly delirious we found an oasis in Cafe Fiat, a shiny new cafe with air con, which allowed us to rehydrate over a mango juice. Continuing on we headed into Vedado, the other main district of Habana, where the bigger hotels are. It was almost like being in a different city, the feel was different, less touristy, more like a South American City. We passed a strangely overweight English Telephone Box at the side of the road, tired and hot we decided to hunt down somewhere to eat, unfortunately, the two good places were some walk. The walk took us into quiet leafy suburbs, past long queues of people queuing for ice cream. The first place was empty so we decided to give it a miss, I never eat in a place that is empty on the presumption that it is empty for a reason. We finally found El Gringo Viejo after some assistance from locals, we had to wait outside for a few minutes before there was a table for us. The place was delightful little paladar/casa down some steps. The food was tasty, the meat was definitely better than the fish and the staff were friendly and attentive.
After dinner we went in search for a taxi back via the maleceon again, the best tactic we found was to head for a hotel and then you have no problem getting a taxi.
Tired and light-headed from all the heat we showered and rested for a while. In the evening we headed for Flamenco and tapas at Meson de la Flota, despite what we were told on entering we had to wait a good hour for live music and even then they played for 20 minutes before disappearing for another hour. The tapas wasn't great, they didn't have Potata Bravas, presumably potatoes were in short demand, the chorizo was hard and seriously lacking a spicy red wine sauce. I must admit the main meals looked better but I would avoid the tapas if you go here, especially as my guts were even worse the next day!
we ended the night in Cafe Paris again as we were keen to catch the whole set of the band, Corazones de Fuego, we only caught a bit of the night before. They were a very talented bunch, playing Cuban classics with their own improvisations. After the gig we got speaking to some of the band, they said they occasionally played in Europe, but it was expensive for them to all go over there. I promised to email them some video of their performance.
Wed 8 August - Habana - Trinidad
After a restless night which involved numerous trips to the toilet in the dark tripping over things, I was faced with the prospect of 6 hours on a bus with a very unsettled stomach. We caught a taxi to the Viazul Bus Station, our driver suddenly stopped about half way en route shaking his head. This is no good, no good at all he said and then proceeded to fiddle with the meter until it had been disconnected, apparently with the meter on we would pay much more, so he had to disconnect it!
The bus journey passed fast with most people gassed to sleep by the air conditioning. On arrival in Trinidad, the streets were lined with casa owners desperate for custom all jostling by a thin tape fence that seemed to someway some form of respite for the arriving travellers. The heat burned down as we collected our bags and went to find our casa owner, we spotted the sign saying mrs.odette. We were motioned onto a rickety bicycle taxi which almost collapsed under the weight of our bags. How the rider managed to negotiate us and the bags in 95 Degree heat over cobbled stones I'll never know, but it didn't do my stomach any favours and at one point an old woman nearly got flattened permanently into the road.
Our accommodation for the next 3 nights was Casa Colonnial Felix, a large one storey house built in 1820 just south of the central park, we were welcomed enthusiastically by Mrs.Sanchez and shown to our room which included an ensuite bathroom.
Trinidad is a beautiful crumbling old town situated in a stunning location between the high mountains of the Escambray Range and in near proximity of the Caribbean Sea. The town was given UNESCO World Heritage status in 1988. By the end of the 18th Century there were nearly 60 sugar mills in operation with 12000 slaves working the sugar cane fields. Slave revolts in Haiti at the start of the 19th Century meant that a lot of French planters came to Trinidad, they contributed to the formation of Cuban nationality as well as bringing their African customs, culture and traditions.
Although predominantly Trinidad's mainstay is now tourism you can still feel the strong colonial influence here with the narrow cobbled streets, multi-coloured pastel houses and well restored ornamented balconies & railings.
The area around the Plaza Major was swarming with Jinetoros and Jineteras trying to lure you into a private palador or buy jewellery. Due to the effects of what I was now suspecting was mild sun stroke from the day before, I decided to stick to bottled water. We took our place on the steps leading up to the Casa Musica and watched a young boy torment a small dog for about half an hour, kids are the same everywhere, well in England they were like that about 25 years ago before playstations started assimilating them.
Tired we headed back to the Casa for a tasty meal of Chicken, Rice and Beans and a very restful sleep.
Thursday 9th August - Trinidad/Playa Ancon
At breakfast we were joined by an older French lady who was travelling on her own, she was heading off on here own to hike in the mountains, something that I thought was rather commendable as she didn't look particularly athletic or that young!
After nourishment we took a stroll round town, through the many market stalls, past ladies selling Che badges and children begging for pesos. As a welcome solace from the fierce sun we took in the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad which has an attractive four aisle interior and an impressive neo-gothic altar, a lady attempted to give me a history lesson about the altar, as far as I could understand she was showing me a picture of the saint of Trinidad, the rest passed me by.
There was a museum of kind at museo nacional de la lucha contra bandidos, that’s the Museum of the Struggle against Bandits to you and me. The museum is located former convent and church of San Francisco de Asis which was built in 1770 and finished in 1913 so I guess the builders must have been pretty damn lazy. Anyway the tower offered impressive views of the town and the surrounding mountains. There was also the slight concern over public safety in which it wouldn't be too hard to fall out one of the windows, lean too hard on some rickety wood stair rail or dash your head on a sharp bit of rusting machinery. Thankfully we survived the ordeal and escaped unharmed.
Dinner was a cheap pizza in a small cafe near the main park before trying to find a taxi to the beach. After waiting for nearly 15 minutes in the searing sun outside the Iberostar Hotel it appeared all the taxis had been abducted. We enlisted the help of the doorman who went to call one, whether this had any effect is doubtful because another fifteen minutes later we were still waiting in Iberostar reception, in the end we were able to jump in a van taxi where it appeared the fare was $2 per person flat rate.
Playa Ancon beach is about 11km from the town and is an inviting strip of white beach and tranquil waters, there is also a rather ugly Russian built hotel that does nothing to enhance what would have been a perfect spot otherwise. We found a spot under a palm tree, read, sunbathed, swam and dozed. At about 4pm the sky started darkening towards the mountain, and an evil giant dark cloud began to eat away at the sunny day. Truly an awesome sight as your likely to see when your minding your own business having a swim. Not long after the rains came sending the whole beach into about 4 taxis back to Trinidad.
Back at our casa we got chatting to 2 girls from Munich over dinner and a few Cristals, one of the girls was from Texas, originally, and apparently faced 10 years in prison if the US authorities found out that she was spending money in Cuba.
Friday 10 August - Trinitopes
An early start had us making the trip up to the mountains in big old rickety yellow army supplies truck. The 20km winding road offered impressive views of the Escambray Mountains and the coastline. At the top we stopped at a coffee plantation, which was in effect, just a couple of bushes along a short path clearly intended as a tourist novelty. The complimentary coffee, however, was welcome and gave a necessary wake up boost for our hike.
The hike down to the Caburni Falls was very scenic with outcrops of scraggy rock, rolling vistas of tree covered hills. In way of a snack we feasted upon termites, which, not surprisingly, had a rather distinctive woody taste, but nevertheless they provided a welcome calorie boost. Dessert was a small white flower that had high levels of vitamin c, unfortunately there was no Cristal to wash it down.
As we reached the bottom I must have sweated about an Olympic swimming pools' worth of sweat and the cool shade of the caburni falls was a welcome respite from the searing midday heat. The falls squeeze through a narrow channel in the cliffs before ending up in a secluded natural swimming pool. After a refreshing swim and a rest, most of which was spent watching daredevil Cubans climbing up vines and leaping off from a great height into the pool.
The walk back up would have been relatively straight forward but in this heat it was quite an effort and the appearance of circling vultures overhead was slightly disconcerting! Luckily for us, back at the top somebody had the great idea to build a juice bar, so we all rehydrated accordingly. We also spotted the French lady we had met at breakfast yesterday looking rather worn out, she chose to keep to herself.
Out truck picked as up and took us to a tasty lunch of pork in tomato sauce, conversation was limited as everybody else seemed determined to only speak Spanish, Italian or French including the Irish girls sitting next to us! As we were leaving rather foreboding rain clouds were starting to develop signalling it was time for a descent.
We stopped off to buy some supplies of rum, juice and beer and it was only when we got back that I realised we had been grossly overcharged for the rum or the juice, oh well.
Back at the Casa we feasted on a big meal of prawns, struggling to eat all that we were offered, I suppose the left overs would be feeding the rest of the family that night. Our plans to go out were slightly curtailed by an impressive lightening storm which knocked out all power for about 2 hours, so we stayed put and played cards and drank rum with Gaby and Amie. The effects of strong rum pretty much meant the Trinidad nightlife would have to wait for another night. Instead we had a restless nights sleep with the fan blowing our sheets and mosquitoes everywhere.
Saturday 11th August - Sugar Mills Valley
We hired a taxi for the day at 30CUC with Gaby and Amie to take us around the Valley de los Ingenios (Sugar Mills Valley). It is a series of three interconnected valleys roughly 7 miles outside of Trinidad, and was the centre for sugar production from the late 18th century until the late 19th century. At its peak there were over 30,000 slaves working in about 50 mills and the surrounding sugar cane plantations.
Our first stop was The La Vigia Viewpoint which offered up spectacular views of the valley and the chance to buy some souvenirs. We then headed to the Manaca Ignaza estate with its sinister watchtower which allowed guards a 360 degree view of the sugar cane fields where the slaves worked, this was at one time the tallest structure in Cuba. Climbing the rickety stairs and the absence of any guard rails made this a health and safety officers' nightmare and quite possibly a popular suicide spot although I saw no sign of any depressed people.
For lunch we headed to the very pleasant Casa Guachinango, an old ranch where it is possible to do horseback riding, we opted for a Bocanero and a ham and cheese sandwich while being entertained by the local musicians. At one point I was invited to join the band and play the marimbala (or at least I think that’s what it was called), it was basically a wooden box with 4 metal strips that you 'picked' with your fingers to create a rhythmic sound. After 2 songs my fingers had almost been ground down to the bone so I decided to return to my beer.
On our return to the taxi where our driver was looking most impatient I decided to get a great shot of an old car with sugar cane behind it, unfortunately I failed to notice a big pile of dog shit until after. 3 Cuban guys sitting by the railroad certainly recognised the word shit, much to their amusement when I cursed. This, then caused further delay to the already irate driver, who then had to deal with the minor whiff of dog shit aswell.
We had agreed for our driver to take us to Playa Ancon after this, but due to us delaying him he demanded this was extra to the agreed price, in the end it turned out to be an extra CUC2 per person and we couldn't be bothered to argue. Beach space was certainly at a premium and we had to hunt around between all the Cuban families for a spot under the shade. Most Cubans were in the sea with bottles of rum, dehydration was obviously not a problem for them. A pleasant afternoon was spent reading and taking refreshing dips in the sea before heading back to town as another storm looked to be brewing.
After dinner we headed out with the girls to sample the Trinidad nightlife, our first location was La Canchachara which took a little bit of finding, in the end after following a misleading map, a local woman helped point us in the right direction and insisted on walking us to the entrance. La Canchachara is famous for its' potent warm honey/lemon/water rum and CUC2.50 gets you a earthenware mug of the stuff. We washed these down to the accompanying sounds of traditional Son music which included one of the most amazing banjo players I have ever seen this side of Deliverance.
After we'd finished our rum we decided to move on to find somewhere a bit more lively and they don't come more lively than the Casa de la Musica. People stretched out right up the steps while in the centre couples fought for floor space to salsa. With the absence of seating we fought our way to the makeshift bar and ordered some cans of Bucanegro. It has to be said at this point that I was flagging a bit due to the heat and humidity, each beer I sunk seem to have little of an effect. Trips to the toilet were quite a challenge, battling your way up the steps trying not to step on revellers then trying to work out where the toilets actually were. We managed to commandere a table to rest our drinks on and got talking to a Cuban guy who spoke good English. He said that he was once a history teacher but now he runs a Casa because the income is much higher, it seems that a lot of skilled workers end up doing this. The sad thing was that he knew all about world history but he'd never been allowed to leave Cuba to visit these places.
At the end of the night we ended up in Palenque de los Congos Reales which had more Son music set in a half open courtyard. By now Amie and Gabi were quite drunk due to the fact that they had skipped dinner and my conversation with Gabi about German football ended up in farce. Aware that we had another early start we said our goodbyes and left the girls to the mercy of the Trinidad nightlife and retired to the Casa.
Sunday 12th August - Trinidad-Habana
An early start and rushed farewells to Elena and Jorge we were again at the mercy of a bike rickshaw with our bags strapped picariously to the back, the poor guy had to pedal uphill over cobbles in the driving rain as a result the speed was nothing more than walking pace and at times the whole thing felt like it was going to topple over. When we arrived at our destination he seemed to want double what we had agreed, luckily for us I only had enough change to cover what we had agreed so we left him to curse amongst himself. Perhaps karma played a part as I ended up making a grand entrance into the bus depot firmly tripping over a step landing flat on my face in front of a large group of very amused Cubans. I did my bow and we found our bus. The bus journey passed without incident and by late afternoon we were back in Habana.
we arrived back at our Casa to find that we were to be staying at here friends on the floor below. The lady was very welcoming except that she spoke absolutely no English so instead communication involved a lot of pointless hand gestures and Anglo Spanish noises. We headed out back to the Austrian pub for a few beers and soon had to rush inside due to the onset of a storm that now seemed to be a feature at around 4.30pm. After the rain subsided we went in search of an Internet connection as I needed to print out our flight info. All the places in the centre seemed to be either closed, just shut or broken. In the end we ended up getting ripped off at the Central Park Hotel ($10 for 30 mins!) but needs must and the printer was very stylish.
That evening we decided to try Habanas' premier Italian Restaurant, La Domenica. It was a pleasant enough place with seating outside in the street and its own house band with matching outfits. The food was questionable, the Bruschetta was basically a bit of bread with pizza topping. The Putanesca was good but Odies Spaghetti Bolognese was very bland lacking garlic, red wine and most importantly chilli! We later found out that Cubans' don't eat or use chilli hardly at all, which seemed strange considering we were in the Caribbean. Still the Cuban red wine went down well
After lunch we checked out La Bodega del Medio which would be a nice old bar if it wasn't for fucking Hemingway whose link with the place has turned it into a tourist trap, $4 for a Mojito and temporary blindness caused by the constant flash of cameras. Visitors are obliged to sign their names on the walls, some had somehow signed on the ceiling which makes you wonder how they had got up there in the first place.
Before turning in we stopped by our local, La Casa del Escabeehe, a small cosy bar full of Cubans and a great band playing Salsa. The owner looked like a Mafia boss counting his money at the ageing till. There seemed to be some issue in the Gents toilets, whether somebody was dead in there or been sick, the guy outside seemed very keen not to let anyone in. A drunk German guy in a pink shirt was having a lot of fun falling over everybody and dancing to the music much to the amusement of the clientele. I got talking to a Cuban guy at the bar who started off by raving about London before making it his mission to ensure I bought some Coke off him, every polite rebuff was met with a change in price and quantity. Eventually he gave up but not before smiling and shaking my hand! We retired to bed.
Monday 13th August - Habana-Nassau
We awoke early to ensure we got to the airport in good time. When we arrived at the airport we discovered our flight had been put back to the afternoon so we realised that we were going to get well acquainted with the airport that morning. After completing all of the formalities which included nearly burning my hand on newly shrunk wrapped luggage we headed through to departures where overpriced Bucanero (or Bucanegro as I called it) awaited. Our other fellow drinkers at 11.30am were a group of Bahamian Islanders who looked like they had been up all night. After writing a few postcards, the weather outside took a turn for the worse increasing the prospect of yet further delays. Surprisingly, by 1.55 we were walking on to our plane.
Cubana Airways are reminiscent of planes from the 70s with tatty seats, some that which refused to stay upright, luggage boxes that refused to close and a thick smog of aircon providing enough steam to power a locomotive for 20 years. When I went to sit down the carpet under my seat slipped and I ended up half under the seat. Once strapped in and ready to die we were offered one boiled sweet each off a piece of cardboard and told to sit back and wait for the safety announcements. (Sitting back actually meant getting close and personal to the person behind) The safety talk went horribly wrong, the stewardess got out of sync with the voice over and the whole thing descended into farce. I couldn't find the safety bag but did find the sick bag aptly titled YAK-251. Apart from some frantic banging just before take off the whole flight went surprisingly smooth and they got a 9/10 for landing.
On landing in Nassau, I negotiated through a jobs worth American at Customs who insisting on checking all of my tickets three times. We then joined the mayhem of baggage reclaim which seemed to be a free for all, thankfully our luggage stood out due to the Habana style shrink wrap. After wasting 10 minutes waiting in the wrong queue we escaped customs after a light search and a denial of cigarettes.
Our taxi dropped us at the Orange Hill Resort, some 5 minutes from the airport. The friendly lady at the desk who reminded me of the mother out of the Royle Family sorted out our room. 10 minutes later we got a knock to say we needed to move room as an American businessman had arrived who had demanded a bigger TV and hence we were moved, but not before I have left a little present for him in the toilet!
We had some rum punch at the bar and played cards briefly getting interrupted by Rocco the bar manager whose incredibly dry humour made him excruciatingly annoying, so much so that I contracted all the cats to kill him. (Luckily for him they declined and continued to prowl the grounds) After a quick look at the beach we settled down to a tasty seafood platter of lobster tail, Cajun fish and the local speciality, Conch. Conch comes from a shell and doesn’t look appetising but tastes a bit like Calamari. It was so good to have something else apart from Rice and Beans!
More annoying Rocco jokes led us to flee with our wine to the beach, but when the mosquitoes turned up we returned to the bar where a French family were trying to order dinner, the waitress at one point pointed to her breasts to indicate they had chicken quarters on the menu! At this point we retired to our room looking forward to a sleep with quiet air conditioning.
Tuesday 14th August - Nassau-Provo
After a brief breakfast we shared an expensive taxi with an Italian family complete with baby/toddler combo to the airport. After initial confusion over our tickets we headed through security to await our plane. Another slight delay and then we were boarding a small twin turbo prop jet en route to Provodinciales in the Turks and Caicos Islands. After a small delay filling out two landing forms we were quickly through and greeted by Kat, Odies' sister and her boyfriend JT. JT used to live on the Island but had to leave 4 years ago so he was also here on holiday. Kat drove us down to our first 3 nights accommodation at the Alexandra, her friend Andrew had kindly offered us his dads combo for free. En route it was strange to see English road signs at nearly every turn, you almost forget that this is still a British Province despite its proximity to the US. First we met Andrew and his mate Rick who were having a birthday lunch for Andrew, his mate Rick was sporting a bandaged hard, apparently he had been bitten by the local Dolphin Jojo while trying to stroke it.
The apartment was amazing with sea views, 2 large rooms, kitchen and living area, twice the size of our place in Clapham! After a bit of R & R we were driven up to Kats' friend Mary Lous in the hills for a quick lunch with amazing views of the rest of the island before heading down to Coral Garden for some snorkelling. The visibility was great and we were even blessed with a visit from a turtle which was nice. After sampling the delights of the underwater world we treated ourselves to some very potent Dirty Banana cocktails. JT bumped into an old dive buddy on the way back to the car, something I think he might be doing a lot of in the next few days.
In the evening we swung by Andrews' birthday bash where we met an assortment of island crew including a Scot, 2 English girls and a girl from Wales. Andrew showed us his new boat he had just bought, an impressive toy, I wonder if he'd mind if I came back and stole it later?! After a few hours we met up with JT for some Pizza before finishing up at Sharkbite, a cool local bar with good views of the harbour. Kats' boss at the Somerset resort turned up with his wife and we had a nice chat with them before retiring to sleep
Wednesday 15th August - Provo: Dinner Party
After a relaxing nights sleep we were picked up and taken to Hemingways where we had a very tasty breakfast waiting of Eggs Benedict’s and pancakes with an idyllic seaview. Our first trip to a Turks and Caicos bank was next on the agenda and we were greeted by exceedingly long slow moving queues and even more slow moving employees. When we finally reached the desk, everything seemed to take 10 times longer than it should, including a military precisions style exercise for tearing passport copies perfectly. Next was supply shopping which set us back a cool £50, as there isn't much in the way of agriculture/fauna on the island most of everything is flown in leading to mass mark-up.
The rest of the day was spent relaxing in the sea and drinking beer before a dinner date in the evening at Mary Lous in the Hills.
We were treated to four delicious courses interlinked with stories of island life or should I say, island soap operas!
Thursday 16th August - Provo: Conch and Drinking
After a morning swim we took lunch at the Conch Shack in Blue Hills, the local part of the island. Conch is a large saltwater snail with a large shell, made famous by William Goldings' Lord of the Flies. Conch (pronounced konk) is traditionally eaten raw or fried. We ate Conch fritters with a nice fiery hot sauce and curried conch all of which were very tasty. After eating we caught one of the fisherman coming in with his 'catch' of conch. Unfortunately, our hopes of catching a demonstration of how to remove the Conch from the shell was curtailed by a sudden storm that sent us fleeing to the car.
As the rain was so bad it made it impossible to drive so we elected to have a quick smoke. Just as I was finishing my last toke on the pipe, the rains cleared to reveal a police car pulled up alongside us, fearing the worst I smiled with pipe in mouth, they simply smiled back and drove off! Another strange custom here on the island is that drink driving seems to be acceptable, so much so that it is unusual for the driver not to have an opened can of beer resting somewhere on the dash. I guess with top speeds of 20 mph on most of the island roads this wouldn’t cause too many problems, however, it was later revealed that there are quite often fatal accidents on the island as a result of drunk reckless driving.....
We stopped off at a nice deli for some coffee before heading over for a ride on Andrews' boat. With the storm now miles away the afternoon had turned most pleasant and the welcome addition of an cool box of beer made for a relaxing few hours cruising up to Water Cay on the eastern tip of the island. Also enroute we passed the Premiers' house and the new construction of the new marina, unfortunately another sign of how tourist demand is changing the face of the island forever. We also stopped near the Conch Farm where we discovered that our meal earlier in the day had come from, not as the fisherman in the boat would have us believe from the sea!
That night we dined with Kat and JT in the beautiful Coco Bistro with a stunning seating area set under palms, I had yet more Conch and then treated my self to lobster, possibly even the one I saw earlier coming off the boat.
After dinner we headed to Danny Bouys, a traditional expats Irish pub, where the music was loud, the drinks and punches flowing. Deciding to make a tactical exit we decided to head for one of the local hangouts, the delightfully named Club Sodax was the destination. We drank whiskey and beer while playing pool with a local man under industrial strength fluorescent strip lights which did a good job in topping up the sun tan.
Sometime after 5am we headed back for some sleep
Friday 17th August - Provo: The Somerset
After what seemed a very short sleep we were awoken by a call to our room, fearing we had slept past the checkout time we I answered, instead it was our host Andrew offering to shout us breakfast. After a much needed breakfast which did a good job in eradicating the hangover we said our thankyous to Andrew before moving our stuff 2 resorts up the beach to the Somerset where Odies's sister Kat worked. Her boss had kindly offered his apartment to us for 3 days, the resort was the sort of place you'd expect James Bond to reside in between missions. The actual apartment, which was to be our home for the next few days, was pure luxury with Jacuzzi on the balcony, individual ensuites, fitted kitchen and massive dining area. I had to kick myself to remember that just only a week ago we were staying in a single room in a families flat in Habana! Strangely though despite this luxury, I would have been quite happy with a nice simple beach hut.
After some more snorkelling we picked up some supplies, me and JT were cooking a curry for 12, well it seemed rude not to share the luxury apartment with everybody else! I won't bore you with a minute by minute account of the dinner party but rest assured everybody had a great time and two chefs were appreciated.
Saturday 18th August - Around Provo
Feeling guilty about too much lazing about which is something that is quite easy to do in the Turks we decided to borrow Kats' car and do a tour of the island. We headed up to Chalk Sound National Park first, after a few wrong turns trying the find the correct dirt track we found ourselves in a less populated area with bright blue waters and tiny islands. The main problem however was finding a good place to stop and explore as most of the only roads were private and went to newly built properties. We also found nice spot called Sappodilla Bay but even there you felt you were restricted as either way the roads were marked private.
Next stop on our tour was Provos' no-one tourist attraction, The Hole, this was literally a small hole in the ground, the absence of any souvenir sellers and tour buses suggested that this was just one of Provos' little in-jokes. Mildly disappointed we moved on to the south beaches of the island, Long Bay Beach is still very unpopulated unlike the other side of the island. Perhaps possibly as the beaches are not as nice but I have to say I'd rather have camped out here with a fire overnight. We swung back via the Conch Farm only to find it closed, apparently we missed a good opportunity to get cheap Conch jewellery here.
In the evening, one of Kats friends was leaving the island so there was a big champagne party at the Grace Bay Club which had great sea views. Once the free drinks had run out I moved onto very expensive whiskey at the distress of the my wallet. We finished up the evening at a house in the hills chatting to an old retired seaman and being examined by a small array of various sized dogs.
Sunday 19th August - A day of sailing without moving
So the good news is that Hurricane Dean is avoiding the Turks deciding instead to harass the Dominican Republic and Jamaica before heading near to Cuba (hopefully that wont affect us) before over to Mexico. Apparently, The Turks has a charmed life when it comes to hurricanes in that they quite often change course or avoid it completely. Today’s activity was to go out sailing in a hurricane, well I say that loosely as the hurricane was quite some way away. We met up with Cathy and Mike our two hosts on their spectacular trimaran, Mike had built it all by himself and they had also lived on it for 18 years with 2 kids and a dog too. Nowadays they just take it out as much as they can.
It was evident when we set off that we weren't going to get too much sailing in, the wind seemingly wasn't right for good sailing perhaps Hurricane Dean had sucked all the wind out of this area but we only made it as far as Grace Bay and proceeded to spend most of the day sunbathing on deck, drinking beer, eating sandwiches and snorkelling. On my last snorkel down I came face to face with a barracuda, silently surveying the trimaran seemingly indifferent to my presence.
The evening ended up being a non event, all the festivities of the last few days having caught up with us we relaxed with some dvds and got an early night
Monday 20th August - Island Tour Mark II
Our last full day on the island was marked with a breakfast buffet at O'Soleil before heading up to Kats' friend Rons' house in a beautiful spot in the hills. He must be nicknamed Dr.Doolittle for his love of animals, one of the smallest dogs I have ever seen and one of the largest dogs I have ever seen play fighting (think cat and horse).
Onto South Bluff we visited a pirate cave with a nice secluded beach, Kat met an English couple on the beach and persuaded them to lend us some ice to cool our beers, later on they invited her out for dinner such is the closeness of the place. The sun was piercing down and the sea was bright blue.
On the way back we drove through Blue Hills the local area, the government has built new houses for the locals at affordable prices and although they don’t look much they are probably an improvement on what they had.
Sunset was celebrated with a few glasses of champagne on the beach, we also bumped into Alan the owner of the apartment we were staying in so we said our thankyous before retiring to get changed for our farewell dinner. Dinner was at Parallel 27 at the Palms Resort, where we racked up a thoroughly expensive bill through drinking cocktails, fine wine and tasty food.
Tuesday 21st August - Leaving Provo / Paradise Island?
After the tearful farewells we were back in the turbo prop leaving the Turks. We had a great time visiting Kat and all he friends but as a destination the Turks probably does not have enough to keep me interested so I'm unlikely to go back unless I had was diving. The main issue for me was the development of the island, you have to look really hard to find any evidence of local culture and with the absence of any real centre all you can really do is go from resort to resort. I found myself looking forward to returning to Habana and Elena. Before our return to Cuba there was the small matter of a stop over in the Bahamas. We were offered some spectacular views of the Caribbean Islands during our flight although this was slightly tarnished by severe ear ache due to the pressure.
Back in the Bahamas we spent about 1 hour trying to get back the 120 USD admin fee that we were charged due to Bahamas Air getting our flight information wrong on our tickets. The initial lady dealing with it went missing in action and we had to enlist the help of another employee to find her to find out what the progress was. Eventually she re-emerged and grudgingly paid us our money!
Relieved to be out of the airport finally we checked back into Orange Hills and then caught a local bus (1USD) into Nassau town centre. The centre was much more touristy and built up than I expected, but there were a few nice looking older buildings sprinkled between the many jewellers and fast food places. We attempted to walk to the Atlantis Paradise Island resort, but gave up due to the blistering heat and jumped onto a bus. My ear, although no longer aching, was still blocked on one side and combined with the heat and lack of food did little to improve my mood.
It appeared one couldn’t walk across the bridge to the resort so we had to catch a cab across. The Atlantis Paradise Resort is not really my cup of tea but being on Nassau we figured we should try and check it out, we had heard that the aquarium was excellent until we discovered it was £75 for a day pass and due to it being 4.30pm it wasn't worth us getting one. We got to look in a few tanks in the impressive entrance hall before heading down to the Casino where apparently Casino Royale was filmed. We had to make a quick exit when I was reprimanded for taking pictures. As we were walking out we discovered that a room at the resort cost £1500 a night with a minimum stay of 4 nights! We grabbed a very expensive ice cream each before just making the last ferry off the island with seconds to spare. We were treated to a loud American dad telling his family and the rest of the boat what they should do that evening.
Back in downtown we caught the last bus (6.30pm!) back to our hotel where we had a disappointing dinner coupled with indifferent service before getting an early night, my ear finally popped just as I got off to sleep.
Wednesday 22nd Aug - Nassau to Habana
We spent most of the morning trying to contact the Viazul bus company to book our tickets to Vinales. After 4 attempts I finally got through to somebody who could speak English who told us we could book at the airport on our arrival from the Bahamas. When we got to the airport we found our flight had been put back to 4.30, although while checking in our bags we were told our flight was actually 2.30 as planned although they didn’t seem too sure! There seemed to be a bit of a commotion as a band from the Dominican Republic who had about 1000 bags each were told they would have to pay an excess charge.
After a meagre meal of a hot dog and a beer, our flight was surprisingly called on time. While waiting for the boarding call I got talking to an English Music Photographer who was holidaying in the Bahamas and Cuba, she had some interesting stories to tell about Cuba and the people she had met. Apparently one bunch of Cubans she had stayed with were convinced that Castro was already dead and that they were slowly introducing in Raul over time.
As we were getting onto the plane a large Caribbean lady with nails long enough to have your eye out and child in tow held everyone up by insisting that she took her pushchair on the plane with her, after some negotiation she agreed to put it in the hold along with the other 50000 bags of the Dominican Republic band.
After an uneventful flight with no ear problems we arrived back in Cuba, we managed to get through customs, retrieve our bags, get some more money and buy our bus tickets in all under 30 minutes, not bad!
Back in Habana we arrived at Elenas to find, once more, we were to sleep at Mariams in the flat on the floor below. I got talking to what I though was her son and after a few strange looks it turned out to be a Swiss guy called Urs who was travelling around the world. There seemed to be some confusion at first on who was to have the room and in the end Urs had to move out and elected to sleep on the floor rather than share with Mariam. We arranged to meet up with Urs later and buy him a beer.
After a pleasant evening stroll around the Habana Vieja we headed to La Lluvio de Oro where we were treated to a lively feast of colourful music by a Cuban band wearing all yellow and a front man had a penchant for crazy facial expressions. We tucked into a cheap meal of Chicken, rice and beans washed down with a Cuba Libre. Urs joined us later and told us he had been trying to find out who had stolen his ipod from the casa, it turns out he had been seeing a Cuban girl and his suspicions were with her. After a few drinks and discussions on travel, Cuba and living in Europe, we bid farewell to Urs who had to be up at 4.30AM. Our last port of call was La Floridita, another hangout of Ernest Hemingway complete with his own statue at the bar. Waiters dressed in smart red coats served us Daiquiris which were very good if slightly overpriced at $6.
Thursday 23rd August - Vinales/Odies birthday
Our bus to Vinales left early so we had just enough time for a quick cheese and ham toastie with a coffee in the spartan cafeteria, sitting across the room for us was a guy who looked suspiciously like a well known journalist but I couldn’t place his name. You can't fault the Viazul service, our bus was comfortable and left on time, I noticed that 2 Canadian girls that were on our flight were also aboard our bus. We stopped for a break at Las Terrazas, an eco lodge with a pretty lake. Refreshed we continued our journey and arrived in Vinales to be confronted by a rabble of desperate Casa owners. After retrieving our bags we escaped the Casa owners and got a cab to Hotel Ermita.
Initially I had been unsure about booking a hotel but when we arrived at our destination I was pleased to find that we'd made the right choice with spectacular views of the Valley of Vinales. After dumping our bags we enjoyed a few beers watching groups of holidaying Cubans drinking Rum around the pool. I later found out that Cubans get rewarded with holidays at various resorts and hotels if they work hard, the government gives them 1 room for four days at 500 Pesos (about 20CUC), that said they do have to fit their entire family into one room, I'm not sure if the Rum was provided as part of the package!
For lunch we had a sparse meal of chicken with a handful of chips, I asked for tomato ketchup and got given some salt instead! The guy serving us seemed more interested in his new orange juicer and when we asked for more beer he brought us warm orange juice instead. Despite all this we didn't really care, the sun was shining and the views were spectacular.
After a lazy afternoon we took dinner at the hotel restaurant after discovering there was a severe lack of good eating places in Vinales but you couldn't beat the romantic setting with dusk over the Vinales valley. The food itself was average, a shrimp (prawn) and rice starter followed by tough beef in a scant red wine sauce accompanied by 2 or 3 single vegetables. Dessert was the aptly titled Tropical Canoe which was ice cream and fruit with a rather dubious looking mint green sauce. Despite the short comings of the food the wine, a local Cuban red called Soroa was very tasty, so much so that after feeding our leftovers to the expectant dogs waiting below the restaurant we bought another one and retired to the bar to play cards with Cartoon Network playing at full volume. Just before we went off to bed we suddenly spotted the Canadian girls who appeared out of nowhere before magically disappearing again!
Friday 24th August - Vinales Tour
Breakfast was a curious affair from the wonderful restaurant, a kind of mixture of fried breakfast, continental breakfast and strange cakes. Not surprisingly the fried option was far from wonderful so the expectant dogs had their morning feed. We negotiated a personal tour of Vinales for 37 CUC each with a friendly English speaking guide called Mikael who was able to inform us of a lot about his country. Our first stop was the Cueva del Indio an impressive cavern where we took a relaxing boat halfway through on an underground river, Mikeal kept pointing out different rock formations that were shaped like animals. We managed to do this at the right time as just as we were coming out the tour buses were starting to arrive.
Our next stop was the Cave of the Lost Slave which was half tourist attraction and half popular Cuban nightspot. Apparently slaves used to escape and hide in these caves, to be honest it was pretty dull. Probably the highlight of the day should have been the visit to a tobacco house where they dry the tobacco before it goes to the cigar making factories, unfortunately being out of season there were only a few leaves hanging up in way of a demonstration. The house itself was made from the Royal Palm Tree, we were told they grow from September/October and then dry from February/March, the whole process takes about one year. The farmers also grow corn to supplement their income. Some tobacco farmers have the opportunity to buy new cars, something that I'm told most Cubans are not allowed to do. While we were on the subject of cars, Mikael explained to us the system with the hitchhiking. Yellow plates on cars mean they are local cars and for 1 peso you can go up to 25km, blue plates are for private cars, where 25 Peso will get you a longer journey. Women in yellow clothing called Amarillos negotiate lifts for people at the side of the road, the state of your car will depend on how much you get paid.
The Mural de Prehistorica was next on our tour, a 120m long painting on the side of Mogote Dos Hermonas which was designed in 1961 by Mexican Artist Diego Rivera. A huge snail, dinosaurs, sea monsters and humans tell the story of evolution. To be honest the whole thing ends up being quite tacky and I found the surrounding countryside more appealing. I was also told that the expensive restaurant here was one of the best in Cuba. On our way back to Vinales we stopped off at the Hotel Jazmine viewpoint, where we had stunning views of the Vinales Valley. Here, if you like your tat, is a good place to jostle amongst other tourists and buy your souvenirs.
Back at the hotel we thanked Mikael for his tour and arranged to have dinner at one of his friends Casas that evening. Before heading out again we had a light lunch under the watchful eye of the expectant dogs before strolling down the hill to Vinales. We passed tiny dwellings, farmhouses, a randy horse and boys playing with pigs. As we hit the outskirts of Vinales we noticed a large amount of Casas with the Lonely Planet logo painted on their walls. After a brief exploration of the main square, where there were a few souvenir stalls and a rundown church we turned down the main street passing small shops selling rations of meat, fruit, beans and rice. A birdcage complete with decrepit budgie was nailed to one of the trees we passed, which was rather unusual form of street decoration.
We stumbled upon one of Vinales major attractions, the botanical gardens, or in this case botanical backyard. We were greeted by the friendly owner an old lady with a big smile and after some initial confusion when she thought we wanted to eat, we were allowed to look around the garden. The botanical garden had a few exotic plants but it was the plastic dolls heads, toys and beer can sculptures that really stood out. We opted to head off as it had started to rain but were accosted by the Casa owner again who seemed determined to feed us, after explaining that we had just eaten we took a brief look at her casa, which was set out almost as a shrine with photographs, statues and various interesting artefacts. We were shown a table with a big bowl of fruit and vegetables, again Camina (lunch) was offered but we politely declined and left a small offering as thanks. On our way out we passed through a front room covered in photos of Che. As we were leaving 2 old ladies sat either side of the door on rocking chairs weaving indifferent to our hello and goodbye.
With the rain getting heavier we sprinted back up into town and took refuge in the Casa Musica for a quick beer, before hailing a taxi back to the hotel, it turned out to be the same driver who we had used for our tour of Vinales. Back at the hotel it was Christine Aguillera hour so we opted to take have a brief siesta.
Michael had arranged for a taxi to take us to a friend of his for dinner, we were to meet a lady called Maria outside the villages only petrol station. We waited around for ten minutes and it became quite obvious that the taxi wasn't coming, we hastily arranged to jump into a rickety taxi with some girls down to central Vinales.
After we dropped her off we had trouble convincing the taxi driver we wanted to be dropped at the petrol station, in the end he had no choice but to let us out. We found xxx waiting for us, looking decidedly impatient. We tried to explain that Michael had promised to arrange a taxi for us but it never came, she didn’t seem interested and just hurried us up a side street, through a building site and sneaked us into what we presumed was her house. Her daughter was standing by the door and gave her mum a stare that suggested "What the hell are you doing Mum?!". We were beginning to wonder whether this was going to be a good idea after all. Feeling rather awkward we were seated at a spartan table and left alone with a variety of dishes, not surprisingly including rice, beans and pork.
I don't know what I expected, perhaps being part of a family meal, enjoying a drink with them, instead we ate alone. About halfway through eating, Maria came in looking very worried, she started mentioning the police and customs. We battled through our phrasebooks and discovered that we weren't in any immediate danger of getting arrested, but that she was apparently breaking the law by allowing us to eat in an unlicensed premises. She said that her neighbours could report her to the authorities which were at the moment passing through the neighbourhood.
After finishing our food and paying for what turned out to be quite an expensive meal, rather than being shuffled out in secret we were taken next door and introduced to her brother enjoying an early evening swing on his rocking chair. The apparent crisis had gone away! As we were leaving a group of 6 tourists arrived to take our place, this seemed to explain her frustration at our lateness earlier.
Feeling rather bemused we left and walked under a pink sunset sky to the Casa Musica (put in info about history of place) for an evening of live music and dancing*. The Casa Musica was pretty much the only nightspot in Vinales so a good cross section of travellers, locals young and old mingled on tables and chairs set around a dance floor and stage. As we arrived it was still quite empty, but it soon began to fill up. There were a lot of young Cubans out to enjoy their Friday night. Just in front of us we spotted what looked like numerous drug dens being done at a table
The early evenings entertainment seemed to be in the form of a Latin American version of MTV with ghastly Latin pop music, this seemed to be very popular with the locals, but I was glad when the live band entered the fray. The band played some classic old tunes, and I got the feeling this was classic Cuban music and not the tourist facade in Habana. The band had a combined age of about 4000, especially amazing was the 80 year old dancer who would put a lot of us to shame. As the music flowed the dancers emerged until the floor was full. We watched enviously from the sidelines, aware that our lack of Salsa technique would only get in the way of the real dancers. It seemed the best dancer there was a blonde English girl, she had the attention of all the Cuban men and knew how to handle them aswell.
We decided our night was at an end when the Latin MTV returned, so we elected to walk back up to the hotel in the moonlight, at one point it sounded like a pack of hungry dogs were chasing us which led to a quickening of pace back to the hotel not before our path was blocked by a mean looking rabid dog. Fortunately he evidentially decided we weren't going to make a good meal and ran off into the night, leaving us to retire to our beds unscathed.
* This was left to the experts!
Saturday 25th August - Back to Habana for the last time
We woke early to see the mist over the Vinales valley although we sadly allowed us little time to enjoy another crap free breakfast with the dogs. With the prospect of no food for about 4 hours and Odie feeling distinctly unwell we hoped we would make it through the bus journey without the need for calling an emergency stop.
We left Vinales at dawn and had an uneventful journey back to Habana. Our taxi from the bus station had to go on a roundabout detour due to some festival that was on in the centre of Habana. For our last night we had decided to splash out on a hotel room at the Hotel Telegraffo. In order to do this we needed more funds and went to the bank to discover both our Switch Cards didn’t work, in the end, at a cost I managed to withdraw funds on my visa card. We paid about £60 for probably the best room in the hotel overlooking the Park Central and looking down to the Maleceon.
After mastering the rooms complicated lighting system and mopping up the minibar which some idiot had decided to let melt, we headed out into Habana and found the market. Our plan was to get some cool Cuban Painting to take back plus the usual souvenirs. Stall after stall sold a repetitive mixture of trinkets, musical instruments, hand-made wooden figurines, cigar boxes, dominoes and other touristic tat. Stall by stall men with cigars came up to sell you their cigars ('the best in Habana'), after seriously disappointing some guys on a musical stall by dithering for twenty minutes and walking off we found the painting section. There was some great work on show here but after a while it started to repeat itself, in the end our indecision to decide was finalised by a sudden downpour that sent everyone scuttling under plastic sheets. we spent the next fifteen minutes trying to fight our way out of the market dodging torrents of water suddenly crashing off the plastic sheet roofs.
We escaped to relative solitude of the nearby Reilly’s pub for a beer while the rain subsided. The drawing man or the in house band weren't on duty today it seemed. On our way back to the hotel, I was offered about 47 Cigars and 35 grammes of Cocaine, strange as I had gone the entire time in Habana before this without being offered hardly anything, maybe they sensed we were on our way home tomorrow.
After a late siesta, we headed back to San Domingo, safe in the knowledge that the food was pretty good. We enjoyed some tasty pizzas washed down by another impressive bottle of Cuban Red. After dinner we headed down to the Habana Ron Club a bit too late for the museum but in time to enjoy an authentic Mojito to the accompanying sounds of old Habana on a Gramophone. Sadly, a drink later, they decided to close so we headed back into Old Habana, at one point a policeman stopped us and asked us what we were doing in this area, apparently 'not safe for tourists', oh well.
After an unsuccessful attempt to find some local dancing at the Casa de la Cultura we headed back to our old haunts only to find the same music being played, tired of this we eventually found the Montseratte Bar, which had an energetic local band, cheap drinks and a mixture of Cuban and foreign patrons. At one point the singer in the band seemed to be serenading his wife, while newcomers had to dodge a large torrent of water coming from one of the windows above the door. Try as we might to paint the town red on the last night, the exertions of the last few weeks were catching up with us and a nice comfortable bed in a hotel was suddenly quite appealing.
Sunday 26th August - Habana to London
A great nights sleep was followed by yet another poor breakfast with the slowest Egg Chef in existence. From our hotel window we were entertained by a birds eye view of a local street market with locals jostling at the back of a huge banana truck and rather bizarrely a game of football with dogs for goalkeepers! We decided to make sure we had a print out of our flights by visiting the internet at the Capitol, there was also an ulterior motive, by paying for the internet you also got to see the large bronze statue (apparently the third biggest in the world) just inside the entrance. The Capitol was a grand building which would have been worth a further look if we had time. Outside the Capitol there seemed to be some sort of free children’s' festival on which had drawn only a sparse crowd.
We wrongly elected to eat a light lunch at the hotel, the food was bland, sparse and the service uninterested. In fact the only thing of note that happened here was Odie leaving her hat on the chair causing us to return ten minutes later to find her hat the centrepiece of the bar display.
After lunch we decided to take a taxi to Revolution Square where Castro has held many an important speech. We were dropped off into a searing patch of heat with no shelter. As it transpired access to the Jose Marti Memorial in the square was restricted so after a few photographs we elected hail a Coco Taxi, basically a small yellow bee on three wheels. This was certainly the way to see Habana, weaving in and out of the traffic, expecting at any minute to come a cropper at the hands of a giant truck. For my part, I was relieved it was faster than the bicycle version we went on in Trinidad.
Back at the hotel we were treated to an impressive display of classic cars right outside, old American Chevy’s and Cadillac’s polished to an inch of their lives, we were glad they had come to see us off.
And so, to the end, we took our final taxi out of Habana, rather aptly the Star Wars end credits music were playing on the radio bringing down the curtain on a saga we would never forget, I must confess I have a feeling I'll be back someday but hopefully before it changes too much.
At the airport, we misjudged our money and ended up spending all our money on final souvenirs realising that we then had no money for food or a farewell drink. Even the bottle of duty free Chivas Regal proved impenetrable with a special pouring top that proved unyielding. Instead we played cards while the daily large afternoon storm engulfed us firing lightening strikes at the terminal building. One exploded about 20 feet from my head sending all the power down except, rather, bizarrely the Virgin gate monitor which seemed to run on a special reserve.
Despite the slight concern that our flight might get delayed we departed on time departing over lush green fields before Cuba slipped out of sight into the clouds....