January 27 2015 ESCAPE!
Made it out of Fredericton in the nick of time SNOWMAGGEDON was what the US was calling the storm. Our forecast was 20-30 cm (8 to 12 inches) with blowing winds. Everyone called asking if we knew about the storm and asking if we were going to get out. The weathernetwork.com weather forecast said that we should expect to get snow starting about 5 am; the Environment Canada forecast said it would start at 3am and the NOAA’s forecast for Houlton ME said it would start about 4EST or 5 local. We were scheduled to leave at 0530. It was supposed to start with accumulation of 2-3 cm per hour and build to 8-10 cm per hour. If it did start at 3am we would have a couple inches on the ground when the plane left but if it held off until the 5am time frame we could easily be gone before the storm really started. We crossed our fingers and watched to see if the forecast changed. It held consistent for the 24 hour, 18 hour and 12 hour forecast. I was considering changing the flight and leaving the night before just to get out of the range of people asking Bonnie if she knew there was a MAJOR BLIZZARD Going to hit on TUESDAY the day we were leaving. Believe me, we knew!
Paul picked us up at 0400 and there was no snow. He asked us if we wanted him to wait but it would have to be a miserable storm for us to go from no snow to airport closed in a couple hours. We did know the plane was the one that came in at 1am so it was sitting on the ground waiting for us.
We told him we would call if needed but to go back home and go to bed. At 420 when they opened the gate there was no snow coming down. I thought it might have started a couple times but the snow was blowing off the roof. We left Fredericton before the storm made it. We sent a text to my niece Nicole and asked her to call my mother to tell her we got out ok. This is a toss up, lots of times we don’t tell her were going on a trip until we are back, but she knew we were going, so she was in full panic mode with the storm. Nicole works with the school timetable and the storms had shut the school system down by the time we were waiting at the gate for our fight from Toronto to Varadero. There was a light snow in Toronto at the time, something we didn’t need to tell Nicole. By the time they called our flight the snow was gone and Toronto was starting to clear. We took off on time and got a free UPGRADE to the front of the plane nicer seats, more leg room and FOOD! I bought a lunch for the plane but didn’t bother eating it. It got claimed by the agricultural dept in Cuba. Bonnie was thinking we would have it for dinner.
We changed our money and went to the new Viazul office at the airport. There was a TRANSTUR bus leaving for Varadero for $10cuc/p rather than the $6/cuc for Viazul but they would drop us at Elisa and Pepe’s (or close as it turned out) and we wouldn’t have to wait for 3 hours. A deal at twice the price. Taxis are charging $40cuc. The official exchange rate is 1.2969 Cdn to 1 CUC ouch! (Later when we counted our money more carefully we discovered we got stung again at the exchange place. We were a little shy on the change we were supposed to get but that’s known to happen. Count your change especially carefully at the airport exchange office. )
We arrived at Elisa and Pepe’s it was great to see them again. They were in the process of a bit of painting. Their TV died and they bought a new set and since it was down it was time to paint. Joan was helping Pepe put up the mount for the TV. Julien was painting the wall behind the TV. She was only slightly less covered in paint than the wall. Joan, their son is graduating in Civil Engineering. Julien is graduating high school this year and she is going to med school in the fall. Elisa is turning 50 and Juan is getting married in May. BIG YEAR for Elisa and Pepe. Pepe has a new job as chef at one of the more informal restaurants. He was in great spirits and we were very happy to hear that he was willing to cook for us. We’re having his lobster ($8cuc) and shrimp ($7cuc) meals.
Both Bonnie and I are tired and not really interested in doing much. We got up at 3:36(2:36 Cuba time), got cleaned up, and then drained the water from the house so if we had a power failure we wouldn’t come home to frozen pipes. We turned the heat down a bit (the brick fireplace is a massive heatsink and I’m not sure turning the heat down a lot makes a lot of sense that is a lot of thermal mass to have to reheat when we come back. The house seems cold for days after turning up the heat and it is just the brick heating up. It also gives us a bit of a hedge if the heat goes off in the winter. The hot water tank costs almost as much to run as it does to heat the house. We did turn it off before we drained the pipes.
Pepe always treats us very well and Elisa gave bonnie a self embroidered place mat from her to bonnie and me. I loved the Cuban coffee and the HUGE Cuba libre.
It is nice to hear the street venders again. We have our birds eye view of the world again. Time to go and relax
Since Pepe was available we had him cook dinner for us. We eat earlier than most Cubans which I think suits Elisa and Pepe they can have us out of the way and still have an early night.
Juan and Aylin(his fiance) took us up to the roof to watch the sunset and we talked about Cuba for awhile. They are excited to see the Americans coming. Cuba has 2 million tourists a year and they are expecting 5 million from America alone once everything is in full gear. We have been up since 2 their time so we are ready to die. The recipes were completely different than last time and still very good. The shrimps had a slight peanut sauce. After Dinner Juan asked our opinion of his wedding invitations he was going to order. All three were good pictures but one stood out for us. He and Alyin kissing on the beach with the turquoise water in the background. For a young couple getting married that seemed to fit better than his others. He is anticipating great things from the opening of the American market to Cuba. I hope he is right. He is talking that there is 20000 rooms available in Varadero. They are expecting to get that number to grow to 45000 with the American influx.
Here is the link to our 2015 Cuba trip picture gallery, stay tuned it will be updated as our photos are added and I bring the web site up to date with our cuba trip.
January 28, 2015 A day to get on Cuban time
We always take a day for letting our bodies adjust to the climate and to go from winter hibernation mode to actually wanting to do something outside. Today is to get our tickets to Santiago de Cuba and ask Elisa to call the next casa, Walk the beach and relax. The school is closed for roof repairs and we missed watching the kids going to school and playing in the school yard.
We had a good breakfast and headed out to the bus station.
We got our tickets and walked along First Ave in search of a couple large bottles of water and shelter from the shower that was passing over. We went into the circular underground mall and walked around until the shower cleared. We walked down to the store a the end of our street and they had no large bottles left but they did have mineral water for 0.70 We found a cold natural water and took it to the checkout and they wanted $2 cuc for it. That was a bit too much so we put it back and went searching again. One of the little cafes had it for $0.80 cuc cold so we bought two of the 1.5 L bottles and headed back to the casa to drop the extra bottle and a little of the fluid we had previously drank. The bathrooms in Cuba often have an attendant that requires a tip before you can go in 0.10 cuc is a normal tip so the $0.40cuc change is a useful bit of cash for the bus trip.
We gave Elisa our trip plan and asked if she would call the next Casa and tell them we were set on the Viazul bus and we were coming. The casa owners are very happy to get the call so they don’t mind making the call for us.
We did a search for places to eat on tripadvisor before we left and it gave us a few places in Varadero we had never been to so we set out at lunch to find one of them. The first ended up being only open for dinner meals so we continued on. The Casa de Chef was a great little place for lunch. We ordered four appetizers (2 bread with taste, a soup, and a salad) The bread with taste was about the best bread we have had in cuba. Not the normal white bread at all. It was a different whole grain bread cooked with pork rind in it. VERY TASTY BREAD. Our lunch ended up being $7.50 cuc + a tip (the cost included a water for bonnie and a beer for me.) After lunch we went for a walk and when I started to take a couple pictures both cameras gave me memory card errors. NOT a good thing finding Memory cards may not be an easy task in Varadero. We went back to the casa and I started investigating the problems and I think I was able to get most of my pictures off the cards and reformatting them seems to have cured the problems. We’ll see. Last year I didn’t bring a computer with me and went home with 5 full memory sticks. Post processing convinced me to bring my netbook along for the ride, although I don’t like typing on this keyboard at all. The netbook is able to download my memory cards from the cameras so that if I have a couple of them go bad it isn’t that much of an issue and the netbook is tiny and easy to carry.
After an afternoon nap and a little bit of reading we were off to our restaurant la Vaca Rosada (The pink cow).
If it isn’t a gay bar/restaurant then my gaydar is really far off. The coasters we had were all reversible. On one side was the restaurant logo on the other was a cartoon. Almost all of them had a gay theme. Mine was the least gay of a bunch. “Teach a man to fish – and he will play with his fly all day.” I had to get that written down for Gord my fly fishing friend. We had the cheese balls, stuffed peppers in bechamel sauce, and chicken cordon blue. We arrived were the first ones in the restaurant. By the time the waiter said we were a bit early (about five minutes) there was a line all the way down to the street. All Canadians from the hotel across the street, two from ontario and the rest were from NB. Mostly Shediac or within 20 miles of it. With a mohito (OK not great) and a small bottle of water it was $24.50 plus tip. There were a few expensive things on the menu but most of it was very reasonable. The size of the Chicken cordon blue was more than enough for both of us. The quantity of food in Cuba always makes it a little hard.
We walked back to the casa and settled in for the night. We have to pack our stuff for the long bus ride. I’ve got some memorizing to do for lodge so that’s an idea as well.
January 29 Walking around Varadero
Our bus was leaving at 21:45 so we had a day to walk around and do not much of anything. We checked out of Pepe’s and Elisa’s and they were kind enough to allow us to leave our bags in their apartment and come back and get them later. They had another guest coming in so we had to go but that was fine with us. They kept our bags and I felt that they were much safer with Pepe than they would be at the bus station. Last time we were looking for a leather backpack for me so we did a lot of shopping and then decided that no matter how good it looked leather really wasn’t practical on the boat so after all that shopping decided against it. This year we didn’t have any particular project so it was wasting a day in the nice weather waiting for a bus. There was a cold front coming through so the surf was huge and the red flags were up signifying no swimming. That was ok with us. Last thing I wanted to do was go swimming and get a bunch of salt water in my hair for the bus ride. We walked up as far as Parque Jasone and walked around the park. The cave doesn’t seem to be any more open than it ever has been. The bano attendant wanted 1 cuc for 2 people. I came out wanted my money back, they were gross. They used to be one of the better public bathrooms.
We had a coffee at a cafe and watched the people. For lunch we had a two coffees and split a hamburger with cheese. My pronunciation of Queso was so bad the waiter came out with “Cheese. I practice my english and you practice your spanish.” I knew I massacred it but at least I tried. Some days my tongue just doesn’t want to twist in spanish (2 coffees and a hamburger with cheese was $1.95).
We walked down to the Infotur office and on the fifth try we had the same luck as the first four, nada.
We walked down and sat on the beach watching the surf and the few brave swimmers. There were a few brave souls. But not many, most were working on their tans.
We left decided to have an early dinner at the Casa del Chef and then pick up the bags and wait at the bus terminal. The “Bread with taste” that was so tasty last time was the same crusty white bread as you see everywhere. It didn’t hold a candle to the stuff we had the first time. Bonnie and I had a “bread with taste, a soup of the day (this time it was vegetable), and a tropical beef(200g). Normally when we see the grams listed it is a sign to leave the restaurant. The government restaurants aren’t normally that good. But this one was listed in Trip Advisor as being very good. Our meal this time was at best, average. The beef was tough but it normally is. The tropical beef came with a salad. Bonnie and I did our usual split and ended up with a good meal for two by cutting the single serving of tropical beef in two Cost for a beer, a water, a bread with taste, veg soup, and the tropical beef entre was $11.50 plus tip.
We thought the Casa del Chef was good one day for lunch and average the next for dinner. Such is life.
Pepe gave us his new card with his new email address on it. It goes to his phone so that it is very good for him. I will put it on the web site when I get home. We say their booking sheet for Feb when we checked our return reservation and they are fairly well booked. Nice to see. We’ll call ahead further when we know we are coming to cuba again. Bonnie and I are wondering what we will do next year. We like cuba but aren’t sure about another year. We may do trip back and just hit our favorite spots.
January 30, On our list of Good Days in Cuba, This wasn’t one of them.
We knew it probably wasn’t going to be considering we were starting out at 10:00 pm (Jan 29) for a 15 and a half hour bus ride. By the time we got to Santigo de Cuba at 13:30, with one quick bathroom break, and no coffee or any food since 5 pm the previous day we were ready to get to casa for a coffee, a clean up and dinner. But we did want to get the tickets for the trip out considering it was an hour walk from our casa to the Viazul bus terminal. Bonnie was 5th or 6th in line so considering it took the agent about 2-3 minutes to book our tickets in Varadero to come to Santiago de Cuba I was figuring 15-20 minutes and we would be gone with another job done. I went to tell the taxi driver we were here and Bonnie was in line for the tickets out but it should only be a few minutes. Except that it was taking 20-25 minutes PER PERSON. Yes after waiting 3 hours Bonnie was the second person and they had to shut down that line to do the check ins for the bus to Havana.
We got to the casa shortly after 5pm. I was talking to the girl that was in the line before Bonnie she was a girl from Belgium and she was spitting mad. I gave her the email address to complain too I don’t know if it will do any good but at least there will be two of us complaining bitterly. We are going to try to book our tickets at Baracoa for the rest of the trip. Our casa is a block or two away and if we can avoid Santiago de Cuba’s RUDE ticket agent that just doesn’t give a hoot. It will be worth it. We got to the Casa Colonial Nivia Melendez (top rated on trip advisor) and Beatriz was a breath of fresh air. While we brushed our teeth, she made us coffee. We were both feeling a little bit of a headache, not sure if it was dehydration or caffeine that was the source of the problem but we had a bottle of water and a good hit of good coffee and that did the trick. Before we left NB we had exchanged emails with Beatrix and ordered our supper, one order of her pork and one order of her chicken. Both were good but if I had to order it again the chicken is much less salty than the pork and Cuban cuisine would be much improved if the government confiscated all of the salt shakers. One thing that would be hard to improve would be the chocolate ice cream. The chocolate is made not far away and the ice cream is added to it a little closer. One bite and bonnie’s eyes lit up, more like the eyes rolled back into her head. It makes our chocolate ice cream taste like diluted mud. She offered me more but I have two goals this trip. One is to get more exercise (THAT ISNT A PROBLEM) and the other is not to gain too much weight. So one helping of chocolate ice cream will do. I am thinking hard about how to get it back in my carry on luggage. Canada customs would probably cease it and it is way to good to share with them.
Bonnie has crashed and it is before we got on the bus the night before. I looks like a very good idea, so here’s hoping for a better day tomorrow!
Jan 31 Getting lost in Santiago de Cuba
Breakfast wasn’t quite as good as Pepe’s but That is hardly a criticism. Pepe is a top grade chef and presentation is a big thing to chef’s. The food was still very good, and lots of it. Bananas, pineapple, melons, rolls (HONEY TO DIE FOR) two boiled eggs, and amazingly good coffee.
The first thing that we did was get lost for some reason my normally fairly accurate internal compass was completely messed up I went the wrong way and we ended up on Marti. A busy thoroughfare for the locals but not for tourists. We immediately got swarmed by the bicycle taxis looking to help us out and get us back to tourist-land. We eventually got ourselves oriented and back on the right direction we headed down and found the theater company, nothing playing. A small church that was nice and a masonic lodge. It looked good but inside was gutted and empty. I took pictures through the little hole in the door. The tyler would be sitting outside the lodge, literally.
We found Parque de Cepeties fairly easily and did the tour of the immediate attractions. The oldest house in Cuba is turned into a museum. They wanted 2cuc per person and another 5 for the camera. We nixed the camera and walked around they have a lot of nice furnature but there is a lot of exhaust that has settled on the exhibits over the years and most of the really nice stuff has been blackened. The thing that was one of the neatest things to see would have been the globe from the 1600s but it was completely blackened. Not worth the 5 CUC and at 2 CUC it’s iffy.
The cathedral is undergoing a massive refit. The whole interior is full of scaffolding with you are able to wind yourself around and see some of the sites. There were 8 huge rolls of copper roofing sitting in the church. That would have been under lock and key at home. Each one of those is worth a small fortune.
From the square we went over to the terrace of the Grand Hotel and had a coffee and lunch a plate of fried banana chips and a fruit plate, two mojitos, and a Buchanero. The mojitos were good, they were not as sweet as most of the mohitos you get. Once we were at the square we able to get on the historic walking tour from the Lonely Planet. We did the leg west of the square. It took us to the balcony to overlook the bay and the Sierra Maestra mountains. It is an awesome view and it stitched to 126 megapixels.
We went down the hill and up to the Padre Pico steps steps carved into the rock to form a staircase. The guide says they were originally terra cotta but I think they have been replaced over they years and fortified by concrete. The Museum just up from the steps is the Museo de la Luca Clandestina about the revolution and July 26 movement. It was a barracks for Baptista’s police force. It is ironic that the small house next door was the house Castro grew up in. Familiarity and all.
From there we retraced our steps back to the Parque de Cepeties and then up to the shopping street and walked along the shops until we turned up toward the casa. We arrived at the casa and after walking around from 10 to 3 in the heat it was time for a snooze before supper. We went on trip advisor to find what were the restaurants to check out and two of them are within a small walk. We went to the number 5 place on the list Restaurante Aurora and it was very good. We had the barbecued chicken and the pork Aurora (which was a barbecued pork shoulder(we think)).
Not a really busy day but we are already behind on our pictures and our log and our first day in a new city takes a little getting organized.
Here is the link to our 2015 Cuba trip picture gallery, stay tuned it will be updated as our photos are added and I bring the web site up to date with our Cuba trip.
February 01, The east end of the historical walk
Our casa is on Trinidad also called General Portuondo, every street has two names, one listed on the buildings on the street, and one listed on the guides. Some of the guides use one set of names and the other one may use the other set of names. It’s a mixed bag and confusing at best, curse worthy at times. I’m beginning to like the location of our casa more and more. We walked out to the end of our street (UP A BIG HILL) and we were at the beginning of the Lonely Planet’s historical tour.
On our way we stopped at a church that was open. Being Sunday it is ripe pickings to see churches that are normally closed and you can’t get into. This one was open and in very good shape with quite a few people in it.
Up from the the church is a masonic lodge it was closed but looking in the crack of the door it was in good shape and active. We walked by a huge fountain. It wasn’t running but if it ever was it would be an impressive thing to see. We took lots of photos as it was on a high point and gave us a good view.
The historical tour starts at Cuartel Moncada. It was the location of the first battle of the revolution Fidel attacked the barracks, Raul attacked the Palacio de Justice and a third guy attacked the hospital. Raul took the Palacio de Justice, the other guy got the hospital but Fidel got his butt handed to him at the barracks and bid a hasty retreat in about 10 minutes. Raul saw things going to hell and got out, and the third guy got caught and executed for his troubles. Fidel was sent to prison and eventually released with the chant of “history will absolve me”. The barracks are now a very large school with one end that is still the museum. The Baptista Regime cemented the bullet holes over and when Fidel came to power they recreated them, without using bullets.
Inside the museum is a wardrobe full of bloody clothes of martyrs to the cause as well as lots of weapons. We didn’t have enough Spanish to get much out of it. There was one nice piece of art work. This was one of the few places that we have seen a exhibition of pictures of Fidel. Almost all of them as an old man. One of his last public appearances in 2012, he’s an old man now.
From the Cuartel Moncada we headed back along the Lonely Planet’s historical path. Along the way there are lots of street murals and interesting buildings. A few of the signs that we weren’t real happy to see were the temperature signs 36C yeah we knew it was hot but I didn’t think it was that hot. The breeze picked up and we saw a couple other signs later in the day that was 31 C and 29 C. It was officially hot at 36C. Bonnie doesn’t do well at 31 and I’m not so great at 36. Lots of guides saying the carnival in July is incredible to see. If January is 36 I can’t imagine what July would be like.
We made it back to Parque de Cespedes and the terrace of the Grand Hotel, the waitress took our order for Mohijos and never looked at us again. We did get her to get us a menu when we ordered the drinks but she never came back I had to walk by her to go to the bathroom but she wouldn’t meet my gaze at all. We left money to pay for the drinks and went to the Taverna El Baturro (I sight read this as Taverna Bacardi and bonnie sight read it as taverna bucanero (the local beer) ) We were the only white people in the place and the only tourist as well. They had a local beer we haven’t seen anywhere else. When I ordered it the waitress looked a little concerned. The two guys at the bar were watching my reaction to the first sip. Hatuey is a little less refined and a lot more malty than the tourist bucanero. It was good enough that I ordered another. We had a mixed salad and what turned out to be a grilled cheese sandwich pannini style two brews and a bottle of water for $8cuc.
We found the Emilio Bacardi (of the rum fame) museum and it was closed for the day so we moved it to the day after tomorrow. We got the casa to book a tour for us which should take most of tomorrow.
We walked up the street and found the restaurant we were planning to eat supper at. Turns out it is one block further up the street than our last night supper, It is number 2 on Trip advisors top restaurants. We turned onto our street and there was another Masonic Lodge (That’s three on the same street for those that are counting.) There were seven steps up from the street to the front door guarded by two brazen pillars that were well polished and cleaned.
Bonnie crashed and let me have time to work on the trip log, I’ll have to wake her soon or she won’t sleep. The temperature is dropping and we are starting to see others moving around. The square was about deserted at noon.
Trip Advisor nailed it again. We went to Primos Twice. We had a mixed salad a generous amount, two bottles of water, pork steak with fine herbs, grilled fish of the house, (both entrees came with rice and vegetables), two coffees and we split a flan for dessert, $13.50cuc plus tip. The food was very good and the service was excellent. Trip Advisor gets around, there were a group of 5 Japanese as well as us there that mentioned TripAdvisor. This was the first time we have used them for restaurants but considering how well we are doing it won’t be our last.
February 2, The planted, the plants, and the almost planted.
We had our tour booked but Beatrix was not around this morning so we were a little unsure if the jeep was leaving at 9:30 or 10. It turned out to be closer to 9:30 so we were good. Our first stop was the cemetery(cemeterio patrimonial Santa Ifigenia). According to the guide books, this is the second most important after Havana. There are lots of soldiers of the 26 Julio movement and the national hero Jose Marti is buried here. They have a changing of the guard ceremony every 30 minutes, 24 hours a day. It was interesting to see. The tomb is said to have been created as it is because of a poem of Marti’s that said he didn’t want to be buried where the sun could not shine on his bones. The tomb is shaped so that at some time during the day a shaft of sunlight will always reach the wooden box containing his remains. I always enjoy walking around cemeteries particularly in the south where the statues and art work is incredible. This cemetery was no exception. There was lots of amazing memorials. Emilio Bacardi of the rum fame is buried here with his wife, a huge pyramid marks his grave. When we arrived we were waved into the gate and we expected to pay admission but there was none. We figured out later we were part of a funeral procession and didn’t realize it. At least we were at the tail end. Saved a cuc each but would have happily paid the statues are amazing.
Click on any of these images to see the full size from the 2015 Cuba trip picture gallery There are more images in the gallery than are in these posts.
From the cemetery we went to Jardins de los Helechos. Garden of the ferns. There was a guide that had very good english and she took us on a long slow tour of the gardens pointing out lots of very interesting ferns. One was called a living fossil and is on the endangered species list. Rather than give us the latin names she gave us the common names. The lady finger fern has what looks like painted fingernails at the end. The bamboo orchid grows on a stock that looks like rod of bamboo. They have lots of orchids as well as ferns. They have pots that are everything from coconut shells to goat skulls. A hummingbird stopped and was very patient while I took a picture even after changing cameras I think it still was out of focus.
We bought a few examples of the art work created by the original curator he gave the Jardin to the government in 1974. There were lots of plants to be seen and appreciated.
From there we went to the Castillo de San Pedro de la Roca del Morro or El Morro for short. By the time we got there it was nearly noon and the sun was almost straight overhead. If you weren’t inside the fort it was HOT. We started by going left and didn’t stop until we had hit every level and every room in the fort. We even got to almost water level. About three quarters of the way back up to the moat I was about ready to be planted. HOT, and a very long climb up the hill. Inside the stairs was nothing but brick and sunlight and little to no breeze. The thermometer the day before said 36 but this sure felt a lot hotter than that. It felt like we were in an oven.
From there we went back to the casa and cracked another LARGE bottle of water. We had nap under the fan and cooled off. We went to the number 2 place on Trip Advisor’s places to eat the Compay Gallo. Three of the top 5 places to eat are within a few blocks of our Casa. And they have all lived up to the reputation. The food at the casa has been very good as well so far I think the best food we have had in Cuba has been in Santiago de Cuba.
I’ve been having a few problems with my computers and tech. The little usb card reader I have is not always being recognized by my netbook and my netbook will decide it needs to do is diskcheck every now and then so I’m not sure what is going on. I brought my netbook to do the pictures and diary and because we almost ran out of disk space on the camera disks last time. (The little issue of dealing with 20ish Gig of photos when I got home may have had something to do with it too.) It was a cheap little portable card reader that I bought in a Walmart many years ago so it might be reaching it’s life. I have carried it in my case for many years and many miles so I may drop it in a drawer when I get home and use another for a while and see if it it what is causing the problems. Not sure how hard it would be to find technology stuff in Cuba. Last time we tried to find a 4G SDHC card when we were running low on space and we couldn’t find one. I’m not sure if it was a case of our bad spanish and not finding the right place to look or availability. I did a backup of the good pictures (450M) and the log and left the raw pictures (1.8G) on the disk hoping that it isn’t the netbook causing the issues. The netbook is also my nav computer on the boat so it spends months at a time on the boat in a less than ideal condition for technology too. Computers are like milk if you buy too much at the beginning it goes bad by the time you use it up. I must admit the 64bit machine at home handles the image stitching much better than the little netbook. It is doing surprisingly well though. Most of the time I’m doing word processing and spreadsheets so I don’t need a real heavy duty computer.
February 03, Rum, rum, more rum, and a chocolate soldier
We started the day with two things in mind, the Emilio Bacardi Museum, and The Carnival Museum. We struck out completely on the Bacardi museum it is closed for renovations and not going to open until June. Strike two was the Carnival Museum. Santiago de Cuba has a Carnival much along the lines of Bahamas’ Junkanoo or the Marti Gras in New Orleans. It is held in mid july I think the advert said 21 to 25 this year. The Carnival Museum was not a complete failure it just didn’t open until noon. So we had a couple hours to kill.
We walked over to the Museo de Ron(The museum of RUM!) It talked about the making of rum in Cuba It talked about the distilling process, the coopers, the bottling as well as the Rum makers from Facundo Bacardi Maso(1886) one of the nice features is a free sample. I must admit I do like the Bacardi recipe better.
We walked down to Parque Alameda near the waterfront. I was interested in more of a walk and so was Bonnie so we walked along the waterfront. There was a cigar factory and a rum factory. The Cigar factory didn’t have a lot of appeal but the rum factory is always a good thing, (something about the free samples). They had a band playing, you guessed it Guantanamera (Guantonamo girl) I think I hear that song at least 20 times a day, every day I’m in Cuba, I’ve grown to truly hate it. Everytime I hear it, it means money or running the other direction. Since we were in an enclosed space running was hard even though we tried. The musicians were a little pushier than normal and they got a cuc. I’m not sure the free sample of Santiago de Cuba rum was worth it, add the two bano runs and it might have been. I like the real Bacardi much better. The Santiago de Cuba rum is made in the original Bacardi rum plant that was taken over when the Bacardi’s split during Castro’s coup.
We were thinking about going up to Revolution Square but by the time we got to Marti Ave it was 32 C and we had been walking for almost an hour and a half. It would be about another half hour walk to the Grand hotel for lunch (We had a mission otherwise we wouldn’t have bothered.) We went back for a Chocolate soldier. We weren’t sure what it was but the chocolate is incredible here so we had to have one. It turned out that we needed another rum too. It was hot. 2 Mojitos, 2 bottles of water, a fruit salad, and a chocolate soldier for $12.30 plus tip. A chocolate soldier is a large chocolate sundae with a black belt around the middle, the black belt is a band of dark chocolate syrup. Well worth a visit. The Mojitos there are very good not as sweet as the normal ones at other places but even it tasted sour with the soldier. We walked back along the pedestrian market street where the locals shop and did a bit of people watching as well as seeing what was the going thing for lunch for the locals. I don’t think my dietitian friend MaryAnn would approve. We walked back to the casa and turned on the fan to get a little bit of air moving. We both had a nap.
One of the more useful apps is the Google Translate function. We can actually point it at a sign and the app will translate it for us. It doesn’t work great on plaques and things that are really busy but you can type in the text you want to translate and it works too. If you have an internet connection it can actually do speech recognition as well. Hopefully the need for the internet connection will go away and we would have almost a babble fish (something for the non douglas adams fans to look up).
We went out to supper at the Compay Gallo again and were the first ones in the door but we were quickly followed by two other couples Bonnie recognized them from the previous night. Food was very good but I didn’t think it was as good as the first night. Still one of the best restaurants we have been to in Cuba Presentation of the meals were very good. We shared a flan for dessert, it was served on an upside down plate. Chef Sean would approve. Bonnie was impressed with the professionalism of the waitresses they could have worked at any restaurant in the world.
February 4 A bank, a bank, and finally a frigging bank!
We walked up to the Revolution Square and took a few pictures. It is beside the Viazul bus station and the taxi drivers said it was about a 45 minute walk they were about right.
We took a bicycle taxi back to Parque Cespetes and we went looking for a bank Bonnie thought we were looking for the National Bank of Cuba on the square and I was looking for the Casaeca which didn’t help our confusion when we were pointing two different directions at the same time. We still had enough money to get back to Santigo de Cuba if we couldn’t get cash but it would severely curtail any tours in Baracoa if we couldn’t get cash. The first bank we did get to was the National Bank of Cuba after a 1 hour very confusing queuing system we got to the teller she had everything counted out and ready to go and the communications were down so no money. “Try the Casaeca” found it tried it, 25 minute wait, no communications. The guy in front of us suggested the commercial bank down the street. Two and a half hour wait in a queue that even the cubans were pissed about, WE GOT CASH! Walking around with the almost five years salary for a doctor in cuba in my pocket is not really what I like but we made it to the casa and got it into my money pouch. We will get rid of close to a year of that tonight at the casa when we settle our bill for 6 days. It ended up being a cheaper stay than we expected.
It’s bonnie’s birthday she got a trip to cuba for her birthday. We are eating dinner at the casa and then packing for an early departure to Baracoa
We asked that Beatrix book a driver to get us to the bus terminal. All I said was “No Wilberto” What does she do. She tells Wilberto that we didn’t want him and then asks why and then books him! I was livid. She got the hint that I was not happy but bonnie did her usual and sided with anyone I ruffle feathers with, and against me.
I’ve learned to bite my tongue.
Feb 5 Fantastic bus trip from Santiago de Cuba to Baracoa and we almost made it.
Wilberto shows up in the morning and we made it safely to the bus terminal. He didn’t say a word and neither did I. The casa owner made us a small breakfast it was very early and didn’t charge us for it. Bonnie figured it was a peace offering. It was only after we settled it the bus terminal that bonnie got around to asking why I didn’t want Wilberto. After I listed about 3-4 reasons not counting the rip off charge she may have understood the point.
We got on the bus and headed to Baracoa. The bus trip is through incredible scenery. Super mountains and rivers, seacoasts and mountain passes. I took over 200 photos out the window. I usually take lots of those on these bus trips. Very few, about 5-6, are worth keeping but every trip has one or two of the hundreds that turn up to be very good photos. We made it through the mountain pass and stopped at a farmer’s house “20 Minutes” called the driver. The sign in front of us said “Baracoa 27 km” and it had to be mostly down hill. When we got out there was a distinct smell, I thought it might have been brakes but it wasn’t quite right. The engine compartment came open and the boys started fishing out tools and belts. Not exactly sure what happened but after a bit more than 20 minutes we were back on the road again. The trip to Baracoa is worth the 15CUC just for the scenery. It is worth much more than that to be OUT OF Santiago do Cuba.
Santiago started with a 4 hour wait for bus tickets to get out and Wilberto and our last day was a LITTLE bit less than 4 hours in banks trying to get money basically 2 days out of 6 dealing with Cuban bureaucracy, and the cherry on top was the mess with the casa about Wilberto. About the only thing we didn’t see that we wanted was the Emilio Bacardi Museum. And that isn’t worth dealing with Santiago de Cuba again.
We arrived in Baracoa and there was a bicycle taxi waiting for us. The sign the guy was holding looked something like if you mashed spanish and english together and spelled it phonetically. I ask if he was from Casa Dourkis and he connected my spanish but nodded, and took us to our casa. It has a spectacular 360 degree view the Caribbean on one side and the mountains on the other. AWESOME.
After checking in we walked up to the bus station and they said to come back in the morning to get tickets. From there we walked to the main square and found an Infotur who seems to have a job that does nothing but point you to other places he pointed us to a Cubatur. We booked a tour for the next day. We walked back to the casa and sat on the terrace and drank water and I started working on the trip diary. Bonnie did a bit of reading. Another couple is staying in the casa. They are from holland and driving on their own, 1800 km so far. They are a week and a half into a three week trip. They have done about the same trip as we have in 3 years. They have an interesting view of the cubans as well.
February 6, If you don’t like the way I drive, stay out of the ditch!
We asked the casa to move our breakfast to 0730 so we could have a little extra time to get to our tour to the rainforest that started at 8:30 It wasn’t a long walk to get to the tour company but if anything went awry it would give us a few minutes to adjust. Breakfast was lovely a large pot of coffee a large pot of hot chocolate (VERY VERY CHOCOLATE called chorote) and the usual fixings. Bonnie’s eyes lit up when she poured out the hot chocolate.
We walked down to the Cubatur office and had lots of time. So we looked around the church and the Revolution Square. Baracoa is just a little different and it seems fitting that Revolution Square in Baracoa is actually a triangle. Very geared toward tourism, Revolution Square is full of restaurants, tour companies, hotels, and churches. Every statue in the place seems to have been stamped with a Square and Compasses.
Everything in Baracoa is close, it’s a pretty small town. We got in a 15 passenger van and started out. We had a little girl from Turkey with us, she was 19 and doing a long vacation before returning to think about school. She needed a little taking care of. We had to stop at her casa to get her bikini, she didn’t know we were going to the beach and swimming at a waterfall. So we did. She lost track of her water bottle. And then something else and something else. We got underway and all was well, patience is a required skill in Cuba. We drove by a Masonic Lodge on the way to her casa.
We were driving into Humbult National Park, one of the largest rain forests in the caribbean if not the largest. There are 6000 farmers that still live in the 700 sq km park but they keep the trails and the place running so it’s a fair trade. The park starts 40km into the Cuban outback. At one point we passed an Ecotour jeep packed full of people that had to be beating their heads to death in the small back cabin. They were packed together pretty tight. We were tight but nothing like that. Note to self, Cubatur vans aren’t the best but I don’t think my head or back would have survived a Ecotour jeep ride. We caught up with a Gaviota tour bus same size as ours, we were driving up one ditch, they were driving up the other ditch, and the poor driver in the tourist car we were passing in the middle was looking rather bewildered. The roads were in much worse condition than the ditches.
The Dutch couple who are driving around Cuba described the color coded roads as yellow with red stripes are good roads. The yellow roads are, well, OK. The white roads are, well, there might have been a road there at one time but are now mostly potholes. We were on a white road.
We drove by the only Chocolate factory in cuba started by Che after the revolution. Tours are not available but the smell alone is worth the drive by. We had packed a lunch made from our large breakfast and had our bottle of water. The chocolate smell made the lunch sound rather sparse.
The guide we had was Karl, althought he was fine with Carlos if you wanted to call him that. He was one of the best guides we have ever had. His gift with language was impressive. He showed and told us lots about the flora and fauna of the island. Included were a number of orchids, the cocoa, philodendrons, lots of different kinds of palms, an American Kestral (the smallest falcon on the island), the Torrococo the national bird of Cuba, a very small (1cm as a full adult) and poisonous tree frog, called eleutherodactylus ibereria( a frog that is about one tenth the length of his name), and a 6 inch long millipede. He also guided us safely around a number of extremely slippery muddy sections as well as a few fords over the rivers. We made it to the waterfall where we were to have lunch and there was a farmer’s wife set up with a nut brittle (almonds, and cashews bound together with a chocolate sugary coconut glue that was 99% nuts (all local from the forest) as well as a sweet johnny cake with a guava preserve in it. 0.50CUC for each so I had to try it. I had my swimsuit on under my pants so I peeled off and headed up toward the waterfall. I should have brought my aquasocks the rocks were murdering my feet. But I did manage to get up to it with only my normal whiney wimpy feet noises. I had my camera with me so I got pictures for bonnie. It wasn’t a great waterfall but the water was refreshing as it was very hot in the rainforest.
There was a farmer that had his oxen team cart that “Just happened” to be going our way and would be happy to let us ride the four fords of the river that we had to make. We were happy to give him a small donation to the cause if we could keep the shoes dry for a while longer. They were plenty muddy but still dry. Dry feet are happy feet. We got back to the bus and made the trip back to the Playa Maguana, according to the guide (and our casa owner) the best beach in the area. We enjoyed walking the beach and bonnie got a few sea beans, always a treasured surprise. We got back to Baracoa in time for a nice shower and a bit of picture processing time.
We went to one of the places listed on TripAdvisor as having good food, it is just down the street so it was easy to get to and easy to get home. We had the fish (we think it was swordfish) they asked an extra 2CUC because it was extra special good fish and the octopus. We had the meal deal which included a soup course with bread and a tomato sauce that was like mix between catsup and salsa only it tasted REALLY GOOD (Called lechita), a vegetable rice, sweet fried plantain, Bonnie had the coconut flavored swordfish and I had the calalou flavored octopus. Both were incredible. The octopus was as good as any we had in Greece. We loved it. Bonnie had a rice pudding and I had a Coco roto Choclolate with a coconut fudge backing. The only thing MaryAnn would have liked was the portion size.
February 07 Rain, rain, and then more RAIN
It rained during the night. Our room has louvered windows and is great as air flows all around and we up on the top floor so we don’t have to close things up for security. The fresh air turned into rain so I got up and closed on side of the building and went back to bed, a while later bonnie got up and closed the window in front of the bathroom and the we heard what I thought was one of the loud metal carts with large ball bearings for wheels running down the street. Except it wasn’t it was the rain hitting one of the metal roofs next door. It was raining very hard.
We decided to forgo any tours and stay close to home. We walked around town with me wearing the masonic logo hat that Gord bought for me before the trip. I had a few people look at it but nothing more than an odd glance. We walked up to the hotel overlooking the town and it is just about dead we saw three people that were guests. We got a few good panoramas and then noticed a lot of rain on the horizon so we headed back toward our casa.
We arrived and started to download and process the pictures from the rain forest trip. The rain came in buckets mostly horizontally with the winds. Not a great drying day for my laundry. The hired girls from the casa had it mostly done by the time we got home at least as far as the wash is concerned. They hung it up on the clothesline in the roof of the terrace outside our room and since the rain was barely being halted from horizontal by the doors, it wasn’t a great drying day. They looked at us and shrugged, Manuana (Tomorrow)
I spent most of the day doing pictures and writing the log. Our sport for the day was watching the cathedral come and go from our view. The mountains really never came back all day. Once the rain closed in the mountains were gone. We could usually see the spires of the cathedral but the clock on the clock tower would often lost in the driving rain.
At one point bonnie suggest that we have dinner in the casa in case this didn’t let up. It was a very good idea as it didn’t and my dry clothes are the ones I’m wearing. And the prospects of the clothes on the line being dry is slim to none. We had supper in her kitchen as the table in front of our room is rain soaked and moving the plates from downstairs to upstairs would have been dangerous in the high winds. They have a teenage daughter who made herself scarce as soon as we showed up. We have seen her a few times doing what teenagers seem to do everywhere. Lay on the couch and watch TV.
February 8, Rain Rain go away, We’ve had enough already.
We booked a tour for a river, a boat ride, a swim in a river and a beach visit. We had breakfast on our terrace but the rain was threatening. By the time it was time to go to meet at the Cubatur office there was enough rain the church was barely visible and we didn’t have any particular desire to walk through the rain to tell him we weren’t going to go. I’m sure he’d figure out why we weren’t going to show.
There was a young German couple joining us for breakfast. They are in cuba for two weeks and with the rain they figured they would rather spend it on the bus rather than in a casa. So they were going to pack up and go. We are “relaxed” travelers and if we have to sit a couple days all I have to do is think of -20 and blowing snow and the warm rain doesn’t seem bad at all.
A day to do a little memorizing for my office in lodge and, well, the day will pass with a little reading. When we were traveling on the boat we would see people beating themselves to death to make miles. We’ve always said the difference between a good passage day and getting beat up traveling in bad weather was a nap, a glass of wine, and good book. Wait a day it will pass. Now where is my glass of wine, oh well, a mojito will have to do.
February 9 Rain’s almost done, time for a tour.
We were up and had breakfast in time to go to the Cubatur office to catch a tour, on our way we walked by the Masonic Lodge in Baracoa, (Just down the street from the Cubatur office).
When we got to the Cubatur office we found out that they had canceled everything the previous day and we were at the top of the list to go on the tour today. Great! The guide was there and waiting to see how many on his list would show up and how many had left. There were 8 of us, Bonnie and me, two German girls, A German couple older than us, and a Spanish couple about our age. We were doing the Yumuri River tour. The last tour was more North and east of Baracoa and this was more south and east of Baracoa. Much flatter and much better roads for the most part. Our first surprise was the bus. The previous tour bus was a 15 passenger air conditioned van. The guide saw the bus and did a double take at the driver, who shrugged. This was a 1954 Chev that had the bed cut off and the standard cuban people hauler installed. The air conditioning was provided by rolling up the curtains. The bus was the standard black smoke belching diesel that doesn’t smell at all like the Yanmar Diesel on my boat, or any other diesel that I have been near. It was burning almost half the fuel and producing soot FOUL stink with the other half. My guess was it was a combo of diesel and fryer grease. It was truly rank. The other rather quaint feature was the started didn’t work. He tried ONCE, and then let the bus roll down the hill and when I symbolically popped the clutch he did too and the diesel sprang to life. From then on he made sure he parked on a hill so he could pop the clutch again and get it started. The young German girls got a great giggle out of me popping the clutch and the truck starting. You have to have a sense of humor in Cuba. I was watching the gauges through the window in the back of the cab. I think there were three of the 5 (not counting the speedometer that didn’t work) that moved. The only one that seemed to have a sensible reading was the amp meter, and most of the time it was charging the battery. It only started to read that it was draining was when the rpm got too low. The bench that we sat on was a piece of tropical hardwood about 5/8ths of an inch thick about 10 wide and probably 12 feet long. The two benches would have probably cost several hundred dollars alone in Canada. They were pretty.
The first stop on the trip was to a cocoa plantation. Come to find out they never plant just one crop they mix at least two, this plantation was cocoa and coffee.
The tour of the plantation was really interesting. The cocoa plants were in blossom, or perhaps they are continuously in blossom this time of year. There were lots of cases of both seed pods and blossoms on the same stock apparently only about 3% of the blossoms produce fruit, the rest are damaged by winds etc. The blossoms appear everywhere on the plant from trunk to the top (usually pruned to make it easier to harvest and for the sun to be able to penetrate the foliage better). There were fruit in almost all stages of development from blossom, to small seed pods the size of your little finger to the sized of two fists together and twice as long. There are two colors of cocoa red and green, they both mature to yellow and taste exactly the same (so they claim). We have pictures of both. This plantation plants coffee as well but there wasn’t much to see with regards to the coffee. No beans or blossoms on the coffee plants we saw.
Coffee and chocolate, two of my favorite things! We found out that once again the standard rules for farmers seem to apply here as well, the government takes 90% and the farmer can sell the remainder and keep it themselves. They did a explanation of how the farmers make their 100% chocolate balls (about the size of a snowball, or for those who don’t do snow a bit bigger than a baseball and smaller than a softball). The farmers don’t have the machinery that the chocolate plant that Che started has. They pull off the outer shell and put the beans in a sieve for 7 – 9 days for the white shell to drop it’s fluid as well as to have the cocoa beans to ferment. After that they pound them into a mush and put it back into the sieve for another 9ish days (depending on heat and humidity) during this time the Cocoa oil drips down and is collected. This is pure cocoa butter and is sold in nice fancy wood bowls to tourists for 5CUC each. The big plant sells this around the world for cosmetics etc. The 100% Chocolate balls are formed by hand with a small amount of something (I couldn’t hear) and put in the freezer to harden, once hardened it will stay hard even out of the freezer and keep for a year, “no problem”. One of the German girls asked how old the woman farmer (or farmer’s wife, not sure which) was. I had her pegged late 70s early 80s. “I’ll be 63 in April” she proudly said, Bonnie just turned 63 a few days before. Bonnie’s had a much easier life, and it shows.
One of the things that got pointed out was that all of the refuse gets tossed back under the trees for fertilizer. Cuba doesn’t have access to modern chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Everything grown in Cuba is organic, not by choice but by necessity.
We stopped at the set for a French remake of the Robinson Cruiso movie that starred a famous French actor that the German girls knew. We saw a few hummingbirds flying around and one stopped long enough for me to switch cameras a couple times so that I could get a photo, patience is a virtue.
We left there and when to the place where we could order lunch. We ordered a conch steak to share and did a little walk around on the dark sand beach. The surf from the previous day’s high winds were still pounding on the shore. There may still be higher winds offshore pushing them in. The dark sand was not that hot due to the clouds and the high surf. It looked like a nice place to come back to so we were happy. I made two mistakes one was not wearing a swimsuit and the other was not bringing my aquasocks. The swimsuit I wasn’t really upset about I wasn’t planning on going into the salt water and I figured that any fresh water swimming would be nixed with the two days of very high rainfall. The aqua socks for protecting my feet would have been a very good idea.
We are always amazed at the blossoms that are everywhere on everything from the smallest plant underfoot to the trees the size of a mature elm in full red blossom.
The blossoms on the tables weren’t real, they were all made out of plastic, (water bottles mostly) T hey were impressive art all by themselves.
We walked the beach a bit and then headed back on the bus to the unique palm tree that has two stocks growing off a single base, a genetic anomaly and the only example known.
From there it was to the German Pass. Before the revolution there was a large plantation on one side of the pass and Baracoa on the others. Workers that wanted to work had to pass through this rock fall in order to get to work and the German family that owned the area put up a toll booth, hence called the German Pass or German Tunnel. The view back toward Baracoa was spectacular.
From there we went over to the Yumuri River look off. The name came from the local aboriginal tribe the tinte ? They were enslaved by the Spanish and forced to work. They threw themselves off the lookoff screaming “Yumuri” translated as something like “Death is better than slavery.” We got a couple of spectacular pictures looking down the road at the sea. Across from the lookoff was a tree that was full of Polymitas they are a colorful land snail that has been pushed to near extinction by locals selling them to tourists and we were told not to buy them and if we were caught the Cuban government would fine us over $100 dollars. I’m pretty sure that if Canada Customs finds you importing products of an endangered species you would end up in jail, with a much heftier fine. The shells were very pretty and we enjoyed seeing them and taking lots of pictures. Apparently the only color not seen is blue.
From the lookoff we went down to the river and got according to the brochure “walk a boat” up the river. Ok what really happened was we walked onto the boat and the local guy rowed us up river to a small island. There were the 8 tourists, the guide, the guy rowing the boat and two old rather beaten life jackets. I’ve always said that if I drown there will be the obligatory “he was not wearing his life jacket” message attached as a warning to others. The water was very brown from the runoff and it was impossible to see more than a few millimeters into the water. It could have been 100 ft or 10 inches and it was impossible to tell. Except for when someone jumped into the water in front of our boat and swam across about 100feet and then stood up and walked the rest of the way across the river. I’m guessing that most of the time there is not a lot of water in the Yumuri.
Before we got on, Bonnie had me take a picture. The dock was two or three boards stretching out into the river. Bonnie looked at me and said take a picture for Mike Stanley and tell him to show the picture to the members of the yacht club complaining about our docks needing repair.
We walked around the island in the river and the guide showed us a couple of hummingbird nests. One had babies in it but mom showed up and sat on it and wouldn’t let anyone else look. The aqua socks would have been a good idea for the trip as the island was normally a sand bar and mostly dry the bulk of the island was dry but I got my feet wet a couple of places crossing the river. It was almost chocolate milk brown with sediment from the hills.
When the more intrepid water waders got back from looking at another nest the guy we had seen swimming across the river was back with several green coconuts for sale. He chopped a hole and stuck a bamboo straw through the hole and you could drink coconut water and when you were done he would chop the nut in half and dig out the meat for you to eat if you wanted. It has never been a favorite thing of mine but Bonnie loves it so we shared and she got the lion’s share. At 1 CUC each the coconut guy did ok.
We went back to the La Playita Restaurante and had lunch, the conch was good but didn’t hold a candle to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club Restaurant. We walked the beach and found a treasure trove of beach glass, lots of greens, and browns, but we also found a rare blue piece and even rarer yellow piece of glass Bonnie was also finding lots of sea beans of the sea heart, almonds, and even a few hamburgers.
We were walking back and forth along the beach and in one little outcropping of stone we were looking down at the beach sand for glass and when we looked up, we were presented with an amazing fossil find, fossilized wood, brain coral, fans shells of various types and lots of really interesting stuff.
We enjoyed our little trip to the dark sand beach and the Yumuri Canyon There was a private cab doing exactly the same tour and he was either just before or just after us the whole way. He followed us home until he got sick of the black exhaust and past us. I took a picture out the back of the truck a few times and later Bonnie looked at it later and said that it was an almost complete picture of Cuban transport. A bicycle taxi, a horse taxi, a old american car, a bicycle, and a motorcycle all enveloped in a black haze of diesel from the back of our bus.
We got to our casa from the tour and it was starting to sprinkle so we settled to let it go by. While we were waiting we got a picture of almost a perfect double rainbow. The clouds were pretty for the sunset and cleared out for a walk to a restaurant for dinner. We took the umbrella but didn’t need it.
We went to the Calalou as suggested by Karl our guide from the first trip. The food was very good and the service excellent. Bonnie had the fish and I had the Chicken Parmesan. I should have known better the cheese is always in bigger quantity than the chicken and it usually isn’t great cheese, or parmesan. As the cheesey chicken when it was pretty good but bonnie’s fish was better.
February 10, Bus trip to Santiago de Cuba
When we got up it was raining a little and threatening worse so we jumped at the first break in the rain to walk up to the bus station. We were several hours early but the timing sucked no matter what so we bit the bullet and waited. I took the opportunity to do a little work on the log and pictures until the battery died on the netbook. While we were there the German girls from our tour showed up and made reservations for getting out of town the next day. They came over and said thanks for taking pictures for them and to say goodbye. We waited and waited and waited and the bus showed up on time It made it over the mountain, this time without repairs. The same crew was on and one of them recognized me and said hi.
As always I take lots of pictures from the bus window and although very few actually turn out I do manage to get a few interesting ones. I did have a bit of success taking movies out the window.
It was interesting that the whole way back the bus drivers stopped at almost every fruit stand and bought fruit. They have to have a deal to supply a fruit stand in Santiago de Cuba. They bought far more than any one family (or five for that matter) could eat before it went bad.
They completely cleaned one lady who had buckets of mangoes to sell. Five buckets of mangoes for 4 CUC. Good deal! It was interesting to see all of the locals on the bus doing much of the same only in quantities for a family. Bananas, tangerines, mangoes, and other tropical fruits were popular.
We arrived in Santiago de Cuba and the casa we were staying at was a fair distance from the last one on the opposite side of Parque Cepesties. We arrived and Bonnie was disoriented this trip. I was finally able to get my bearings and found our favorite restaurant by the time we checked in and got oriented and got to the restaurant it was packed and with out a reservation we couldn’t get in. So we walked over to Primos Twice and had another good meal there, Bonnie was very tired from the trip and we were happy to get to the casa and get to bed.
February 11 Bus tickets! Another cuban hero, coffee, and good food again
Our first trip for the day was to get bus tickets. It took several hours last time so we weren’t looking forward to the job. We walked down from our casa and came across a Royal Bank of Canada building that was in the process of being completely gutted and restored. The old building had class. We walked out and found the bus station without even getting lost. We got in line and as lines go in Cuba. There can be twenty people standing around with no apparent pattern but everyone is in line. When you walk in you ask Ultimo? (Who is at the end of the line?) Someone will put up their hand and then you follow that person. You might be second in line and there are just another dozen hanging around talking or you could be twentieth in line you never really know, just follow the person who was previously Ultimo. It’s a bizarre system and most frustrating especially as some people will disappear and then reappear and be in the middle of the line again. It is really tough if your Ultimo leaves and doesn’t tell you who their ultimo was.
Across the square from the bus station is the revolution square the giant figure on the horse is Antonio Maseo at the base of the statue is a museum to him. He was a giant figure in war for cuban independence and was shot an unbelieveable number of times, 24 I seem to remember. They had a neat topographical map of Cuba and an English presentation and slide show on a computer that projected above the map and a slightly bigger than life sized picture of Maseo. A light would come on on the map to show where the battle was and if he got shot at that battle a light would come on to show where he was shot. One battle he was shot like four times and then three days later he was in another battle a good distance away and he would get shot again. I’m thinking the bullets must have had very little powder behind them, or the story might be being stretched just a little. One incredibly neat thing was that most of the “artifacts” at the museum were actually holograms of the actual article. The holograms were very impressive. The items had very good detail, one ring was so clear that you could see clearly the masonic crest on it.
We came out of the museum by coming out the top of the museum and down the staircase. We took a bicycle taxi $3cuc back to the Rumba Cafe and had two cappuccinos, one cafe cortadito and a pesto pasta with garlic and “aromatic” herbs to share as lunch for 8CUC. It was excellent if a little too much olive oil.
Our casa this trip is a lot more like a hotel than a casa so it misses a little of the feel, and is more expensive but the room is bigger and the eating area much fancier. It was covered in butterfly Jasmine, complete with lots of bees. The foyer was a nice mural (some of it 3D to hide the power wires etc) Bonnie was quite impressed with it. Most of the windows were actually not just painted but were raised above the level of the wall. It was nice.
After a little siesta we were out on the streets again and we were early enough to the Compay Gallow that we were able to get in. We had run into our waitress in town a couple hours earlier and she had remembered us from the previous week. She was surprised to see us again at the restaurant that night. She was a very good waitress,
Bonnie said she could easily work at any 5-star restaurant anywhere. I certainly liked her. The food was top notch again. We had one meal the same as last time and one new. The same dish was presented completely differently. But it was just as tasty.
I had the Cowboy pork chops and I have to admit I wouldn’t have it again. It was good just far behind what our other three selections had been. We did have two desserts the Flan (again) and the Tomato. Bonnie wanted to try a tomato as a dessert just to see what they could do with them. It ended up being a candied tomato with the jelly from the canning process filling the martini glass level with the candied tomato. (Date squares would be sour compared to them, and I find date squares too sweet to eat usually. The second waitress arrived with a bottle of good rum and poured a spoon full of rum on top of it, to give it a bitter tang, the fancy curly yellow spiral sticking out of the top of the dessert was actually crackling (salty fried pig skin), sweet, bitter, salty, and fat all in the same dessert. It did weird things to the taste buds.
February 12 An early escape from Santigo de Cuba and arrival in Bayamo.
We had to leave our casa at 530 am so we were the only ones up leaving the casa. I opened the door at 520 and the taxi driver was waiting so we were early leaving. The trip to Bayamo is short so we arrived at the bus station at a reasonable time. We even had a little bit of success taking pictures out of the window of the bus.
Jose the casa owner was there to meet us. He pointed us to a bicycle taxi and said he would meet us at the casa. He passed us on his own bicycle a little while later. Bayamo is bicycle central. Everything is pretty flat and the bicycles are great to get around on. We were in a traffic jam at a light that had nothing but bicycles in it. We made it to the casa and Jose made us breakfast. Jose’s wife doesn’t do English but we have made out ok so far. We waited for the people to check out of our room while we were having breakfast and before long they had our room ready for us. We dropped our luggage and went out for a little walk.
We are basically two blocks up from Parque Cespedes the major square of the area. A while ago they took one of the streets off the square and turned it into the pedestrian shopping area for Bayamo. It is full of restaurants, shopping, and the odd museum and art gallery. The far end of the street has actually become very much the art area. The light standards/power poles have been wrapped in art.
The distant end are all “Tolken Trees” as Bonnie puts it. The mid section are aimed much more at the artists they are wrapped in paint tubes, paint brushes, paint pouring out of a bottle. The art doesn’t stop at the light standards.
There are many mosaics built into the floor one reminded me of an Escher sketch. There were flowers as mosaics, a beach scene and lots of stuff. The park benches were even artistic stone carvings with places to sit into. One seemed particularly shaped for my butt and was practically as suction fit.
We went to the wax museum and most of the people there are music related. People that didn’t mean a lot to me as Cuban music is not really my genre, they did have one name I did recognize, one was Benny More. The others I recognized were Jose Marti, Ernest Hemmingway, and the hometown hero Cespedes. Cespedes was the only one wearing a Masonic ring, although Marti was a well known Mason as well.
We walked down to Parque de Hino to see if the church was open. It is supposed to be something to see, it wasn’t open, but the Bodega was, We had a couple of mohitos and a mixed salad for 9.70 cuc either they have selective pricing or the price was exceptionally expensive. We on the back patio overlooking the Bayamo River. There was a guy cutting grass for the horses and we watched him while we waited. The view and the breeze was nice.
Walking along the riverfront later there was a small park where they had Tolken style park benches. We heard the bells chiming in the church and turned back on the chance that it was open, it wasn’t but we got a few good pictures There is a large bell that has a crack similar to the Liberty Bell in the United States, apparently liberty bells everywhere are broken.
Bayomo’s war hero is Cespetes he was born here and attacked his hometown to free it from the Spanish and when the battle started to go against him and the Spanish started to retake the town the townspeople burned the town rather than let the Spanish have it. There is very little of the pre-1860s town left, one of the buildings is Cespetes birthplace. There is a museum there and the museum is worth a visit. It is full of furniture dishes and memorabilia from the era, including a certificate given to him by his lodge for services rendered.
There are a huge number of German tourists visiting the area. We sat in the square and did a lot of people watching. There were five or six different guided tours go through the park and they were all German speaking guides giving the talk. There is still a lot of beautiful buildings around one of which is the hotel we went in for coffee and a bottle of water. Two coffee americanos(.60 each) and a bottle of water(1.50) was 2.70 The coffee is incredible here.
We went back to the casa and had a siesta ( I worked on the log and bonnie had a nap) before going out to dinner. We had four places to try from trip advisor. The number one place was the Barberan We went and had the pork in a red wine sauce that was so good at the place in Santiago de Cuba and a garlic herbed chicken dish. Both were nearly inedible. The red wine sauce tasted pretty good but the meat was terrible. The chicken was fat and greasy beyond belief. The rice was so bad that we left it on the plate. It tasted and had the texture of rice that was made the day before and left out on the cupboard to dry. We both rated it as the worst meal we have had in cuba ever. The Bodega was one of the others with it’s very expensive prices it was off the list as a possible return. Two of our top four checked off the first day, things are not looking good.
February 13 No tickets, almost a museum, and a good restaurant
Our first job of the day while it is relatively cool is to head up to the bus station to get tickets out of town. We walked up the bus station and the Viazul office was not interested in giving us a reservation to Holguin. Viazul really is starting to suck. The system they had before seemed like they were running as far from a reservation system as you could get. They were printed by hand in a book and if you paid in advance they gave you this tissue paper thin piece of paper an inch by two inches that was best described as fragile at worst akin to the ultra thin Cuban toilet paper. Try writing on your toilet paper at home and see how far you get. The system they have now is a computerized based system that will print out real tickets and uses real paper (perforated paper on tractor feed dot matrix printer no less). They take your ticket and then generate an honest to God boarding pass similar to what you get on an airplane, seat assignments and everything. Mind you none of the seats on the bus are numbered and if they do happen to be numbered look nothing like the numbers used on the boarding pass. It’s still a grab a seat if you can and go. The system is bad enough that finding a ticket agent that is willing to sell you a ticket is rare. They would much rather have you wait until the last minute see if there is any room on the bus and go directly to the boarding pass. It works ok as long as your passengers don’t have reservations anywhere or have to worry about getting anywhere.
Bonnie and I have weird sayings that we use every now and then that makes sense to us and no one else has a clue what we mean without a very long explanation of it. We now have another one. Cuba is a place that defies description, or should we say a single description. There are lots of times when you look at something and think “Man that isn’t ever going to work.” it does. The Cuban people are living in a communist system and for the most part runs on private industry and commission sales. All the old American cars you see are, if you open the hood, or sometimes even just the passenger door, it really looks a lot like a Lada. One of the best restaurants we have ever been to in any country has five tables, that’s all it has room for and most of the tables are tight enough they can’t actually seat four, they’re set for three. It isn’t a new restaurant either, it’s been around a while. Some of the portion sizes on some of the meals even exceeds the huge portion sizes in Canada and the US. Bonnie and I are now at the point where we order one meal and split it. If the portion size is too small we will either order two desserts or another main course. We’ve never had to order another meal but have gone for two desserts. In a country where most of the food is laced with sugar, restaurants often don’t have any desserts available. A police force that obeys the same traffic rules as everybody else (when was the last time you saw a cop car in Canada or the US obey a stop sign if there isn’t any traffic). A communist state where the work ethic that is encouraging to see, if we had the same ethic we wouldn’t have nearly the economic issues we do. A country that has been living under a communist dictator for over 50 years, Fidel is criticized for some of the things (SOMEWHAT openly) he has done(mainly the pact with the soviet union but some say that he had little choice given the political situation he was in; censorship is another, access to the internet another, political suppression is another), other things he has done is truly appreciated (the free health care, the education system free through university level, free nursing home care for the elderly), but for the most part is held with some affection in the heart of most Cubans. I can go on and on about the contradictions that are a daily practice that you get to live with when you actually go off resort and into the homes of Cubans into the Casa Particulars as they are called. The constant contradictions that you live with here have generated our new expression. Just when you start to get a handle on something it changes before you can look at it. It was as if you reached out and grabbed a bird out of the air. It was flying by, it felt like it had feathers, but when you open you’re hand, you’re looking at a frog.
The failed attempt at a ticket discouraged us a bit. Next year if we come to Cuba we may do the online reservation system and bypass (for the most part) the frustrating Viazul ticket agents. We left there and headed toward the Parque Retablo de los Heroes. Bayamo was burned by it’s own citizens and one of the monuments that survived or was rebuilt from the ruins was an arch that covers the remains of one of their many heros, Francisco Vincente Aguilera They have a reverence for their national heros that is comparable only to the reverence Americans have for their national heros.
We walked from there to the Museo Nico Lopez, we could walk the grounds but couldn’t go into the museum. They didn’t have any receipts that they could issue for CUCs only for their Nationals. Since they couldn’t issue a receipt we couldn’t go in. The girls didn’t want to get in trouble for selling us any nationals. We could walk around all we wanted but not the museum part. Since it was most likely all in Spanish we probably wouldn’t have gotten that much out of it anyway. We did love the grounds. If you get a chance to visit it is well worth it, even if you don’t have any nationals. As we walked around there were two young women practicing their music, a flute and a clarinet. It made for a very pleasant visit.
From there we walked down to the Bayamo River and looked at the river and the little park that sometimes has a lot of farmer’s markets open and busy, unfortunately today is not one of those days. We walked back to the casa and arranged for a visit to the Botanical Gardens via our casa and had a bit of a siesta.
We wanted to give the TripAdvisor.com restaurant suggestions one more try in case their top rated restaurant just had a bad day. We were not willing to give them another try but did go for the next one on their list. The Palador el Polinesio (I’m not sure any of the menu items had anything to do in any way shape or form to Polynesia). Their first strike against them was not hard alcohol so no mojitos. Things were not looking good. The waitress spoke pretty good English wish was very nice, our Spanish is not getting that much of a workout. We are getting by with pointing to things on the menu. We know most of the big things like pork, chicken, seafood, fish, beef. We might not get the sauces right but we’re usually fairly easy to please. The Polinesio completely redeemed itself with the food, it didn’t rank with the best of Santiago de Cuba but it was very, very, good. Ok TripAdvisor.com you get another chance.
Bonnie has been noticing that the rooftops are the domain of most of the “owned” dogs. There seem to be lots of free running dogs as well but the ones that seem to have a home have the run of the rooftops. We had a cute little dog run down off the roof and appear at the second floor balcony to watch his friends playing on the street.
February 14, The Botanical Garden, Public art, and the tricycle rides.
The guide that our casa owner arranged to take us to the Botanical Gardens has a casa himself. He wanted to see his guest to the bus station so he asked if we could delay from 9 to 9:30, no problem for us. He took us out and they didn’t have any CUC receipts either so he paid our entrance for us. For 20 National Pecos he got three of us into the Botanical Garden (camera included as there is an extra charge for the camera). That’s about 90 cents with exchange. It turns out he had never been to the gardens before so he joined us on the tour. It was great considering he was a veterinarian with reasonably good English and the tour guide had next to no English. Roman did most of the translation for us. There were lots of birds around as well as lots of plants. Bees too, it turned out that one of the woodpeckers had been evicted by the bees.
The bees took over his next and he had to make another. He was doing so as we were walking around, just a little lower down the tree than his first nest. There were lots of hummingbirds, mocking birds and other little birds to see.
The guide was really into “Green Medicine” and was able to tell us that this plant as a tea was good for this and that as a salve was good for that. There was a citronella plant that he showed us, as well as a cinnamon tree, he gave us fruit from the trees to taste one was a tropical apricot that tasted like a pear to us, the other was a Frozen Apple, a dark and very sweet fruit, there were also mangos and lots of other stuff. He pointed out one of the air plants “Boil this in a tea and drink every day for three weeks and no more diabetes” Roman blinked at that. He is a diabetic. I have his email and if it works I have a few more friends that might be interested in it.
We got Roman to stop at the Hotel Sierra Maestra to see if we could arrange a EcoTour to the Comandencia de la Plata. Unfortunately the EcoTour office was closed for the weekend so we were afraid we were going to be completely out of luck. But Roman to the rescue. He didn’t want to take his car there, the roads were too rough for his car, but he knew a guy that would go, “recommended by Lonely Planet”, sure enough the guy’s card had a lonely planet stamp on it. So Roman would talk to our casa owner and … eventually we would get to go if all birds we grabbed were birds not frogs.
Roman brought us back to his casa and showed us around and gave us a coffee and asked that we write about the trip to the botanical garden in his guest book. We wrote a very good review and he took us home. His casa is close to the end of the walking street General Garcia.
Roman talked to the lady of our casa who has almost no english and after lots of talk and a few phone calls it was all set up we would go on our trip to see where Castro had his base in the mountains during the first six months of the revolution. Here is the business card for his very nice casa. Villa La Nueva (Norma y Roman’s casa)
We had a bit of a siesta after our trip and then headed out to see if we could see inside any of the churches but didn’t get to see inside any of them. We walked to the end of the walking part of General Garcia and when the shopping area runs out so do most of the people on the street. This is good for those of us interested in the street art. There are faces, flowers, and even a Escher-esque mosaic in the street.
People were out on the streets enjoying the weekend. There were people with their kids one of the side streets on Parque Cespedes was informally closed off by the guy who operated the tricycle rides. He brought probably 20 or thirty different tricycles for kids to play with, Some were shaped like farm tractors, some were police cars, some were dress up with lots of streamers and things there were lots of kids that loved playing with one then another, then another. It was fun to watch.
On our way back down General Garcia we noticed that one of the houses had just been painted, or was in the process of being painted. The red doors were spray painted and the overspray of the paint covered a very noticeable section of the white walls. It was a reminder of the painting we saw so much of last year as the polish went on for the 500th anniversary celebrations. We enjoyed another pass of them and then headed out to see if we could get into another of our recommended restaurants but they were all full no tables until 9pm. Valentines day is a big thing here, any reason for a party will do. We went back to the The Palador el Polinesio and when we got there there were two other tables busy. The girl from the previous night sat us down and we ordered, by the time our table was ready the restaurant was packed. Ramon showed up with his casa guests and stopped by to say hello. We had another very good meal and when home to crash. We had an early departure to get to the tour in the mountains.
We had a 6:30 breakfast, departure at 7 all scheduled. Early to bed is never a problem for us. We are known across the island at the casas as the tourists that sleep a lot. We have siestas, and we go to bed early. The sun does wear us out.
February 15, Castro’s hideout.
We were up early, we had breakfast scheduled for 6:30, pick up by the taxi at 7. We set the alarm for 6 and opened our bedroom door at 6:25 to complete blackness, at this point we didn’t expect to have breakfast. But one thing we have noticed is that if you are walking anywhere near a trail a farmer will appear bearing bananas, tangerines, oranges, guava, mangos, and even the odd pineapple will show up. We could probably scavenge breakfast along the trail. About 6:40 our casa owner arrives in her nighty “Lo siento, una momento.” Her husband appears and frantic kitchen activity occurs, we go downstairs about 6:55 well fed and coffeed and headed to the mountains.
Castro landed his invasion force not far from here. Of the 81 that left Mexico, 12 survived the landing and the assault by Baptista Forces and were split up into groups during the landing, at one point Castro was a commander of three, himself, a soldier who had disposed of his weapon, and a guy who lost his shoes, the locals managed to find them all and hide them in the mountains. He spent about six months in the mountains growing support and about 2 years later rode into Havana as the new leader.
We were headed into the mountains to see where he had lived for those six months. The trip itself was uneventful. The road went from flat as a pancake to serious mountains as we approached Santo Domingo. The taxi driver asked if Raul was available but he was on the mountain. We got bunched up with another group and we ended up 8 in an MG four wheel drive van, I was able to get in the front seat and drove 5 km up (we gained 750 meters in height in 5000 meters in length an average grade of 15% with 45% gradients near the top at Alto del Naranjo ) given that there were 9 (8 plus the driver) of us in the MG I was fairly impressed. From there we have to walk another 3km into the hideout and 3km back.
Rather than fill out all the paperwork for each of us the Ecotour operator just filled it out once and wrote 8 on it and handed it to a woman and said “Your the boss” problem was the woman had no English at all and had no clue that she had all of the vouchers for our taxi ride, entrance to the park, and our lunch afterward as part of her paperwork. She and her husband inherited 6 kids, two from Holland, two from Peru, and two from Canada. She was, I think German. The trip up the hill was really amazing the camera just could not get the angle of the road and do it justice. The parking lot at the top was very pretty and lots of panoramas got taken. The walk was near as hard as the two day hike that the Dutch kids had done previously. They did the two day hike into the mountains with Raul earlier in the week. It goes from the parking lot to the top of the highest mountain in Cuba and back. There is a three day version that takes you to the top of the mountain and out to the coast but it wasn’t clear that they were going to do that one. We were happy to hear at the end of our tour that our tour had better vista views than the other one. We had some incredible vistas to see.
Our guide, George was very good. He knew his history as well as Spanish and English with a little German as well. He was able to tell us a lot about the history of that part of the conflict and it was interesting to see and hear. The views are truly incredible.
I was able to get the front seat again going down hill and videoed the top 7 minutes of the down hill run from the parking lot. The camera doesn’t capture the true pitch of the hill but it does have lots of beautiful scenery, if you ever want to see it let me know. At over a gigabyte I don’t think it will make it to the web.
From there we were down at lunch. The restaurant that served up our lunch must be used to groups getting broken up because our lunch was consumed by the time our vouchers made it back down the hill. Our group got broken into two pieces and the vouchers were in the trailing group.
We met Raul taking to our taxi driver and he asked if he could get a lift 20km down the hill to his house. Our taxi driver was a friend and didn’t want to ask us but if we didn’t mind he would be happy. We were happy to give him a lift. We got a good chance to talk and he was named after Raul Castro and was borne the year of the Revolution, He and I were almost the same age. The sun ages you down here. We asked him about a big lake that we could see, It was a hydro electric damn. The house he grew up in is at the bottom of the lake. They were happy about that. His family was given the same sized parcel of land and with a better house and better land than they had before the damn. He gave us a bit of history as we drove but we were quite happy to relax in the ac of the car. A 6km up and down dirt paths through tropical rain forest is a long hike. We loved watching out the windows and seeing the scenery.
We were back to the casa and went out to the San Salvador de Bayamo Restaurant across from our casa One of the trip advisor places and it had all of 5 tables and the food was very very good. We were back to our casa and packed up ready to go to Holguin.
February 16 Off to Holguin, and a phone call you never want to get but are happy to get just the same.
We were up and checked out of our casa, the bicycle taxi rode us out to the Viazul station and we were off. We were on standby for the run to Holguin and got the last two seats at the back of the bus. A few of the bumps Bonnie and I, as well as our third seat mate were actually airborne. It is only an hour run so we took it as part of the adventure.
We arrived in Holguin and were met by our casa owner. He walked us from the bus station to the casa. It wasn’t far away. We checked in had a coffee and were off for the day. We did a quick run around the parks had lunch at one of the restaurants La Torre we had a fruit plate and an italian salad. The Italian salad turned out to be fresh pasta (cold) mixed with a white sauce (I think freshly made mayo fruit flavored) with small chunks of ham, cheese, pineapple and spicy peppers served in a fruit cup. We liked it enough that the La Torre was back on our list for an evening meal. We went walking around the three main squares of Holguin and then headed back to the casa for a little siesta.
After a short siesta and bano break. We headed out of the casa. Our casa owner and wife are uni-lingual Spanish. His daughter has a very few words of English her boyfriend is from Montreal or a cuban living in Montreal. His English is flawless. The daughter caught us by running down the stairway after us. “Good news, No one died!” She said.
“OK, No one died, that is good news, Why are you telling me?” I thought to myself. The second shoe to drop was the mother handing us a scribbler with a phone number on it, “woman called, her number” the daughter said pointing to the number, “No one died.” It was my brother’s phone number in Halifax. Before I leave I make up the detailed trip plan for the trip and send it out to people that I know will call if something happens that I need to know about and I know are reliable enough to not hit the panic button. The list this trip included my niece Nicole, my brother Mark and his significant other Heather, my brother-in-law Ken, and my neighbor Paul.
I figured that the woman calling from Halifax would be Heather. If it was serious enough for her to call it was time to call her back. “No one died” we figured was an accident of some form but that may have nothing to do with it. We headed down to the internet place down the street, an email would likely be waiting for us. In order for us to get access to the internet we had to get a international visitors version of the internet card it gives international visitors a little more access to the internet than the Cubans get, censorship is still quite a real thing here.
Unfortunately the system that would allow the person to sell us the visitor card was not working, check back in an hour. Ok we needed to get cash anyway so off to the bank. The communications were down there too so we went to La Torre and had supper and plotted and planned escape routes, and a thousand guesses as to what “no one died” really meant. We got out of supper and went back to the internet cafe just as they were closing. We asked if they could sell us a cubatel simm card and the girl at the door just shook her head “Centre de negocious, Caraterra central, manyana” OK center for business office on the Caraterra Central (where the bus station was) tomorrow.
Back to the casa and the boyfriend is there. He was able to tell us that making a call out of the casa was not easy for a local. Most didn’t have access to the international operator. We were willing to try and reverse the charges but that didn’t seem possible either. We take heart in the fact that we didn’t get a call back that night. If they really needed us. I figured Heather or Nicole would get on the phone. Nicole has a little spanish so we were betting it would be nicole.
Off to our room for a fitful night of sleep.
February 17th Nicole, a long line and a great restaurant.
We were sitting at the breakfast table beside the phone when it rang. The owner of the casa answered and handed the phone to me. It was Nicole. My stepfather John, 92 had had a heart attack, not serious but anything at 92 is serious enough. I told Nicole that we were planning on hitting the internet cafe in the morning and trying to turn on the roaming on our cell or hitting the Cubatel office and try to get a simm card for our cell phone. We bought an unlocked quadfrequency international phone when we were traveling, we have simm cards for it from the Bahamas, the US, and Canada. Cuba would not be a problem for the phone, if we could fight through the paperwork. Locking horns with Cuban bureaucracy is a loosing battle at the best of times. Either way by the end of the day we were aimed at having texting ability. We would send her a text when we knew what route we would have available.
We stopped at the internet place and slipped in. The person there understood English, great! His system that would let me buy an internet card was down. OK bank time. We hit the bank and were out with cash in my pocket within a few minutes, a record if ever there was one. We hit the account hard so we had lots of options if we needed an escape plan.
We had time before we could check at the Internet Cafe so we stopped in at an Art Gallery that we had walked by a couple of times. There were a lot of interesting art. There was one piece that stood out above all others. It was almost all shades of black of different styles and types of paint. It completely changed as you walked around it. With permission, we took lots of pictures as we walked, the camera does not do it justice. Ken would LOVE this one.
We walked back to the internet cafe and stuck my head in through the line he saw me and shook his head. We walked down to Caraterra Central and turned right toward the bus station past the Methodist Cathedral. We were at the bus station and looking around for the Centre de Negocious when we finally found someone that knew what we were looking for and pointed us in the right direction. If we had headed left not right we would have stubbed our toe on it. We joined the line and four and a half hours later got INSIDE the door. It took another 20 minutes but were able to get one of the fresh sales people just off her lunch break to help us. First we didn’t have much success. She had little English and we broke out the tablet. Google translate (OUR BABBLEFISH) was downloaded on it and We passed it back three or four times. She was having fun playing with it and we were getting somewhere. We walked out of the office with a working Cell phone and thank God we tried it before we left because we found out that we have to prefix all of our phone calls with 119 to get the international exchange followed by our country code and our phone number so our phone number is 119-1-506-474-2484 not our usual 1-506-474-2484 as we are used to. Before we left the office we had a message sent successfully to Nicole. Nicole was able to send us a note back and things were looking up.
We walked back to the casa and after 4.5 hours in the Cuban sun we were ready for a drink and a bano run. Considering that we had no lunch at all, an even earlier than normal supper was in our plans.
All in all things were working out ok. We hit the next restaurant on our TripAdvisor.com list and hit a gold mine. It is a little further away than the first one but we walked in and it was all dressed up and looking swanky. We thought we might have walked in on a wedding reception but it was just their normal dressed up fair. We found the music too loud so they moved us to a new table and the volume turned down a bit. It was fantastic. The food was amazing. New pictures for our chef friends Dan and Sean. We have been doing very well splitting all of our dishes and only ordering one appetizer, one main course, and one dessert. The chef that flamed our pork looked a little nervous that he only had one dish to prepare but the waitress nodded, it was right.
We had the onion soup, the pureed vegetables (bananas, potatoes, yucca, sweet potatoes, and squash), the pork strips flamed with white rum and perfumed with pineapple liqueur and the 1910 Delights ( a cake made of the top three desserts on the menu, Black Delights, a chocolate cream filling, Cheesecake, the bottom layer, and a three milks cake, a very tasty white cake), two expresso coffees, a small bottle of water, and an Mohijo for the princely sum of $14.10 CUC plus tip.
We walked back to the casa on the second floor and were serenaded by the first floor. We aren’t sure why or what they were singing but it was nice. We crashed early as we were both rather exhausted from our standing in line in the hot cuban sun.
February 18 A long set of stairs, people watching, and two good restaurants.
La Loma de la Cruz is a long staircase 465 steps divided into nice bite sized (twenty five step) pieces between every landing. We walked to the bottom of the staircase and then started our way up. It took us a while but we made it up with out any issues other than there was next to no breeze and the day was hot already at 9am. We got to the top and there is a little three story structure there that has an artist in the bottom floor an empty room as the second floor and the rooftop terrace that allowed a rather spectacular view, and a really great way to waste a scad of disk space. The stitched panorama is 202 Mega pixels. Walking down was a lot easier on the lungs but harder on the knees. Our nice breezed that had picked up at the top of the hill was gone when we got to the bottom of the hill and it was just plain hot again.
Cuba is blessed with some very beautiful and interesting public street art. Everything from the prerevolution statues to the post revolution modern sculptures and installations to the very unofficial street graffiti. Bonnie and I consider the old churches we see as art galleries that concentrate on religious art. The walk to and from La Loma gave us a wide sampling of all.
We walked back down toward the parks and when we got to Parque Cepsedes the church was open and we were able to look around. It is a very interesting church and the stone work is incredible. The church also has bats in the belfry fairly large fruit bats by the look of them.
We left the church and headed down to the Art house where there is a nice cafe and a guard to keep the pesky beggers away. We had one guy that just wouldn’t let go and another that was just being annoying. There were two or three Transtur buses from the resorts on the north shore beach area. They have a limited time in Holguin during their excursion so the beggers have to be out in force at the right time. If you avoid it you hardly get anyone bothering you. Hit when the buses are in town and it can be rather intense. We were pestered until we disappeared into La Torre for lunch the place where we had the good meal the night before. The waitress smiled to see us and we had a very pleasant lunch.
When we got back we walked around pretty much ignored by the locals. We spent most of the afternoon touring the Provincial Museum (the building is very nice all by itself) It has lots of info on the indigenous people, the Revolution, music from the area and some very nice art. We went to another gallery but it was being fumigated and closed until later. We passed completely. We went down another park and sat in the shade and watched the locals come and go at the bus stop. It was a little early for dinner but we went back to the 1910 Restaurant and had an absolutely fantastic meal again. The Octopus wasn’t quite as what we had in Santigo de Cuba but it was still very good.
We hadn’t heard anything from Nicole so after we got back to the casa we sent her a text asking how things were going. A moment later we got the rundown. The meds are taking a little longer to get straightened out so he is staying put a little longer. Craig my nephew, Nicole’s cousin, took the great grandkids in so that that would have added a little excitement. John is doing ok and Mark is coming up this weekend to help out with mother. We should be home Wednesday morning at about 1am so we will be able to chip in then.
February 19 The Plaza de Revolution, the stadium, art gallery and another good restaurant.
We got up and had breakfast. We are rapidly running out of stuff to see in Holguin, even with a day chewed out for bureaucracy. We walked over to the Plaza de Revolution where they have huge rallies every May 1st. We got lost on our way and a nice cuban guy named Ramon walked us over. He was trying to brush up on his English. He says he’ll need it when the Americans come. Everyone here is excited by the idea of the US dropping the embargo and letting their people visit.
There was a 1CUC charge to visit the Plaza and 5CUC charge for the camera. Unfortunately the museum was closed and there wasn’t anything to see but there was still a 5CUC charge for the camera. We walked around and there was very little to see. A couple of monuments but really other than a nice walk and a few nice sculptures along the way the Plaza de Revolution could be a pass and you really wouldn’t miss anything. We enjoyed the walk the most.
We walked back to the casa and had a bano break and plugged in the batteries for one of the cameras and headed off to the Viazul station to see if we could get tickets out of town. Just in case it turned out to be another multihour lineup we headed to the Delicias Cubanas one of the other restaurants on our Trip Advisor list. It was very good as well although the prices are a bit higher than the other ones. The food was comparable to El Torre just add a CUC to the price (if not a bit more). Still very good food.
We made our way to the Viazul and didn’t even have to wait in a line for them to tell us that they wouldn’t take a reservation. Viazul has really become my top reason not to come to cuba. I welcomed the idea of having a real reservation system but all it has done has turned the system into “Bugger off until the bus shows up and we see how many seats are available.” We are not happy with reservation agents and people in the terminals. The banos are the grossest in the country and you have to pay for them. There are now a lot of Cuban’s using the Viazul buses to travel and they think the banos are gross beyond words. There are more and more free banos and even the free ones are much cleaner than the bus station ones. The banos on the buses are usually locked as the drivers have no interest in having to clean them.
From there we walked downtown. Another cold front is hitting us. The temperature is cool enough that we came back to the casa in the afternoon to put on long pants.
On our way back to the casa we saw the entrance to the cemetery and did a quick walk around it had a few really beautiful monuments as well as a huge masonic crypt. There is almost no room to walk around the graves, they are packed very tight.
Bonnie had her siesta and I did a little work on the log and charged up the electronics. By the time the siesta was over it was time for an early dinner so we were off to the 1910 again. It has turned into our favorite by far. We have been sharing one salad, one main meal and one desert, tonight they split our main meal into halves without us asking. In the middle of the meal the lights out. We made a joke about having a candlelight dinner and a few minutes later a waitress shows up with her cell phone flash light turned on for us. They opened the windows and we were fine we didn’t need to waste her cell phone battery. They started up the generator and most of the restaurant had lights (except for the little section where we were) but before our desert came the power was back.
We paid the waiter and he apologized for the power but we just shrugged “It’s happened before.”
“In Cuba?” he asked
“Yes in Cuba, and Canada, and the US, and the Bahamas, and, and. It happens everywhere.” We got a good meal and the staff tried to cover as best as they could in a situation they had little control of.
I sent a note off to Nicole but no response back yet. So We’re guessing not much is going on. Hopefully we will be off to Varadero tomorrow night so we will be back where an emergency exit is at least possible. We could fly out of Holguin but it would probably cost us a pretty penny.
February 20 A good bye to Holguin, We hoped, and a long wait to see if we could get on the bus.
Got a text from Nicole they are going to keep John a little longer to get his meds adjusted. Good news everything is going well.
We’ve got a day to put in as the bus leaves at 2345 tonight. We have just about covered all there is to see in Holguin. We walked around and did some people watching. The main park has been undergoing renovations they cut down four trees and disposed of the fill and one level of benches and cleaned it up today. They had a big Volvo front end loader and a couple dump trucks around. At home, the kids that were around would have been fascinated and watching the loader. The kids here ignored it completely.
We walked around the outside rings of the park and saw a couple monuments we hadn’t noticed before. One was to the mothers of Holguin. I’m not sure the artist liked mothers, she looks like she is about to devour the child. The other was a monument to the service of masons to Cuba.
We walked around to the square to people watch. There was a judo match on at the arena and there were lots of people cheering. We saw of people come out after the match that were dressed in the Cuban sports uniforms like you see at the Olympics or PanAm games. Cuba has done well in Judo at both. We people watched a little more and then went to lunch at 1910 and dinner at El Torre.
Our casa was very good and let us check out but leave our luggage at the casa until after dinner. We picked up our luggage and left a small tip to say thanks and were off to the bus station. It was after dark so we were by the taxi drivers before they saw us to ask if we wanted a taxi. We made it to the station and they wouldn’t sell us a ticket. We had to wait until the bus left Santiago de Cuba at 845pm before they would know how many seats they had. We waited. And waited, and waited. At 845 Bonnie went up to the booth and asked saying “No Casa tonight” the guy called the bus and they had at least two seats so he sold us tickets and gave us the boarding passes. We felt much better and closer to making the trip.
At midnight we were able to get on and get the last two seats together on the bus. We were almost at the back of the bus, but at least we were on. We had a lot of locals boarding on the bus with us and I was surprised that we got a seat together. The locals were not impressed with the bano at the bus station either.
We had a fitful night of sleep, bano runs, bouncing in uncomfortable bus seats. Mine seemed to also have a bad squeak that was worse with every hard bounce in the road.
February 21 Varadero again, Elisa and Pepe’s
We heard that John is home and looking forward to going to Alma for his game of 45s. We should be home in time for that.
We have been to Elisa and Pepe’s enough that it almost feels like home. It is the beginning and end of every trip. It is a great way to start and end every trip. We’re never sure how the middle is going to be but we know the beginning and end is always good. Pepe was even available to cook.
We were exhausted from the trip but needed to move just to get the kinks out of our backs so we walked up the street looking for a piece of ceramic art we saw in one of the casas. No success but we were good for a walk. By the time we got home is was almost time for supper so we cleaned up a bit and then crossed over to Elisa and Pepe’s side of the casa. We had the fish and pork and we were ready for bed.
Elisa, and Pepe told us about the river valley between Varadero and the south coast had a very cold night 1 degree above Celcius. If it was one degree in Cuba Florida must have been frozen solid. That had to be a nasty cold front.
We slept solid for over 12 hours.
February 22 Cigars, and lunch at Al Capone’s
We had breakfast at Elisa and Pepe’s barely making it awake for our 8 am breakfast. We were slow to get going after than but were out to get “our” cigars for the trip home. Bonnie has got a bad habit, she got her full quota of 50 cigars, I’m only bringing home 26. Mind you I think one of mine may have more tobacco than five or ten of hers.
We’ve got a invitation to go to lunch with Elisa and Pepe and family to Al Capone’s (Casa de Al). It is a house (as well as a warehouse for booze) that Al Capone visited during prohibition. Pepe worked out a deal with the restaurant and it brought out a large serving dish of peas and rice, malanga, and a full pork roast that fed 12-15 of us and he had a full serving dish of left overs to bring home.
We walked from Calle 24 at Elisa and Pepe’s to the Cigar shop at Calle 64 back to Al’s that is before the Calles start (more than 64 blocks) and then along the beach to Elisa and Pepe’s at Calle 24 that’s over 100 blocks so I think we got our walking in the hot sun quota for the day. We were back before Elisa and Pepe.
When we told them we walked from the Cigar shop on 64 Pepe asked if I was trying to kill Bonnie. Elisa wasn’t too keen on us walking home either but we did a slow walk along the beach, we were surprised to see a couple of bare-breasted women, that’s pretty rare on this part of the beach at least.
We were so full from the lunch at Al’s that we didn’t bother going out to dinner.
February 23 Beach day.
There is hardly a breeze at all. At 8am it is starting to get hot. Varadero will be quiet, all of the resort beaches will be packed tightly. Yesterday was cool but there were a lot of people on the beach, good sunburning weather. We are off to the bus station to get tickets (hopefully).
I’m sure Elisa and Pepe think we do nothing but sleep, We arrive from Canada starting our day at 2am their time, by the time suppertime rolls around we are ready for bed so if Pepe is cooking as soon as the door closes between our side and his we are heading to bed. It takes us a day to get used to the sun so we’re recovering from the trip and the sun the second day, so we are early to bed again. The next day we usually head out on the first bus out of town which can be early. They only see us recovering from the trip before heading out. When we get back, we have been in country for almost a month, and we’re about ready to head home, we’re tired, we’ve worked reasonably hard, for us, seeing the sites, walking the trails and the city streets, been bounced and shaken in buses, cabs, bicycle taxis, and coches. After a month we are ready to go home, eat our own food, sleep in our own bed, get up and down without a schedule and get our life back to normal. Elisa and Pepe’s is where we start our wind down. Elisa and Pepe’s is like our cuban home.
We had a long trip to get here and we slept over 12 hours the first night and then turned around and did it again last night. We were up and out on the patio watching the world go by when Pepe emerged onto his patio this morning. He looked a little worse for wear but breakfast would only be a minute, No rush from us, we were having a lazy day. It was a disappointment to see the school with no kids in it. But they are fixing up the grounds and there were people working on what looked like kitchen equipment from a block away. They had it out in the yard, cleaning and scraping it. Next time we come there it looks like it will be busy with kids again. That will be nice to see.
Surprisingly No bus tickets! (Come 40 minutes before!) Grrr. Viazul has a nasty letter coming. We did our tour of the really nice art galleries and there are a few paintings I would love, but at several hundred dollars a pop I’m not really interested. The other problem for us is wall space. A big piece of art is hard to find a place for in our house. We have the walls full, not crowded but full.
We saw a nice piece of ceramic kitsch in one of the casas and Bonnie said “That looks like our Cuba.” The piece was a facade of a couple houses, there was laundry hanging on the second floor, the third was looking a little less than rustic, the first was showy and dressed up nice, I think it even had a little casa sign on it. It was our style of Cuba, and we were on the prowl for it. It was probably one of the standard kitsch items from a few years ago if we found a backwater craft stall somewhere we might find one. We prowled and prowled but no luck. We did find a piece of Royal Palm carved by a local craftsman who uses Matanzasas as his model. At least that was the spiel and it was unique in all the stalls we have seen so far and we have seen a crap load of them during the search. We picked it up and would be pretty sure it would fit in our carry on. (It did diagonally!)
We have a little more space in our luggage this year, we didn’t pack nearly as hard as we did the last couple years. We figured laundry was easier than carting large bags around. Bonnie did most of her socks and underware in the room. Her T-shirts and shorts went with my laundry and were given to the casa owners for washing. The total cost for our laundry was $6CUC in Baracoa and $3CUC in Holguin. We aren’t bringing anything home that is clean other than a pair of underwear or two.
February 24 The long wait home.
There used to be a bus that left Varadero and got into the airport at about noon. It was just before the main onslaught of people for the flight home. By the time we were through the lineup and into immigration the lineups were wall to wall. They killed that bus. The new bus leaves at 8am and gets to the airport at 8:30. All we get to do today is wait so we are off to the bus station before 7 when we get there the station is packed, there is a bus to Trinidad and a bus to Vinalies (that does the stop to the airport) I leave Bonnie to fight the line and take the luggage outside into the fresh air. The lobby is hot and smells of tourists. We get to the airport and it is fairly empty. So we do our money exchange buying was 1.30 and selling was 1.20. By the time we were out of the exchange the buses had started to arrive for all of the Sunwing charters. They are a big Cuba vacation seller in Canada. They have a flight from Saint John to Holguin later in the season. If you were planning on doing the east end of Cuba flying into Holguin is a much better idea than dealing with the Viazul crap and the long hauls to and from Varadero.
We have to wait most of the morning until the morning flights are all boarding before the first flight of the afternoon is set up for doing check ins. That would be us. We are able to point a large number of lost tourists the right direction to get to the money exchange. The check in gates open and we get our tickets taking heart in the fact that all of the flights for Toronto, Montreal, etc are all running on time.
We slip through the departure tax line 50 CUC lighter but that is one line that does run quickly. The next line is the immigration line (they take your visa and your picture). The next line is security. They are a little messed up the machine we went through isn’t beeping so we are stopped and they check the machine, it’s turned off. The process of getting the machine working takes a minute. It is sensitive enough to catch the zippers on my zip on legs of my traveling pants. Never had that happen before.
We made it through with our luggage intact and found a bunch of chairs next to a power outlet that actually works. I go in search of a coffee and ask how much before and balk, $3CUC is a bit too much for the same cup of coffee con leche we buy in down town Varadero for 0.55CUC. The duty free has a roll of cookies and a couple of snicker’s bar as a substitute for the coffee for the same money.
I’m working on the log and Bonnie has go at finding the ceramic piece again and a search for water. Water prices vary from $1.70 for a 1500ml bottle at the duty free and $2 for a 500ml bottle at the coffee shop. We buy a bottle from an ice cream shop on the main strip in Varadero for 0.80 CUC for the 1500ml size.
We watch for the plane from Moscow, Berlin, and Frankfurt and Toronto arrive. We have a plane and arrive in clear and cold skies in Toronto. Another four hour wait and we get on a flight to Fredericton, we arrive in Fredericton in a snowstorm. But not as bad as last year and Paul is there to pick us up. It is 0130 in the morning and we are tired, it has been nothing but a hurry up and wait day. We have had quite a few of those this trip.
When we left there was almost no snow, but snowmaggedon was about to arrive within an hour of us leaving Fredericton. Paul did a marvelous job of keeping our driveway clean. There was so much snow that our heat pump was almost buried, snow was about half way up the sides of the pump. We left our luggage in the garage to freeze. We like to freeze the luggage from our winter vacations for a few days before we take it inside the house to wash. We hope that will give it a chance to kill and critters that might have tagged along on the way home. This trip the lugguage will endure several nights of -20C before we get home to wash it. We always leave enough clothes at home to give us a couple clean changes of undies and we don’t need our summer clothes for a while anyway.
We got up, blew out the driveway and packed a smaller bag for the trip to mother and John’s to see how John was making out. He was acting and looking a lot better than he did before the heart attack so we took heart in that.
Here is the link to our 2015 Cuba trip picture gallery. There are 338 pictures in the 2015 Cuba trip Gallery lots more than are in the daily trip logs.
Hope you enjoyed the trip as much as we did.