2016 Cuba Revisiting the western end.

Feb 2 and 3, 2016 Off to Cuba again.
Our Gallery for the trip is

Hi we did our winter escape to Cuba again. We have been using Air Canada for our trip to Cuba we would leave at an ungodly hour 0420 to the airport get in to toronto in time to do a mad dash from Terminal 1 to Terminal 3 to get the Westjet flight to Cuba. This year Westjet started to fly out of Fredericton which we wanted to encourage so we booked our tickets on Westjet all the way. Unfortunately it left in the early evening and meant a overnight in Toronto both ways. We grabbed an AirBnB place in Toronto not far from the airport. Our AirBnB place worked out great so life was good.

Bruce our AirBnB guy said that the really like 3 hours to get through the lineups in Toronto’s Pearson Airport so we were leaving the apartment in Toronto at 4AM for our 7am flight. Ok I figured at 4am, with a boarding pass in our hand, we could probably do it in less than three hours. At 0427 we were sitting at the gate waiting for the plane and the reason it took us that long was waiting for the Tim Horton’s coffee and bagels that took a while to toast. What really sucked as we were sitting there drinking crappy Tims coffee was I was looking at Caplanski’s Deli (near gate 39). Caplanski’s has great breakfasts and coffee which we have had at other times. Next time we skipped Tims and went to Caplanski’s direct.

We got into Varadero and traded our money at the inside counter carefully checking the money going in and out of the place and this year we got what we were supposed to get. Other years we somehow lost $40CUC in the process of changing money.

We got into Varadero on the Transtur bus which cost us $10CUC each and they dropped us directly at the door of Elisa and Pepe’s casa. Joan was there to meet us and it was great to see Pepe and Elisa’s son again. He is fluent in English and we enjoy talking to him every year. He gets to practice his English and we find out how things are going in Cuba. We had Chicken and Pork at Pepe’s and the food is as good as ever. We were sorry to hear that Elisa was feeling under the weather and that was the reason that Joan was helping out. She showed up for a few minutes just to say hello before going back to bed.

Feb 04, 2016 A day to adjust
Today was a walking around Varadero day. We were only planning on a two day stay in Varadero before going into Cuba for the bulk of the month. We would be back in Varadero for a few days on our way out. Next year when we are planning on the trip we are going to plan on more days at the beginning and at the end. Varadero is old hat to us and we have seen just about all we want to see in Varadero but it’s a great place to decompress. We need that coming into Cuba and after a month in Cuba.

Awoke early and they slept late 10 am breakfast. Gave Bonnie a balloon and bracelettes Pepe invited us to El Rancho, where he is chef, for lunch. We were there about 2ish Having a problem with clock on our two phones. Our old unlocked “dumb” phone and our new smart phone are showing two different times and the “dumb” phone with the Cubacel SIMM card is acting the oddest. We found the Cubacel office and We got the sim card activated. After a turn off and on again so that the SIMM card could talk properly the clock reset properly, so that’s good. The band played happy birthday to Bonnie at the El Rancho that was nice.

Joan gave bonnie a cake. Aylin, Joan’s wife came over and said hello as well. We talked a long time about cuba’s future. Changes are happening very fast and Joan is very nervous. Things are very busy in Cuba. The Europeans are coming in very large numbers they want to see Cuba before it changes. We have not noticed a lot of changes in Varadero but after being around other places in Cuba for a month (I am rewriting the blog as this is posted) They were too late. Cuba has changed a lot in the four years we have been coming. The last year has seen huge changes.

Feb 05, 2016 Off to Vinales

Before we left NB we had purchased all of the Viazul bus tickets online. After all of the trials we had last year in the east of Cuba, there was a GREAT incentive not to have to buy tickets and then come back to check in another day. The Viazul bus system is a painful process, it’s almost as bad as Viazul bathrooms! We purchased all of our tickets (except for the March 01 ticket to the airport as the change of schedule didn’t allow for purchasing tickets after March 01).

We left to Vinales early. The bus stopped at airport, the rest stop to Havana, Havana, Las Terrazzas(at the end of the road), Tobacco Route Rest Stop, Pinar del Rio, and Vinales. We tryed to book ourselves back into Marlyn and Adel’s but they were busy for part of our visit so they arranged our stay with their next door neighbor, Panchito. Panchito was there at the bus to meet us. I just about wiped out a person coming off the bus she was so aggressive. She appeared in the space that I was planning on stepping into as I came off the bus. Seeing as I was beyond my tipping point I was taking the space, I’m over 200 pounds with a couple of bags of luggage (add another 50) and this little young lady didn’t have much of a chance. She got out of the way quite quickly. I think she managed to even stay on her feet.

We came to his casa via the back door, we looked around and there was a set of stairs up to the roof. Marlyn was in her front yard when we were up on the roof having a look at the view. We had a nice chat, she isn’t sure there are going to be Americans coming. LOTS of Europeans around coming before the Americans show up.

We had chicken at Panchito+Norma’s good food, tasty, and lots of it, including an avocado off of the tree in the yard.

Feb 6, 2016 Walking around Vinales

Breakfast was good. Boiled eggs, bread cheese, pancakes, fruit, coffee, juice, and pasteries, served in the little kitchen in front of our room.
We visited Vinales on our first trip to Cuba in 2013. There have been a lot of changes. At that time we stayed at Casa Maryiln and she was on the last street before the farming fields started. There is a least one completely new street now complete with new casas, a nice restaurant, and homes.
Vinales is looking much more prosperous. All of the pizza and sandwich joints cooking on split oil drums are gone, new nice restaurants in their place. (Although I wouldn’t be surprised that the split oil drums are now in the back yard.) There is at least a nicer image on place. Lots of fresh paint and things seem to be much busier with tourists. There is now a hop-on hop-off bus. There is only one bus and it takes an hour and a half to do a loop and it is very full. The increase of European visitors is overwhelming the bus system and talking to a number of people they are very nervous about what happens if the Americans come in full force.

When we were in Varadero Joan told us of a couple that couldn’t find an available casa when they were visiting in Vinales and they ended up sleeping in the park overnight. They were taken in by the local police force who gave them a jail cell to sleep in, with the door open, but at least it was a softer bed. It is hard to believe every casa was full. Every house seems to have at least one room available for rent in it.

The local square is one of the new WiFi hot spots. Everybody, Cubans and Tourists alike have their smart phones out checking email, surfing the web etc. You have to buy a card to give you a login and a password onto the network and they are very expensive to Cubans. The idea of a free WiFi isn’t something available in Cuba.

One of our favorite things to do last time was a walk up to La Ermita and have a coffee and enjoy the view over the valley. The walk is up hill the whole way and the first time we did it, it seemed to take forever. Doing it this time was a nice stroll up the hill.

Walked up to La Ermita Vinales looks bigger than it did. Had lunch at El Olivo. Seafood soup and gazpacho both were very good. Lots of people around so we took our time and watched the people. People are always interesting.

The first day we were in Vinales last time it rained hard and we ended up loosing a day because of an all day downpour. This time it isn’t an all day downpour but it is definitely rainy. We were home shortly after lunch to avoid the rain. I caught up on pictures and listened to a Spanish lesson and did a few games of Suduko. I got cold during the rain as I did all of the panoramas and number the pictures. Lots of pictures of lodge buildings so far. Lodge is tomorrow at 9am I won’t make it.

French couple in the room at the front of the house. There are French, Italian, Russian, Brits, and lots of others around this year.

Feb 07, 2016 The Vinales Hop-on Hop-off bus

It rained during the night and it was a muddy day. We took the hop-on hop off bus and did a full tour, several people did the same. Lots of people to the cave with the river. We did the full loop and got off at La Jasmine and took pictures then walked down to the national park headquarters/reception building there are a number of tours offered that are not offered at other places. We didn’t bite on any but did take a bunch of pictures. We walked by road but you can walk the path beside the Jasmine and get to the national park well worth the trip. Beautiful views.

We walked down to Vinales about four kilometers (almost all down hill) and had two cups of coffee and a small pizza for lunch at pizzeria El Eden. Coffee was a $1CUC each and the small pizza we shared was $1.5CUC.

We watched the army vehicle arrive at the local mechanic across the street from the pizza joint and the driver couldn’t get out, the door handle had fallen off, and he had to solicit the local mechanic to come and repair the door so he could get out. After the guy got out we left and came back to the room and I did some work and Bonnie had a nap.

It was a good chance to get warmed up. It was cold-ish for Vinales. We stopped at the tobacco farm and scoped out the production. One of the things I wanted to do while I was in Coheba tobacco growing country was buy some locally made cigars. The tobacco farmers are able to keep a certain percentage of their crop for their own use or sale. They can make their own cigars here so they could make some very good cigars!

The Transtur buses are coming as a steady stream so it is hard to sneak into the tobacco house and make some a deal with one of the local farmers. One of the people that was there was obviously the high pressure sales person. There were a few people hanging around the tobacco house and the local farmer was there talking (and flirting a little) with the pretty young ladies and showing them how the rolling process worked and the sales person was a little miffed. Her attitude seemed to be “SELL SELL SELL!” We decided to come back another time.

Feb 8, 2016 Rain, cold, and the Botanical Gardens!

Both of us are feeling the effects of a cold. We have been giving our long pants a stress test, laying low, and getting a lot of rest. Between the showers we walked around and slipped into the church. It was open in the morning and it was still in very good condition and being well cared for.
There is a lot of building going on. New buildings, additions for casa and private living space. Things seem to be booming. The Ox Carts are constantly busy delivering loads of sand for cement.

We walked around town and saw a lot of nice art galleries and then went to the Botanical Garden. The Botanical Garden has been in the same spot for around a hundred years so it’s has lots of mature trees in it. It also has lots of new stuff.

It has seen a lot of change and a lot of sprucing up over the three years since we had visited. The plants growing out of the dolls heads and the skulls of goats were gone and the building’s are finished and improved.

Walking around Vinales we have seen a lot of sprucing up. There is a whole new street behind Marlyns that wasn’t there on our first visit

Feb 9 2016, Cave Santo Thomas

We did the taxi run out to the Cave Santo Thomas. It is a 42km cave system. The $10 CUC admission gets you into one that is about 2 Kms long. There are big rooms, lots of popcorn, draperies, columns, stalactites, stalagmites, and even a few eggs. A nice calcite deposit but other than that not a lot of colors very white greyish.

Next to the cave is a War Memorial that is well worth a visit. It pays honor to the people who fought in the revolution. I was surprised to see that there were lots of them that were still living until recently. There were a several plaques to people who died in 2015. They do honor the people that fought for their country. It is a reminder of how history is a strange thing in Cuba. It’s very much a living thing. They can have their 500th anniversary of one thing and have people still alive that witnessed the revolution that “Freed” their country. “Free” is also another word with a very strange and variable meaning here.

It cost $10 cuc more by getting a taxi from the room than by getting from the taxi stand but we didn’t argue. We should have.

They like passports at the cave office and we didn’t have anything with us. So we will start carrying the photocopies. There wasn’t a problem getting in at the cave. We just got a standard coupon (we might have provided an excuse for a “local” admission of 10 CUP. The Taxi was the same age as Bonnie a 1952 it was bought by his grandfather and passed to his son and his grandson now runs it as a taxi

We came back and had a lunch at 3Js The spicy french fries were wonderful. The garlic bread with a red sauce was ok but I wouldn’t bother with it again. We walked around until it started to sprinkle and it was cold enough that the dogs had turned blue. We have pictures!

Feb 10, 2016 Hunting for Cigars!

We walked out to the tobacco farm and the lady that was so pushy last time was not hanging around the tobacco house and we managed to arrive between the seemingly endless supply of Transtur buses. We talked to the local farmer who was there as a guide. He asked I was interested in buying and I was. I didn’t smoke but I was interested in buying some for my friends and he brought out a stack of Coheba Black cigars. They even had bands which is rare. The cigars we buy in the fields usually don’t have bands. Each of the farmers is allowed to keep a percentage of their product for their use including sale to tourists. The leaves for a Coheba are taken from the top of the plant and fermented for three years before they are rolled. The Coheba Blacks are fermented 5 years not the 3 of normal Cohebas. So we bought a bundle of ten and paid the farmer for them. I was hoping I wasn’t buying a bundle of corn stocks but they smelled authentic and when I handed them out to a bunch of friends at lodge the other night they were very excited. We have a friend who did a little research for me and a normal Coheba of that size sells for about $75 Canadian, a black which you can get at some of the more exclusive Cigar bars he guessed would cost about $150 each. When I priced them in Havana they were about $20 CUC each. We paid a lot less than that.

On the way back from buying tobacco we stopped to take a picture. A swallowtail butterfly landed in the middle of the frame only to be chased away by a hummingbird, All I had to do was keep taking pictures and we got a few really nice pictures of wildlife.

Had lunch at the 3J the mini Empanada were good pastery wise the filling was ok but I wouldn’t bite again. The Delicious seafood soup lived up to it’s billing.

We walked around and there are no large bottles of water that we can find for sale. I had to ask Panchito if we could have a bottle.
We explored around and there are a ton of casas that were not around before. There is a whole new street below Marlyns with casas and restaurants.

We paid up and got a large empty bottle from Pinchito and cut the top off of the bottle. The ten cigars fit well into the water bottle.

Feb 11, 2016 Off to Las Terazzas

We weren’t leaving until early afternoon so that is a long wait. We cleaned up our room and left our luggage with Pinchito and went walking we walked up the street the opposite direction from Ermita and found the ball team warming up for a game. We walked down the long row of casas to the farm at the end of the road where the hiking tours start.

There look like there was a number of beautiful casas but a couple of them made me wonder how quiet it would be on the street, Casa Mojito was across the street from Casa Cuba Libre. The two most common drinks in Cuba. The garbage truck was going by and given the couple of dozen empty rum bottles from Casa Cuba Libre they serve a lot stiffer drink than Casa Mojito. There were lots of people heading off on the tour. We arrived at the ball park just in time to see the challengers arriving. On our way back we saw a little park someone made to look like a mini Jurassic park. We didn’t feel like going in but it looked cute.

From there we walked back down and stopped into see Marlyn She is not doing well health wise. Her wrists need surgery to remove cysts on her wrists which is giving her a lot of pain. Her kids are too small to work in the casa. Her daughter is now nine and her son is 15, but he is off at Pinar del Rio to school he stays for 7 and home for 3 days;

She gave us coffee and we talked about business. She has had a couple of bad experiences with American visitors and is leery of taking any more reservations. There are lots of Europeans and Canadians coming. So until she has to, she is sticking with them. She doesn’t think the US Congress will allow their people to come to Cuba.

We walked back and picked up our luggage and had a chocolate coffee and a cappuccino at 3J both were awesome! We had fried potatoes with salsa piquanti and they were very good and it served us well for lunch

We walked up to the Viazul bus stop and the normal half hour before the bus check in had us waiting in the square for a while. We got on the bus and got a good movie on the way out of Vinales. We took a few movies from the bus but have had mixed results

We arrived at the Tres Hermanas at Las Terazzas and it looks good so far. A minor glitch is that you can’t lock the door to our casa room so such is life. We’ll take our important stuff tomorrow and leave it for trust. (There is a lock on the door but it is a bifold door and even if it is locked the bifold will open. Such is life)

She doesn’t speak a lot of english and our spanish is very rusty so google translate is getting a little bit of a work out. So far it is working out ok.
Our new casa is taking the 100 mile diet to the extreme. The Chickens, eggs, pork, squash, cheese, coffee and milk for the coffee are all grown at the casa.

We have everything arranged for tomorrow (We think life is uncertain.) The chicken for supper was very good.

Feb 12, 2016 Hotel Moka, Bird watching, The Banos of San Juan

We took a taxi to Hotel Moka and got dropped off with the idea that we would get picked up at 4pm at the Hotel Moka. We were planning on walking down to the Bano de San Juan. They were mentioned by Marlyn as a very beautiful spot. We wanted to walk down and be early enough to get back before the worst of the day’s heat. We needn’t have worried. it wasn’t a hot day. We have had cool weather since we arrived. I’m kind of missing my fleece that I lost on the bus.

The walk is 3km one direction from the Hotel to the Banos. the road is down hill most of the way to the Bano. I wasn’t thinking that the return trip was going to be a lot of fun. But it wasn’t as bad as I thought. On the way down we had a great chance to see lots of birds. Bonnie was almost nose to nose with the national bird of Cuba the Torococo. I got a lot of good pictures. It has all the colors of the Cuban flag white and red on the chest and blue on the back. We were surprised to see it from our tours in Eastern Cuba they didn’t seem to think they were that many in the western end of Cuba

We walked all around the Banos de San Juan, the swimming holes of the San Juan river. I put my hand in and was sorry we didn’t bring our bathing suits the water was quite warm. There was very few people around and no swimmers. We got lots of pictures and a lot of panoramas. We walked back to the Hotel Moka and had a good couple of drinks the tropical was a blend of fruit juices and it was pretty good, the pina colota was ok but nothing to write home about.

The Hotel Moka is actually built around a bunch of trees. The Trees flow through the rooms and up out of the roof and through the corridors. It is an interesting building and we enjoyed watching the vultures from above as they flew on the thermals below us. We went down to the restaurant part and I had a cream of mushroom soup and bonnie had a Chocolate with milk. It didn’t rate with the chocolate with coffee of the 3Js. I had a Cafe Moka and that was the best cuban coffee we have ever had it even blew the stuff at Key Biscayne away. That was awesome coffee.

We decided that we could walk down to the bridge that leads onto the main part of the Las Terrazas and wait for the brilliant red car there at almost 4 and the car arrived we decided that we had better walk back up to the Hotel Moka. We took about 15 minutes to walk back and were only a few minutes late on our walk but there was no red car for us. We waited around front and eventually picked up a wifi from the hotel and we picked up my email. While I was looking at my email a guy came up to us but we didn’t understand Spanish at the rate he was talking so he went into the hotel and fetched a girl that was fluent in english. The red car had broken down and he was there to fetch us. Good thing we walked back.

We got the ride back to the casa with time to have a shower before supper. The shower was like many of the showers that provide hot water in Cuba. It is a on-demand hot water heater. Activated by turning on the water if you turn the water on low the element can heat the water to quite warm (ALMOST hot) if you turn the water on full blast the element can’t heat the water to anything above luke warm. There is a fine line between having the water running fast enough to turn on the element and getting hot water and not getting anything above warm. If it is connected to a 220 circuit then you have a bigger range. Considering ours was wired from the circuit running the lights we didn’t really expect to get 220v. Some how thinking about getting 220v into the shower with you isn’t one of the things you normally have to worry about. Such is life in cuba.

We had another meal of food from the casa. The pork was awesome, better than the chicken. Coffee, yaca, squash, pea soup, mango and cheese for dessert. The egg bread was very good as was the garlic sauce for the pork. The rice was probably from the fields on the way between Pinar-del-rio and Las Terrazas so it was probably from 10km away other than that everything else including the milk for the coffee, and the coffee was from the casa. There are quite a few coffee trees at the front of the house.

Feb 13, 2016 A waiting day.

Today was a waiting day for us. The casa had other visitors arrive on the first Viazul bus of the day and we were on the second bus of the day so we had to clear out so they could turn the room over. It is a $3CUC taxi ride one way to the casa.

We took our stuff and spent the day in the las Terrazas Viazul area where most of the bus tours start. We sat in the little area with a couple table set up AWAY from the band. We ended up in the area where the bus tours do the orientation. So it was an interesting place to sit and play on the computer and listen to bus tour guide after bus tour guide give their slant on the area and the neat stuff to see. Coffee plantations, a chance to see the Banos de San Juan lunch and then a bird watching tour or …

They had a couple of nice posters one of which is rather sappy but after looking at it for a day, grew on me. I think it will become my new email signature.

The area was deforested by (depending on the guide) Spanish selling lumber to Americans, Americans shipping lumber home, the French escaping the slave revolt in Haiti and growing coffee (some guides say the coffee needs shade so don’t blame the French), or locals for charcoal production.Everybody thought the trees would regrow but by the late 1800s the land was stripped. The trees didn’t, once the land was stripped the soil eroded away and nothing regrew. Back 49 years ago the Cuban government needed to bolster tourism and started terracing the land and planting trees, 26 million of 24 species (the number of trees vary, the number of species doesn’t, surprisingly enough. ) They terraced the whole area even if you can’t see them because of the trees it worked very well. It has been a UNESCO biosphere reserve

We had a quiet day and trying to catch up on the log and my pictures. I’m not taking a lot of pictures this trip except in Panarama form.

We got to Havana and our casa was a lot more “authentic” than most of our casas. This one is pretty rough. I surprised me that the owner and his wife were both uni-lingual Spanish. His daughter studying to be an architect like her dad, has pretty good in english. We were able to get everything figured out that we needed. So life was good except for the no toilet paper in the market where they shop, no problem we can use napkins. The owner wanted us to pay up full on arrival. This was the first casa that ever asked that. We usually offer to pay up full, but our cash supply was limited and paying her up front would have meant a leaner wallet than we like before we can resupply so we gave her $100 and said tomorrow. She wasn’t real pleased but didn’t have a choice.

The casa is right next to a construction site but it was quiet so I didn’t worry too much about it. He mentioned that tomorrow Sunday so not noisy but Monday it can be loud so we put us in the back room. The back room was equipped with an air-conditioner turned to ICE so we turned it down. The owner suggested several restaurants so we picked one we knew was close by and looked good, we saw it on the taxi ride in on the way by from the bus station. The food was good but the waiters were snooty.

Feb 14, 2016 Seriously, endurable?

“Did you see the size of the cockroaches in the shower!” was Bonnie’s first words to me in the morning. I hadn’t bothered looking in the shower so I went and had a look. They were rather large! They were on their backs and mostly dead. They were still wiggling a little. We left them alone for the casa to deal with and headed out for the day.

We hit TripAdvisor for restaurants near our casa before we left. There were several, one of which was #1 of 389 so we were on the hunt. We found it but the Havana 61 wasn’t open until noon. Just down the street was the 5 Esquinas. It was open and had a special offer on for valentines day $45 a couple and it included drinks, appetizer, salad, main course, and a dessert. It all sounded good so we bit on it.

We saw some nice street at one of the schools near the Casa. We walked over to take a look and found a treasure trove of of other art.

Havana had definitely changed a lot in the time since we were here three years ago. Construction everywhere. The National Theatre was a black hulk was now brightly polished and opened in January so it was still very bright and shiny.

There was a show on but it was sold out except for the rush seats on the fourth and fifth balcony so we decided to pass. I think that was a mistake.

We walked around and it was amazing the amount of construction and work being done around Havana. A lot of old buildings that were almost beyond recovery were bright and gleaming. We noticed something we hadn’t seen before, Cruise ships, at least one a day, sometimes two. Everything was hopping. Obispo, the pedestrian tourist street was packed. We saw lots of performers, the mimes, the stilt walkers, the ladies with the fancy dresses and the huge cigars all out in force. We went to Prado 12 for a Mohito supposedly the best Mojito in Havana (according to the casa owner). It was good, the best, no but pretty good just the same. We found a really beautiful sculpture artist in Havana. I seem to remember seeing most of the same sculptures when we were in Havana last time and considering the $90,000 CUC price tag we weren’t surprised.

Since it was a Sunday the prado was in “sunday mode” a lot less tourists so the older people teach the younger people the crafts. There was lots of the typical stalls still there and less of the “sunday mode” teaching than we remember but there was still people being taught tatting and bobbin lace.

We went to supper and as normal we were a bit early “STILL closed preparing for dinner.” So we had to walk around a little more. We walked up the street and the church was open so we popped in and took a few pictures and waited near the front of the church. There was a casa in the square of the church called Hostal del Angel that looked a lot better than ours I wanted to go and see if they were available but Bonnie said our current place was ‘endurable’. A little more accurate than ‘authentic’.

For the same money we could have a nice place or somewhere ‘endurable’. When we got back for the day there was a note (In pretty good English!) apologizing for the insects! The fumigators were seriously working in the area. We have seen them all around Cuba they take mosquitoes as a serious problem and we had heard the whine of the fumigation equipment.

By the way, my first words to Bonnie was Happy Anniversary.

Feb 15, 2016, a roach, a bus tour, and a grave yard.

We got up in the morning and had another visitor in the last of his death throws outside the door of the bathroom at our casa in the morning. The cockroach was mostly dead. We ignored it and walked around him and when they came to deliver breakfast, they disposed of the body. Construction noises had started from in front of the building but in our room they weren’t bad at all.

Today was a day for us to do the bus tour. We always jump on the hop-on hop-off bus and do a full loop around before deciding what we wanted to see. The route is a little different than before with the construction in downtown Havana. We wanted to do the Cemetery de Colon, the huge cemetery in Havana that we have driven by many times but never visited.

We walked down the street and walked by the Bacardi building it is an amazing art deco building of the era. I took lots of pictures and ended up with over a 100 Megapixel image of the building it is an interesting building.

We spent a lot of time walking around the huge Colon Cemetery in Havana. It was a lot larger than other cemeteries we had been in but it wasn’t the prettiest by far. There was still a lot of very pretty statuary.

We returned to Havana and spent the day walking around the old part of Havana it is an interesting place. We made it to Havana 61 the number one rated place on Trip Advisor for a place to eat in Havana. It is a tiny little place and it has wonderful food and the first waiter we had was a little rough in the English department but when we started struggling with our Spanish he waved over another waiter and she was very happy to help.

Feb 16, 2016 Statues, a new church, art galleries and street art

When we were on the bus Bonnie noticed a piece of street art on the Malecon she hadn’t seen before so she wanted to go looking at it. It wasn’t far from our casa so we walked over and it was very impressive. One the way we noticed a couple of casas that will go into our notebook as possibles for the future. We tried to get into one of them but it was booked solid. We noticed another couple of casa that had a sticker that was “certified by rent.cu”. Another web site to check out, We have been using the same web site to help us book places since we started and stayed in two different places in Old Havana and both of them have SUCKED! Places other than Old Havana have been for the most part pretty good. I think we just have to be a lot more careful now than we were in the past. There are a lot more casa flooding onto the market and some of them are up to scratch and some aren’t. The casa where we are now, will not last long term. They just don’t know how to do it.

We walked down the Malecon for a while to get to the street art and it was in impressive installation. We crossed the Malecon and then walked back toward the harbour and along the edge of the harbour all the way to the art gallery. The winds were down and the harbour was calm the small fishing fleet was sitting quietly in the entrance. There were lots of people fishing from the edge of the street and it was a very nice walk. We were walking along and a working girl was walking beside us sort of keeping pace until a Transur bus driver whistled her over. He was on a break. Might as well make the long wait more enjoyable.

We walked down along the harbour and notice that the Russian Orthodox Church was open. We went in to see if we could get in or if they would direct us away. But they basically ignored us as they went to work cleaning the church. It was an impressive building we took lots of pictures and spent a while looking at all of the art. We enjoyed looking around.

From there we walked around the artist gallery in the big warehouse down by the water. There were a couple pieces of art that caught my eye. One was a couple of young boys standing on the wall of the Malecon and looking at the calm waters. It was an interesting piece of art both artistically and politically. We notice that artists everywhere seem to have a very pessimistic view of the future. From street art to the art they sell to tourists, a lot of the art has a nervousness view of the future. I should have bought it then, the next day it was gone.

We walked around the old city, just walking the streets of the

old city taking a street you haven’t been on before and walking around is a nice way to spend a day. We found lots of street art and saw lots of things we never expected. We happened on a mobile sharpening service. A guy who had rigged a grinding wheel to run off of his bicycle so he could put his bike up on the kickstand, and peddle his bike, the wheel caused the a pulley to spin and there was a belt from the pulley to a grindstone mounted on his crossbar. We watched him sharpen everything from a Machete to a kitchen knife to a pair of scissors, a very simple and impressive system. We walked around and found a place fabricating bases for columns and fancy trim and corners for the old building restorations. It was an interesting place to see.

We were back at Havana 61 again for supper again and the waitress was very happy to see us again. We enjoyed the food again it was great. So were the Pina Colatas.

February 17, 2016 The National Theater, Hotels, COFFEE, and just walking around

We walked around to the National Theater. On our way we stopped at the number two place on our list of restaurants. We looked at the menu and it had definitely had a “Trip Advisor recommended” bump in the prices. Prices were similar to what we have at home only in CUC which adds a 40% surcharge this year. So we decided to find the next place on the look at. The number one restaurant meals are priced at about 50-60% less than then number two place. Havana 61, our number one was listed as #3 of 609 restaurants in Havana, Ivan Chef Justo was #22, 5Esquinas Trattoria was #31, and Donde Lis Restaurante & Bar was #46, all with in a short walk of each other and not far from our casa. Havana 61, 5Esquinas, and Donde Lis were all comparable in price and the food was EXCELLENT at all of them.

We did a tour of the National Theater. It was closed when we were in Havana three years ago and it just opened in January 2016 so it is still bright and polished. The beautiful upstairs ballroom was amazing. They have performances on Friday and Saturday nights so no performance tonight. The guide walked us around and her English was ok but the other people on the tour were German and she was very fluent in German. The guy was fluent in English and wanted her to do the tour in English for us but she wanted to practice her German. There are more German tourists this year. Lots of Europeans around this year. His wife is actually American they live in Germany.

I wanted to check out the price of Coheba blacks at the tobacco shop in Havana. The locals are very aggressive at trying to sell you “GOOD DEALS” on cigars to the point where you have to push your away through them to get into the tobacco shop.

We went in and looked around a Coheba black roughly the size we bought in Vinalies will set you back $17 CUC each! To get there you have to walk around the back of the Capitol building.

We walked all the way around the the capitol building and one of the buildings that was looking a lot better was the Saratoga Hotel bright green and very spiffy. We went in and up to the rooftop bar and looked at the prices, VERY Expensive so we just took lots of pictures and left. They had brand new Hyundai elevators complete with a smart screen with weather information on it. Probably the smoothest elevator we have ever used.

After the tour we walked around a lot of the old streets and walking up O’Reilly we were overtaken by the pervasive smell of COFFEE.

We could smell Cafe O’Reilly long before we got to it. The roaster was going and the whole street smelled lovely! We had to stop in for a brew! It was also closed for renovations when we were here last time. We would not have been able to miss that smell when we were living up the street for a week!

From there we walked around and didn’t do a whole lot but visit the city. We noticed that a church was open that we had been in before. Bonnie remember the beautiful windows so we went in for a look. It is now a performance art space rather than a church and there was a musical group from Tennessee setting up for a rehearsal. There was “the leader” of the group from Tennessee, a gentleman from Connecticut, and a younger woman from California. We talked with them for a long time and they invited us to the performance that night. Before we could leave they asked me to help move the organ. Which the Cubans got a kick out of. We wandered around and found a door open to a fancy looking building so we went in and looked around. It turns out it was (we think) the bishops residence. Nice place and the staff seemed very happy to let us wander around.

We wandered around and then went to Donde Lis for supper. The octopus appetizer was incredible! It was a good as anything we had in Greece. The main course of chicken and pork were excellent as well.

Feb 18, 2016 The Cathedral, street art, street performances, and a visit to mecca.

After reading the blog for Havana you will get the idea that all we did in Havana was walk the streets, visit churches, and eat. And that would sum it up rather well. Whenever we get a chance to get into a church we take it. We don’t really care what kinds of churches they are. Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Baptist, were the ones I can remember. The synagogue was closed when we walked by. There were a couple of churches that we had been in before that have been converted to performance spaces. Just walking around Havana you can see lots of street art and performance spaces. We have always enjoyed the performance art that we see on the streets, stilt dancers, mimes, painters, even the ladies with their colorful costumes and huge cigars.

We were tickled to see that the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Cathedral Square was open. Most of the churches are open to having visitors than they have been in the past. We went in and took lots of picture and wandered around. From there we saw a couple having their wedding pictures taken and lots of tourists were taking pictures of them too. The cathedral is a well maintained and beautiful building that is full of works of art. The building itself is a work of art, the arched ceilings, and columns are beautiful.

From there we went up to the church across the square from the cathedral. It has been changed from an active church to a performance space and museum. There were lots of church items on display right up from the coins minted by the Vatican in commemoration of a Pope’s election. We were happy to walk around the museum and listen to the musical group starting their rehearsal. It had lots of interesting statues and an amazing collection of silver, gold, and jeweled pendants. There was furniture and bells and lots of space to explore. All the way up to the tower to a very stunning view of the harbor and the city.

One of the things we enjoy no matter where we go is the street art, and Havana has lots of wonderful street art.

Feb 19, 2016 Off to Playa Giron

We were up early to the Viazul bus station and off to Playa Giron. Playa Giron is a beach resort on the Bay of Pigs. We aren’t big beach people. Bonnie really tries to avoid sunburns at all cost and I’m not a great fan of sunburns either. We were hoping to go to the Museum dedicated to the Bay of Pigs invasion but it was closed up. They are in the process of fixing it up.
As we traveled along the highway we noticed little memorials to people who had fought for the revolution.

The casa owner wasn’t there to meet us so we had to arrange a bicycle taxi to the casa. While we were enroute Wilfredo caught up with us. They have bicycles for visitors to use. They are a fair distance from the beach so we enjoyed having the bikes. We were actually fairly tired from Havana and we had a bit of a cold so we just decided to sit for the afternoon. Wilfredo had a little bit of English better than our Spanish for certain but there were time he didn’t understand us and we would try to switch to Spanish. The trip to Playa Giron was a nice and we enjoyed the view of the beaches. The deep water is very close to shore.

But we had a very quiet afternoon and just sat in the little covered picnic area outside our room in the nice chairs and spent the day just being lazy.

Feb 20, 2016 Playa Giron, and the European beach

We took the bicycles offered by Wilfredo and headed back to the Museum to look at the outside exhibits and look around a bit. The exhibits were in good shape and the building was being actively worked on which was nice to see.

Maybe the next time we go we’ll be able to get in and see the inside of the Museum.

We rode the bicycles around the Playa Giron Resort. There are lots and lots of chalets and a very good portion of them are empty and trashed. We toured around the resort and almost no one was visable. It is mainly a dive resort. The dive boat is actually a truck. The deep water is so close to shore they just drive to the dive site and let you swim the 20 or 30 meters to the wall. It may be that the bulk of the people were off on a dive. We walked around and found a old sea wall that was being pounded by the surf. It was fun to just sit and watch the ocean.

We drove down to the public beach area and settled in for a few hours. The beach is protected by a reef not far offshore. The water was great and warm, we both had a swim for a little while. At the end of the beach was a place where the fisherman had set up a place for pulling up their fishing boats. It was an interesting mishmash of boats.

We were surprised to see several topless ladies on the beach. There are a lot of Europeans around this year so that could explain it.

Feb 21 2016 A beach day, in Cuba, imagine that!

Playa Giron is mainly a divers paradise. There isn’t a lot to do. Most of the coast is the sharp black tinged limestone found all around the Bahamas and many other Caribbean islands, the Cubans call it ‘dogs teeth’. There is a small beautiful white sand beach but the beach is small and today was a Sunday and by the look of it the tourists were mostly gone and the locals were visiting. We guessed it was a turnover day at the resort.

The resort has a huge breakwater that runs in front of the beach, it destroys the view from the beach but protects the beach from being washed away.

We walked around and talked to a number of the locals. The locals appreciate you staying in a casa rather than a resort. We rarely if ever just spend the day on a beach but today was one of our beach days.

Feb 22, 2016 A travel day Playa Giron to Trinidad

After a our little time in Playa Giron it was off to Trinidad. One of the many things I do that is a little weird to some people is take pictures out the window of the bus. I’ll take a bunch and then see what I get. Sometimes I get good pictures but most of them are just trash. On occasion I get a few out of the hundred or so that actually turn out well. There was a lot of the country that was new for us this trip but some we had seen before.

One thing people don’t realize is how diverse Cuba is. Everything from desert like conditions to lush farmland to mountainous terrain, rain forests with rivers. It’s all here.

Our casa in Trinidad is not far from our first casa in Trinidad. We tried to get back into Casa Lily’s but she was booked up. We booked into Hostal Lozano’s. It is a nice spot but more hotel-ish than Lilly’s. We were on the second floor up a SMALL spiral staircase to the second floor with a nice balcony and a place to sit out, get fresh air and people watch! Always a good past time in Cuba

February 23, 2016 Trinidad and an AWESOME Masonic lodge

We were out walking around and it was easy to tell that one of the wifi spots for Trinidad was in the square in front of the Grand Hotel.

People were packed around the square with their smartphones out checking email and surfing the web. The church on the square was open so we went in to take a look. The church was a nice simple church with nice curved arches in the ceiling and a nice alter.

From there we headed up to the historical center of Trinidad and on our way stopped at a few art galleries, art shops, and as always had a great chance to see some beautiful architecture and interesting people watching. There were a lot of Europeans around this year.

One of the things Bonnie and I enjoy when we travel is sitting down and watching the citizens of the places we visit. It is really neat to see things we do at home done in a completely different way or just how things are done differently in a different place.

We went to what would turn out to be our favorite lunch spot: Los Conspiradores.

It was a meeting place for a notorious conspiracy in against the Spanish government of the 1848. It is now a restaurant art gallery. They have quirky expresso coffee maker like statues that are painted like women’s dresses or flags or other things.

We walked back toward the casa and when we passed the Masonic lodge near the square I saw the door open so I called out and there was a guy there getting ready for the next lodge meeting.

We had a list of good restaurants from Tripadvisor before we left so we went to the top one on the list. It was Restaurante San Jose when we went in we remembered it from before. It wasn’t great the last time we went there but they had definitely improved and the food was very good.

February 24, 2016 Trinidad is a pottery place so we went searching

Trinidad is known for it’s pottery. We toured the tourist pottery shop before and we were going to go find it again. It’s a good walk and a nice shop to visit. We bought a nice piece of pottery when we were here the last time. There is the tourist shop and the factories for the bigger stuff.

On our way to the shop we walked around and did our normal looking around. We found a cigarette factory that has stacks and stacks of cigarettes ready for packaging. It was a noisy place to work and the smell of tobacco permeated the area. There seemed to be lots of people working a The number of cigarettes being processed was amazing.

We walked up the street and toward the pottery shop and found the street we wanted. It turned out the whole street seemed to be dedicated to pottery. We walked by a large workshop where people were turning large planter pots, 2-3 gallon size. As we walked by a lady waved us over and gave us a tour.

We found the pottery place we liked before and looked around for a while but we didn’t find anything we liked more than what we had so we passed.

We walked back to Los Conspirators for a coffee and then Taberna La Botija for lunch. It appears to be the place where the tour bus operators have lunch. Those places are usually good but not spectacular. The tavern is dressed up with shackles and implements of the slave trade and the waiters wear white (full covering) period slave uniforms. It was an interesting place and the food was pretty good.

We walked down to the square above the church turned museum and did a lot of people watching. The horse tour operators were there and once they were convinced that we weren’t interested in a tour they left us alone. There is often a musical band there as well. But today it was quiet, which we enjoyed.

Cuba has a number of mosquitoes that will carry nasty diseases and every year we see them with the fumigation machines. They take mosquitoes as a serious issue. We’ve seen giant models in the back of a half ton that left a fog behind it that was impossible to see through and the small hand held variety that they did individual houses or stores with.

February 25, 2016 A walk up to the radio tower

Something that we didn’t do last time was the trip up to the radio tower.

It says it is a spectacular view and to do it early before it got too hot and to take water with you. Both good bits of advise. We found the church that they talked about as the starting point for the hike but it was being renovated. It gave us a great view over Trinidad. We had to zig and zag to get to the road up to the radio/TV tower. One of the ziggs took us through the dump. It was a great view (looking the other way).

There had been a fire that had ripped through the valley.

The palmettos were still black but the green was just starting to come out again.

We walked all the way up to the tower and there was a couple of people working there. One came out and invited us up to the roof of the building. From there we could see from the tower at Valle de los Ingenios all the way around to the ocean. It was well worth the walk up the hill.

There was a whole bunch of different flowers and even a few land snails around

From there we walked back to the Plaza Major and around town a bit more.

February 26, 2016 Our last day in Trinidad

Today was our last day in Trinidad and we were not really anxious to see anything in particular, so it was more along the lines of strolling around and doing a bit of people watching. We walked around a lot and sat in the various parks.

One thing that we appreciate when we are in Cuba is the food. If you are familiar with resort food in Cuba, we are NOT talking about the same thing. We eat at the Casas and for the most part local restaurants that are not on the tour circuit, and we try to avoid the government restaurants when we can.

If you hear someone complaining that they went to a restaurant and they couldn’t get a fish meal that day then we consider that a good sign. Cuba does not have an industrial fishing fleet. They can’t supply the resorts with the fish from their own fishing industry for the most part they get their fish in the same place we get most of our frozen fish CHINA! When I hear that something wasn’t available that day then they are probably sourcing their food locally. Local food is usually very tasty. It won’t be a melt in your mouth steak (EVER), but the chewing will produce a flavor you probably haven’t tasted in beef in years at home. The chickens in Cuba have a flavor that I haven’t tasted in the industrial food we get in Canada. The butcher that operated out of the house next to our casa didn’t have a fridge to store his meat it was hanging beside him. You could see what he had on offer that day.

We spent a lot of time in the park where the WIFI hotspot was. We met a woman who was doing her email for her casa and having troubles with the wifi. She is running a vegan casa. She was originally from Ireland she had moved to Cuba and was very happy to have her residency. She was trying to appeal to a special market. She said that over 1000 casas had opened in Trinidad alone in the last year. Some didn’t last long. Some aren’t up to snuff and will fold. She is afraid that the sudden influx of new casa owners that aren’t ready would damage the market for those that were already established and had a good product. (I was thinking of our casa in Havana when she was talking. They definitely qualified as ‘not ready’. If I can find her card again I May put it online for those interested in the Vegan option.

February 27, 2016 Across the country to Varadero

I dread long trips on the Viazul buses. They are an excellent way of traveling. No rental car worries, they’re cheap, you can look around while someone else is doing the work of driving, and you are up high enough to see things.

Viazul bus stations are God awful, the washrooms are gross beyond belief. It does not help that the Viazul bus washrooms are locked solid and never unlocked. They’re ‘out of order’, or rather ‘if they were in order I’d have to clean them and I’m not ever going to do that!’ Short Viazul trips means that I can usually go from the casa to the rest stop (usually a palador restaurant with a clean washroom) without a problem.

Three years ago the buses were in much better shape than they are now, and the buses are usually full now where they weren’t in the past. This year we booked our tickets online before we left (you have to do it at least two weeks in advance if you want to book tickets) That meant that we didn’t have to queue up on one day to buy tickets for another day. So you save a good part of a day for every bus ride you had to take. With the Casas filling with Europeans and the buses full, I’m glad we had everything booked before we left. If you are using a station like Playa Largo or Playa Giron where they don’t have real bus stations just a kiosk selling tickets it is a crap shoot if you are going to get on. When you have prepaid tickets, you get on. You have priority, good to know.

We took a different route back to Varadero than we expected, we backtracked via Playa Giron. If I had known that was an option then I might have traveled a different order than when we did but the route had changed a little and the web was behind the times.

But all is well that ended well We arrived at Elisa and Pepe’s. Joan was doing the housework when we arrived. He hadn’t quite got done yet so we dropped off the luggage and left him to his work. We would be back later to do the paperwork.

February 28, 2016 Varadero for a few days

Varadero yet again. We like Elisa and Pepe both the casa and the hosts as well as his Joan(their son) and his wife Aylin and their daughter Julien.

Varadero is sprucing itself up. There didn’t seem to be as many tourists around Varadero this year but Pepe was saying it was a very busy year. Perhaps the tourists are staying closer to the resorts. His personal bookings are way up this year. That’s good but we have to book earlier if we want to get into his casa again.

We walked the length of Varadero and got to the tabacco store and bought our supply of cigars for our friends. The Coheba blacks that we bought in Vinalies are only sold in boxes of 25 $475 CUC please! No in my world.

Joan and Aylin are living in Aylin’s mother’s house now. Aylin’s mother died when she was young and the house sat unused for a long time. They are now fixing it up and it is going to be a long process getting it done but it is coming along. We went over and had coffee and had a great visit at their place.

We told them about gradually fixing up our place and it taking many years to get it where we wanted it. They are starting a lot further back than we did, but they will get there. Joan is very worried about the country’s future. We talked a long time that.

February 29, 2016 a day to relax and get ready to go home.

We were up slowly, watching the world from our balcony for a while. Today was a walking around Varadero day. A walk down the beach, a nice walk along the beach. find a restaurant that we wanted to try and just absorb the sunshine with a nice warm day before we headed back to our home and the last few months of winter.

This trip was a little quieter than some of our others. The other trips we were happy to go home but this year we could have stayed a little longer. But we’re good as we are, time to go home and do our stuff.

We found an amazing restaurant and when we go to Varadero it will be a first stop Salsa Suarez. The presentation, taste, and service was excellent. It is probably even better than the 1910 in Holguin and that is saying something. One of the best places we have been to ever!

Tomorrow is our day to travel to toronto.

March 01 We waited around airports a lot

I got a few good photos out the airplane window of the Florida Keys other than that lots of time spent in airports so not a lot to say.

There was a bad snow storm in Toronto so we had to trudge though a bunch of snow in Toronto. We ate in the fancy deli of the superstore and it was very good. Not quite a real restaurant but good enough on a long day.

March 02 Toronto the snowy

We got a bunch of really good pics out the window as we flew away from Toronto but they wouldn’t stitch.

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