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Havana good time . . . 

The last day of the holiday was an opportunity to catch up on a load of things that we still wanted to do or see more of that which we saw on our first couple of days in the capital. For many of us the first stop of the day was the Havana Club Rum museum. So we headed out there on foot only to discover that it was closed owing to New Year and the holidays. Gutted! We still took a few pictures and if course couldn’t resist a mojito at 10am in the morning – well some of us did anyway!!


Managed to lose whoever it was I had planned to do various other bits & pieces with and so I ambled around slowly on the way back to the Parque Central not far from the hotel where I got lots more photos including of Hotel Ingleterra as well as the Grand Teatro and the Capitolio Nacional which was covered in scaffolding sadly so didn’t look as majestic as I had hoped. I partook in a coconut water – fresh coconut which was in ice with the top lobbed off and a straw in. I took in the busy-ness of the square in the heat of the midday sun. It was awesome. 
Several if the others were partaking in the atmosphere on the terrace of Hotel Inglaterra as we said goodbye to a few that were not leaving on the main flight majority of us were booked on. I coordinated to head out in the open top car ride in one if the awesome retro cars (originals mind). Ivor chose a fantastic bright pink one and off we went on a tour of Havana. I had my bearings ok for most of it as our guide wasn’t brilliant at being, well a guide! The trip down the Malecon with the huge waves crashing over the wall were amazing – managed to miss them all when trying to film them in my phone – mighty irritating!


I also headed to Paseo del Prado which was not far from the hotel and meant to be very picturesque – glad I did amble down there as it was indeed stunning. I headed into Sloppy Joe’s for a final mojito before heading back to the hotel for a final shower and packing before heading on the long journey home to 2016 in the UK.

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Che goes up again in my estimations 

After an early start of dragging what felt like a dead body in my case across half of Trinidad (ok so we were the closest possibly but pulling a case on the cobbled streets at stupid o’clock in the morning = not my idea of fun and made the whole short walk feel endless!) we headed out to a scenic viewpoint of the surrounding area and posed for a quick group photo before heading on to Santa Clara.

The whole group (with out Marlon – our guide)

Santa Clara is one of the largest and liveliest cities in Cuba – so the guide book tells me – essentially owing to its large student population I guess. It is also the sort of main place of pilgrimage for any Che Guevara fans too as it is here that his body was finally laid to rest. It’s inland from Trinidad in a sort of north west direction almost in the centre of the island of Cuba (that would be of course, Linda, the infamous LANDLOCKED island of Cuba!)

The main focus of the city now really (bar the University) is the Complejo Monumental Ernesto Che Guevara. Its on the south west side of the city about 1km from the centre and it is here that gigantic, no seriously, MASSIVE monument (pretty classic Cuban revolutionary style – big, bold & concrete!!) to Che lies. There are grey steps leading up to four big chunky monoliths atop the tallest is the impressive, dominating statue of Che – dressed in his usual military gear and on the move with his rifle in hand. Spreading out in front of this is the Plaza de la Revolución – similar to that in Havana and mainly just an open space with two huge poster boards the far end of the square to the monument with revolutionary slogans inspired by Che himself.

By far the largest Cuban flag I’d seen was flying here

Me with the mural of the march from the Sierra Maestra to Santa Clara & the eventual victory over Batista’s troops

You can just about squeeze me in the bottom of the picture when trying to get the whole monument in one shot!

Trying to show just how big the monument was at one end if Plaza dear Revolución

Underneath this monument and sort if behind was where you entered the Mausoleum and the Museo and Memorial al Che. No bags and obviously no cameras were allowed at all in either of these and in the mausoleum itself, clearly no talking. The queue was long and it appeared that those of us wantibg to go in, pay our respects and so on were all lined up according to tour group and were being called up a group at a time.

The mausoleum is a softly lit (and cool which was very much appreciated at this time if day as I was melting) the atmosphere of respect and reverance was moving. Che’s remains lie in a kind of tomb in which has an eternally flickering flame, also here are the remains of several of the Peruvians, Bolivians and Cubans that died with him in Bolivia, each of whom are commemorated by a simple stone portrait which has been set into the wall.  An ideal place of remembrance for such an icon in Cuban history and indeed culture.

The small museum dedicated to his life was fascinating with a whole load of photos on the walls showing Che from his early childhood through to his life as a rebel in the Sierra Maestra to his role as a Cuban statesman in the early years of the revolution. It was amongst these photos that I spied him playing rugby and it transpires that he once played for Argentina! This made me chuckle a lot. Other than photos there were other bits and pieces that he had owned and worn throughout his life as well as a plethora of his guns, I’d switched off by this stage as while interesting, I’m not sure I wanted to see lots of the guns that he used in combat but still it gave you quite a good picture of his entire life rather than just the sections linked to the  revolution.

Once we had finished looking around there I popped out to see the memorial cemetery which was further back behind the monument. Here were the memorial graves of a number of the casualties of Che’s rebel column – Column 8 which he led from Sierra Maestra at Santa Clara. As they pass away even up to now they are being added with their rank and dates of their life to the cemetery. Quite moving.

Our next stop before we carried on to Havana was another monument that is key in the history of the city. The Monumento a la Toma del Tren Blindado. Essentially it’s the derailed wagons of an armoured train that have laid in this spot since they were toppled off the tracks during the Battle of Santa Clara back in 1958. That was between the dictator of the time – Batista‘s forces and about 300 rebels led by Che & is believed to be one of the last military encounters of the Revolution. Batista had sent over 10 thousand troops to the centre of the island from Havana to try and prevent the rebels getting any closer to the city – one of the main components of the defensive manoeuvre was an armoured train. Che took the upper hand by using only a small number of his troops to use a bulldozer to raise the rails of the tracks where upon the train crashed and they advised 408 officers & soldiers within it who soon after surrendered. The train it’s self was used by the rebels as a base for further attacks. It’s quite a weird monument for such a historic moment as it’s essentially sort of strewn all over the road with traffic passing close to it and almost as if it’s a stumbled upon monument rather than a site of huge significance to the Cubans. Clearly a must for a photo or two – it literally has been just left where it had fallen.

Even the bulldozer was still there!!

Obviously a few additions to the scene to remind people of the significance of the location

Traffic gayly passing by as if this were just another piece of road with no historical significance?!

From here we headed to the same hotel as we were in for our first few in Havana a shower and some severe repacking was needed before I went anywhere or did  anything! We had our last meal altogether with Marlon as well of course and no trip on the bus was EVER going to be without another rendition of Bilandos and so we sat – right outside the hotel all of us partaking in one final sing song before heading in (or out!).

 

Cruising the Caribbean on a catamaran 

Im not sure if there really is a better way to spend the first day of a new year other than chilling out on a deserted island. This was one of two optional extras some of the group had made the choice of a trek into the countryside and a visit to a waterfall over a catamaran trip out to Caya Blanco. As much as I’d have loved to have had the time to do both I had been looking forward to this trip especially from the moment I booked the trip. 

It was a fairly smooth ride over to the island where we were to be spending all day. There was the option to go onto the island straight away or stay on the boat and do some snorkling a bit further round. A few if us decided to settle on the beach over the snorkling. I’m not a massive fan and there were not that many to go round the entire boat. We got the drinks in and enjoyed the peacefulness of the island. 

I made a run for the sea – it was just calling me – mid way through a conversation with Dot. Throwing clothes off as I got closer. The water was warm and crystal clear and the sandy beach was white. Picture postcard beautiful. The only disturbance was the massive amount of hermit crabs crawling literally everywhere. Quite off putting in case one randomly climbed over you.

Here Dot & I can be seen putting the world to rights after several rum & cokes!!


There was another lady not from our group who was enjoying the tranquility of the location as well but when some of the others were chatting and giggling in the sea she shushed them. Never shush a giggly girl – it will just make it all much worse! I think the house level raised a notch after that!! 

We had lunch on the island as well and it was lovely to be in such heat by the water. The iguanas behind the kitchen were really quite amazing, such prehistoric looking creatures surrounded by a carpet of the hermit crabs of all sizes. 



Once we had our fill of the sunshine and turned a wee bit pink we headed back to the mainland on the catamaran and thankfully the coach was waiting for us to take us back to the main square. We went to try and find the place that we saw selling ice-creams yesterday but sadly it was closed which was a real shame. We did, however find some pretty impressive Pina Coladas which most definitely did the job and as a result we had to have two rounds of them!! Delicious 

L-R: Dot, Katy, Becky, Me, Nicky, Lisa

Pina colada’s – the best ones EVER, made even better by the awesome company

Leading the crowds into 2016

Didn’t have too bad a nights sleep with the air con on full blast and the mozzie killing machine whirring around too I was quite surprised all things considered! Breakfast was find out on the balcony and we met the owner – well I assume that she is as she introduced her self to me as Lydia.

We were having a walking tour of Trinidad this morning with Marlon as our guide. The fact that we had pretty much seen most of it last night int he dark meant that the walk was relatively quick! We met at the usual spot of the green hotel in the square (thankfully the shortest walk for us) before heading off to tread the cobbled streets of the rather quaint colonial town. One of our food stops was at the local ration provisions store.

Like most communist regimes food is rationed in Cuba. Everyone is issued with a booklet for their rations which they take to a special store where they can collect their rations on a monthly basis. Prices and amounts per person are set by the government. This is to ensure that no one in Cuba starves. It is the basics so that you wont starve but it is not enough to live on. Whether young or old, in employment or not, sick or healthy – everyone gets provisions of rice, corn flour, sugar, salt, soap, coffee, fruit preserve, eggs, toothpaste, evaporated milk, oil, pasta and some meat. The get for example – 5lb of rice a month for 0.25 pesos. As good as that sounds they don’t always have everything available all of the time. They have, for example, at the moment a shortage of salt and no evaporated milk so instead they ave powdered. Once you have your monthly allowance (which gets checked off in the ration book) that’s it. No more. There are other stores where you can buy goods, buy they are a lot more expensive. Cubans are all paid in pesos by the government and only a few CUCs. The pesos are used for the rationed items mainly as well as for paying the household bills and the CUCs are for buying the ‘luxury’ items.

One of the group chatted to a security guard at a bank and established that he was paid 300 pesos and 26 CUCs a month. As you will be able to see from the image below – the total amount for the food for a month is only 8.67 pesos. There are other expenses that are really cheap for the locals, such as bus tickets. The real value of things in in CUCs and it is really only those that deal with tourists that are paid in this ‘luxury’currency. We tipped local tour guides on average 25 CUC on our day trips for example and our bus driver got 200 CUCs (he was with us all week) as suggested by our guide for the week who got 310 CUCs from donations from all of the group. Its really only these people that can afford to have mobiles (an iPhone handset cost around 600 CUCs) and rum and smart fancy clothes. One CUC is worth 24 pesos. so if you are wanting to buy a bottle of rum or 3 CUCs but don’t have any, you can also buy one for 72 pesos. This is another reason why the lines are so long at all of the exchange houses as it is not only tourists changing money but Cubans changing from pesos to CUC and the other way around. 300 pesos doesnt really last you very long at all. Private businesses(self-employment) were allowed and encouraged by the government in the early 90’s after the dissolution of the Soviet Union (Cuba’s main trading partner) left them in a dire state. Cubans don’t get to keep all of their hard earned money though – they still have to give a percentage of what they own to the government (I see this as taxes but Marlon our guide was adamant that no Cubans were taxed). (Thanks to Val – a fellow traveller – who remembered most of this info in a post of hers that I have ‘borrowed’ the info from)


It was a really heartening experience I must say. I was pretty taken back by the poverty and the fact that in the 21st century here was a country still surviving on rations. Another sample of living in a time warp – I thought all of the old cars and joy of no advertising splashed everywhere was enough! Opposite this shop was the shop where you could also go and buy your bread and the the markets were the places for fruit and vegetables. Though most of their vegetables seemed to be root veg and the rest such as carrots and green beans were tinned. You would have thought in a country that uses their land so much to grow their fruit and veg but yet no green veg seemed to be grown – maybe it was the wrong time of year or climate – I don’t know. Their fresh fruit though – amazing!

From here we headed to a museum which was, as so many of the museums are, a former accommodation for one of the rich families of the area that has now been turned into Museo de Historia Municipal museum logging the details and items from the various years of living in Trinidad and included several rather fine pieces of furniture. You had to pay 5 CUC to take photos (seeing as you only pay 1 CUC to get in I wondered if this was just a ploy to get tourists and that maybe they didn’t need to give much of this money to the government? Is that a bit too skeptical of me? Well I coffed up none the less! There were amazing views out over the red slate roof tops of colonial Trinidad in the tower where we saw the only example of health and safety in Cuba thus far this trip as people were being restricted from ascending the tower too many at a time. The staircase was wooden and pretty steep, but definitely worth it as you will see from the photos below.


From here we headed up to visit a local artist and his wife not far from Plaza Mayor and look at the work in his studio. It was absolutely boiling. I was literally sweating buckets and made use of one of the chairs in the small gallery as we listened to Marlon translating for us what the artist was explaining about his fascinating work and immense talent. He took old plains of wood that had been thrown away from the shutters and used these to create his masterpieces by using them like lino and creating these frankly amazing masterpieces which he used photos of the elderly of Cuba that he had taken randomly on the street and once he had created the piece he used acrylic on it to help bring it to life even more. I was blown away by the detail in them. They take anything between a week to a month to crete and the one that has no pain on is the one that he was currently working on and had so far spent 15 hours on it. He was preparing for  an exhibition, I forget where that was going to be but I had already asked Marlon how much the pieces would be sold at and he said anything from $350 – $500 dollars. I’m not sure I was taken enough to want to buy one but they were fascinating and simply incredible pieces of art. His wife was also a crafty lady and created embroidery tops and crochet tops as well. Unfortunately (and fairly unsurprisingly) ladies with a larger chest were not really very likely to be able to find a top which was sad as I wanted to support them by buying something and the tops were beautifully made. I ended up in purchasing a small bag that was made out of ring pulls from cans that were crocheted together. Not sure when I will use it but I can see it being used at some point! Its only tiny anyway and they had been so welcoming, I felt I wanted to support them.

After our trip to the artist we had free time before we met up to go and book our trips the next day. I pootled around a little getting incredibly warm int he sunshine and all too aware that I didn’t have any suntan lotion on. Wasn’t needing burnt shoulders ahead of our potential visit to the beach tomorrow. I ambled down streets there and there soaking in the beauty of my surroundings, the cobbled streets, the brightly coloured houses the sunshine and of curse the beautiful blue sky. The views were simply sublime. So surreal and such  time warp, so untouched by tourism it was beautiful. When i say untouched by tourism I think I mean more that there is not hordes of hideous advertising everywhere. No coke signs everywhere, no beer advertising in windows. When the Americans break back into his country that is going to be one of the most noticeable changes I think. Places such as this will totally loose their charm. It makes me feel so sad that this beautiful colonial town is going to be so ruined by commercialism in due course.

  
  
  

After our free time we were all meeting up outside the green hotel on the square, I made a visit to the El FLortidita here to cool down with a daiquiri – not sure I really need are reason, made of crashed ice it was a welcome cooling drink! As I sat there with a couple of others from the group that I found in there who had a very similar idea. There were loads of the locals coming in an out while we were sat at the bar getting handfuls of cool beer and we were convinced that there was a guy that was doing home deliveries of boxes of beers. It was quite amusing just watching the comings and goings!

Having caught up with the rest of the group in the square we went to the HavanaTour office to book our day excursions for the following day, a separate expense. I was not torn in the slightest. There was a walk in the valley with a  waterfall trip and other exciting sending things, or a trip on a catamaran to a deserted island for some swimming white sandy beaches and crystal clear turquoise sea. It was a no briner. Out of the two I had made my choice when I had booked this trip back in April. From here the salsa dancers went off to there additional class, not my cuppa and so the remained of us, nearly all I think headed into the green hotel for beer, lunch, air con and some wifi!

After heading back to the casa for a spruce up and a bit of a lie down before the evening s entertainment it was apparent a little shut eye was really not going to happen as the household had music blaring, we heard it as we were walking from the square and I said it sounded like it was coming from our place. There were to only youngsters but some oldies as well sitting on the steps outside the house with a guy that we assumed they would be burning at midnight. I had a shower and lay in the air conditioning for a while just having some quiet time.

The evening meal I had ensured that we had together for and was not far from the ‘Steps’ where we were planning on being for midnight. Marlon had done a good job at managing to get us in – there are 20 of us with him and the driver after all. Another buffet style meal with several salad type things and a soup choice for starter. Everything seemed to have peppers in bar the sucking pig and chicken that was on the roast. Essentially my last meal of 2015 was meat, meat and more meat!

We headed to the Steps which had way more people than anticipated on them and that Marlon had though, possibly because there were more tourists? Hard to tell. We ordered drinks in their masses. I am NOT a fan of New Year. Never have been. It not my thing at all. Too many nasty memories and ‘looking forward’ new starts and all that bollocks. The depressive in me shines through like a beaut. I was proud of myself. Ok I may have been a little quiet in the half hour lead up and not be stand and chatty and driving and laughing but Im always in bed well before the fateful hour. I may have been spotted at one point and suggested (jokingly) that I might like to stand up and join in at some point. But I managed to survive it, mojito in each hand. No one was calling it and so decided that would be my focus. Used the timer on the iPhone and kept a close eye letting the remainder of the group that I would start us (which then turned out to be the entire of the steps) in the countdown into 2016. The music never stopped it was just yours truly. I thank you (curtseys). I lasted about 45 mins before heading home, via a rather large diversion s the short cut I thought would work easily without a map, well it didn’t! We wondered through a small few gatherings on the streets as we treaded the cobbles trying to find our way home and to our beds. Tired but excited to be heading out to the island in the morning.

Bay of Pigs & more

Another early start but I was all organised – today we were leaving Havana and making our way towards Trinidad in east of Havana. On the way we were going to be stopping at a spot for some swimming and onto the Bay of Pigs museum and Ceinfuego before ending up in Trinidad. I was a little nervous about the evening accommodation for the next three nights as we were all going to be in Casa Particulares (essentially B&Bs) and as I am booked on as a single traveller I didn’t know who I would be in the same place as. Give me something to worry about and I’m there!!

I got to the bus early to ensure that I got a front seat (more of a view!) others were tending to nap on the bus and I was looking forward to having a fuller view of the road and country life as it whizzed past us on our journeys. There was also the chance that I might have been able to have read the subtitles on the documentaries that Marlon was showing on some of our trips. Some were readable further back but others definitely not.

The taxi rank and traffic just outside our hotel in Havana

 

Rather a lovely street in the centre of Havana 

Our first stop was at Finca Fiesta Campesina where we made a facilities stop and had the opportunity to grab a coffee. It was so blooming hot the last thing that was on my mind was a coffee! We were told there was a mini zoo here as well so a few things to potentially look at. As we walked in we were invited to join in Guinea Pig roulette. Really? Not my thing at all and so quickly walked on past and further in to find the loo. I didn’t think I was going to enjoy seeing the animals here after that greeting! I wondered round and had a nose at the animals anyway – thankfully most of them were in the shade anyway so it was slightly cooler than in the blaring heat. I met a friendly iguana in a pen who almost seemed to smile for my photo. They really are the most prehistoric looking creatures it must be said. Quite evil looking as well. There were several pens with animals in: Guinea pigs, pigeons, chickens, a tree rat and more. There was also the opportunity to ride on a bull, rather a scrawny bull who was mainly skin and bones who, in the whole time we were there never seemed to move a millimetre from his spot.

My smiling iguana friend

I found a beautiful little orchid garden and spent a little time in there taking some photos of the beautiful plants. It was also incredibly shaded and so nice and cool as well. There was not an over abundance of them in there but I’ve no idea what the best time of year is for growing orchids?! I stumbled across a pen with a crocodile in it that was there with its mouth wide open, I am sure I’ve read somewhere the reason for that, sleeping or trying to cool off or was it when angry? Next to the pen was a keeper with a snake around his neck and holding a baby crocodile. Not sure why or indeed how but I ended up with the snake around my neck and holding the baby croc. It moved on my hand and I squealed as it tried walking up my arm. The photo is quite amusing as I look quite calm, all things considered – but trust me I was bricking it inside! Having purchased the last of the chocolate ice cream cones I then made my way back to the coach for a a bit of a clean down with wet wipes and antibac!!

Mrs Doolitle at your service (BRICKING herself behind that smile!)

On from here was our much anticipated swimming spot of Cueva de los Peces, also known as El Cenote. We had been hugging the coastland for about two or three kilometres before we stopped and so I had been getting snippets of the beautiful crystal clear Caribbean Sea. The El Cenote tho was an added treat, it was a flooded cave that was full of tropical fish down a small rocky path from the main road and although so close, very secluded and stunning. It was around 70 meters deep – not that I was going to be testing that out!! The changing rooms were small and there were all of us to change so I decided not to bother and to use the skill of changing underneath a towel without flashing, knew boarding school would come in handy at some point!! The steps to get in were very wide apart and so I kind of stood on the top one and belly flopped in, thankfully not managing to empty the entire pool. It was cool and refreshing and salt water which I had bet really expected! I didn’t spend long splashing around in here before I gathered up by bits, flung a sarong round and awkwardly, in wet flip flops, made my way out to the open to cross the main road before slipping into the sea. It was wonderful – this was the life!! Bobbing around in the Caribbean Sea. We all wished that we had longer to do so – but there’s always the trip to the island later in the week. As we bobbed around chatting we had tropical fish weaving inbetweeen us in twos and threes. Amazing! I tried using goggles from someone to have a peak at the world underneath us but wasn’t overly successful as they leaked and salt water went into my eye and I gave up. I lay in the sun taking over bag duty from someone to keep and eye on all of the bags and was almost dry by the time it came to change back into clothes for lunch and then the onward journey.

Some of the tropical fish in the El Cenote

El Cenote – beautiful flooded cave

 

You really can’t argue with that view now, can you?!

 

Group photo post swimming 

From here we headed on round the Bay of Pigs to Museo Girón which was a two roomed museum that was dedicated to the time of the invasion and the invasion itself when Castro and his men over came the advancing American forces and captured 1180 prisoners who they, in time swapped for Baby Powder and medical provisions so desperately needed by the country at the time. There were some fascinating artifacts and military bits and pieces such as guns and ammunition from the time as well as tanks and other vehicles. Out the front of the museum there was one of the fighter planes that was used to attack the advancing Americans of the time.

Once I had finished at the museum I nipped across the road to the shops in search of an ice cream. It was utterly roasting and I was literally dripping thanks to the humidity. There were two very small fans in the museum that were more swirling around the hot air than blowing out any cool air. I gave in and headed to the bus to try and cool down. It felt far far hotter than it had been in Havana but I am not sure if that was actually the case or not! The gap from the rip in my trousers was getting bigger, but this was actually turning out to be rather to my advantage even if there was skin exposure evident now!

On from here we headed to Cienfuegos which was established in 1819, far more recently than most cities in Cuba and it was founded by French settlers – I’m not sure that I saw too much of their influence in the architecture however, but maybe we didn’t go through enough of the city to see. We stopped in Pargue Jose Martin to stretch our legs and get a drink if we wanted and to have a look at the buildings around the square. There certainly were some very fine ones including the school which has a sort of Greco-Roman facade that looked far too smart to house a school! There was the Catedral de la Purisima Concepción in the corner next to the school which I didn’t go in to as I couldn’t do everything which is still used by resident worshippers as well as tourists and has, according to the guide book, some rather splendid stained glass.

The building that I chose to go inside and spend some time in was the theatre – Teatro Tomás Terry which has been in the northern side of the square since it was built in 1890 and musical and dance productions are still put on here, in fact there were some dance rehearsals going on whilst I sat in the auditorium taking the surroundings in. The entrance hall has a fresco on the ceiling and on some of the walls and there were the original decorative ticket booths from the 19th century still in the entrance hall too, there were also some beautiful ornate lamps as well. Moving on in to the auditorium the seats were all wooded and there were three tiers of balconies each with their same wooden chairs I imagined from when it was first built. There was a large Baroque- stayle fresco on the ceiling and the stage was framed in gold and sloped down towards the audience to help give them a better view. It was a wonderful find.

Before heading on towards Trinidad we made a trip out around the small peninsula – spotting the seaside on our way and many of the expensive looking mansions along the way. Just before the end was the Palacio de Valle with, as described in the guide book, ‘mismatched twin turrets, chiselled arches and carved windows, it looks like a cross between a medieval fortress, an Indian temple and a Moorish palace.’ Originally built as a private home in the early twentieth century it is now nothing more than a restaurant and has a rooftop bar apparently giving the best views in Cienfuegos. Back up the promenade and out into the road to Trinidad.
Along the road on our journey we saw farmers bagging up rice on the side of the road which looked rather strange. Marlon explained that they were drying the rice out using the warmth of the Tarmac to help speed up the process. It went on for a good few miles at one point and there were several of them bagging it up in areas. Drivers were not really bothering to avoid it on that side of the road (the left, as they drive on the right) and you often saw them driving over the drying rice – most certainly very organic!

 

Farmers drying the rice on the road on the way to Trinidad 

The start of the streets of Trinidad

Trinidad sort of arrived upon us, we had started noticing the more built up are but hadn’t realised that this was actually down town Trinidad?! We passed through a main square with the green hotel that we would be meeting at later but first we needed to be ‘sorted out’ with our Casa Particulares. It was like waiting to be picked for a team at school! I was concerned as to where I’d be and who with, not that it really mattered as everyone in the group was lovely. I ended up with Nic and our Casa Particulares was apparently a 4 min walk front the HavanaTour office where we were being collected from. Well that’s what Nic had been told / understood anyway. It wasn’t that much longer but it certainly felt it as we dogged our cases over the cobbled streets!! Prob a 5 min walk from Parque Cespedes where the green hotel was that we were meeting in front of later. Casa Lydia was basic as expected and despite being welcomed and shown our room there was no other explanation, something that we could have done with if honest as we struggled every time in how to open the front door from the inside and outside and which key was for the front door and which for the room and why did I have an extra key on mine? What was that for?? We each had our own bathrooms and a shower but no holder on the wall to hold it as always! There were two ac units much to my relief and I even had a little patio area outside my door where I assumed we would be served breakfast in the morning. There was a fridge in the room as well full of cold drinks which you could take and pay for on departure. We were asked for our passports, as the lady didn’t speak any English or even enough to get by we had no idea when we would be seeing them again. I thought that they possibly needed to prove that they had tourists staying and so needed to note down the number and so on for authorities to check. We checked with the others all of who had the same thing and that they would be given them after breakfast the following morning. I felt a lot better having heard that!
Our meal that evening as at a place called Vista Gourmet and was another paladar. Another buffet option, none of which really looked all that appetising and so I opted just to have the main course (and plenty of drinks!). It took what seemed like hours to get a drink despite ordering first out of the tables of ‘us’ we were getting more and more desperate as the entertainment that we were also going to have to endure during dinner became closer and closer and from the looks of things it was going to be excruciatingly embarrassing. Apparently my face literally said everything. Totally unimpressed. Some crappy dancers and then male dancers joining them, the compare singing possibly THE worst rendition of Ben E. King’s – Stand By Me that I have ever heard and the rather cool fire dancer. The highlight of our evening though had to be when a member of our group (Jo) got up and out of the blue started fire dancing – there is no way that she would have so easily been allowed to get up and do that in the UK – way too many health and safety restrictions!! It was a great evening full of giggles and hilarious stories all which I shan’t repeat as it was a case of you had to be there. For my own sake and any reading that were there – Julia and the fire and lift (more Ivor’s fits of giggles) and the cerveza & mojitos from Kate. We headed to the steps (Casa de la Música) and had a further mojito whilst some went salsa dancing before heading back to the Casa to establish that we had no idea how to use the key to get in, only to have the door opened (we were possibly a little giggly) from the inside by an 8 year old girl! We did think at one point that we would have to sleep in the street as the door wouldn’t budge!!

Old Havana – walking tour & salsa class with cocktails

Sleep I think happened at some point during the night. The air con was keeping me cool if nothing else! I was awake well before my alarm and dozing so I must have had some shut eye.

We had a quick briefing from Marlon after an interesting selection in the buffet breakfast laid out in the rooftop restaurant on the 5th floor. Freshly made eggs & pancakes, what looked like blamonge, an array of breads some which were sort of drizzled with chocolate. A couple of pastries amongst cold meats etc and some suspicious looking vegetable and pasta dishes. An array from potentially every potential guest from around the world! Met the rest of the group that were already here & had a few bits of info given to us and background. Thankfully he had cheered up considerably from the night before, I was already drafting the complaint letter as I tried to get to sleep! We had the money explained – essentially Cuba has two currencies in circulation. Convertibles – used every day & what we changed money into and then the Cuban Pesos which is mainly used to pay for state run things and so unlikely that we would need it if at all. It was the Cuban pesos that Cubans are paid their wages in and bills etc and some transport. It’s not just tourists that we would see queuing at the exchange houses but Cubans turning pesos into CUCs. You can withdraw from a cash point and would be charged 3% of withdrawal as a fee and when paying for anything on card – 11% He explained that he had encouraged us to change at airport as no commission rate and also he would show us the queues today – they would be long. Cubans queue for everything. We’d need passports to change money but didn’t need to carry them with us all the time.

He came out with some great sayings – my favourite which I think could potentially sum up my experience being ‘In Cuba – everything is maybe!’ meaning everything happens as its meant to less than 50% of the time. Need to keep that in mind me thinks! We talked about lunches and were told that in Cuba we have only 2 types of sandwiches – ham and cheese or cheese and ham. Good job either will do really!

We headed off and I could tell I was literally going to melt. Grateful that I had only brought with me the clothing for the sweltering heat! I’m not a shorts person and I failed to pack my skorts but this would have been the time for them! Flip flops a go go and went with lenses today (having discovered at the Hilton at Gatwick that I had 5 days of 1 lense and 15 days of another – I’m going to have to restrict when I can wear them!) and was grateful as my glasses would have slipped off my nose in the sweaty state I was in!

The old school American cars were everywhere – it was awesome. Next to our hotel (The Plaza Hotel) is a new hotel being built and upgraded to be the most expensive hotel in Havana to be able to accomodate the expected American influx in the next couple of years if the restrictions and so on ever get lifted and current political issues solved. Marlon’s first job was in the 5th floor teaching English as a foreign language to secondary kids. It’s not far from El Floridita which is the bar that they say Hemingway drank his daquiries from. I have a feeling we might well be partaking in one this evening!

Walking down into the old centre I soaked in the surroundings, from street sellers trying to flog you hats and fans to the extensive queues outside the exchange houses. The cobbled streets and fine architectural fronts of buildings, often a facade for a dilapidated building in behind. The noise of the Spanish Cuban being spoken at top speed by the locals to the occasional loud American accent. It was a bustling vibrant centre awash with locals and tourists alike. We paused every now and then in the shaded areas (thank god) to hear a bit of the history of the location or what the buildings were that we were seeing. We walked mainly down pedestrianised streets, it wasn’t until we were walking down roads with the cars that the time warp effect kicked in. It was as if you were walking on a film set of say Casablanca or Grease even – clearly the Caribbean version of the films of that era.

Our walking tour took us primarily to the four main squares in the old town. The first being the Cathedral Square where we heard a little more about the religion in Cuba. Primarily Catholic but there is also Santeria. It stems from the beliefs of the Yoruba people of Western Africa who would have originally come over to Cuba as slaves. As they were forbidden by the Spanish to practise their faith the slaves used to find ways of hiding images of their gods behind those of Catholic saints to whom they we forced to pay homage. It was because of this that for example the patron saint of Cuba is the Virgen de la Caridad del Cobre and she also embodies the orisha known as Oshun who is the goddess of femininity and are both believed to provide protection during birth. She is always depicted in yellow to represent honey and sweet things and of course, fertility. The cathedral was dedicated to her. A rather baroque looking building with rather splendid three other sides hat formed a courtyard effect. It was here that we established that Cubans always spot the tourists and are always wanting a contribution for their efforts. The two ladies who planted smackers on one of the gentlemen on the tours face to the elderly gentleman in all his finery pretend smoking the biggest, fattest cigar that you’d ever seen!

Old Man smoking a cigar – mainly as a tourist trap for money

 

The Cathedral Plaza

From here we moved on to the Plaza Armas another stunning square with beautiful architecture all of different styles this time however. The centre was full with greenery and surrounding this were hoards of second hand book sellers. Serious revolution magazines and artifacts (the cynic in me doubted their originality) as well as the books were for sale.

From here it was a short stroll to Plaza de San Francisco which had a whole load of highly decorated sculptures in it that reminded me of the Shaun figures and so on that have recently been in Bristol. It’s just off this square where the cruise ships dock  as the Terminal Sierra Maestra pretty much takes up one full side of the square making it feel rather open. The St Francis of Assisi church is also found in this square – though it’s now more of a museum and concert location rather than an active church. There’s not much to this particular square it must be said and as a result we passed through it quite quickly and on to the Plaza Vieja (Old Square – though ironically not actually so).

Plaza Vieja

The Plaza Vieja is the most redeveloped spots in Habana Vieja having been repaved and the majority of the facades of the buildings returned to their original state. A large fountain at the centre of the square was bizarrely surrounded by fencing but I couldn’t quite work out why. It was clear why this square was seen as the focus for the local community, ideal for a market day or festival and is now a  centre for urban activity. Just off this square is the Cafe Taberna where we would be returning a little later in the day for our salsa class and quick cocktail making lesson.

Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun and it was time for some food as we were starting to get peckish and also rather thirsty. I was sweating bucket loads, it was most unpleasant. Marlon took us for a cheese & ham or ham & cheese sandwich at the Hotel Ambos Mundos, a well known hotel and Havana classic built in the early 20s that was a base for Ernest Hemingway for around 10 years from 1932. It’s thought that it was from here that he wrote Death in the Afternoon and possibly started For whom the bell tolls (I’m not sure I’ve ever read a Hemingway book I must say to all of these references to him, despite knowing who he is are rather going over my head! On the to do list I think for the new year). There are amazing roof top views of the city from here as the bar was on the top floor. Most of us decided not to wait for the lift, instantly regretted that decision on about floor three with tired and aching legs from the extra burst of energy in the heat. The lift that had clearly been there since the building was first built was a rather spectacular caged elevator and it was around this that we essentially wound our way to the top. Mojitos all round pretty much and there was slightly more of an option on the food front but I stuck to the cheese and ham sarnie as that fitted the bill for me perfectly. It was seriously warm, with an hour of free time I was a little unsure what to do but decided on a stroll rather than heading back to the hotel.

They weren’t all mine – promise!!

My first mojito

I ended up in just wandering around the Plaza Armas again and down one of the streets that led off it past the castle and sort of did a loop down a few of the roads that we had not already walked down this morning spotted a lot of the old style cars ready for customers to take on rides around the city. I think that there will be a lot of us doing those tours at some point! Trying to take in the street life of Havana. The roads are so uneven it’s absurd – the suspension on all the cars must be shot to  pieces.

We headed early to the Salsa dancing location, Cafe Taberna, looking for a drink before the class, only to find that several others had a similar idea. We were the only ones in the bar really and the class went quickly as the band was ready to leave. Dressed all in white, many with dark glasses on they looked like a typical band from Cuba. All elderly gentlemen too it must be said. Honestly, dancing is just not my thing. I can do a very good funky chicken but that’s about it. Salsa dancing was really something that I was suddenly going to find an unbridled passion for. I hid out of sight as much as possible (from the instructor) to avoid being picked on. Over tired and over heating I could sense a sense of humour failure was rapidly approaching. Three forward steps, three back three to the side and then the other and foot behind. Oh this is easy was being muttered, oh god we have an audience – but they are just watching my arse as well. As hard as I tried to concentrate on my footwork, this was going to be an unmitigated disaster. The others went left I went right they went forward I was going left. Never have I been more grateful for a class to end (well bar the one with the Ofsted inspector watching & my class just misbehaving at EVERY turn – but I digress). Then came the bit of the prebooked activity that was more up my street – the cocktail making class. This was more of a watch me make 15 mojitos type of affair if I’m honest. I’m not arguing – I mean we drank them. There seemed to be a hell of a lot of rum going in them all it must be said. Apparently you count to ten when pouring it??!!!! It must be watered down for tourists or something as despite it tasting strong, it had little effect on me? We had a few more and a few were made by members of the group – mainly as a photo opportunity more than anything.

Cafe Taberna – salsa dancing location

Tat shopping followed the salsa affair on our way back to the hotel. A very tat-tastic market was spotted on the way into the old town area and so that was what we tried heading back to find. A few fridge magnets and key rings purchased and a couple of beautiful mounted photos which I intend on framing once home. Our last bit of shopping before heading back to the hotel was to stock up on some water, we would need some for the walk tomorrow in the Vinales region if not just in general for when in our rooms to try rehydrating from the heat. We hit the supermarket round the corner from the hotel. This was a smack of reality in the face to put it mildly. If not really appreciated a lot of things about Cuba, this one was the food situation. Not only was there no water (sold out and this was 4pm) but it was absolutely nothing like a conventional UK supermarket that you are possibly thinking of in your heads. It was a large room around the edge of which were glass cabinets with some goods in and shelves behind with more. Each was manned and your goods would be given to you from behind the counter & paid for by the looks of things. All that we could really see on offer were rice, rum, soft drinks, dried pasta, tins of things and honestly that looked about it. We went into the next door supermarket and it was essentially the same situation. This one had a hideously pungent smell of meat that had been left out in the heat. Still no water however. There are fridges in the rooms which we had water in and could pay for so we, as tourists, were lucky. I couldn’t quite believe that this was actually their supermarkets.

We had a meal altogether in a restaurant not far from the Plaza Cathedral and was a rooftop terrace – nice to have a bit of a breeze. There were 15 of us at this stage and so it was a case of trying to remember who the hell was part of our group as we trundled our way through the streets of the Old Town. Normally I’m pretty spot on with my sense of direction and I knew where we were headed but had not consulted the map – too damned tired to do so!! It was a pretty decent set menu but I can see that I will indeed be having a pretty staple diet out here of chicken, rice and black beans. There were nasty peppers lurking in pretty much everything else or it was seafood. I will never get the idea of, in a climate like this, offering soup on the menu as the only option. Trying to establish if there were peppers in that too or shell fish ended up later in the week just getting way too difficult and I’d pretend to sup the soup from the spoon but have no more than a mouthful at that. Of course we had the musical accompaniment during dinner which blatantly none of us were listening to but yet the tips basket was waved precariously under all of our noses until someone threw some coins in so they would also stop trying to sell us their cd as well. This, we could all tell, would become a regular thing soon enough!

After dinner drinks were just around the corner from the hotel at El Floridita which was one of Hemmingway’s regular haunts in his hay day. It was here that he supposedly drank his daquiries and chatted on the corner of the bar. There is a statue of him there now and several black and white photos of him with famous people. Him with Fidel being closest to the statue. There was the bar itself and then the seating area was all sort of in pairs with tables all seats facing the bar. All heavy iron, what I’d imagine back in the UK put out out on the decking not really in a bar. It looked like they served food as well, not that we needed anymore after our meal out. We all supped our frozen daquiries and I hit my brick wall of tiredness and headed back to the hotel with one of the others. We left them all there with rumours of some planning to go dancing and more drinking. Normally you don’t really need to ask me twice if I want another drink but my usual response of ‘oh go on then’ was just not going to happen this evening. Bed called. Hopeful that I wouldn’t get stuck in the lift like one of the other ladies did this morning (lift was funnily enough still out of service and never came back into service even by the time we left?!), that none of my stuff had been knicked and that my room hadn’t turned into a hothouse for mozzies! (Thankfully no to all of the above!)

Ernest Hemingway’s bar of choice for daquiries

  

The joys of flying 

I was packed to perfection with my hand luggage. That was until I needed to get anything from my bag and then everything had to be turned out as it was invariably at the bottom! The copious amounts of shopping I managed to squeeze in at Gatwick South really didn’t help either. Breakfast at Wetherspoons with a glass of bubbles – just because.

I’d given myself the luxury of staying in the Hilton at the airport as I was due to check in around 7/730am. Quite early enough thank you very much. Parked in Purple Parking which was most confusing as its where the Airparks car park was that I always parked in for my flights to Sharm. Think I must have done meet & greet last time I went. I wondered why the journey seemed so darned familiar. Was upgraded on arrival at the Hilton – helps when you ask to add points to your Hilton Honours card (only ever collected points in Sharm before now!!). The bed was comfy & I promise you it was quieter than sleeping in the room above the garage at my parents. There were JUMBO JETS flying over my head all night & I heard not one.

Aware that I wasn’t likely to get online in Cuba I spent the eve & morning messaging loved ones & putting generic message on Facebook. I’ve read the guide books – there’s little to no wifi & even then you have to pay as mobiles etc are such a recent thing in Cuba. Despite this, my gorgeous brother who of course is always right let’s not forget, proceeded to inform me after I mentioned the lack of wifi that things had changed there in the last 2 months & there was going to be wifi everywhere. The infrastructures in this landlocked island of Cuba were reputable screwed at the best of times with ROADS incomplete. The likelihood of wifi suddenly – in 2 months – being available country wide was about as likely as, well a very unlikely thing. But readers please do not think that this is the only time he has been proven wrong, I feel inclined to share the time that brother dearest tried to tell us all that we were actually pronouncing limas incorrectly and it wasn’t as we all pronounce but instead pronounced – leeeemuuuure. It’s why he will forever be in my phone as that. Pillock. (Love you H!! Xxx)

Flying the Spanish equivalent of easyjet I’d already read it was basics only. I was expecting to pay for food & drinks. The flight to Madrid to get the onward connection was exactly this. Surrounded by screaming children and snotty noses I sprayed the First Defence up each nostril (thanks Father Xmas) and pulled out the adult colouring book to keep me occupied. Couldn’t get food or drink as had no card machine working. Amazing.

When I’ve been on these trips before you do always seem to look at everyone on the flight wondering if they are with Explore or not. The only time it was easier to do this was having got off at Madrid to get the connection. Having been very randomly wiped in severely odd places with a piece of cloth – palms, crease of elbow, wrist & shoulders (in that order) I was looking somewhat bemused at having been searched by a male security & thankful it was no more than that (the underwire in my bra is usually a beaut for setting the alarms going!) I passed a comment of some form to the couple in the queue behind me before walking on to the gate, only for them to appear behind me & on asking established that they are on the tour too. Double bonus tho as they had spotted that the flight was delayed so at least I had some company for what turned into the two hour delay. I’d have been quite happy on my own mind as I’d logged on to the free airport wifi & was following the Bath match. (We won about 5 min before boarding – hoorah!!)

I’d been given a middle seat in the middle – the girl next to me promptly fell asleep even before take off & I got the air stewardess to find me an aisle seat as it thankfully wasn’t full. My fellow passenger who I nicknamed Huff in my head, was NOT impressed that I was now sat next to him & proceeded to huff constantly. He was a German engineer – spotted only from his landing card, not by actual communications – I’d have just had a huff. Lady behind me kept stretching her leg out and raising it up as if it was actually going to hit my face – most disconcerting! We were fed & watered and all things considered it was pretty decent. But then I was expecting slop – oh no, sorry that’s what I’ll be on all week!!

The sound didn’t work on the audio thing – we were going old school with the screens in the middle and a big one at the front. Wasn’t just me tho it appeared. Not actually sure why they bothered keeping it going?!! The landing cards came round with a sheet of paper in Spanish. I will never know what the piece of paper said as when I asked if there was a version in English, reasonable request I felt?!, I was told ‘No’ & it was taken off me! Charmed.

Watched Building Jerusalem on the way over on the iPhone. I’m sure I was reacting to watching the coverage perhaps even talking to the screen at points and I know I laughed at one point as I got some looks!!

Only a 2 or so hour delay into Havana and hate to think what time we start in the morning. Sod the coffee first thing – mohitos all the way!!

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