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Colourful, Captivating Cuba

Elaine Bass | Mon 24 May 2010

March 14. We flew from Gatwick – delayed some 4 hours but just made the time window for the crew and had a good flight to Havana. There was considerable confusion in the baggage retrieval area at Havana but eventually all bags were retrieved and the entire party was on the coach and heading for Vinales. There was some disappointment that the transfer was in darkness but we arrived safely at the hotel at 1.15am, only to be told that the clocks had been put forward that night and it was in fact 2.15am. Bed time!

March 15. Wow! Opening the doors on to the terrace revealed stunning views across the Vinales valley and its Mogotes; the huge limestone hillocks that it is famed for. Everything was gleaming in the early morning sun and compensated absolutely for our late arrival the night before. Simon, our tour leader, had delayed the first briefing until 10.00 by which time it was already hot. Official Cuban guides Ricardo and Rafael were introduced and by 11.00 we were walking into the surrounding farmland and immersing ourselves in the sights, sounds and smells of Cuba.

Many in the group were keen birdwatchers, many were keen botanists and others just enjoyed wildlife in general; but all proved to be enthusiastic sniffers, tasters and munchers of the various leaves, fruits and concoctions offered as we made our way. At a bend in the track bananas and guava were piled on an old, immobile cart, and as we stopped to look at them a farmer appeared with a broad smile (he would make a little money today). He was wearing a unique pair of boots; one leather, one rubber and both split! The fruit was delicious and after much smiling we walked on, stopping and starting as Rafael talked us through the various plant life and the gang aimed their cameras and binoculars at the flowers and birds

Further on we wandered into a fruit farm where pineapples grew in abundance. The guides gathered several of these and we made for the farm house where the pineapples were set on a stone bench, cut with large, razor sharp knives into slices, laid out on banana leaves and served in the shade of the verandah. Magic – still warm from the sun. We later explored the town, bought ourselves (late) lunch and heard our first Cuban music16 March. Back on schedule today we walked along the rim of the valley to a viewpoint, descended sharply to the valley floor and walked through farmland stopping at a tobacco plantation. There we were served strong, sweet coffee and guava juice under the verandah, closely scrutinised by the daughter of the household who was clearly puzzled by us! We were invited to watch the hand-picked tobacco leaves being precisely threaded and hung on long racks by women in a barn, then raised to the rafters to dry. No mechanisation here

We were driven to Cueva del Indio for (late) lunch and to explore the caves, initially on foot and then by boat on the underground river, eventually returning to the brilliant sunshine outside. Another excellent day

17 March. On the road today, a fairly short drive to Soroa and a visit to its Orchidarium, perched on a steep hillside. It was warm and steamy, having rained lightly, and the visit was enhanced by the most engaging guide who walked and talked us round. Her enthusiasm for her subject was exceeded only by the power of her voice and her ability to hold the attention of a diverse bunch of ramblers.

Lunch (not so late today) at the hotel then free time, which the majority of us spent walking up a local peak, the Mirador, with distant views of the Caribbean. At the top we were above the turkey vultures, giving us better opportunities to photograph them; and perfectly located for the first onslaught of bitey things (not all of us had applied the essential jungle juice!). Back to the hotel, dinner and an invitation to the poolside bar for salsa lessons (which didn’t materialise). But the band was live, the music good, and some local dancers demonstrated their exciting routines. Great stuff.

18 March. Moving on again – this time to Havana’s domestic terminal to fly to Baracoa at the eastern end of the island. There was time to spare before the flight and our guides managed to negotiate an ad hoc tour of the extensive Havana Botanical Gardens, escorted by the assistant director no less. Arriving at the airport in good time it appeared that our plane was not expected, despite having been confirmed the day before. Somewhat disconcerting for a while but, as is “the Cuban way”, everything happened as planned – just a little later than planned.

The flight was good, the landing immaculate (just as well because the runway is short with sea at both ends), and the transfer to the hotel brief and colourful. Drinks at the poolside bar, some Cuban music, dinner and then bed

19 March. Our first excursion to the rainforest – very exciting – transported by two small trucks to the start of the walk. A local guide led us up into the forest, some areas of which were managed by local farmers growing coffee and fruit in the shade of the taller trees. High in the hills we came across a school (the smallest in Cuba?) with just five young pupils and a teacher. We were invited in and, for some of us at least, the calculations on the blackboard were quite daunting! Further on was a small fruit farm where the diminutive owner made us home grown coffee (strong and sweet) and allowed us free range of her home and garden. Running water was delivered to the house by a series of bamboo poles, cut lengthways like gutters and mounted overhead on props. These fed water from a stream uphill down to the house, either serving the kitchen sink or diverted to the outside simply by moving one of the pipes; any overflow or waste naturally finding its way back to the stream. Ingenious, and a variation from wildlife for the photographers!

We continued walking, sharing the day with birds, a substantial millipede and another farmer (again a lady) whose bananas we plundered. The trucks met us at the foot of the hills and delivered us for a late (very) lunch at Finca Toa where our stew was served in half bamboo “dishes”. Many of us then piled into three boats and were rowed peacefully up-river then down, watching the water birds and wildlife.

The coach was waiting on our return and we arrived back at the hotel in good time for dinner, after which a small number of us headed into town to sample the local nightlife. Music is everywhere in Cuba and on Friday nights, which this was, the locals themselves go out to play. We had a vibrant, fun evening, enjoying the live music, watching the locals dance (in a manner that defies description – how do their bodies move that way?) then gradually joining in as inhibitions waned. Enthusiasm spilled over at breakfast the following morning and many more made the foray the following evening!

20 March. A gentle walk this morning, for the most part in light drizzle. A different local guide led us through a forest track to Mata Bay, a peaceful lagoon surrounded by coconut palms. The sea beyond was restless and as we walked on to Cacquajo the obvious currents deterred all but the strongest swimmers from taking a dip. Most paddled (!) and all were rewarded with coconut milk, fresh grapefruit and hot and strong sweet coffee delivered by a local farmer. The sun had won the day by that time and it was a very pleasant break before walking back to meet the coach

Other memories include the thick, glutinous red mud which engulfed our boots, weighing us down and refusing absolutely to come off, and the long, suspended plank bridge which spanned a wide river and flopped about all over the place as we crossed. Fun for some, not for others!

Free time in the afternoon exploring Baracoa (mostly in small groups), buying lunch and experiencing an earthquake – felt more by some than others. No damage was done and it was dinner as usual at the hotel after which a considerable number of us headed down town for more Cuban music and high jinks.

21 March. A damp morning for our transfer to Santiago. Ricardo assured as that once we crossed the mountains the weather would change, and it did. Gone were the luxuriant green mountains; here was a coastal landscape, rocky with a clear blue sea (the Caribbean), sunny and hot with cacti everywhere. We passed Guantanamo Bay (photo stop) and drove on to Santiago, via fort El Castillo where we had lunch and explored for a while. In Santiago Ricardo led our first city tour, sharing the history of the revolution with us. It had happened in our lifetimes, but distantly, and to see the streets and bullet strafed buildings and hear about the events surrounding the drive for change was fascinating. Our hotel was out of town so a quiet night was in order

22 March. On the road again, this time heading for Camaguey, through the Sierra Maestra. We were dropped off in the centre of Bayamo for a rum cocktail and more Cuban music. It must be said that “Guantanamera” was wearing a bit thin by now…. We had a brief tour about town and lunch before rejoining the coach for the drive on to Camaguey

Our hotel, the Colon, was right in the centre of Camaguey and had bags of character, with small bedrooms arranged around a long, open well, reminiscent of the cells in a prison. The lobby and bar areas had high ceilings and tiled floors beautifully preserved and the courtyard was a delightful place to eat. The in-crowd hit the town again but Monday was evidently not the night in Camaguey so canned music was settled for in a quiet bar before returning to the hotel and bed.

23 March. A wet morning and a surprise for us. We were expecting a brief, guided walk about Camaguey before travelling on so we gathered outside the hotel and followed the guides around a corner where waiting for us were 13 rickshaws! We paired up and clambered aboard, wiping what rain we could from the seats, then spent an amazing hour or two being taxied around, stopping and dismounting in different places to hear Ricardo’s explanations and descriptions of the various buildings, businesses and individual curiosities that we came upon. Great fun – and then the sun came out.

We set off for Trinidad, stopping for lunch at Sancti Spiritus. One of our number was celebrating her 60th birthday and Ricardo had somehow managed to secure a splendid cake complete with candles! There were, of course, Cuban musicians present (Guantanamera again!) who gave a superb rendition of Happy Birthday. A short walk about this pleasant town and back to the coach for the last stretch to Trinidad

After dinner the hotel had a loud (in all senses) al fresco floor show which we watched before going to bed

24 March. After three days travelling it was great to be walking out again, this time at Rancho Cubano. We ran into a few more “Cuban way” problems due to not picking up a local guide on time and then arriving behind a large group which we preferred to let get away before we began the walk. This area had many birds and a wealth of plants for Rafael to describe so we made slow but enjoyable progress. Some of the group went ahead but we all came together at the Javira waterfall where a stream has carved out a deep pool and steep sided gorge. The brave amongst us jumped from the side of this into the pool, two swimming into the cave behind where they found stalactites and bats. The walk away from the fall alongside the stream was beautiful

Lunch was taken back at Rancho Cubano from where we returned to Trinidad for a tour of the town, bustling and filled with Cuban life – a delightful contrast to the quiet beauty of the morning. Its cobbled streets wound their way between colourful, restored colonial buildings and those waiting, propped up, for their turn to come. We saw a man walking a pig on a lead, went into a local shop selling basic foodstuffs to ration cardholders, visited a small but excellent museum and stopped at a bar where Cuban music was being played. Here we were served a rum cocktail par excellence and were encouraged to join in some simple dance lessons. Two did – the rest of us content just to take photographs and enjoy the cocktail (it really was good!)

25 March. Another slow start due mainly to our coach needing repair. We were collected instead by two large army trucks for the drive to Topes de Collantes in the mountains behind Trinidad, an exhilarating ride on a bright, sunny day. There were a number of “Cuban way” delays en route but we finally got there and were rewarded with an excellent walk through the forest, taken at some speed this time, particularly the uphill stretches! We descended into a valley to another stream, this time flowing through a partly collapsed cave with a number of pools rising into the darkness beyond. This proved irresistible to some who explored at length whilst others languished beside the stream in the sunshine

After a stop to eat our sandwiches (yes, sandwiches!) we walked on, crossing a pole bridge over another stream and coming upon a man spit roasting a pig over an open fire. Rafael took a turn at this as did another member of the group, the latter proving more willing than adept! When we rejoined the trucks it was to be driven along a ridge some 1000 metres high with panoramic views over the forest and surrounding mountains. This took us back toTopes de Collantes from where we bumped down the winding roads we had driven up in the morning

Many of us headed for town that night joining a crowd sitting on the steps outside the main church where a big band was playing excellent music. Some local dancers mesmerised us with their high speed salsa, first one couple, then two and finally three, dancing together and swapping partners so smoothly. There were other dancers on the floor but all eyes were on that group

26 March. We left Trinidad behind us and set off on the long drive to Havana, stopping on the way to witness the suicidal tendencies of land crabs crossing one of the main highways. We also stopped briefly in the very attractive city of Cienfuegos and then headed on to the Bay of Pigs, stopping for (late) lunch at Cueva de los Pesces. Here the Caribbean tempted several swimmers to take the plunge in its crystal clear, turquoise water. The rocks on the shoreline were razor sharp but no casualties were reported. On again and then another stop, frustrating perhaps as the entire group was keen to get to Havana, but we were quickly loaded on to two high speed boats and jetted in plumes of spray along waterways leading to a restored Indian village. The village may not have been exciting but the boat trip was! We saw many birds including pelicans and an osprey, which obligingly scooped a fish from the water as we came up behind it

Another high speed boat ride back was followed by a walk round the crocodile farm then back on the coach. Hanava here we come – at last!

We arrived late in Havana and were delighted to find we had rooms at the famous Ambos Mundos Hotel, one time residence of Ernest Hemingway. At least most of us did! There was some confusion about the number of single rooms but after considerable negotiation by Ricardo and patient waiting on the part of the six singles, six rooms were eventually made available to us in “the Cuban way”. Dinner was consequently taken late but a few of us headed into town to experience the magic of the old city with its subtly lit squares and its music exuding from almost every building. To walk along the waterfront in the warm, dark night was really special

27 March. Breakfast on the rooftop terrace then our final city tour with Ricardo. We were taken through the main tourist areas but also shown the back side of the city; the taxi rank by China Town where dozens of old American automobiles ply for trade; the spot behind the Capitol where old steam engines are being renovated – or waiting to be renovated ! The old city combines dilapidated, tumble down buildings with those beautifully restored. It perfectly illustrates Cuba as the land of contrasts that it is. The tour ended in Plaza Vieja, almost as beautiful in daylight as at night, where once again we split into small groups to have lunch and spend a free afternoon exploring.

That night most of us headed for Plaza Vieja for one last night out. Music from a bar across the square finished early and a few of us set off on a quest to find more. Numbers dwindled as many places were closing but those who continued finally found a bar, the Monseratte, near one of Hemingway’s haunts where local music was playing. There we stayed until closing at around midnight then walked back through the city for the last time

28 March. A free day to explore Havana as we chose before our flight home – so much to see in so little time! Comparing notes later some of us had simply walked around the old city, soaking up sights and sounds, others had taken boat trips and visited the forts, others still had walked the Malecon. All had spent a relaxing and enjoyable day. None was surprised to learn that our flight would be delayed!

What a trip!

Cuba exceeded my expectations in every way. I personally would have liked two or three days more in Havana but I would not have wanted to spend less time anywhere else. This was my first Ramblers Worldwide Holidays tour, indeed my first ever tour, and it was brilliant. I will be back for more.

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