Friday, 19 August 2016

Leaving Havana, again

Despite her late finish, Ines appeared on time next morning and served our breakfast in her usual cheery manner. We settled up for our drinks, did our final packing and agreed a departure time.

We had hoped to have dinner at Dona Eutimia last night but returned too late, so we are lunching there for an early lunch today instead. Before lunch I go out in search of souvenirs; in fact there's little to buy but I manage to get some bits and pieces including the obligatory fridge magnet. We thoroughly enjoy our final meal in Havana - in my case, particularly the mojitos de casa which are basically a dangerously refreshing mojito slushie. 

We say our goodbyes to Ines and the Havana rep arrives to hand us over to the driver who will take us to the international airport. Unsurprisingly when we arrive the queues are long and there's no clear reason why everything is taking so long. We bump into Hugh Dennis again and he tells us they did finally manage to eat at the restaurant in Trinidad and it was the worst meal they had in Cuba. We queue behind a Cuban man who tells us how difficult life still is - he now lives in Surrey and only returns for holidays. As a place to visit I can certainly recommend Cuba, but I don't think I'd like to live there either.

POSTSCRIPT

We chose to visit Cuba in 2016 because we wanted to experience its idiosyncrasies before they were undermined by closer ties with the USA. Since Fidel Castro ceded some control to his brother Raoul, citizens have begun to take advantage of new opportunities to open up their homes as Casas Particulares and set up private restaurants. These are stimulating an entrepreneurial culture that allows visitors a wider choice as well as generating individual wealth that was unheard of a decade ago. It’s definitely a country on the cusp of change, but there are many reminders of the hardships suffered during its more isolated period and in many respects it feels like a country frozen in time.

Since we returned, the USA has elected Trump and Fidel has died, creating a new and interesting dynamic where Cuba is likely to become more open to external influences at the same time as the USA less inclined to pursue closer ties. Raoul has already instigated a pilot home internet project and it will be interesting to see to what extent Cuba opens up now he has full control. Due to lack of infrastructure and capital, progress is likely to be slow unless Russia or China steps into the void created by America’s disengagement. So, perhaps it will be a few years yet before the dreaded golden arches “adorn” Habana Vieja.

We booked our Cuban journey through Putney Travel with the expert guidance of Charlie Panton. He created a bespoke itinerary for us based around our chosen destinations, giving us the best of both worlds – travelling independently with the freedom to stop and check out anything that caught our interest but with pre-arranged accommodation and a safety net in case of unexpected events. Our itinerary turned out to be almost perfect, except that we should have pre-arranged a wildlife trip into the Zapata peninsula – it was our plan to do so on arrival at Playa Giron but somehow we never got round to it. Staying in Casas Particulares was a good choice, giving some insight into real Cuban life and helping contribute directly to the local economy. The best piece of advice Charlie gave us was to allow a full day in Havana for picking up our hire car. The internal flight from Cayo Coco to Havana was a low point but unavoidable given the eccentric way the flights are scheduled, with timings changing literally from day to day.

Here are my top 10 travel hacks for making the most of a trip to Cuba:

  1. Take a multi-socket adaptor – there are few electrical sockets – and a torch for powercuts
  2. If you like highly-flavoured food, take your own bottle of hot sauce and/or spice mill – the food can be samey and bland
  3. Stock up on fuel, water and cash when you can – cambios run out of cash, filling stations run out of fuel and there are no shops between towns
  4. Take sterling, not dollars – there’s a 10% surcharge on exchanging dollars, sterling gives you a better rate
  5. Take a debit card, not a credit card … ATMs are widely available but credit cards are almost never accepted
  6. If travelling off the beaten track, change a small amount of CUCs into MNs for roadside restaurants outside towns (£2-3 per person is plenty)
  7. Learn some basic Spanish if you plan to stay in Casas Particulares, most hosts don’t speak English
  8. Be prepared to wait – service is slow, queues are a way of life and delays are inevitable, even if you have an appointment
  9. Don’t drive after dark – the roads are full of potholes and stray animals
  10. Vintage cars are picturesque but unreliable – great for sightseeing around Havana but not to be trusted for longer journeys (especially on those roads!)

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Leaving Cayo Coco - eventually

Simon and I breakfast early and are packed and down by the pool by 10. I am determined to photograph a hummingbird - quite a challenge as they move so fast but they do hum so I listen first, then look for the source. I manage to grab a couple of shots and when I return to the pool Alex has materialised. Alex and Simon play a final game of cups in the pool before we shower and change ready to vacate our rooms by 12.

Drinks, lunch - today enlivened by Padron Peppers - then more drinks as we wait the day out for our pick up for the transfer back to Havana at 5pm. It's too hot to go out into the sun with no prospect of a shower, but it's not much cooler in the bar. I make a couple of trips into the air-conditioned shop just to cool down. Our coach arrives on time and picks up at a couple of other hotels, including the Melia which has rooms over a lagoon and the glamorous-looking Pullman which is brand new but approached via a pile of shipping containers that appear to be used for accommodation - hopefully temporary homes for builders rather than permanent ones for staff. There's an impressive climbing attraction by the Melia but everything is so spaced out and I'm not sure how tourists are meant to get to them.

There are just two flights leaving the Jardines los Reyes airport this afternoon - ours and one to Canada - we're all called 3 hours before which seems excessive for an internal flight, especially in a small airport with so little traffic. While Simon and I check I for this flight, Alex manages to check us in online for tomorrow's. There are only about a dozen of us in the domestic departures lounge which is furnished with a selection of blue and cream vinyl sofas and what looks like a chenille 3 piece suite from the 1980s. The snack bar has only cigarettes, fake Pringles and honey for sale. There's a TV showing the Olympics, a TV monitor showing the time but no flight information. Our flight time of 2110 comes and goes without incident, then around 20 minutes later the arrival of the inbound flight is announced.

Finally we board the prop plane that will take us back to Havana, landing at the domestic airport of Playa Baracoa about 28km west of Havana. We emerge from the tiny airport into the sticky night air and board another coach for our return to Havana. Our trip schedule had said we'd be dropped at a hotel and met by a rep who would transfer us to our accommodation but the coach rep didn't seem to know anything about it and we knew our way anyway as we were returning to Casa Arrate. In the end, we were dropped at the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis and walked to the casa, arriving after midnight. Ines was waiting to let us in and we apologised for our very late arrival.

We'd had no dinner and Alex was too tired but Simon and I went out in search of something to eat. The bar where we ate on our first night had stopped serving but they directed us down the road to a bar that opened late. Reuquia was buzzing, mostly with young locals, but we were found a seat in the mezzanine and ordered wine and toasties which were most welcome.

Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Busy doing nothing

Simon and Alex have arranged a pre-breakfast swim so I grab a proper coffee from the bar and join them. Today's surprise dish at the breakfast buffet is pigs in blankets ... real bacon this time, wrapped around frankfurters. Alex and I get smoothies made to order. Service is friendly but inept; they are often out of crockery and glasses and we haven't seen a teaspoon yet.

Alex and I go to look at the gym which is at the other end of the complex. The far blocks seem to have been mothballed as it's off-season. We meet Simon at the pool and he tells us he's seen hummingbirds; I begin to look out for them but can't find any. We bumble around the pool for the rest of the day and finish with a cup game in the pool. You half-fill a plastic cup with water and flick it to somebody who has to catch it in another plastic cup. We don't quite have enough cups so I take one for the team and order another Mojito.

We've been here two days and we're already bored with the food. At dinner Alex picks up something from the dessert table that he hoped was shortbread; his verdict was that he thought the chef hoped so too. The predominant flavours are salt and sweet but Alex has discovered a spicy sauce that he can add to made-to-order pasta. He's seen somebody with a bottle of Nando's but they must have brought it with them.

We sit in reception after dinner to try to use the wifi. I spend best part of an hour trying to log in to the Virgin website to check how and when to check in for our return flight but the connection is too slow. I manage to download my emails and upload one blog post. Our pick-up time tomorrow is precisely when online check-in opens - hopefully, this being Cuba, they'll be late!

Monday, 15 August 2016

... and relax

I manage to drop off the car despite the protestations of the mechanic who is the only person there and speaks no English; he insists we have to drop off the car at another hotel. After a phone call to the manager he inspects the car, accepts the hire documents and key and I leave our room number in case of problems. As I leave he's telling a couple of young women that there are no cars available, even though I just returned one.

The breakfast buffet is less exciting than we've become used to, with a smaller selection of fruit and terrible coffee. The "bacon" is half slices of reconstituted ham but I'm surprised to see black pudding. My pastry with unidentifiable green filling is bland but the mango juice is good. Alex hasn't bothered with breakfast and will join us later on the beach. We find a spot close to the little jetty with trees for shade. The sea looks inviting with white sand sloping gently for a long way out before the aquamarine sudden deepens to dark blue as the seabed drops away. When I go in I only see a pipe fish.

Alex finally joins us just before lunch and we eat in the snack bar where a club sandwich turns out to be a chicken, cheese and ham roll. We've managed to book a table in the Asian restaurant for tonight. More beach time this afternoon, with regular cooling dips in the sea, then back to the poolside late afternoon. Alex and I have agreed to go to the beach to take sunset photos; we only just get there in time but the sunset is gorgeous. On the way to the bar later I realise I've got several insect bites.

The Oriental restaurant is called Place Fen and only has a dozen or so tables, less than half of them occupied. The menu is limited and not especially authentic, although the potency of the wasabi takes me by surprise. The boy's soup is basically chicken stock. The food is ok and it's nice to be served, but the variety is more limited and the quality no better than the buffet. We entertain ourselves by planning what restaurants we will go to next week, before the house band arrives to entertain us.

Alex goes straight to bed after dinner; Simon and I have a nightcap in the bar.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Leaving Trinidad

Our last morning in Trinidad begins with a clear blue sky and another enormous Cuban breakfast. Marta implores us in Spanish to let others know about her Casa and wishes us a warm goodbye. There's a man painting the façade of the house as we leave. We have the usual one-way system and lack of signage to navigate but we escape without too much drama and find the road to Spiritus Sancti. I'm driving and Simon reads the guide book to work out where we will break our journey which is likely to take around 4 hours.



Spiritus Sancti isn't very far away but it's described as less visited but as picturesque as Trinidad with a famous bridge, so we decide on a drink stop there. The bridge is on the road into town so we cross it by car and then park and walk down to look at it. It's not especially remarkable to look at (to me, it resembles Sonning Bridge), but the cobbled streets leading down to it are pretty and there's a mural celebrating the towns 500th anniversary. Walking further into town we find a small square flanked by a colonnaded grocery shop and an imposing blue church. We stop for a quick drink at a riverside bar with drums for bar stools and an impressive display of Serrano hams.

Back on the road it's just under 100km to Moron where we plan to have lunch primarily on the basis of its amusing name. From here we will join the causeway that joins the Jardines de los Reyes to the mainland. The road is reasonable and the traffic fairly light with seeming more horses than motors. As we pass through villages we have to negotiate the usual selection of stray dogs, cyclists, pedestrians and potholes. Around two thirds of the way to Moron we miss a turning and the satnav takes a while to catch on. Then we miss a second turn and it becomes clear that we should turn back. Our alternative route takes us on to poorer rods that have stretches where shingle has been laid on the tarmac, creating a difficult driving surface. Our rate of progress slows considerably.

The villages are fewer here and there's very little traffic. The soil has changed colour, too - no longer red, it's now a deep, peaty brown. We manage to rejoin the road we were supposed to be on but it's little better and it's almost 2pm when we reach Moron. The Lonely Planet describes Moron as a busy town that's the hub of Cuba's rail network with an impressive station and a distinctive architectural style with colonnaded houses. It fails to live up to this description.

Moron has a grid network with no road names or other signage visible. Although the railway line skirs the approach road, we never manage to find the station. There are deep gulleys at each road junction, many filled with water so it's difficult to judge their depth. I approach each one with caution, partly to avoid getting stuck in a rut and partly so Simon can look for clues to navigate by. Eventually we stop to ask for directions to a restaurant mentioned in the Lonely Planet.

The young man I speak to has reasonable English and tells e that the owner of the restaurant has sold up and it has closed. This is a common ruse in Cuba so they can send you instead to a restaurant they are touting for, but we are short of time and I ask for a recommendation. He directs us to one called Las Ruedas a few blocks away, and directs us part of the way to a junction where we ask for further directions. A brief but energetic argument breaks out over the best route but finally we are directed to a dusty track between run-down houses where we find the restaurant. Despite the unpromising location, Las Ruedas is airy and bustling, with a few tables already occupied under a thatched canopy. The waiter is friendly and welcoming, speaks English and turns out to be called Alex. Optimistically, the boys order Chicken Fajitas and I choose Ropas Viejas. The food is pretty good, although fajitas seems to mean fried with onions and green beans.

Back on the road we struggle to find the route to Cayo Coco and have to turn back to avoid a deep, rain-filled rut where the side road joins the highway. Eventually we work out which road to take by using the kilometre markers that show the distance from Havana along the main highway. It's 496, incidentally.

Bearing in mind that it's apparently Cuba's second beach resort the continued lack of signage is baffling - we're finally reassured by roadside advertising hoardings for the company that runs the resorts - the first such ads we have seen, normally there is only propaganda. We reach a police checkpoint where they check our passport details and destination hotel, collect a $2 toll charge and then we're on the causeway that runs for 27km to the cays. The water appears shallow and we stop to look at some flamingos, getting a much better view than we managed on the lake. It's an odd experience driving for such a long distance over a road that's only just above sea level, but finally water gives way to woodland as we reach the Jardines des Reyes.

We see signs for airports and hotels but no buildings are visible through the trees until we reach a partly-constructed bank and a small leisure centre with a bowling alley. Everything seems deserted. We arrive at our hotel and unload the little Peugeot for the last time. I'm directed to the car park where there is a small rental office; predictably it is closed although it has a sign saying it closes at 5pm and it's only 4.30.

First impressions of the Memories Flamingo Beach are good; our rooms are spacious and not too far from the main complex, with sea views. The resort is only 3 storeys high - one of the main reasons we chose it over high-rise Varadero. We go to the pool and relax for a while then explore the beach.


It's narrow but has soft white sand. There are loungers and a few hammocks and a picturesque jetty. We take some photos then get ready for dinner. The buffet restaurant isn't too bad, with stations where fish, meat and pasta dishes are prepared to order. The wine isn't too bad either, although the red is more chilled than the white. There's a baffling dance flashmob that briefly blocks the access to the buffet counter. When it's over Alex collects a 1L tub of ice cream, following the instructions to take the whole tub.

After dinner we play Tarot in the bar and listen to a fashion show and cabaret in the adjacent theatre.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

In Trinidad

My plan to slip out quietly before breakfast to take photos is almost scuppered by the front door lock so I have less time to explore than I had planned. than I had planned. The streets are almost deserted and seem frozen in time; my short cut gets me lost and I'm a little late for breakfast.

All 3 of us go out mid-morning and head for the Plaza Carillo, the town's second square. We notice crowds of Cubans queueing for slices of gaudily-iced birthday cakes. We remember that the Kiwi we met yesterday had told us today is Fidel's 90th birthday and it quickly becomes clear that this is something of a big deal. This is confirmed when a band strikes up with "Happy Birthday". There is quite a party atmosphere; people are keen to share the news and as we continue our walk we notice "Viva Fidel" chalked on the pavements in the squares.

We're scouting for somewhere to have lunch when we stumble across an unexpected slice of capitalism - a modest shopping centre complete with central seating area and piped music. There is a supermarket, sports shop and a place selling toiletries plus posters featuring archetypal happy families advertising the fact that this facility is provided by a company called Caracol. I later notice that they also run several other places in Trinidad, like the tobacconist and the "mini super" near our casa.

Alex is thirsty and we attempt to buy drinks in Canchanchara bar, famous for its honey rum, but give up waiting and go to a courtyard café where a whole pig is being roasted on a spit turned by a man - surely the most boring job in the world. We could hear the music from the bar round the corner where the birthday celebrations continued. We plotted the rest of our route around Trinidad's attractions and realised that the cathedral closed in half an hour. We headed there when we finished our drinks and were amused by statues of Santa Ana and Santa Rita.

Our next stop was the Museo Historico Municipal, housed in the extravagant mansion built by a German who poisoned the slave-trader husband of the woman he coveted so he could marry her, only to have her die in suspicious circumstances, conveniently leaving him the fortune she inherited from her husband. We marvel at the uncharacteristic grandeur of the mansion and enjoy the relative coolness of its colonnaded courtyard but the boys have had enough sightseeing and escape to the Plaza Major while I visit the town's most iconic building, the Museo Nacional de la Lucha Contra Banditos.

The content of the museum are somewhat random but the main attraction is the yellow bell-tower of the former convent of San Francisco de Asis, which I climb to enjoy the views across the terracotta rooftops. A sign on the staircase advises visitors not to ring the bells. It's a great vantage point for viewing the birthday celebrations taking place on the street below where another hog is being roasted.

As I descend the unthinkable happens - my camera battery runs out and as I arrive in the Plaza I find a teenage girl in a midnight blue ballgown being photographed, accompanied by a sizeable entourage. I find the boys and borrow Simon's phone as an emergency camera, then it's back to the casa for much-needed cold drinks.

The boys stay behind while I go out with a fresh camera battery for another look around. The light is different again, as a cloudy sky means fewer harsh shadows, and there is little traffic.

I spot some men playing Mah Jongg on the street and buy a t-shirt for Kyrie from a tiny shop (it's his birthday while we're away); it's more expensive than it would be at home and no doubt poorer quality but I hope I'm supporting the local economy. The mysterious photo shoot has moved on to a different location and the girl has changed her dress.

We've booked a table on the rooftop terrace of the Vista Gourmet restaurant. Our plan is to have a drink before dinner at the Beatles-themed Yesterday bar but around 6pm it begins to rain and before long it's a full-on thunderstorm. Normally the rain here is heavy but brief, however today it shows no sign of stopping and eventually we set off and pick our way through the flooded streets, sheltering beneath the overhanging tiles as we go.


We arrive at the restaurant where it becomes clear that the roof terrace is uncovered and there is no contingency plan. We're trying to work out our next move when Hugh Dennis arrives with his two children (older than Alex); he, too, had reserved a rooftop table but he has the advantage of a son who's fluent in Spanish. They negotiate while the house magician "steals" my watch and tries to sell us a trick box for $10. It seems that if we return later it should be possible to eat as either the roof terrace will be dry or those dining inside will have finished, and agree with the host that 8.30/9pm is a reasonable time.  Hugh and his family head uphill to a bar they found earlier; we go downhill and find ourselves in a bar called "Wakey Wakey Shakey Shakey". We choose a table by the window so we can keep an eye on the rain, which shows no sign of stopping.

It's still raining at 8.30 so we leave it until 9 to return to the restaurant where we find a queue has formed which has priority over our failed reservation. We decide to eat elsewhere and as we leave we meet the Dennis family arriving; we wonder whether they will manage to be served. Simon leads us to another couple of restaurants with decent reviews in the Lonely Planet but they have queues outside. It dawns on us that every tourist in town has been sheltering inside during the storm and are now all trying to eat dinner simultaneously. We spend the next 15 minutes trying to find any restaurant that can seat us but it's the same everywhere.

It's now getting on for 10pm and we're getting "hangrry". We're saved by the Iberostar in Plaza Carillo where we don't meet the dress code for its restaurant but there are bar meals available. It's dry, air-conditioned and as we take our seats the obligatory band begins to play Chan Chan ... again. Aside from the formulaic playlist, the band is pretty good and so are my two tapas dishes. Simon has a burger and Alex a hot dog, and we watch the Olympics on a tv above the bar while we eat. It's the swimming, which seems apt given the amount of water we've encountered today. The red wine is excellent and we stay for another before returning to our casa. Finally, it has stopped raining.

Friday, 12 August 2016

To Trinidad

We are heading to Trinidad today, via Laguna Guanaroca. We find it easily but not where the Lonely Planet said so we’re unsure if we’re in the right place. It’s somewhat chaotic but there’s a shambolic queue which I join. We discover that parties leave in groups of 12-14 in order of arrival and it will be at least an hour until our turn. The boys have found some lizards, chameleons and a frog while I queued, so I go and photograph those while the boys read.

An hour becomes two and it’s almost our turn when the rain begins - initially lightly, then heavier, then accompanied by thunder. Tours are suspended and we huddle under the thatched shelter and chat to some Aussies who are spending a month here. The guy in charge puts some music on and unexpectedly we are treated to Uptown Funk.

Eventually it eases and we slip and slide along the muddy path towards the lake, our guide stopping to point out termite nests on the trees and holes of various sizes housing crabs with orange claws and an enormous hairy spider which he tempts out by poking some grass down her hole. She doesn’t seem impressed.
We have another long, hot wait at the landing stage while the previous group returns from where they had taken shelter from the storm. There are 6 small rowing boats, each taking 2 or 3 tourists. We’re allocated the one rowed by Gabriel, a young man and a fast rower as we soon take the lead. He points out mangroves and pelicans, and tells us the name of the black birds we were watching in Playa Giron - Butu.
We're rowing towards some flamingos by the far shore, and he explains that baby flamingos are white and only become pink from eating crustaceans. On the other side of the lake we can see people fishing with nets from a boat like the one we're in. Apparently the lagoon is only a metre deep and contains nothing more sinister than fish, crabs and shrimps.

We're still a couple of hundred metres from the flamingos when they take flight. They look ungainly in the air, flying low across the water and landing about the same distance away on the other side of the lake. This signals the end of our flamingo expedition and Gabriel turns the boat towards the jetty. We had forgotten to bring cash for a tip so Simon returns to the car with Alex and I wait at the landing stage while the boats are beached and I walk back with Gabriel. He tells me he works 7 days a week, rowing across the lagoon 5 or 6 times a day for CUC10 per month. Our tip of CUC5 is not much to us but presumably makes a big difference.

We set off for Trinidad, stopping en route for lunch at a restaurant where a TV is showing Olympic judo. All work stops while the Cuban woman competes, but unfortunately she's beaten. We're settling down to eat when a cowboy rides up in full costume, complete with chaps and spurs, and buys 2 cases of beer to take away. This is cattle country and as we continue on the road we see fewer cars and more horse-drawn vehicles. Once we have to stop while a cowboy drives his cattle past us. It's ironic, given the state of relations with the US, that this place so resembles the wild west.

We skirt the mountains and join the coast road, passing on bridges over several small beaches, each at the mouth of a small river. Trinidad comes into view, nestling on a hillside with its distinctive yellow bell tower. Suddenly the road is cobbled, congested with pedestrians, bikes, bici taxis and tourist buses. The route to our casa looked easy on the map but the customary one-way system is further complicated by some road closures for construction work and we take a circuitous route before ending up in a parking space directly opposite the house.

Marta greets me at the door. She's a petite, bird-like middle-aged woman and speaks no English. She leads me in up steep marble steps and through a 10ft high door into a traditional Trinidadian house with high ceilings. I admire an impressive collection of elephant ornaments while Simon finishes unloading the car; Marta says they signify strength.

Alex's room is just off the living room with shuttered windows onto it. Ours, behind his, has a split level ceiling; we both have en-suite shower rooms. The house is only one room wide with a corridor wide enough for tables and chairs leading back to guest dining room and kitchen with Marta's kitchen behind and a small terrace between. Marta asks us what time we'd like dinner and we choose our main course - fish for me and pork for the boys.

I'm keen to explore but Alex is hot and bothered and decides to stay in his air conditioned bedroom while Simon and I go out. The casa is in a good spot, between the two principal squares. We've found a late afternoon walking tour in the Lonely Planet which we decide to follow. Trinidad is as picturesque as it is portrayed, and its pastel-coloured houses glow in the evening light. As we approach the Playa Major up a steep cobbled street we are greeted by music from a terraced area off one corner where people are eating, drinking and chatting.

 The Playa Major has a formal garden at its centre, a cathedral at the top and pastel coloured buildings on the other sides, one of which has delicate murals on the walls. The eclectic architecture, colour palette and slightly surreal atmosphere remind me of Portmeirion. It seems somehow out of time, and so hushed after the busy terraces.

The walking tour starts from here and we soon notice that other tourists are on the same mission; with no internet we're all falling back on the same printed guide book and following the same beaten path. We joke about the possibility that it was a trick to send everybody into the same cul de sac. The tour takes us to the outskirts of the town which were more run-down than the centre, with low, single storey houses in place of the high-ceilinged homes of the former elite. We encounter an Aussie and a Kiwi travelling together and a solo American woman who had managed to wangle an educational visa. We swap stories and recommendations, and the Kiwi remarks that he wished his parents had taken him to places like Cuba when he was a teen - we're unsure Alex would agree, since he has decided to skip the sightseeing. We spot an elderly man showing off his prize cock and a tame lizard, and have to step aside to avoid being stepped on as a horse ambles past. All very Cuban.

We meander back to the casa in time to dodge the thunderstorm which breaks dramatically and soon floods the street outside, demonstrating the value of those steep front steps. Dinner is served promptly - bean and chorizo soup to start, the main course accompanied by chips and cubed veg and a huge mound of rice and a salad each. Portions are huge and I feel bad about how much we leave, in a country where so many don't have enough.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

In Cienfuegos

Today is our free day in Cienfuegos and we start by taking a taxi to Parque Jose Marti which is the centre of the town where most of the principal buildings are found. As we approach the town centre we can see a cruise ship has arrived and there are already stickered tourists having guided tours in the square as we pull in. We sit on a bench to get our bearings and Simon reads from the guide book. It’s so hot we decide to begin with a drink in the café of the Teatro Thomas Terry. While we’re there I use the very Cuban toilet – no flush, no water supply to the basin and a bucket being filled from a slow-flowing tap on the wall which the attendant will pour into the bowl between visitors. She sells me some toilet paper for a few cents and mops the floor before showing me in.

We work our way round the square visiting the cathedral whose famous stained glass has mostly been removed for renovation, and which is being extensively re-plastered. We sick our heads in the door of the theatre but the next guided tour isn’t due for a while so we move on to the next side of the square. The Casa Benjamin Duarte is also being extensively refurbished and was once an elegant house. Although it has been neglected for decades the tiled walls, marble floors and high windows are intact and there is a charming cupola on the roof that can be climbed via a spiral staircase for fantastic views of the square and surrounding city. There’s also a rooftop dining area with a pergola which must have been a wonderful place to eat in the house’s heyday.
Simon bumps into an American from the cruise ship who says it is only the 8th voyage that has sailed to Cuba from Florida; while they chat I go to take more photos.  The boys are too hot to join the queue to climb the cupola but the views are definitely worth the wait. I find them relaxing in rocking chairs in one of the palatial rooms on the floor below, both reading. Moving downstairs to the gallery it’s clear that originally the owners lived above and the ground floor rooms were used for storage and chores.
There’s another gallery on the next side of the square, this time with works for sale. Castro, Che and The Struggle are key themes but there are also several works featuring women riding chickens like the statue outside our casa in Plaza Vieja. It’s obviously a recognised cultural symbol, but of what? We could find out if there was internet. (Later a text exchange with Steve informs us that it’s a symbol of the “special period” when the break up of the USSR caused hardship and women were forced into prostitution to feed their families.” Minions also feature in a couple of pictures, and there’s a large monotone canvas of a man holding a gun and a trombone which I feel captures two essential characteristics of Cuban culture.
 
Next we visit the Provincial Museum which has a catalogue of Fidel’s visits to the city by date and photos of him with local dignitaries and visiting heads of state, some with dubious records such as Robert Mugabe. The other exhibits explore the history of Cienfuegos exclusively in Spanish and seem rather random, especially the two metre high pair of stilletos – carnival props, perhaps?
By this point we’re ready for lunch and head across the square to a restaurant called Polynesia whch the Lonely Planet recommends for a beer and a sandwich. We sit down at a table on the terrace to discover that they have sandwiches but no beer. Leaving, we are accosted by a woman from the actual Polynesia restaurant which is inside the next house and offers us the “offerta del dia” for 7CUCs. We’re shown to an air conditioned private dining room and choose chicken which comes with battered plantain slices, a side salad and fried rice – possibly a Polynesian reference? There’s plenty of food and we enjoy it in air conditioned solitude while the hubbub of the main dining room buzzes in the background.
Our next mission is to try and get an internet connection. This involves buying a card with a password that gives you one hour of internet if you can find a hotspot. Hotels are usually good for this and the Hotel La Union is just around the corner. Before buying a card we try to find the wifi there but can’t make a connection. We go into the telecoms office across the street to inquire and after some complicated queueing are told that there’s currently a problem with the internet and we should come back later.
We spend some time in El Bulevar, the main shopping street and then walk down to the junction with Calle Prado where there’s a statue of Benny More, a famous musician from the city. Between here and Punto Gordo the street becomes the Malecon where carnaval is taking place this week so we walk down as far as the beginning of that before getting a moto-taxi (motorcycle with a cart behind) back to the Hotel Jagua.
Alex’s room now appears to be bug-free but he’s not totally convinced so he reads in our room while Simon and I go up for a cold drink on the roof terrace. It’s still very warm but there are hazy clouds to take the edge off the sun’s heat. I’m really enjoying the skies here, the light is beautiful and the cloud formations are stunning. We’ve made a dinner reservation at a restaurant just off the Parque Jose Marti and we set off early so we can experience carnaval and hopefully get some internet time before dinner.
Along the Malecon there are many food and alcohol stalls plus some vendors selling clothing and especially hats. People are using sun loungers as makeshift stalls to sell cheap children’s toys, in particular very un-PC jet black baby dolls. 
There are wheeled cabins dispensing beer into whatever containers people bring – the cabins are covered in pro-Fidel propaganda and Alex is convinced the price is the same no matter what size of container – buying loyalty with beer? I buy a mint daiquiri from a stall for $1. There are stages and blocks of speakers, suggesting that there will be live music later. I imagine with all that cheap booze it will get pretty boisterous later.
We carry on down Prado and onto Bulevar, stopping at the telco office which normally closes at 7pm but for carnival closes at 4pm – not ideal for us. We go across to the Hotel La Union and Alex checks that the internet is working – it is – so Simon and I go out to talk to the touts that gather at every hotspot to sell wifi cards. They charge 3CUC rather than 2CUC direct from the official vendor but if the password isn’t scratched off it should be fine. The deal is quickly done and it takes only a few minutes for Alex to get connected. We settle in a courtyard with a fountain and I order some drinks. Alex has been a whole week without internet and is keen to download some more books; Simon wants to catch up on the news and I’m happy to stay blissfully ignorant of the outside world – for now, at least.
The hour of internet access coincides neatly with our dinner reservation at Restaurant Bouyon 1825. We pass through Parque Jose Marti to get there, which is quieter and more picturesque in the evening light.  Dinner is mixed grill for Alex, smoked pork loin for me and estufado for Simon. My pork is beautifully cooked and accompanied by a proper hot sauce. Various ice cream options follow for dessert. The robust Chilean reds promised by the Lonely Planet are sadly not available and we don’t trust the Spanish table wine enough to order a whole bottle but we order by the glass and it isn’t too bad. Grateful for a meal that breaks the monotony of chicken that looks like roadkill with rice and beans, we tip generously.
The first taxi we find speeds off when we challenge the suggested fare of 5 CUC – Enrique has told us it should be 3 CUC but we agree on 4 with the next driver as he explains that the road closures for carnival require a detour. As we arrive at our casa we can see a storm flickering over the bay so Simon and I go up to watch it from the roof terrace. The lightning flashes almost incessantly but we don’t hear any thunder; another storm begins to flicker off to our right.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Cienfuegos

After breakfast we finally leave Playa Giron, stopping first at the shops to buy another bottle of the Chilean wine we enjoyed and to change some money at the Cadeca. In a perfect example of Cuban organisation they hand me a note in English explaining that they are out of money and won’t have a delivery until 2pm. We set off along the same route we followed yesterday then continuing on to Cienfuegos.  Since yesterday roadworks have started en route - the first we have seen, despite the poor state of the roads. I’m a bit confused by the process – pea shingle is being spread directly onto the carriageway and then raked level by hand.

Finally we join the new road to Cienfuegos and it leads us straight on to Avenida 37 and down to the end of Punta Gorda where we find our casa particular in Calle 0 without difficulty. Our rooms are not quite ready but our hostess Mayda welcomes us with a choice of coffee or juice. She speaks no English but her husband Enrique speaks a little, and he completes the formalities. He also shows us where to park in their yard, earning a rebuke from Mayda for directing us too close to her washing line.

Enrique has told us where we can find a Cadeca to change more cash and we set off on foot to explore Punta Gorda, once the home of Cienfuegos’ bourgeoisie. We walk first to the very end of the point which is a public recreation area, and try to pick out the mouth of the harbour which is impossible. It’s an important natural harbour once defended by Jagua castle which now gives its name to a number of local landmarks including the hotel across the road and the nuclear power station. Along the road to the point are several casas particulares which look out onto the water at both sides, plus a school of hospitality.
On the corner of Calle 2 is the Palacio del Valle, a Moorish concoction of ornate tiles and stucco, where we have lunch. The dining room has high ornate ceilings and the tall windows provide cool air. The boys’ chicken is unremarkable but my seafood paella is delicious, stuffed with lobster, fat prawns and fish. I hate to leave some but it’s easily enough for two and impossible to finish. The mojitos are good, too. Sadly the waiter doesn’t return with our change and, by doing so, deprives himself of a more generous tip. As we leave, he doesn’t even acknowledge us.
 
Cienfuegos is a town renowned for its elegant, French-inspired architecture and as we walk towards the location of the Cadeca we pass two of its most impressive examples, the Club Cienfuegos and the Palacio Azul. Unfortunately we can’t find anywhere to change money on Calle 12 where Enrique said it would be, but we do stumble across the Laguna del Cura where there is a little marina featuring some seriously dodgy electrical infrastructure.

We spot a service station with a mini market and stop to see if they have any Earl Grey tea bags as Simon is running low. They don’t, but they do have the red wine we enjoyed from the shop in Playa Giron. Behind is a café where we buy some cold water – it’s ridiculously hot. There’s a tourist office opposite, so I go and get better directios to the Cadeca which turns out to be in Calle 14 at the junction with Avenida 39. The grid system here makes navigation easy if you know the address – even numbers across and odd numbers down, with house numbers starting with the number of the nearest street … so 3904 Calle 14 would be the fourth house along from the junction of 39 and 14. The Cadeca turns out to be a tiny kiosk and, unaccountably, it’s closed. It’s not due to close until 4 and it’s only about 3.15 so we join the lady who is already queueing. After 30 minutes or so it suddenly opens and we change our money, then pop back to the café for another cold drink to sustain us on the hot walk back to the casa.
Casas particulares are a new phenomenon in Cuba, introduced by Raoul Castro to allow Cubans to rent out rooms for which they pay a licence fee to the government. There are few hotels outside Havana and the main beach resorts and in many towns they are the only option. They are just like a B and B but the rates and facilities are dictated by the government and the host has to pay a room tax whether or not their room is occupied. All are charged for by the room and must have air conditioning and a fridge; most hosts make a little extra by filling the fridges and charging for what’s consumed.
Casa Mayda is a typical Cienfuegos house but less typically has a garden with side access. It has a covered outdoor dining area surrounded by ferns and bougainvillea, some rocking chairs and garden ornaments including a couple of larger than life flamingos and a “welcome” gnome. It’s a cool and shady retreat from the heat of the city. Our two rooms are on the first floor and above them is a roof terrace with views to through the trees to the sea.
After a break to recover from the heat and rehydrate (I can’t stop drinking since the walk to the Cadeca) I pop over to the Hotel Jagua to check their wifi and see if it’s possible to use their pool. As I pass the Palacio de Valle next door a teenage girl dashes across the car park barefoot in a full length mint green dress with a tiered net skirt. Possibly a bride, or a bridesmaid? I never find out. The boys are up for a swim at the hotel but by the time we get there a storm has rolled in and the pool is closed. We sit with cold drinks on the shady poolside terrace and watch the lightning instead.
Back at the casa I borrow a corkscrew for our wine (I’m sure I packed one but can’t find it anywhere) and we play cards in the cool of our air conditioned bedroom until it’s time for dinner. We’re booked in here for dinner tonight, which is served alfresco. We start with a lentil and vegetable soup and are offered red wine, which is served chilled. The chicken the boys ordered comes on the bone for a change,;and my fish is huge, over-salted as is often the case here and decorated with a flower made of peppers. The usual fruit plate, salad, rice and beans are served and we’re still not sure what order we’re supposed to eat them in. There’s much more than we can eat, as usual, and we decline dessert.
There seem to be many people in the household – Mayda and Enrique, an older women who is clearly the mother of one of them, two younger women and two children – a boy in nappies and a girl of primary school age. The boy emerges during dinner with a full litre tub of ice cream, a lot of which is over his face. Another woman serves us but she presumably works here as she wishes us Buenos noches and leaves after we’ve eaten. Several other people come and go during the evening.
We would have stayed at the table and played more cards after dinner but there are mosquitoes about, so we go back to our rooms and Alex discovers a problem. He has flying ants all over the place, including in his bed and in his case, and there’s an ant highway running up the corner by the door. The regular ants seem to be dragging the carcases of dead flying ants back to their nest. We tell Alex he can move into our room for the night (both rooms have two double beds) and I go to tell Enrique.
We both go to look at the room and Enrique insists that they aren’t ants – the flying ones, at least – but he doesn’t say what he thinks they might be. I find another black insect on the sheet and it jumps as I point to it – that’s definitely a flea! Enrique is very apologetic and gets to work with the insect spray.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Not Leaving Playa Giron

After breakfast we return to Cueva las Peces for more snorkelling. We’re unnerved by tiny jellyfish and huge horseflies but the sea is much calmer and we have the place almost to ourselves. There are different fish, too – some long ones with snouts (some kind of pipefish?) and small black ones whose tails fade to white; Alex sees a “Dory”.  We spend about an hour in the water and as we get out Simon spots a huge crab in a rockpool by the shore. We had seen many crabs scuttling across the road on the way here – often having to swerve to avoid them – and invented a game where points were awarded according to the size of the crab – this one would have been a 5. We had packed ready to leave but when I go to return the snorkelling gear and settle up for drinks from the fridge Ivette asks why we’re leaving early. It turns out we’re actually booked in for 3 nights, not two, so we unpack somewhat sheepishly.

Despite its many horses – we’ve seen dozens by now – this is definitely a one-horse town and we’ve had our fill of snorkelling, so what to do? We decide on an expedition to a nearby place called Horquitas in search of lunch as it has a knife and fork symbol on the map. It’s a 33 kdrive, most of it along completely straight but potholed roads flanked by forests and the odd thatched dwelling. We pass some brightly painted beehives not far from Playa Giron, a couple of roadside restaurants and numerous farmsteads. Horse and carts are the most commonly encountered mode of transport, often driven by a campesino in a Stetson. When we reach the town the sole cafeteria looks uninviting but we spot a bullock cart and a man washing his horse in a pond, not sights you see every day even in Cuba! The houses are small and quite a few have rusting relics of farm machinery parked outside.
We head back towards Playa Giron in the hope of finding lunch at one of the roadside cafes we noticed on the way. The first we pass before we really notice it, so we stop at the one nearest to Playa Giron, about 8m out of town. There seems to be a broken down car in the road, and there’s a horse grazing beside it. We order yellow rice with pork and mango juice and have hardly sat down when a girl approaches our table and asks for our help. The broken down car is the taxi she and her boyfriend were travelling in to Playa Giron and the second one to have broken down. She’s looking for a lift and sounds close to tears. Of course we agree to help.
While we’re waiting for our food we exchange names and itineraries and with some difficulty Simon squashes their bags into our car. Lunch is tasty and the portions generous, but I’m taken aback by the bill for 110. I question it and realise it’s in MN, not CUCs. We don’t have 110MN, although we did change a little in Havana, so we settle on 4CUC plus 15 pesos – around £3.50.
We all squeeze into the car for the short ride to Playa Giron and we drop Lydia and (yet another!) Alex at the hotel and wish them a happy stay. We refuel the car and while paying I notice that there are combs on sale in the filling station … I buy it for 30c and Alex is delighted. Back at the casa Simon and I have a cold beer and Alex entertains us with experimental hairstyles. It’s a hot day and the cicadas buzz incessantly but there’s a cool breeze on the shady terrace.
Later, Simon and I walk down to the hotel, stopping to look at the baseball ground (which is full of goats), and weather station (Which seems redundant – every day is hot and humid with rain at teatime!) and the random exhibits behind the museum. In the shop opposite I’m tempted to buy a Che Guevara shopping bag for its irony value but 8 CUC seems expensive. When we get back Alex is sunbathing and I join him and watch the black birds circling lazily overhead. Two Italians speak to us, mistaking us for the hosts, and I direct them to Ivette’s house.
Since it appears to be the only place in town with chicken we eat here again tonight, although I order octopus. For CUC10 per head all-in it’s one of the better value places we’ve eaten so far. The portions are much more than we can eat and we’re never quite sure what order to eat them in. Fruit arrives first, followed by salad and then cabbage soup. Rice next, then the meat and finally what appear to be cornmeal dumplings. Vegetables are rarely served here and the standard salad seems to be cucumber slices with shredded cabbage and cold, cooked green beans. It may lack variety but portions are always generous and heavy on protein and carbs. I’ve noticed that many Cubans carry extra weight, especially round the middle, but regardless of their size Cuban women wear either leggings or extremely short skirts and everything is skin tight or preferably tighter. They are very body confident.
We’re attacked by mosquitoes during dinner so we go back to our air conditioned refuge as soon as we’ve eaten. As we walk the short distance to our casa two small boys run towards us rolling car tyres along the road. It’s pitch black apart from an alarming fire raging in the front yard of a house a few doors down. There seems to be no drama so we assume it’s intentional but it still seems risky so close to the houses. Health and safety doesn’t seem to be much of a concern here – as we walked to dinner our neighbours’ boy of about 4 was playing with a machete. At least two households in Playa Giron keep crocodiles as pets and none of the bikes have lights. Given the assortment of potential obstacles we might encounter, it’s easy to see why we were advised not to drive at night.

Monday, 8 August 2016

A multi-horse town

Breakfast is similar to Havana, but with freshly cooked tiny pancakes in pace of eggs; we leave Simon all the papaya. Ivette gives me some recommendations of places to go snorkelling and we borrow the kit. We’ve decided to explore the beach in Playa Giron this morning so we drive down to the parking place opposite the Bay of Pigs Invasion museum and take the path between the shops to see where it leads. This is described as a one horse town in the Lonely Planet but we see 3 horses before we reach the beach. We pass an abandoned outdoor theatre and break into the hotel grounds through a gap in the fence. The hotel has a huge number of bungalows but many appear derelict. We find a sandy beach which would be very pleasant if it wasn’t for the ugly concrete breakwater that has been built across the bay.

Simon finds a massive piece of coral on the beach, it’s really heavy and we dissuade Alex from taking it home which is probably illegal anyway. We walk to the left, along a badly damaged promenade, and reach another sandy beach which is open to the waves; a friendly local tells us it’s a great spot for snorkelling. We walk back to the shops along the road, passing numerous horses. After sharing a large bottle of lemonade we buy some Chilean wine, half a bottle of rum and some mango soft drink mix and stash it in the car while we visit the museum. 
It’s unbearably hot inside the museum and the exhibits are only explained in Spanish, which I imagine will be a blessing to the Americans when they begin to visit as it’s massively biased. I’m shocked to note that the youngest Cuban hero of the Bay of Pigs incident was younger than Alex is now.
Back in the car, we continue east towards Caleta Buena beach and beyond, but have to turn back due to the poor road surface. We stop briefly at a couple of small beaches on the way back where the beaches are almost entirely coral chunks. The sea is incredibly blue and refreshingly cool. We try to find a restaurant called Hector’s, mentioned in the Lonely Planet, for lunch but instead end up at a place called Chiri Chiri where they have crocodile but not water or chicken. It’s clearly aiming high, with linen tablecloths and a cocktail menu, but the menu translations are amusing and largely impenetrable. The food is acceptable but unremarkable; the crocodile tastes, predictably, like chicken.

Back at Ivette & Ronel’s we find the power is off which means no aircon. It’s breezy on the terrace though, and we watch large black birds soar on the thermals overhead. We relax and read for a while then set off for Cueva de los Peces, around 17km to the west of Playa Giron. First we walk down to the cenote and watch the fish; it’s alive with mosquitoes so we don’t stay long.
Ivette has recommended this beach for novices as the fish are so close to the shore. I’m not keen to snorkel, having been scared to be out of my depth in Roatan, but Alex is insistent and patiently cajoles me into it. It’s a revelation – even while standing in the shallows I can see several different species of fish and a few different types of coral. I realise I can float easily and lose myself in the spectacle. Somebody throws in some bread and the fish go crazy for it. I grab a piece from the surface and feed fish from my hand. Later one nibbles my finger, perhaps looking for more food. Eventually we have to get out; it’s getting late, we’ve been advised not to drive in the dark, and it looks like there’s a storm approaching. With the various potholes, dogs, horses, bikes, bici-rickshaws and pony carts driving is like a live game of Mario Cart.

Just as we return to the casa the power cuts out again, but it comes back more quickly this time. I check with Ivette and the good news is that check out time is 2pm so there’s time to snorkel again tomorrow morning. We take umbrellas to dinner at the Crocodile restaurant but the threatened storm doesn’t materialise. The food is unremarkable apart from the number of dishes that are off the menu – there’s no chicken again, although we passed a couple on the way and could have brought our own. There’s a TV showing music videos, a threadbare pool table and rope lights – I suspect this is the liveliest place in town. Sadly, the eponymous crocodile shares a slimy pen the size of a dining table with assorted terrapins.
On the brief walk back an enormous crab scuttles noisily across the road and several cyclists pass, all without lights. Back at the casa the other Brits are watching the Olympics. We’re closer to the games here than at home but it all feels a very long way away.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Fatherland or death?

I go out early to take photos, returning for another legendary breakfast from Ines. Her English is limited but she’s keen to try; she and I both understand more of the other’s language than we can speak and we manage pretty well. She tidies up while we pack, and reminds Alex of a couple of bits he’s failed to pack. We’ll be spending our final night here so we will see her again. Considering how difficult it was to reach our car park, we leave Havana with comparative ease and head for Playa Giron. The highway is reasonably well- maintained although we have to negotiate a checkpoint there are no dramas. The roads deteriorate quite quickly; there are many potholes and we quickly work out that the safest policy is to follow a local who knows where they are.

There are no advertising hoardings in Cuba, only propaganda – “fatherland or death, we will triumph” being a favourite. Our destination is the site of the (in)famous failed invasion of Cuban expats trained by the CIA. But first, we visit Australia for lunch – the town was the site of a former Australian-owned sugar plantation and has a small museum devoted to the steam locomotives still maintained by the residents. The former sugar mill’s office was commandeered as Fidel’s HQ for the Bay of Pigs invasion, but it’s currently closed. There’s not much else in the sleepy little town, but we find a café where the only offer is ham and cheese toasties; lucky that I’ve decided our trip to Cuba is the time to try re-introducing gluten – so far without incident.
We continue through the Cienaga de Zapata national park to Playa Giron and explore the town by car before arriving at our accommodation. Playa Giron mostly runs along the main road, with a short spur off to the one hotel which is located by the beach. There’s a filling station, a small parade of shops and a museum to the thwarted invasion, as well as a huge billboard commemorating the first victory against the imperialist American pigs. Most of the houses display the blue sign for casas particulares, but it doesn’t seem very touristy.
 
We check in at Casa Ivette & Ronel and find we’re sharing a house with another British family, from Sheffield – John, Louise and their son Alex who has also just finished his GCSEs – who arrived shortly before us. They are ¾ of the way through their trip and we are the first Brits they’ve encountered. We’re well set up here – the house is shared between them and us; we have the blue and white room with a huge bed and generous bathroom; Alex has a 4-person room to himself with hideous tangerine nylon bedcovers. The fridge, rakishly located across the corner of a room on a small plinth as in Havana, is generously stocked with beer, soft drinks, water and even wine – although that turns out to be hideous. We have complimentary toiletries, umbrellas and beach towels; use of bicycles and snorkelling gear is complimentary too.
After some cold drinks and a couple of games of tarot on the shady patio at the front we wander down to the main house for dinner. I’ve ordered lobster and the boys, chicken. It comes with rice, bean stew, fresh fruit and a huge jug of papaya juice. Neither Alex nor I can stand it, but Simon seems not to notice that it tastes faintly of vomit. The portions are enormous and we can’t finish everything.

Saturday, 6 August 2016

In which we mostly hire a car

When I wake on Saturday and open the little window in our full height shutters, I realise that the sun rises directly in line with the street outside, so I watch that and take some photos. We had been told to meet at the car hire office at the Hotel Sevilla at 9am so we leave at 8.30; Alex stays behind. As we walk into the hotel the Pink Panther theme greets us -there’s music everywhere in Havana but not usually this surreal.

The car hire office is in a shopping gallery attached to the hotel and our rep is already there. She explains that the manager has not yet arrived and will be another hour, so on her advice we walk back to the street between Hotel Inglaterra and the theatre where there are many local shops. The supermarkets have a limited but eclectic range of goods on offer priced in both CUCs and MN. 1 CUC is worth approximately a US dollar and 23 MN pesos.

We pass a barbers and Simon decides to have a haircut; we agree on a trim for CUC5 and the barber turns on the TV so he can watch the Olympics. The haircut was thorough but speedy, including a sideburn trim with the cutthroat razor. We were there just long enough to watch the Cuban gymnast do much less well than the Canadian. Alex has forgotten his comb so I ask the barber where I can buy one; he says he doesn’t know. You have to buy what’s available here, in anticipation of needing it later, rather than when you actually need it; the barber’s comb has seen much better days.

 
We return to the car hire office and the boss still hasn’t arrived; we buy some postcards and go to a pleasant terrace bar in the hotel to write them. The obligatory live band entertains us and eventually the rep returns to say she needs to go back to the office and can we please stay where we are so the car hire staff know where to find us. We exchange numbers and agree to text in case of developments. At midday (3 hours in!) she’s back to say that the manager won’t be coming and that she has put plan B in motion; we are to get on with our day and she’ll call when she has news. I had begun to suspect that, this being Saturday and the car hire company being government run, the manager probably had better plans, so this doesn’t come as a surprise.
Back at the casa Alex remarks on how long we have been and we confess we still have no car.  We’ve also had no lunch yet, but I had seen some street food places opposite the Capitol which is not far off our route, so we agree to eat there on the way. I pop out to post some postcards and Simon gets the call while I’m out so I rush back and we set off; the places I saw yesterday selling roast pork rolls and pollo con arroz today only have hamburgers so we skip that and go straight to the car hire office. The news is all good – we’ve been upgraded, we can leave the car at our hotel in Cayo Coco rather than an adjacent one and both the CDW and the drop-off fee were less than we’d been quoted. We have an orangey-red Peugeot and all we have to do now is fill it with fuel and get to our assigned parking place next to the Hotel Raquel in the old town.
We’re directed to a filling station along the Malecon but when we get there it’s closed. They direct us to another 2km away; the fuel warning light is already on so this is somewhat stressful. We get there and successfully fill the tank; now the challenge is to get back to the old town as Simon’s GPS doesn’t understand the one-way system. We know we need to get to Calle Cuba but it’s one way and we end up on the wrong side of the pedestrianised old town. Even the local police we stop and ask don’t really know the way, but finally we get to the right end of Calle Cuba; as we drive along it to the car park I spot a decapitated chicken on a doorstep.  We leave the car and pay CUC 5 for one day’s parking; it’s a short walk back to the casa where we make jam and cheese rolls from leftover breakfast ingredients Ines has left for the benefit of Alex. It's past 4 and our dinner reservation is for 6pm.
The boys have a quick game of crib while I have a shower then we leave for Dona Eunomia’s for dinner. We arrive a little early so I photograph the cathedral in the evening light with fewer tourists. We make the mistake of ordering starters (given that we had lunch only a couple of hours ago) so we can’t finish our main courses, but the food is good and reasonably priced. Three young guys are singing, playing the guitar and percussion, it’s less intrusive than the music at other places we’ve eaten and I buy a CD. We reserve a table for our final night in Havana.
Before going back to the casa we stop at the Hotel Conde de Villanueva for a nightcap; it has a pleasant terrace with peacocks but the previous guests’ drinks haven’t been cleared away and there is peacock poo everywhere. We manage to order drinks but it takes ages to get the bill as the staff are more interested in making crude overtures to the female staff. When we get back to our casa there’s a terrific thunderstorm, but we’re too tired to go out and watch it.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Discovering Havana

As we leave the chilly sanctuary of our bedroom next morning, the living room is already very hot. The shower is only a trickle but at least it works. Ines arrives to prepare our breakfast – great coffee, home-made preserves, squashy rolls, a big plate of fresh fruit and eggs prepared as we wish. The travel rep arrives to bring us vouchers for our accommodation and hire car and brief us on the plan for Havana., then we go and meet our guide for this morning, Marta. She takes us first to San Francisco Square to board a pink Chevrolet for the vintage car tour.

 It’s a bit of a squash in the back as we drive along the harbour, past the castle and through the Vedado district where she showed us the “barbeque floors” added in above the ground floor of the high ceilinged colonial buildings to create more living space. We stop briefly at the university attended by Fidel Castro then drive to Revolution Square with its phallic monument to national hero Jose Marti. Around the sides of the square are the old Government HQ, Ministry of the Interior with a mural of Che Guevara and Telecoms Building with one of Camilo Cienfuegos looking rather like Ayatolla Khomeni and a slogan that says “You are going well Fidel” in Spanish.

We drive on through the leafy Miramar district which was formerly the home of the bourgeoisie, their houses now occupied by government cronies. A peaceful park with a river and spectacular trees with separates this from Nuevo Vedado district where we drive past the enormous Cristobal Colon cemetery, through Chinatown and finally along the Malecon, the coastal highway that comes alive in the evenings as a place to meet and socialise. We leave the car at the edge of the old town and walk up to cathedral square and along to the Playa Des Armas where the cobbles were replaced with wood to avoid disturbing the occupants and a book market now occupies the shady square.
Our tour ends back at Plaza Vieja where we enjoy mojitos and pineapple juice with mint in Bohemia bar. We talk to Marta about the respective education systems in Cuba and UK and are surprised when she asks our opinion of Brexit – given the relative isolation of Cuba this seems like a more local issue than would have been widely reported here. We return to our casa for some cash and queue at the Cadeca in San Francisco square to change some more cash, including a small amount of the local currency, MNs, as well as convertible CUCs.

 
Finally fully solvent, we walk the length of Calle Obispo to the Floridian bar frequented by “Papa” Hemingway, where a bronze likeness of him still presides over the bar. We order daiquiris and club sandwiches and listen to the live band – peripatetic bands move from bar to bar, playing a short set, sending round the hat and moving on. 
We walk past Johnson’s drug store, still with its many wooden drawers lining the walls, and buy Alex a coconut at a street stall.  Then past the theatre and the capitol building and back to our casa. Although the streets are fascinating it’s so hot and humid we don’t have the energy to stay out for long, it really saps your energy. As we get back to the casa it begins to rain but it doesn’t cool things down.

We had tried to make a reservation at a highly reviewed restaurant called Dona Eunomia for dinner but it was full so we book for tomorrow and go instead to Mama Ines. The food is less impressive than the Lonely Planet would have us believe.