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.