On to Ecuador via Panama

Queueing at the airport with no check in desks open
Queueing at the airport with no check in desks open

It was a very early start today as we wanted to be at the airport by 8.30am or thereabouts. After breakfast at 7am and packing up, our taxi picked us up and drove us to the airport. We needn’t have bothered arriving early. Every single check in desk was closed until 9am, when a couple opened to check in Deb’s flight to Bogota. Mine eventually opened and it was slow progress. I had forgotten what it was like in the ‘good old days’ before online check in and self service machines. I shall appreciate them all over again now!

Havana airport
Havana airport

I joined Deb in the almost empty departure lounge where we had a coffee before her flight left. Mine went half an hour later and it took about 2 1/2 hours to Panama. It was quite a shock to be back in the 21st Century in a very busy, bustling and modern airport. I only had an hour between flights, but had time to buy a replacement charger cable for my ipad (mine having given up as soon as I left Montreal), and get some cash.

Neither flight was full so I was very comfortable and I read one of the books I had rescued from a friend’s charity shop box three months ago and which I had been carrying around with me ever since. There were a group of Haitians sitting near me and one, who was the closest, seemed to have St Vitus’ dance, as he couldn’t sit still, opened and closed his window shade, and burped the entire flight whilst listening to loud music through his ear phones.

Flying over Cuba
Flying over Cuba
Flying over the Panama Canal
Flying over the Panama Canal

On arrival in Quito, immigration were very friendly and easy, although they did seem to give the Haitians a bit of a grilling. It wasn’t long before I was in the taxi with a driver who chatted to me in very slow Spanish the entire way to the hostel. Amazingly, I understood most of it and was even able to respond in my halting Spanish on occasion!

The hostel was quite disappointing after the reviews I had read, but I sat downstairs and chatted to people for quite some time in the evening. It seems to be a little outpost of the Empire, with most residents being from England or Canada.

Back to Havana

We were heading back to Havana today and had told Tony that we didn’t want to leave until 11am.

Our breakfast 'room' in Vinales
Our breakfast ‘room’ in Vinales
The symbol at the bottom denotes tourist accommodation
The symbol at the bottom denotes tourist accommodation

We have both felt that this part of the tour was a bit of an expensive addition, having had to pay a relatively substantial local payment, the guide having very little to do and it being advertised as a five day tour, when, in fact, it is barely four. Consequently, we took our time this morning, whilst Pedro hovered, looking at his watch, as he had a long drive back to Trinidad, once he had dropped us in Havana.

We were ready before 11am but, by this time, they were both embroiled in the phone game again, so we had to wait for them. We didn’t stop at all on the way, and were back in the city by 2pm where we were dropped at our Casa for the night, which was different from the one we had previously stayed in.

After Tony and Pedro had left, we walked into Obispo Street and to a very Cuban restaurant where we had a fairly unspectacular lunch but were joined at the table by a mother and her two sons, one of whom was quite small and entertaining.

Afterwards, Deb wanted to check her emails, so we ambled up to the Parque Hotel, which is very grand, eating coconut ice cream out of a coconut, whilst we walked. I sat in the foyer and had a coffee whilst she was using the internet. The people watching, as usual, was entertaining.

Inside the Parque Hotel
Inside the Parque Hotel
The wooden circle is for pedestrians to step over the ditch!
The wooden circle is for pedestrians to step over the ditch!

Whilst we were there, we realised that the Buena Vista Social Club was playing that evening, so we booked tickets, as this was something special for the last night in Cuba. However, we had to return to the Casa first, to smarten ourselves up, which was a bit of a mission in my case.

We then had dinner at the Italian restaurant we had visited previously before joining all the cruise ship passengers in the Parque Hotel function room where the band was playing. It wasn’t really quite the right venue with its white table cloths and suited waiters but the band and accompanying dancers were excellent, even if the programme was geared to tourists. At one point, they asked everyone which country they came from and then played a few bars of a relevant song. I was the only New Zealander and the song was ‘How Bizarre’, which was a little curious!

Afterwards, we sat in the foyer and listened to some music from another band before hailing a bicitaxi to take us back to the Casa. This was entertainment in itself, as it was about midnight, and the driver was very chatty and kept stopping and turning round to talk. Consequently, it took quite a while to arrive at our destination.

Tobacco, massage and even more food

Mending the roof of the tobacco drying shed
Mending the roof of the tobacco drying shed
Path through farmland
Path through farmland

The beds in our rooms here are probably the most uncomfortable we have had to date so, apart from the stomach trouble I had been having for the last few days, I didn’t sleep well because of the bed.

However, we couldn’t laze around as we were booked on a walking tour at 9am so had to get up and get going, with the aid of some Imodium in my case.

Our local guide for the day was quite arrogant and had obviously got his spiel down to a fine art, complete with jokes. We were joined by two Belgian girls, who are currently working as nurses on Aruba, so we enjoyed chatting to them.

Farmer's implement shed
Farmer’s implement shed
Tobacco leaves drying
Tobacco leaves drying

The walk took us through farmland, which was mostly tobacco plantations of 6 or 7 hectares and where oxen were being used to pull the carts of harvested leaves into the drying sheds. One farmer showed us how the cigars were rolled with three layers of leaves, the first being a bunch of leaves that had been dried for 3 months or more, the second being one leaf from the bottom of the plant and the last layer being a leaf from the middle of the plant, which has softer leaves and is therefore more maleable. They normally roll the cigars in the evening after the field work is done and would do about 100 or 150 per night.

Outside a house in Vinales
Outside a house in Vinales

After the walk, we stopped at the bar in the plaza and had a sandwich and people watched for a while. It was an excellent position for that as every man and his dog (or horse) went past.

We then returned to the casa for some rest and recuperation and I had a massage that I had booked, which was done by the owner’s sister in law. It was excellent, once I had worked out how to breathe with my face stuffed straight down into the bed clothes. No such thing as massage tables here! Deb had to be turned out of the room as well and had to sit on the verandah in the rain for an hour, which made me feel a little bit guilty! I’m sure the massage therapist would have needed a massage herself, as well, after bending over the bed for an hour.

Our evening meal was at an organic finca/farm and Tony had arranged our transport with one of the neighbours, who has a large old car that he uses as a taxi. The food was outstanding and excessive and we didn’t have to pay as we had a voucher to compensate for not staying at Las Terrazzas, as we should have done. Unfortunately, I ran out of stomach space quite early on so didn’t eat a huge amount. The goat casserole, onion fritter and creme caramel were excellent though and I am sure there were some well fed animals later on.

Orchids, Indians and caves

No health and safety here!
No health and safety here!
Orchid
Orchid

We had a very lazy start to the day and didn’t go to breakfast until after 9am. Deb and I then had a wander around the orchid gardens that were close to the hotel, avoiding the coach parties of Germans as we went. They had some beautiful flowers and some very interesting steps up and down the garden about which the health and safety organisations in our respective countries would have had apoplexy!

Once we had finished wandering, it was about an hour’s drive from Vinales, our home for the next couple of nights.

Our guide was quite keen to have lunch somewhere but we decided that rather than waste time on this, we would have a street pizza and then go to the Caves of the Indians. So, we bought the exceptionally cheap cheese and ham pizza and stood on the side of the road eating it, whilst trucks and tractors passed by belching black smoke. A tasty addition to our food!

Indians with the tree rat outside the caves
Indians with the tree rat outside the caves
Inside the caves
Inside the caves

Pedro drove us up to the caves and they then both waited for us whilst we joined the bus load upon bus load of French and German tourists inside the caves.

Band outside the bar in Vinales
Band outside the bar in Vinales

Unfortunately, until we started queueing to catch the boat for the 3 minute tour of the caves, we didn’t realise quite how many people were there already. Obviously the Cubans haven’t considered restricting the numbers entering the caves at any one time. It did mean we had ample time to examine every inch of the rock formation though. On our way in, there were a few Indians, comprising a couple of women looking totally bored sitting next to a camp fire and a couple of men who were allowing the tourists to play with a tree rat.

We rejoined Pedro and Tony, who drove us back into town so we could have a wander. This inevitably led to a drink in a bar in the plaza where a band managed to play 3 songs before passing the hat around and needing a rest. We drifted off to find another bar and ended up chatting to a local builder and his young rastafarian friend, who taught drama to young people.  He made us each flowers out of silver paper from a cigarette packet, which was very clever, we thought, after 3 mojitos!

Souvenir stalls in Vinales
Souvenir stalls in Vinales
Viazul bus (mostly for tourists) in Vinales
Viazul bus (mostly for tourists) in Vinales

We had arranged to meet the men at a restaurant at 7pm so reluctantly left the bar, where the conversation (in Spanish) had been quite entertaining, and went to join them. Dinner was quite good, very European and cheap. The toilets were fantastic! There were seats, paper, water, soap and a hand drier. What more could a person want? Our driver was so impressed that he took photos. It has to be said here that not all Cuban toilets are made equal and many of them are seatless and paperless and about 70% are even water less (cistern and/or sink) so there is a certain amount of joy when you find everything you need.

By the end of the meal, the others had become embroiled in a game, in Spanish, they had been playing on their phones, which eventually annoyed me. We had thought of going to the bar afterwards to listen to some music but ended up going home instead as there didn’t appear to be too much happening in town.

Mosaics and religion

We were picked up by Tony and Pedro (our driver) at 9.30am and made a couple of stops in Havana before we set off for Las Terrazzas. The first port of call was at Hamel Street, where the artist, Salvador Gonzales Escalona, had decorated the walls and created art installations in the area. Originally, they had just been art but had gradually developed into the theme of Afro-Cuban religion.


A local guide show us around and explained something about the religion itself as we went but, as he said, ‘I can only tell you about the ‘A’ of the A to Z’, as it would take hours. It was quite complicated and he mumbled somewhat, which made it even more difficult to understand. However, as I understand it, members of the religion pray to the gods of earth, water, forest etc. and believe that the spirit is within them and needs to be protected. This may be done in a number of ways including sacrificing chickens and wearing bracelets, the colours of which vary according to which god they want to protect them.

I had seen ladies in town all dressed in white and I now discovered this was part of the initiation into the religion, which included such strict rituals as keeping their heads protected, wearing white for a year, not going out of the house after 6pm or letting the sun shine on them at midday. Both Deb and I felt uncomfortable in the street as the whole concept of the religion was quite alien to us.

Community Medical Centre decorated by Furster
Community Medical Centre decorated by Furster

The next stop was at the artist, Furster’s, house. He had created mosaic murals, inspired by Gaudi, all around his house and in his neighbourhood. The result was quite fantastic and surreal and the garden bore a resemblance to an amusement park. Many of the murals show elements of the Revolution as Furster is a strong Castro supporter.


The interesting part of both these areas is, according to our guide, the fact that they have actually been allowed to exist, particularly in the case of Hamel Street, as religion had been banned in the early days after the Revolution, as the Revolution itself was regarded as the ‘religion’. No open display of religion would therefore have been permitted. It was only recognised following the visit of Pope John Paul.

Lunchtime cafe
Lunchtime cafe

We finally got on the open road and Tony suggested we stop at a typical Cuban restaurant for lunch. The first one we tried had changed its menu since he was there a month ago, with CUC prices and was very expensive (by our standards), so we drove to another where it was full of Cubans and the prices were ridiculously cheap and in Cuban pesos. Unfortunately, my stomach was feeling a little odd so all I could eat was some very tasty bean soup but Tony and Pedro tucked into enormous plates of pork, plantain, yucca and tamales.

Las Terrazzas
Las Terrazzas

It was a short drive after this to Las Terrazzas, which is a National Park and, to us, very disappointing. We were supposed to stay in the hotel, which had been built around the trees growing there, but it was full and we had to drive on to Soroa and stay there instead. The houses in Las Terrazzas are all occupied by workers in the park and it seemed quite an artificial sort of place. The Cubans love it though. We had a walk down to the waterfall, (which was small) along with a coach party or two, and also viewed the most interesting part of the whole place, which was the cabins that could be rented for the night, and which looked quite appealing!

Hotel at Las Terrazas with trees growing out of it
Hotel at Las Terrazas with trees growing out of it
Cabins for rent at Las Terrazas
Cabins for rent at Las Terrazas
Waterfall at Las Terrazas
Waterfall at Las Terrazas

Another short drive took us to Soroa and the hotel, which is very like a resort. Apparently, we are being compensated with a free dinner for staying there. How hard! The rooms (admittedly not exactly luxurious) are set around a beautiful swimming pool and unlike anywhere else we had been.

We met Tony and Pedro again in the evening for a drink and then dinner in the restaurant. I still wasn’t feeling 100% and was extremely tired so just had soup and ice cream whilst the men ate vast amounts from the buffet. I’m not sure how they fitted it all in!

The hotel we were forced to stay in at Soroa
The hotel we were forced to stay in at Soroa