Pig on a spit and dancing

Today was a free day although Mariana and Deb, both from Brisbane, and I had elected to join the other group for a picnic of spit roast pig by a river this afternoon. This left the morning for a wander in Baracoa, a bit of time on the internet to transfer some money to a bank account whose card actually worked in the machines here, and to change some dollars.

I have been caught out with the money exchange here as Mastercard debit cards do not work in the machines at all and, when using my Visa debit, the amount is first converted to U.S. dollars at an unfavourable exchange rate, which my N.Z. bank will then also charge a fee for converting into NZ dollars. With hindsight, it would have been infinitely more economic to have brought Canadian dollars but I am uncomfortable carrying large amounts of cash. By the time all that was done, the morning had disappeared and it was time to return to the Casa to wait for the taxi with Monica (our guide) to go to the river.

Holiday huts for Cubans to rent at the river campsite
Holiday huts for Cubans to rent at the river campsite
Before cooking!
Before cooking!

The taxi was a typical mode of Cuban transport in jeep form with a couple of bench seats in the back. The road was more than a little bumpy and the roof very low but luckily non of us hit our heads on the roof!

The venue was a camp site in a park and we had to wait a while for the other group of English/New Zealanders to arrive and the pig to finish cooking. Whilst waiting we were served with a beautiful fish soup and I had a fairly strong mojito. The pig, last seen strapped to the sidecar of Willo’s motorbike when it left the casa, was cooking nicely and someone had been hand turning the spit for the last four hours.

Pig on the spit
Pig on the spit
View of the river, complete with birthday decorations
View of the river, complete with birthday decorations
Lurid birthday cake
Lurid birthday cake

The other group have all known each other for a very long time and started on the mojitos and pina coladas very quickly, with the result that events turned quite boisterous and slap stick.

It was one of their birthdays, so an extremely colourful pink and yellow cake, whose icing slowly melted, was the centrepiece of the table. There were also a couple of local musicians providing music and soon everyone was dancing. Unfortunately, as mentioned before, I cannot dance and spent quite some time sitting on the side lines bearing a strong resemblance to the traditional wall flower, something I thought I had left behind with my teenage years. One of the men attempted to dance with me a couple of times but soon gave up when he realised I had two left feet!

Willo chopping up the pig on palm leaves
Willo chopping up the pig on palm leaves

The pig, however, was excellent and probably the most tender pork I have ever tasted. We returned to Baracoa at about 7pm and I then had a very quiet evening in my room. I find that I usually need at least a little time away from the group when I am travelling en masse. Luckily for me on this tour, the combination of the group has meant that I have my own room even though I have not paid the single supplement. Mariana and Deb are both friends and share, and the three Melbournians are also friends and comprise one man, who obviously has his own room, and 2 women who share.

A ride in an old Plymouth

The day dawned clear and blue. Yesterday evening we had arranged for the local guide, Oscar, to come to Willo’s house this morning and we would then decide which excursion to do, depending on the weather so, after breakfast, I packed up my belongings so that I could move into a room in Willo’s house, and walked around to join the others.

Our transport for the day
Our transport for the day
View towards El Yunke and the Baracoa Valley
The Baracoa Valley

The excursion turned out to be a ride in a 1954 Plymouth along the coast to the river Yamuri, visiting a cocoa farm and farmers’ weigh station and having lunch at a beach side cafe. It was a magnificent day.

The scenery is typically tropical with coconut and palm trees, cocoa and coffee plantations and everywhere very lush. We stopped early on to admire the view from someone’s garden (I assumed this was pre-arranged!) from where we could see across the valley to El Yunque and Sleeping Beauty mountains, the Rio Miel or Honey river, and the road into Baracoa, which combined are referred to as the Four Lights of Baracoa.

Cocoa pod
Cocoa pod

There were a great many small farms, or fincas, here with a lot of pigs, chickens and turkeys running free range.

Our next stop was at a cocoa farmer’s house, which was extremely basic, but the lady was doing a roaring trade with tour groups. We had to wait in the attractive garden whilst one group finished and another had to wait for us. l wondered if this was her entire trade for the day as, to my knowledge, there were actually only 3 tour groups in town at the moment.

Chocolate farmer's house
Chocolate farmer’s house
Chocolate balls drying in the dish
Chocolate balls drying in the dish
Orchid
Orchid in the farmer’s garden

Oscar explained the process of chocolate making and there were balls of chocolate, chocolate bars and cocoa butter for us to purchase.

The chocolate balls are solid blocks of unsweetened chocolate, which is grated into cakes or used to make hot chocolate drinks, which we sampled and which bore no resemblance whatsoever to Cadbury’s Hot Chocolate! It was like thick soup, not sweet and infinitely preferable. Apparently the farm workers take flasks of it to work to keep them going during the day.

The coffee, which we also tried, was typically Cuban – very, very strong and quite bitter.

Walking through the village
Walking through the village
Cutting up the fruit for us to eat
Cutting up the fruit for us to eat
Ox cart delivering bananas
Ox cart delivering bananas

Afterwards we went for a short walk through a village where we stopped at the local weighing station. Farms are inspected each year to assess the amount of fruit or vegetables they are likely to produce. At harvest time, the produce is brought to the weigh station and 70% goes to the government, whilst the farmers are permitted to keep the remaining 30% to either sell or barter for other produce. Whilst we were there, coconuts, bananas and oranges arrived by ox cart or laden on horses. We sampled a variety of delicious tropical fruits and then re-joined Octavio, our driver, and the Plymouth.

Team of horses carrying coconuts
Team of horses carrying coconuts

Driving on a bit further, through the German Pass, (so called because German landowners used to charge the locals for travelling through the rock archway that leads to the end of the peninsula), and on to the beach where we ordered lunch at a cafe, to be eaten later.

We continued on to the Yamuri River, admired the gorge from above and took a row boat up to an island from which we could swim. And very refreshing it was too!

Back at the beach cafe, we had time for a quick swim before a delicious fish lunch and then plenty of time afterwards for swimming or relaxing in a chair in the sun, before heading back to Baracoa.

The day was rounded off with another excellent dinner cooked by Willo at the Casa, although none of us was particularly hungry after the late lunch.

An early start and torrential rain

Our plane at Baracoa airport
Our plane at Baracoa airport

The night was exceptionally short although it seemed that not everyone was as bleary eyed as I felt. The checkin at the airport was quick for our group and unbelievably slow for the other and, just as we were thinking that there was no way we were going to leave on time, we were called to board and took off right on the dot of our scheduled departure time.

The flight to Baracoa, in the far south, took 2 hours, during which time most people dozed. The area is the most verdant and lush of all the regions in Cuba as a result of the daily rain, which we experienced within a short time of arrival. The skies were grey and huge puddles were scattered along the road.

Arriving at Baracoa airport
Arriving at Baracoa airport

Unfortunately, as it is the high season and accommodation is at a premium, we were not all staying in the same house and I was sent to one on my own, which I wasn’t really happy about. However, I shall be moved to the main house tomorrow to be with a couple of the others at least. My room tonight is is a small house owned by an older couple with no English, so that is a bit of a challenge. Maybe I should have focused a little more on my Spanish classes rather than just chatting!

Once settled in, Monica, our very dainty and doll like guide, took us on a walking orientation tour of Baracoa, which is the oldest colonial city in the Americas and was visited by Christopher Columbus on his first voyage in 1492.

Mending the bicitaxi
Mending the bicitaxi

A surprising number of people had emerged from their shelters once the rain had stopped and there was a severe danger of being run over by a bicycle, bicitaxi or horse and cart as we walked along. It is a very colourful but run down town, although as I have discovered, it does not necessarily mean that the homes are shabby in the interior, just because the exterior has deteriorated.

By late morning, we were all beginning to flag so we had a small lunch at a cafe overlooking the sea, visited the shop for supplies and then returned to our rooms for a rest.

During the afternoon, the heavens opened once again and torrential rain persisted for a couple of hours, leaving the streets awash. It also put paid to any thoughts of hiking tomorrow as the rivers were too high and the ground too slippery. I had hoped to walk up El Yunke (the anvil or table mountain) but that was not to be.

Beach front cafe
Beach front cafe

I joined three of the Australians for a mojito before dinner at the cafe in which we had lunch, having acquired soaking wet feet along the way. We all then had a magnificent seafood dinner cooked by Willo, who is the owner of the main casa and coordinator of the casa particulars/homestays in Baracoa. He is also an excellent chef and provided us with lobster, fish in coconut sauce (a local speciality), small fish like anchovies, mussels and white fish, preceded by bean soup and followed by ice cream, for a grand total of 12CUC! (One CUC is more or less equivalent to $1US.)

After dinner, the rest of the group went dancing but it was way past my bedtime and, unlike the others, I had not managed to sleep in the afternoon, so I returned to my casa. There was a lot of noise around about and as I was dozing off, I heard a group of people singing the haka, which left me wondering what country I was in! Apparently a group of New Zealanders were staying in a house nearby and a spontaneous party had started after dinner.