Wednesday, February 6, 2013


Tuesday October 16, 2012

We began a two-week trip around Cuba, flying Westjet to Toronto and thence to Varadero. As the plane flew low towards the airport, I was able to photograph the lush green landscape below.

Varadero was the destination for most of the other passengers who had booked all-inclusive holidays at hotels lining the beautiful white sand beach. We had other plans and looked around for a bus to Havana. Eventually somebody told us that it would be over two hours before the next bus left, so we took a taxi instead. It cost about $60 for a one-hour journey which wasn't bad considering the distance. We arrived in a narrow street where the taxi driver obligingly waited to make sure we were able to contact Luis with whom we had arranged accommodation. We were planning throughout our trip to stay in the "casas particulares", the Cuban equivalent of B & Bs recently permitted by the government. No-one can offer more than two rooms for rent and Luis's were already booked, but he had relatives with an apartment that we were going to rent. This kind of informal network seemed to be the way the whole B & B system operates. It served us well during our time in Cuba.
While we waited to be taken to the apartment, we were invited in and given a cool drink. I admired the floor tiles,

the chandelier,

and the table lamp. Throughout Cuba we found the light fixtures, many of them antiques, to be quite lovely.

The apartment was not as finely furnished as Luis's home, but it was very clean and spacious.

It had a comfortable sitting room with French doors opening onto a tiny balcony, a good-sized dining area, a small kitchen, a bathroom ...

... and a quiet bedroom away from the noise and bustle of the busy street outside.

The owners were charming and spoke much better English than we spoke Spanish.

The view of the street from our balcony provided us with endless entertainment, from vintage cars,

 to vintage buildings,

to people on the street.

We stayed four nights, and could have stayed longer with all there was to see and enjoy in Havana.The streets were filled with brightly-painted buildings from the Spanish-colonial period,

including the blue and white Hotel Telegrafico once the post office building,

An impressive pair of lions patrolled the plaza outside.

As we walked along we passed a tiny shop where we saw the first of many Che Guevara posters.

Bars and restaurants in Old Havana were largely open to the street with music from speakers or live bands drifting out.

This one became our favourite bar for sipping mojitos and enjoying the music of a lively little combo ...

... as well as watching the customers and the passing parade of colourful people on the street outside - like this guy with his elaborate cakes for sale,

... and this lady selling newspapers who couldn't resist dancing to the beat. She stood there and jiggled away for a good ten minutes, oblivious to the glances from other pedestrians.

Old Havana offers sights as diverse as the remnants of pre-communist businesses,

  quirky retail/residential buildings


modern glass-walled offices,

idiosyncratic apartment decor,



colonial plazas,

and churches (maintained now as tourist attractions rather than religious venues.)

The church on this plaza had a spectacular chandelier.

The finest building we saw was the Bacardi building, former home of the famous rum company, currently undergoing repairs to the exterior.

 It is now split up inside into various dusty offices, but the lobby is scrupulously maintained in all its deco glory.

For the price of 1 CUC (equivalent to $1) we took the elevator to the top floor and climbed a crumbling set of stairs into the tower. It was well worth the price for a spectacular view over the rooftops of the city.

Back at ground level we found many small delights, old and new, as we wandered through the streets.

Saturday, October 20

An early start because we had arranged to take the bus to our next destination, the town of Cienfuegos (A Hundred Fires) on the south coast. Foreigners are not allowed to board the local buses. There are two options: Viazul, which operates from a large bus station in each town, and Transtour, which picks up and sets down at hotels. As the Viazul station was at the other end of the city from where we were staying, we had booked on Transtour at a convenient hotel nearby. The hotel had an appropriate and interesting piece of sculpture in its lobby.

The bus was late leaving and then took almost an hour to make the rounds of Havana hotels. Once we were truly underway, however, the driver made up time rocketing along the highway. Few Cubans can afford cars so there was little traffic, just as well since the road was narrow with a surface that varied from good to pretty bad. The Chinese-made bus was comfortable but quite loose in the suspension which resulting in a swaying ride. All the buses we took in Cuba were the same in these respects. Sufferers from motion sickness beware!

Our route took us through fields of grass dotted with cattle or goats, sugar cane fields, groves of palms, citrus and bananas, and a lot of fallow fields.

We were met at Cienfuegos by a man with our names on a cardboard sign, who seemed surprised that we had so little luggage, just my small roll-aboard and Michael's shoulder bag. With mine loaded on his bike, he led us a few blocks to the main street and a door in a wall. Inside was a small courtyard.

Our room with bathroom alongside was behind the shutters on the right. The family lived in the rooms at the back. Through the open door is the dining room, where they served our breakfast and the one dinner we had there, eating their own meals at times when we were not there.
It was too hot during our time there for us to make use of the courtyard, although the local wildlife seemed to be enjoying it.

We preferred to follow the example of the locals who sat outside on the wide, tree-shaded boulevard in the Paseo del Prado, the main street. Over Michael's left shoulder you can see the brown doors of our casa.

On Sunday morning the Prado was also a gathering place for a small local orchestra in which our host, Flavio, was one of the clarinet players.

Further south, the Prado ran beside the sea and became the Malecon.

One evening we strolled down there to watch fisherman at work.

This boy with a net caught only tiny fish, but seemed pleased with his catch.

With aid from Unesco, Cienfuegos has restored many colonial buildings. One of these is a magnificent theatre where we saw a modern dance performance. Photos were not allowed during the show, but I was able to record the elaborate ceiling and the proscenium arch.

There was a small bar at the side of the theatre where we had drinks one evening, but across the plaza was an even nicer one with a terrace

from which we could see a church campanile,

 ... and the bandstand in the centre of the square.

That's not a bouncer in the foreground, merely our waiter talking to a passing pedicab driver.

On our last evening we went to a restaurant, Doña Nora, recommended by Flavio. It helps to have a recommendation as restaurants are not allowed to advertise with outdoor signs as we are used to. The best they can do is have an employee on the street with a menu to entice you.
The Doña Nora was upstairs with the usual high ceilings, tall casements opening onto the boulevard and tables arranged between marble columns.

 The food was excellent: rabbit for me, beef for Michael.
The chefs in the tiny, spotless kitchen were happy to be photographed,

... and so was the saxophonist who played while we ate.

Monday, October 22

We were moving on to Trinidad de Cuba today, but our bus didn't leave until just after midday, so we had time to buy sandwiches for the journey and for me to buy a $2 wooden fan. I'd seen several locals with fans and had decided it would be a good investment for the hot climate.
We were travelling with Viazul this time and had been advised by our hosts to get to the bus station an hour in advance. As it turned out the bus didn't leave for an hour and a half. My fan proved its usefulness in the hot, crowded and stuffy waiting room. We struck up conversation with some young Norwegians who were on 6-month study visas and doing a bit of sightseeing during their break and got a few useful insights into Cuban customs from them.
Eventually we were all loaded onto the bus and rolled along through verdant countryside to Trinidad. Almost everyone on the bus was being met at the other end. As we disembarked, we faced a row of people holding makeshift signs with various names on them.

One of the pedicab drivers had our names and off we went, jolting over the cobblestones that pave many of Trinidad's streets. Fortunately, it wasn't far to our casa.

Our rooms were upstairs this time: a spacious bedroom, modern bathroom and a lovely palm-thatched balcony, where we had all our meals at the wrought-iron table. The only drawback was the lumpy mattresses, a common problem in these otherwise very comfortable little establishments.

Access was by a circular iron staircase twined with jasmine.

After a good cup of coffee we went out into the hot afternoon to explore. Trinidad is another town that has benefited from Unesco money and a subsequent influx of tourists like ourselves who want more from a holiday than a beach and a palm tree.
The row houses that lined the cobbled streets were well-maintained, painted in tropical colours. It took us a few minutes to realize that most of these were shops and restaurants as there was the usual lack of signage on the street.

There were many galleries selling assorted art, the majority depicting either Che Guevara or members of the musical group Buena Vista Social Club. Other shops offered beautiful cut-work embroidery, hats woven from palm fronds and wooden carvings.

In the centre of town was a small plaza with clipped hedges and a few seats, but we saw no-one sitting there on the various times we passed by.

Looking for a bar for a pre-dinner mojito was our evening mission. The first we tried was upstairs on a flat roof, but the only vacant seats were in full sun which was still very hot. The next was crowded with a busload of tourists. Third time lucky, however: we found a shady courtyard with tables scattered about in the shade of a huge tree and a band playing under it. A tourist, possibly Dutch, had joined the band with a borrowed guitar and all were playing Cuban salsa selections – very pleasant.

We enjoyed our mojitos and were happy to buy the band's CD for 10 CUC. Gradually the other tables filled with people wandering past the doorway and following the music inside.

Thunderclouds were gathering as we set off back to our casa, where we had arranged for dinner on our balcony: black bean soup, chicken, omelette, plantains, rice and a plate of sliced tomato and cucumber. It was delicious.
During the night the wind blew hard, rattling the palms outside and banging distant doors and shutters. The morning was cool with a brisk breeze. We set off for the local communications office to check e-mail. Cubans have computers, but only resident foreigners are allowed to have private internet; government offices and some of the large hotels are the only places where tourists can get on-line.
We spent the rest of the morning in the Museo Romantico, formerly a plantation owner's residence and still stocked with his possessions: Limoges and Sevres porcelain, Bavarian crystal and a huge oak dining table from England.

We weren't allowed to take photos of the interior, but could at least shoot the views from the second floor, looking out towards the ocean,

... and down into the surrounding narrow streets.

The plantation owner was also a slave owner, 700 in all we were told. We saw chilling evidence of their conditions a little later when we paused at a small cafe nearby for some lunch.

The decor was artifacts from those colonial times, including pistols,

... and leg-irons, some clearly made for children.

In the afternoon, rain showers kept us close to home, lolling on our little balcony.

For dinner we found Vill'Alba, a small restaurant where we had the best food of the whole trip: spicy grilled fish with a sauce of sliced almonds, potatoes, beets, beans and tomato salad. It was a nice change from so much fried food, and only 6 cuc. a plate. Once again there was live music, this time a trio of electric guitar, bongos and maracas. They were very good.

We had booked a train trip to the Valley of the Engineers, a tobacco and sugar cane area, the following day, so we were up early to make our way to the station under cloudy, windy skies. Bernardo, our host, told us there was a cyclone brewing further to the east and that heavy rain was forecast for the afternoon. Later we learned that this was Hurricane Sandy arriving, but at the time we were just grateful for cool weather for our journey.

At the small station were other tourists, all waiting for the train.

 We all crammed into the two carriages,
one a bar car, the other with slatted wooden seats,
and chugged our way through fields of sugar cane
 and groves of coconut palms to our first stop

This was a sugarcane plantation, now a restaurant and tourist attraction, dominated by a tall tower the former owner had built in order to survey his domain.

 Views from the tower were amazing. Michael took the opportunity to make a quick sketch once the main crush of tourists had climbed higher up.

I had to be content with photos.

Down below I could see our waiting train,

... and the road we had traversed, lined with stalls selling hand-embroidered tablecloths.

Inside the villa, there were some attractive murals

while outside there was an attractive pig,

some attractive plants,

and an old sugar mill still working but only as a demonstration for us tourists.

Reboarding the train we continued on to a less impressive station.

It was a sign of what we were to find at the tobacco plantation, which was a run-down villa with an unappetizing lunch menu. Fortunately, we had brought sandwiches with us, but the rest of the group was not so lucky. 
There was very little to see except a dusty barnyard of miserable chickens and mangy dogs, and we had an hour to while away before the train returned to collect us.
Michael, as usual relied on his sketchbook to keep himself amused.

 I had to be content with a couple of photos,

including one of our favourite mirror shots.

We were all glad when the train returned to pick us up.

In fact, most of the younger crowd promptly occupied the bar car and proceeded to get very merry and boisterous,


... in spite of the rain which arrived as Bernardo had predicted and soaked us as it dripped off the roof into the open carriages.

The train stopped once on the way for the engineer to perch precariously on the rail of a rickety bridge to pump water into the locomotive's tank.

After changing into dry clothes, we returned to our courtyard bar for the drink we had forgone on the train. This time the band persuaded Michael to play the maracas with them.

 We followed on with another meal at Vill'Alba, which was as good as the first, as was the music from the house trio.

Friday, October 25

Overnight a wild wind caused several power outages, which we knew because the fan in our room stopped and started accordingly. At one point, something (a loose tile?) crashed across the roof over our heads. By morning the wind had died, but it was still raining and increased during breakfast to a steady downpour. Our terrace was slick with water dripping from the palm thatch and palm fronds torn loose by the wind lay in the puddles.
In the streets people were out and about, hopping over the rushing gutters in the middle of the streets.
To avoid the rain we had hoped to visit the architectural museum but it was closed. However, the Museum of the Revolution was only partly closed so we checked it out instead. The exhibits were pretty basic: a few military artifacts in glass cases, and in the courtyard a gunboat and a Russian truck (a model that postdated the revolution!) Still, the courtyard was pretty with palms,

and the floor of a hall to the right of the photo had beautiful mosaics on the floor with a very eclectic set of images. Below are just three of a wide selection, something for everyone.

In one corner of the courtyard was the fire prevention system, which had us hoping they never had a fire.

There was a bell tower, but the stairway to it was closed. Nevertheless we had a good view from the second floor over the surrounding rooftops. You can see the rainwater collecting in the central gutter in the second photograph.

On leaving the museum we ran into a Belgian woman we'd met the day before and joined her for coffee at a cafe. With rain still falling, its spacious courtyard was  empty but there was just enough room under the roof for a few tables and we were lucky enough to grab the last one.

Across the courtyard we could see a staircase, like a piece of modern sculpture winding its way up the wall.

Presumably because of the weather there were few tourists about, and many stores and cafes were closed. We managed a bit of lunch in a cafe with v-e-r-y slow service before going back to our casa to pack and head for the bus station, on our way to our next destination, the city of Santa Clara.

After the usual wait to board, we were finally off on our 3-hour journey. The bus rolled through green hills dotted with palm trees.

Rain came and went as we travelled, and we could see how the previous night's torrential downpour had flooded the land to either side of the causeway where our road ran.

We had again arranged accommodation through the usual network, so at the Santa Clara terminus on the fringe of the city we were met by a cheerful taxi driver who took us to the Hostal Florida Central, which he assured us was "the best casa and the best restaurant in Santa Clara." And it was certainly a very attractive place with rooms arranged along one side of a courtyard stuffed with plants.

Our room was behind the hanging baskets. The only drawback was that the restaurant tables were arranged along the terrace right outside so that if you opened the shutters on the window, you looked right onto a table for two. The first night we were there, a couple at that table talked and smoked cigars until the restaurant closed which didn't make for a good start after our long day. (The following night we claimed that table and all was well.)
The owner, who spoke good English, told us that Hurricane Sandy had passed through to the east, causing the collapse of several buildings in the city of Santiago de Cuba. He assured us that the forecast was for clearing weather in the morning.

Saturday, October 27

Once the diners had left it was very quiet, the room was cool, the bed comfortable and we had a restful night after all. In the morning, the sun was shining,welcomed by a rooster in a coop in the courtyard.
A slightly disconcerting moment was when I discovered something large and dark in the shower recess, which turned out to be only a tortoise seeking shelter from the heat outside.

Breakfast was good: warm buns, fruit, pastries and coffee. 

 Once again I was impressed by how beautiful the light fixtures are in so many Cuban buildings. Our casa had a great collection in the foyer and public rooms. The style of the first two, we learned, is called Lampas de Larmes, Lamps of Tears

 At the front of the casa was an elegant sitting room with a lovely tiled floor and antique furniture.

By contrast, directly across the street outside was this:

Santa Clara is a thriving, bustling, big city but clearly hasn't had the benefit of Unesco funds for restoration like Cienfuegos and Trinidad.  Probably because of this it also has fewer tourists, but it therefore offers a more authentic experience of Cuba than those two towns do.
The city has a lovely central plaza shaded by trees, where the locals come to meet, sit, stroll, eat icecream cones and people-watch all day and into the evening.

Around the edge children can enjoy a ride in a goat cart,

and flower sellers do a good trade along the shadiest side.

A striking difference with elsewhere in the world is the absence of cell phones, so people actually smile and acknowledge each other when they pass on the street. If the boy in the photo here was in North America, you would assume he was holding a phone, but here in Cuba, he's just scratching his ear.
This was the only place where we saw something like a supermarket, although the shelves reflected how much the Cubans are suffering from the American embargo.

We spent some time visiting, or trying to visit, various public buildings. The Museum of Visual Art seemed to be closed.


We found an open door around the corner, but the rooms inside were empty. However, there was a poster advertising a free concert in the early evening, which we decided to return for.

The Museum of Arts Decoratifs across the plaza was open and we toured the usual collection of dusty relics from the colonial era with the obligatory guide. The most interesting feature was a room full of gifts to Fidel Castro from various other heads of state, most of them incredibly ugly. Once again, photographs were forbidden.
Next we tried the library but foreigners were not allowed entry. We were however, permitted to see the empty ground floor concert room with its elaborately gilded walls and ceiling.

At a quarter to six we made our way back to the venue for the concert. Although free, it had attracted only a few patrons, most of whom seemed to be families of the singers. That was a pity because the group of five young women were very good. They sang several songs a capella to a beat played very softly by one of them on a gourd or sometimes maracas.

The lead singer
 in the middle
 had a powerful, beautiful voice.
When they were replaced by a soloist singing to synthetic music that reverberated tinnily in the small space, we left. It reminded us of a conversation we had had in Cienfuegos with 
another tourist. "They have great music in Cuba," he said, "but they need some good sound engineers."

Sunday, October 28

The plan for the day was to visit the monument and museum to Che Guevara on the outskirts of the city. This is the primary reason that tourists come to Santa Clara, but most just arrive and leave in tour buses from nearby beach resorts.

The weather was warm but not hot, pleasant enough for us to decide to walk.On the way we crossed a small bridge over a canal.

The canal had obviously flooded when Hurricane Sandy tore by, and there were several people combing the banks for anything of value that might have washed down, although it mostly seemed to be plastic bags.

As we walked, the small houses gave way to ugly concrete four-story apartment blocks, then to a traffic roundabout with grass and spreading flame trees. Beyond was the monument: a dramatic statue of Che towering over huge marble slabs carved with scenes from his career.

The wide base of the monument held a very interesting museum, where once again no photographs were permitted. There were photographs of Che as a baby with his  middle-class Argentinian parents, as a schoolboy and during all his years as a guerilla fighter. Glass cases held objects owned or used by him, including a pen, binoculars, school report cards, letters, dental instruments (he was trained as a dentist), even one of his inhalers (he suffered badly from asthma.) Oddest of all was a peach pit carved with his portrait. Although Fidel and Raoul Castro appeared in a few of the photos, there was clearly a love affair between Che and the camera.

Adjoining the museum is a mausoleum where Che and other heroes of the revolution are buried.  An eternal flame burns at one end and each hero has a carved coin-like image in front of his crypt. Again, no photos allowed.

There is a bookshop in a small adjoining building, and I admired the neatly-clipped flowering hedge that lined the path to it.

I'm not sure what the plants were, possibly a type of plumbago?

I could more easily identify this exotic vine, having seen it in Australia: it's Chalice Vine (Solandra maxima.) I couldn't resist including the Cuban flag that was flying in the background.

As we walked back to town, there were opportunities to admire more Cuban flora, including a healthy-looking banana,

 a coconut palm,

and a giant fig tree growing in a tiny yard.

During the afternoon, we visited the Centro Culturel, a fine old colonial building flanking one side of the square. The "modernized" main floor held a display of paintings. This was my favourite:

Upstairs we were shown a grand ballroom with huge palladian windows overlooking the square.

Afterwards we checked out another musical group at the art centre, but although they were good the earsplitting amplification of their performance drove us away.
We had better luck across the square in the lobby of the Teatro where a woman was singing solo accompanied by a guitarist. The space was packed and we had to stand by the entrance.

 Judging from the way several older women in the audience joined in the chorus, the repertoire was old favourites. At one point the singer became so emotional she began to cry. Audience members jumped up with tissues and fanned her with a pink fan, which encouraged her to continue, but she soon had to stop again and disappeared through the doors into the theatre, leaving her guitarist to carry on alone.

Monday, October 29

As we were leaving for Varadero, we had to vacate our room in the morning, but were able to store our bags in the office until afternoon. After another museum visit to see some not very exciting old mosaic-style art, and a stop at the local telegraph office to check email, we had coffee at a pleasant cafe in the main pedestrian street, watching a young Australian couple with a blonde baby getting a lot of attention from staff and passers-by, including the usual street beggars. The parents smiled serenely at all the strangers, rich or poor.
Our last visit in Santa Clara was to a tobacco factory, but we got lost and ended up at a railway station where a collection of colourful carts was waiting for customers.

When we got to the factory we ran up against the now familiar ban on photos. Inside a cavernous room men and women were sitting at small workstations, rolling the dried tobacco leaves into cylinders and putting them into plastic moulds that they then compressed with a turnscrew. The tobacco leaves looked and felt like thin brown skin.
The conditions were terrible. Glass-less windows were all covered with several layers of wire mesh to prevent observation from the street, making the whole room dim.We were told that workers put in an 8-hour day with half an hour for a snack and half an hour for lunch.  When I asked to use the facilities, I was directed to a room with unflushed toilet bowls and no running water. There was nowhere to wash hands. I returned to watching the workers hand-roll the cigars with this in mind!
 Each cigar gets tested for density and those that don't meet the standard are broken in two. Nevertheless, enough of these must make their way outside, judging from the number being sold illegally on the streets. The last room we visited was where all the cigars were removed from the boxes to have the appropriate bands added. Each worker had a small gauge that ensured the bands were all at exactly the same level.
With the tour over, we were led across the street to the factory shop which sold coffee, honey and rum as well as all the different cigars. The cheapest cigars were 20 CUC  (or $20) each, not expensive if you consider that the whole process is done by hand. Not being smokers or, for that matter, knowing anyone who smoked cigars, we had no reason to buy.

 After grabbing a late lunch at a nearby pizzeria (where my vegetarian order consisted of a mound of green beans in the middle and a rim of cucumber slices),

we collected our bags and headed for the bus station.We had hardly set off, after the customary wait, before the bus pulled over onto the verge. It seemed there was a problem with the air-conditioning. After some fiddling the driver seemed satisfied with it. It still didn't work very well, but since it was evening already the air was cool enough for that not to be a problem.As we settled in for the three-hour journey, a full moon rose over the fields outside.

By the time we arrived in Varadero it was totally dark. A small shuttle bus was waiting to take people to the various hotels but only three of us boarded it. The rest of the passengers disappeared into the night. To our annoyance a sleepy night clerk at the hotel where we'd booked was insistent that the hotel was full and we were to go to the sister hotel 3 blocks down the road. This hotel, the Dos Mares, was gloomy and smelled of mould. Sure enough, by morning my allergies were in full swing. At least the sight of me with my eyes almost swollen shut was enough to gain the desk clerk's sympathy and we were able to get transferred back to the original hotel, the Pullman. This was also pretty basic, but had a newer motel-style wing that at least smelled fresh. It also had an attractive courtyard
with palm trees, one brought down by the hurricane,

along with some amazing cacti like the coral you'd see on a tropical reef.

Tuesday October 30

Varadero is very much an all-inclusive resort town, which means those like us who only want bed-and-breakfast have very little accommodation to choose from. The worst feature of the Pullman was the beds. Unlike the casa particulares, which generally had two double or a double and a single bed, the rooms in this hotel all had two singles. Mine had a spring that poked up through the mattress cover. Fortunately, I found blankets that I could use as a mattress pad in the cupboard.
What most people come to Varadero for is the white sand beach that stretches along this peninsula east of Havana.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy a cool wind was blowing, whipping the waves full of sand, and huge clouds were scudding overhead. It was not pleasant for swimming, but the almost deserted beach was fine for a long walk.

By contrast, the single street that runs the length of the peninsula was lined with tourist traps selling tacky souvenirs.

We found refuge in the Parque Josone, a tranquil area of wide green lawns dotted with palms and flowering trees. A few restaurants and bars were clustered around an artificial lake in the centre.

The park was largely deserted, except for chickens and ducks wandering about and many monarch butterflies feeding on the tropical flowers.

Across the road from the park we found the Museo Varadero in a lovely old wooden  building facing the beach. The second floor was ringed by a broad verandah.

It could have been a bungalow out of a Somerset Maugham novel, with a tiled roof, tall casement windows with wooden shutters, and a once-gracious living room looking out over the water. Smaller rooms housed a collection of relics of the revolution and cases of ancient stuffed birds. 

Later we returned to the Parque Josone for dinner. The restaurant we chose, Dante, served decent pasta and even had a wine list. We enjoyed a very nice bottle of Chilean Malbec. There were few other diners, perhaps because of the all-inclusive resorts, perhaps because of the weather which had turned to rain. The cheerful waiter taught us a new idiom, "Esa es la cosa", Spanish for "It is what it is."

Wednesday October 31

The wind dropped overnight and the day looked promising. We bought tickets for the hop on - hop off buses that make circuits of the Varadero peninsula and rode to the end of the line, passing all the inclusive resorts along the way. Most were built McMansion-style, painted pink with white trim, and adjoined by golf courses, tennis courts and, of course, a strip of the beach. Michael's comment was "it would be like being on a cruise ship that doesn't go anywhere." That is presumably what most visitors to Cuba want.

We got off the bus at the Zona Ecologico, billed as a nature reserve, paid the 5 CUC entry fee and set off on the self-guided walk with a map in garbled English.  There wasn't a lot to see: some pretty butterflies, a wild bees' nest, a couple of termite mounds and some leaf-cutter ants.  A limestone cave held some excavated bones.

 We heard birds but only saw two, a small brown one and another with a bright red crest and yellow wings. The latter - a tropical woodpecker? - was the highlight of the expedition for me, although I think it was supposed to be the bones, according to our brochure.

The rest of the day was taken up by walks along the beach, a (very quick) dip in the water and an afternoon siesta.  The following morning we left for the airport and the journey home. We were ready to go: Varadero catered almost entirely to tourists whose only requirements were a beach and free booze. We had much preferred our experiences in Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and Santa Clara.

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