The Cayman Islands

The return to civilisation as we know it. Our first dinner in the Caymans is fairly representative of our feelings. We went to a 50's themed diner and spent an age pouring over the extensive, delicious and expensive menu before eventually alighting on some options, all of which turned out to be available and as described. I ordered a virgin raspberry colada which was as manly and pink as one would expect. While waiting for the meal to arrive we found ourselves in a particularly good mood. We had missed the ease of life. Being understood (apart from our accent), understanding what everyone else was saying, no haggling, no fuss, huge expense. Even the money was colourful and had the Queen on the back! We were sad to leave Cuba and the latin american chapter of our holiday however we were also ready to relax a bit.

Stingray city, a sandbar where the stingrays have been training humans to come and feed them squid for over 50 years.

We stayed in a lovely B&B where we had a delicious breakfast each morning before we went on the days activities which usually revolved around snorkelling, our newfound love since Galapagos. The waters are clear and warm, the beach white and fine. The fish were huge, some the size of sharks and rather intimidating when they approached wondering if we had food (or perhaps, were food). A sea trampoline provided fun as we worked out how to climb up it and then felt drunk as we tried to bounce on a surface that shifts on the water underneath us. We got to see Conch crawling around the ocean floor (shy little fellas) and some squid we thought might have been doing a mating dance but were perhaps a bit too shy to finish it with us watching. Tiny, glowing fish, one of whom adopted Shan and followed her around wherever we went.

The owners of the bed and breakfast were also involved in one of the tour boats that went out to see stingrays. We took their boat to the sandbar and jumped off into the waist deep water. The stingrays are used to people around here and would come and brush up against your legs for attention. The rays have been named by the tour guides including Pizza Slice (who looked like he'd met with a boat engine earlier in life) and our favourite, Stumpy, who had a short stinger and was very pregnant. We got to hold her and look at the bulging pouch on the top of her body where the baby stingrays were growing. Shannan had, by this time, thrown her childhood phobia to the wind and gave Stumpy a goodbye kiss. I fed them some squid, holding it out and waiting for one to 'sniff' it out and come over the top with a strong vacuum cleaner suction to pick it up from my hand. One of our fellow tourists screamed out in frantic surprise as this same vacuum cleaner ability was used on his leg leaving him with the greatest hickey I've ever seen!

One of the most amazing experiences of the whole trip was the bioluminescent tour we did in the darkness of a new moon. The boat took us out to a harbour (actually peoples backyard, their houses surrounding the bay). We put on our snorkel gear and I was first off the boat. As I climbed down the ladder into the water my foot started to glow an eerie blue colour. Everywhere I moved in the water there was beautiful blue light trailing me. The others on the boat stopped to watch as I went deeper before hustling to get into the water themselves. It was even more amazing once in the water. In the blackness I moved my hands in front of the snorkel goggles. Moving slow made tiny blue dots appear, outlining my hand and even the hairs on the back of my hand. Moving faster activated more lights blurring together and creating a bright blue stream of plasma. It was like being in our own sci-fi movie.

The glow is caused by bioluminescent microscopic organisms. They are present throughout the oceans, often churned up by the wake of large ships. The bay provides the perfect conditions for these tiny creatures with it's high salinity, warmth and nutrients from nearby mangroves. They are present here in a concentration many thousands of times higher than the open ocean.

Shannan and I are now throwing plasma balls at each other in the water. As our eyes grow more accustomed to the low light we can see things beneath us in the water. Fish dart in and out of sight as they move and go still. We found a lobster crawling around with it's spindly legs being outlined as it plods along the floor.

Shannan makes a bioluminescent angel

I climbed back onto the boat to get a photo of Shannan making a bioluminescent angel. The low light conditions make it very hard to capture this effect on camera. Other tourists are incurring my wrath by using their flash, destroying night vision and capturing a photo of people in water (the dim blue glow drowned out to invisibility by the bright flash). I settle for smug satisfaction as I get the photo I'm after.

There are only 12 places in the world that the conditions are right for the bioluminescent organisms to exist at such a high concentration. If you ever have the opportunity to do a tour like this make sure you take it, and make sure you go for a swim. There was also a kayak tour that went through the same area but I doubt they had anything near such an amazing experience as we did actually swimming in the water.

The Cayman Islands lent itself well to having a car. It turned out we could hire a car for two days and save a fortune. $25 per day for the car as opposed to $40 for a return bus trip to see the far side of the island (ouch!) and about $25 for the short taxi ride back to the airport (ouch!). So we got a set of wheels and finished off our Cayman experience checking out various snorkel points around the island. This was my first time driving on the Queen's side of the road in over 17,000 kms.

Our final night in the Caribbean we caught a catamaran across the bay to a beachside BBQ and recovery on the deck chairs. Goodbye tropics, you will be missed!

Cuban Beaches

When in the Carribean...

We made sure to visit several of the beautiful Cuban beaches while on the island. White sand and blue clear waters stretching off to the distance. Tiny fish that follow you as you swim around. Paddle boats and deck chairs. This was our habitat on several occasions while in Cuba.

Sunset in Veradero, the sailing boats have already gone to sleep for the night.

Our first luxurious beach was Cayo Santa Maria. A five hour bus ride east of Havana this was our favourite beach. The sand was fine and vibrant and the water was a lovely shade of blue. We stayed at an 'all-inclusive' resort. This is where Canada holidays, or so it seemed. In fact this one seemed to be where the Quebecois in particular come to holiday.

Standard ritual for most people seems to be to wander past the beach sometime before 8am and leave your towels spread liberally over the prime deck chairs before proceeding to do something else for the first half of the day. We missed the memo about this and arrived to an empty, yet completely booked out beach. The beach is best in the mornings before the wind picks up so we decided to take advantage of it regardless. Nestling in amongst the reserved chairs we created two of our own. This upset the people who had thought their diagonal-table trick was going to stop some couldn't-care-less Australians and they stormed off in a flurry of righteousness, 'take everything!'. Australia - 1, Quebec - 0.

We took a day trip to Cayo Jutias from Vinales, this hour long minibus trip took us away from the tobacco farms to a lovely beach where we hired some deck chairs for $3 and spent the day relaxing. Shannan found herself in the way of a curious 3 year old who was enamoured with the iPad. Taking the shortest route to play with it she climbed over Shannan's head and elbowed her chest to get a better view of the display.

Varadero is 'the' beach to go to. It has been built up so the whole 20+ km stretch of beach is made up of various resorts. We had the opportunity to catch up with family at one of the all-inclusives here. This one felt much less like the Star Trek 'suspiciously perfect' planets the characters always getting sentenced to death on than our first experience. Food was amongst the best we found in Cuba, buffet style with delicious coconut icecream if you knew where to look.

As we were busy reading books by the beach, paddling our boats and kayaks and splashing around the pool bar you may notice there are fewer photos than normal. Guess you will have to go try Cuba for yourself! 

Viñales, Cuba

Vinales is a popular spot for those who want to go a bit beyond the all-inclusive resort beaches of Cuba. The valley itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to the rounded Mogotes that dot the valley floor. The town itself has been changed by tourism, almost every house is a Casa Particulare (home stay) and it's impossible to walk down the main street without being hassled to catch a taxi (why would a decadent westerner walk when they could be driven?). However it's still possible to pick up a 10 peso pizza on the main street (about 40 to 50 cents) and the landscape of the surrounding valley make up for any remaining hard feelings.

Vinales valley, mogotes visible in the distance

We were greeted on arrival by a swarm of willing hosts surrounding our bus, all shouting that their place was the best in all Vinales. We had pre-booked so we could ignore this assault however we did notice the prices being bandied about were about half what we had agreed to over the phone. Our place was close to the centre of town and our hosts were nice enough though conversation was sparse as we had to rely on our questionable spanish to communicate. 

We went on a walking tour of the valley on our first morning. This was supposed to be a 4 hour walk in the countryside. Near the start our guide asked if we had plans for the day and once everyone said no he settled in to the 'long' tour. We visited a tobacco plantation where the farmer discussed the different leaves on the tobacco plant (fun fact: low lying tobacco leaves are reserved for ration card cigarettes in Cuba). I tried my first ever cigar (or cigarette for that matter!) made the traditional way where the tobacco is prepared using natural chemicals such as honey (and others but I forget what they were).

Continuing on we went to a special farm, it is owned privately and the produce is sold privately, not to the state. The farm also experiments with various ways of maximising crop outputs within the constraints of the trade embargo (not enough fertiliser to go round) and takes on apprentice farmers from other regions to share the knowledge gained. 

We ordered a Piña Colada and sat on the farmers rocking chairs overlooking the valley. A fine place for a farmstead, it would be a great sight to wake up to each morning. By this time it was past lunch and our guide suggested we may like to stay for the pork BBQ. This was easily the best meal we had in all of Cuba! The four in our group sat at a table big enough for 6 and there was no room for more delicious food by the time they finished serving. Melt in your mouth pork that had been cooked over coals all morning and a huge variety of sides including sautéed plantains, stuffed eggplant and boiled yuca - a vegetable that by this point was curiously starting to appeal to our palette.

Tobacco plantation with a drying shed in the distance.

We ventured to the base of a mogote. The environment approaching the mogote changes from the heat of the tobacco fields to a cool dampness. We drank some water from the spring inside.  Our guide continued his spiel from where he left off, mentioning that bats like to live in these caves. Luckily we managed to dodge a bat borne tropical disease this time, the water was cool and refreshing, nothing more. 

On our final day in Vinales we decided to take the bus tour so we could check off all the 'must sees' that we hadn't seen yet. Our bus driver was taking his time, stopping at seemingly random places for long breaks. After six months in South America I assumed this was just the Cuban way and left him about his business. Finally the bus stops at an intersection for a long time and another passenger asks if there is a problem. 'It's finished', replies the driver. And so, in a puff of non-smoke, our bus is left at the intersection and we are left to find our own way home. We didn't get to see the remaining 'must sees' that day however we did meet a nice Canadian couple on our walk back to town who had seen more of Australia than I have. I need to add some local country flavour to my to-do list.

Havana, Cuba

Among the  confusing contradictions, power cuts, arbitrary pricing systems and fleets of fantastic old cars, Cuba, more than any other we've visited, is a country where the culture trumps all. Our travels in this fascinating country are perhaps best told as short stories:

Apartheid  ice-cream

The giant space age building that holds the flagship store of the state owned Coppelia icecream chain takes up an entire block in central Vedado. It is said that until recently, Fidel himself would dictate which ice cream flavours were to be sold each day. As we approached this dessert nirvana we were intercepted by a security guard. After ascertaining in English that we desired ice cream we were shunted off to a small kiosk with the other foreigners. This being our first Cuban purchase we were a little surprised when two rather merge chocolate ice-creams and a couple of bottles of water came to 6CUC. Further investigations later showed that Cuban nationals pay just 10 CUP (1 USD= 1CUC = 25CUP).  Capitalist ice cream aside, we were most disappointed not to be allowed to share our indulgence with local people.

The shouting corner

The Parque Central on the border of old and new Havana is a meeting place for locals to discuss a very important topic; baseball. Here, under the shade of the palm trees, mainly older Cuban men gather at all hours to discuss the sport. Wild gesticulations and shouting is the norm as they discuss the ins and outs of the regional teams. The favourite topic being Las Industriales (the better of the two havana teams), and their performance against the arch rivals Santiago de Cuba. To an outsider all of this is very confusing to witness, luckily as we were seated nearby, watching (having worked out the baseball connection through the wild swinging actions) the only lady to join in the melee stopped by to chat to us. In between selling cigars to local spectators, she cheerfully explained the whole affair, making sure we understood that she was an Industriales fan herself.

While we were in Viñales the finals were played and Pinar del Rio beat Matatsas. Discussing the merits of this was a good way for us to make friends when we needed a tour or transport booked.

How could we resist a pink 1950s convertible? Turns out the 5000% price difference between a 'tourist convertible' and an old taxi (same sort of cars) made it easier than you might think.

Taxis

Catching a taxi in Havana is not a straight forward undertaking. Sure, there is a large fleet of yellow and black government run cars, of varying decrepidness (the favourite being the USSR issued Ladas) but closer inspection reveals that almost every car has a little taxi sign stuck somewhere. Having taken a few of the 'official' taxis, and tired of the ubiquitous haggle down from the standard 5CUC starting quote, we decided to venture into the world of the local taxis. This involves standing on the side of a busy road and eyeing off potential rides. Almost all are fabulous Dodges, Chevys and Pontiacs from the 50s, some lovingly restored, other barely functioning. Once a suitable car is spotted (with room for two more passengers) we attempt to hail. Wether they stop or not is a different question. The drivers are often torn between knowing they can charge us double fare and the illegality of transporting tourists with other Cubans. Many though are happy to risk it ( police seem to turn a blind eye) and for the sum of 1-2CUCs (distance seems to be irrelevant) we happily squeeze in the back seat with a (invariably ample bottomed) local and enjoy the clunk and bumps of these great vehicles. Locals pay about 10CUP each.

Museum of the Revolution

We went to the Museo de la Revolucion one morning. This museum has a number of interesting artefacts and stories of the revolutionary era. Some highlights include the gold plate telephone presented to Batista for agreeing to a US communications company's request to hike local call prices, one of the radios used by the revolutionaries complete with vacuum tubes and volume control that goes all the way to 11 and blurry photos with brilliantly biased captions that met my expectations of a revolutionary museum. Some of the 'why is this here' items involved a spoon, formerly used by one of the revolutionaries but otherwise not of note, and a gift shop filled with overpriced trinkets after you have just finished hearing how they fought to kick all the capitalists off the island.

The big three: Camilo Cienfuegos, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara.

Decadent foreigners and enterprising Cubans

There is an odd contradictory mix of socialism and capitalism in Cuba, assisted a great deal by the dual currencies. Cuban locals will do and say almost anything for CUCs. Indeed, the expectation that we as decadent foreigners should freely part with large sums of money at every turn is the one downside to visiting this fascinating country. One example being the miriad of excuses offered by waiters for why we will not enjoy the cheap ($3.50CUC) fixed menu option, we guess because it  could mean a diminished tip for them. Despite the obvious expectation that we will be spending twice their monthly income on dinner, our eternal stinginess always wins having worked out early on that the amount paid vs what you get rarely seems to match up (we tip a little more in these cases). Perhaps the most irritating aspect are the street touts. It is almost impossible to walk anywhere in Havana without being offered something. As a tall blonde, I have zero chance of blending in and so a leisurely stroll requires at least 20 'no gracias' to offers of taxis, hair braiding, cigars and one memorable incident, cocaine. It's a shame because it means all conversations with locals are started with our guard up and only a few end in the rewarding cultural exchanges that we enjoy. We have some perspective though, a typical government wage is 200-400 CUP ($8-16CUC) month and many important items, like phone credits and sunscreen can only be bought in CUC, so the desperate grab for CUCs is understandable.

A street in Havana in the fading afternoon light. Cocotaxi in the foreground, a motorcycle engine with room (optimistically) for 3 passengers.

A night at the theatre

Determined to experience some of the famed musical and dance culture we sought out a suitable outlet. Talking to a travel agent we were steered towards the tropicana. A flashy, bright and loud cabaret of much fame. Further investigation revealed the tourist only prices starting at $90 CUC, though we were assured this included a 1/4 bottle of rum. Being neither good tourists (too stingy) or good drinkers we sought an alternative. We were happy to find in the local paper ads for 'Amigas' the musical playing at the Karl Marx theatre.  Our initial excitement of the 25CUP ticket price was dashed when we were told that foreigners must pay in CUC. Cubans are paid really meager wages by the state and cheap cultural experiences are all part of the socialist regimes ideals, I guess that given we haven't paid into this system it makes sense to pay more. Still, paying 25 times more than the local people stung a bit, but this was still a good deal. The show itself was  highly polished and wonderfully performed. We were treated to all types of Cuban music and dancing and some amazing voices. Though the plot itself was completely lost on us! Plus we had one small triumph, being allowed to buy a programme for the local price of 2CUP(10c) and when the show was over we walked home along with everyone else because most people can't afford a car.