Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Cuba Travel- continued

Cienfuegos was our next stop and another interesting town with beautifully maintained old buildings and streets around the main square. Looking at the many buildings in Cuba both those in good condition and the ones left to deteriorate it is noticeable the amount of wealth that must have been invested in Cuba over the centuries. This would have been through the slave trade, sugar plantations and later became an American ‘playground’ with casinos and ultimately corruption.

Unfortunately I still was not up to par as we walked around. We ended having ‘another big lunch’ at what seemed to have been a luxurious yacht club. It was a buffet lunch but it was only going to be steamed rice for me. A building near to our lunch stop was once a palace built in the Moorish style of Southern Spain, it is now a hotel and restaurant.
Spanish influenced hotel

We stayed at Hotel Ranchos Luna another resort which was about 17km out of town and not only don’t we get value for money at a resort it is in an inconvenient location.

In morning I took my tablets for my diarrohea and hoped I would be feeling better. We then went to a print workshop set up for students and artists which was very informative. Then off again for ‘another big lunch’ of which I ate nothing though it looked very tasty and was a really lovely little restaurant.

We were then going on a boat trip around the harbour but I was gradually going downhill to the point where I just couldn’t even face sitting in a boat doing nothing. I got Relando to take me back to the hotel where I slept for the rest of the afternoon.

Yvonne dropped by at 6.00pm and re-assured me I hadn’t missed much, but it hadn’t been much of a productive day for me. This was the first time in all my travels that I had such an upset stomach.

We happily left the resort, which was supposedly 5 star but I wouldn’t have given it 2 stars as it was awful.

Off to Santa Clara to the Memorial to Che Guevera and his 29 fellow combatants killed in Bolivia in 1967. Their remains were recovered and brought here 30 years ago. Che is really big in Cuba, his picture is everywhere more so than Fidel’s. He is the socialist ‘saint’ martyred for the cause.
Part of the memorial to Che Guevera

Near the memorial and mausoleum there is a museum using old goods train carriages. It is an exhibition of Che’s operation of destroying the goods train and railway of the Baptista Government.

From Santa Clara we went to the 500 year picturesque town of Remedios. The buildings around the main square were recently renovated for that anniversary.

We stayed at The Barcelona Hotel which is very attractive. We were like kids in a lolly shop as our rooms were not only spacious but nicely decorated with Mucha prints on the wall. The bathroom was also roomy with all the accoutrements one would expect in a mildly upmarket hotel. We were excited to stay somewhere decent after the 2 nights at the horrendous resort, like something out of Soviet Russia.

Our second last day we left at 8.00 am on our long trek back to Havana. We arrived around lunch time on the old fort and lighthouse side of the river. We were seated on a terrace with a great view of the river and the city. It was ‘another big lunch’. After I had made that comment just about every day, Yvonne my companion dubbed me ‘Not another big lunch Frances.’ That said it was a tasty offering of pumpkin soup, lobster and chicken but the dessert spoilt the finish by over the top artificially flavoured strawberry ice-cream.

We then went to visit Cuban artist Ileana Mulet, neither of us was looking forward to it as we felt we were really ‘professional or serious enough artists. However she turned out to be such a delightful person and we had an interesting conversation with Enrique translating.
Yvonne & me with Ileana centre
Her paintings were fascinating as she used a variety of media, though mainly oil and acrylic.

We were then dropped off at our hotel ‘The President’ which is situated along The Presidents’ Boulevard where the statues of former presidents are spaced along the median strip. Being unaware of the time difference between Havana and the provinces we ended up an hour ahead of ourselves for dinner, we wondered why the dining room was empty.

Our last day was a free day. We took the ‘Hop on Hop off’ bus in which was a waste of time as went mainly hotel to hotel, commentary was hard to understand and was not worth the money. One learns from experience. We enjoyed wandering around bought some gifts for people, though souvenir wise there really isn’t much that is tasteful or interesting if you want something other than cigars, rum Che Guevera and Castro memorabilia. We had a voucher for lunch (another big lunch) at the famous Havana Club.

That night we were having our final dinner with our wonderful driver and guide both were delightful company and very chivalrous young men.

Relando picked me up at 4.00am punctual and with a smile the next morning for me to catch my flight home. 
Enrique & Relando

Cuba is a fabulous place and one I would definitely like to revisit.

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Cuba travel - March 2016

We started our tour of Cuba, Rita introduced us to our guide Enrique and driver Relando. As there was just two of us we had a normal sedan to continue our trp.

We were now off to Vinales Valley en-route we visited ‘Patio de Peregrin’ a community project that trains the youth in the arts as well as growing organic produce. It was an extensive organization which helped the local community.

We also stopped on our way to Vinales at the famous mural painted on the side of a cliff, ‘Mural Prehistorica’ which depicts a huge snail, sea monsters, dinosaurs and man symbolizing evolution. The scenery of this area is impressive and similar to Guilin in China.
Scenery near Vinales

Vinales is a small town with many bars and restaurants as many tourists visit. Which explains the extensive souvenir trade which are all the same and unimpressive.

Our B&B Vinales
Our accommodation was a rather minimalist B&B the operators didn’t speak any English, the shower didn’t have hot water. My room had no bedside light and the light in the bathroom didn’t work however we were dished up a very tasty dinner there.

Breakfast next morning was 2 fried eggs, bread, fruit, cheese and quince paste and a very nice coffee. We were then picked up and taken to Caverna Santo Tomas the largest cave on the island- absolutely stunning and a beautiful 25 minute boat ride on the stream which runs through the cave.

This was followed by a visit to a tobacco farm, interesting information about the industry. The tobacco leaves are dried, but the humidity keeps the dry leaves pliable and soft allowing them to be easily rolled into cigars. We then driven to Hotel los Jazmines, mainly for the spectacular view. I think this was a place we were meant to sketch but we didn’t feel like plus we didn’t have our art equipment with us.

We returned to the tobacco farm for lunch, the tastiest meal we’ve had so far. We were then dropped back into town and went to El Jardin de Caridad a sprawling garden that has taken almost a century to establish. When we entered we were given a tour with explanations about the various plants which was very informative. The original owners were a Chinese and an African.

We insisted on a light dinner of soup, bread and fruit that night at our B&B.

Another fried egg breakfast, then the boys picked us up early as we had a long drive to Trinidad and our ‘picnic lunch’ consisted of just a cheese roll and fruit juice. The journey took 5 hours with minimal stops.

We arrived at the Resort Costa Sur (all inclusive) for one night. A short swim in the Caribbean and watching the sunset with our pina colada was a minor highlight. Dinner was buffet style and the dance show we watched was enjoyable.
Sunset over the Caribbean

In the morning we would be driving into Trinidad proper and stay in a home. We get there and when our guide checked the address of our accommodation, it was in Santos Spiritus about 70kms in the opposite direction we would be travelling the following day.

Our guide and driver managed to get us a B&B in the town which was really nice. Unfortunately I was unwell – ‘the trots’ but soldiered on the best I could. Trinidad is a delightful town where no new building has taken place for decades. It was very hot and my appreciation of the place was coloured by feeling awful.

My lunch was steamed rice but the bonus while sitting in the garden courtyard was seeing a humming bird and I managed to catch it in a photo.
The elusive humming bird

I should have refrained from dinner that night as the morning proved really bad for my diarrohea.

Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Havana - Cuba March 2016

Getting the visa for Cuba at Mexico City Airport wasn’t as easy as I had been told. Eventually it was obtained and we boarded our flight to Havana. We were met at the airport taken to our hotel and was told Rita from the tour company would meet us the next morning with our itinerary etc. We were on an Art Tour which ended with just the two of us being the only participants, which meant we didn’t have an artist with us the whole time. We didn’t mind.

That evening we walked into the city as far as the coast. Stopped on the way back for a drink.

Our guide Renee picked us up at 9.00 am, Rita didn’t appear, so no itinerary. I managed to persuade Renee to let us look at the one he had.

We were taken to many places and given extensive explanations, much of which was superfluous and were whizzed past places without an opportunity to look inside. Old Havana looked great and we would have loved to just wander the streets on our own.

We had a large lunch at La Bodeguita Del Medio a bar now famous as Ernest Hemingway frequented it. There was a crush of tourists outside. We entered then up a fight of narrow stairs. The meal was OK a mosquito drink was complementary, though not that great. I suspect churned out for the tourists. It was interesting to visit the bar but would have been better to eat elsewhere.
'Hemingway's Bar'

After lunch we did sketching with our artist Carlos. I’m afraid we were probably the less serious and more amateurish ‘artists’ he’s ever had. We promised to do a few sketches before we met the following day.

Dinner at the hotel was less than ordinary and they didn’t have any of the drinks we ordered that were displayed on the menu. I suspect they never had them.

The next day, Sunday started with Carlos and again we did minimal sketching. Then we went off for a coffee and had a great conversation with him after which he took us to some interesting small galleries where we met the artists. He proved to be a more interesting guide than Renee who was rather pompous and didn’t listen to us at all.
Cathedral Square

We met Renee around 12.00 and went to lunch at what I call a ‘food barn’ which is set up for large group tours. The food was rather ordinary to say the least though it so purported to be traditional Cuban cuisine, if so, considering the influences of the Spanish, French and African it proved rather disappointing compared to Mexico.

Though a factor impacting on the limitations in variety of food would be the embargo by America and poor economic situation but that doesn’t excuse lack of imagination and flavor of the dishes.

After lunch we went to the amazing home of Jose Rodriguez Fuster who devoted his life and art to the memory of Antoni Gaudi. He not only turned his home into a work of art but engaged the whole community in his vision.
Memorial for Gaudi

We asked to be dropped off at the old city and enjoyed our free time after I tried to re-organise the next day so we didn’t waste the whole day on a couple of things. Renee eventually came around to our way though it had to come out as though it was HIS idea.

Monday up early, regular breakfast spread, cereal consists of coco pops, choco-loops and fruit loops, plenty of cooked fare, terrible tasting juice, cold meats and cheese, fresh fruit, toast and cakes. They haven’t learnt bread making from the French that’s for sure.

Rita turned up only after we phoned yesterday to insist that she comes with copies of the itinerary and discuss it with us. After that we were dropped off in old Havana which was great. Disappointingly museums were closed as it was Monday.

We were then picked up around lunchtime to go to Cojuna on the coast. There was a small fort plus a memorial to Hemingway put there by the fishermen, who melted some of their anchors to make it. He had been their friend and memorialized them in his book Old Man and the Sea.

We had another big lunch which was surprisingly tasty fish soup, paella, rice pudding (a lot of rice!) after tis we went to Ernest Hemingway’s house, which was really delightful, despite the animal head trophies on the walls. A ‘writer’s retreat’ room in a tower with telescope, empty swimming pool, his boat ‘Pilar’ and his dog cemetery gave us an interesting insight into Hemingway.

Computer access is difficult in Cuba and though our hotel had computers and Wi-Fi we couldn’t use it without a card which they didn’t have to sell us.

We went out later for dinner and walked down the road we went along the first night Calle 23. We came across an Iranian restaurant ‘Topoly’ we had a very tasty vegetarian meal, we had been a bit vegetable deprived so really relished our dinner.

Tuesday our last day in Havana, we were picked up a bit later and went to Parque Centrale along the Paseo de Marti which is similar to the Ramblas in Barcelona.  Many interesting surrounding buildings were pointed out and how it was the famous theatre, restaurant and hotel area before the revolution.

We were shown a couple of beautiful Art Deco buildings which were in surprisingly good condition, there are many beautiful buildings in Havana which have been left to deteriorate and many are derelict. Only recently has restoration of these has been happening in earnest.
One of the Art Deco buildings

We visited the Museo Nacional de belle Artes which features the works of Cuban artists from colonial times to the present day. It was fascinating to see the progression of styles and influences from major European eras. It was great having Carlos with us to give further insight into the Cuban artistic tradition.

Lunch was in a small restaurant, and proved really pleasant both ambience and food, unlike the ‘food barns’ we had endured previously.

We then went to the art school where Carlos teaches. It was an enlightening tour of various classes and seeing the students’ works at various year levels, very sobering considering our meagre effort. We were relieved we could opt out of exhibiting our now quite ‘non-existent’ work.
Carlos with some of his art works

Dinner was to be provided and with no other information assumed it was at the hotel but it seemed there was no voucher (which eventually was sorted out). With various difficulties and muck ups, I dubbed Cuba – ‘China of the Caribbean’ and anyone who has been to China and had a number of dealings with organisations there will understand what I mean.

Next Vinales.

Tuesday, 10 May 2016

Merida- Mexico February 2016

After a 30 hour journey I awoke early and bleary eyed on my first day. My accommodation was the Hotel Reforma just around the corner from the main square. Off I went to explore the area. The cathedral dominates the square though it has a plain interior unlike Spanish churches which would have influenced the churches here. The acoustics are incredible and when the organ was playing it sound rich and grand. I discovered later that during the Mexican Revolution that Salvardo Alvarao Rubio then a soldier and later the governor of Yucatan made many sweeping changes for the betterment of the peasants and Mayans. He believed that religious fanaticism and loyalty to the church was harmful and hampered development of a modern society. He closed the churches and confiscated icons and relics. Which explains the plainness of the cathedral. Casa de Montejo built in 1549 is on the south side of the main square. It originally house soldiers but was soon converted into a mansion for the Montejo family, the conquistador Francisco Montejo came here in 1541. The mansion stayed in the Montejo family until 1970 and now houses a bank and museum. On the façade of this building conquistadors with halberds stand on the heads of ‘generic’ barbarians (though not Mayans) one can’t escape the association.
Façade of Montejo Mansion

Merida was founded on the abandoned Mayan city of T’HO. The stones from the surrounding Mayan pyramids were used to build the cathedral and other public buildings and churches. I returned to the hotel in the afternoon for a siesta as I was still tired from my journey. Met a German woman on the balcony and we decided to have dinner together that night. After dinner we went to the cultural show in the square, a Mayan ball game with the ball on fire. The next day I went on a small group tour to Chichen Itza. I was the only English speaker of the group, though there was a German on board who spoke both Spanish and English which helped. When we arrived I was split off to go with a group who had an English speaking guide. Chichen Itza is well worth a visit and the information provided was fascinating the Mayans had ceremonies that involved blood-letting but human sacrifice started through the Toltec’s influence.
Chichen Itza

We visited a Cenotes which is a pool which is part of an underground river system. I was very inviting and we could swim there unbeknown to me because I didn’t become prepared to do so. We had a meal around 4.00 pm so when we arrived back in Merida at 6.30 I was feeling tired and not hungry. I rested then went out for a coffee and cake. The police band was playing in the Grande Plaza and the infectious Mexican music had my hips swaying. There was a cultural show later but I was very tired and returned to my room. The following day was Sunday and there were market stalls in the main plaza as well as in the other smaller town squares. More catchy, danceable Mexican music was playing with many people listening and dancing.

I walked to the Archeological Museum situated on the magnificent wide boulevard Paseo de Montjo, it is in a magnificent building and housed a fabulous collection of Mayan artefacts, many in excellent condition. I found a nice café for lunch, which served sandwiches, unfortunately all the tables were taken but there was just one guy at one of them and asked if I could share. It turned out to be great as I had a very interesting conversation with him. By the time I started back to my hotel it was the hottest part of the day, so I went back to have a shower and rest. I went out for dinner to the Chaya Maya restaurant that had been recommended to me and it didn’t disappoint. As approached my hotel I heard a Mexican band playing in the square went to have a listen, a great crowd was gathered and dancing and I even managed to have a short dance with four other women, when the band wound up I went back to my hotel.

The next day I was on a trip to see the flamingos in Celestun. There were three of us in the group me, and a young Dutch couple. We saw hundreds of flamingos, which are the oldest species of birds. These beautiful, elegant birds colour comes from the organisms they eat. There were other water-birds, a few pelicans, small, dark grey and black a surprise from the large white ones I’ve seen in Australia, egrets and black kites riding the thermals. We also went the mangroves saw a couple of crocodiles and giant black termite mounds on the trees. We had a tasty fish lunch over talking to the Dutch couple Astrid and Erik it was revealed that Astrid’s parents had been killed in the Malaysian flight MH17 that had been shot down over the Ukraine. Such a tragedy which revealed she was still struggling with, which I could fully understand. We were given time to go for a swim in the ocean, I hadn’t brought my bathers but it wasn’t a problem as the wind was very cold and no one wanted to go for a swim.
Flamingos at Celestun

The evening cultural show back at Merida featured Mexican dancing which was very enjoyable. In Merida every night there is a cultural show and it’s not just for the tourists and there a four theatres around the town, one being a beautiful art-deco building.

There is a free guided city walk everyday even though I had explored the main area of the town I thought it I could learn more about the history. It was well worth doing. In the afternoon after the guided city walk I took a tour for the Light and Sound show at Uxmal another Mayan ruin. It is not as large or as commercial as Chichen Itza but still worth a visit with or without the show. Unfortunately for us for some unknown reason there was no English translation of the show. Our guide gave us the gist of what was being in said in the ‘sound’ part. The lights with the sound was very atmospheric and I could work out what was happening from the earlier explanation. What was amazing was watching the sky. Without the lights a mass of stars were visible but when the light show was on just about all of them ‘disappeared’.

On my last full day in Merida I took a mini bus to Izamal a small town of around 35,000 people about 70kms from Merida. An enormous Franciscan Convent dominates the town. There are also many craft workshops in the town but they were hard to find so gave up looking. There was one Mayan pyramid close by and the small but enjoyable Museum of Arts and Crafts I visited. The Mexicans really love the macabre with sculptures of the skeletons wedding. There are many references in art and souvenirs of skulls and skeletons. After lunch I returned to Merida.
Franciscan Convent Izamal

The mini buses work on the same principal as buses in China, they leave when they are full. On return I went to the Sherberteria de Colon which was recommended and had a very refreshing and fruity strawberry sorbet. My last night after wandering around ended up at dinner at Los 2 Toros restaurant near my hotel. I wasn’t flying out of Merida until late afternoon so had time to catch up on a few places and maybe buy some souvenirs.

I again looked for the City Museum but just found a building which looked abandoned with no information on the door. As it was near the Yucatan Artisans Museum I went there and it was a much larger version of the one in Izamal with very informative information sheets. I met a French woman there and we ended up having a coffee together and chatted for quite a while. I showed her the way to the cathedral, then went to lunch. Then wandered around for ages bought nothing, went back to the hotel, then to the airport and arrived in Mexico City at 7.30 pm.