Cuba 2015

2nd April 2015 - Havana

A long travel day, glad I booked into the Hotel last night I wouldn't have wanted it an hour and a half longer. Checked in for my flight at 8am, took off a bit late at 10:30. Got to Madrid at 1pm for a 2pm flight on to Havana. This flight took off about 30 minutes late too getting in to Havana around half past midnight. Of course these are all UK times.

Flew Air Europa who are basically a pretty poor charter airline masquerading as a proper airline. Think Iberia but worse. All Spanish airlines are 40 years behind and falling apart at the seams, a bit like the country itself. Food was scarse and bland, had to pay for drinks apart from what came with the pitiful meal. Worse of all on a 10 hour flight there were no personal TV screens.

Anyway got to Havana before 7pm Cuba time and was through passport control in minutes. I thought this is too good to be true ... it was. Over an hour waiting for my bag. They started coming out quite quickly but they came out at a rate of 2 or 3 a minute. Half the flight was still waiting when I got mine. So it was gone 8pm when I came out. My taxi guy was waiting for me, maybe I'd soon be heading into Havana? Oh no.

What is my first impression of Cuba? Fishnet stockings! The female border police who came in all shapes and sizes were are all immaculately dressed in tight fitting jacket and skirt suits, very tight in the case of some of the bigger girls and in black stockings with fishnet style designs running all the way up to their overly short skirts. Interesting. (Turns out uniforms with fishnets are very common in Cuba from bar staff to women working in banks.)

Cuba has strict currency controls so you can't exchange money before coming to the country, so I had to change some at the airport. I joined the queue maybe 10 people in front of me. Only one person serving. Took nearly an hour and a half to get my money changed. By this time the queue was three times as long. Welcome to Communism.

Arrived at the guest house (casa) at 10:30pm. An old house in an old street with owners who speak less English than I do Spanish! Worked out fine. Shown around the room, got a drink, sorted breakfast and got a note from the tour leader with tomorrow's meet up time. Around midnight as I was about to go to sleep there's a knock on the door, my room mate arrived. As it was so late I'd assumed I hadn't got one tonight. Brian an older guy from New Zealand. Sounds like his journey didn't go well and his bag was lost somewhere along the way. Makes my day seem easy be comparison.

3rd April 2015 - Havana

The map below shows the route we took on the tour although we did it in reverse flying Havana to Baracoa first.

A lovely breakfast at the casa. Some fruit and a chorizo omelet and then out to meet the group. Nine of us plus Mike (Miguel) the tour leader. There's me, Brian my room mate the Kiwi in his sixties and seven women. An Aussie mother and daughter Liz and Kate, an Aussie grandmother and granddaughter Hilary and Scarlett, a young Aussie woman Kat on her way home after two years in London, a Londoner Rachel, younger than me who also works in London Markets Insurance and a twenty something Lithuanian Egle who lives in London.

We met up for an orientation walk around Havana. It took in all the major sights. A bit slow for my liking but a good relaxed way to meet the group. First up we headed to the Capitolio building. This is an imitation of the Capitol building in Washington but one foot higher just to prove a point. On the way up we passed some scaffolding which has been erected to build a hotel which was being funded by the Chinese. The deal had obviously gone south some time ago as the scaffolding was covered in vines and it looked fantastic. Vines hanging down, some old and brown, some fresh and sparkling green in the sun. Many birds had obviously set up nests in the improbable structure it was alive with the sound of their songs.

The Capitolio sits on a one of the main roads which runs all the way down to the harbour. It is lined with magnificent buildings from another age. The Capitolio is an imposing sight dominating the whole area. The huge flight of steps leading up to it, the giant columns reminiscent of the great buildings of Ancient Greece, the massive dome lit up by the searing sun. It truly is a magnificent building. Next to the Capitolio is the Gran Teatro de la Habana with its incredible neo-baroque façade decorated with arches and sculptures, such detailing. There's also the Hotel Inglaterra, the oldest in Havana and the bright blue Hotel Telégrafo. All the buildings are fit to grace any grand European city.

A little way down the carriageways of the road split and leave a tree lined walkway through the middle, this is the Paseo de Prado. The Prado is very like Las Ramblas in Barcelona; a place fit for royalty to promenade down on a sultry afternoon. Looking at this part of Havana it seems a bit like a 'tribute act' to other cities around the world.

We turned off the main road and into the old town. Narrower streets lined with beautiful but tired buildings with washing hanging from the balconies. The roads were pot-holed and many were being dug up. We all had to be careful whilst admiring the buildings to not end up face down in a trench. The old American cars which are the first image which comes to mind when you think of Cuba are everywhere. On the main boulevard they were pristine and taking tourists on hour long city tours; in the back streets it was obvious that they are not just for he tourists but really are still everyday transport for some.

The main part of the old town is spread between four main squares, Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja and Plaza San Francisco. The Plaza de Armas is where Havana was founded in the 16th century. Now it's a little tree filled park with second-hand book stalls around the edge. It's hot and fairly humid so the shade of the trees was nice for a while. I read somewhere that although Cuba's local climate is tropical, but it is moderated by northeasterly trade winds that blow year-round. There definitely is a good breeze and it is definitely making things more than bearable. You certainly feel the difference if you are in a spot with sun and no wind.

The walk finished up at a hotel with a roof terrace drinking mojitos. Mike brought over the rum bottle just to ensure they were strong enough. I think my first one was nearly neat rum in the end. I could get used to this.

The group then split, most doing the city bus tour or taking a vintage car ride around the city, my chance to go off and have a good wander on my own. First up though some 'traditional shredded jerked beef' and a local beer. Nice but needed spicing up. I think I'm going to need to carry my sweet chili sauce with me at all times!

I then walked and walked and walked. Around the the old town from plaza to plaza. Each one surrounded by fully restored buildings which are mainly museums, restaurants or hotels. The squares all included interesting statues as well as compulsory historic figures.

Next a stroll down the Prado to the waterfront to look across to the fort and the photograph more of the old cars driving around (as well as one of the cute little bubble taxis). The big classic American cars are everywhere. Some fully restored, some looking more lived in. The most immaculate are tourist taxis. 30 dollars for an hour touring around in style. The huge engines of the cars sound amazing, a real heavy industrial chugging. I found out the more industrial sounding ones have had their original engines replaced by diesel truck or tractor engines. I don't care, they sound great.

In the evening a few of us headed over to the fort for a nice meal, to get a great view back over Havana and the cannon firing ceremony. That involved a lot of guys in white uniforms prancing about and making a of meal out of firing a cannon to mark 9pm. In the old days it was to mark the closing of the city gates at 8pm. But a city governor many years ago moved it to 9pm so that it wouldn't interfere with his dinner plans; that's my kind of governor.

A pretty full day.

4th April 2015 - To Baracoa

Up early to head out to a small airport for a flight to the east of the island to Baracoa. A lot of standing around, some queuing, hand written baggage tags and a flight delay of course. But although the first of the two flights was thirty minutes delayed all went smoothly.

Aerogaviota to Baracoa. I like the way they seem to be making a big deal of the fact that they serve fizzy orange and fizzy cola.

90 minutes to Holguin where we got off the plane for maybe 30 minutes back on the same plane for a 30 minute hop to Baracoa. We came into land and all we could see out the windows both sides was water. The land was about 50 yards to our right. The runway is set on the end of a peninsular and didn't appear until we were about 10 seconds off the ground. A good job I'm not a nervous flier.

The description of Baracoa in Lonely Planet is worth repeating here. Take a pinch of Tolkien, a dash of Gabriel García Márquez, mix in a large cup of 1960s psychedelia and temper with a tranquilizing dose of Cold War–era socialism. Leave to stand for 400 years in a geographically isolated tropical wilderness with little or no contact with the outside world. The end product: Baracoa – Cuba’s weirdest, wildest and most unique settlement, which materializes like a surreal apparition after the long dry plod along Guantánamo’s southern coast.

We dropped our bags off at the casa and were ready to head out for lunch. But Mike went off on an overly long talk saying very little and we all began to get restless. Finally we headed into town. I think we've convinced him to do future talks on the minibus when we've got loads of free time to kill. It's great to hear about how life is for real people living in Cuba but not when we are starving hungry. Anyway Baracoa, plaza tick, cathedral tick, colonial buildings tick. Lunch a bit slow but tick. Chocolate mojitos tick.

This weekend Baracoa is celebrating the founding of the settlement here and being Cuba that means a big fiesta. Lots of rum, music and dancing. The whole waterfront area was full of stalls selling food and drink and an of assortment of knick knacks. It was only mid-afternoon but many people had already had plenty.

The most interesting part for me was the children's play area and rides. Stick with me, this isn't as dodgy as it sounds. There were loss of children's rides but they looked like something Dad would have knocked up out in the shed. It all seemed to function perfectly well but what would health and safety would have made of it.

How to construct a children's ride in Cuba. First build a mini Ferris Wheel out of giant Meccano. Next take one lawnmower engine and put it on the ground close by. Then take a big chain and run it from the engine to the wheel. Under no circumstances cover the chain or keep it out if the reach of the children. Fire up the engine and away you go. If the children aren't poisoned by the petrol fumes they'll get caught by the chains. Marvelous.

Baracoa has a lovely walkway down by the sea. Blue skies, waves lapping on the rocks, green hills in the distance, nice little onshore breeze, good company, lovely.

Baracoa is where Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba in October 1492 on his first voyage. I'm not sure if his statue quite does him justice.

5th April 2015 - Baracoa Tour

Heavy rain overnight but woke up to sunshine again and the rain meant a drop in humidity. Breakfast was served on the roof of the casa and was perfect. A large tropical fruit salad some lovely soft bread and smoked ham. Eggs and coffee were on offer but no thank you. Set me up for the day. Before breakfast I heard that Brian had washed his shirt and hung it up to dry overnight in the window. But during the night it had fallen down outside and in the morning it was gone. So Brian has gone from having one shirt to having no shirts, ... to now having one of my shirts. He'll have quite a story to tell his wife when he gets home.

Today the whole group went on a tour of the Baracoa highlights; first up chocolate. Cuba in general and Baracoa in particular produces a lot of cocoa. We looked at the cocoa trees with their green and red fruits (apparently the colour of the fruit makes no difference to the flavour of the beans inside) and then went into a local person's house to see how the cocoa fruit gets turned into cocoa and chocolate. First up I must say the woman in the house like everyone else we've met so far in Cuba was so open and friendly. Everyone here seems to want to talk to you. No matter that they only speak Spanish and we basically don't. They still talk to you regardless and you pick up some words and with some hand signals and some guess work you get the gist of what they are saying.

Anyway, cocoa. First up inside the fruit are what looks like lychees. White fleshy fruit. We all tasted one but we're told to only stuck them and not bite into them. It tasted a bit like grape. When you took it out of your mouth there was a purplish brown nut left. These are them left to dry out. They are then ground up and with all the oil in the nut it turns into a paste a bit like melted chocolate.

From here they either boil it which causes it to separate with the cocoa butter coming to the top so that it can be creamed off or it can be placed into the fridge for five minutes which causes it to solidify. Once solidified it seems to stay solid despite the hot weather. That is 100% cocoa chocolate quite nice but very bitter. This can be eaten or put into to hot water to make hot chocolate as we had it.

Above you can see the red and green fruits, the red one cut open to show the lychee like beans. The big bowl second from the left shows the beans cleaned off and the the white pot shows the dried out beans. The silver bowl contains the crushed beans in the form of a paste. There is also solidified chocolate in a bar and balls.

It was the first time I'd seen chocolate made and was great to see. We also found out how private business works in Communist Cuba. There is a 70:30 rule. The family had to sell 70% of their cocoa beans to the government at a low price, they could then do as they wish with the remaining 30%. That way they are encouraged to try to grow more or improve their crops.

Next up a walk through some farmland and countryside. Lots of fruit trees, banana, grapefruit, mango, pineapple, guava and also some almond trees. Back on the truck and down to the coast to a lovely little fishing community.

The whole province at this end of the island is Guantanamo, but no matter how many times I see it written I still find it weird.

Lots of photos and then we went into a guy's house where he sang for us. I don't think this was usually a part of the tour, but the guide knew him. I'm not usually that impressed with local music but he was really good. He sat and played his acoustic guitar and sung his own songs accompanied enthusiastically by his five year old granddaughter. The guitar work was especially good.

A little drive further up and we jumped into rowing boats for a short trip up a gorge. Great scenery and we got to see a humming bird in its tiny nest and fly out of it to sit on a branch to wait for us to leave. They really are teeny weeny.

We stopped a bit further along and jumped into the river for 40 minutes or so. A bit of lazing, a bit of swimming and a lot of cooling down.

From here back to a beach for more photos and a beer and back into town. There are two main local beers, Chrystal which has very little flavour at all and Bucanero which is 5.4%, has a much fuller flavour and is very drinkable. Leaves me with a dilemna (that's the spelling we were taught as kids and I don't care if it's wrong I'm sticking with it), Buckanero or Mojito.

Had a great evening too. First up a group drink at Bar Cocoa. Most had chocolate mojitos but I had hot chocolate with rum in it, very nice. The rest of the group went off for a meal but Rachel and I wanted to further check out the fiesta and I'm so glad we did. We arrived on the quay just as the end of the carnival procession was reaching the main stage area. Salsa and rumba beats, guys and girls dancing, amazing costumes, everyone joining in. Felt like a mini Rio Carnival. So good to be able to see local people having fun, it was definitely not something put on for tourists like ones I saw in Peru. All evening no one seemed to take any notice of us being there at all. A great experience.

6th April 2015 - Baracoa

Quite a lazy day in Baracoa. Spent the morning wandering around. Firstly along the sea front down as far as the baseball stadium. A lovely old, well worn stadium but obviously still in use. It would be great to see a game here but it is the end of the season; maybe a school's game or something.

Next up the city museum in the old fort. Some nice old artifacts and pictures covering the original Indians, the Spanish colonists and the revolution.

Needed to get some money changed so over to the bank, the actual transaction took about five minutes but I had to wait an hour to get served. It was actually exactly an hour. I took a ticket when I arrived at 11:22 and I was served at 12:22. Trouble was I couldn't leave because the numbers weren't sequential. I changed a lot to save having to do this more than once more on the trip.

In Cuba the locals definitely get reminded everyday about the revolution, socialism and how they must stick together. Slogans and drawings on every spare piece of wall.

I think this one is about a Free Cuba but I like to think it is celebrating rum and coke.

In Cuba there are two currencies the CUP (local Cuban Peso) and the CUC (convertible Peso). About 25 CUP to the CUC. As tourists we are generally using the CUC. The CUC is basically the same value as the USD. Beers are about 2 CUC, a really good meal and I mean really good 3 course meal for about 12 peso. But I got hold of some CUP and for lunch had a pizza from a local hole in the wall. 5 CUP, marvelous.

After lunch we hired some bikes and headed out of Baracoa. We cycled out past the airport but came to a dead end. Luckily we could drop straight down onto a small beach so shirts off for some more sunbathing and frolicking in the sea. I've spent quite a bit of time in the last few days soaking up the sun and messing about in the water. The tan is coming along nicely.

In the background of the photo above is El Yunque, Baracoa's Table Mountain. Like Cape Town, it seems ever present and keeps sneaking into photos.

The intrepid cyclist returns.

Evening drinks in a hotel at the top of the hill which gave panoramic views of the area and of the sunset over the table mountain.

In the evening we had a group meal at a very good restaurant. Mike, our tour leader, organised it so that we had all the local specialties and we all shared. Food in Cuba is generally quite bland but in Baracoa it is meant to be more flavoursome. The ingredients were amazing, swordfish, huge prawns, octopus and oddly alongside all of those rabbit and goat. The flavours of the fish and rabbit were great but the accompanying flavours were for me to subtle. I must carry my sweet chili sauce with me for all meals.

In the restaurant a trio played guitars and sang some Cuban music, I was told it was very like Buena Vista Social Club, but as I've never heard that I don't know. Not particularly my sort of music but anything is good live, they were very good and went along with the meal very nicely.

7th April 2015 - To Santiago

Quite a long bus journey today across the hills on the only road out of Baracoa. We climbed up the windy road for quite a while with great views out over the edge only spoilt slightly by the rain. But once we reached the top it dried out and we had panoramic view all the way out to the Caribbean Sea where we were headed. As soon as we reached the top the weather changed and so did the vegetation. Basically Atlantic side wet, Caribbean side dry.

After dropping down to the coast we stopped at a beach for a swim. The sun was out, the water warm, waves lapping on the shore; have I made you jealous yet? The whole area at the southern end of Cuba is Guantanamo province known for only one thing outside of Cuba. But from what we've seen it is a lovely place to stay for a while.

Brian has still not got his case and is surviving on the clothes he arrived in. Today he's still in my shirt after losing his. Brian's been great, despite the inconvenience, to put it lightly, of not having his suitcase he has soldiered on and not complained once. Proper old school and a great room mate, especially as with no case as he doesn't take up much space :-)

We stopped for drinks and a sandwich at the Hotel Guantanamo. Do you want to stay at Guantanamo? That must be quite a hard sell.

We arrived in Santiago de Cuba late afternoon and stopped off at Revolution Square. This was where Fidel Castro's first unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Batista happened in 1953. It is a huge square which is used for parades and is over looked by a huge quite Soviet looking statue of Antonio Maseo. Truly massive and it actually looks really good too.

On to our casas for a quick freshen up and then out for a salsa lesson. I've never much liked salsa music or dancing even though I did quite a lot with Paula many years ago. I know the basic moves but trying to count the beat 1, 2, 3 ... 5, 6, 7 ... get the feet right and decide what move to do next takes too much concentration to be enjoyable for me. Anyway it was fun, I was OK, Egle was great and some people were frankly pretty ordinary. But fun was had by all, although being told that tomorrow night we could go to a salsa club and the dance instructors would be there for us to dance with sounded more like a threat than a treat.

Below is a picture of Scarlett swamped by kids as she tried to give out some pens.

From there back to our casas for a well earned and very welcome shower before a group meal at one of the casas. Again some very good food and it came with some chili sauce which really pepped it up. 4 or 5 mojitos and a pleasant night was had by all.

By the way I'm not an alcoholic but I do really like rum!

8th April 2015 - Santiago de Cuba

Santiago de Cuba, the second biggest city on the island and probably the least visited by tourists. Tourists usually do Havana and day trips from there or fly down to Baracoa, whereas we flew to Baracoa but we are driving back to Havana in our minibus with our trusty driver Ismael. Ismael has been great. On the first day he turned up in his shirt, jacket and tie but he is slowly loosening up. Yesterday he came swimming with us and he also joins us for meals.

We had a morning tour of the city in the mini bus to see the main sights away from the centre. First up the Cementerio Santa Ifigenia. This is where the great and the good of Santiago are buried. Great generals and leaders and members of the original Bacardi family. Bacardi originated in Cuba but the family fled to the US when Castro took power. Mike have us another history lesson about the story of the people in the graves, small houses, monstrosities (delete where applicable).

We finished off here watching the changing of the guard with the high goose stepping soldiers swapping over to patriotic music.

Next up Moncada Barracks where Castro's failed coup attempt happened. We were guided around and given the full story ( well one side anyway) of that failed coup attempt and what happened in the next 5 or 6 years until Fidel Castro took power.

Lastly a fort built into the headland looking out over the sea. The Castillo del Morro, a lovely building on an amazing spot. We looked at a few exhibits but the best part was standing on the ramparts looking out over the blue blue sea.

Now back to Brian and his missing luggage. When he arrived late last Thursday night he had missed his flight from Mexico to Cuba and when he caught the next flight his luggage didn't come with him. So for the last week he has survived with the clothes he arrived in washing and drying them overnight. That was until he hung his shirt up to set in Baracoa and it got stolen since then he's been wearing one of mine. Anyway today after much forward and back Brian finally got his bag. He's over joyed that he can now wear fresh pants, but I've no idea when he can survive so well with so little clothes why he's brought such a big case full of clothes.

An afternoon to ourselves to explore Santiago but we all basically did the same things just not necessarily in the same order. A few of us first looked around the cathedral. Like everything else in Santiago it is being restored. This year is the 500th anniversary of the founding of Santiago and many buildings are being restored for the celebration. But with only 3 months left to get it all done I think much of it will be unfinished.

Cathedral and Hotel Casagranda.

Next we walled up through the main street. Really interesting to see how people go about their day to day business, what is available in the shops and how much it costs. We ended up at a square where we had some pizza warned up in the microwave and a drink; we were hungry so it hit the spot wrote well.

We walled back down and headed to the oldest house in Cuba which is now a museum. On the way back the thermometer was showing 36 degrees and it felt all of it.

At the museum we had some amazingly enthusiastic staff tell us about the house and everything in it. Well they told Rachel and I understood some of it and she passed on what more she understood. Even though Spanish is Rachel's 10th or 15th or something language she she still seems to be having a good stab at it. The house was beautiful; mainly wooden construction, large rooms, big open courtyard and over looked the main square. This was originally the house of city governors. The house was stocked with wonderful furniture both made in Cuba mainly from a tree in the mahogany family and from abroad, mainly Spain and France. It was great to look around the house but it would not have been half as much fun without our lovely guides.

On the way back to the casa we came across these lovely steps with a beautiful big old colonial house at the top. It must have been a mansion at some stage in the past; like many of the most amaing buildings in Cuba it is now a school.

In the evening we first went up to the roof of the Hotel Casagranda for drinks and to watch the nonexistent sunset and watch the square light up. Lovely view, lovely breeze, lovely. For dinner we had Mexican. Huge plates full of burritos, tacos and enchiladas. Some tasty chili sauce on the side, marvelous.

9th April 2015 - Camaguey via Las Tunas

A travel day today so a good chance to write something about the casas. The casas are family home which are now run privately as B&B. As Mike or your leader had been guiding for quite a long time he has some great casas he uses on his tours. The casas are small so the group of 9 plus Mike are usually split across the casas. Some casas have one or more people who speak some English some don't but it just adds to the fun.

All the rooms so far have been ensuite and most have had a fridge either in the common area or like last night on the to room. We generally have a big breakfast on the terrace of the casa we are staying in for 3 pesos extra. The owners are invariably really friendly and chatty and willing to help with anything. It's a real real win win staying in the casas we get to see a more real side of Cuba than we would see in a hotel and we get to put money into private hands rather governed coffers. But saying that for the next two nights we are in a hotel which will have the advantage (hopefully) of having internet; I've gone a whole week without it.

It was about a 3 hour drive to Las Tunas through farmland. Some cows and goats and many acres of sugar cane. Being the Caribbean side of the island the fields weren't lush but they still looked quite productive.

Las Tunas, a Provence capital which doesn't get many tourists. We were stopping off here because it is Mike's home town. Being on the road all the time means Mike doesn't get to see his parents often so although not officially on our route out makes sense to stop off for lunch and I'm so glad we did.

The city itself is gorgeous. Many well looked after colonial buildings, many public squares and of course the usual quotes from Fidel saying how good socialism and the revolution are. The city is famous for a particular type of poetry and music and statues. I thought this would mean solid statues and I think it does but today there were a number of human statues walking around and being photographed by us and locals alike.

First up we saw the policeman standing in the middle of the road then a black angel. Next up some colourful guys in to hats, a guy in red camouflage and two topless women painted in black. They slowly walked through the town, kept stopping and posing for photos and moving on. It was great to see how enthusiastic the locals were about it all.

Our tour leader Mike is from Las Tunas and although not on our official route it made a great lunch stop. It also gave Mike a chance to catch up with his parents for half an hour.

For lunch I decided to eat local and put a little bit of money into the local economy and found a small shop selling burgers. Had a massive burger consisting of a big piece of bread filled with two burger patties, some ham, cucumber and tomato. It went down a treat along with some papaya juice all for 20 CUP, less than a dolllar. All to soon it was time to head back to the bus and for Mike to say goodbye to his parents.

From there it was another couple of hours through cattle country to Camaguey. Camaguey has a more European feel. It was quite prosperous in the 50s and still has that feel more, in the centre at least. Loss of big squares surrounded by churches and beautiful old colonial buildings. As it had its 500 year anniversary last year I guess their renovations have been completed.

For dinner we went to a restaurant highly rated on Trip Advisor. 1800, it was very good. A huge buffer with lots of tasty vegetable dishes, ceviche, sweet and sour sauces and meats, fried chicken, beef and I a stew of I think goat which was really tasty. All of this accompanied by the obligatory house band playing all the usually Cuban songs; Guantanemero (there's only one Andy Carroll, one Andy Carroll ...) La Bamba ...

10th April 2015 - Camaguey

As I said yesterday Camaguey feels more prosperous than the other places we have been, the shops are better stocked, more places to eat or drink coffee. In general easier for a tourist to get things done. I guess this is due to it being closer to Havana and so getting more tourists.

Still plenty of socialist propaganda though.

With Che always very prominant.

We went out for a city tour with a local guide Hugo who had a great Canadian accent and was very open when answering our questions. We went down a street with a cinematic theme and came across many squares which were all immaculate. We looked inside some churches and many galleries. We also went out to a farmers market which seems well stocked with fruit veg and meat.

We came to a square full of sculptures all made by a famous artist who had a shop on one side.

One sculpture was of a man reading a newspaper. When the artist wanted a model for the sculpture she wanted a certain look and used a local guy. The guy is now a minor celebrity and now spends all day sitting next to his statue posing for photos in return for a couple of coins. Not a bad way to earn a living.

After a few hours out in the sun I stopped off for a well earned ice cream. 12 CUP well spent.

In the afternoon I took it easy but had one major success, I changed some money in lead than 15 minutes.

After our usually 6pm roof top drinks we headed out for some culture. A premier of a new work by the Camaguey Ballet Company. It was actually more Cuban and Spanish dancing than ballet and was very good. The band and singers were at the back of the stage and the dancers telling a loose story in front. The lead dancer was quite a big name I think and we'll traveled, she was especially good. Flamenco with the castanets and a particular good bolero danced with a shawl. Really enjoyable seeing the performance and how local people enjoy nights out (we were the only westerners there).

11th April 2015 - To Trinidad

Another full day on this lovely island. Left Camaguey around 9am and headed north for Trinidad. On our minibus journeys, which are in the same minibus with our trusty driver Ismael, Mike usually gives us some information on a particular part of Cuban life. Today it was schooling but previously it's been housing, jobs, trying to get permission to travel abroad ... as well as the history of the island in general and the places we are going to in particular.

When we jump out of the minibus Hilary usually entertains us by putting on her sun tan cream without a mirror. Sorry Hilary I had to post a photo.

It is really interesting hearing about these things from a Cuban point of view and also interesting asking different people and getting differing points of view. It definitely appears Cubans have a high opinion of their country but contradictorily they also all seem to want to leave either for extended holiday, work or for ever. Like Vietnam it seems things are loosening up slowly and more and more private enterprise is going on. People can now work hard and do quite good for themselves. But it does seem that heavy handed bureaucracy, back handers and long waits are commonplace.

Around 1pm we reached the outskirts of Trinidad and we made a couple of stops on the way in. Mike is doing quite a lot for us above and beyond what many guides would do. Firstly he is bending over backwards to help the older people on the trip to do stuff other tour leaders would leave them to do for themselves, buying water, changing money, finding something clearly marked on their map. But he is also acting more as a tour guide sometimes than a tour leader. Today was a good example and our is really great that he is doing it. We could easily have driven straight into town and given him a couple of hours extra off but we made the stops.

The first was at an old house of a rich sugar cane farmer / landowner. Nice setting, tall tower to climb, some handicrafts to buy. Next up a house which is now a restaurant on a hill top which again have a great view. Had we not stopped on the way in we would have had to have paid for a half day trip out ourselves.

Everywhere we go in Cuba there are turkey vultures flying above us. They look so graceful gliding around on the thermals.

Once in Trinidad and checked into or casas we headed out for an orientation walk which was more of a guided walk. Trinidad is a UNESCO site and has a well preserved colonial centre; this puts it truly on the tourist trail meaning more bars, more restaurants and more things for sale, but also means it looks a beautiful city.

Beautiful old buildings and lots of beautiful old cars.

In the centre is the Plazza Mayor. A lovely square surrounded by four lovely old colonial houses which used to be owned by the four main families which ran the sugar cane business in Trinidad in the past.

After our little tour we went into La Canchanchara, a bar named after the local cocktail made from rum, honey, lime and fizzy water. I gave the cocktail a miss and cooled down with a few Bucaneros.

An evening meal at the casa and we all crashed into bed at around 10pm knackered, what a bunch of light weights.

12th April 2015 - Trinidad

A full day in lovely Trinidad. Need I say the sun is shining? Of course it is. In the morning we headed out as a group to a national park close by for a bit of a walk and a swim in the river. It was nice to do something mildly active as so many days have been spent in and around the cities, but with the make up of our group it was the slowest 'hike' ever.

But it was a nice wander through the forest; we saw hummingbirds, the Cuban national bird the tocororo which is red white and blue like the Cuban flag and lots of gecko like lizards. Liz saw and got a photo of a snake best we didn't know about that until after we got back to the bus.

One really interesting area was a cliff face covered in bee's nests. Absolutely covered. Thankfully the bees seemed docile and didn't mind me getting up close for some photos of their amazing home.

We walled less than 2km in about an hour to reach the place where we could swim. So shirt off and into the river, we then swam 30 or 40 yards up to a nice waterfall. Great to be in the water once more, of course the water here is always quite warm. We splashed about and took photos for about an hour.

Mike and Ismael, what dudes.

I hope you like the group photo below I almost drowned taking it. I raised my camera up and of course I went down, but getting the shot came first before breathing and such things.

I have made light of the amount of effort expended on today's walk but hats off to Hillary. She did the trek which did involve some rough terrain, big steps and river crossings on rocks. She also slid herself down into the water and swam over near the waterfall. It was interesting getting Hillary back out of the water with Mike and I trying to get sure footing so we could pull her up but that added to the adventure. I hope I can still do such things when I'm in my 70s.

Back to Trinidad for a free afternoon. Quite touristy and so lots of museums and shops to keep us busy, although I didn't do as much as I expected to as Rachel and I went to the Museo de Architecture. It was closed but we asked the security guard if we could come in and he opened up the door. He gave us a great tour around in Spanish, I managed enough to know what was going on. That took maybe 40 minutes with lots of deviation on to how things were in the UK. But then he just carried on talking, just as we thought we had hit a good point to leave he'd start on something else. By this time Rachel was completely Spanished out and anyway I'm sure he started taking quicker and quicker. Eventually after an hour and half we escaped by saying that we had a group meeting to go to.

Me with Alberto the talkative security gaurd.

He unlocked the door and we escaped got a well earned beer. Talking of beer the Bucanero is a pretty good one. Chystal is as watery add you'd expect foreign lager but the Bucanero is very tasty. So we saw Scarlett walking by and the three of us had a drink. Soon after the waiter brought Scarlett another drink. It had been bought for her by a local guy not sitting far away. Cue blushes, embarrassment and not knowing where to look. But she drank the drink anyway and we left.

Whilst sitting having our drink I took a picture of the waitress with her amaing stockings.

In the evening a lovely meal of fish and shrimps at Cubita accompanied by a few more Bucaneros, well you have to stay hydrated in this heat. Later on we ended up at an outdoor music place but after a while a tribal show came on which a lot of the tourists lapped up but I'd have preferred the music to have continued. Anyway another varied and interesting day in paradise.

13th April 2015 - Trinidad

Another day in beautiful Trinidad. In the morning we headed out to the beach. On the way we stopped off to see Ismael's son at baseball training, it was the closest we got to seeing a real game.

Many of the others went snorkeling but I gave our a miss as my ears have been playing up and I didn't want to tempt fate. So I just swan in the sea, lazed on the beach and took advantage of what could be the last chance I have to get my shirt off and to top my tan. So it was a fine line today between getting as good a tan as possible but not over the top. Tonight I'm nicely pink but I think I got it about right.

More vultures.

More photos.

This afternoon I went off on my own and did the Museo de Historico which had a few interesting pieces but I only really did it to climb the really narrow and tight spiral staircase to the top of the tower for a great view of the city and beyond.

Above is my first ever selfie from the top of the tower. I think it came out quite well.

The rest of the afternoon I shopped. Souvenirs, paintings, postcards, wooden salsa dancing figurines; some nice stuff, some tat, I've done my bit for the local economy.

After a lazy few hours changing some more money (I seem to to spending more than I expected I would have), using the internet and wandering, I met up with the group for a drink, a bit of live music and in Mike's case a huge cigar which he must've been puffing on for over two hours and it never seemed to get any smaller. A nice relaxing day as my holiday approaches the end.

14th April 2015 - Cienfuegos

Short hop today to Cienfuegos. Founded by the French but I tried to keep an open mind. We arrived before lunch and stopped off at a couple of places before heading to our casas.

The first impression was that Cienfuegos looks prosperous. A bloke called Cienfuegos wanted to move the capital of Cuba here in the last 19th century and invested a lot of money which had resulted in big streets and boulevards and a number of large impressive casas.

Put first so was at the Palacio de Valle on the Punta Gorda. Cienfuegos is built around a huge harbour and the Palacio de Valle is at the point of narrow strip of land going out into the harbour. Beautiful house with three distinctive and different towers. The first (left in the photo) signifying love, the second god and religion and the third money and strength. I think this was one of the first buildings restored when Cuba woke up to tourism 10 years ago and they did a great job or has been given a real elegance.

We had a little walk around and Cienfuegos is beautiful and feels quite rich.

Next up the main boulevard stating with a statue to Benny Moré. He was a black musician who struggled for a long time due to his colour but was eventually discovered and found fame. Among his songs is one professing Cienfuegos to be the most beautiful city in the world. The boulevard runs for many blocks down to the main square and is lined with shops and restaurants which wouldn't shame a European city as long as you don't look at what is actually being sold or not sold inside.

The main square as all others we have seen is surrounded by beautifully preserved colonial buildings with a small park and trees for shade on the middle. A highlight was the Teatro Tomas Terry. Inside it really liked as though time has stood still for over a century. Wooden seats, ornate delicate boxes, beautifully decorated ceilings, I think I can safely say the most beautiful theatre I've ever seen.

Down to the casas and then I headed out for nice long walk on my own. First up back to the boulevard and down to the square, stopping off at the cambio to change even more money. I'm thankful I did my research and brought lots of GBP. Many others on the trip are relying on ATMs and it seems that for the last 5 or 6 days all confections are down and they haven't been able to get any cash. Any way more photos and then I set of on what turned into quite a hike from the main square all the way back down to the three towered casa from this morning.

I must've walked for at least an hour veering off the main road to the waterside whenever I saw anything interesting. I thought the road was never going to come to an end but I could see a hotel at the end and I was sure I had seen it earlier when we were down there. Anyway got there on the end took some more photos (I've a lot to sort through when I get home) and stars back. About half way back I got a bottle of drink, found a nice spot on the share by the water and settled down with my music on and did some writing.

Everywhere we go there seems to be musicians playing but it is especially noticeable in restaurants. Within minutes of shooting down there they are. Two or three people with a guitar or two, maybe some bongos or two bits is wood to tap together to keep rhythm and generally lovely complementary voices. The music is great but I just have no fell for it. I appreciate it but I won't be hurrying to play out when I get home. Part of the problem is that they keep rolling or the same old songs, Guantanemero, La Bamba, a Cuban version of Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps. Let's just say sitting by the water listening to AC/DC, Carter, Dogs D'Amour, The Levellers and many more meant that I walked back to the casa with my earphones still in with a real swing in my step.

Nice evening meal of fish and shrimps down by the waterside watching the sun set over the water. Another great day. Tomorrow we had back for one last night in Havana and it'll all be over.

15th April 2015 - Back to Havana via Santa Clara

Today was effectively the last day of the tour as many were flying out very early on thy 16th. We ended on a high. First up an hour or so to Santa Clara for the Che Guevara museum. Santa Clara was where he led a group of rebels who derailed a train carrying troops to Santiago. Theses troops were going to Santiago as reinforcements against to attack Fidel was launching on the city. The train was derailed, Santiago was taken and Cuba was subjected to 50 of years of communism; I don't think I'd be thanking him if I were Cuban but they see him as a great hero. I think don't young helped on the hero thing. He was only involved in the revolutionary war for a couple of years rather than the 6 or 7 the rest fought for and when they took power he took charge of the National Bank and bankrupted the country quicker than Gordon Brown. But he was sexy and cool so that's alright then.

Anyway the museum was a memorial to Che and many others who fought in the, let's call a spade a spade, coup in the late 50s. There was also a big room full of pictures and stuff off Che from boyhood until his death. Amazing just how many photos there are considering he supposedly spent much of his time in the mountains staging guerrilla attacks. He does look cool and exudes charisma but it is hard to look at him without wanting to shout "Power to the People".

We spent a pleasant hour in Santa Clara itself, I've really enjoyed our lunchtime stops in smaller towns where fewer tourists stop. It's great to see how 'real' towns run when they are not relying on tourists. Had a couple of refreshing 3 CUP strawberry ice creams, saw a goat driven carriage for children to ride in around the square and checked out a book shop which had a really eclectic range.

Once we hit Havana we lose Ismael as he will take the minibus back out again, so at our lunch stop we said thanks and gave both him and Mike some tips to say thanks.

Four more hours and we were back in Havana but still hours from our casas. Half the group had run out of money, surprise surprise the ones relying on ATMs it was always going to happen at sometime. So we drove around and around, nine were working, then we walked to find a Casas de Cambio that was open. Much money passed forwards and back around the group as some only had USD and that incurs a 10% surcharge in Cuba. Eventually via a planned so at a cigar and rum shop we reached or casas.

For the four of us in our casas it was like returning home. The family are so welcoming and have is drinks then made us all daiquiris. All I really wanted to do was get on with my packing and have a shower before going out but it was a great thought and it was nice just shooting down for a cocktail after the traipsing around Havana.

I'm now going to be a bit sneaky, OK not that sneaky as I'm pointing out our but I am going to put tonight's night out at the end of tomorrow's entry.

16th April 2015 - Havana

Above and below the view from the balcony of our room in Havana.

Above the lovely family in our casa.

My lasting memory of Cuba, Havana Club Rum.

Plaza San Francisco in Havana.

Our night at the Buenavista Social Club.

Some final shots of some of the team.

For some reason the dancer thought that I was the ideal candidate to help get the party started.

In the end all the singers came out for one last rendition of Guantanamera.