Travels

Hola Habana!

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What a scene of crumbling glory and indomitable human spirit!
Walked all Old Havana: narrow streets, tiny shops, and no sign of corporations anywhere…amazing!

The next day we took a bus 45 minutes east to the beach, Playa del Este Santa Maria. The beach is so pristine: the cleanest sand I’ve ever seen, beautiful blue and turquoise water, which was deliciously warm to walk in, but too strong a surf to swim safety alone.

The old cars were fun to see! These were new when I was a kid. While some are beaters, many are their owner’s pride and joy, and quite cherry!
Time really has stopped in Cuba. It is still the 1950s and earlier! The absence of modern “conveniences” and commercialism makes for a more human experience, which was very refreshing!

The Hotel Nacional is the one building looking well maintained. It is where the government entertains visiting dignitaries and world leaders. It was built in 1930 and looks north over the Straight of Florida.

After two nights in Old Havana, we spent 2 in Cienfuegos and 3 in Trinidad [see following posts]

Returning from Trinidad to Havana was a scenic 4 hour “collectivo” cab ride. This time we shared the cab with a French couple. He was originally from Morocco. I loved meeting other adventuresome tourists! Again that form of transportation is a great deal: $US30 [30CUC] per person door-to-door!

We had a prosaic final evening/night back in Havana. Our guest house was, like most, a private home shared with tourists, which is the best way to see/experience Cuba! This “casa particular” was the life-long home of Eddie Gutierrez [see Lonely Planet]:

  • Calle 21 Numero 408, between F&G.
  • eddiegutierrez@nauta.cu
  • +53-7832-5207 casa / +53-5281-0041 movil

Eddie’s casa is in the more “modern” [crumbling 1880s to 1950s] Vedado district on the west side of Havana…definitely the nicer part of town!

We paid $35CUC for a very comfortable room with 2-beds and private bath.

I’d stay there again for its location, price and quality. Eddie is very friendly and helpful!

We had a great, reasonable dinner nearby at Cafe Presidente on Presidente & 25th, went on a fruitless search for wifi, and got to bed early in preparation for a 4 AM taxi to the airport.

Our week of sun and balmy breezes was replaced in Toronto by minus 10 Celcius…brrr!

Ah, but what a rich experience we had! Cuba has a unique charm. It is oddly unspoiled by modernity. Catch it before it’s too late!

Cuban Resources:

  • Homestay.com is a great site for finding guest houses all over Cuba. They are reasonably priced, provide a decent breakfast, and offer tourist advice about each locale.
  • We also consulted PurpleRoofs.com for gay-friendly accommodations, but did not find any that worked for our schedule. I would use it again for sure.
  • Same for GayHomeStays.com – there were some listings, but no vacancies on our schedule. Still a great resource!
  • cuba-junky.com

Charming Cienfuegos, Cuba

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Cienfuegos is 3+ hours east of Havana by “collectivo taxi” [roughly $US 30/person door-to-door].

It is a charming, small [150,000] French colonial town situated on the east end of a very large bay [the size of San Francisco Bay in California]. It is noted for its French style buildings. We enjoyed the sunsets on two successive evenings, and found 2 great restaurants. Our favourite was Paladar Ashe, whose owner of 22 years is the maître d’ and keeps a close eye on his very attentive staff. We were amazed when they came with a bottle of rum to stiffen our already potent Pina Colada, and then later when they offered a second serving of roast pork equal in size to the first serving…all at no additional cost! This is clearly NOT a capitalist county :}

Trinidad, Cuba – the gem of our trip!

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Trinidad was by far our fav of the 3 cities we visited. It is the smallest [73,000 people] and the oldest [1541]. It is genuinely quaint!

Because it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is definitely on the tourist maps. Yet it never felt too touristy. The central plaza is all narrow, cobblestone streets closed to cars, so it’s a pedestrian sanctuary with many small shops and restaurants, and none of the crass commercialism of first world capitalist resorts.

Our first evening we, of course, walked [using the Lonely Planet book as our guide].

Our first full day was largely the amazing horseback tour. Our guide promised to take us to see sugar plantations and to have a relaxed stopover at a waterfall and natural swimming pool in a cave. His assistant came to our guest house on time at 9 AM and walked us to the horse corrals about 20 minutes away. There were many other tourists and many horses and guides! It’s a going concern. Our guide was just for us and another couple: a husband/wife around 60 from Queensland, Australia. She was from Chile, and he from Ireland. So we had a fluent Spanish speaker among us, which was most helpful.

While all of Cuba is a time-warp, this experience was totally outside the modern world. Horses really are a way of life in much of the country. So we were having a pretty genuine taste of life here.

The horses were very tame: totally trained to be gentle with us foreigners. Our pace was very leisurely. After riding about 40 minutes we stopped at a cantina where they were juicing sugar cane by hand for our amusement and refreshment. I was pleasantly surprised: pure cane juice is not sickeningly sweet like manufactured soft drinks. It tastes like a whole food, which it is…very refreshing!

Our next stopover was a thatched-roof “cafe” where men were hand-roasting local beans, grinding them in a wooden pastel, and serving up a strong brew! Yum!

What I loved about Cuban coffee both here and at all our guest houses: it is thick, rich and very smooth, never bitter.

Our final stop was the promised waterfall and swimming hole. Sadly the waterfall was dry! The area has been in chronic drought for many years. I local botanist told us it’s a clear result of global climate change. The swimming hole was packed with other tourists. All were weary from riding in the hot sun, and eager for the cool refreshment. Local musicians played typically festive music.

On the hour plus ride back to Trinidad, after getting used to being on a horse, under the effects of the hot sun [upper 20s/70s], the cane juice and coffee, and the refreshing splash, I went into an altered state. There were hardly any signs of modern life on the dirt road. The few homes we saw were pretty ageless. I began to feel like I was WAY outside the 21st Century. It could have been 200 years ago…or 2,000! I was simply some guy on a horse somewhere on Planet Earth doing what countless humans have done for thousands of years. Here’s what I was seeing:

Back in Trinidad after being outside time all day, we tried to navigate the complexities of getting internet access: a major challenge anywhere in Cuba! The internet is, of course, totally controlled by the government. Access requires finding a vendor who sells “wifi cards.” Each card provides a Username and Password good for 1 hour. The next challenge is finding wifi! We learned the posh Hotel Iberostar had both the cards and the signal…yay! The front desk directed us to the bar. The bar tender said we had to buy a drink plus pay for the cards. Feeling already a bit out of our minds from hunger and fatigue after such an unusual day, we uncharacteristically ordered alcohol: Pina Colas. Wow! Did they pack a punch! We both got totally tipsy and giggly! So of course we two tidly Leos had to take silly selfies in front of the lion fountain in the lobby:

Once we got some dinner and were thinking more clearly we decided to extend our stay in Trinidad one more day so we would have time to enjoy the beautiful beach, Playa Ancon, 12 km / 8 miles south by cab. We’re so glad we did! It was stunning:

Our time in Trinidad was for sure the highlight. I would happily go back there for a longer sojourn.

Montreal’s Beautiful Botanical Gardens

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En route back from Halifax to Ottawa, David and I had a 3-hour layover in Montreal, and he suggested we visit the Botanical Gardens.

East/West ~ Ancient/Modern
This temple and waterfall are exquisite.

VIA Rail’s “The Ocean” from Halifax to Montreal

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David and I ready to board "The Ocean" in Halifax

Overall, our experience on “The Ocean” was a step down from “The Canadian” between Vancouver and Toronto. The ride is smoother, but the sleeping compartment had remarkably poor seats [we were able to get extra pillows, which helped]. The shower on our return was uncontrollably near-scalding. The scenery was also less interesting.

I think I got “spoiled” by the stellar “flagship” out west.

Wholesome Nova Scotia

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by David HoeWe spent yesterday and today exploring the countryside within 2 hours of Halifax: Peggy’s Cove is a picturesque fishing village near Halifax which was in world headlines in 1998 as the site of the Swissair 111 disaster. This clip is at the memorial site along the ruggedly beautiful, windswept coast: Peggy’s Cove  has the most-photographed lighthouse in Canada, and some of the most amazing granite shoreline: the remnants of Himalayan-height mountains worn by 300+ million years of weather and glaciers.

  • Another hour west along Nova Scotia’s “south shore” is another photographer’s dream village, Lunenberg, with its colorful old buildings and working wharfs:
  • Here is a view of the lobster fishing gear colorfully arrayed.
  • Driving north an hour from Halifax into the lushly fertile Annapolis Valley, we stumbled upon the most magical, enchanted garden I have ever seen. The “Tangled Garden” was begun by Beverly and her husband 23 years ago, and is clearly a labor of love. The products the make and sell online a well worth every penny.
    Having all the windows in the shop willed with "stained glass" adds an extra element of magic

    There is a beautifully natural interplay of stone and garden
  • A stone model of what they are laying out in herbs

Food worth a trip to Halifax!

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We stumbled upon this hidden gem near our hotel, and found the food/service/atmosphere so appealing, we had to force ourselves to try somewhere else the next night. The 3rd and final night we did not hesitate to revisit Jane’s. I joked I want to move to Halifax…across the street…so I can be a regular!

Jane’s On The Common
2394 Robie St
Halifax, NS B3K 4M7
(902) 431-5683
http://janesonthecommon.com/