Whirlwind week

Jose: 'Can you see?'
Jose: ‘Can you see?’
Feb. 9 to 16, 2016 – When our friends Jody and Aaron decided to join us in the Yucatan for a week, we deliberated just how many experiences we could pack into a scant seven days (well, five and a half days considering travel time).
Tuesday: After our GPS took us on a not-so-magical mystery tour through the bustling centre of Merida (population 1.1 million) to reach the airport and sent our stress levels through the roof (watch for an entry on crazy driving in Merida coming to this space soon), we met our guests. It was cool and breezy but still infinitely more bearable than the deep freeze back in Ontario.
We headed directly to the town of Progreso (a port city of about 38,000 thirty minutes north of Merida) to take in the Carnaval parade marking the end of the multi-day celebration held in many Mexican centres. Carnaval celebrates the last indulgence of carnal pleasures that Catholics must give up for 40 days of fasting during Lent. We forged our way through the crowds and found a table along the malecon to take in the spectacle, which included loud music, scantily clad young women, a Michael Jackson tribute float, a golden age gringa performing hula hoop tricks, kids in colourful costumes and inexplicably, two guys dressed in diapers. A couple of margaritas and a few nacho plates later, Jody and Aaron were getting into the Mexican vibe, even though there was a fearsome wind whipping off the Gulf of Mexico.
Here’s a rundown of how we amused our guests for the rest of their stay:
Temple of the Seven Dolls LR
Wednesday: Visit to the Dzilbilchaltun Ruins 20 minutes away. While certainly not as large and spectacular as sites such as Chichen Itza or Uxmal, it offers insight into Mayan history and is home to the noteworthy Temple of the Dolls pyramid and a lovely open water cenote where we dipped our feet and got a free fish pedicure, thanks to little black fish nibbling at our toes. Archaeologists figure as many as 200,000 inhabitants lived there and there were 8,400 buildings during its history. Artifacts dating back to 700 – 800 A.D. have been found and some are on display in the small museum on site. A Mayan guide named Julio gave us an hour-long tour for “30 bucks” (USD) and filled us in on the history. We also did the ‘Mayan Stairmaster’ workout, climbing up and down a few pyramids.
Thursday: I had to sit the day out, seeing as I had gum graft surgery the night before so while I spent the day reclining in the outdoor living room reading Girl on the Train, we sent our guests to Progreso to wander the malecon, eat at a wharf-side restaurant, check out the shops and pick up a few provisions.
Minerals cause the water to be red at the Xcambo salt flats
Minerals cause the water to be red at the Xcambo salt flats

Friday: We headed east to the pretty fishing village of Telchac and checked out a few beach houses as we walked the shore. We stopped at the lookout tower at Uaymitun which is supposed to be a good bird watching spot and this is prime time for flamingo sightings (and we’ve had quite a few). But there was nary a bird to be seen today so we continued our trek eastward. We dropped by our friend Gail’s vacation house in San Bruno to show Jody and Aaron how the beachfront set lives, with their stunning views of the Gulf’s aquamarine water. We’re second row folk, which means our house is one sandy block from the shore. The rest of the day’s adventures included a stop at the salt flats near Xcambo (pronounced Sh-Cambo), which had been an ancient Mayan salt and salted fish distribution centre. Big rectangular pools are rich with salt – some of the pools were blood red, others clear, but rocks and sticks in both of them were encrusted with salt that glistened like diamonds. We were wary of the red pools until some locals walked in and were collecting salt and washing their arms with the red water. One explained to us through gestures and Spanish that the red hue was caused by minerals in the water and salt makes for an excellent exfoliant.
Pyramid climbing at Xcambo
Pyramid climbing at Xcambo
Next stop was the Xcambo ruins just down the road –no one was there except for us and the lonely guy who took admission – the pyramids are small but it had some nice scenery and with the help of Aaron’s translate app, we convinced the gate keeper to pull out one of the human bones found on the site for us to inspect.
And great excitement – we saw lots of flamingos!
Coatis at El Chorchita
Coatis at El Chorchita

Saturday: Another adventure close to home – every day we passed a parking lot and a sign that identified El Corchita, an ecological zone. We decided to investigate – for a bargain fee of about $3 each, we were ushered onto a boat and made our way across the inland waterway to a mangrove island. A canal cut through the mangroves ended at a cleared area with seating and picnic tables …. where we were greeted by a group of raccoons and some strange looking reddish coloured critters with long tails and snouts. We learned they were coatis, a type of South American raccoon. All the critters were looking for handouts, though all we’d brought was bottled water. They had better luck when a child dropped a bag of chips. A raccoon grabbed it and he and his friends ran off like the bandits they resemble. El Corchita has more delights that include walking trails through the mangroves where you can see various birds and an abundance of termite nests. The real attraction though is the five cenotes, the fresh water sinkholes. Three are large and deep enough for swimming. Though sunny, it was a might coolish for swimming so we were satisfied dipping our toes in.
Dancers in traditional Mayan garb in Merida
Dancers in traditional Mayan garb in Merida

Sunday: There’s only one place to be on Sunday – that’s the Centro of Merida where part of the streets are closed to traffic so people of all ages can ride their bikes along the grand Paseo de Montejo, an avenue lined with gorgeous historic former mansions. Our destination was Plaza Grande, where hundreds of vendors pack into the central square to sell an astonishing array of goods including Mayan embroidered dresses, belts and purses, t-shirts, jewellery, honey, hammocks and much more. Great souvenir shopping and we took a break to eat delicious ice cream at a café and watch traditional Mayan dancing. For dinner, we classed it up and went to the Hacienda Xcanatan, a beautiful old former hemp plantation that’s now an upscale inn and restaurant. Perfect setting for a Valentine’s Day feast.
Monday: Jody is an animal lover whose Mother Hen instinct kicks into high gear when she senses an animal in need. She was saddened to see how many homeless and skinny beach dogs are wandering about and a few days ago, we had to contain her from leaping from the car to snatch up some feral puppies by the roadside. Earlier that day, my significant other and I had met a Canadian couple with two beautiful Labradoodles and a beach dog on our morning beach stroll. They told us they had rescued the beach dog and nursed her back to health and were looking for a home for her as they were driving back to Canada and didn’t have room for an extra dog. They also told us of a woman in the ‘hood who arranges spay-neuter clinics and tries to find homes locally or in Canada for beach dogs after they have been spayed, neutered, vaccinated, etc. I arranged for a meeting, Jody took her card and wants to help. Anyone looking for a pet from the Mexican Gulf coast at a very reasonable cost? Talk to me and I’ll hook you up.
Want a beach dog? Let me know
Want a beach dog? Let me know

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Ohh, we love turtles

Green sea turtle in Akumal
Green sea turtle in Akumal

SUNDAY FEB. 7, 2016 – Of all the things I’ve seen underwater, sea turtles are my favourite and today we hit the motherlode. We embarked on our turtle odyssey yesterday, making the three and a half hour drive from our rental house in Chicxulub on the Gulf of Mexico to Akumal on the Caribbean side.

We made a pit stop in the lovely city of Vallodolid to admire some of the pastel-hued architecture, stroll through its central square, eat a Yucateco lunch at a charming little restaurant called Las Campanas, and visit the Zaci Cenote (a cenote is a big limestone sinkhole filled with fresh water).

By the time we’d arrived at our bed and breakfast accommodation, Villa Tortugas (of course, we had to stay at a place with the Spanish name for turtles), set in the jungle 3 kilometres from Akumal Bay, we’d burned daylight so we repaired to our charming tiny bungalow. Our host Denis told us the best plan was to arrive at the bay between 8 and 8:30 a.m. to avoid the turtle gawking hordes.

Akumal means place of the turtles in the Mayan language and the endangered turtles live in the wild in the clear shallow waters of Akumal Bay.

So we rose early and not only was it cloudy but about 65 degrees F. If there weren’t turtles in the mix, there is no way you’d coax me to take the plunge on such a cool day. Thank goodness my guy gifted me with a wetsuit before we left Canada. At the bay, we donned our snorkel gear and swam to where we saw a couple of other snorkelers floating motionless a couple of hundred feet away in the turtle area designated by lines of buoys – the snorkelers had either drowned or had found some reptiles. The lifeguard didn’t seem concerned so we decided it was the latter case. Sure enough, we came across a trio of our shelled friends snacking on sea grass and we quickly swung into action with underwater camera and GoPro.

Diving sea turtle in Akumal Bay
Diving sea turtle in Akumal Bay

As we swam our way around the bay, we saw even larger turtles, some with hitchhiking fish on their backs, munching away and ignoring the gawking snorkelers. Occasionally, they’d gracefully flap their flippers and glide to the surface to gulp a breath of air. These were green sea turtles, with rather sweet Franklin the Turtle-type faces and beautifully mottled fins and heads. The bay is also home to loggerheads that have a sharper hooked profile but we didn’t see any of those.

It was a good day for turtle spotting even if the cloudy skies didn’t create perfect visibility. We figured we saw close to a dozen of the creatures before the cold got the better of us and we called it a morning.

We returned the next morning to slightly better conditions – at least there was sun – but we decided to go at 9 a.m. instead of 8 and there were already large groups of snorkelers heading for the bay. They had hired guides but we had read before our trip that it wasn’t necessary to do so and we had no trouble finding turtles on our own. We also had a good day and spotted another dozen or so grazing on their seabed pasture. We had two bonus sightings. A school of colourful small squid swam by, transparent fins fluttering like a flimsy skirt on a windy day. Then just as we decided to head to shore, we spotted a stingray on the ocean floor that hung around for a minute before darting off.

 

The big bamboo (raft that is)

FEBRUARY 20, 2015 – Welcome to Jamaica. Ya, man. We had a rollicking time on the ship getting to Montego Bay from Santiago de Cuba due to wave action and it’s grey and rainy as we set out to do bamboo rafting in the mountains.
We have an entertaining tour guide named Denise who gives a brief lesson in Jamaican patois and explains that KFC means Keep From Cooking as we pass the familiar chain restaurant. She also supplies some general facts about the island on our ride. The drivers drive on the left side of the road here and that’s disconcerting as the roads are very narrow and winding and we pass a few vehicles with only inches to spare.
It’s pouring rain when we arrive and not enough rafts are available for all in our group, so instead we will first partake in a liquor tasting and demonstration while we wait. Luckily, the liquor tasting pavilion is under a roof so all is good and soon a wiry little man named Dalton is explaining the origin of different rum flavours and tiny shots are being passed around, including banana and coffee flavoured rum. Then Dalton slips on plastic gloves, fires up a blender and gives a step-by-step demonstration of how to make a genuine pina colada. He’s like an island Rachael Ray in a ball cap and rain jacket.
He explains that fresh coconut is a must and shows how to use it to make coconut milk – the store-bought stuff in cans just isn’t good enough, according to Dalton. He doesn’t measure anything, just tosses in random amounts of coconut milk, fresh pineapple, condensed milk to sweeten and of course, rum.
Here’s a handy hint from Dalton for all you pina colada drinkers out there: Put the ice in your glass, never add it to the blender. If you add ice at the blending stage, you are going to have to drink the whole concoction or throw away the watery slush that’s left. But if you aren’t able to guzzle an entire blender-full of pina colada in one sitting and haven’t added ice to the blender, you can store the left over in the fridge for a few days.

Rafting with the folks in Jamaica
Rafting with the folks in Jamaica

The rain has cleared and it’s time to make like Errol Flynn and float down the Great River on a bunch of bamboo sticks lashed together and outfitted with a bench and seat cushions. Soon the river is like a bamboo raft highway with more than a dozen of the crafts floating down the shallow, limestone-bedded river. Our captain Shane points out flora and fauna along the way, even stopping a few times to gather examples to show us, and we enjoy a serenade of Bob Marley hits that another captain sings.
Shane plucks an African tulip tree bloom for me, a eucalyptus branch and explains multiple uses for soft limestone (it’s good for pedicures, for example).
It’s a peaceful, enjoyable way to take in the Jamaican countryside. The hour passes in no time. It’s back to the bus and back to the pier where the Cuba Cruise/Louis Cristal is docked – or we are given the option of going to a shopping area to stock up on souvenirs. The ‘shopping area’ is an exaggeration. It’s one store perched high on a cliff above Montego Bay. Prices are very high, in US dollars but it’s all a ploy. The clerks are quite aggressive and barely have to glance at an item and you’re offered a deep discount.
The shopping wasn’t worth the trip but we did get to pass another KFC – supposedly the second largest in the world and the one that generates the most revenue of any in the world. Jamaica loves fried chicken, apparently.

Chevrolets, shrines and Santiago

Changing of the guard
Changing of the guard

FEBRUARY 19, 2015 – We skip the pre-arranged excursions in Santiago de Cuba, seeing as we’ve been there twice before, and opt to do our own thing. Our morning destination is Santa Ifigenia cemetery where Cuban late great military leaders, politicians, poets, doctors and musicians are laid to rest.

Outside the port entrance we run a gauntlet of taxi drivers and their agents vying for our attention. Our first notion to find a van to transport four of us to the cemetery is not an option and we have to choose from air-conditioned small cars, such as a Peugeot, some beat-up Ladas and an assortment of old American cars with no air con.

Our ride - a 1949 Chevrolet
Our ride – a 1949 Chevrolet

We opt for a pea soup green 1949 Chevrolet with red leather upholstery and soon are on our way to see dead people. The cemetery is a beautiful place dotted with towering royal palm trees and surrounded by black iron fencing. We pay our pesos and are set up with a guide whose English is still a work in progress and she has only worked there for two weeks. Between her limited English and my limited Spanish, we meet in the middle.

The main reason we have come is to watch the changing of the guard, a spectacle that happens every 30 minutes during the day from 8 a.m. The toll of a bell is the signal, and amid pomp and circumstance, a trio of serious young men in military dress carrying ceremonial rifles with bayonets march down the walkway to the tomb of Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero who was a poet, writer and lawyer. The young officers’ precision goose-stepping is impressive and I’m sure their gluteus muscles are equally impressive from lifting their legs so high all day long.

Erected in 1951, the hexagonal mausoleum is oriented so that Martí’s wooden casket receives daily sunlight. In one of his poems, Martí said he would like to die not as a traitor in darkness, but with his visage facing the sun.

Several symbols incorporated into Marti’s mausoleum signify the six original provinces of Cuba and there’s a statue of him made of Italian Carrera marble peering down at his flag-draped casket. While the Marti monument is a centrepiece, the rest of the cemetery is beautiful with numerous elaborate sun-bleached white marble headstones, markers and monuments honouring military heroes from the 10 Year War and the Cuban Revolution, members of the Bacardi family, a doctor who pioneered a type of eye surgery and Compay Segundo, a musician from the famous Bueno Vista Social Club.

By the end of the tour, the breeze has died to remind us just how hot it can get in Santiago. We pile back into our pea green carriage and head back to the ship.

In the afternoon, we trek up to Santiago’s central square. We have to run the gauntlet of taxi drivers again, cross a wide intersection while dodging motorcycles, bicycles, trucks and horse-drawn carts and make our way up the long steep hill to the city centre at the summit.

Santiago, as historic and colourful as Havana, sadly has not been as well tended as her prosperous sister on the north shore. The ravages of time and the battering of recent hurricanes have taken their toll on many of the city’s beautiful Colonial buildings but we are encouraged to see some restoration taking place. The streets are narrow, the sidewalks heaved and the pavement broken and pitted but it’s part of Cuba’s unique character.

The buildings surrounding the central square have been restored and are lovely. The square is not large but is a pleasant place to plop down on a bench and watch life go by. I remember my visit there seven years ago when a short, squat elderly woman in a bright red dress and running shoes was in the square smoking a cigar. I took her photo and she demanded money for allowing me to do so – but I didn’t oblige. You can take pictures of people, houses, buildings, etc. without permission if you are on public property. As the photographer, I also owned the picture so I should have demanded a peso or two from her and sent her a copy.

In downtown Santiago de Cuba
In downtown Santiago de Cuba

We notice that some people are on the roof of the Casa Grande Hotel and figure that would be a great spot to capture some panoramic shots of the city. We take the hotel elevator to the fifth floor where there is a rooftop bar and wide terraces offering views in three directions. It provides a wonderful bird’s eye view, a Cuban band is playing in the bar and a nice breeze keeps us from overheating. We can also see our ship and the easiest route to get back.

My significant other made the trek into central Santiago earlier in the afternoon before enticing me to join him. An English speaking local help him locate a Cuba tee shirt in a local store (there’s virtually no souvenir shops to be had) and took him through back streets to somebody’s house to show him some alleged 15-year-old rum that could be purchased for $10 convertible pesos. He returned back to the ship rum-less, explaining that the rum was in a plastic bottle and the label looked less than official.

That’s a typical Cuban experience – locals wanting to sell you rum, cigars, home-cooked meals or show you their artwork – and part of the fun.

After dinner on the ship, we take in a Cirque de Soleil type show. We are on the way to Jamaica and the sea is rough tonight. I am astounded at how the acrobats are able to keep their footing and perform their routines given the movement of the ship. The performers are part of the Louis Cristal crew and the level of talent is impressive, from the singers to the dancers to the musicians. They’d be the ones to beat on the X Factor or The Voice. And Danny, the cruise director is an Energizer Bunny of a man who speaks seven languages, makes the announcements during the day over the loudspeaker (“Your kind attention please ….”), hires the performers, emcees the shows and even has some dance moves. If only you could bottle that kind of energy …

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Paradise Found

 

Morning concert
Morning concert

FEBRUARY 18, 2015 -Our day in Antilla begins by lining up and loading into one of the Cuba Cruise/Louis Cristal’s lifeboats. The ship is still afloat and there’s no emergency – it’s the first stage of our trek to Cayo Saetia (Paradise Island) to see Fidel Castro’s former private hunting grounds and his assortment of imported game animals, followed by some snorkelling and swimming.

The sun is burning off the fog and Nipe Bay is as still as glass. Our lifeboat drops us off at a concrete pier where a group of Cuban musicians and dancers are very lively for 8:30 a.m. After a short walk, we and our 47 other cruisers pile onto a catamaran with an open bar and a lively tour guide named Joe.

It’s an hour and 40 minute ride to Paradise Island. The sun is warm, and the liquor is flowing. We spot the occasional fishing boat with Cuban fishermen out to score the day’s catch, see a few jellyfish and a couple of flying fishing jump out of the water and skim along the surface right in front of us.

It really is paradise
It really is paradise

Paradise Island lives up to its moniker – unspoiled, lush and green with a beautiful white sand beach. We load onto Russian military trucks and bounce off through the interior looking for game, armed with cameras. Just minutes in, the trucks screech to a halt and we see what the excitement is about – an ostrich! He’s trotting with purpose down the red dirt path but one of the drivers grabs him and brings him over to the trucks for a look-see. We grab our cameras and are shooting away when I remember that I live less than five minutes from an ostrich farm in Canada and can see them any time I want.

We catch the odd sighting of groups of antelopes in fields and among the trees and the driver points to what looks like a herd of black cattle. They are actually water buffalo – some Chinese, some African – and true to form, a bunch are wallowing in a muddy pond.

After a few more antelope sightings and passing a herd of grazing horses, we stop by a very tall wooden corral and are invited to disembark to meet Jose, the resident giraffe. Jose is very tall and happily accepts treats of leaves from the visitors. His long blue tongue deftly wraps around the offering and he brushes my hand with soft lips. Apparently Jose doesn’t live on the island alone. There are other giraffes but we don’t see them.

Jose the giraffe
Jose the giraffe

Next, a bunch of us get back on the catamaran for a short ride to the reef for some snorkeling. The visibility isn’t perfect today but we see a lot of sergeant majors and grunts, some blue tangs, butterfly fish, some needlefish that invade my personal space and come a little too close for comfort with their pointy appendages, and some varieties of parrotfish we haven’t seen before. There are also quite a few white and black sea urchins. Joe wisely warned the rookie snorkelers not to touch or step on the reef or rocks as the sea urchins tend to hang out there. If you want to know why to avoid touchy-feeling moments with them, just ask my sister-in-law Norma who three years ago had a too-close encounter with an urchin-inhabited reef and had to have the nurse at our resort remove numerous black spikes from her rump and legs.

As our snorkel time is nearing an end, we do get a thrilling sighting: a large barracuda about four feet in length. I manage to snap a couple of photos with my underwater camera before he gets tired of spectators and swims off.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Back on shore in the rustic pavilion that was Fidel’s lodge, we chow down on a Cuban-prepared lunch of chicken jambalaya, fish, rice, pizza, eggs and white pasta with choice of thin tomato sauce or cheese and chopped up ham.

After lunch, we have an hour and a half to soak up the beautiful Cuban sun. Most people head for the sand beach but after a brief barefoot walk, I hang out in the shade of the pavilion, watching iguanas come and go and a brief showdown between a youngster and an older alpha male. When the head bobbing begins, you know an iguana smack-down is brewing. The little lizard wisely sees that he has no chance and scurries away from the challenger.

We have been on a few of these type of Cuban island excursions over the years and can tell you the ride home is always the same: the tunes are cranked and the tour guide dances with the innate rhythm all Cubans seem to possess while the not-so-gifted tourists try to keep step.

Back at the dock where we wait for our lifeboat to take us back to the Louis Cristal, there’s more music and dancing as a smartly dressed Cuban band springs into action and two pairs of dancers dip and swirl around the pier.

 

 

 

It’s my birthday and I’ll cruise if I want to

The Cuba Cruise/Louis Cristal
The Cuba Cruise/Louis Cristal

 

FEBRUARY 17, 2015- It’s my birthday (Tuesday, Feb. 17) and I’m celebrating on the Cuba Cruise ship. Sailing around Cuba far away from Ontario’s deep freeze makes getting older pretty painless. It helps that the cruise is populated mainly with senior citizens, so I feel pretty young in comparison.

It’s a day at sea as Cuba Cruise/the Louis Cristal makes the voyage from Havana to Antilla. After a buffet breakfast, we run through the drill of what happens in an emergency and have to go to our designated muster stations wearing the life jackets stowed in our cabins. It’s orderly and proceeds in a timely fashion. We’re free to enjoy the boat at leisure once we passed muster with the captain.

I’m a cruise ship virgin, but I know as far as such ships go, the Louis Cristal is fairly small and much more petite than the behemoths I saw docked in Roatan earlier in the month. With the capability to carry 1,200 passengers and a staff of 400, she’s not tiny but of a size that makes it easy to befriend other passengers and get to know the staff.

The Louis Cristal, now registered as a Greek ship, has had many different names over the years since it was built in Finland and launched in 1980. Although it was destroyed by fire in dry dock in Sweden and completely rebuilt from 1990 to 1992, it’s still considered the same ship.

I check out the duty free shop and contemplate buying myself a watch as a happy-birthday-to-me present but as I haven’t worn a watch for decades, figure I’m unlikely to start now. And I need a new saddle and they don’t seem to have any here.

We roam the decks and even though all the passengers are onboard today, there are still plenty of places to sit in the sun and no lineups for food. I have talked to people who have been on big ships and they talk about crowds and line-ups, but no problem here. Even the small pool is free most of the time.

Crusin'

To celebrate my birthday dinner, we splurge and go the Alberta Steakhouse (you pay an extra $34.95 a person to eat here but the pampering and fine dining  experience are worth it). It’s intimate with white tablecloths and soft lighting and three wait staff are catering to our every need. The beef here comes from Alberta so that’s no surprise. However, I’m betting the lobster tails didn’t come from the western provinces.

It is delicious, from the appetizers to the Caesar salad to the beef tenderloin. I am completely stuffed but there’s dessert to consider it and to heck with calories. It’s my birthday! We order desserts but just before they arrive, the waiters come out bearing a guitar and a birthday cake (it’s delicious too) and serenade me with a melody of birthday-related songs. They all sing really well, unlike the usual restaurant birthday serenades you might be subjected to.

So we get the cake and dessert – talk about having your cake and eating it two (as in two desserts). I swear I’m waddling as we had back to our cabin though it just may be the sway of the boat. Good thing there’s some swimming and snorkeling tomorrow to counteract the caloric extravaganza.

 

 

Hunting for Hemingway in Havana

Three bearsLR

FEBRUARY 16, 2015 -Yes, I like alliteration and seldom get to use it, so I took advantage with today’s headline.

Most of today (Feb. 16) was about standing in lines: Lines to check in at Pearson airport, lines to go through the security check, then lines at Jose Marti Airport, followed by lines to get on a bus, then lines to check in for Cuba Cruise on the Louis Cristal, then a line for another security check. It must have been a slow day at the Havana ship terminal security check because the guy in the cubicle I chose was napping.

Even though we were exhausted from the rigours of travelling from a -25 C climate to a 25 C one, after filling up on tasty cruise ship buffet food, we decided to burn what little daylight was left by exploring a bit of Havana. It is a totally awesome city.

The earlier bus ride from the airport featured views of a lot of what we remembered from our last Cuban sojourn four years ago: banana trees, people on rickety bicycles, a mix of old American vehicles, Ladas and newer compact cars and squat, concrete buildings that feature the stark, humourless architecture resulting from Cuban’s ties with the former Soviet Union.

The buildings in the historic district downtown near San Francisco Square are a whole different matter. According to havanaarchitecture.info, the city is one of the most beautiful and architecturally diverse in the world.

There are many beautiful colonial and baroque buildings in Havana's historic district
There are many beautiful colonial and baroque buildings in Havana’s historic district

The older colonial and baroque buildings are beautiful, ornate and romantic, like the souls of so many Cuban people we’ve met. The square was full of bears, which seemed a little curious; as far as I know, bears are not indigenous to Cuba.

But we learned the 128 fibreglass bears are part of a United Nations international art exhibit, United Buddy Bears, intended to foster global peace and tolerance, Each life-size bear is painted by an artist from a different country. It took a while to find the Canada bear, as I assumed it would be red and white and likely sporting a maple leaf or beaver or hockey stick.

The bears are in alphabetical order and the Canada bear was where he should be, sandwiched between bears from Cameroon and the Centroafricana Republic. He was painted with blue, grey, white and brownish squares that created a weird optical illusion. I’m stumped as to how he represents Canada. Ireland’s for example, was wearing a jaunty green jacket and festooned with shamrocks and Cuba’s was smoking a cigar.

As our time for exploring was limited, we decided to hunt for Ernest Hemingway. Yes, Papa is long gone but the hotel he used to live in and his favourite bar are still around. We strolled down cobbled pedestrian streets, drinking in the atmosphere, listening to a marching band playing the Eurthymics’ Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This), sneaking glimpses into little cafes, restaurants and hotels and we remembered why we love Cuba so much. The culture, the people and the atmosphere are like no other.

Along Calle Obipos we came to the first of our two intended destinations: the triangular pink Hotel Ambos Mundos that Hemingway called home. It has an elegant restaurant, bar and lobby with high ceilings and its walls are plastered with Hemingway photos, including him with the trophy he won in a fishing tournament and another posing with his pal Fidel Castro. Sadly, we were there too late to see the room in the hotel that is now a miniature Hemingway museum, as it had closed at 5.

The next order of business on our Hemingway hunt was to seek out the Floridita, the bar where the writer did a lot of his drinking. A lot of drinking. After one mistaken stop at the Florida Hotel, the kindly concierge explained how to get to our intended destination. We found it, where old American taxis were parked outside as well as a trio of coco taxis, which look like bright yellow coconut shells perched on three wheels. We’ve toured in them before and they are a blast.

Hemingway's favourite bar, the Floridita
Hemingway’s favourite bar, the Floridita

Evidently we weren’t the only people who heard that the Floridita was Hemingway’s haunt. The place was packed and pretty much everyone there was drinking daiquiris, Hemingway’s poison of choice. We pulled up stools beside a life-sized statue of ol’ Ernest and ordered a couple. We also were served a plate of homemade potato chips that were delicious. A three-piece band was playing and typical of Cuba, the musicians were excellent.

Tourist after tourist came up to pose with bronze Hemingway and of course, we did the same. We struck up a conversation with two guys at the bar – one was a Cuban who owns an apartment he rents to tourists, and the other was Marc, an American who has lived in Roatan for 22 years (readers of this blog will recall we were just in Roatan less than a month ago).

Marc is a character and regaled us with tales of his life in Roatan, including his three ill-fated marriages to Honduran women. With three divorces under his belt, he’s single again. “Some people live and learn,” he said. “I just live.”

old carrLR

The walk back to the Louis Cristal/Cuba Cruise ship was equally magical – a clear night sky, balmy temperatures, the streets alive with people and music, whether it was shop keepers shaking maracas or tambourines, the sounds wafting from cafes with live bands and a Cuban man out for a walk, singing in a clear, melodic voice.

It left us wanting more and we agreed we’ll return to Havana in the future when we have more time to explore this gem of a city.