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

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.

 

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.