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.


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.




East enders

Havana Bay Beach
Havana Bay Beach

February 9, 2014- Our last day in Roatan is just about perfect. Weather as good as it gets (28 degrees C, blue skies, sun) and a day of exploring with our Casa Canuck pals Stan and Joan. ‘Hosts’ is too impersonal a term for these folks. They have become good friends. We’ll  stay in touch and we know we can count on them for a prime table at Monkey Island next time we’re here for Taco Tuesday.

This morning, we say goodbye to our favourite dive master, Rino Jackson and his Toronto-raised wife Amanda at Scuba Roatan. We won’t hold it against Amanda that she successfully left the frozen north behind six years ago and is a full-fledged islander now.

Back at the Casa, Stan, Joan and fellow guest Kay (Joan’s Grade 5 teacher from a few decades back) hop into the truck and we’re off on an afternoon of exploring the east end. We follow a route along the water going through various towns and in Coxen Hole, Stan and Joan fill us in on where to get cheap haircuts, inexpensive shirts and curtains made for a bargain price.

We make a pit stop in French Harbour to see where Joan will be tutoring high school kids a couple of days a week. It’s right next door to Arch’s Iguana Farm and a few of the critters are lurking in the grass and trees but a little skittish about posing for photos.

Our next stop is Pristine Bay, a luxury golf club development where we pass muster with the security guard who raises the gate and lets us in. You need a four wheel drive or at least a mule team to negotiate the steep and winding main drive.

Perched at the highest point on a steep hill is a big, fancy home with iron gates and views of ocean on both sides of the island. Stan and Joan have heard that Sandra Bullock owns the house and Joan is sure she saw Sandra shopping at the grocery store.

As none of us golf, we admire the sweeping views and snap a few shots then keep on trucking.

We press eastward, admiring the stunning views of Roatan’s rolling green mountains and the turquoise ocean. We find the road to our intended destination, Havana Bay Beach, and soon have parked and for $5 a head, are given the privilege of walking on the sand, swimming in the ocean, and using their washrooms, showers and loungers.

The beach here is pretty spectacular – not quite West Bay calibre, but then again, it’s not crowded, packed with vendors, tourists and hotels. We have a pretty decent lunch at Lionfish Louie’s beachside bar, then strap on our fins and snorkels.


The reef is a fair distance away so we snorkel around a small island. At first, it seems it’s not going to be a great day for underwater viewing. The storm that ended yesterday churned things up and the visibility isn’t the greatest. Initially all we spot is seagrass. But as we progress around the island, the water is clearer and we start to notice things. Such as starfish – I see six in all. There are a couple of pretty sea anemones. Stan, Joan and Kay spot some lionfish.

We also see a porcupine fish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, more lionfish and several fish species I can’t name hanging out under a dock.

The sun is setting as we head home and the sky is a spectacular pink, gold and blue.

It’s a spectacular end to a great vacation. ‘Til we meet again, Roatan.

Good times, good friends
Good times, good friends

Rainy day and Rusty Fish

Rusty Fish shop in West End
Rusty Fish shop in West End

It’s raining today (Friday). Not mere showers, but full-out downpours that soak you within seconds. But it’s not snowing and still warm enough to wander around in tee shirts and shorts.

One of the positives is that the shifting weather has sent much of the sargassum that washed in yesterday back out to sea.

We stop into the Roatan Marine Park office to chat with marine biologist Nick Bach to find out exactly what it is these folks do. As it turns out, this non-governmental agency does a lot to help preserve Roatan’s jewel of a coral reef.  They maintain 140 dive, fishing and yacht moorings and patrol to thwart poaching of turtles, lobster and conch. They’ve been busy in local classrooms, teaching school children how to take responsibility for the reef in the future. But instead of boring classroom lectures, they’re taking the kids out on glass bottom boat rides, on snorkel trips and on Discover Scuba dives. My elementary school science lessons weren’t nearly as fun.

Many restaurants in West End have signs designating them as participants in the Responsible Seafood Program initiated by the Marine Park. That means they are serving fish dishes such as tuna, kingfisher, wahoo, mahi-mahi, etc. that aren’t threatened, and not putting species such as grouper, parrotfish, shark or turtle that are endangered on their menus.

I do my part for the reef ecosystem at dinnertime, ordering lionfish cakes. No one knows exactly how this invasive species from Japan came to settle in the Caribbean. The most popular theory is that half a dozen of them escaped from the Biscayne Bay Aquarium in Florida during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. A more likely explanation is that hotels with large aquariums with breeding pairs unwittingly released eggs and larvae into the sea during cleaning.

Lionfish are here now in large numbers and while Nick says they can’t be wiped out, their numbers can be controlled. While they have no natural predators, eels, snappers and sharks have been spotted eating them even though they aren’t part of the usual diet. And licensed lionfish hunters are catching them and local restaurants have put lionfish on the menu (they are delicious).

Eat but don't touch
Eat but don’t touch

We saw a juvenile lionfish on our first dive last week. As Rolland went to point at it, divemaster Chip snatched back his hand. While exotic and beautiful to look at, these reddish brown and white striped fish are venomous, delivering a nasty sting that won’t kill you but cause extreme pain that lasts for hours.

“You are going to hate your life,” says Chip.

In the afternoon, we take a five minute cab ride to Alba Plaza to check out some unique Roatan industries. One of them is the Roatan Chocolate Factory, where you can watch chocolate being made fresh from Honduran cacao that comes from cacao beans grown on the island and Honduran mainland. I am in chocolate heaven! There are free samples!

After careful deliberation, we buy four bars for $15 ($5 for one bar) including one 75 per cent organic, one coffee flavoured and two sea salt bars. The sugar rush continues with a stop into the neighbouring coffee shop for a snack of cinnamon coffee cake and a big chocolate cookie to go.

Roatan chocolate
Roatan chocolate

The last stop is one of my favourite places on Roatan – the Rusty Fish. Here you can get great, reasonably priced souvenirs from fridge magnets to colourful fish, turtles and crabs to hang on your walls, made from recycled metal and painted with enamel or acrylic paint. Other recycled pieces in the shop are made from plastic and glass including some beautiful little blue and white turtles. The cool thing is that most of the source materials come from the dump.

The Rusty Fish workshop adjoins the store where you can watch the artists at work. The venture provides training and much-needed jobs for the local community as well as creates memorable made-in-Roatan items for visitors to take home. If you don’t want to venture out to the Alba Plaza workshop, a Rusty Fish shop is also open in the heart of West End.



Seaweed and live rock

Sargassum in West End
Sargassum in West End

Our plans to snorkel in Half Moon Bay hit a bit of a snag this morning (Feb. 5). A big, floating brown snag.

The bay was clear and beautiful in early morning but by 11, was blanketed under massive quantities of sargassum that had washed in. Sargassum is a brown seaweed/algae that free-floats in huge clumps in the open ocean but has been washing ashore along Caribbean beaches for months, accumulating in piles up to three feet deep. Antigua was inundated with the stuff in late fall and now it’s apparently Roatan’s turn.

The day we arrived on the island, sargassum was washed up in incredible amounts on shore and we marvelled at how hard and how quickly crews had worked to remove it with shovels and wheelbarrows. And now it has returned.

The source of the sargassum is the Sargasso Sea in the North Atlantic Ocean,  a massive pool of slowly rotating water bounded by  ocean currents close to Bermuda. While it’s certainly not a plus for sun-and-sand-loving tourists when it washes up on beaches, sargassum serves vital ecological purposes. The floating mats serve as nurseries for hatchling turtles, supplying nourishment and protection, act as a spawning ground for eels, dolphinfish and more, and as a habitat for shrimp, crabs and fish.

But trying to snorkel in it is not an appealing thought. It did make for an interesting morning, though, as we chatted with locals who had come to marvel at the brown floating masses. Several told us they have never seen so much of the stuff before. We watched as a boat owner slogged through the sargassum, trying to drag his stranded boat ashore. A white egret walked nimbly across the top of it.

We watched these scenes from a beachside grill known simply as Keith’s, where $6 will get you an awesome plate of fish, chicken or pork, homemade potato salad, steamed vegetables and a large glass of homemade limonade. Keith and his wife cook away at a barbecue fashioned from a 45-gallon drum and we eat at picnic tables set under canopies on the sand.

The afternoon we checked out the tee shirt offerings in a few shops and stopped into one of my favourite West End boutiques, Waves of Art. As the name suggests, it is an art gallery but has a wide selection of unique souvenirs including jewellery, local handcrafts, pottery and handmade soaps.

We returned to Casa Canuck to find that Sam and Bill, who had stayed there last week, stopped in for a visit with our hosts. They had spent a few days in Utila and filled us in on their experiences there and we all made plans to head down to Monkey Island cafe and bar after sunset for the advertised barbecue and live music event.


Brion James plays Monkey Island
Brion James plays Monkey Island

As Monkey Island regulars, our hosts Stan and Joan have clout and we were able to secure a good table on a night when the joint would be jammed due to guitar player/singer Brion James’ appearance later in the evening. James has lived in Roatan since 1999 and is the man responsible for bringing live rock to the island; before he left Los Angeles for Roatan, he had become a musician of renown, playing lead guitar with the funk band the Dan Reed Network, opening for the likes of the Rolling Stones and composing movie soundtracks.

When we arrive at Monkey Island, manager Adam spots our video camera and waves us into the kitchen to bear witness to the evening’s eats: beer can chicken, beer can duck, Cornish hens and a roasted pig.

We chow down on a $10 plate of beer can chicken and duck and roast pork, beans, rice and potato salad, washed down with mojitos. We are treated to the folky-bluesy stylings of Jordan and Bailey during dinner as outside the rain comes down in torrents. No one in our group of six has brought an umbrella so we figure we’ll all be in for a good soaking on the walk home.

Around 8:30, headliner Brion James, his bass player Adi (who we got to know when he managed Land’s End Lodge, our accommodations last year) and drummer Dave take the stage. Brion is a charismatic figure on stage – wiry and fit with long grey dreadlocks and the type of voice and guitar skills that speak to his stature as a professional musician. He bounces around stage, smoothly transitioning from song to song with no breaks, from Eurythmics to Maroon 5 to Rihanna hits. The place is packed and grooving to the tunes.

The rain has stopped when we leave and can hear the music in the background for the entire journey back to Casa Canuck. We encounter an interesting looking spider on  the road close to home that is likely a huntsman spider. Though he is about four inches in diameter and fierce looking, he remains still and willingly models for a few photos.

Spider on the road
Spider on the road


In search of Sponge Bob

I hear it's snowing at home
I hear it’s snowing at home

I have never watched an episode of Sponge Bob Squarepants, the children’s cartoon TV show, but my significant other tells me ol’ Sponge lives in the town of Bikini Bottom.

That’s where we are headed today on this gorgeous sunny day – not to the fictitious cartoon town, but a dive site of that name just a brief boat ride from Scuba Roatan’s headquarters.  Our dive master Suzanne tells us that as part of a charity fundraiser, the top donor was allowed to name the dive site whatever he or she wished. The winner obviously is a big fan of Sponge Bob.

Every dive is getting easier and in short order, we are leisurely exploring the sandy ocean floor (not evidence of a single bikini bottom to be found) and winding through the reef’s coral canals.  There is quite a bit of sea life to take in, including a ruffled edge sea slug that is far more beautiful than his land-living cousins, blue chromis, feeding parrotfish and the highlight – a green turtle lounging on a coral shelf. He is totally unperturbed by the divers who circle him taking photos and videos and doesn’t budge. It’s a thrill to get up close with the sea creatures in their natural environment.

Suzette finds the remnants of an octopus's crab dinner
Suzanne finds the remnants of an octopus’s crab dinner
Green turtle looking a tad bluish
Green turtle looking a tad bluish

No sightings of Sponge Bob, Patrick Starfish or Squidward today. But Suzanne points out a large crab claw resting on the sandy floor and we suspect that Mr. Crabs may have ended up as an octopus’s dinner.

As tonight is $1 taco night at Monkey Island, we decide a light lunch is best so pull up stools at Sundowner’s, a popular bar with ex-pats.  Hockey fever is alive and well here as the owner is a Canadian and ardent Leafs fan (poor deluded guy). You may be in the tropics, but no need to miss a game thanks to Sundowner’s big screen TV.

Turns out a shared plate of nachos didn’t fully satisfy the appetite we worked up on our dive, so we head to the ice cream shop for a couple of cones, and pick up some bananas and mandarin oranges from the corner fruit stand for good measure.

Now we are revved up on chocolate espresso ice cream and there is still some daylight to burn, so back at Casa Canuck, we grab the kayaks. You can take the Canadians out of Canada, but you can’t take the Canada out of Canadians. If you weren’t born with a hockey stick in your hand, a paddle likely served as your baby rattle.

Paddling around Mangrove Bight
Paddling around Mangrove Bight

We take a tour around Mangrove Bight. What’s a bight you ask? It’s a wide bay formed by a bend in the shoreline and Mangrove Bight, as you might surmise, is ringed by mangroves as well as a mix of ex-pat homes, a small condo complex and homes owned by Hondurans.

At 6:15 p.m. we meet our hosts Stan and Joan on the deck and with new Casa Canuck guest Kay, we journey down to Monkey Island, indulge in a refreshing pina colada, tasty $1 tacos and a complimentary fruity shot of some sort. Now that’s how to live when you hear 20 centimetres of snow has fallen in your backyard back in Ontario.


West Bay day

Fish were everywhere at West Bay
Fish were everywhere at West Bay

It’s Groundhog Day and Wiarton Willie would have no trouble seeing his shadow on Roatan today on this hot, blue sky day.

I understand there’s a snowstorm going on at home in Ontario. So in unity with our Canadian comrades, we seek out the most reasonable facsimile we can find and that’s the white sand of West Bay Beach.

Water taxi is the only way to travel on such a beautiful day and our driver Omar zips us across for the quick ride to West Bay Beach, considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the world. It’s busy but not overly crowded today – tomorrow when several mega cruise ships will be in port, it will be packed with cruisers determined to make the most of their day in the sun. We make a beeline for the far end of the beach by the Infinity Bay Resort where we’ve been told the snorkeling is superb.

It is no idle boast. As soon as we don our fins and are in water barely above our knees, fish are everywhere, including sergeant majors, angelfish and some other fairly large ones whose identity is beyond my piscine recognition skills.

Spotted on the reef near Infinity Bay resort
Spotted on the reef near Infinity Bay resort

The reef is a little tricky to negotiate where the coral is high and the water shallow but we manage to navigate our way through its channels into deeper water and can tell from the hue of the ‘deep blue’ in the near distance that we have come close to the wall, where the reef suddenly gives way to a huge drop to seemingly endless depths.

We stick close to the reef and spend an enjoyable couple of hours watching its colourful inhabitants swim and feed. (Awesome video to come once we get home).

Sometimes I wonder how low I will go (60 feet deep apparently based on yesterday’s dive) and to what heights for my significant other who tends to be the instigator of these adventures. Today it was 800 feet in the sky as we got strapped into harnesses and made like a tandem human kite behind a speed boat. Or as it’s more commonly know, parasailing.

Up, up and away
Up, up and away

It was like sitting in a big, gently rocking swing high above the water and I had not the slightest trepidation about being so lofty. Our perch afforded an incredible view of the ocean and Roatan’s green, hilly landscape and it ended far too soon.

With so many adventures packed into one day, we headed back to West End in Omar’s water taxi, stopping briefly to tow a stranded boater to shore enroute, then went to The Landing for a bite to eat.

There we ran into the crew from Ruthless Roatan – Tim, Michelle and Blue – who took us on our most memorable Roatan adventure last year: a boat trip to Cayos Cochinos where we snorkeled in the most pristine water we’d ever seen and spent a few fascinating hours with the Garifuna tribe, who live without electricity or running water.

Seeing the Ruthless gang twigged our memory of our fantastic time last year and now we have a dilemma: Should we book a Ruthless repeat? Cayos might not be in the cards but the sunset cruise sounds tempting. Stay tuned! So much to do, so little time.