Blog po polsku/Blog in the Polish language: http://ontario-nature-polish.blogspot.ca/2015/12/dwa-tygodnie-w-santa-lucia-na-kubie.html
Last year (November/December, 2013) we visited the Club Amigo Caracol for the first time and we decided to go there again, booking our vacation over two months in advance through Hola Sun. Two weeks before departure we emailed the hotel, asking for an ocean-view room on the upper floor, in the 500 section.
|Key West, Florida|
Since Air Cubana allows almost 50 kg of luggage per person, packing was a breeze! Because of the terrorist attack in Ottawa two days ago, there was increased security at the airport. While we were waiting to check in our suitcases, we saw Daniel, whom we had met at Braulio’s restaurant one year ago! The flight departed on time—it was a simple Airbus 320. I enjoyed the view of the USA—rivers, fields, lakes and even the distinct Overseas Highway and Key West, Florida! After exactly 3 hours and 30 minutes in the air, we landed in Camagüey. The buses were already waiting for us; I ran to the bus and got the best seats, but was unable to exchange money at the airport due to long lineups. It was getting dark as we were riding to the hotel on deserted, narrow roads.
We were assigned room #514 (last year #510) which was almost as good as #510, we even had the same maid as last year, Marta. Since the water was heated by solar panels (located on the roof), sometimes we had plenty of very hot water, at other times it was just lukewarm, yet it was not a big deal for me, but Catherine missed a hot tub bath. The air conditioner worked great and sometimes we used it, although we preferred sleeping with the windows open (maybe because of that we had a couple of critters visit us-we found a small crab and lizard in the room, both totally harmless, and gently moved them outside). Most of the time it was very windy and we did not find mosquitoes to be a problem. The small fridge kept stuff cool, yet barely. Last year we could watch CTV from Toronto — this year the only English language news channel was CCTV (Chinese, in English), which I did not like at all.
|Our room #514 on the upper level|
Although neither of us has/watches TV in Canada, we were a little disappointed that we were unable to watch Canadian news. Only after several days after the municipal elections found out who became the mayor of Toronto and Mississauga from newly arrived tourists (John Tory and Bonnie Crombie, respectively; I had gone to the university with her). The maid did an excellent job cleaning our room. We approached one of the gardeners and he was very happy to supply us every morning with 2 freshly plucked coconuts for a peso or two; they were delicious! Unfortunately, when it was raining, water leaked in through the window seals, flooding part of our bedroom.
During our stay (two weeks), we had at least 3 rainy, very windy and cloudy days, yet there were enough sunny and hot days allowing us to spend a lot of time on the beach. Due to the long reef, located several km from the shore, it was possible to swim even when it was very windy. The tractor collected sea weed from the beach every day, thus keeping it clean. From our hotel room we could see a boat stocked on the reef; according to several Cubans, it had been there since the end of December, 2013, when a group of Haitians tried to flee to the USA and instead ended up off the coast of Cuba. The government of Haiti was supposed to come and get the boat, but I doubt it will ever bother. We left our towels on the beach chairs and they were always there after we returned. Plenty of security guards patrolled the beach and we felt very safe.
|Cubans riding along the beach|
From time to time we saw Cubans walking along the beach, selling hats, shells, jewelry and sculptures. The next day after a Cuban guy approached us and we walked to his stand, he was selling wooden carvings. He said he paid 12 pesos plus 10% of what hi makes to the government.
“How does the government know how much you make?” I asked him.
“Once a government inspector watched me for 7 days and recorded every sale I made,” he said. “So, when the inspector comes and observes me, I pray that I don’t sell too many items.”
Wow, that method of auditing must me quite costly!
|Abandoned Haitian boat on the reef|
I bought two very imaginative carvings, etched in one piece of wood from Alexander; he was happy to accept, as part of payment, a t-shirt and my backpack, although he intensely eyed my Coleman watch, wanting it very badly! We met the ‘famous’ George, who speaks English and French, he was always willing to arrange various services to tourists — in fact, he made several phone calls on his cell phone to a few casas particulares in Camagüey and later we gave him a lift to Camagüey in the taxi. We also gave him a bunch of Canadian, American and British magazines and newspapers.
Last year (2013) there were about 50 kite surfers who overtook not only the beach, but the swimming areas along the whole beach, making swimming very risky and unpleasant. This year there were plenty of signs on the beach, indicating ‘kite surfing free zones’. There were just several kite surfers, yet on at least one occasion, they deliberately were kite-surfing in the swimming area, just meters from the shore, yelling out expletives as they were flying by.
As always, the food was good and plentiful (although repetitive) and there was always something delicious to pick. Most of the time we skipped lunch, instead going to the beach bar (El Velero) for a hamburger, fish & chips and cold beer. It was possible to have dinner at the adjacent hotel, Gran Club Santa Lucia (get a voucher from the hotel) and we had two of them. Whereas the dining area at the Gran appeared to be more expansive, with much nicer décor, the food selection was, surprisingly, inferior and limited. The Club Amigo Mayanabo was closed during the first week of our stay; when it opened, we also succeeded in having one dinner there. There were very few guests, but the food was good and somehow different from ours. We also went to the a ’la carte restaurant twice; the first dinner was very good, the second one (return guest appreciation dinner) was very limited buffet-style and below average.
|Catherine loved desserts!|
One night the hotel was celebrating its 35th anniversary; the tables & chairs had white tablecloths and there was a grill set up outside (roasted pig!). Catherine was in awe at the amount and selection of food.
By the way, in 2013 there were 13 cats in front of the restaurant; this year we did not see more than 3 — supposedly they (were) moved to other hotels, but somehow we did not believe that-we joked that they were in the cat heaven…
|35th anniversary of the hotel|
Except for an occasional mojito and cold beer, we hardly ever had any drink at the bar. It is a good idea to bring a bigger cup (‘bubba mug’) as theirs are small and flimsy. On weekends the resort was full of Cubans; some of them stayed there for a night or two, others only came for a day. I was told that most of them come from nearby communities.
Hotel Store/Money Exchange
The hotel store (tienda) had rum, liqueurs, beer and many other items and souvenirs. I wanted to exchange money at the airport, right after we arrived, but after lining up for a while, I gave up. It was possible to exchange money in the hotel, but we went twice to the commercial center between the Club Amigo and the Gran (Cadeca at Centro Commercial Santa Lucia). I was told that a copy of the passport was OK to exchange money; for VISA card advances original passports were required. There was a small room with three computers & internet connection in the lobby, but we never had a need to use it.
There were at least two pay phones: one at the lobby bar, another in the block ‘400’. For 10 Cuban pesos (Moneda National!) we purchased a phone card which worked great! The card could be purchased from a telecommunication company located very close to the gas station north of the hotel (near the tall communication tower). We used the phone numerous times, calling various casas particulares in Camagüey, that was how we reserved our casa.
We never went to see any show nor participated in any other activity (i.e., bingo). But from our room we could hear loud, obnoxious music every night and often during the day — and most of the time it was NOT the traditional, Cuban music that I had come to associate Cuba with, which is such a pity! Very often the activities during the day were so ear-splitting that we did not find it pleasant to sit in the lobby bar. Once we were using the pay phone at the lobby were almost unable to conduct a meaningful conversation.
|View from our hotel window|
Bikes & biking trips from the hotel
There were about 10 bikes for rent and the first hour was free. Unfortunately, most of them were in bad shape and needed simple maintenance tasks such as putting more air into the tires or adjusting screws. Teresa, the lady in charge of bike rentals, told us that somebody from the nearby village was supposed to come every day and fix the bikes, but never did… We rented them many times, riding to the village of Tararaco or in the direction of the gas station. In Tararaco we went to the “Organic Restaurant and Gardens.”
|Biking to the village of Tararaco, in front of Brulio's Juice Kiosk|
Organic Restaurant and Gardens
When we had seen the restaurant almost one year ago, it was still under construction and we were very eager to visit it this year. Wow, what a difference one year had made! The restaurant was tastefully completed and was just reopening for the high tourist season. The décor was clean and simple. Braulio, its owner, treated us to delightful green, alkalizing juice, then we had freshly squeezed orange juice which I loved! A few days later we had a delicious lunch that consisted of specially cooked rice, plenty of greens and juice drinks — it was not only appetizing, but VERY HEALTHY!
Later we bought a big bottle of Noni juice which smelled like blue cheese, but was very tasty. We wished we could come for such nutritious meals every day to his restaurant. The restaurant also was selling mango, papaya, pineapple, banana, meadlar, cane and tamarind juice as well as alkalizers, Cuban shakes, bee pollen and bee honey. However, Braulio complained about problems with his employees who did not want to work hard and left. There were also two tourists (one diabetic), whom he was helping. And we also met Daniel, who was living nearby.
|Lunch at the "Organic Restaurants and Gardens" with Braulio (second from the left)|
Not far from the restaurant, in the village of Tararaco (where the restaurant was located), Braulio’s juice stand was located. We were surprised to see plenty of Cubans lining up to buy a glass of freshly made juice. This time we had a few glasses of sugar cane juice and also observed how it was extracted — incidentally, the juice extractor had been designed and build by Braulio himself. The stand has plenty of health-related information written on its outside walls in English.
|Braulio's Juice Kiosk in the village of Tararaco|
Just outside the restaurant there was an amazing garden where Braulio grew many of the organic food served in the restaurant. Wandering throughout the garden was an amazing, unforgettable and very educational experience! We encountered a lot of familiar and more exotic plants, fruits and herbs: banana trees laden with fruit, noni fruits, coconuts, oregano, aloe Vera, mint, lemons, oranges and many others which names I have forgotten. It was also possible to spot a few rodents in the trees and various lizards (which Braulio had introduced to the garden) as well as a peacock and one lazy horse, eagerly waiting for a snack. We were amazed how the garden had grown since we had seen it one year ago!
|The garden adjacent to the restaurant|
Normally, whenever I write a restaurant review, I hardly ever mention the restaurant’s owner, but in this case it would be just impossible to convey a proper image of this establishment without writing about Braulio, who was also fluent in the English language. He said that he had cured himself of cancer when he was in his 20s and since then he had been a very strong proponent of healthy, natural and organic eating. He wholeheartedly believed that by eating raw fruits & vegetables and drinking alkalizing juices we would not only stay healthy, but would be able to conquer cancer and other medical maladies — he said that he was totally healthy and did not have to see a doctor for a long time. He genuinely listened and tried to find solutions to various ailments, sharing his vast knowledge on healthy eating and living. Talking to him was like speaking to a good, caring naturopathy practitioner or a nutrition expert, who was trying to change our life and put us on the right path. In fact, he wished he could treat people suffering from cancer and other degenerative diseases with his green, organic juices, as he passionately believed they could recuperate and regain their health. That was why he contemplated setting up a retreat center, where he could realize his dream.
|Braulio in front of his juice kiosk in the village of Tararaco|
We were happy to see Braulio’s restaurant up and running. Unfortunately, most Cuban restaurants serve western style food, which is, at the very least, not very healthy. Thus, it is so uplifting to see a restaurant which serves locally grown food which is healthy and nutritious.
By the way, I found out that Braulio’s restaurant was temporarily closed in the beginning of 2015 due to some financial problems…
Last year (2013) we had hired a horse carried and gone to the village of La Boca, about 9 km from the hotel. It had been so hot that we had not spent too much time on the beach; instead, we had kept walking along the old coral shore, in front of the houses belonging to the village of La Boca, whose residents had been very nice and often invited us to their homes. So, we were looking forward to visiting this village again this year.
|On the way to La Boca|
We hopped into a horse carriage and trotted to La Boca (the name of the driver was Jose, his horse was called Napoleon). Many Cubans kept telling us that Russians had purchased land in La Boca and were planning to build two luxury hotels and eventually relocate La Boca’s residents. I hope the hotels will be nicer than the notoriously ugly hotels built the by Soviets in the 1970s and 1980s (think the Mayanabo, Havana’s Tropicoco Hotel or the ‘barracks’ in the Club Amigo Guardalavaca) and that local residents will be properly compensated. We asked some of them about this story, but whereas they were aware of the new Russian plans, they did not know if and when they might be relocated. Granted, it is a poor village, but I believe that their way of life is relatively peaceful and stress-free; besides, the prime ocean-view property where their houses are located must be worth a small fortune!
First, we went to a restaurant in one of the houses, where I had cold beer; later we leisurely strolled along the old coral beach, strewn with shells and bones. In 2013 I had taken a lot of photographs and brought them with me (I had wanted to mail them, but was told there was no mail delivery to La Boca!). It turned out that most of those people were not in the village — the girl (Carla) with an albino puppy was attending school in Nuevitas where she stayed for the whole week (but at least I had a chance to play with the dog!), another gentleman had gone to Miami. So, I left the photos with their relatives & friends and they were thrilled with them!
|Hook maker in the village of La Boca|
We met an older man who set up a workshop in front of his house and was making barbed fishing hooks, using a piece of metal wire. There were a few casas particulares and we wanted to take a look inside one of them, but it was closed. One lady was selling various souvenirs; I bought a nice rosary and Catherine an original crab claw necklace. Soon, our carriage driver showed up and we went back to the hotel.
Since we booked our vacation through Hola Sun, we enjoyed a free trip to Rancho King, which was our second visit. Once we arrived, we were welcomed by the same horse-riding team of 5 cowboys as last year. The rodeo was quite exciting and we had a lot of fun. One gentleman gave a very interesting, informative and humorous presentation on topics pertaining to the rancho & its history, herbs, plants, sugar cane, agriculture, hurricanes and local residents and their way of life. By the way, before the Cuban Revolution the rancho was part of the King Ranch of Texas, which is one of the world’s largest, comprising of 3,340 square km.
|Rancho King, rodeo|
Later we went slowly to a village just down the road, followed by its residents who hoped to get some gifts. In 2013 I had taken photographs of some of the village residents and they were happy to receive them. We also went to a small school where many tourists distributed school supplies directly to the children. We spent some time in a house where Fidel Castro had once stayed and were given yet another very educational presentation and samples of black Cuban coffee, fruits and sugar cane juice. Later we had lunch whose main dish consisted of a roasted pig.
|School in the village near Rancho King|
TRIP TO CAMAGÜEY
We also hired a taxi and went to the city of Camagüey, where we stayed in a casa particular for 2 nights — we were lucky since the taxi driver, with a new Hyundai Santa Fe was staying at our hotel and we paid him 60 pesos (usually it costs 50 pesos) to ride in a comfortable and safe car — some of the other cabs were old and did not have safety belts in the back. We also gave a lift to George, who just happened to be waiting for a ride to Camagüey. He turned out to be very helpful, calling the casa particular (Carmencita) on his cell phone and directing the driver to its location in the city center. By the way, we tried to find our last year’s driver, Lazaro, but from many sources we learned that he had suddenly passed away from lung cancer.
|View of the City of Camaguey from the rooftop of the Gran Hotel|
Having read tens of reviews, we called several casas and eventually booked two nights at Hostal Carmencita — we liked its central location on Camagüey’s main street, Agramonte (between Calle Padre Ollao, a.k.a. Pobre and Calle Allegria). We arrived by taxi from Santa Lucia and the owner, Carmencita, was waiting for us. The casa has two rooms, but since one was being renovated, we were the only tourists staying there. Our room faced the busy street, we had a private bathroom with a shower (and hot water) as well as a small patio, which Catherine just loved — we spent a lot of time there, having drinks and coffee and admiring the view of the city. From our patio we could also see another well-known casa particular, Ivan & Lucy, located on the adjacent street (which we later visited).
|Hostel Carmencita and the adjacent bakery, always full of customers|
The room had an air conditioner, but we only used its fan to cancel out the noise coming from the street — somehow it did not bother me too much, I have gotten to accept it as part of my Cuban experience. There was also a small fridge, which was very handy. The price was 25 CUC per night.
Breakfasts (the only meals we had at the casa) were served in the ‘main room’, there was an open balcony facing Calle Agramonte.
|At the tarrace at the Hostel Carmencita|
Since there is a very busy bakery next door, we observed bakery employees making mouth-watering donuts and cookies and the aromatic smell from the bakery was everywhere. We exchanged 1 CUC into 24 pesos (Moneda National) and purchased a handful of delicious cookies from the bakery, paying just 1 peso each (about 5 cents). When we were returning to the casa, we could see it from afar since there were always several customers lining up in front of the bakery next door.
Carmencita recorded information from our passports and soon we left the casa to explore the city; Carmencita gave us two keys, to the room and to the front door so that we were free to come and go as we pleased. It took us just a few minutes to reach the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Soledad and Calle Maceo, Camagüey’s top shopping street (250 meters from the casa). During the next two days we tried to see as many landmarks as possible.
|Our deaf/mute 'friend', we had met him last year|
Last year we had met two ‘interesting’ characters in Camagüey—Pedro, a very-well organized deaf fellow, who kept a file of index cards in various languages, stating that he was deaf and asking for money—as well as a rather unstable young man, whom we even taken to a restaurant and later mailed him photos. Lo and behold, we met both of them again! Whereas Pedro did not recognize us (yet he pulled out the same index card, asking for money), the other guy did while we were at Casino Campestre. We were willing to walk with him and even invite him to a restaurant, but in no time he became very bothersome, following us and shouting something, so much so that Catherina told him in no uncertain terms that unless she stopped bothering us, she would call ‘policia’. It worked and we lost him.
|He still had the same index card!|
We also visited the train station and I took a few photos of Cubans in the waiting room. There was a police station nearby and I wanted to take a photo of the sign on the sidewalk in front of the police station, but was firmly asked not to.
Plaza del Carmen
Supposedly not too many tourist visit this remarkable part of Camagüey — indeed, we were the only ones. The church, Iglesia de Nuestra Seniora del Carmen, is almost 200 years old and was restored several years ago. Adjacent is the building of the old convent, now housing offices of the City Historian, and a school. The church has two towers, which is something unique not only in Camagüey, but in eastern Cuba.
|Plaza del Carmen|
There are rows of restored colonial houses in the plaza and at least two nice restaurants. There were various life-size bronze sculptures, made by Martha Jimenez, whose gallery and studio are located on the plaza. And look for an older fellow who was Martha Jimenez’s model for one of the sculpture (man sitting on the bench and reading a newspaper) — he will gladly sit on the bench next to his double and pose while you take photographs of him!
|Catherine and the fellow who had been Martha Jimenez’s model for this sculpture|
While I was chatting with and taking photos, he explained that it was Martha Jimenez who had created those figures and he pointed to the building where her studio and gallery was located. She is a sculptor, painter, engraver, illustrator and ceramicist; she has won plenty of awards and her works have become part of many private collections all over the world. Indeed, her gallery had plenty of unique Cuban works of art, attesting to her multifaceted artistic talents.
Plaza San Juan de Dios
Also called Plaza del Padre Olallo, to commemorate priest José Olallo y Valdés (1820 – 1889) who used to care for the poor of the city of Camagüey. He was beatified by Pope Benedict XVI and the beatification ceremony took place in Camagüey, presided by Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins; the President of Cuba, Raul Castro, attended the ceremony as well.
|Plaza San Juan de Dios|
It is one of the most picturesque plazas and a gem of colonial architecture, with rows of renovated buildings. The church that dominates the plaza, Iglesia de San Juan de Dios, was unfortunately closed. There were several stands selling souvenirs and at least two restaurants
|Plaza de San Juan de Dios|
Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Merced
|Iglesia de Nuestra Senora de la Merced|
Located at Plaza de los Trabajadores, it is Camagüey’s most distinguished church and at one point the largest in Cuba. A parishioner inside the church tried to explain to me its history — a chapel was built here in 1601 and some kind of miraculous figure ascended to heaven from there.
The present church was erected in 1748 and later rebuilt twice, once due to a fire. The Holy Sepulcher (Santo Sepulcro) was cast from 25,000 silver coins some 250 years ago. There are a few very old, darken paintings in the church. Under the main altar is a crypt housing a small museum with various old church artifacts uncovered at the church as well as several old collapsed tombs with bones and skulls. There is a cloister adjacent to the church with a lovely garden.
This impressive building dates from 1850, but it was rebuilt in 1926 after a devastating fire and it is the home of the Camagüey Ballet. Unfortunately, the building was closed, yet last year (2013) we were lucky to briefly attend a very nice performance by young children and the audience was made up mostly of their parents.
Fernando Alonso (1914-2013), the former husband of Alicia Alonso (1920- ), a Cuban prima ballerina, after divorcing his wife and leaving the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, directed the ballet in Camagüey until 1995.
Iglesia de la Soledad
Located at the intersection of Calle Republica and Calle Agramonte, this church, built in 1776, was just 250 meters from our casa particular and it was one of the most prominent building in Camagüey. Ignacio Agramonte was baptized and got married there. However, the church was closed.
|Iglesia de Soledad|
There was a nice restaurant in the alley behind the church where we had a tasty dinner. Across the street was a liquor/food store where we purchased rum, honey and some herbal tinctures. During Cuba’s ‘special period,’ when pharmaceuticals were not available, medicine leaned towards holistic, natural remedies, which they heavily rely on today.
Calle Maceo, Camagüey’s main shopping street (closed to vehicular traffic) starts there. At the other corners of this intersection hotel Santa Maria and Islazul Hotel are located. Plenty of bici taxis and regular taxis are waiting just in front of the church. And it is possible to see old streetcar tracks here and there — I wish I could see how streetcars were able to maneuver in the city’s narrow and twisted streets!
|Calle Maceo from the Gran Hotel's rooftop|
We loved strolling Calle Maceo and also visited Gran Hotel Camagüey—we took the elevator to the rooftop—the view was SPECTACULAR!!! I took plenty of photographs and videos. Interestingly, the stretch of Calle Agramonte between Plaza de los Trabajadores and Calle Republica looked like a film studio or movie district, there were several movie theatres, photographs and movie posters and other movie-related props.
Catedral de Senora de la Candelaria
This 300 year old Cathedral was restored before the 1998 visit of Pope John Paul II. This church was dedicated to Our Lady of Candelaria, the patron saint of the city. Its top is crowned with the statue of Christ. A chapel was built on its site in 1530. And do not forget the climb up the winding stairs to the church tower for just 1 CUC, the view of the city is amazing!
|Parque Agramonte, Agramonte's statue and Catedral de Senora de la Candelaria|
One hour before the checkout time (12 noon) we quickly took the last stroll in the city; on our way we stopped in front of the Iglesia de la Soledad and approached a taxi; it was a Skoda, had neither A/C nor safety belts in the back seats, but we quickly agreed on the price of 50 CUC and told the driver to pick us up at 12:30 pm in front of our casa. He was very punctual and turned out to be a good driver — we arrived at our hotel in Santa Lucia in a record time.
|Plaza de los Trabajadores|
Since our flight was departing at 8:55 am, we had to be at the lobby at 5:00 am and the bus leaving for the airport departed at 5:30 am. The roads were mainly empty and we promptly arrived at the airport. The stores were open, allowing us to make last-minute purchases. Very soon the plane (basic Airbus 320, leased from a European leasing company) came from Havana, we boarded and in less than 4 hours landed in cold Canada.
Cuba is changing: now you see it, now you don’t
Last, but not least: Cuba is certainly changing and some Cubans, engaged in private entrepreneurial activities, humorously said that they were now ‘capitalists’, apparently shrugging off socialist/communist ideas the country still espoused.
|In 2013, the slab of cement depicted Che Guevara|
And I cannot think of a better example than this: last year, while riding bikes towards the village of Tararaco, we spotted the iconic image of sternly looking Che Guevara on a big slab of cement, near the road leading to the Marlin Nautical Centre. I eagerly took several photographs of his depiction and later selected this image as my cover photograph of my Flickr’s Santa Lucia album set. This year I was also anticipating to take a few photos of Che, yet when we arrived at the location, I was quite stunned at what I saw: the image of Che had been painted over and replaced with a new sign, portraying a smiling dolphin, donning a colorful cap, advertising Marlin Nautica and Marina…
|In 2014, Che had been painted over and replaced by a smiling dolphin!|
It was our eighth trip to Cuba in 6 years and for the first time we visited the same resort twice. It was so nice to meet again some of the Cubans and tourists we had befriended last year and once more explore the same places. Overall, we were very happy and the only thing that was a little disappointing was the weather, yet it certainly did not dampen our spirits!
Blog po polsku/Blog in the Polish language: http://ontario-nature-polish.blogspot.ca/2015/12/dwa-tygodnie-w-santa-lucia-na-kubie.html