Monthly Archives: August 2016

Great ideas – Quito – Health checks

Latin american countries have some pretty nifty ideas!

In Quito, they have these mobile health stations set up in the main plaza as well as several of the large parks that can be found near the centre of the city (at least).   They measure height and weight, blood pressure, glucose levels and offer nutritional advice, and also have a vending machine full of fruit.

Awesome idea – particularly since there are always so many people enjoying the outdoor spaces of Quito.

Mobile health station - Quito

 

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Quito Culinary Tour and Cooking Class

My foodie journey through Ecuador started in Quito with the Quito Culinary Tour and Cooking Class from Quito Urban Adventures.  I was again the only person on the tour (I’m starting to get a complex!) and had a great time chatting with Pablo, who not only talked about Ecuadorian food, but also how Ecuadorian history as well as more recent events have impacted how food is produced, sold and eaten in Ecuador.    A really interesting narrative that illustrates just how quickly things are changing here.

Our first stop was the Santa Clara market where Pablo used to go as a child with his grandmother.  There we visited Alba who sold all sorts of Ecuadorian chocolate, coffee and other goodies (not just from Ecuador) – all personally taste tested to ensure that she herself liked what she was selling.

Santa Clara market - Quito

The story of Ecuadorian chocolate is really very interesting – for years the Ecuadorians exported the cacao beans for pittance and bought back the chocolate from other countries at a much greater expense.    Pacari was one of the first brands to start producing chocolate locally back in 2002 and surprised the world when they won the International Chocolate Award in Belgium with their lemongrass chocolate (I can vouch for it – it deserves its gold star!).

Finest Equadorian Chocolate

This success, and incentives from the Ecuadorian government, has meant that more and more chocolate is being produced locally and more and more brands of chocolate are popping up in Ecuador almost daily.   The goal was to reach 30% local production of chocolate within 15 years, but this level has almost already been achieved in only 5 years.

A few stalls up, we tried a small piece of pure 100% cacao paste.  I imagined that it would taste quite bitter (this is what I’d experienced in Central America), but it wasn’t as bitter as I was expecting and didn’t have much flavour at all really.   Pablo explained that this was because in Ecuador they grow fine flavour and aroma cacao (called “Arriba nacional”), which is less bitter than that produced elsewhere.   The story of chocolate in Ecuador is really very interesting and Pablo tells it really well on this tour.

Pure cacao paste - Ecuador

From there we wandered further into the market where fresh flowers (Ecuador is one of the world’s biggest producers of roses), fresh fruit, potatoes (Ecuador is one of the world’s biggest producers of potatoes – with over 500 varieties to choose from!), herbs and vegetables were prevalent.

Santa Clara market - Quito - Ecuador

While we were talking about the different fruits I was not familiar with, an announcement came over the speaker system which prompted Pablo to point out to me how clean and ordered the market was.  I had actually noticed this myself – it is a stark contrast to the markets of Central America that’s for sure.   The announcement was actually to alert the stall holders that the municipal garbage truck had arrived.

Quito markets have to abide by very strict hygiene laws

The arrival of the municipal garbage truck sparks a flurry of activity around cleaning the market

Essentially, the council sends this garbage truck every day at the same time and it stays at the market for 1/2 hour.  The stall holders have this period of time to take out all their rubbish and clean up around their stalls, because once the truck leaves, governmental “secret shoppers” come to the market to inspect the stalls.  They can revoke licences if the stall holders are not keeping to the strict hygiene standards.

Finally, we passed through the super-clean food stalls where there was tons of fritada, as well as hornado de chancho – a whole roasted pig with the skin crackled with a blowtorch.   I will definitely be coming back to try!

Santa Clara market - Quito - Ecuador

Ecuador really has cleaned up their markets to a phenomenal level including mandating that all food stall must use filtered water.   Another regulation is that you can’t have produce (eg bakery goods) displayed next to an open door, they have to be displayed further inside the shop and out of the direct pollution of passing vehicles.  Quite amazing really!

filtered water is mandatory in Quito markets

Filtered water is a must in Quito markets

From the market we went to the bakery “Las Quesadillas de San Juan” which is one of the few remaining traditional bakeries (they started in 1935).  As the name would suggest – their specialty is quesadillas, though they make other bakery products and also sell ice-cream these days.

Ecuadorian delicacy - quesadillas

Quesadillas in Ecuador are completely different to quesadillas in Mexico which are again completely different to quesadillas in El Salvador.    Ecuadorian quesadillas have a base made from pasta and a filling that is more like a muffin, and are not as sweet as one might suspect given the basic ingredients of egg yolks, cheese, potato flour and sugar.   Essentially the muffin filling is spread onto the round pasta base and then the edges folded up to form a rough pentagon.  They are then baked in a brick oven.

Making quesadilla at Las Quesadillas de San Juan - Quito - Ecuador

After I had a crack at folding my own quesadillas, we headed upstairs to sample these famous treats as well as a hot chocolate with mozzarella.  Yes, you read that correctly.  Ecuadorians serve their hot chocolate with mozzarella cheese!  And you know what – it actually works 🙂

Hot chocolate + mozarella at Las Quesadillas de San Juan - Quito - Ecuador

Our final stop was Graciela’s house where we made empanadas de morocho, tamales and pristiños in her tiny kitchen.   The empanadas were made from corn masa and filled with a mixture of minced beef, rice, carrot, peas and spices.   These were then fried in hot oil before serving, and were really delicious with their really crispy outer shell.

Making Empanadas de Morocho on the Quito Culinary Tour

The tamales are also corn based with a filling of cooked chicken, one raisin, a small piece of hard-boiled egg, and a beef and capsicum stew, and steamed in leaves to cook.   Graciela’s tamales were much, much more tasty than the tamales I had in Guatemala and other tamales I’ve tried in other places.  They were really, really good!

Making Tamales on the Quito Culinary Tour

The pristiños are another dough that are folded into a very particular shape (I was actually quite good at this), deep fried and then served with a sweet syrup – miel de panela.   Deep fried dough with syrup – of course it tasted good 🙂

Making Pristinos on the Quito Culinary Tour

This feast was served with “Tree Tomato” (a type of tomatillo) juice and was a great finish to a really awesome morning.

 

Recommendation:  Pablo was a fantastic guide and full of information about Ecuador’s past, recent history and the rapid changes that have taken place in the country, and of course, Ecuadorian food.

Cost: USD$103.  Includes snack and lunch

Time: ~5-6 hours

Booking:  http://www.quitourbanadventures.com/

 

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Biking Dutchman – mountain biking Ecuador

What is the most obvious thing to do when you’ve spent 1 day at altitude in the last 18 months, haven’t been on a pushbike at all for about 9 years and have never mountain biked?   Do a 3-day mountain bike tour of the Ecuadorian altiplano with the Biking Dutchman of course!

I came across the Biking Dutchman website while I was rapidly planning my first few days in Ecuador once I finally had internet access again in Cancún.  They had a 3-day trip to Cotopaxi – Quilotoa – Chimborazo starting the day after I arrived in Ecuador and I figured it would be a really great way to get out in the countryside, get some exercise and see some of Ecuador the slow way.   Acknowledging I hadn’t done that much exercise in about a month, and having not spent a lot of time at altitude, I knew this was going to hurt me, but I figured what the heck 🙂

Day 1: Cotopaxi

There were 3 other people on the 3 day trip:  Mark from Malaysia, and a couple: Sean from New Zealand and Rachel, originally from Wales, as well as Luke from the Netherlands who was only with us for the first day.   Esteban, our guide, rocked up with the Land Cruiser all ready to go with the bikes on top and off we headed towards our first sector – Cotopaxi – Ecuador’s most famous volcano.

Biking Dutchman - mountainbiking Ecuador

It’s about a 1.5-hour drive to Cotopaxi and there is no mucking about getting to altitude.  Our first stop was the Laguna Limpiopungo at 3,800m where we did a “warm-up” hike around the lagoon.  Unfortunately, the weather was not the greatest and we didn’t have the most spectacular views of Cotopaxi, but it did eventually peak out briefly.

Laguna Limpiopungo Volcan Cotopaxi - Ecuador

From there it was helmet and gloves on and time to get on the bike for the first time.  After some instruction on braking and gear changing (almost exclusively for my benefit – it turned out Sean and Rachel did a lot of mountain biking in New Zealand and Mark commuted each day on a bike), we started off riding along the dirt road towards Cotopaxi.  Turns out, sandy dirt roads are actually a little nerve-wracking for a novice mountain biker who hasn’t ridden at all for 9 years, and an adrenaline rush doesn’t help your heart-rate when you are exercising at 3,800m.   Fortunately, I managed to keep my seat and slowly got used to being on a bike again.

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

Riding towards Cotopaxi, which is peeking out from behind the clouds

Esteban was really fabulous and led us off-road after a while and through a gorgeous meadow with flowers (the other bikers we saw just stuck to the road).

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

New challenges here were crossing dry creek beds and our first “downhill”, which looked pretty daunting but I managed to navigate successfully.

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

We didn’t ride down the bit in the middle – we came straight down the steep part on the right hand side!

We rode about 7 km to the north gate of the Cotopaxi National Park and then loaded up the bikes again to drive to the next biking route.  Unfortunately, Cotopaxi has been more active than normal recently and we couldn’t actually do part of the regular trip because parts of the park were closed.  So we drove down to the main entrance, had lunch and then got back on the bikes for a downhill along the paved road to the main road.    There were plenty of signs to remind us that we were biking down an active volcano, and Esteban again took us off on a short “secret” route through the pine forest to break up the tarmac section!

Volcan Cotopaxi - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

The great thing about this trip (and all the different options the Biking Dutchman offers) is that there is very little uphill and, if you are really struggling, the 4WD follows along as a support vehicle so you can jump in and take a break if you want.  Fortunately, none of us had to take advantage of this during the 3 days.

Support Vehicle - Biking Dutchman - Ecuador

Once we reached the bottom, we loaded up again and drove for another 2 hours to reach Quilotoa where we would begin the next day’s adventures.    Actually, we stopped a little before there in Zumbahua because there was a whole-of-community party happening and everyone was out and about and rolling drunk.   Traditional music on the stage, lots of indigenous people dancing and drinking, and a couple of enterprising guys who came and asked Rachel and I to dance.   The problem with traditional music is that the “songs” never end – they kind of all just roll from one to the next without a break, so Rachel and I danced for about 10 minutes and then pleaded off that we had to continue on our journey 🙂

Party in Zumbahua

Arrived quite early at Quilotoa (given we couldn’t do one of the biking legs at Cotopaxi), walked up to the viewpoint to have a look at the gorgeous crater lake, and then headed indoors (yes, it is freezing cold at 3,800m!) for some pizza and Canalazo – a hot drink made of passionfruit juice, naranjilla juice, cinnamon, sugar, and a local sugar-cane alcohol which is served on the side.   We all quickly became fans of the Canalazo (both with and without alcohol) and ended up scoffing probably way too much sugar thanks to this fabulous drink.

7:30pm was dinnertime at Hostal Alpaka – a set meal of potato soup and popcorn (you put the popcorn in the soup – it actually works!) with the main dish of chicken with rice and vegetables.   We asked for extra helpings of broccoli for me – it was soooooo good to have broccoli after the dearth of vegetables I’ve been suffering!   Sat around the wood fire for a while before heading to bed – ready for Day 2 of the adventure!

Total distance biked:  28km (normally about 40km)

 

Day 2: Quilotoa – Urbina

After a fairly restless night for all of us (altitude often affects sleep), it was up at 7:30am for breakfast and then off for a hike into the Quilotoa crater.   Mark wasn’t feeling well and Esteban had to wash up the lunch gear from the day before, so Sean, Rachel and I headed off.   The trail starts at the top of the crater (3,930m) and descends very steeply about 400m – it was going to hurt walking back out!   It was a cold and dusty descent thanks to the really strong wind, but some gorgeous views of the lake that changes colour to a deep jade when the sun is out.

Laguna Quilotoa

Sean braved the cold water and went for a (very quick) dip and then we started the hike out, determined to not take one of the donkeys from the bottom and at least match what Esteban had claimed was a good-paced time – 45 minutes.   I ended up doing it in 50 minutes – but then again – I had to stop to take photos!

Back at the hostel it was onto the bikes for the first ride of the day – downhill on the paved road from Quilatoa to Zumbahua, where the party was yesterday – admiring the scenery and stopping off at the Cañon del Río Toachi.

Mountainbiking from Quilotoa to Zumbahua

Esteban prepared lunch in the back of the 4WD and then we drove for about ½ hour to somewhere in the middle of nowhere (Kilometre 25) at 4200m for our next downhill along a dirt road to Latacunga.

Preparing lunch - Biking Dutchman

Esteban preparing wraps for lunch in the back of the 4WD

This road descended through rural areas with amazing views over the valley to Cotopaxi (had it been clear in that direction).

Middle of nowhere to Latacunga - Biking Dutchman

There was a sandy, holey diagonal that we took and that I successfully managed to navigate without falling off – getting more confident.  Esteban decided to follow us in the 4WD and then showed us another “secret” sandy road to keep us off the main drag until the town.

4WDing

We then drove for another 2 hours to Urbina near Mount Chimborazo, stopping along the way at Salcedo, which is famous for its icecreams.  This one is the traditional one, but I can attest that the coco one is just as good as the Sarita Cocos of Central America 🙂

Helado de Salcedo

More Canalazo and a meal of Locro soup (one of the best soups I’ve ever tasted) and beef stew with more broccoli in front of the wood fire before turning in for another night.

Total distance biked:  40km

 

Day 3: Chimborazo – Ambato

Drove for about an hour to arrive at the entrance to Chimborazo – Ecuador’s highest (6,310m) Volcano.   First up was a Mate de Coca tea before heading out on the hike from Refugio Hermanos Carrel at 4,800m to the highest refuge in the world: Refugio Edgar Whymper at 5,014m.

Volcan Chimborazo

Looking at Refugio Edgar Whymper (5,014m) from about 3/4 the way up the path from Refugio Hermanos Carrel at 4,800m.

Although this walk was significantly higher, it wasn’t as difficult for me as the hike out of the Quilotoa crater yesterday (though Rachel really felt the altitude difference), and in the end Sean and I climbed further to the Laguna Condor Concha at 5,100m.   Really gorgeous views!

Laguna Condor Concha - Volcan Chimborazo

Once we were all back at the lower refuge, we were back on the bikes for the 8km downhill along the dirt road to the entrance to the park.  It really does help to hit those corrugations at speed 🙂

Volcan Chimborazo - mountainbiking Ecuador

We then drove for about another ½ hour and descended into drizzle on the Carretera Vía Flores.   This valley is as green as you can imagine and absolutely gorgeous, even in the wet – it must be truly spectacular with bright blue skies!

Had lunch in the back of the 4WD out of the cold and wet and then back on the bikes for the descent through the valley to the city of Ambato.   The first part of the valley is absolutely gorgeous – really, really beautiful – but it becomes drier and more populated the closer you get to Ambato.  You also get to ride through quite a few eucalypt groves … I was breathing deeply, drawing in the scent of home (not because I was out of breath 🙂 )

Carretera Vía Flores - mountainbiking Ecuador

Loaded up the bikes one last time and then it was 2hrs back to Quito and the end of the trip.

Biking Dutchman - heading back to Quito

It helps to have a small group!

Had a really awesome time with a great small group.  Thanks to Sean and Rachel for their patience with me, and a million thanks to Esteban for being a fun guide and helping me with everything from slipped chains to complicated bike helmets!

 

Recommendation:  I really, really, really loved this trip with the Biking Dutchman!   A really fantastic way to explore some of Ecuador’s most popular volcanos while getting a bit of exercise at the same time.  Would do it again in an instant.

Cost:  US$280 + ~$20 for dinners and other snacks.    The cost of the trip includes accommodation, 2 breakfasts and 3 lunches.  You have to have your breakfast before you start the first day and pay for the 2 dinners while on the trip.

Time:  3 days.   Check the schedule at the Biking Dutchman website for trips that already meet the 2 people minimum requirement.

 

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Highlights of La Habana – Cuba

I spent a total of almost 6 days in La Habana but didn’t really get up to very much.   These were my highlights.

Doing nothing:  I spent a lot of time sitting on the balcony of the Casa Particular where I was staying, watching the view and listening to Maroon 5 and The Cat Empire.

La Habana - Cuba

As I’ve mentioned before, Cuba does good storms and it was a wonderful place from which to watch them come over the city.

La Habana - Cuba

Salsa Dancing lessons:  One of the reasons I spent so long in La Habana was that I wanted to get in some serious salsa dancing lessons before I left.   I ended up doing ~2hrs/day at Salsa en Clave with Yordi as my teacher.  My dancing is apparently pretty good, but I have a long way to go with my styling 🙁

Salsa en Clave - La Habana - Cuba

This is after 2 hours of dancing – I’ve never sweated so much in my life!

Street Art:  In all my wandering around, I came across a lot of great street art.  It’s funny – I’m not often interested in formal art galleries, but I love the informal art found in the streets.

La Habana - street art - Cuba

La Habana - street art - Cuba

Panadería y Dulcería San Jose:  A bakery on the main pedestrian street in La Habana Vieja (Obispo) that sold the most incredible pastries.   The box has my favourites – Palmeras, Cocadas (round, moist coconut balls), Catalana (flakey pastry filled with coconut paste), and the best brownies I’ve ever eaten!  I called in every day after my salsa dancing class.

Bakery - La Habana - Cuba

La Habana Vieja:  It is touristy and it is a cliche, but wandering around La Habana Vieja really is lovely.   The architecture is incredible though it is sad to see the state of disrepair.  That being said, there is a lot of restoration going on … the sound of La Habana Vieja is jack hammers!   Would be amazing to see it all completely restored!

La Habana Vieja - Cuba

Architecture and old aqueducts in La Habana Vieja

El Malecon:  Another of the touristy cliches, but again definitely the place to be.  I have to admit, as a single woman sitting there by yourself – you do get hassled a lot!  All the guys want to chat with you.   In the end, on the last evening, I resorted to putting in my headphones and turning on my music so I had an excuse to not talk (plus it drowned out the sound of the traffic).  But even then, I reckon within the space of 1.5 hours, I got tapped on the shoulder 11 times by guys wanting to get my attention and telling me to take my headphones out.   Nope!

El Malecon - La Habana - Cuba

Plaza de la Revolución:  Got up very early one morning to walk out to this massive monument, which is bordered by one of the most iconic images in La Habana – that of Che Guevara.

Plaza de la Revolucion - La Habana - Cuba

The old cars:  Yes, they really are still everywhere and kinda cool to see 🙂

La Habana - cars - Cuba

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Government propaganda – Cuba

There is a lot of propaganda about Fidel, Che and the revolution in Cuba – some of it really quite artistic.

Because Fidel and Raul are still alive, the propaganda featuring them tends to be on billboard along the highways (the only type of advertising along the highways in Cuba).   It is Che and Cienfuegos that feature heavily in the street art within the towns and cites.

Cuba propaganda

I also liked this sign I found explaining the concept of the revolution.

Cuba Revolution Concept

It translates as:

  • It’s a historic moment
  • It’s changing everything that should be changed
  • It’s equality and liberty
  • It’s to be treated and to treat everyone else as human beings
  • It’s to free ourselves with our own efforts
  • It’s to defy powerful forces within and outside of social and national spheres
  • It’s to defend the values we believe in regardless of price and sacrifice
  • It’s modesty, altruism, solidarity and heros
  • It’s to fight with audaciousness, intelligence and realism
  • It’s to never lie or violate ethical principles
  • It’s the profound conviction that there is no force in the world capable of breaking the power of the truth and ideas
  • Revolution is unity, independence and fighting for our dreams of justice for Cuba and the world, which is the basis of our patrimony, our socialism and our internationalism.

Signed by Fidel Castro.

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Traffic signs – Cuba

Not often you see traffic signs like these …   But they are everywhere in Cuba – reflecting the more traditional modes of transport that many Cubans use.

Traffic signs - Cuba

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Food carts – Cuba

I’ve mentioned before that I have no idea where Cubans get their food from – which is not strictly correct.   At least some of the fresh food is often peddled around the streets by vendors with carts.   Where the rest comes from, I still have no idea…

Cuba food

Top: Garlic and onion sellers and their bikes; Centre: Typical scene in La Habana Vieja – dug up streets and carts of fresh fruit; Bottom: Fruit cart in Baracoa

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Viñales – Cuba

The Viñales valley (you guessed it – yet another UNESCO location) is about 2 hours away from La Habana, really chilled out and really beautiful.

Mogotes - Viñales - Cuba

It is one of the biggest tobacco growing areas in Cuba where traditional cultivation techniques still dominate, and is renowned for its mogotes – dome-like limestone outcrops that rise abruptly from the valley floor.

I spent about 5 days in Viñales where I hiked up to the Hotel Los Jazmines lookout one morning to catch the dawn.

Hotel Los Jazmines lookout - Viñales - Cuba

Another morning, I again left just before dawn to hike out into the valley itself.  Lots of opportunities to see traditional farming techniques at work.

Mogotes - Viñales - Cuba

I also ended up catching up to this farmer who gave me an impromptu tour of his tabacco drying sheds and chatted a little with me about the area.

Mogotes - Viñales - Cuba

Another day I took a horseback-riding trip into the valley on Caramello – who started out enthusiastic but quickly lost the desire to walk without prompting.

Horseback riding - Viñales - Cuba

Samuel (the guide) and I essentially followed the same route as my hike, but ended up going a bit further to reach the Mural de la Prehistoria, which, while impressive in scale, wasn’t quite what I was anticipating.

Mural de la Prehistoria - Viñales - Cuba

We also visited a cave, which would have to be the least developed, non-technical cave I’ve ever been in – no formed paths at all.    As with all caves, it was pitch black once we got a little way inside and we only had 3 torches between 15 people (I joined up with a group).   This meant that more often than not you couldn’t see where to put your feet and the stakes were raised by several slippery sections.   Only stepped in the water once and fortunately didn’t actually fall over.   Couldn’t help laughing to myself that you would never be allowed to do this in Australia or many other countries.    The bonus of the cave was that you could go swimming at the end of the 300m grope through the darkness – but I have to admit the murky water wasn’t terribly appealing.

Cave - Viñales - Cuba

Added bonus of my trip to Viñales was that I got to catch up with Chris and Cathy Feil one night for dinner.  The people you meet on the other side of the world 🙂

DSCF0776

 

Recommendation:   Get out and about just before dawn as that when the light is at its best and it’s not stinking hot.

Cost:

  • Hiking = free if you do it by yourself, or you can hire a guide
  • Horseriding = 5 CUC/hour.   I arranged through my Casa Particular.
  • Entrance to the cave = 2 CUC

Time:

  • Hike = I walked for about 2.5 hours
  • Horseriding = I was out for about 5 hours
  • Cave = 20 -30 mins
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Trinidad – Viñales in Collectivo

One would think that taking a collectivo taxi (ie a taxi that follows a fixed route but takes more than one passenger) from Trinidad – Viñales would be faster than taking the bus.   One could also be very, very wrong!

I was the last person to be collected from my Casa Particular in Trinidad and the first trick was to get the bags of 4 travellers into the back of the oldsmobile.

collectivo - Cuba

Then it was trying to get comfortable on the huge sofa-like back seat of car for the 5 hour trip to La Habana.  Was quite soft and bouncy but – just like an an old couch – I could definitely feel the springs and it tended to sag in the middle.  This meant that after about 3 hours I started to get a cramp in my butt because I was not evenly distributed — much wriggling ensued.

collectivo - Cuba

We stopped off about 2 hours into the trip to get more petrol, but rather than heading to the petrol station just ahead of us, we took a detour down a dirt road and pulled into someone’s house.   Out came the funnel and the black-market petrol so that we could continue on our journey to the capital.

collectivo - Cuba

At La Habana it was meant to be quick and painless for me to swap from one collectivo to the next collectivo that would take me to Viñales.  However, another of the passengers was catching a flight and was running very, very late to check in (seriously who cuts it this close?!) so we headed straight to the airport and not to my transfer place.   There is no way he made his flight, and it meant that my transfer was screwed up as well.

We ended up heading to the ViAzul terminal where the driver tried to get me on a bus to Viñales.  There were no seats – so that didn’t work.  There were also no other collectivos going to Viñales so we dropped the other passengers off at their Casa Particular and returned to the ViAzul terminal to wait.  Ended up waiting 3 hours (I love my Kindle) before being bundled into a clapped-out Peugeot.

collectivo - cuba

But first we had to pick up 2 other passengers.  They weren’t ready when we arrived so we had to wait while they took forever to get organised (turns out they weren’t expecting the collectivo for another hour and they weren’t told that I was waiting in the car).  Finally, 4 hours after arriving in La Habana, we headed out on the road to Viñales.  This scene is quite common in Cuba – huge multi-lane road with no traffic.

Cuban roads

Cuba has several multi-lane highways that are essentially empty

About an hour out of La Habana we hit a massive storm (Cuba does really, really good storms!).  The problem was that the windscreen wipers of the car didn’t work, and given how torrential the rain was, we actually asked the driver to pull over to the side of the road so we didn’t end up dying.

Cuban storm

Torrential rain + no windscreen wipers. This was actually better visibility than when we asked our driver to pull over so we didn’t die

We sat that out for about 1/2 hour and then took off with still marginal visibility that gradually became better.    We’d already had a little car trouble, but 20 minutes up the road, we stopped for the 4th time while our driver fiddled around under the hood.

collectivo - cuba

The eventual verdict was that he thought we’d probably run out of petrol, so to sit tight while he went to get some.  Now, petrol stations in Cuba are not dime-a-dozen and we sat there for about 1.5 hours waiting for him to return.   We had just reached the point of deciding to wave down the next bus or other form of public transport when he reappeared muttering “nothing is ever easy in Cuba”.    Fortunately, the petrol did the trick and we didn’t have further drama to Viñales.

So what should have been a 7 hour trip, turned into a 12 hour trip for me (with ViAzul it would have been 9 hours) and I was pretty done once we arrived.  The only saving grace was that all of these delays meant that I got to see one of the most spectacular sunsets I’ve seen in a while – huge columns of clouds lit up externally by the setting sun and also internally with lightning.

sunset - cuba

 

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Valle de Ingenios – Trinidad – Cuba

The other day trip that I decided to do while in Trinidad, Cuba was the steam train out to the Valle de Ingenios (Valley of the Sugar Mills), apparently alternatively known as “The Tourist Train”.

Valle de Ingenios - Trinidad - Cuba

Cuba was the world’s biggest producer of sugar in the late 18th and 19th century and this valley housed nearly 60 sugar mills and 30,000 slave workers at its peak.

In hindsight, I wish I’d taken a different option because:

  • if you are expecting a steam train – you are going to be sorely disappointed.  The steam engine seems to be out of action and instead you are pulled by a diesel engine, which makes for a not-so-pleasant smelling trip.

Valle de Ingenios - Trinidad - Cuba

  • if you are expecting close up views of old sugar mills (or even new sugar mills), you are going to be sorely disappointed.  You see one or two in the distance, but that’s it.
Valle de Ingenios - Trinidad - Cuba

These were long-lens views of what I assume are two of the old sugar mills left in the valley.

  • if you are expecting to see tons of sugarcane growing, you are going to be sorely disappointed. There is only one place along the route where you see any sugarcane – Escambray mountains (where I did the Trini-topes tour) in the background.

Valle de Ingenios - Trinidad - Cuba

While sitting on a train and getting out of the town is pleasant enough – there really isn’t much to this excursion except sitting on a train going through a valley.   Tip: sit on the left hand side of the train for the best views.    Probably also try to sit down the back of the train to minimise the diesel fumes, though you can’t escape completely.

Valle de Ingenios - Trinidad - Cuba

The highlight of the trip is the 44m tower at Iznaga which was used as a watchtower, to announce the beginning and ending of the slave’s working day on the sugar plantation, and to announce holy prayers at morning, midday and afternoon.

Valle de Ingenios - Trinidad - Cuba

I was chatting with a doorman at a restaurant in Trinidad the night before and he told me one of the many different versions of the legend of the tower.  In his version, there were two brothers who fell in love with the same beautiful woman.  They went to their father to ask who should marry said fair maiden and the father instructed them to each build a monument. One brother built a 28m well, the other built this tower.  Guess who won the hand of the beautiful woman?   The father of course!  btw there is no evidence of a well 🙂

Of course, I ran the gamut of artesanía stall lining the approach to the tower and paid my 1 CUC to climb the 184 steps to the top.  I have to admit it was a beautiful view – with the old hacienda of the sugar plantation now acting as a restaurant.

Valle de Ingenios - Trinidad - Cuba

From there it was back on the train and off to Guachinago to another old hacienda converted into a restaurant.  Given that I’d brought my own lunch – this wasn’t particularly interesting so I walked further up the train line to explore the cool rail bridge.

Valle de Ingenios - Trinidad - Cuba

From there – it was really just retracing our steps to Trinidad.  Hmmmm….  Definitely not what I was expecting and I’m not sure there is actually a way to do the trip I was expecting (ie actually getting up close and personal to the old sugar mills).   Oh well.

In hindsight I would have skipped this and done another day trip to Parque El Nicho – a different part of the Escambray mountain range.

 

Recommendation:   Meh – I wouldn’t bother.  This was the biggest disappointment of my trip so far.

Price:  10 CUC + 1 CUC to climb the tower at Iznaga

Time:  5 hours

 

Where to eat in Trinidad:  La Redaccion.  Awesome, awesome food!

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