Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Sri Lanka

As our first stop during an extended sabbatical multi-country trip, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) turned out to be one of our favourite travel destinations. We've never been to a country of this size with an equivalent diversity of attractions - including remnants of former colonial centers, incredibly rich history - ancient capital cities, the cultural heart of Kandy, wide ranging wilderness areas - including safaris and elephant rescue centers, mountainous interiors and vast tea plantations. Oh and they have beaches too! As well, Sri Lanka boasts 8 UNESCO world heritage sites. To put this in perspective, Vietnam, a country over five times as large as Sri Lanka has the same number of UNESCO sites.

You can also hear about our travels to Sri Lanka in episode #667 of the Amateur Traveler Podcast, or click on the link below to listen to the podcast direct from this site:

Amateur Traveler Episode 667 - Travel to Sri Lanka

The Route

We flew into Bandaranaike International Airport just north of Colombo in early March 2019, the entry point for most international travelers. Our first stop was in Bentota Beach where we were able to relax on the beach for a couple days - a great way to adjust to the time change, considering we had flown in from Toronto.

From there we followed a clockwise track along the coast to the far south of the island, to the Dutch colonial city of Galle with its ramparts and fortifications. We continued along the southern coast to Yala National Park where we stayed in "glamping" accommodations and ventured into the Park on safari. Then it was a climb up the mountains to Hortons Plain, and through the tea plantations. Continuing north we entered the cultural triangle starting in Kandy, and continuing on to Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.  Finally we returned back along the coast to Colombo where we enjoyed the hospitality at the English colonial Galle Face Hotel.

Because we were on an extended sabbatical trip, we were able to move at a leisurely pace, and spent just over two weeks in Sri Lanka. And the drive time was actually quite reasonable. Excluding side trips, our total drive time between major destinations was only 28 hours over this two week period - or an average of about 2 hours per day. I would recommend trying to devote two weeks for Sri Lanka, although you can certainly pack in many of the highlights in a condensed week long trip.


We originally planned to hit the beach as our first stop to help get over the jet lag after the long trip from Toronto. And it was nice to relax on the sand and not feel any pressure to visit the sites, although we were keen to do so. We were also looking forward to some warm weather after departing Toronto in about -10C weather. We didn't realize though that our entry to a climate that was consistently over +30C would be a bit too much of a good thing. So having the cooling ocean breeze nearby was pleasant to say the least.

                Traditional Sri Lankan Oruwa fishing boat near Bentota Beach

                Pool and gardens at the Taru Villas - Rock Villa

While the primary focus of a stay along the south western beaches is for rest and relaxation, there are a few other worthy diversions along the coast. During our drive from Bentota Beach to Galle, we made a few stops - Ariyapala Mask Museum, a family run gemstone operation and Tsunami Memorials. 

The Ariyapala Mask Museum is a quick stop off the highway where you can take short guided tour of and watch the craftsmen at work making the masks, and pick up a souvenir if inclined. 

                Ariyapala Masks Museum in Ambalangoda (our souvenir inset)

Sri Lanka is well known for its gemstones and in spite of its relative size is one of the largest producers in the World, mining of 50 varieties of gemstones. We stopped at a small family run operation Meetiyagoda Moonstone Mine to have a look at the small scale mining operation and their jewelry. The operation consisted of a 30-40 foot cave where they dug short tunnels removing buckets of soil in hot humid caves, brought it to the surface, and then used a sieve to find the gemstones. 

                Mining gem stones at Meetiyagoda Moonstone Mine

We stopped at two Tsunami Memorials near Peraliya commemorating the tragic loss of live during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Peraliya was devastated by the tsunami, and the location where a train was lifted off the tracks with 1,500 people perishing - the World's worst ever train disaster.

                Peraliya Tsunami Memorial

We were able to visit 7 of Sri Lanka's 8 UNESCO world heritage sites, with our first stop being the historical Dutch colonial town of Galle. It was actually originally a Portuguese outpost before the Dutch took it over in 1638. Galle is a popular tourist destination today, with the major draw being the historic walled section of the town on a peninsula jutting out into the Indian Ocean. We joined the crowds for a view of the sundown along the ramparts.

                The ramparts of Galle at Sundown

Galle has a variety of guest houses, restaurants and shopping - particularly known for gemstone jewelers. We also came across Embark in Galle, a chain of about a dozen retail stores in Sri Lanka whose profits support charitable work supporting the country's street dogs. And they certainly could use the help with an estimated half million street dogs wandering the country. While travelling across the country we stopped frequently to give out dog food to the ones we came across.

                Embark's Galle retail store in support of street dogs

Enroute to our next destination, Yala National Park, we passed through the somewhat strange town of Hambantota. After traveling along a small two lane road we suddenly entered a broad four lane highway seemingly in the middle of no where - with virtually no traffic. With funding primarily from the Chinese, this area not only had a brand new highway, but a large seaport, international airport, conference center and a new hospital. Oddly though, the area seemed almost deserted.

In fact, the international airport built at a cost of $200M opened in 2013 with just two daily scheduled flights, which has now dropped to none. There are claims that 300 soldiers and police were brought in to keep the elephants from entering the airfield as the airport. They have used the hangers for storing rice, and there is talk of converting the airport to a pilot training facility and storage area for mothballed aircraft - certainly not the original plans...

I only found out after our passing through this area that we could have actually visited the Airport as a tourist - not your typical sight-seeing tour, but would have liked to check it out. Wade Shepard has written an interesting piece in Forbes about the "World's Emptiest International Airport".

As we drove past the Convention Center, there was absolutely nothing going on, and apparently it too sits empty most of the time. Equally, the seaport has been a white elephant. The unfortunate reality is the development was approved as a vanity project by former Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa who grew up in Hambantota. Burdened with heavy debt that the government could not pay back, Sri Lanka has turned the Port over to the Chinese for a 99 year lease. Seemingly the Airport is also now on the block with India, fearful of the growing Chinese influence, is seeking to secure the airport in a long term lease.

                Highway and International Airport at Hambantota

Sri Lanka was not top of mind as a safari destination, so we were intrigued when we learned about the wildlife at Yala National Park. Having never been on safari, we thought we may as well give it a try, admittedly having low expectations. And we were happy we did, our safari excursions here turned out to be a highlight of the trip.

We stayed at a small family run lodge just outside the park - Camp Leopard Safari. Staying in a semi-luxurious "glamping" accommodation, the safari started a little early than expected with a troop of monkeys clamoring across our roof top at about 3am.

We went on 3 half day safaris to Yala National Park and were never bored. Just when we thought we'd seen everything, something new would pop up behind a bush, tree or rock. Although we don't have great photos to support all our sightings, we did see some of the more noteworthy animals in the Park - including a leopard sunning itself on the rocks, elephants, Water Buffalo and perhaps rarest of all the Sri Lankan Sloth Bear. We also saw lots of birds and waterfowl, including Hornbills, Kingfishers, Eagles & Hawks and the Sri Lankan national bird - the colorful Junglefowl.  In total, we counted over 70 wildlife sightings - thanks in large part to the sharp eyes of our guide Noyel.

                Wildlife in Yala National Park - Grey Langur and Mongoose

There are three entrances to the Park - Palatupane (southern), Katharagama (middle) and Galge (northern). The southern entrance is the most popular given its location closest to the ocean and near many of the resorts - however it is also the busiest. While researching I had heard the vehicles lining up to enter the park in peak season could be excessive. We went in via the middle gate on two of our safaris and both times there were no mare than a half dozen vehicles. I would suggest this might be the better choice to steer clear of the competing vehicles.

The scenery around Yala was varied and picturesque and was worth the price of admission even before all the wildlife sightings. The large water tanks, or reservoirs, helps sustain the varied wildlife in this semi-arid area. The morning sun against the rock outcroppings was also a popular area for leopard sightings.

                Scenery in Yala National Park

From Yala, we headed north into the mountainous interior through vast tea plantations enroute to Hortons Plain, our second UNESCO world heritage site. We stayed at Hill Safari Eco Lodge just outside the Park with an incredible view from a steep mountainside overlooking tea plantations below (contrary to the lodge's name, don't expect to see elephants or leopards up here!). Hortons Plain is a great destination for hikers, having a popular loop route over a few miles that passes through montane grassland and lush montane cloud forest before reaching the highlight - World's End - a vantage point at the top of a vertical cliff almost a kilometer high. The trail continues along a small stream and past a waterfall and small ponds before reaching the dusty museum at the trail head. Keep an eye out for Sambar Deer - we also saw a Giant Squirrel foraging in the trees.

Its best to arrive at the trailhead around 8am so you have time to reach World's End before the clouds start to roll in obstructing the view.

                Views from Hill Safari Eco Lodge and Horton Plains World's End

                Waterfall at Hortons Plain

The highlands provide the perfect conditions for Sri Lanka's extensive network of tea plantations. We stopped into the historic Dambethenna Tea Factory which was purchased by Thomas Lipton in the late 1800's. He bought up a number of plantations in the central highlands after a coffee blight devastated the coffee plantations of the time, and converted them to growing tea. We toured the tea factory still in operation today using equipment that is over a hundred years old.

                Dambethenna Tea Factory and Plantation

The drive through the tea plantations continue through the British colonial hill town of Nuwara Eliya which many also use as a base to explore Hortons Plain. We did stop in at The Grand Hotel for lunch and a stroll through the town and market before heading on to Kandy, the cultural heart of Sri Lanka located in the center of the country.

Kandy is a picturesque town centered on a small lake where the big draw for tourists and Sri Lankans alike is the Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic (Sri Dalada Maligawa) which holds a tooth fragment of the Buddha. While you can't see the actual tooth, you can stand in line for a chance to see the small gold casket shaped stupa where it is held. If you follow the walkway that leads behind the tooth relic chamber, you'll reach a large hall with a series of depictions and explanations (in English) showing the lengthy history of the tooth relic as it passed through various Kings and holy men who hid and relocated the tooth a number of times across the centuries.

In July/August, the 10 day Festival of the Tooth is held. They used to parade the tooth relic through the town on an elephant, but had to replace the real tooth with a replica. If you miss the Festival, you can still see the stuffed remains of Raja, one of the more famous elephants who carried the tooth during the Festival for about 50 years.


                Temple of the Sacred Tooth Relic, Kandy

We took in the cultural dance at the Kandyan Art Association building along the lake next to the temple complex. The troupe puts on an entertaining, acrobatic performance, capping it off with fire breathing and fire walk towards the end.

                Cultural Dance at Kandyan Art Association

Just a little to the west of Kandy we visited the Pinnalanda Elephant Orphanage. The elephants here are primarily free roaming in a large zoo like enclosure, and appeared to be in good health. A few of the younger elephants were chained as a safety precaution. We did notice some smaller family run elephant riding outfits along the road to Pinnalanda. The ones we passed seemed to have very small enclosures for the elephants, and some were chained as well. Not ideal, and if you ride one of these elephants, just be aware that the owners often use negative reinforcement to train the elephants.

On the return to Kandy we also stopped in at the Royal Botanical Gardens. While the gardens are extensive, it was the flying foxes, or large fruit bat that really caught our attention. There were literally thousands of flying foxes passing over the park in the late afternoon.

                Pinnalanda Elephant Orphanage, Flying Foxes at the Royal Botanical Garden

There have to be hundreds of small temples and historical sights scattered around Sri Lanka. You'll never have a chance to see them all, but it can be fun to stop at a few relatively lesser known sites as you never know what you'll find. One of the more interesting ones we stumbled across just north of Kandy is the Aluviharaya Rock Cave Temple. Through twists and turns, you'll pass through narrow passageways and around large rocky outcroppings, and into narrow caves. While the Buddhist temples we visited were typically tranquil and peaceful, this temple had a different theme all together. It held many gruesome paintings of sinners being punished in hell. It was a bit much for us, although the large group of young innocent school children that passed through seemed relatively unphased.

                Aluviharaya Rock Cave Temple

Kandy is the southern most point of an area called the Cultural Triangle, which includes Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura as the other two anchors. This area contains Sri Lanka's remaining five UNESCO world heritage sites - Kandy, Dambulla Royal Cave Temple, Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura.

As we headed north away from Kandy, our first stop was the Dambulla Royal Cave Temple. This ancient monastery dates back to the 2nd Century BC. It will take about 30 minutes to hike up the stairs leading to the entrance. You'll enter a large rock ledge that will take you to the cave temple. Just be aware that as with all Buddhist religious sites, you will need to remove your hat and shoes on entry. But you will be allowed to wear socks if you have any, an important consideration on the sun drenched rocks. So unless you want to join the other tourists on a dance across the rocky ledge, I'd highly advise bringing a pair of socks!

Either way, the walk (or dance) to the cave temple makes it worthwhile. The caves are adorned with colourful intricate religious paintings, some of which UNESCO staff could be seen repairing. You'll also find over 100 Buddha statues as well.

                Dambulla Royal Cave Temple

In our opinion, Sigiriya is not to be missed on a trip to Sri Lanka. This ancient rock fortress dates back to the 5th century, although there are differing opinions on the history of the site. A common belief is that King Kashyapa moved the capital here after murdering his father. He was the son of a lesser Queen, and was fearful that the rightful King and his half brother Moggallana would invade and take revenge. So he built his fortress on Sigiriya with its 200 meter high near vertical cliffs. Eventually his half brother did return and defeat him in battle, and the short lived capital was returned to Anuradhapura. Sigirya became a monastery for the next thousand years before being abandoned.

Keep in mind there is some climbing involved to get to the summit - about 1,200 stairs. Try to get an early start so you can hike in the shade while climbing up the steepest portion along the cliff face. You will enter through the western entrance through the water gardens, leading through the boulder gardens before reaching the cliff face. Part way up the cliff face you'll have a chance to view well preserved ancient frescoes followed by the Mirror Wall. The Mirror Wall is covered in highly polished white plaster and contains graffiti from bygone travelers, some over a thousand years old.

                Sigiriya showing entrance via Water Gardens and Rock Garden

A little more than half way up you'll reach the Lion's Paws Terrace named for the two gigantic Lion's Paws which is all that remains of a full sized Lion that guarded the final ascent to the summit. On the summit you'll see the remains of the Royal Palace, a larger water tank and incredible views in all directions.

                Final ascent through the Lions Paws to summit

                Sigiriya summit

There are plenty of places to stay near Sigiriya, but I would highly recommend staying at the Heritance Kandalama which is about a 20 minute drive away. This hotel is like no other we've stayed at in our years of travel. The hotel is seamlessly integrated with the local setting and natural environment.

On arriving, your first view is actually that of a giant green wall of vegetation encircling the hotel. Our driver Chanaka, who seemed to know everyone wherever we visited, introduced us to the manager on duty. Expecting the simplest room based on the rate we payed, we were pleasantly surprised to be led by the manager to a spacious suite overlooking the Kandalama Reservoir. Although he would not admit it, we are sure it was Chanaka's natural charms that got us the upgrade. Chanaka was also pleased as this was his favourite hotel to visit. In Sri Lanka, many hotels have a separate areas in or near the hotel for the drivers to stay, and he especially enjoyed the hiking he could do near the hotel.

We wandered along the entire length of the hotel checking out the views of the surrounding forest and mountains, with the Kandalama Reservoir below. Geoffrey Bawa, the well known architect who designed the hotel, had taken full advantage of the natural setting. I especially liked the entrance to the main lounge area via a tunnel that constantly had a cool breeze. Sections of the hotel's walkways wound around large boulders. And everywhere, including the rooftop dining area were surrounded by greenery and wildlife. One morning, I saw monkeys, a Hornbill and a Giant Squirrel outside our room window.

                Heritance Kandalama Hotel near Sigiriya

                Eternity Pool and view over Kandalama Reservoir

                Window wildlife at the Heritance Kandalama

On the entrance to the hotel, we saw a large concrete foot on the top of a rocky hill. Our driver claimed that Geoffrey Bawa was flying around in a helicopter seeking a spot to build the hotel, and when he came across the site at Kandalama he dropped his boot out of the helicopter to mark the spot. Great story, although on closer inspection the foot marks the spot of the Kandalama Millennium time capsule place there in the year 2000, to be opened in 2999.

                                                    Kandalama Millennium Time Capsule

On separate days we visited the nearby historic former capitals of Sri Lanka - Polonnawura and Anuradhapura. Polonnaruwa was the capital starting in about 10th century and the ruins here are younger and generally in better condition than the older capital of Anuradhapura.

We hired a guide and started at the archaeological museum in Polonnaruwa to get an overview of the history and site. The remains of the Royal Palace give hints of what must once have been a massive 7 floor building with 50 rooms. The Sacred Quadrangle nearby has a series of impressive ruins, including the Vatadage which once housed the Buddha's tooth relic.

                The Royal Palaca and King's Chamber at Polonnaruwa

                Polonnaruwa Vatadage

We happened upon the Gal Potha, a large stone slab with a former King's inscriptions. It is about 27' long by 5' wide - weighing 15 tons, and was carried about 100 kilometers to its current location 800 years ago. Good thing they had help from some elephants!

                The Gal Potha stone slab inscription and King Parakramabahu Statue

At Anuradhapura, we took a different approach and explored the ruins by bicycle as they tended to be a little more spread out. There are a number of large stuppas to visit, including the Ruwanwelisaya Dagoba containing relics and a sacred site for many Buddhists around the world.

                Stuppas in Anuradhapura

While Colombo typically doesn't get rave reviews from the Guidebooks, we found there was enough to keep our attention for a couple days. We stayed at the historic Galle Face Hotel which certainly made the time easier to pass. While it might be considered expensive by Sri Lankan standards, we thought it was a relative bargain compared to prices back home in Canada.

                The Galle Face Hotel, Colombo

Its a great place to spend  the evening watching the sun go down, and they even have a little flag lowering ceremony with a Sri Lankan bag piper in kilts - drawing inspiration from the hotel's English colonial past. There is an air of nostalgia as you wander through the Verandah and Travelers Bar that has hosted many famous people over the years - including a lot of writers - Mark Twain, Arthur C Clarke, George Bernard Shaw, DH Lawrence, Rudyard Kipling and Hemingway to name few. The hotel even has its own resident historian and museum.

                Sundown at the Galle Face over the Indian Ocean

There are a few sights in and around Colombo depending on your likes. We had the most fun wandering through the Pettah Market in central Colombo. Its a crazy hectic place catering to locals. The area is a few city blocks wide and is packed full of thousands of vendors, both along the street, and tucked in narrow passageways that lead through the surrounding buildings. Vendors were tucked into every conceivable corner of space, we even saw two industrious Sri Lankans running a cell phone repair shop underneath a narrow stairwell. Full of inexpensive goods - you know its probably too good a deal when the packaging reads "Apple Original Product". There is street food for the adventurous - although we passed when we saw workers delivering large blocks of ice to the food vendors for refrigeration.

                Pettah Market, Colombo

While in Colombo, its your chance to try McDonald's "Chicken Big Mac", and I must say it was delicious! We also had a chance to try the local Sri Lankan "hoppers" made out rice flour either shaped as a bowl, or in spaghetti like strands.

                                                    McDonald's Chicken Big Mac

One final thought - as you plan your trip we would suggest hiring a driver. Renting might be an option, although information on rental options seemed to be scarce... Driving can be a little hectic especially on the narrower two lane roads. Thankfully our driver was quite patient and didn't try to overtake vehicles around blind corners as we witnessed far too regularly. We found our driver through Tripadvisor, and can recommend Aerizo Tours - request Chanaka if available.

                Confused? Hire a driver!

It was just following our trip that the devastating Easter bombings rocked the country, and was a set back for the country still healing from its long civil war. This may cause concerns over safety, and may have you questioning whether to visit. I can only say that while traveling in Sri Lanka, we personally felt very safe, wandering on our own in cities and towns, and never feeling threatened in any way. No question, the Sri Lankan people are extremely friendly and hospitable. We hope you will consider visiting Sri Lanka. We met many locals who rely on the tourism industry, and it would be a shame for them the remain idle too long. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

Cuba Cross Country

Cuba has become an increasingly popular destination, especially for Canadians. Most visitors tend to take a package tour that will fly directly into one of the designated tourist enclaves such as Varadero. Certainly the beaches are nice, and if your primary pursuit is sun and sand, Cuba is a great choice.

But Cuba has far more to offer for those seeking a unique experience in a country that is rich in culture with an incredibly friendly populace, and a varied landscape. And indeed this is how we experienced Cuba during our 2004 cross country tour that took us from Vinales in the far west to Baracoa in the far east. 

     Cuba cross country route

The Route

Day 1-2       Havana
Day 3          Vinales
Day 4          Zapata Peninsula
Day 5-6      Trinidad
Day 7          Escambray Mountains
Day 8-10    Cayo Coco
Day 11       Guantanamo
Day 12-14  Baracoa
Day 15       Havana (flew back from Santiago)

The distance is deceiving, appearing as a reasonably short drive when peering down on the little globe in my office. But the distance across this long narrow island is 1,200 kilometers, and even longer when you consider the weaving route we took through some areas. Somehow we managed to navigate reasonably well in our rental car with limited to no signage (without GPS). 

Getting Started

To plan a self guided trip through Cuba is an experience in itself. Cuba probably took more advance planning than any other country we have visited. At the time, it was not possible to reserve hotels directly, in fact hotels did not even have web sites that provided descriptions of the hotel. Instead we had to rely on guide books, and then had to make the reservations through a central government agency. Cuba after all is a communist country. And even after ensuring we had everything arranged well ahead of time, we discovered that one of our hotels changed without being consulted. One learns to accept the ways of the Communist Party, as resistance is futile. In similar fashion, we were able to rent an aging rental car likely going on its second or third engine. Finally, there was the Tourist card we needed in advance, along with hep A and typhoid shots.


Our plane landed in Havana in the early afternoon, and we met the Havanatour agent who provided us with our hotel vouchers. Then it was off to the car rental booth where we patiently filled out paperwork and got our car an hour later. Finally we were on the road with our handy map of Havana I went to the trouble to pick up before we left. But without any signage, it was not much help. We got hopelessly lost but managed to make our way to the ocean where we simply followed the coast to take us into the heart of old Havana where our first hotel, the El Comendador, was located. It was a two story building with an inner courtyard, a comfortable and atmospheric place. 

     Lobby of El Comendador hotel, old Havana

If we had one regret during our trip, it was not spending more time in Havana. One day on the way in and another on the way out was nowhere near enough time for this vibrant city. But we did manage to get out and explore the city by foot a little. While most people tend to get around by walking, there were a fair number of cars. And yes it is true that Cuba could be considered the world's largest museum of old American cars. When Castro took over in the 60's Cuba stopped importing cars for the most part, so the Cuban people had to manage with what they had. So they've kept the American cars running all these years out of necessity. Even without the ability to order replacement parts, they have become very innovative in maintaining the cars and managing to keep them running. 

     Vintage American cars are common especially in Havana

Wandering through Havana, it was apparent the Cuban government was developing a split personality. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba went through what they refer to as the 'Special Period' when Soviet subsidized imports all but dried up. So pragmatically, they have increasingly opened the country up to tourism to generate income, but in a communist sort of way. They try to funnel most tourist into the all inclusive enclaves like Varadero, and they certainly don't make things convenient for the independent traveler. And they seem to try to separate tourism areas to the point that Cuban citizens are not even allowed to enter some tourist zones. They do not want their citizens to be clouded by Western influences... But gradually they continue to allow more private enterprise to legally start businesses supporting tourism. 

One more sign of the changes in the works was the historic areas of old Havana that were being painstakingly restored to their former glory. 

     Revitalized square in old Havana

While the revitalized squares were certainly impressive, it was the older areas of Havana with crumbling buildings that reflected the real Havana. Again, due in part to the Special Period, materials and funds to properly maintain buildings are scarce. So most at the very least need a coat of paint, and are held together and roofed with whatever they can get their hands on. 

     Typical Havana neighborhood

We left Havana heading to Vinales along the Autopista which is the main highway that runs the full length of Cuba. Many stretches are divided four lane highways, and it has to be the least traveled four lane highway in the world! There were stretches where we would not see another car for miles at a time. About half an hour outside of Havana, we approached a car that was broken down on the side of the road, and as we got closer, two large young men ran out into the highway in front of our car with arms outstretched. As I slammed on the brakes, they immediately opened the back car doors and jumped in before we had any idea what was happening. I thought surely we were going to be at least robbed, if not worse... But in broken English, one of the two explained their taxi had broken down and they needed a lift to the next town to reach a wedding. So off we went, dutifully delivering them directly to the church so they would not be late. 

Suddenly my pre-conceived notions of needy locals preying upon tourists flew out the window, and from that point on I lowered my guard a bit. In fact we started giving rides to all types of Cubans as we crossed the country, probably 20 to 30 in total. You have to understand that Cuba at the time did not really have a properly functioning transit system. In fact, the way it works along the highway, is people would congregate at major intersections. A uniformed Police Officer would be stationed at these intersections, and they would pull over any vehicle that was not full so they could fill any empty spots with passengers. Even trucks had to pull over to pick up follow comrades. 

     Public transit, Cuban style

As tourists, we were exempt from the forced taxi duty, but in the spirit of comradeship we decided to pick up people along our route. We met a lot of ordinary Cubans this way and learned a lot about Cuba, and how they felt about Fidel. In the countryside it was interesting to find that all the people we spoke with seemed to truly admire and support Castro. And historically he did do a lot to bring education and health care to the poor rural areas of the country when he gained power. But people generally live very simply in the countryside, with horses and donkeys seeming to be far more common than automobiles. Some even carry their baby chicks around with them as we learned after picking up a lady and her small child who hopped in with their bags. Soon we could hear the chirping of chicks in the back seat, with one escaping briefly from the bag before being recaptured.

     Fewer American cars in the countryside...

Vinales is an area of limestone karst topography, with large limestone 'mountains' rising up, referred to as magotes. We drove along weaving through the magotes, definitely one of the most scenic drives we took through Cuba. We stopped to take a boat ride through a river that had carved its way through one of the magotes. We also drove past the largest mural we had ever seen, a painting of dinosaurs taking up the entire cliff side of one of the larger magotes. The area is also the source for most of the tobacco that makes its way into the world famous Cuban cigars. At one point we randomly stopped and wandered through the tobacco fields and farms where we were greeted with friendly curiosity. 

     Driving among the mogotes of Vinales

From Vinales, we headed off towards the Zapata Peninsula with our primary destination being a bird sanctuary. But to most, the area is better known for the invasion at the Bay of Pigs. A bungled attempt to displace Castro, the effort eventually did more to prop up Castro who used the event in his anti-American rhetoric for years to follow. Even today, you are constantly reminded of the victory and the glory of the Cuban revolution as you drive along the roads leading to the Bay.

     Victory at Bay of Pigs

Enroute we stopped at the park office to pick up our personal guide for the bird sanctuary. We drove out along a single track mud road into the sanctuary running alongside a large mangrove estuary where not surprisingly we saw a lot of birds.  Highlights included Pink Flamingos and Roseate Spoonbills. An interesting visit, and we ended up learning as much about Cuba as birds from our guide. 

     Pink Flamingos in the mangrove estuary along the Zapata Peninsula

As I mentioned before, Cuba was slowly allowing private enterprise to set up and support tourists. We stayed at a few private casa particulars which were similar to a bed and breakfast. We also ate at privately run restaurants, or paladores. But we learned that the rules for legally operating a paladore were onerous, and didn't always make economic sense since the fixed monthly payment to the government exceeded the revenue one could expect, especially in more remote areas of Cuba. So we were often discretely approached by locals wishing to serve us dinner. So with an adventurous spirit we decided to give it a try, and it turned out to be a good decision. The standard meal was fresh lobster dinner for $10 per person, expensive by Cuban standards, but a deal by North American standards. The lobster was always fresh, actually the best lobster I think we've ever had. We also had our best meals in this manner, as Cuban resort and restaurant food does unfortunately live up to its poor reputation.

At the Bay of Pigs, we were approached by a man who wispering, asked us if we would be interested in having a lobster dinner at his house that evening. So we made arrangements to meet outside of the town in the evening along a dark road. We picked him up and drove a short distance to his house. As we approached his small village we were instructed to turn off the car lights and discreetly parked near his home, and crept into the dinning room. His wife cooked the lobster as his children played. Our hosts regular occupation was an electrician and horse trainer, and he was moonlighting as a restauranteur on the side. No doubt, he made more from serving a few occasional tourist dinner than he did as an electrician or horse trainer. 

     Fresh caught grilled Caribbean Lobster served at a paladore

Next we were on our way to the historic town of Trinidad, a Unesco world heritage site. Although the distance was short we had several adventures that side tracked us. The first was picking up some young women who happily provided directions, but neglected to tell us that the route conveniently passing through their village, and was a significant detour away from Trinidad. After figuring out where we were, we got back on route. 

As we entered Cienfuegos, our Russian built rental car started to experience problems as it would uncontrollably go into neutral while driving. We stumbled across a Havanautos office in town where they made some repairs and we were on our way again. But a few minutes out of town we started to experience the same problem, and were lucky to make it back to the office. Initially we were told we would have to wait until the following day before the car could be repaired, even though our evening's accomodation was still about an hour's drive away. After about an hour of extensive discussion, they finally agreed to provide us with another vehicle. But then he explained that the new car had 80,000 km so it required service and we would have to wait a day for it too. After more heated debate, he finally relented and allowed us to be on our way. It turns out he was a good comrade afterall.

We drove on towards Trinidad in the dark, driving slowly because there were many people and animals wandering along the roadside. As we entered the town we felt like we were being transported back in time. The simple but attractive buildings still had their original appearance, likely due more to a constraint of new building materials than conscious preservation. Although today they realize the town as a tourist asset so no doubt safeguards are in place to preserve the town in its original character. It was the type of place where the greatest pleasure was to simply wander and take in the atmosphere, and admire the architecture. A few buildings were designated as museums so we were able to tour the inside and learn a little about the history of the area, the wealth of the town being bullt largely on sugar cane industry. As a former basketball player, I was also extremely impressed by the athletic ability I witnessed on an outdoor basketball court. Cuba has a strong tradition in athletics, particularly baseball, volleyball, basketball and track and field. 

     Historic Central Square in Trinidad, Unesco World Heritage site

Inland and just west of Trinidad is the Escambray Mountains. As we drove up from the coast into the mountains we ascended from dry dessert terrain at the base of the mountains into lush green tropical forests at the top. We spent a day in and around the Parque Codina, hiking along a loop trail near the park office, and driving along a ridge top dirt road with views down the mountain valleys.

     Tree frog that shared our hotel room in the Escambray Mountains

Being a narrow island, it did not take long the next day for us to cross the island to Cayo Coco, a developing beach area along the north end of the island. The final approach was along a long 20 km man made causeway that seemed to go on forever.

     Long causeway to reach Cayo Coco

Cayo Coco was a newer tourist development, so was not as crowded as some of the more established beach areas of Cuba. We stayed at an all inclusive resort for three days in order to have some down time. Although I only lasted about an hour on the beach before getting restless and seeking some adventures. The first distraction was a scuba diving day trip. After about 30 minutes in a pool, we were officially certified as Cuban divers and off we went on a boat to a nearby reef. We dove a shallow reef with an incredible variet of fish and coral. The next day we visited a national park nearby and wandered along the ecological trail and boardwalk that meandered intermittently through forest of epiphyte covered trees to rapid ocean currents flushing out the estuary. In the evenings, we took in the evening entertainment of plays and singing put on by the young Cuban artists at the resort.

     White beaches of Cayo Coco

Our next destination was Baracoa at the far east end of the island. Our most aggressive day of travel awaited us, as we had to cover the longest distance to date along a stretch of highway that seemed to deteriorate the further east we went. With the final section being over a mountainous stretch, and darkness approaching, we decided to stop short and settle for Guantanamo, otherwise known as "Gitmo" for those in the military know. We tried the first casa particular we could find, but it was full. A young man offered to take us to another nearby. But after visiting another 3 or 4, they too were surprisingly full. Never knew Guantanamo could be such a popular destination... So we had to settle for the ugly concrete Soviet built hotel (the Soviet inspired buildings were always easy to spot). 

     Entering "Gitmo" from the Cuban side

The next morning we were back on track for Baracoa, passing along beautiful cliffs dropping off into the blue ocean, and then climbing streadily up and over the mountains to reach the town. As we drove we passed locals wandering along the road carrying plants harvested in the mountains, as well as occasional roadside vendors. Unfortunately one of the more common items being sold was the shell of the bright yellow endangered Polymita snail. They were often strung along a string to make a necklace. These snails are endemic to Cuba, living in the mountains near Baracoa, and have become endangered due to poaching. So if you go to Cuba do not support the poaching by purchasing yellow snails! 

     Ocean cliffs along the south- eastern coast of Cuba

Although Baracoa is a small town, it has some interesting history. It is the oldest Spanish community in Cuba, founded in 1511, and was also Cuba's first capital. It is also the location where Christopher Columbus landed in Cuba during his first voyage. 

Cuba has a rich music tradition, and we certainly came to appreciate this in Baracoa. One day they closed down an area of town and outdoor street musicians played into the evening. We also wandered into small little taverns to listen to very talented Cuban musicians. If you plan on visiting Cuba, a great introduction to Cuban music is the movie Buena Vista Social Club. The movie was made by accident when an American producer arrived to film some African musicians in Cuba, but at the last minute the African band was refused a permit to go. So stuck in Cuba with his equipment and staff, they managed to round up some aging artists who had been all but forgotten. The music is incredible, and they went on to tour around the world. But the movie also gives insights of Havana and its people and culture. Another suggestion is to listen to Radio Cubana over the Internet. They play a good selection of Cuban music.

     Live street music in Baracoa

     Preparing a roasted pig for the evenings street festival in Baracoa

While wandering in the town we came across a friendly young man Norge who offered to take us on a tour the following day. So we ended up heading out to visit an organic farm that grew cocoa, bananas and citrus trees. We look a small row boat up a river that followed along a deep canyon. And we stopped at points along the ocean to wander, and visited a couple small villages. We had our lunch at one of the beach stops, being served fresh fish.

     Fresh fish lunch near Baracoa

As we started to wind down our trip, we drove back over the mountains to Santiago de Cuba. We dropped off our car, arriving with plenty of extra time to deal with the beauracracy. We then boarded a domestic flight with Cubana Airlines for a one hour or so flight back to Havana. Knowing that Cubana had the worst safety record of any major airline in the world, we were admittedly a little nervous boarding the flight. Perhaps not the wisest choice. But we felt somewhat reassured when we realized that about a third of the passengers were other tourists. As our plane took off, 'smoke' started to creep into the cabn from ceiling vents. There were a lot of panicked looks among the tourists, and our pleas for an explanation from the stewardess were ignored. But we soon realized that none of the locals seemed to be panicking, so smoke filled cabins must be commn and nothing to be concerned about... and as the flight continued the smoke did eventually dissipate. We learned later that it was likely something to do with condensation. 

When we arrived in Havana at about 11pm, our second adventure commenced when we learned that taxis don't service the hotel that late. So we were stuck with all the other tourist in the same predicament. But we were saved by a French couple who had pre-arranged for transit to their hotel Los Frailes, which just happened to be the same hotel we were staying at. Out of courtesy, we allowed our French saviours to secure their room before us. Then, it just so happened that the last room available was the nicest one in the hotel, which we received a free upgrade for. We didn't mention it to our new found friends...

     Back in Havana...

With one last day in Havana, we had a chance to wander through the old section of the city, taking in street performers and visiting the outdoor art market. Cuban artists are very talented, and the artwork is very inexpensive. So we picked up a couple paintings to take home, and ended up spending more on the frames back home. 

One of our paintings showed Havana at Sundown (see photo below). Notice how all the buildings have antennas on the roofs, in an exaggerated fashion. I'm certainly no art critic, but my interpretation of the painting is it represents the end of the Castro era, as the sun is setting. Inside the homes people draw in the tv and radio signals from Miami to hear the news being broadcast by former Cubans living in America. With a desire to one day soon gain freedoms similar to their relatives living across the Florida Straight, their hopes and dreams emanate brightly from buildings. 

     Havana at Sundown, by Cuban artist Joel Humberto Rojas PĂ©rez

     Havana street artists

Overall, Cuba was an amazing destination, and one of our favourite trips. It is truly a unique country, and no doubt it will continue its transition as Fidel Castro's revolution continues to become a thing of the past. But I would encourage you to visit soon before Cuba potentially becomes more and more like its Caribbean neighbors that rely almost entirely on tourism. Cuba is like no other country in the Caribbean, indeed in the world. And also one of the safest places to visit in spite of preconceived notions that Cubans must be anti-American. The reality is Cubans see you as an individual first, and don't seem too quick to pass judgement. There are few safety or crime concerns, although I would try to avoid Cubana Airlines if you can...