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The Maldives - 2017

Baros, a little bit perfect

sunny 32 °C
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Our flight from Colombo in Sri Lanka to Male Maldives took less than ninety minutes. From Male we would then transit by speedboat to the island of Baros for four nights and days of unprecedented luxury following a busy 12 days touring Sri Lanka.

Met upon arrival at the airport our bags were swiftly removed from our keeping and placed invisibly on board our boat. All on board, we left the quayside at Male and moved towards the empty horizon. Quickly, it became apparent that all was not well and the pilot of our speedboat explained that he wasn’t happy with the gearbox and that we would be provided with a better vessel for our journey to Baros.
Baros Maldives20170004

Baros Maldives20170004


Within a few minutes a gleaming white boat with BAROS in Gold lettering on the side arrived and we transferred mid’ Indian Ocean to resume the 30 minute transfer. This time the boat purred and gradually accelerated to propel us through the water at speed until, with the jetty at Baros in clear view, we slowed to a sedate cruise until we pulled in and tied up.

Two members of the Baros staff were there to meet and greet us by name and escort us to Reception for check-in and a glass of ‘bubbles’. Our bags remained invisible until we reached our room a little later on.
Baros Maldives20170091

Baros Maldives20170091


With the arrival formalities completed we were then taken on a short tour of the facility by Fee (our Room Host) and by the time we reached our pre-selected water villa we knew precisely where the three restaurants were, where the pool was, where the gym, the spa, the marine centre, the boutique, the Sails Bar and the Palm Court area were. And we were in no doubt that nothing would be too much trouble.
Baros Maldives20170158

Baros Maldives20170158


At full occupancy Baros only accepts 150 guests to occupy the 300 staff. For our stay occupancy was at 50% (not high season). Everything was in our favour. The water villa was everything we had hoped for and, as we discovered, was constantly refreshed with fruit, water, tea, coffee and cookies.
Baros Maldives20170252

Baros Maldives20170252


The air conditioning in the room was very effective. Baros is as close as we had ever been to the Equator, just 4 degrees above, and it was very hot, even when cloudy but it didn’t matter as we literally had nothing to do for four days. Maybe a bit of reading, a visit to the Spa or the Gym, a Yoga Session or two, maybe some snorkelling and walks around the perimeter of the island; this took around ten minutes each time. Beyond all of that it was all about the relaxation, the food, the drink and the service.
Baros Maldives20170198

Baros Maldives20170198


The room appeared to be tidied almost every time we left it for a while, even to the extent that the towels were changed as many times as you used them during the day but the staff never interrupted your privacy to get their work done. Only at around 6 pm would you hear a knock on your villa door and it was the member of the service staff responsible for your villa asking if you needed your room tidied and checking that everything was ok.
Baros Maldives20170093

Baros Maldives20170093


Our third day on Baros was also our wedding anniversary (37th) and we started the day with a glass of sparkling wine with breakfast. Jan tried snorkelling and saw many fish including two bright Blue in colour that we were later told were Jack Fish. We walked clockwise around the island and took photos before stopping for a beer around lunchtime; something that had slotted nicely into our daily routine. We found no need for any lunch because breakfast was so good, as was the food in the evening. And with fruit in the room we simply didn’t need any more than half board in The Maldives.
Baros Maldives20170258

Baros Maldives20170258


Later that day we attended a Cocktail Party hosted by the management team on the island. This preceded dinner which we took at The Lighthouse Restaurant. All three restaurants are very good but The Lighthouse offers Gourmet Dining and scores just that bit higher than the other two. During the meal (which was fantastic) we were presented with a cake to mark our anniversary and a couple on the next table (whom we had spoken with very briefly) wanted to buy us a drink and a small bottle of champagne was delivered to our table. One of the starters that we ordered was cooked and flambéed at the table and while we ate our main courses an Eagle Ray swam past, then a smaller Ray followed by two small Black-Tipped Reef Sharks. Brilliant!!
Baros Maldives20170269

Baros Maldives20170269


It was a good day and a great evening and on return to the water villa the staff had been into the room again, delivered the cake back to the room, tidied up and decorated the bed with a ‘Happy Anniversary’ message written in palm leaves and flowers.

The following day was our final full day on Baros. It was very hot but after breakfast we decided to walk around the island again. We walked anti-clockwise this time, just to make it a bit different and we saw crabs, a chameleon-like lizard and some water fowl. We also saw Fruit Bats flying around the trees in the middle of the day. At the Marina Centre we stopped and chatted to one of the management team who had worked in Fiji, The Seychelles and The Maldives and as we stood there talking a small shark appeared close-by in the water.

Jan wanted to go snorkelling again and also spend some time in the pool. She also took some underwater video and saw lots of different shapes and colours of coral, a sea cucumber, lots of very tiny coloured fish plus some larger bright Blue and multi-coloured ones. We finished drying off by the Pool at The Lime Restaurant with a beer and spent time enjoying one of our final few hours looking at the colours of the reef and the Indian ocean.
Baros Maldives20170151

Baros Maldives20170151


A Fish BBQ was being held at the Palm Court area in the evening so we booked to attend that as an alternative to an evening meal at one of the restaurants. It turned out to be a lovely way to spend our final evening despite the threat of some rain. We had one or two brief downpours during our stay but it held off for the majority of this evening and when it did finally rain we had the Sails Bar to run to for cover. The food from the BBQ was really good and the candlelit setting under the palm trees made it special. We finished the night with a drink while chatting to Grenville (Thynne) and Raha (Saber) who had travelled from Dubai and who had bought us the champagne at our anniversary meal the night before.
Baros Maldives20170096

Baros Maldives20170096


It had been an outstanding few days on Baros and from being very much a one-off treat when we left the UK it has now been added to the ‘must go back’ list of destinations. Added to what was a busy couple of weeks in Sri Lanka the entire trip sits among the best holidays that we have ever had. Better start saving!!

Posted by david.byne 12:46 Archived in Maldives Republic Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises beaches trees animals birds night boats Comments (0)

Sri Lanka - 2017

It’s definitely not like India.

semi-overcast 32 °C
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Having spent an amazing holiday in Northern India back in 2014 thoughts for future trips had touched on Kerala in Southern India but we had a curiosity for the island of Sri Lanka and when it came to making a final decision we decided that Sri Lanka would probably offer us at least some of what we would experience in Kerala while at the same time tick another country off the bucket list.
So, with August being our only option for taking almost three weeks holiday, we climbed aboard the Sri Lankan Airlines plane at Heathrow bound for Colombo. Approximately 10 ½ hours later we were met and transferred on the very short journey to Negombo where we spent the rest of the day and our first night. Colombo and Negombo are both coastal and our hotel was right on the beach with the Indian Ocean crashing the life out of itself onto the rocks and sand. With time for a walk by the sea and another along the main road, stopping at a convenient bar along the way, it was a nice introduction to the island even though there really wasn’t sufficient time to unpack or even consider the hotel pool, despite the 30 degree heat.
SriLanka20170005

SriLanka20170005


After being extremely well fed at both dinner and then the following morning at breakfast we checked out and were met in the hotel lobby by Charma who was to be our driver and guide for the next 12 days.

Charma drove us to Habarana which took us several hours from the coast towards the centre of the island. On route we passed through areas farming rice, tobacco, mangos, coconuts, bananas and papayas while the landscape changed noticeably; something that would become a feature whenever we drove for two hours or more on Sri Lanka.

At Habarana, Cinammon Lodge would be our base for the next four nights. Set alongside a lake the grounds were extensive with the rooms being in separate units among trees and away from the Reception, Dining and Pool areas of the hotel. There is a nice walk alongside the lake and a cartload of Grey Monkeys are never too far away, often passing through the grounds ‘en masse’.
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SriLanka20170583


Charma did his best to point out anything of interest when we were driving between places and often stopped if he sensed our interest in anything particular. We stopped at both a Buddhist and Hindu temple but merely passed through the area at Kadjugama where the farmers were selling their Cashew Nuts at the roadside.

It was difficult not to start comparing our experience of India with what we were seeing in Sri Lanka but we soon decided that the two are very different and in no way did it ever feel like we were repeating something from three years before. It is true that there are as many Tuk-Tuk’s as there are in India but most look newer and in better condition. Also, the roads are better, life generally feels more orderly and organised, the towns and cities feel tidier and the climate slightly friendlier.

Charma was taking us to Polonnaruwa and as he drove pointed out two Jackals running across the road and he then pulled over to show us a couple of large Water Monitor’s, one of which emerged from a drain cover! Polonnaruwa is Sri Lanka’s answer to Angkor Wat in Cambodia; a huge site with numerous palaces, temples and other buildings and this was to be one of our first proper sightseeing stops of the holiday. It was hot but some of the buildings are well preserved and worth seeing despite the ongoing requirement to keep removing shoes before entering each temple.
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SriLanka20170323


You generally see and hear three languages written and spoken in Sri Lanka; Sinhala, Tamil and English. 70% of the population are Buddhist, 12% Hindu. 12% Christian and 6% Muslim and this is reflected in what you see as you drive around this country of varying landscapes. Sri Lanka has been described as a ‘flat country with hills’ and I understand why but there is still so much variety in both the hills and the valleys if you travel just for a few hours by car.

A key attraction for us in Sri Lanka was the opportunity to see Elephants in their natural habitat so we planned to visit two wildlife parks while we were there and the first was at Kaudulla. The Jeep picked us up from Cinammon Lodge at 1 o’clock in the afternoon and after about 45 minutes’ drive we entered the park. It was another half an hour or more before we arrived at the water hole which we reached by crossing a riverbed. We had seen several birds plus a number of water buffalo, monkeys, a chameleon and a crocodile before we had sight of our first elephant but once across the riverbed we soon reached the main herd grazing in the open land near the water hole. There were probably twenty or thirty in the group and then several more appeared from out of the jungle, close to our jeep. A fight broke out between two of the elephants in the first group with one or two more supporting the aggressor in seeing-off the offending elephant, leaving it isolated from the herd. The elephants nearest our jeep were simply munching their way through the grass towards the others at the water hole but without really ever getting there. One or two jeeps got a little too close to one of the infant elephants and this brought a reaction with the adult elephants closing ranks around the infant and one or two of the remaining adults making their presence and anger known audibly as they walked toward the vehicles. The drivers reversed ……… quickly!
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SriLanka20170682-2


It had been a great experience getting up close (but not too close) to these huge animals but we didn’t outstay our welcome and turned to make our way out of the park. But first we had to cross that riverbed. We were one of the first to leave to exit the park …… but not the first. And by the time we reached the point at which to cross the riverbed there were already two other jeeps well and truly STUCK! Continually trying to reverse and move forward made their plight obviously worse and before long more than half the wheels on their jeeps were invisible and buried in the soft mud. Our driver was confident however. After all, we had a 4-wheel drive jeep and those already stuck didn’t so we would just fly across and be back to the hotel before we knew it. Wrong! Despite the determination ours suffered the same fate and before long there were 5 or 6, maybe 7 jeeps dormant at different points, all seeking to conjure up a way of escaping before sunset. Fortune was eventually forthcoming when after a few failed attempts by others, another jeep arrived with a motorised cable winch onboard and gradually the vehicles were all recovered with the exception of the very first victim which stayed buried until the following morning.
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SriLanka20170734


The food and service at Cinammon Lodge was excellent and breakfast the following day set us up for the challenge of Sigiriya, the Lion Rock - once made famous by Duran Duran (remember them?). It’s 1,200 steps to the top although there is a halfway point where you can have a second thought if you wish. Having said that, when you get halfway the remaining climb doesn’t look so bad and the curiosity of what the views are like at the top can prove too much – and it did. It was worth it. You can see for miles and miles, a flat country with hills!
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SriLanka20170153


Adjacent to Cinammon Lodge is the entrance to trails that lead to villages and a large lake and what is being sold as a ‘village safari’ so we didn’t have far to travel from our hotel when Charma took us to spend around three hours sampling village and jungle life. We began with a tuk-tuk ride that went off-road and delivered us to a Bullock and Cart ride that carried us uncomfortably further into the jungle to a river. There we got into a canoe that merely took us to the other side of the river. From here we walked to the village and sampled freshly made Coconut Roti before moving on to another boat trip, this time onto a large lake full of water lilies and from where you could see Sigiriya in the distance. From the boat we walked further to another village and had lunch of Lentil Curry, Banana Flower Curry and Water before ending the visit back where we began, just around the corner from Cinammon Lodge.

It had been a busy few days so far in Habarana and we still had the Dambulla Cave and Golden Temple to see and this turned out to be another highlight of our holiday in Sri Lanka. Without knowing much about Dambulla before we left the UK we had been assured that it was well worth the steps that you have to climb to see it. The Golden Temple is at the bottom and you can see this from the roadside but the steps to the cave are accessed via a car park. We had seen some rain during the morning and it was threatening more as we started to climb. The weather was consistently warm but with the change in terrain there was often a hint of possible showers during the day and of course when it does decide to rain in these parts of the world, it really rains! Maybe not for long but it certainly lets you know it.
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SriLanka20170471


Grey Monkeys lined the wall of the steps as we made our way up to the cave. At the top it was fairly busy with Sri Lankan people queuing to make offerings to the priest. Others lit the Coconut Oil candles while some made their way to each of the accessible cave areas. It was still raining which made the removal of shoes at the entrance to the area suddenly more uncomfortable than usual. Regardless, we made our way to the series of caves. Each one was created in a different age but all depicted Buddha in a number of poses. The first cave was by far the oldest and the best. It was also the one that Sri Lankan people focussed primarily on to worship and pray.

Dambulla was clearly an important religious site for Sri Lankan Buddhists and our visit signalled the end of our stay in Habarana apart from an evening meal, a good night sleep and a breakfast. The following morning we travelled to Kandy where the weather is slightly cooler.

Kandy is a nice city in a picturesque valley which has at its focal point a large lake around which everything revolves. Our hotel was the Earls Regency, just outside Kandy but still within view of the lake. The Sri Lankan Cricket Team were staying at the same hotel and training there ahead of two One Day Internationals against India. Our prime objective when visiting Kandy was to see a bit of the city and the lake but also to visit the Temple of the Tooth. However, before that we attended a cultural show in the early evening, close to the temple.

As with similar shows all around the world the core of the event is singing and dancing and local musical instruments. Here in Kandy we also had ‘fire walking’ added to the programme. We had front row seats and on a day that had been warmed enough already by the sun the addition of petrol to the burning embers on the path of fire almost took your breath away. From the theatre we took the short walk to the Temple of the Tooth. It looked especially dramatic at night, lit up by both spotlights and also rows of Coconut Oil candles.

Shoes off again we ventured inside to where the ceremony was just beginning. People kept arriving and soon we were in the midst of quite a crowd albeit well placed near the front. Much drumming ensued and the participants including orange-clad Buddhist monks made their approach up a few steps to the large solid silver doors that confined the ornate box containing Buddha’s tooth. There is quite a story surrounding the tooth and a nationally famous elephant called Rajah for those that want to research it.
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SriLanka20170965


Once the various participants are inside and the doors are closed the focus switches to upstairs where all attendees file past a viewing point from where to view the tooth, making offerings as they so wish to the officials lined nearby to receive them. Filing past involved quite a bit of jostling for position and basically standing ones ground as everybody fought for a better view in the brief moment that you get as you are carried along on a constantly moving human tide.

Eventually we were out the other end to retrieve our shoes and take a slow walk through the exterior of the temple and back to the car. Our evenings in Sri Lanka were all ‘free time’ and the hotels were all very comfortable and relaxing environments to spend time in with a drink before resting for the following day. The Earls Regency Hotel was one of my favourites during the trip.

The next morning, after breakfast, we had a late start and then went back to the city to visit the Peredeniya Botanical Gardens. Not necessarily at the top of my own ‘must see’ lists I must say that these gardens were as good as I have ever seen anywhere. It will also be remembered for one of the most unexpected moments during the holiday. The weather was a bit unpredictable and it started to rain while we were in the Orchid House. After standing and trying to decide on the driest route through the gardens we agreed on a pathway and started walking. A few minutes later an English voice called out “Will you stop running away from us!”. We turned around and it was a couple (John and Megan) who we had spent time with on a holiday in China 12 months previously. It really can be a small world.
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SriLanka20171041


After spending an hour catching up with past acquaintances we met up again with Charma who declared that the rest of the day was ours and we could enjoy the pool at the hotel or basically do whatever we wanted. So, back at the hotel the Sri Lankan Cricket Team were in mid-training session in the pool so a book and a beer became the order of the day for a couple of hours while the Parakeets flew shuttle runs between the palm trees around the grounds of the hotel.

Nuwara Eliya and the Tea Plantations were our next destination. The town is the highest on the island and again, probably more predictably this time, the landscape and climate changed as we drove the two or three hours from Kandy. Gradually you climb higher and higher until you can literally be in the clouds. The area is dominated by tea with numerous plantations including substantial ones owned by the likes of Rothschild although the majority are now Sri Lankan owned. On the way we passed through various Hill Villages, saw many waterfalls including Ramboda Falls and stopped at one of the Tea Factories. It’s an interesting process and reminded us of the low quality ‘dust’ that we rely on in tea bags at home. Back outside and on the hills the female tea pluckers are busy at work accumulating the 10kgs of leaves that they need in their sack each day to satisfy their employers. Often from the North of the country the women have accommodation as part of their remuneration which obviously lasts for as long as they stay in work.
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SriLanka20171157


Our hotel in Nuwara Eliya was the Heritance Tea Factory; literally a converted Tea Factory which still had some of the original features and working machinery. Set high in the hills, the views from the hotel are impressive and acted as the backdrop to a spectacular electric storm on our second night there. It still operates a small tea processing factory in a separate building and produces the tea served in the hotel from the leaves plucked from its own fields. Occasionally during the day we would hear a tune moving through the area. It turned out to be a larger version of a tuc-tuc selling breads and rolls from the local bakery.

Being slightly isolated at the Tea Factory, you really have to drive into the town for any activity and this is what we did. Charma drove us and we spent an hour or so just looking around the shops and the market. In addition to tea a huge quantity of vegetables is grown in this area and that was evident. Some of the buildings have more than a hint of British Colonialism about them, especially the Post Office and two large hotels at the back of the town. And judging by the amount of construction work underway Nuwara Eliya gives the impression of being a currently prosperous and upwardly mobile part of Sri Lanka.

We also spent an hour at Gregory Lake, a popular spot with locals who queue up for rides on a jetski. There was also a fair in place when we were there so it was generally quite busy despite the low cloud that suddenly engulfed the area and marked the end of our walk and time there. So, back to the hotel we went.

Following the storm the previous night the sky was much clearer and brighter when we woke up next morning - a relief as we had a long drive to Yala with an important stop along the way. We aimed to be at the Elephant Transit Centre at Udawalawe by midday to see the elephants being fed. This meant that Charma had to put his foot down a little while also allowing for the occasional photo stop. Through changing terrain and scenery we descended from the mountains toward what are the dry plains of the south. In some areas the hills, mountains and forests were reminiscent of Germany before the landscape changed again to a dry, sandy colour that made you think more of parts of Africa.

The transit centre was supported by the Born Free Foundation which kind of validated it in our minds. We arrived with about ten minutes to spare; well done Charma!! A purpose made platform was already well-filled with spectators (almost all Sri Lankan people) but we found a position from where we could see the elephants and take our photos. The elephants were allowed in to the feeding area in threes or fours. The first to be fed was an adult elephant that had featured on a BBC documentary just months before our visit. He had injured his foot and eventually had to have it amputated but had been given an artificial one that enabled him to walk around. Because of his condition he would never, unlike the others at the transit home, be eventually released back to the wild and he would spend the majority of his time in relative isolation away from the group simply for his own protection.
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SriLanka20171447-2


More and more were slowly moved through the feeding area. One over-enthusiastic baby elephant threw himself over the feeding gate in his frenzy to get at the milk being issued through a hose into their mouths. Lying in a heap on the wrong side of the feeding shed the greedy little ‘elly’ picked himself up and was ushered towards the water hole where those that had been suitably topped-up went next to wallow in the water and mud. It was a highly entertaining hour and by the end there must have been around 40 elephants in the area.

Moving on, we still had a little way to go before arriving at Cinammon Wild, our next hotel inside the Yala Wildlife Park. The rooms are small chalets scattered around an area in the park a little way from the main reception, dining and pool areas. You really are in the animals’ backyard at Cinammon Wild and one of the first things you see is the warning about crocodiles living in the vicinity. When checking-in you are also told that after dark you must not walk between the main hotel building and your room without an escort from the hotel. All of this focuses the mind on the dangers from not just the crocodiles but also the wild boar, the elephants, the monkeys and the water buffalo.
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SriLanka20171535


We were at Yala for two nights and had booked a half-day safari during our stay. The pool area looked out onto a large water hole which contained a few dead-looking trees and some large boulders (a feature of Sri Lanka it seemed). The water levels weren’t especially high and this created a currently arid water-bed around what was the water hole, allowing the brave or foolhardy that chose to ignore the crocodile warning the opportunity to get a bit closer to whatever was residing in and around the water. We saw Grey Monkeys, Chipmunks, Water Buffalo, Wild Boar, Crocodiles, Pelicans, and more, all without leaving the hotel. On one occasion the monkeys temporarily took over the pool area, scavenging whatever they could from the visitors.

We survived the night without incident or intrusion from the wildlife and had the morning free again to explore the nearby water hole. Four crocodiles basking on an island in the water hole, several water buffalo nearby and numerous birds either flying around or lazing on the water. All of this plus a chapter or two of a book by the pool took us through to lunch, then, it was time for the safari.

We at least didn’t have to travel far. Our Jeep picked us up from the hotel and we drove for 40 minutes or so and turned onto a long straight road, across a bridge over water, past an elephant posing for visitors and into the rough, uneven roads that mark the start of the wildlife park. Again, we chose the later safari rather than the sunrise option. This was on the advice that the majority of the animals stay well-hidden until the day warms up. Certainly we couldn’t complain about the numbers we had so far seen.
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SriLanka20171559


We had around three hours in the park and left as the sun was setting and the shadows were long. More crocodiles, mongoose, monkeys, buffalo, deer, lots of elephants and many different birds including both Blue and Green Bee Eaters and the Asian Paradise Fly Catcher. Our driver received a message about a leopard at a water hole and sped along the dusty track to get there but alas we were five minutes too late. We stayed for around 20 minutes at the hole to see if the big cat would return but of course he didn’t. However, it had been a really good day.
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SriLanka20171652


We had one more area to visit on our trip around Sri Lanka; namely Galle. Different again, Galle is on the coast and a key area for fishing. It was hot, around 37 degrees with 70% humidity. Our hotel, The Fortress, was possibly my favourite during our trip to Sri Lanka. Located in Koggala, just outside Galle, we arrived early afternoon and checked in to one of just 53 rooms in what is a huge building in a lovely location. In some ways, the trip had gone full circle with the Indian Ocean once again, as it did in Negombo, crashing against the rocks and sand to the rear of the hotel. We had some free time and made the most of the facilities with the pool and sunbeds complemented by being able to watch the turtles swimming and feeding close to shore on the seaweed between the rocks. The weather was changeable but it made for nice sunsets against which the silhouette of a single stilt fisherman stood out in the near distance.
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SriLanka20171796


After breakfast the following day Charma drove us to Galle where we did some sightseeing around Galle Fort and the adjacent lanes. We visited the Dutch Church, walked the ramparts and stopped on a couple of occasions for a drink over the space of a couple of hours. Back at The Fortress Hotel we enjoyed yet another great meal and sat watching the Indian Ocean again while the largest Bat (a Fruit Bat) either of us had ever seen flew over our heads. It marked the beginning of the end to our Sri Lankan holiday.
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SriLanka20171866


Charma had been great for us during our stay and while in the area stopped at another temple, a Sri Lankan boatyard, Weligama Bay to see the stilt fisherman and an area that had suffered during the 2004 tsunami where we saw a memorial to those that had died as a result. He had also had a tough time personally during our 12 days together with his 3-year old son first breaking his arm falling from his bike and requiring an operation and then being diagnosed with Dengue Fever. He was worried for several days and took a couple of bus rides back to Colombo during the evenings from wherever we were to be with his family but he was always back promptly the following morning to help us enjoy our day. He also had to quickly break to avoid a pedestrian suddenly walking in front of the car as we headed south towards the end of our stay. Two policeman on motorbikes happened to be nearby and had they not seen that he was totally not to blame for the incident he could have suffered an automatic 14 days in prison, regardless of nobody being hurt in any way. He was quite shaken up and equally relieved at the outcome. Charma was a big part of what had been a really top holiday on the island of Sri Lanka.
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SriLanka20171758


Charma’s final task was to drive us the following morning along the new and very impressive Southern Expressway to Colombo Airport from where we were due to catch a flight to Male and The Maldives for a few days. The Expressway left a good impression of the country as had the previous 11 or 12 days. And it definitely isn’t India.

Posted by david.byne 12:23 Archived in Sri Lanka Tagged landscapes waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches churches buildings trees animals birds sky boats architecture city Comments (0)

Extraordinary India and Wonderful Nepal (1)

Part 1 - India

sunny -38 °C

It’s just over 4,000 miles to Delhi from London; a mere eight and a half hours before you are plunged into a country of extremes which will eventually leave you exhausted and fascinated in equal measure. Whether it is the weather, the number of people, the traffic, the noise, the dust, the colours, India has it in truckloads. They have over 800 different languages shared around the 22 provinces and 22 religions with Hindu being the dominant force. Politically, India was just starting its General Election process as we arrived with the BJP attempting to wrestle power away from Congress.
The airport in New Delhi is recent, modern and thankfully efficient. We obtained our Visas prior to travelling although India will soon switch to a ‘visa on arrival’ system which may or may not be an advantage. Anyway, landed safely, reunited with baggage and met by our rep, we were soon on our way to the first hotel on our tour of Northern India and Nepal.
Delhi, like Istanbul and Cairo, is simply one of those cities that you shouldn’t even consider hiring a car. Our driver battled through the lunchtime traffic negotiating the five or six lanes of vehicles that evolved from the three that were marked on the road and the never-ending mash-up of cars, lorries, vans, tuk-tuk’s, bicycle rickshaws, motorbikes, bicycles and cattle created a chaos that was audibly reinforced by the constant use of the horn as the drivers battled with one another.
A_Delhi_001 (120)

A_Delhi_001 (120)


It was warm , very warm, but protected by the air conditioning in the Hotel Suryaa for most of the first day we didn’t really notice just how warm India was until we met up with Vinod (guide) the following morning and stepped into 37 degrees. Vinod, along with Rajesh (driver) would keep us company for the next five days as we toured Delhi, Jaipur and Agra.
Our visit to Delhi took us to the Red Fort, the Jama Masjid (one of Asia’s largest mosques), Raj Ghat (a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi and the place where he was cremated in 1948), Qutub Minar, Humayan’s Tomb, India Gate, the Parliament building, Rastrapathi Bhawan (the President’s residence), the old Viceroy’s Palace (the last viceroy being Lord Louis Mountbatten) and the very new Akshardham Temples. Looking up, the sky was full of large black birds that we eventually learned were Black Kites and they were everywhere to be found during our tour of India and Nepal. We travelled between the Jama Masjid and the Red Fort on a bicycle rickshaw through the streets of old Delhi dodging tuk-tuks, carts and cattle as we went. The narrow streets and large tangled knots of exposed electrical cables draped high across the roads were reminiscent of old Hanoi in Vietnam. Bicycle rickshaw driving is obviously a tough way to earn a living but our driver saw fit to regularly remind us as he pedalled us to the fort (not hinting for a tip then!!). Delhi and its noise, colour, heat, traffic and architecture had introduced us to India and given us a taste of what was to follow.
A_Delhi_001 (18)

A_Delhi_001 (18)


From Delhi we moved on to Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, nicknamed The Pink City. It was a six hour drive but with so much to see that was new to us the time passed easily. You really do see a lot of life from the passenger seat of a car in some countries. No motorways as such so the main and minor roads had a lot to offer and gave us an insight into everyday life for rural India. On route to Jaipur we saw our first ‘working’ camel trudging along the road pulling its load, a sight that I probably didn’t expect to see. We also had our first sighting of a wild monkey taking shade under a tree followed soon after by an elephant, as we approached the outskirts of Jaipur, heavily lumbering its way up a hill in the mid afternoon heat. Camels, Monkeys and Elephants are commonplace in Jaipur as we soon discovered. The detailed facade of Hawa Mahal, built in 1799 as a royal grandstand for the palace women, stands out as you drive through the centre of town and from there it was a short journey to the Marriott Hotel.
B_DelhiJaipur_001 (12)

B_DelhiJaipur_001 (12)


The following morning we were to see the Amber Fort Palace but first we were going for an elephant ride which was great. Elephant and owner had been together for 26 years and clearly had an understanding which was more than I could say for me and the stalking photographer who busied himself as we left on our short ride and met us with a set of ten photographs on our return. Why I would want ten photographs of us on an elephant I will never know – especially at 2,500 Rupees (£25) for the set. I offered him 100 Rupees for one and to cut a very long story short left with all ten for 200 Rupees after a protracted discussion.
The Amber Fort Palace in Jaipur is a main attraction in the city and was a real highlight. A snake charmer sits outside and usually pulls in a crowd before you climb the hill and enter the main gate. Musicians lurk around another corner and street vendors with musical instruments and beads home in on you as you walk. Everywhere you go In India there seems to be somebody appearing from nowhere to sell something but a polite ‘No thank you’ generally worked. Failing that we had to resort to Vinod’s advice and that was to simply ignore them. There is a lot to see and appreciate at the Amber Fort but beware, there’s not much shade!
C_Jaipur_001 (39)

C_Jaipur_001 (39)


City Palace was our next stop as the sun really started to warm things up. It’s a huge complex covering approximately one seventh of the walled city of Jaipur and combines Mughal (Mongol) and Indian architecture. Men in costume playing traditional instruments and women in sari’s hang around the most photogenic backdrops; some deliberately to pose for a photo for a small tip while the highly detailed and coloured architecture also keeps the camera busy and without the need for money to change hands! One of the palace buildings has an amazing room decorated in silver and glass while the general architecture, the doorways and interiors of the other rooms were equally impressive including one doorway decorated with a stunning peacock design that drew a lot of attention from visitors. We had lunch inside the grounds of the City Palace and found enough shade to be able to sit outside and eat while a musician provided some background music before we headed off to see Jantar Mantar.
C_Jaipur_001 (85)

C_Jaipur_001 (85)


Jantar Mantar is Jaipur’s observatory park containing oversized astronomical instruments – one of five such observatories around India and said to be the largest and best preserved. It is still in use and while originally less appealing on our itinerary it was actually worth the visit. In addition to having huge instruments designed and built for telling the time to a high degree of accuracy there are astrological constructions for each of the star signs. However, the area is totally exposed to the sun and while you could have spent hours wandering around the park and understanding everything that was there the appeal of the air conditioned car and a couple of lazy hours at the hotel convinced us otherwise.
From the first few days it became apparent that Jan was something of an attraction to the local people. People would randomly at will stand behind her while a friend took their picture or one would simple walk up, take the shot and walk away again. Some even asked to have their photo taken with her. This happened throughout our time in India.
C_Jaipur_001 (106)

C_Jaipur_001 (106)


We had eaten at one of the various restaurants available in the hotels so far on the trip but for our last night in Jaipur we had the option of eating out at a restaurant in a village resort called Chowki Dhani. It seemed a good idea at the time as we washed our hands and took our places, seated on the floor around small individual tables. Plates made from leaves and clay cups were handed out before the food and drink was brought around. It was impossible to try everything as it just kept on coming and some of the drink provided was a bit challenging. Nonetheless, we had as much as we wanted and headed back to the hotel to collapse after a long day.
From Jaipur, we hit the road again, this time heading for Agra and the Taj Mahal. The landscape during the journey was punctuated by the tall brick chimneys attached to brick factories and also three overturned vehicles in the middle of the road. If they are guilty of nothing else then Indians are certainly at fault for overloading their commercial vehicles to an extreme. Having navigated around the ‘dead’ trucks we stopped at Fatehpur Sikri, a great mosque built in the 17th century and located about an hour outside of Agra. Now empty, it was another huge sandstone fortress.
We reached the Wyndham Grand hotel in Agra late afternoon. As we drove into the centre of town and bumped tentatively along the road that desperately needed some kind of even surface Rajesh announced sarcastically “Welcome to Agra!” The immediate impression was that living in Agra would be especially tough and maybe the town relied exclusively on the benefit derived from having the Taj Mahal close by. As we turned off the main road into the hotel drive it was like entering a different world.
D_Agra_001 (4)

D_Agra_001 (4)


We had an early start the following morning with the aim of getting in to the Taj Mahal for sunrise but before that we were going out in the evening for a show. It was just over an hour long and in a colourful Bollywood style production it told the story of Shah Jahan and the events that led up to the building of the great memorial to his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
Vinod picked us up at 5 a.m. for the short but slow drive to the Taj followed by a fairly swift horse and carriage ride that got us to the main gate in time to be relatively near the front of the queue waiting for the area to open. There is a security presence everywhere in India and here was no exception with the separate lines for men and women being kept in check as the queue gradually lengthened ahead of the 6 a.m. opening time. On the dot we filed through for the regulatory bag check and frisking before being freed to wander up the wide path to the large arched gate through which you see the Taj Mahal at the far end of the complex. Between the gate and the Taj the area is landscaped as a large garden with a spine of water leading up to the main building flanked either side by identical smaller buildings. Tourists gather around the ‘Princess Diana’ seat rendering it virtually impossible to photograph from there even if you wanted to. The Taj was bigger than I expected and when we reached the steps we were given plastic coverings for our shoes prior to entering. The early morning temperatures were already rising steadily, and even at 6:30 in the morning it was good to escape into the shade of what is a marble masterpiece. Inside, the Taj is fairly ordinary compared to the amazing detail on the outside. With everything seen that there is to see and all photos taken, it was time to stroll back taking a slightly different route through the garden to where Vinod was waiting for us ‘in the shade!’.
D_Agra_001 (26)

D_Agra_001 (26)


Back to the hotel for breakfast before venturing out again. I was starting to struggle on our way out from the Taj Mahal and I was soon thinking that eating out in the way that we did at Chowki Dhani was possibly not a great idea. Regardless, we went on to see the Baby Taj which was where I finally conceded defeat. Agra Fort was next on the itinerary but not feeling so great plus the intense midday heat finally got the better of me and so I left Jan and Vinod to see the Agra Fort while I stayed in the relative cool of the car. Rajesh did his best by moving the car in the congested car park to a spot under a tree as soon as it became available. Unfortunately, I was a bit of a sitting target for any hawkers trying to sell whatever it was they were trying to sell but apart from muttering a feeble “No thanks” I had no idea what they were doing or offering at the time.
Feeling as I did, the prospect of an overnight train to Amritsar was more daunting than it would have been otherwise but later that afternoon we had to be back in the car and leaving the hotel for Agra Railway Station and at the same time saying goodbye to both Vinod and Rajesh who had looked after us so well. Vinod walked us on to the extremely busy Platform 1 and stayed until he knew we would be ok. He was a nice guy and really good company.
The train journey was 16 hours and would get us to Amritsar at around 8 am. Amritsar was the end of the line so at least there were no worries about missing the station. The train itself was in the middle of a 3 day journey. We joined at the end of day 2 and found our compartment before settling down. Three hours into the journey we were bluntly interrupted by one of the train attendants who told us we were on the wrong side of the compartment. We were in a 4-berth compartment, 2 on each side, and had taken the two bunks that we were told only to then be told to move. We started to move and after watching us do most of the work he informed us that he meant we were in the wrong compartment!! A fairly predictable communication breakdown!! Eventually we settled down again in the compartment next door and, feeling as I did, simply set the bed up and crashed for the night.
E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)

E_AgraAmritsarTrain_001 (4)


Any hopes we had of having the compartment to ourselves were dashed around 8 p.m. when a family boarded and took their places on the two beds opposite. Not ideal but the disturbed rest helped a bit and one or two stops before Amritsar the family left the train which gave us the time and space to sort ourselves out. At Amritsar we were met by another rep who took us to the Hyatt Hotel where we had breakfast and met Anil who would show us the sights of the city.
F_Amritsar_001 (9)

F_Amritsar_001 (9)


The Golden Temple at Amritsar was something I was really looking forward to seeing. Amritsar is in the Punjab and is the holiest shrine of the Sikh religion. Around 100,000 people wash their feet and cover their heads before entering to visit the Golden Temple every day. Originally constructed of white marble the temple now has much of its outer walls covered in a thick layer of gold; something which is added to as and when funds/donations allow. The temple is surrounded almost entirely by water and sits inside a complex that has entrances on all four sides. Followers of all faiths are allowed inside although the queue to see the holy book can be hours long which for us was prohibitive so we settled for walking around the outside of the temple before venturing inside some of the surrounding buildings. Anil also took us to see, as he described it, the largest kitchen in the world. Still within the Golden Temple complex, the kitchen serves 80,000 free meals each day and is manned by volunteers who prepare, cook, serve and wash up from 8 a.m. each morning until late at night.
F_Amritsar_001 (44)

F_Amritsar_001 (44)


Still barefooted, we walked through the different kitchen areas to watch the ingredients being prepared, mixed and then cooked. Dough was being rolled to make bread and the silver metal plates and cutlery were spotlessly clean and piled high ready for use. Anil explained that we would be welcome to join in and have food but we declined and made our way back into the temple complex after washing our feet again and rinsing the cauliflower from between our toes!!
After a couple of hours looking around the Golden Temple it was time to set off for Wagah, the border with Pakistan. Daily at 6 pm there is a ceremonial opening and closing of the gates between India and Pakistan which is watched by thousands of people on both sides. We arrived at around 5:30 pm and had seats in the ‘foreigners only’ section of the stand. A kind of pre-match entertainment kept our attention with M.C.’s either side of the gate whipping up the crowd in a competitive manner followed by music, dancing and some patriotic flag waving up to the border gate and back by privileged volunteers. Then, on the dot at 6 pm the main feature began with ceremonial foot stamping, fast marching and fist pumping aimed at the opposition.
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G_Wagah_001 (17)


A group of eight soldiers took their turn to perform the ritual, each ending at the gates facing across the border. The gates are opened and this is then followed by the national flags being crossed as if to signify unity between the two nations followed by a lowering and then more high kicks and stomping of feet before the gates are ultimately slammed shut as if to conclude a failure to agree by both parties. The crowd disperses, buying ice creams and snacks from street vendors as they make their way home and 24 hours later it all happens again. A brilliant end to an amazing day.
Amritsar had a slightly different feel about it. It was still very typically India and looked generally like everywhere else that we had visited but the Punjab is a comparatively affluent area with many wealthy farming families and maybe this had something to do with what we saw as a difference in attitudes of some of the people.
The following morning we had free time and lazed around the hotel pool. After lunch we visited a small summer palace of the Maharajah Ranjit Singh which is now a museum and garden and then drove to the site of the Amritsar Massacre (Jalian Walah Bagh in the local language). The bullet holes from the events on 13th April 1919 (basically 85 years to the day when we visited) are still visible in the brickwork that surrounds the now neatly landscaped garden. An eternal flame burns in memory and at the bottom of the garden stands a large memorial sculpture. Anil had been keen to take photos of us at many of the locations we had been together (to show his mother) and was genuinely very attentive and enthusiastic about what he had shown us during our two days in Amritsar and when the time came to leave for the evening train to Delhi he kindly helped with our bags through to the station platform.
H_Amritsar_001 (43)

H_Amritsar_001 (43)


The train to Delhi would take 6 hours, arriving at 11 o’clock at night. Hopefully, our rep would be there to meet us. He was, although hanging around Delhi Railway Station late at night fending off eager porters keen to earn a dollar could have become problematic had he been much more than five minutes late. Understandably in Delhi, the traffic had been the problem.
Half an hour later we were back in the Suryaa Hotel (one of our favourites) for a few hours before setting off to the airport after breakfast for our flight to Varanasi. We were met and transferred to the Gateway Ganges Hotel which was a fabulous hotel in huge grounds with a lovely pool. Overhead, the Black Kites ruled the skies once again! We settled in before Shaquil arrived with the driver to take us to Sarnath, one of the holiest Buddhist sites in the world where Buddha is said to have preached his first sermon in 500 BC. Every year in January the Dalai Lama, now exiled in the hills of Northern India, visits Sarnath. Unsurprisingly, prayer wheels, prayer flags and bells take centre stage, providing the colour for more photos and in a way making it feel a little less like the India that we had so far become accustomed to.
J_Varanasi_001 (31)

J_Varanasi_001 (31)


Varanasi is a very old city with a strong university sub-culture. Taking its name from a combination of the two rivers, the Varuna and the Assi that still flow in the north of the city, Varanasi is today most famous for its location on the banks of the Ganges. And it was the Ganges that we had really come to see. Probably one of the most polluted rivers in the world it still manages to entice people into its murky but holy waters. Our evening would be taken up on Daswamedh Ghat, one of several ghats (basically a series of steps down to the river) along the Ganges at Varanasi to watch the Aarti Ceremony at sunset. This is a daily ceremony where up to nine holy men offer prayers to the River Ganges by way of thanks for the day just passed. We paid a donation to take two seats on an upper terrace so that we could get a good view as the ceremony unfolded. People attend in large numbers each evening and take their place on the ghats or in boats to listen and watch as the ceremony is performed on the nine platforms. A mix of music, fire, chanting and incense burning takes place during the hour long ceremony before the crowd funnels itself back down the main Varanasi high street, again dodging the street vendors and tuk-tuks.
J_Varanasi_001 (124)

J_Varanasi_001 (124)


Twelve hours later and we were back at the same ghat but this time to board a boat and to be on the Ganges for sunrise. We were rowed several hundred yards each way from the ghat where the AARTI Ceremony took place the night before. Again, there were lots of people already descending on the area with many locals dipping and washing in the holy water. Along the river there were other ghats each with their own theme including a laundry ghat from where the dhobi wallah’s and their ‘runners’ operate businesses providing a laundry service for locals. The dhobi wallah’s persistently thrash the clothes against a flat slab of rock before rinsing them clean and hurling them on the banks to dry. They then get returned to their owners. A bit further downstream and a very advanced looking yoga class is underway on the steps of another ghat. It was so still, calm and peaceful on the river.
J_Varanasi_001 (159)

J_Varanasi_001 (159)


A few hundred yards in the opposite direction and you reach the cremation ghat. The smell of burning sandalwood fills the air as you approach the ghat and see the smoke from several small pyres. There is a constant supply of wood being brought to the scene on bikes and boats to be stacked in readiness to meet the bodies carried in under a shroud on a stretcher from the centre of town. As a backdrop to the various ghats the Ganges offers a number of temples and palaces that together form a unique waterfront at Varanasi.
J_Varanasi_001 (171)

J_Varanasi_001 (171)


We got off our boat here and tipped the boatman before following Shaquil up the steps, past the stocks of sandalwood and through the narrow alleys behind the cremation ghat. Our path was soon blocked by a cow but nervously squeezing past its rear end we continued on our way through the old and tatty but colourful alleyways. Two dogs suddenly went to war which broke the silence and this quickly attracted others from all directions to join the fight. With the dogfight well underway but thankfully behind us we eventually reached the main street again and returned to the hotel for breakfast. Shaquil arranged to collect us later that morning to see more of Varanasi including the Bharat Mata (Mother India) Temple, the Durga Temple (known locally as Monkey Temple for obvious reasons) and the University, an important part of the city, currently with 65,000 students.
Varanasi, like almost everything else we had seen in India, was amazing and this was to be our final sightseeing in the country before we took the flight to Nepal the following day.
B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

B_DelhiJaipur_001 (5)

Posted by david.byne 12:58 Archived in India Tagged sunsets_and_sunrises buildings people animals birds boats trains religion Comments (0)

Peru – East and West of the Andes

Jungle, Mountains, Lakes, Volcanoes & Desert all in one trip

all seasons in one day 22 °C

Having never been to South America before it took a while before deciding that Peru would be our destination. Ultimately, it became a straight choice between the land of the Incas and Argentina but a closer look revealed that the sheer size and diversity of Argentina plus the fact that a British summer was not the time to travel to that particular country meant that the necessary four weeks to see everything from Iguaza Falls to Tierra del Fuego would not be possible until the constraints of school holidays weren’t a factor. So Peru it would be!!

The trip eventually worked out to be a total of 22 days including travelling and it was very early one morning in August that we drove to Heathrow Airport Terminal 4 to make the short hop across to Amsterdam to connect with our KLM flight to Lima, the Peruvian capital. And twelve hours after taking off from Schiphol Airport we were touching down early evening in the arid coastal city on the Pacific coast.

Lima is far from the most attractive city in the world and its image isn’t helped by the fact that it appears for much of the time beneath a grey and overcast sky. Visually, aside from the main square (the Plaza de Armas) the city fails to inspire. Its suburbs seem awash with glitzy (tacky actually) casinos offering a financially struggling populace life-changing opportunities. It does however have its fair share of museums including a Gold Museum and if you walk down to the coast from the centre, probably no more than fifteen minutes, Lima has an interesting coastline and a few cliff top parks one of which resembles Park Guell in Barcelona. So it’s not all bad and, after all, cities are always good for shopping!!!

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13_Lima (11)

Lima was to be the start and finish of our South American adventure and after the initial two days and nights seeing the main historical sites and hearing all about Pizarro and those nasty Spanish we prepared for the next stage of our Peruvian trip; the Amazon Jungle!!

The flight from Lima to Puerto Maldonado on the eastern side of the Andes took just over an hour including a quick stop at Cusco. As we approached Maldonado the meandering tan shapes of the Amazon tributaries came into view surrounded by jungle for as far as the eye could see. Expecting a significant increase in temperature compared to dull, overcast Lima, we were surprised to find it only warm. The reason became clear a little later.

We were met at the airport by Erick, our Peruvian guide who had lived all of his life in Puerto Maldonado and for the past ten years had spent most of his time on the river, living and based at the Refugio Amazonas lodge, approximately three hours upstream from Maldonado. We boarded our bus for the short trip to the office where we would leave the majority of our luggage, taking only a small bag for the jungle for the 3 days and nights that we would be there. Outside the office a Sloth was busily lazing on the branch of a tree – our first wildlife. We were told that the previous day had seen strong winds and heavy, unexpected rain (this was the dry season). Trees had come down and a lorry turned over blocking the road to the port that we would usually have left from. As a result, we had to travel further down river to another port which would mean our journey to the lodge would take four hours rather than three. Oh well.

02_Jungle (7)

02_Jungle (7)

Back on the bus for the short ride to the port we soon tested our balance for the first time on the trip, walking the narrow gangplank to carefully take our places on the long, slim boat that would take us to Refugio Amazonas. One at a time; one to the left, one to the right, next to the left etc; so as not to upset the balance of the boat. All on board we settled down in our summer clothes unaware of how cold it would get by the half way stage of the journey. Our skipper was clearly trying to make up for lost time and with his local knowledge steered the boat at speed from right to left as we travelled the Rio Tambopata, avoiding whatever lay just beneath the surface of the muddy looking Amazonian waters. A floating tree – another victim of the previous day’s storm – almost got the better of us as, caught in an undercurrent, it suddenly moved towards us and with limited room to manoeuvre, we had to take a blow to the right hand side of the boats canopy just above the head of the person sitting in front of me. Instinctively we all ducked!

Daylight hours are roughly from 6 am till 6 pm in this part of the world. We were due to arrive at the lodge at around 7 pm and it was now dark as well as cold, quite different to what we had anticipated but with light pollution set to zero it was great to see a full array of stars in the night sky.

Because of our late arrival, we were ushered straight into dinner – the allocation of rooms could wait. The lodge itself was very eco-friendly, constructed with natural materials about ten years earlier. Miguel was the Manager and his introductory speech to us outlined the strict regime for breakfast, lunch and dinner and the fact there was no electricity in the rooms and that basically the place closed down for the night at 9:30 pm. Early starts would be the norm.

The rooms, for obvious reasons perched ten feet off the jungle floor on stilts, were divided up by walls of wooden logs with curtains acting as a front door and another between the bedroom and bathroom. The bed was covered with a box style mosquito net and the far side of the room completely open and facing the jungle. Sleeping, maybe surprisingly, wasn’t a problem although the cold (luke warm at best) shower in the morning ensured you were soon wide awake for the day ahead.

02_Jungle (13)

02_Jungle (13)

Miguel promised to solve the problem with the water temperature in Room No. 29 while we were out with Erick and Enzo for the morning. Enzo had joined Erick to share the workload and both were knowledgeable and spoke very good English. Straight after breakfast they gathered us together and led us off on the first trail. A Tarantula had been pointed out by one of the guides as we made our way from the boat to the lodge when we arrived the previous night. This morning, as well as the numerous birds and sounds it was the Capuchin Monkeys and Dusky Titi Monkeys that took centre stage. Watching one Brown Capuchin Monkey trying to crack a coconut against a branch high up in the canopy was a real highlight.

The butterflies, the birds and the jungle sounds were memorable. In particular, the sound of the Oro Pendula bird, conveniently nesting in a tree at eye level from the upstairs lounge at the lodge, entertained us for ages as we recovered with a drink at the end of a morning walk.

Add to that, (1) a medicinal trail where we learned about the various plants that were used as medicines in the jungle, (2) a night boat excursion looking for Caymans and Capybaras, (3) a visit to a fruit farm where we tried star fruit, oranges and bitter tomatoes among other things, (4) bird and piranha watching from a boat on a lake which also contained Electric Eels, Giant Otter, Catfish and Anaconda, (5) climbing a tower to view over the top of the jungle canopy and (6) some light trekking (avoiding Leaf Cutter Ants along the way) to see the Toucans, Parrots, Macaws and Peccary’s at two different clay licks and it gives a flavour of the three days that we spent in the Amazon Jungle.

The jungle had begun to seriously warm up by the time we left with humidity noticeably rising. Consequently, the cooling breeze as we raced back down the amazon towards Puerto Maldonado was a lot more welcome than it had been on that much cooler evening when we arrived. At Maldonado we were reunited with the rest of our luggage and, leaving Erick and Enzo behind us, took the 45 minute bus ride to the small airport for the flight to Cusco for our next challenge – altitude!!

Cusco sits at somewhere around 10,500 feet above sea level and it’s here that you first start noticing the effects. As a visual reminder hotels are equipped with Oxygen in the Reception areas for people in need. “Drink the Coca Tea” was the general rule and take it easy while you acclimatise.

03_Cusco (15)

03_Cusco (15)

We had six nights to enjoy Cusco and a suite at the Casa Andina Hotel, just a ten minute walk from the Main Square, the Plaza de Armas (all the main squares in Peru seem to be called the Plaza de Armas!). Having arrived late afternoon we did nothing more than stroll and test ourselves with the altitude prior to dinner. The old streets and the main square left a good early impression and the two free days that we had at the end of our stay (on Saturday and Sunday) would be a great chance to wander.

On our first full day in Cusco we met our guide, Gladys, and she took us to visit a number of the Inca sites that surround it including Tambomachay and Sacsayhuaman. The 11,500 feet altitude induced a mild and temporary headache and slight congestion but others were already feeling breathless as we walked the final stretch from the bus to the sites. In the evening we found a recommended restaurant just around the corner from the hotel and decided that we would try Cuy (Guinea Pig). Cuy is cooked in several different ways and while ours tasted ok it was hard work finding anything worthwhile and neither of us tried Guinea Pig again during the trip.

Day Two in Cusco and we ventured outside the city with a new guide, David, into the Sacred Valley to visit Chinchero and Ollantaytambo. Chinchero is a typical small Peruvian village with a community that live by traditional ways and means in an attempt to remain as self-sufficient as possible. The women work as weavers and spin the Alpaca wool into thread before dying it using natural materials and then weaving it into fabric. ‘Head Girl’ Olga gave a brief talk in her best English to entertain the group and get them into buying mode. And then, in the courtyard of the house the women offered for sale the various products that each had made. In the corner was a cage full of squeaking Guinea Pigs destined for the pot!

03_Cusco (117)

03_Cusco (117)

Ollantaytambo is a main stop on the railway line through the Sacred Valley en route to Machu Picchu and is also the location of the main archaeological site in the area. It was a hot day and getting to the top would have been challenging enough without the impact of altitude so it was no surprise when some, given the option to finish at one or two lower levels, chose to do precisely that. At the top, the view over the back provided a landscape of snow-capped mountains which made the effort worthwhile.

From Ollantaytambo we travelled to Pisac, another village in the valley but one with more than a hint of the touristic about it. The market, I am sure, has been operating for a long, long time but this was a scene geared very much towards the foreign visitors, as were the shops, bars and restaurants that lined the square on one side. Having said that, it was an opportunity to pick up one or two predictable presents and in any case, everywhere we went, there were photo opportunities.

Back in Cusco we had very little inclination to do much more than eat in the hotel and get some sleep ahead of the 5 o’clock departure for Machu Picchu the following day. The train left Poroy Station – about 45 minutes outside of Cusco – at 06:40. Perurail are a part of the Orient Express group and we were treated to a Peruvian version of the famous service with breakfast and drinks being served during the three hour journey that followed the line of the Urubamba River. It was a very classy trip with great scenery all the way to Aguas Calientes, the town at the end of the line that sits below Machu Picchu. From Aguas Calientes it was a twenty minute bumpy ride on the shuttle buses that compete for the narrow road all the way up the mountain. Once there, make use of the toilets (there are none inside!), get your passport stamped with the Machu Picchu stamp and enter through the turnstile, past the Hiram Bingham plaques and up the slope for your first sight of the Machu Picchu landscape.

04_MachuPicchu (8)

04_MachuPicchu (8)

When you enter the site there are three levels and you enter at the middle on a long terrace facing Machu Picchu (Old Mountain). Below, the classic photo of the site appears and it is from down there that you can start the 45-minute walk up to the summit of the old mountain. Above us is the Guard House and the Sun Gate from where the ‘calendar shot’ is actually taken. It’s a huge area and quite a challenge on the uneven Incan stone steps. The views around the bowl of mountains in which Machu Picchu stands are many and varied and supplemented by clouds that cling to the top of the landscape and threaten to engulf it, potentially ruining the view that you have travelled thousands of miles to see. Chinchillas laze on the enormous stones and Llamas roam the site but thankfully without the colourfully dressed peasant women asking tourists for ‘un Sol’ in exchange for a photograph. Machu Picchu is a relatively well controlled World Heritage site. Limits on the number of visitors were imposed a few years ago as a condition of its status and this is supposed to prevent more than 2,500 people visit each day – but then money talks doesn’t it. We were fortunate to see most of the ruins with few other people around and credit for that was due to David, our guide, who knew how to get around the site and avoid the crowds. However, the constant stream of shuttle buses travelling up and down the mountain all day long at ten minute intervals makes it hard to believe that the 2,500 limit isn’t being exceeded.

Back in Cusco after the return train journey, complete again with food and refreshments and on-board fashion show by the Perurail employees (they work very hard for their money!) we reflected on a great day. We didn’t reach the hotel until 9:15 in the evening but the next two days were totally free time and so we made our own plans for the weekend. There is plenty to see and do in Cusco. The main square is easy to get to and everything is within touching distance from there; the Cathedral, Santa Catalina Convent, the theatre, Son Blas, restaurants, bars and the main shops.

Son Blas is a small district a few roads back from the Plaza de Armas at the end of a matrix of some attractive narrow streets, opening out into a plaza with an impressive water feature at the top end. The square was dotted with table-top vendors but it has a very relaxed atmosphere with no pressure to buy anything that was on offer. There are also one or two shops and the usual bars – it was a nice way to spend an hour or so on another hot day. With the boxes ticked for this, the Cathedral and Santa Catalina Convent we headed back to the hotel. The Sunday was to be a totally random kind of a day; so much so that I decided to have a day out without the camera. After all, it was day six in Cusco and what could I possibly take photos of that I hadn’t taken already? By the time we had walked from the hotel to the main square again that question had been answered. We walked straight into the middle of a parade with what appeared to be numerous schools presenting themselves in colourful costumes to dignitaries sat on a V.I.P podium just in front of the main cathedral doors. Bands played and the kids from the schools (possibly dance schools) danced and they were eventually followed by what was effectively a Carnival Queen. Needless to say, all of this warranted a walk back to the hotel to get the camera!! More photos!! It was great to have the two days in the middle of the trip doing exactly what we wanted and we even managed to get the washing done locally.

We were now moving on to Puno and in particular Lake Titicaca. Our transport was to be the Andean Explorer train, again run by Perurail in their own Orient Express kind of way. The journey would take ten hours but travelling across the picturesque Altiplano, the high plains, it was unlikely ever to drag. The train had an observation car at the back which gave complete views of the surrounding countryside as we cruised at 25 miles per hour at between 11,000 and 14,000 feet above sea level with the edges of the Andes Mountains visible on both sides. Alpacas, Llamas, Vicunas and Guanacos plus sheep, bulls, cows and numerous birds complemented the landscape. The occasional town offered a brief but chaotic contrast to the calm, unspoiled Altiplano with trackside markets and tuk-tuk’s dominating the scene and children running behind the train waving. Perurail help the time pass easily by providing food and drink intervals, another fashion show, musicians, the bar and, of course, the observation carriage and scenery. And by late afternoon we were approaching Juliaca, the final stop before Puno. Juliaca is a marmite town which a lot of people wouldn’t like but others, including me, loved the experience of passing through it and taking photographs from the back of the train. Juliaca has an edge to it. It isn’t attractive, doesn’t look very clean and certainly doesn’t appear prosperous. The long straight train track through the centre of town was under severe pressure on both sides from the trackside market stalls. It seemed you could buy anything and some goods such as books and oranges were even being displayed on the ground between the tracks while the trains run over the top! Expressions on faces varied, some happy, some sad, some looked angry or simply worn down by life and others simply looked focussed on what they were doing; trying to earn a living. But regardless, almost all of the children were entertaining and happy to run with the train and along the track, calling and waving as we trundled through their town. As soon as the back of the train passed by, the track evolved a series of its own crossings with animals, cars, bikes, tuk-tuk’s (imported into Peru from India in the 1990’s) and people all busily moving across the track. For me Juliaca was a memorable part of our Peruvian experience.

06_Altiplano_AndeanExplorer (85)

06_Altiplano_AndeanExplorer (85)

Having already said that Juliaca had an edge to it, much the same could be said for Puno where our journey on the Andean Explorer ended. As the train eased its way into the station a welcoming stone was hurled at the window by one of the locals. Significantly larger than Juliaca, Puno sits on the south west corner of Lake Titicaca but other than the lake itself there is little felt worthy of advertising for visitors to see. On the other hand, Lake Titicaca really is worth spending time on. At 13,000 feet it ranks as the highest lake in the world and is huge. Our hotel had its own pier which was surrounded by reeds and marshes which were home to numerous species of birds as I discovered on an early morning walk along the frost covered boards of the pier. We spent a day on the lake visiting first the floating Uros Islands and then Taquile Island. The Uros Islands are about sixty strong and are home to Aymara speaking families, approximately 2,500 people in total. The people construct and maintain their own islands and the houses that they live in using the reeds from the lake. Anchored to the bottom of the lake the islands are visited in rotation to ease the pressure on the families and also to share any income gained from tourism. The one that we visited was called San Miguel and six families (around 42 people ) lived there. Life unsurprisingly is basic with the women doing the usual weaving and other craft work while the men do whatever they do including maintaining the island, the property and the boat (also made from the reeds from Titicaca - as Thor Heyerdahl did for his Kontiki expedition). We spent about an hour learning about how the islands are maintained and looked inside the houses before predictably being asked if we wanted to buy anything. Equally predictably, we did!

07_LakeTiticaca (30)

07_LakeTiticaca (30)

By contrast, Taquile Island is on solid ground and home to small farming communities. From here it’s easy to see the mountains of Bolivia on the far eastern shore of Titicaca. Mount Illimani, acts as a landmark for La Paz. It’s not an easy walk from one side of the island to the other but we had the motivation of a drink and lunch at the top before we descended down the other side to meet up with our boat again for the journey back to Puno. Again, the views had been spectacular.

The hotel was out on a bit of a limb as far as the town was concerned so we didn’t venture any further than the hotel restaurant in the evening. We had the following morning free and then we went off to visit the Sillustani Funerary Towers that lie about an hour outside of Puno alongside another very photogenic lake. In the centre of the lake is an island that is now a reserve for Vicunas. The lakeside location and the general landscape far exceeded my interest in the history of the towers themselves and while it was a particularly hot day for and the effort required to climb to the top was considerable it was worth it for the views alone.

We had a flight to catch from Juliaca Airport to Arequipa later that afternoon and the trip to Sillustani is conveniently on the way. The joys of Juliaca came quickly flooding back as we briefly flirted with the traffic, the market and the railway line again in the centre of town before squeezing our way through and out of the chaos to the airport located on the outskirts. Inside the terminal building was almost as chaotic and disorganised as the town centre but we made our way through their very different and not totally convincing security process before finding the departure lounge.

From Juliaca, the flight to Arequipa is just under one hour and we were met by Alberto who would be our guide in the area for a couple of days. Our hotel, the Somesta del Posada, was right in the middle of town on one side of the main square, the Plaza de Armas!! Surrounded by Volcanoes, some currently active, Arequipa represents Peru’s second city after Lima. Arequipenos are proud of their city to the extent that they are making what could only be described as a whispered and tentative claim for independence from the rest of Peru. However, apart from promoting Arequipa in every conceivable way possible including their own beer – Arequipena (a direct competitor to Cuzquena in Cuzco) – it is difficult to imagine such claims ever being taken seriously enough to get their campaign off the ground. Our main points of interest whilst in Arequipa were the town itself and in particular the museum where ‘Juanita’ is on show, Santa Catalina Convent, and Colca Valley and Canyon to watch the Condors fly.

First stop was to see Juanita in a museum just around the corner from the hotel. Also known as the Inca Ice Maiden and Lady of Ampato, ‘Juanita’ is the well-preserved frozen body of an Inca girl who was killed as an offering to the Inca gods sometime between 1450 and 1480, at approximately 11–15 years old. She was discovered on Mount Ampato (part of the Andes cordillera) near Arequipa in 1995 by anthropologist Johan Reinhard and his Peruvian climbing partner, Miguel Zárate. Today, she is on display in the city, preserved in a temperature controlled glass casing and is the highlight of the museum visit.

Arequipa is a typical bustling city overwhelmed by people and traffic. It also has its fair share of earthquakes - on average there is one every two hours in Peru!!). The most common car in Peru is by far and away the Daewoo Tico and you see these everywhere, often in coincidental convoy in a variety of colours but predominantly yellow. Most taxis are yellow Daewoo Tico’s. A couple of roads back from the main square you will find the large covered market which sells almost everything you can think of and around the corner from here is the Santa Catalina Convent, probably Arequipa’s main tourist attraction. Described as a ‘city within a city’ Santa Catalina is well worth a visit and the guided tour lasting about an hour explains the history of the multi-coloured buildings. But both Juanita and Santa Catalina Convent were added bonuses as far as we were concerned. The main purpose of being based in Arequipa was to be within reach of Colca Canyon to take the opportunity of seeing the Condors fly. It meant that we transferred from Arequipa to the Colca valley, a journey across the highlands of almost four hours passing Llamas, Alpacas and Vicunas again as we drove for a while on the new road that stretches from the Atlantic Coast starting in Brazil through Bolivia and Peru before finishing on the Pacific Coast in Chile. We stopped for lunch at Chivay and then stayed overnight at Colca Lodge, a spa resort deep in the valley with natural hot springs within its list of facilities. We arrived late afternoon and it was a lovely sunny evening that provided enough light to stroll to the Alpaca Farm on the other side of the river. Photographically the light was as good as it had been so far on the entire trip so there was little respite for the camera but as the light dimmed the prospect of a Pisco Sour by the hot springs began to emerge as the next favourite pastime. And we were still there after the sun had set.

It was another early start the following morning as we headed off for the canyon with the hope but no guarantee of seeing the Condors rise up from the valley and pose for photos. Colca Canyon is a popular venue for this particular ‘sport’ and others had clearly started closer or left earlier than us but it was a large viewing area and easy to find space to wait and watch. Hundreds of eyes scanned in various directions until high above the peak behind the canyon the first Condor was spotted but it was a long way away and, for me, I wanted to see one much closer to feel satisfied with the morning’s effort. We only had just over an hour before starting a short trek across the top of the valley to get back to our bus and whilst we saw a second and then a third Condor flying high above us it still didn’t tick the box as far as I was concerned. Time ticked away and I was literally about to change lenses on the camera and concentrate on other things away from giant birds when below us as we looked down the valley we spotted outspread wings gliding in a circular and gradually upward motion towards where we were standing. Within seconds it had soared on the thermals up to our eye level and then did a fly-past from right to left in front of us. It was a real wow moment and I just hoped that from first sighting to last I had captured enough quality on camera to do justice to what would be a lasting memory. We continued watching ‘our Condor’ as it soared and climbed until it disappeared over the next ridge before we joined Alberto and the others for the short trek back to the bus. The walk took us along the edge of the top of the valley which gave us an infinite number more viewing points to hopefully see more Condors or even other birds in the area. And we did. Probably the largest Condor that we saw flew above us as we continued walking. It was big and black and with a huge wingspan and if it had been closer would surely have eclipsed our earlier sighting. The valley floor was over one mile beneath us at this point although the maximum drop in the Colca Valley reaches two miles at one point. We walked past a dead donkey and a dead cow on our way back to the bus; surely these wouldn’t go to waste up here!!! Alberto spotted a Humming Bird flying around a cactus and then said that he could hear Parakeets before pointing them out as they flew into trees on the side of the mountain.

10_ColcaValley&Canyon (61)

10_ColcaValley&Canyon (61)

We had seen eleven condors, our fair share, and it was time to go. We had a four hour journey back to Arequipa passing the lodge on the way and stopping at Chivay for a quick break before moving on down the mountains. What came next was totally unexpected. We remembered Alberto mentioning earlier that he thought he had seen a snowflake falling. Within half an hour of us being on the road from Chivay that solitary snowflake had turned into a full blown blizzard and one that would ultimately make national and even international news!!

Within another half an hour the entire area was white and the roads were very dicey. Our driver did brilliantly, taking no risks as we made our way down, passing again the Llamas, Alpaca and Vicunas who were understandably looking far less lively than they did in the earlier sunshine. We weren’t to know at this stage that within a couple of days the news would break that over 5,000 people had been made homeless as a result of this snowstorm and over 20,000 animals including Llamas, Alpacas and Vicunas had died.

We arrived back around sunset which was around 6:30 pm and agreed with several others to meet later and go out for dinner on our last evening in Arequipa with the aim of finding more Alpaca – to eat this time – which we did.

The flight from Arequipa the following day reunited us with the capital city of Lima within one hour but from the airport we drove straight to Paracas, around three hours down the coast by car. Our outbound flight from Arequipa had been delayed so we were late into Lima and therefore later getting to Paracas. Lima was its usual overcast self with barely a hint of breaking sunshine and by the time we reached Paracas it was dark and we couldn’t properly see what awaited us until we checked in and reached our room. Everything was coated in up to 5mm of sand; the result of a sandstorm during the afternoon. Paracas literally translates as Sandstorm and each storm lasted usually for three days and day two had just passed. The cleaning staff at the hotel were already working their way around the rooms and after a quick word at reception ours was moved up the list. Within an hour and after a free Pisco Sour we were able to occupy the suite that we had for two nights to see first the Nasca Lines and then on the following day pay a visit to the Ballestas Islands. Would our room survive day three of the sandstorm? We covered everything that we could just in case.

We travelled on the Pan-Pacific Highway to reach the Nasca Lines. The highway stretches 27,000 kms down the west coast of the Americas from Alaska to Argentina and 3,000 of those kms are in Peru. Peru’s coastline is entirely desert. On the way to Nasca we stopped at Ica to visit a cultural museum. I’m not a massive fan of museums but this was as good as I’ve seen with the usual artefacts being spiced up with mummy’s and the techniques used by the nobility to deliberately deform skulls as a sign of superiority. Amazing.

Nasca is located on the open road with the Pan-Pacific Highway actually constructed through one of the Nasca Lines thus decapitating ‘the lizard’. We had already decided on UK Government advice not to take one of the flights over the lines and instead chose to observe what we could from the viewing towers alongside. As it turned out, the imminent sandstorm ended any prospect of flights being made on the day we were there and the view from the tower was good enough to see two of the Nasca Lines to justify the trip.

On the way back to Paracas we could see day three of the storm in the distance. We stopped to visit yet another archaeological site before stopping again at Ica, this time for lunch and then it was back on the road with fingers crossed over the state of the rooms at the Doubletree Resort. It really was a lovely hotel which under different circumstances would be a luxury. Located on the beach it has lovely swimming pools and outdoor lounging and bar areas but we had little time until the morning before we departed to enjoy the facilities to any extent.

Our very last excursion on this holiday was to the Ballestas Islands. Approximately half an hour out to sea from Paracas the islands are home to almost one million birds plus Sea Lions and Penguins and you can see Dolphins a little nearer to the coast. Just before you reach the islands the boat pulls in and drifts off of a smaller island. The island is basically a massive sandstone rock and on it, in the same way as the Nasca Lines have been etched, is the outline of what looks like a candelabra. It has become a bit of a tourist attraction in its own right although it’s really only a warm-up act for the Ballestas Islands.

As we approached the islands the sharp-eyed among the passengers on the boat spotted one or two inquisitive Sea Lions poking their heads out of the water. The number of birds in the sky at this point was striking and as we got closer to land the number was simply unbelievable. It was easy to understand the importance placed on the gathering and exporting of the Guano from this place! Nobody is permitted to set foot on the islands other than the three Rangers that look after the environment and supervise the farming of the Guano. Our boat switched its engines off and we drifted closer and closer to shore to initially view the Booby Birds, Cormorants, Pelicans, Terns and Penguins.

12_Paracas (80)

12_Paracas (80)

The rock formations, colours and natural windows in the rocks were an attraction on their own and our captain skilfully manoeuvred the boat around the islands to the various inlets to try and see as much as possible. Around one such corner we reached and saw for the first time the Sea Lions, lazing heavily upon the rocks and occasionally throwing themselves back into the water as it crashed against the rocks that they call home. Territorial instincts surfaced as a rival ventured too far into another’s personal space while others were playing. The Sea Lions were a highlight and it would have been easy to have drifted on the Pacific for longer observing both them and the birds but we soon had to start the journey back to the pier but not before cruising nearer to shore to see the Dolphins. Once back in Paracas we disembarked and received a gift from the boat as a memento; nice touch.

It was still only 10:30 am which was nice as we had already done so much and now had several hours to enjoy the beach and the hotel facilities before we caught the bus back to the capital in preparation for our return flight to the UK. The pool bar and lounge had just been cleaned following the previous days rush of sand from the desert so we took advantage and sat there with a drink for a while. The lazy chairs looking from the beach out to sea were another brief refuge before we finished our stay with a walk up and down the long stretch of sand, counting the jellyfish that had washed up onto the beach and were by now in various stages of decomposition. A couple of small boats were anchored just offshore and these had been commandeered by groups of birds, predominantly Pelicans, that perched lazily on the edges of each boat, occasionally taking off and briefly exercising their wings before resting on the ocean for a while and then returning to the boat.

Packed for the final time we made our way to the local Bus Station; in fact, a hut. Inside, best attempts had been made to make the whole operation (run by the Cruz del Sur bus company) look as professional as possible. There was a waiting area and some vending available with drinks and ice creams but best of all there was an information desk and an airport style check in where somebody took your bags, stapled a yellow ticket to them and gave you the matching half of each ticket as a receipt. The bags were then put on the floor behind him in a heap until all of the passengers had been checked in. The same operative then began phase two of the process moving the bags from the floor onto the shelf on the outside wall. From here, unemployment among others in the room fell and two more became operational, moving the bags from the shelf to the waiting transport. While this was underway we were ushered into an orderly line to board what was a double decker luxury coach bedecked in Cruz del Sur livery, something that I then realised I had seen many times during our stay in Peru. At the point of boarding we were greeted at the bottom of the stairs ‘airline style’ by an immaculately dressed hostess who checked our tickets and directed us to our seats upstairs. The coach had all modern conveniences including the usual airline-style onboard services and entertainment. Pillows and blankets were provided for the four hour journey which would get us to Lima for 7 pm. It was all very well done but having said all of that the four hours spent on the coach were more than enough for me and confirmed my preference for smaller vehicles, trains and planes.

Back in Lima, we stayed at the same hotel as that when we arrived and it was nice to be on familiar ground in that respect. No time to venture out so plans were laid for last-minute shopping in the city the following morning plus a walk to the coast for a drink. The Gold Museum is supposed to be worth seeing but its location wasn’t convenient and time simply ran out.

Lima Airport was more challenging than on arrival as a result of the two British girls that had been arrested for drug smuggling. Sniffer dogs were everywhere as we queued to check-in and drop our bags for the hold. Thankfully, the flight was on time and 8 pm in Lima on Wednesday very quickly became 3 pm in Amsterdam and then 6 pm in the UK. Home again.

Peru had been a great choice for our first South American journey. Our expectations were more than met particularly towards the end where the itinerary, on paper at least, felt to be tailing off but that was far from the case. The cities, the jungle, the mountains, the lakes, the desert, the ocean, the animals, the birds and the people all combined to make this a fantastic holiday.

Posted by david.byne 01:33 Archived in Peru Tagged landscapes sunsets_and_sunrises mountains lakes beaches bridges churches buildings skylines people children trees animals birds sky snow boats trains ani Comments (0)

Che, Cigars & Salsa

Caribbean Culture

all seasons in one day -28 °C
View Cuba 2010 on david.byne's travel map.

It’s a 9 hour flight from London to Havana and we landed at 4:30 in the afternoon at Jose Marti International Airport. Entry into Cuba was interesting and had similarities with Passport Control at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport many years ago. But after much examination of the passport, the door into Havana was opened and then quickly slammed shut as each individual passed through, leaving whomever you were travelling with to take their turn out of both sight and earshot. Eventually, the door opens again, thankfully to admit the face you were expecting rather than a stranger which, in such an unfortunate event, would beg the question, “Where the hell…..?”

Luggage Reclaim was more of a challenge than at many other places. Firstly, identifying the correct carousel for your flight was more intuitive. Secondly, a baggage handler was busily removing bags and creating a random pile alongside. And, if you took your eye away from the bags as they entered the scene on one of two separate carousels, yours could easily be ‘selected’ for removal onto the airport floor. Anyway, we got lucky and were soon off to find the Travel Rep and then the air conditioned coach as the temperature quickly felt Caribbean.

The journey from the airport to our hotel took 30 minutes. The Parque Central Hotel in the middle of Havana was to be our home for the first five nights before travelling four hours further down the island to the coastal city of Trinidad – a world heritage site - for the second half of the holiday.

There was little left of the day on the Sunday but we walked as far as the Capitolio and then back to stroll down the Boulevard Prado to El Malecon. And despite more ambitious ideas earlier, our evening meal turned out to be little more than a pizza on the roof of the hotel!

Most of what we wanted to do we knew in advance. Tuesday became fully booked with Vinales Valley taking up the day and the Buena Vista Social Club providing the entertainment in the evening. We decided that Tropicana would be a good place to eat and spend our last evening in Havana, on the Thursday.

With all of the planning and organising taken care of we headed off in a taxi to Revolution Square to see a huge memorial to that man Jose Marti as well as the distinct outlines of both Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos on the buildings at the far side of the Plaza. Plaza de la Revolucion is basically a huge square where thousands of people can gather for whatever reason Cuba sees fit and it exposed us for the first time to the heat of the day. Having seen all there was to see in Revolution Square we slumped into one of Cuba’s novelty Coco-Taxi’s to get ourselves back to the Capitolio, the focal point building in central Havana. Looking very much like Cuba’s own version of the White House the Capitolio provided us with a backdrop to our first real sight of the classic old American cars whose lives have somehow been extended by a combination of the favourable climate and the resourcefulness of Cuban mechanics. A walk around the perimeter of the Capitolio uncovered what looked like an old train scrap yard. There was also one of Havana’s premier cigar factory’s (El Partegas), a fairly major bus stop, and the edge of downtown Havana and its Chinatown district.

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Cuba_SF__20100405_007

And it was here, close to the entrance to Chinatown, that we stopped for a drink ….. and also where we met Fernando. The bar was very ‘local’ and a drink was all we wanted but our waiter who spoke excellent English engaged us in conversation for the next half an hour and concluded with an offer of dinner with him (Fernando) and his wife that evening. Having researched Cuba I knew of the likelihood of this kind of offer as Cubans, some legally and some illegally (i.e. licensed and unlicensed), trade their hospitality for extra cash to try and bridge the economic gap between the real cost of an average living and the combination of state rations and a low personal income. So, we agreed that at 7 o’clock that evening we would get a taxi the short distance to Fernando’s home.

But before that, we headed for the streets and sights of Old Havana to see the old squares - Plazas Vieja, San Francisco and de las Armas. We set off on foot through the city in the direction of the port, passing La Floridita (one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bars). A glimpse inside the door showed it was far too busy – “we’ll come back” we thought.

The streets of Havana, with a few exceptions, are very rundown and in much need of repair and renovation. This process is happening but slowly. In its own modest way it’s a busy, bustling city but, with the equivalent of the population of London spread out over an island almost equal in size to the UK, the volumes of both people and traffic make life comfortable almost all of the time. Money is scarce and, with government controls being the way they are, Cuba has by default become a comparatively eco-friendly country with horses and bicycles used for private and public transport. Coco Taxis, powered by what is basically a small motor bike, exist mainly for the benefit of tourists whilst almost every car that you see can double as a taxi (official or unofficial) if required. Cuba is a third world country and with it comes a few idiosyncrasies that the eager tourist must make allowances for. It strikes me that it’s similar to Spain maybe forty years ago when you couldn’t guarantee running water every day and the shelves in the shops displayed little variety and were half-empty. So don’t be surprised if sometimes things fall short of your usual expectations.

Accepting the invitation to Fernando’s house for dinner was maybe a gamble but in hindsight it was nothing other than a safe decision. We spent around two hours talking about things Cuban over dinner and drinks. It was fun to talk football, basketball, education and life in general although Fernando’s wife spoke no English and so her contribution was mainly culinary but we left with a gift of three cigars plus a simple, unplanned and memorable experience in exchange for a financial donation that was gratefully received by our hosts. Fernando’s subtle reluctance to see us out as far as the street confirmed my suspicions that his was of the ‘unlicensed’ type of Casa Particular. Our relatively short walk back to Parque Central was easy and uneventful; in stark contrast to what had been a busy first full day in Havana.

It was an early start for us on the Tuesday. We needed to be ready for the journey to Vinales Valley by 7:30. With the Buena Vista Social Club already pencilled in for the evening it was going to be a long day. Vinales was a 2 ½ hour bus ride and on route we stopped to see a Cigar Factory, Tobacco Farm and the local caves as well as the Valley of Vinales. And contrary to what some of the guidebooks had said about the food in Cuba, we found the standards to be more than acceptable. The visit to Vinales included a lunch and being so early in the holiday we were slightly dubious about what would be set before us but there was no need to worry; and that proved to be the case for the rest of our stay in Cuba.

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Cuba_SF__20100406_073

Back in Havana we found ourselves on a strict deadline to get to the Havana Club Bar and Museum in Old Havana, close to the commercial port. The Buena Vista Social Club was founded in the thirties and has gained a worldwide reputation for its brand of Cuban music and song. The original members have almost all since passed away but the existing participants have managed to maintain the high standards set by their predecessors. A couple of Cuban dancers added a touch of Salsa to the ongoing efforts of the various singers and musicians until midnight when after several Mojito’s we exited the door of the Havana Club Bar straight into an always available and very reasonable taxi that took us back to Parque Central for one more drink before bed.

The following morning we wanted to take the small ferry across Havana Bay. Another taxi ride down to the port, we managed to find the ferry ‘terminal’, bought our tickets, had our bags searched and stepped onto the boat. The rusty, flat-bottomed boat eventually chugged into action for the short ten minute crossing. Two places separated by even the smallest stretch of water can have a totally different feel and atmosphere. We had left behind the busyness of the city and disembarked on the eastern side of the bay in an area of almost total peace and quiet. But the sun was relentless as we walked up the hill to the fortress area and to Che Guevara’s house, now a museum. Perched high, next to the large statue of Christ, Che's house overlooked the bay and old Havana. The chance to see the various Che artefacts, photographs and personal belongings were well worth the effort and Che Guevara, as you quickly discover, is a hugely significant figure in Cuba - for an Argentinian!

Cuba_SF__20100407_118

Cuba_SF__20100407_118

Che’s house was a ten minute walk from the fortress which was then a further ten minutes to the lighthouse. We laboured in the heat around the old military fort which covered a large area on this eastern side of the bay and walking around the lanes within the grounds soon became quite draining so eventually we found the one and only place where we could buy a drink and, amazingly, we were the only customers. One Buccanero beer later and then another and we decided to get back over to the main part of the city. Could we find a taxi? It’s simple in Cuba, speak to anybody and they will get you a taxi. Whether it’s a proper taxi or more likely a friend with a car who will give you a lift for a fee often remains to be seen. This time, it was definitely a friend with a car; an old American car, a knackered old American car with a crack across half of its windscreen but then this is Cuba, the land of MoT’s and regular servicing, I think not!

The car took us back across and we had a short walk from where we got out to Plaza de San Francisco. From here, we ventured into Plaza Vieja, Plaza de las Armas and also the Cathedral. Lunch and Mojito’s were taken at La Bodeguita del Medio and we poked our noses into the Hotel Ambos Mundo (another Hemingway favourite).

The stroll back towards Parque Central somehow seemed longer due to the heat of the day. And by the time we La Floridita it was time for a drink and this time there was plenty of room at the bar. Two Daquiri’s each and an hour later we made our way back to the hotel, having decided by then that we would eat that evening in the Restaurante del Oriente down in Plaza de San Francisco. The remainder of the afternoon was spent on the roof of the hotel by the pool with a book and in the hot tub.

The Restaurante del Oriente was one of Havana’s more upmarket eateries. We knew in advance so were well prepared for the expense but it’s nice to do it at least once each holiday. And so we did. Afterwards we walked around some of Old Havana at night before finishing in the bar at the hotel with yet another different cocktail.

The following day, Thursday, was our last full day in Havana and there were still a few places to see. First was the the city’s cemetery. It is huge and worth stopping for half an hour or so. The Cementario Colon contained a mixture of the small and regular at one end of the scale and the huge and ornate at the other end. Tombs belonging to famous Spanish and Cuban families with their own security systems sit alongside, as an example, a pyramid (resembling a small model of those in Giza, Egypt). Much visited is La Milagrosa, the grave of Senora Amelia Goyra who died in childbirth at the beginning of 20th century. Mother and Child are said to have been buried side by side but when the coffin was subsequently opened the baby’s body was found in its mother’s arms. [In Havana, the bodies of the poor are allowed to be buried in the most prominent area of the cemetery for two years and they are then removed and reburied in smaller concrete ‘municipal’ caskets in a secluded and largely unvisited part of the grounds.]

From here, we hailed one of Havana’s smarter looking taxi’s which took us to the Callejon de Hammel - a tiny side street that has been given over by the Cuban government to artists and sculptors and the entire street is a work of art. It is very much ‘downtown’ Havana and far from a typical tourist destination. Because of that were a curiosity but never felt threatened in any way so we took our photographs and moved on. From here, we headed for the El Malecon promenade and on to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a huge edifice and one of Havana’s top hotels. It overlooks the sea from its raised position and whilst the location isn’t ideal for getting about easily and sightseeing, the facilities in the hotel are first class so a drink in the garden overlooking the Caribbean was well in order.

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Cuba_SF__20100408_216

The Cuban sun was on maximum again and Plaza de San Francisco was simply too far to contemplate walking. Therefore, our contribution to the Taxi Driver’s Fund continued to increase. Next on the list was the covered Craft Market down by the waterfront. This was further away than we thought and we needed the help of a member of staff at the nearby Hotel Santander to locate it.

I rarely expect much from local markets aside from the chance to exercise the camera but the Havana craft market solved a few 'Gift' problems and we spent some of our Convertible Cuban Pesos (CUC).

On our way back towards Old Havana we stopped at the Hotel Santander for a drink; our way of repaying the assistance given earlier which helped us find the craft market. From here it was an easy stroll back through Old Havana – in my opinion the most relaxing area in the city, full of colour and easy on both the eyes and the senses. Clearly, this is where most of the investment has been made to-date in the huge refurbishment project that exists.

We stopped for lunch at the Café El Escorial in Plaza Vieja and then set about finding one of the old casa’s that are open to the public in this part of the city, La Casa de Africa. Essentially, this is an example of a large traditional Cuban residence that has been transformed into a museum. The exhibits majored on Santeria, a religion estimated to still being practised by up to 65% of the population, and walking around the casa for a while certainly added another piece to the Cuban cultural jigsaw that we were slowly piecing together.

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Cuba_SF__20100408_248

This was to be our last experience of the sights and sounds of Old Havana and we made our way back up through the distressed backstreets including the now familiar “O’Reilly”, a street that we almost always found on our way back to without even trying. And we knew that if we kept walking we would eventually see the dome of El Capitolio before arriving at the junction close to La Floridita, a stones throw from our hotel.

The pool and the hot tub on the roof of the Hotel Parque Central now seemed a good fit for the rest of the afternoon.

We had booked an evening meal at Tropicana Club before the 2 hour show. Tropicana has been operating since 1939 and is located on the south western outskirts of the city so we allowed time for the 30-minute taxi ride. Our taxi driver, Javier, offered to be outside waiting for us after the show had ended and did so without payment in advance so we readily agreed. Isn't trust a great thing!!??

The show at Tropicana was something else that simply had to be done. And I’m pleased to say that it was more classy and traditional than typically tourist and splashing out on both the meal beforehand and front row seats proved to be money well spent.

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Cuba_SF__20100409_276

Afterwards, as promised, Javier was outside waiting for us and half an hour later we were back at the bar in the Parque Central with the free cigar and the remains of the bottle of Havana Club Rum that came as part of the ticket at Tropicana.

With each day full to bursting, getting a good night’s sleep was never a problem in Havana but there were still a few boxes to tick on Friday morning before we checked out and set off for Trinidad. So, with breakfast regretfully finished for the final time we targeted the Revolution Museum which was within easy walking distance of the hotel. We loitered around what we thought was marked as the entry gate until the published opening time of 10 a.m. before being chased away by a taxi driver for taking photographs of his shiny black Cadillac! We then walked around the opposite side of the building and found a small queue of people that looked promisingly like they were buying tickets – and they were. Inside the building there were various posters confirming the past relationship between Cuba and Russia; caricatures of George Bush I, Ronald Reagan and Batista in what translated to be ‘Cretins Corner’, and a mock-up of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos thrashing through the jungle on a mission. Outside, there was an area given over to former military aircraft (well, bits of it anyway), vessels and vehicles used in conflict plus the actual boat with the slightly strange name “Granma” which Fidel used to journey into Cuba and kick-start the revolution. Next to all of this was an eternal flame, now a fairly common worldwide symbol used in memory of those lost in major battles.

Aware of our 2 o’clock taxi ride, we still had time to call in at the Hotel Sevilla for a drink. The Sevilla has a bit of history including being a base location for the film ‘Our man in Havana’. But we had time only for a drink and a snack; we sat in the courtyard café area and listened to yet another Cuban band. Around us, the walls had framed photographs of their celebrity visitors including Al Capone who apparently occupied the entire 6th Floor during his stays.

The journey down to Trinidad was largely uneventful with much of the four hour journey being undertaken on a long, straight concrete road that I guess would be regarded as a motorway if you ignore the fact that people stand in the slow lane waving and hoping either to sell you something or alternatively to hitch a ride. The occasional bush growing through the concrete in the middle lane also presented an interesting challenge.

Cars, or rather powered transport generally, are owned usually by necessity or not at all in Cuba. Fuel is relatively expensive and the Cuban people rely heavily on each other for many things and this includes stopping to help those that need to get from A to B. Consequently, spare seats in any vehicle are regarded as a waste and it was difficult not to feel slightly guilty about the extra space that we enjoyed on our journey from Havana to Trinidad.

On route we travelled through the outskirts of Cienfuegos, a major city compared to the various towns that quickly came and went along the way as we exited the motorway and found rural Cuba. We switched from the foothills on one side of the Escambray mountains to the other and soon we could see the sea. And after precisely four hours travelling we arrived at Las Brisas del Mar.

Saturday was to be our first real day of relaxation. Nothing to do, precisely as planned! After tolerating breakfast we made our way to the beach to try and lay claim to a small square of sand to call our own for the day and, the best surprise ever, we had it just about all to ourselves. Did I pay extra for this? It was magic! Yard upon yard of Caribbean coastline with barely another soul in sight. And that was it until lunchtime when there was little fear about losing our place under the three palms that now felt almost legally ours!

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Cuba_SF__20100410_339

More beach time after lunch before dinner and then tomorrow we head for the mountains!

Just like the journey down from Havana to Trinidad, the two hour drive into the mountains provided an insight into Cuban life and how tough things are for the people. The roads in places were close to impassable but weren’t regarded as a problem by Eduardo, our driver, who incidentally had flown MIG 21’s during the Bay of Pigs conflict. Oscar did his best to point out certain things along the way including the comon Turkey Vulture. They quite simply dominate the skies in rural Cuba, their large wingspan enabling them to glide lazily to the extent that they can apparently go without food for up to three weeks.

The attractive skies over Cuba had been a feature since our arrival. Rarely cloudless, for all of its sunshine and warmth, the Cuban countryside remains Green and gets its fair share of rain at almost anytime of the year. We finally reached our destination high up in the Escambray Mountains where we had an hour walking with Oscar followed by lunch in a small restaurant. Along the way Oscar pointed out the various birds and trees that were around and explained some of the ways in which the Cuban people make use of the natural resources available. Cuban people are especially resourceful; they have to be.

At the highest point of the walk we reached a series of waterfalls and relaxed until the idea of lunch slowly became increasingly attractive and our small group - the two of us, Oscar and a family of three also from the UK – made their way back down the narrow, stepped pathway until we eventually returned to the restaurant area.

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Don’t kid yourself that the choice of food in these circumstances is endless. Far from it, but it is certainly acceptable and better than we were led to believe before we arrived in Cuba. Us five Brits sat together and compared notes on Cuba in general until it was time to move on again. But we didn’t have to go far before Oscar pointed us in the general direction of more waterfalls and said that we only had forty minutes because the weather was starting to close in and it would be dangerous to travel back along the mountain roads to Trinidad in bad weather. Forty minutes turned out to be just enough time to walk to the bottom, take photographs and then retreat before being totally eaten alive by over-attentive mosquitoes.

The clouds certainly looked as if they were warming up to deliver something big but we travelled back safely to Trinidad and only met with the rain as we were passing through the City on our way back to Las Brisas. We had organised with Oscar that he would take us on a walking tour of Trinidad the following morning and promised that we would give him some of the things that we had brought to Cuba for the children that we had seen during our trip into the mountains.

We met Oscar as planned in the lobby of the Las Brisas at 8:30. He had bad news. He was unable to do the walking tour of Trinidad because he was required for a trip back into the mountains again. It was a shame but he explained that we should meet Juan Carlos at a hotel in the centre of Trinidad and there we were introduced to Lazaro who was to be our guide for the morning tour. Lazaro was a totally different character to Oscar. More quietly spoken but like Oscar very good with English (and four other languages) and we stood in the square outside the hotel listening to him explain some of the early history of Trinidad before we set off on the walk.

It took about two hours as we strolled through the aged streets that still showed the scars of past hurricane damage. You could feel the stresses and strains of living in somewhere like Trinidad, even compared to Havana which, because of its city status, has benefits that the more rural parts of Cuba don’t.

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We stopped for a drink with Lazaro and watched a Cuban band and dancers for half an hour and then visited the History Museum. We also stopped at an Art Museum and met the Artist who happened to be at home. Some of her work was really different and I could have been tempted if the price and logistics of getting something like that home safely had been right, but they weren’t.

We ended the tour, tipped Lazaro and thanked him for his time and then it was back for lunch before heading to the beach and 'our' palm tree.

The following day, our last in Trinidad, was set aside to do absolutely nothing other than read and lie under our tree drinking. Only Santa Clara had so far eluded us. This would have been a bit of a shame really because it was the scene of a significant action led by Che Guevara that was key to victory and as a result the city of Santa Clara is dominated by Che’s influence. With the help of our local rep Juan Carlos we were luckily still able to get there.

Juan Carlos had been organising our transfer back to Havana Airport and suggested that if we still wanted to see Santa Clara then we could instead leave earlier and divert to Santa Clara on route to Havana – so this is what we agreed to do.

A part of me was hoping we might see a storm during our time in Cuba. It’s usually really good for photographs and midway through the afternoon, we noticed that the peaks of the not too distant Escambray Mountains had partially disappeared. Soon after, the skies over Trinidad city darkened significantly as a band of heavy cloud rolled over towards the coast – and towards us.

The cloud cover was slowly working its way towards us, creating this ‘half dark-half light’ effect over the area, but eventually we conceded defeat and left our tree for the final time. By the time we got back to the room it had started to rain and within five minutes our balcony was flooded. The “all-weather” Turkey Vultures continued to glide their way around the resort looking down on those who had less durability but the interruption provided us with a chance to think about packing.

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Organised for the journey home as much as we could be, it was time for either a cocktail or a beer before our evening meal. On our final night we decided to splash out on the lobster. There was a small price to pay for those who wanted it but it was the final proper meal of the holiday so we decided to have it.

The final day; we had breakfast early before checking out and meeting the taxi for the journey back to Havana airport via Santa Clara. Different roads and different scenery. Our driver for the day was the same one that had taken us into Trinidad for our walking tour and delivered us back to Las Brisas on Monday. His English was verging on non-existent so a little bit of Spanish helped break the silence along the way.

We then encountered one of those ‘National Geographic moments that you simply don’t see every day. Playa Ancon was fast disappearing behind us and following the coastline the road ahead gradually changed from sunlit Grey to a mottled Red colour. And for the next two or three kilometres the tarmac had literally become a pedestrian crossing for Red Crabs, crawling in both directions from and to the beach which was on our left hand side with trees and countryside on our right. There must have been hundreds of thousands of them braving the walk and some stopping defiantly (or maybe in surrender), raising their front claws as the car slowly approached.

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Cuba_SF__20100414_415

Despite our driver taking as much care with both speed and direction to avoid them, you couldn’t miss the sound of crunching shell under the wheels of our taxi. Not that the Turkey Vultures were complaining! He explained that this happens during one week in every year, usually in April. This crustacean massacre was soon behind us and we pushed on to Santa Clara.

As you get nearer and nearer to Santa Clara, images of Che become more prominent and more regular. On billboards, hand-drawn on walls, and also in more general references to the Argentinian revolutionary who died in Bolivia on a mission in 1967; Che Guevara was Santa Clara’s claim to fame.

The floodlights of what looked like a sports stadium turned out to be the lights around the Plaza de la Revolucion which was to be our first stop of the day. Che’s statue stood at the top of the square looking over the marble seating area used by Fidel, Raul and other dignitaries during national parade’s and similar such occasions.

The area directly behind the statue led to the museum and also the room where Che was buried. We were limited on time as we had another stop to make in Santa Clara before we aimed for the airport but we made the most of what there was to see in the museum. And the tomb with Che, his colleagues and the eternal flame was a fairly quick walkthrough; in one door and out of another.

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We finally persuaded our driver to take us to the site where Che derailed the enemy train and its carriages; something regarded as a significant action in the war effort and a major contributor to ultimate victory. It's in an open area on a main road and by a railway crossing of the still used railway track and it didn't take long to look around. And before leaving I went and bought two bottles of water; one for us and one for our driver who was visibly struggling with the heat. It was important to look after him – we still had a three hour journey to make.

We drove through the centre of Santa Clara on our way out of the city and, as far as seeing Cuba was concerned, we were effectively at the end of our holiday. We arrived at Jose Marti Airport in good time but only to find that our flight had already been delayed by a couple of hours. The delay soon became four hours and our plane took off at 11 o’clock that evening rather than 7.

We were woken at about 11 am UK time (we originally should have landed at 09:30) by the Captain’s announcement apologising for the extra time that the flight was taking. The reason – a volcanic ash cloud that was drifting over the UK from Iceland. It turned out to be genuine. Our pilot was still ‘hoping’ to be able to land in the UK and was going as quickly as he could but there was a chance that we could be diverted. As it happened, we got down just before the UK airports were closed.

Cuba was just about everything we expected and maybe even a little more. I don’t think that I fully appreciated the extent of disrepair and poverty that we would encounter on the trip. But like in many other countries around the world that have similar and sometimes worse living conditions and quality of life, the people in Cuba put on a brave face and rise above their ‘below average’ situation, making the most of what they have, accepting that they cannot as individuals change things, and instead simply try to enjoy life in the best way that they can. Their enthusiasm to help others has been fine tuned now that tourism, a feature of Cuban life only since 1992, has become a vital part of the island’s economy.

Posted by david.byne 11:31 Archived in Cuba Tagged waterfalls sunsets_and_sunrises mountains beaches bridges buildings people trees birds sky planes boats Comments (0)

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