Thursday, December 12, 2013

KILLARNEY PROVINCIAL PARK, ONTARIO - CARLYLE LAKE. JUNE 25 - JULY 02, 2013


In August, 2009, Catherine and spent almost a week camping on Johnnie Lake in Killarney Provincial Park, on a very lovely campsite.  During our stay we did several days trips and one day we paddled to the adjoining lake, Carlyle Lake.  Some of the campsites we saw were so nice that we decided to visit that lake again.  And four years later Deja vu!

Killarney Park, also called ‘the Jewel of Ontario’, is one of the most beautiful parks in Canada.  Its main features — wilderness, picturesque lakes and unique La Cloche Mountains, composed primarily of white quartzite — attract plenty of travellers who want to experience mother nature at her best.  Although there are drive-in campsites in the park, the only way to really come into contact with its beauty is to hike or canoe along its many hiking and canoeing routes.  Unfortunately, the vast majority of canoe routes require plenty of portaging, some over 4 km. long (some people say that if you go canoeing in Killarney Park, you do two trips at the same time: hiking and canoeing!).  Luckily, Carlyle Lake at least does not require any portaging and is connected to Johnnie Lake and Crooked Lake, allowing for several hours of leisurely paddling.
During our last visit we had seen two campsites that we liked: the first one, between Terry Lake and Carlyle Lake, just near a small rapid, was our first choice.  The second campsite, just across from th first campsite, appeared to be very nice as well (yet we hoped to get the other campsite).  Since we were departing on a Tuesday, we did not expect anybody else to occupy that site at that time.

Our tent at Carlyle Lake campsite


Of course, getting a campsite in Killarney Park, especially over a long weekend (after all, we were going to stay during the Canada Day long weekend) is not an simple thing: you cannot just show up and get a permit!  In fact, we had made the reservation some time in March, meaning that we could stay on any vacant campsite on Carlyle Lake.  Since each campsite can legally accommodate up to 6 people, we also invited several friends who were going to join us later.

As always, the drive to the park, although long (over 400 km), was quite pleasant.  We stopped in Parry Sound, where we did some additional shopping (there is always something you need!) and arrived at the park before 3:00 pm.  First, we had to go to the main office (Lake George), get our parking & camping permits and then drive back to the Carlyle Lake Access Point, just off road 637.  Near the park office we saw a group of several young people who had just arrived, but we did not really think much about them.  Then, while we were slowly unloading our van at the lake parking ramp, a truck arrived, dropping off three canoes... and soon the group we had seen at the park office showed up!  They did not have much stuff (unlike us, but it is a different story!) and in less than 30 minutes they were on the water.  It took us probably another 30 minutes or so to finally commence our trip.  There was a nice campsite just across from the parking lot (well, if somebody were determined to camp in Killarney without a canoe, it would probably be possible to swim there), but of course, we kept paddling towards a channel on the left leading to a bay with two campsites.  There was another vacant site in the channel, but not as nice as the other two.  In about 30 minutes we entered the channel... and soon saw that the campsite we were aiming at had already been occupied... by the very group of people that we had just seen!  Honetly, what were the chances of that happening?  It was like somethting from a Benny Hill Show.  Well, since we still wanted to stay on that lake, we took the other available campsite.  It seemed to be very lovely: located on a hilly rock, faced the west (meaning wonderful sunsets!) and gave us a breathtaking view of the lake.  It was a little difficult to unload the canoe, as there was not any natural bay, but we managed.  Dragging all our stuff up the hill was not something I enjoyed, but once I reached the top, I agreed that the site was awesome (and when we finally were able to examine the other campsite, we realized that ours was much better).

Having a great time around the fire!


As I was setting up the tent, Catherine brought all the other bags and set up a kitchen area.  Soon, we were sitting on the rocky top of the hill, drinking cold beer and enjoying a sunset.  I suggested that we hang our food for the night, but Catherine being Catherine, did not want to bother, hoping that no bear or other animal would be interested in our food (and fortunately, this time she was right).  Even though it was the end of June, we got bitten by black flies that were still active; fortunately, after two days the very warm weather killed them off.  There were mosquitoes, but well, it was something we had to accept!  We also set up a cheap picnic shelter which was supposed to protect us from bugs and rain, but when it was windy, it would twist and turn so much that even being near it was probably much more risky than being getting a few bug bites.  I also attached a big, Canadian flag to it to celebrate the Canada Day.

View from our campsite on Carlyle Lake and setting sun


On June 27, 2013, we paddled back to the parking lot, chained the canoe to a tree and drove to the lovely town of Killarney where we traditionally had Fish & Chips at the Herbert Fisheries and bought cold beer at the nearby LCBO store.  We also drove to the Chikanishing parking lot where we did part of the Chikanishing hiking trail: we had visited this place so many times in the past, as it was our departure point for our trips to and around Philip Edward Island, but she never had the time to do it.  We also sent text messages to our friends, letting them know the campsite number we were staying on (no cell coverage at our campsite!).  It was about 8:00 pm when we drove back to the parking lot, put our canoe on the water (it was still where we had left it) and on the way to our campsite, we explored the lake, paddling around the big island near the entrance to the channel.

Canoeing on Carlyle & Johnnie Lakes-plenty of beaver lodges, some
occupied by otters


On Friday our British friends, Ian and Sue, arrived, along with their dog called Miro, named after the Spanish painter.  In the evening we enjoyed the famous Polish soup, zurek (white borsch) that I made.  The next day Joe and Andrea came.  Since the weather was very nice, all of us paddled through a narrow part of the lake to Johnnie Lake and back.  We saw a few beaver lodges — I remember that in 2009 one of them was actually occupied by a family of otters, who got quite agitated when we were paddling by and made various sounds, presumably trying to scare us off.  Another day, after Ian and Sue had departed, Catherine, Andrea and Joe decided to paddle on Kakakise Lake; since a portage of about 900 meters was required, I passed on this opportunity.  Apparently the portage was quite rough, they got bitten by mosquitoes and while paddling on Kakakise Lake back to the campsite, they had some problems finding the portage!  Of course, they did not bring a GPS unit with them — and I never leave home (or a campsite) without it or a map!

Ian and Sue near the small Waterfall between Terry Lake and
Carlyle Lake


Andrea and Joe had departed on July 1, Canada Day and again we were alone on our campsite.  Every day we paddled on the lake, as well as again left the canoe at the parking lot and drove to the town of Killarney.  This small town has certain charm, especially in the evening, when the sun is setting, all businesses close and streets become empty.  We walked to the town’s only General Store, Pitfield’s, and then to the Killarney Mountain Lodge.  While standing on the shores of the channel (between the town of Killarney and George Island), far away I saw an outline of the Foxes, a group of islands in Georgian Bay, just south of Philip Edward Island.  In 2011 we stayed on West Fox Island and I was pretty sure it was the island I was looking at.  In fact, some canoeists (especially kayakers) depart for the Foxes from the town of Killarney, yet this route requires paddling on totally unprotected waters of Georgian Bay... as well as is much more boring than paddling from the Chikanishing River access point.  After sunset, we drove past the airport, to the very picturesque lighthouse.  On the way back we also stopped at the local garbage dump, but it was locked and no bears were in sight.

Town of Killarney, Herbert Fisheries


When we arrived at the Carlyle parking lot, it was dark.  We put on the headlights and soon were paddling on Carlyle Lake in total darkness, eventually getting to our campsite after 10:00 pm.
On the last day of our trip we decided to paddle to our ‘desired’ campsite and take a look at it.  Its ‘original’ occupants had already left, but there were three other guys who let us take a peek.  Catherine said that our campsite was much better, as that campsite did not get sunsets and they did not really see the rapids located nearby — on the other hand, we could see and hear the rapids, as well as get a glimpse of Terry Lake, a small lake near the rapids.

Ready to go home-nothing lasts forever!


On our way back to Toronto we took a shower at Killarney Park, then stopped at the Hungry Bear Restaurant and several hours later safely arrived in Toronto.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

ALGONQUIN PROVINCIAL PARK—BARTLETT LAKE, MAY 2013. DEFEATED BY BLACK FLIES!





Our route from the P-Store to Bartlett Lake

Visiting Algonquin Park in May can indeed be an excellent idea: the park is relatively empty, we can have best campsites and there are plenty of wandering moose.  After a quick research we decided to stay on Bartlett Lake, which is connected to Tom Thompson lake by a narrow channel.  I had paddled on Bartlett Lake in 2007 and again in 2009 with Catherine and we really liked its relatively secluded location.  There were 4 campsites on the shores of the lake and we were hoping to get the one located across from the entrance to the channel—I remembered that it was a very nice campsite, facing west.  Our plant was to stay for 4 nights and paddle on all the adjoining lakes and bays.

On May 30, 2013 we left Toronto and in the afternoon we arrived at Algonquin Park’s Canoe Lake Access Point (near the P-Store).  As expected, there were very few tourists (certainly no kids!), the area was so quiet and pristine.  We paddled towards the Joe Lake portage, passing a few kayakers and the Tom Thomson cairn, facing the spot where the artist tragically drowned in 1917.  The Joe Lake portage is about 300 m. long, yet last time Catherine managed to paddle as far as possible towards the dam, thus shortening it significantly; this time we also took advantage of this natural shortcut.  We had to make a few trips back and forth to carry our stuff and the canoe. 
Ready to start our trip!
Unlike in the past year, when the portage resembled a busy thoroughfare, with people carrying canoes had to almost obey rules of the road in order not to bump into each other, this time we did not encounter a single soul.  We canoed under a former train bridge (it used to be part of the famous Booth Railway that had cut through the park, carrying mostly lumber; at one point it was the busiest train line in Canada, with trains passing every 20 minutes).  Finally we reached the beaver dam that we still remember from out past trips.  When I encountered it for the first time in 2007, I was not sure how to traverse it—although it did look quite solid, I had no idea if it would support our weight.  Soon a canoe with a couple of experienced trippers had arrived who put our concerns to rest: “It has been here for ages”, they said, “and it can support an elephant!”. So, this time we quickly lifted-over the canoe, yet immediately noticed that the dam was not as sturdy as before, there was a visible in the middle of the dam which we appreciated very much!  Just after passing the dam we saw our first moose, just wading in the shallow water; while fighting off black flies and mosquitoes, I managed to take a few photos.

First moose sighting
Soon we reached Bartlett Lake, named after the park’s former superintendent.  Nobody else was staying there and thus we picked the campsite we had visited in 2009—the best campsite on the lake.  Immediately we were attacked by swarms of black flies.  Wearing bug jackets and hat, I quickly set up the tent.  In addition, black flies seemed to be very actively backed up by a strong army of voracious mosquitoes!  Without delay, I started a campfire, hoping that the smoke will keep those ravenous bugs away, but eventually WE ended up both being bitten by them and suffocated by the smoke!  Sitting around the fire and having something to eat was very annoying, so once we were done, we sneaked into the bug-proof tent.

Enjoying the campfire at the campsite
Since I wanted to take photos of moose, which are abundant in the park, we were planning to wake up at 5:00 am and go canoeing .  Unfortunately, when the alarm clock went off in the morning, it was raining and we continued sleeping.  Catherine got up at 9:00 am and while moving some of our stuff from the canoe, she spotted three moose in the nearby bay who had actually been watching her for some time!  By the time I walked to her, the large mother moose was herding her baby and teenage son (or daughter) to the woods.  The whole family later appeared across the bay, wading in the water on the opposite shore.

It was sun/cloud mix for most of the day and very humid.  In the evening we decided to go for a paddle on Bartlett Lake.  We paddled to a bay in the north-west part of the lake, saw a beaver lodge and then paddled towards the start of the portage leading to Willow Lake (which I had done in 2007).  It was then that we saw scary lightening and even though it was not raining yet, I suggested that we proceed immediately towards our campsite.  It turned out a very good decision: in no time the sky became dark, in addition to lighting we heard thunder and we kept paddling as fast as possible, reaching speeds of 7-8 km/h. 
Paddling on Bartlett Lake just before the storm
When the canoe finally arrived at the campsite, it started to rain and soon lightening and thunder was accompanied by a torrential downpour and very strong winds.  Catherine stayed a few minutes behind, trying to get something from the canoe and it was enough for her clothes to become thoroughly soaked.  After one hour or so the thunderstorm subsided, but Catherine was still wet and cold.  Despite the rain (and Catherine’s prediction to the contrary), I managed to start a nice, smoky campfire so at least we could grill steaks over the fire and have our evening meal.  All that time we were incessantly attacked by black flies and mosquitoes who seemed to love the damp weather!  As soon as we were done, we went to the tent.  Wet, cold and increasingly itchy from bug bites, we decided to cut our trip short and depart in the morning.

We were up at 5:00 am; the instant we left the tent, we were mercilessly assaulted by mosquitoes and black flies.  The creatures were so annoying that we packed everything into the canoe in a record time and in less than one hour we were on the water, where we were at least safe from the onslaught.

Paddling home in the morning
While paddling on Tom Thomson lake, we saw a few tents or hammocks here and there, but everyone was apparently still sleeping (and no doubt hiding from black flies) and it was very quiet.  We also saw a few moose in the forest, but they disappeared before I could take a photo.  Before we approached the Joe Lake portage, it started to light drizzle and we had to don our rain gear.  We quickly portaged the canoe and our equipment and in no time reached the P-Store and the park office, where we got a partial refund.  We also managed to have a well deserved hot shower despite the park losing electrical power during the storm.


Later locals told us that 2013 was the worst in 7-10 years in terms of black fly activity and later we saw many people with terrible bite marks.  In fact, Catherine had a full body mosquito net suit and I believe she got bitten worse than myself.  Funny, some people are afraid to go camping because of black bears, wolves, foxes, snakes or other real or imaginary creatures—but if truth be told, it was our FIRST trip where we were defeated by tiny black flies!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

One Week in Guardalavaca, Cuba, January 4-12, 2013





Map of the Club Amigo Guardalavaca

Catherine and I had heard so much about the Guardalavaca area, with its numerous hotels and beaches, that finally we decided to check out this place.  Before the trip I had done a rather extensive research online, mainly using TripAdvisor’s forums & reviews and had received plenty of tips and recommendation on choosing the right resort & room, local attractions, getting to Holguin, etc.  Eventually, we booked the Club Amigo Guardalavaca—and on January 04, 2013, after a pleasant 4 hour flight from Toronto (Can Jet), we landed on Cuban soil in Holguin.  After clearing customs, I went straight to the departure area (as per advice on TripAdvisor) to exchange Canadian dollars into Cuban CUCs—indeed, there was no line-up.  The exchange rate was excellent and for $100 Canadian dollars I received 97 CUCs.  In front of the airport it was possible to buy a can of beer for 2 CUCs from a stand (expensive – normally one beer costs 1 CUC in a store).  Canadian dollars (coins or bills) were accepted as well – later I was asked a few times to exchange Canadian loonies/toonies ($1 and $2 coins) into Canadian bills or exchange Canadian currency into CUCs.

View from our Villa

There were a lot of buses at the airport; we were put on the last bus and arrived to the hotel very late, after stopping and dropping off tourists at many other resorts.  However, it was OK, as everyone else had already checked in.  Since we had booked a Villa (again, as per advice from TripAdvisor), we were taken to the Villa section and given a room on the ground floor (vs. on the upper floor) no. 9107.  Catherine was immediately displeased with the room as it was dark, musty and had no balcony.  Apparently, all the other Villas were still occupied with New Year guests and we had to spend the first night in that room.

The Club Amigo Atlantico resembles a small town – and I am not even counting the adjacent Brisas.  The grounds were clean (in spite of some recent TA reviewers claiming otherwise), there was very little evidence of any damage caused by the recent hurricane Sandy.  The resort staff was quite friendly and the chambermaid every day did a great job cleaning our room.  We left her 1 peso and on the last day we gave her some other gifts as well.  Some of the guests staying at the hotel were Cubans (who, I understand, pay different rates from non-Cubans) as well as we saw a few Cubans at the beach and along the shore, as the beach is public.  In fact, we went to the Brisas’ beach a few times, yet when we tried to enter the Brisas’ property, a security guard immediately materialized, advising us that since we were staying at the Club Amigo (blue bands), we could not enter the Brisas.

The "Barracks", the least desired accommodation
The next morning we met an Italian couple who vacation at the resort twice a year.  They recommended that we talk to Barbara, a tour operator in the hotel lobby about helping us to change the room.  While I was attending the newcomer orientation session (which turned out to be totally useless), Catherine contacted Barbara who made a few phone calls to the registration desk and soon we were given a new room on the upper floor (no. 8213): it had a spacious bathroom with a shower, two twin beds, TV set, a small fridge, air conditioner—as well as a balcony, which offered a wonderful view of the ocean and where we spent a lot of time sitting there, listening to rumbling waves, caressing us to sleep each night.  Except for a few small moths and one grasshopper, we did not see any insects in the room (in spite of the balcony door being open most of the time).  One very early morning a very noisy black bird sat on the balcony and later even flew into our room, waking us up.

The Benny More Restaurant
There were a number of restaurants at the resort and we wanted to try each one.  We developed a likening for the outdoor restaurant “Benny More” which served both breakfast and dinners and we had most of our breakfasts there.  In spite of sometimes long wait times, we enjoyed the food (I found the yogurt absolutely deliciously irresistible, it tasted exactly as the yogurt I had in Bulgaria in the mid-1970), but its main attraction was the outdoor location and the view of the ocean.  Once or twice we saw some huge criuse ships on the horizon.  One night we paid extra and had a lobster dinner.

Roasted Pig!
Several times we went for lunch to the “1720” restaurant (in the bungalow section) which had a buffet.  The food was great; once a roasted pig was served, but every day we were able to find something delicious.  I loved fried shrimps!  One evening we tried the vegetarian restaurant.  Sadly, the best thing about this establishment was that it was located in the ‘barrack’ section next to the swimming pool (yes, the same pool Fidel Castro had swum in when the hotel was opened in the mid-1970s – rumour has it that the sacred water in the pool has not been changed since then…), where an aquatic show/water ballet was being performed that evening.  Unlike the show, the dinner was horrible – very salty, unsavoury and way below average – and NOT vegetarian at all!  It seemed they had opened cans of stuff including canned camarones and tasteless shrimps.  A few days later, while waiting for the bus to the airport, one lady said that she and her family wanted to book a dinner at the same restaurant, on the same day we went there, but when she saw the reservation list with only ONE booking, she decided to pass.  Guess whose name she was on that list? Yes… we were those suckers!

Delicious shrimps, tasty pork!
Fortunately, the Italian dinner at the at the restaurant a.k.a. snack bar (vis-à-vis the Benny More restaurant and part of the 24 hour bar) was perfect: the waiter left a whole bottle of very good Spanish red wine on the table, the snack table featured scrumptious cheese, olives and slices of excellent prosciutto and the main course consisted of delectable spaghetti Bolognese and pork cutlet.  The main buffet (just above the lobby in the main hotel building) was O.K., but lacked the outdoor atmosphere and resembled an ordinary, cheap buffet.  Overall, we were happy with our food selection—even the hamburgers and French fries at the 24 hour restaurant were quite good.  Having stayed in three all-inclusive resorts in Cuba, I must still say that the food was the best in the Club Amigo.  It was also nice that there were alternatives to eating inside all the time too.  Darn, I even gained 6 pounds!

It was probably about +30C during the day and about +19C at night.  It rained a few times, yet for no more than 5 minutes at the time.  Usually days were a little cloudy and it was windy. Considering it was early January, we had an A- weather!

Christopher Columbus... I lent him my hands...
There were a few separate beaches at the resort: a very large beach in front of the hotel, two small beaches and one belonging to the Brisas, which we could also use (and which was a stone’s throw away from our villa).  Our favourite was the “Christopher Columbus” beach, where an old monument of the explorer stood, albeit without arms.  The beach was cozy and intimate, allowed us decent swimming and snorkelling, although I did not see a lot of fish or other exotic sea creatures.  Supposedly if you bring bananas, fish will come to feed on them.  I did not encounter any jellyfish or other harmful sea life, but one tourist complained of apparently being stung by something in the water.  The tides were not very significant, but at one point we had to move our beach chairs as waves started washing over our stuff.  There was another small beach towards the villas – on the day of our departure a wedding took place there, between a German groom and Cuban bride.

We saw plenty of small lizards everywhere.  Some crossed the sidewalks just before we approached, their tails coiled or slightly upright (they resemble chipmunks, ubiquitous in Ontario), others could be seen on leaves, cacti or even balconies.  At night we saw a big, colourful frog.  There were a few cats in the resort looking for food, yet they were very picky and ignored some of the food people left for them.  We saw only one dog at the resort.

There was a pathway in front of our Villa leading to the Brisas.  During the first two days, an older Cuban man played his guitar and made grasshopper trinkets from nearby palm leaves.  Although he did not outwardly asked us for gifts, we gave him some ‘regalos’ we had with us.  We talked a little with him (he spoke some English).  Yet eventually he was apparently asked by security guards to leave the property—probably he overstayed his welcome.

Inside the Cigar Store
There were free bikes for rent at the resort and we went for a ride to the nearby “town”—which consisted of some dilapidated apartment buildings, but we were told that some apartment units are very nice and well maintained; we even saw a few “casa particular” signs.  Since it was windy, we never managed to use any of the pedal boats, kayaks or sailboats available for tourists.  One word of caution: in the hotel lobby, I saw a French-speaking gentleman sitting in the chair, his whole leg in a cast. Apparently he was hit by a boat while swimming.  There were also several scooters for rent.  The employee in charge of rentals and one tourist both told us that it was a good idea to know how to ride those scooters, as there had been a number of accidents.  When I jokingly asked one Cuban guy working at the resort if it was possible to ride those scooters to Miami, he said, “if it were possible, all Cubans would have already left Cuba!”

There were always several horse buggies in front of the hotel, offering to take tourists for nearby excursions – as well as a few taxi cabs were also available.  The cab driver I once spoke to was fluent in English.  Next to the hotel was a thriving market, where Cubans were selling art carvings, cigars, toys, belts, etc.  A lot of tourists from other resorts arrived by free shuttle bus just to shop at this market.  I bought a wooden pestle & mortar for a steal.
A German-Cuban wedding at one of the small beaches

Friendly security guards were posted everywhere (mostly during the day); they must have been the most bored people in the resort!  I spoke to some of them (one was posted just across from my room’s balcony) and asked them if there were any problems at the resort – invariably, they said ‘no’.  Perhaps if you want to improve your Spanish, they would make great conversation partners!
In front of the Santa Maria snack bar (behind the main building) stretching exercises were conducted every day at 10:00 am (Cuban time 10:15 am).  They were better than nothing but lasted for only 15-20 minutes and were somehow always disorganized.  Mats and music were provided.  Incidentally, one of the Cuban instructors said she was lawyer (‘abogada’).

Canadian Consulate
The resort had one exchange office (Cadeca) in the bungalow section which offered very good rates.  An armed security guard was inside and only let in one tourist at a time.  Interestingly, once we saw a few armed cops on the main beach too.  The bungalow section appeared to be quite nice, yet it was farther from the ocean than the villas.  For that reason I would certainly prefer to stay in a villa close to the ocean.  Several meters from the bank was a... Canadian Consular Office!  Yes, there was a Canadian flag, proudly flowing from a tall pole.  We went in and spoke to the consular officer.  She said that in case of a lost passport, it could be replaced within a few days (must be shipped by courier from the Canadian Embassy in Havana).  The office also dealt with Canadians having legal problems.

The store in the main building lobby had cold beer & other drinks as well as rum, cigarettes, shirts and some snacks.  Postcards (1 CUC or postage paid for 1.60 CUC), stamps (0.85 CUC), books and CDs could be bought from a kiosk located under the Las Acadas restaurant in the main building.  I tried to buy the Cuban daily newspaper, “Granma”, but to no avail, the store only had several older issues of “The Havana Reporter” (in English).  A nice cigar store (that also sold rum) was located near the Cadeca office, in the bungalow section, close to the Canadian Consulate.

Horse-drawn carriages were waiting in front of the hotel
One day we met a Canadian lady who had been coming to this resort since the 1970s and she entertained us with a few amusing stories: once in the mid-1970s she came with a group bringing lots of Bibles to Cuba – she was detained and interrogated, but eventually they let her go, along with the Bibles.  She said that at that time there were plenty of soldiers at the airport, armed with machine guns and going through the customs was a very long and unpleasant experience.  She also showed us the remnants of some buildings along the shore (between the two small beaches) – she still remembered private homes there, whose occupants/owners cooked for tourists – yet eventually they were evicted to apartment buildings and their houses demolished.  I can only imagine how valuable their properties were, considering their perfect location!  Of course, Cuba has changed a lot since then and it is rapidly changing.

The Cuban man who invited us to his home
During our stay at the Amigo, we took a few trips from the resort.  As there was a hop-on-hop-off open-air, double decker bus stopping at every nearby resort, we hopped on and went to the Museo Chorro de Maita (we did not visit the 15th century Arawakan Indian village located across the road from the museum).  It is burial ground: discovered in the 1980s, it shows some of the 108 skeleton of the Taino Indians (as well as at least one of a Spaniard).  One of the skeleton was positioned face down; we were told that individual must have been ‘mala persona’ (a bad person).  It was certainly something worth seeing!  While in the museum, we befriended an English speaking Cuban.  He showed us a photo in the museum, dating to the time the graves were discovered and his little sister was in one of them.  He invited us to his home up the road (damaged in the hurricane Sandy – he was building a new one next to it) and served us very black, sweet and freshly brewed coffee which had just been roasted over open fire.  Walking along the village’s rugged road, visiting other homes (many with thatched roofs) and just seeing how real Cubans lived was a very memorable (and also a little sad) experience.  
Inside his house
Since the bus was leaving the village for the hotel at about 1:10 pm, we went there the next day to further explore this place – which was, incidentally, so different from the Club Amigo… Along the road we saw some absolutely beautiful houses, as well as very primitive huts, with thatched roofs, often partially damaged (apparently by the recent hurricane).  Perhaps one’s wealth dependent on the kind of work (e.g., in the tourist industry, with access to hard currency) or having relatives abroad who regularly sent money.  We were told that tarps were in demand as they made excellent protection against leaky roofs – the fellow who invited us to his house also used a tarp given to him by a Canadian tourist to patch up his damaged roof.

Efrem and his taxi
Yet the main trip from the resort was to Holguin and Gibarra.  One of TripAdvisor’s members, Candy (a.k.a. Candysita2) had recommended a driver (Efren) from Holguin (a former university professor of the English language—one of Cuba’s idiosyncrasies); we called him the day before and he showed up in the morning.  He was a very talkative gentleman and we were able to ask him a lot of questions; thus, our ride was very pleasant and educational.  First, we drove to the town of Gibara, where we spent a few hours wandering about the town’s narrow streets.  We saw a cigar factory and went to a new hotel that had just been opened (Hotel Ordono).  


Gibara
A local Cuban guy joined us and was walking with us, but did not really want any money (supposedly he was a ‘jintero’, a hustler).  Eventually we went to a bar and had cold beer and gave him a few gifts.  Later we had lunch at the Los Hermanos (an excellent casa particular and private restaurant) where we also met Candy who was staying there.  Then we went to Holguin and drove to the Hill of the Cross (‘Loma de la Cruz’) from where one can admire a breathtaking view of the town and adjoining area (Catherine only wished she had requested to do it at sundown).  Later went to the town’s center, walked around for one hour, then sat in the square.  The driver showed us a very interesting ‘mural’, showing the history of Holguin (or even Cuba).  While sitting at the main square, twice Catherine had her offer to give away perfectly good bananas to beggars snubbed.  They wanted CUCs instead.  I only wish I could have stayed longer in Gibara and Holguin!  We were back at the hotel about 8 pm and gave the driver a bunch of Canadian and American magazines as well as a very recent issue of “The New York Times” which I had bought at the airport in Toronto.

Loma de la Cruz
While speaking with Cubans, I did ask them about the recent changes in Cuba.  In general, they were very supportive and liked the changes, although I am sure that the newly self-employed must have had plenty of problems with procuring supplies and dealing with the government bureaucracy.  One Cuban said that all the changes were very good for Cuba and that the government was doing the right thing.  “It’s a pity, however”, he said, “that it took the government over 50 years to realize that such changes must be made”.  Unfortunately, after the Revolution, Cuba picked the worst possible political system, entirely based on the outmoded and ineffective Soviet model, effectively stifling even minute signs of private enterprise and inventiveness.  Sorry, comrades, but you were wrong—and you know it!

The Holguin airport has several stores (one duty free) selling a variety of rums, liquors, vodkas, cigars, cigarettes and other souvenirs, including excellent, cheap honey.  So, I made all my alcohol and tobacco purchases there so that I did not have to drag the heavy bottles from the hotel. It was also possible to exchange money inside the airport, after clearing the customs.  While at the airport, I saw a few rather sizable boxes of cigars confiscated by the customs and one tourist spent about 30 minutes trying to persuade the custom officers to let him keep his four boxes of cigars (by my estimation, they were worth about 2,200 CUCs) – eventually, he got to keep them.  While waiting for our plane, we looked at the arrival/departure schedule and saw a few planes from Miami—despite the official embargo and the lack of regular flights between the USA and Cuba, a lot of American charter planes fly to Cuba, mainly with tourits of Cuban origin or organized tours of Americans who obtained an official permit to visit this country.
Very interesting mural in Holguin



Loma de la Cruz, Holguin
It was our fifth visit to Cuba and as always, it was another excellent trip!  Even though whenever I go to Cuba, I always go with an open mind (and with “Es Cuba” in mind), I enjoyed my holiday very much no matter what.  We had no problems with the hotel – our room had an awesome ocean view, the food and atmosphere were great, the weather almost perfect… what else can I ask for?  I am looking forward to going to Cuba again… and again!

P.S.

In January, 2015, we again went to the Club Amigo Guardalavaca: http://ontario-nature.blogspot.ca/2015/12/one-week-at-club-amigo-guardalavaca.html