Category: Americas

Easter Island – somewhere I really thought I’d never see.

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As a youth, I never thought I’d get to travel, but I was always inspired by James Bond and the far away places he went to.

In later life, I got the travel bug, had a reasonable job, so I could travel and see some amazing places.

But even in later life, there were some places I thought I’d never see. Easter Island (otherwise known as Rapa Nui) is one of them.

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Although it’s part of Chile, it’s 2300 miles from the capital, Santiago.

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The flight took 5 hours, and I was able to watch 3 films.

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As a visitor, you need to get a permit to stay (maximum of 30 days).

We decided to get one on arrival. You also have to be staying at accommodation registered with the tourist board (so no wild camping).

One of only two times (the other one being Corfu) we were able to walk from the Airport to our accommodation.

On the way we had a look around and saw this Catholic church.

breakfast

After checking into our accommodation at the Aukara b&b, we wandered down to the beach, had a swim, a few drinks and dinner.

In the morning we had breakfast then a day tour our hotel had arranged for us.

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Our guide Leonardo Pakarati, local guide and documentary director.

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The full day tour lasts from 6 to 7 hours and you can visit the main places of interest of the island: Rano Kau Volcano, Orongo Ceremonial Village, Akahanga Village, Rano Raraku Volcano and Quarry, Tongariki Altar and Anakena Beach.

horse

Its possible to tour the island by bicycle (more about that later) instead we travelled around in a 4×4 as there was so much to see and time was limited.

Wild horses wander around everywhere in Rapa Nui.

Leonardo pointed at one with a white face. He said it had been a gift to the Island from Native Americans.

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First was Anakena Beach. Right out of Hawai 50.

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Our first sight of Moa heads “in the flesh”.

Leonardo was passionate about the island and it’s history.

He said the stones are our ancestors. They would be built to face the village so people would know they were being watched over.

He argued that they are not simply statues, but religious artefacts and living things and for this reason, the one in the British museum should be returned (more about that later).

oven

A celebration of some kind was being prepared.

Something I’d read about in the SAS survival handbook, in this case, incorrectly called a Maori oven.

I’d seen one on a bushcraft course in the lakes. You heat rocks by a fire, then dig a hole. Put the stones in the hole, wrap the food in leaves to make parcels, places them on the stones, then cover it all over until the food is cooked.

You might wonder why you’d go to all that trouble. The key is, it requires no cooking utensils and you can cook for 50 or 100 people this way.

mountain

We continue on to Ahu Tongariki.

We park nearby, but before we walk over to see the other Moa, I get a quick photo of this mountain behind us with its clear blue sky.

I was sad that we wouldn’t have enough time to climb it, but it was beautiful all the same.

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The heads with their backs to the ocean, facing the ancient village.

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A shot capturing the whole vista.

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The first settlers arrived in canoes which they fashioned into this basic form of shelter.

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Our next location Rano Raruku.

From this hillside many of the Moa were carved out of the rock, so its nicknamed the head factory.

empanada

But it’s lunchtime and we decide have some lunch.

A chicken Empanada and a bottle of beer made on the Island.

Easter Island – somewhere I really thought I’d never see.

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Rano Raruku, a wide open space with trails to wander around.

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Leonardo shows us one of the heads that was half constructed lying down to get an idea of how they were made.

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Standing three feet from these amazing objects was a breathtaking experience.

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I even got to see these two guys. Featured on the front of travel guides and airport posters, they are the iconic image of Easter Island.

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Rano Kau a 324m high extinct volcano.

It’s possible to walk all the way around it.

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Orongo ceremonial village.

Soil floors and low doorways. They were reconstructed in 1974.

The main occupants were part of the Birdman cult, but more about that later.

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At the village, a small museum.

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Inside, this image of the 4 ton Hoa Hakananai’a one of the most spiritual of the Moa, being loaded onto HMS Topaze to be transported to the British Museum.

Leonardo had visited the British Museum while making one of his documentaries. He had spoken to the curator, who had produced a receipt and said that the Museum “owned” the statue.

It’s quite an emotional matter for the people of Rapa Nui, I found an article about it here.

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Looking out from the village is this small island Motu Nui.

The Birdman cult was based around the Tangata Manu competition. There would be a race to the Island to retrieve a Manutara bird egg.

Many would die climbing the high cliffs or be eaten by sharks while swimming. But the winner who arrived back first with an intact egg, got to be leader of the tribe.

As I write this, here in the UK, we have an imminent general election. I have to wonder if this isn’t a better form of leader selection.

rooftop

After a fantastic day, we are dropped back at our room for a shower and change, before heading out for the evening.

A perfect steak and a glass of red wine at La Taverne du Pecheur with a table overlooking the ocean.

The end to a perfect day.

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After breakfast. We still have a full day and fly back to Santiago in the morning.

So we decide to rent some mountain bikes and explore the coast.

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Ahu Tahai overlooking Cook Bay.

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Two hours ride later, and were still seeing Moa and the coast.

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We stop off at the Rapa Nui museum.

Crime is so rare on the Island that nobody locks up bikes, so we do the same.

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Inside, lots of interesting things to see and loads of stuff about the history of the Island.

The most interesting thing for me was this display.

I had no idea that the indigenous people of New Zealand and Hawaii are linked to the people of Rapa Nui.

Their estate is made up of this triangle, and people would have been sent out in canoes to find far away places to set up villages.

Sort of early colonisation if you think of it.

drinks

It’s thirsty work riding a bike in the sunshine, so we stop for some refreshments.

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One slight problem is that the salty air had corroded the gears on my bike.

I think if I was going again, I’d take some WD40.

We pedal back along the coastal trail.

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We pass by this music festival on our way back.

Nikki loved it, I thought it was audible vandalism but I got a drink and enjoyed myself all the same…

Hand back the bikes and walks  back to our hotel with a goodbye dinner planned by the ocean.

airport

With sadness, we head back to the airport.

I pop into the souvenir shop and buy a miniature Moa for my mantle at home.

But like Nikki said, at least we’ve been and not everyone can say that.

And…

If your going to be sat in an airport lounge for two hours, I don’t know a nicer one than this 🙂

A truly incredible place, highly recommended by everyone here at johnsunter.com (basically me).

 

Santiago – first trip to Chile and the Andes.

pedro de valdivia

On the 1st leg of our South America trip, we fly into Santiago in Chile.

I’ve lead with this iconic statue of a man on a horse.

In this case, its Pedro de Valdivia, the founded the city of Santiago.

arrival

Our flight had taken 14 hours. A seat with extra leg room, was £60 extra, which I honestly consider the best investment I’ve ever made in air travel.

It’s easy on a trip to upgrade things and add on luxury’s here and there. The problem is, on a trip with so many moving parts, its easy for costs to rise and get out of hand.

So instead of a taxi from the airport, we got a bus (after 14 hours flying !).

I always love how a disaster can turn into an opportunity. Turned out, we got off the bus about a mile and a half before our correct stop.

That enabled us to walk down Bernardo O’higgins street and really get a feel for the place (and the weather was fantastic).

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One we checked into our hotel and got cleaned up, we headed out to explore.

Santiago de Compostela cathedral is right in the centre of the city near Plaza de Armas square.

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Inside, its quite spectacular (if only churches were my thing).

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Plaza De Armas square with its palm trees.

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Wandering around the square, this classic image of 2 people playing chess outdoors.

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There had been some unrest (although we found the place to be very safe and we were comfortable the whole time).

That being said, if this is the best they’ve got in crowd control, its just as well there aren’t a lot of demonstrations.

In the UK, this would be in a museum.

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More wandering around the streets, we stop for coffee and get some replacement sims for our mobile phones.

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A few of the classic sites.

The Municipal Theatre. I wish we’d had longer in Santiago so that we could have watched a show there.

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The Bibleotaca public library.

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One of the iconic rows of buildings with a more modern structure in the background.

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La Moneda Palace.

The former presidential palace where the infamous General Pinochet resided.

It’s here, that the incumbent president Salvadore Allende killed himself on September the 11th, 1973 as General Pinochet took over ruling the country.

He committed suicide so he could not be coerced into backing Pinochet.

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Entering from the side, there is an amazing area underneath the palace.

It has a superb coffee shop and lots of interesting things about Chile.

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Including this archaeological museum.

We head back to our hotel and enjoy an evening of good food and wine.

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With Santiago being so close to the Andes we didn’t want to miss out.

We had arranged a tour and were delighted when our driver and guide arrived at our hotel, and we were the only guests (so a private tour for the price of a public tour).

Our guide is from Chile and since her father is American, her English was superb.

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Our first stop on the tour is to a winery and our first look at the Andes mountains.

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The San Esteban vinyard shop.

Inside we were supposed to have a wine tasting but as there were only 2 of us,  it wasn’t worth them running one.

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Disappointing, but Instead they gave us the 2 bottles of red wine to take away (more of which later).

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We head up the hill to relax and enjoy the view. Lots facinating plant life here and several walking trails, like so often I wish there was more time.

Our tour included complimentary Empanadas and the idea was to eat them on this beautiful hillside spot washed down with Chilean wine (unfortunately, we had no glasses, so couldn’t drink the wine, but everything else was perfect.)

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We were shown various Petroglyphs, drawings in stone by the Aconcagua people  in the rocks nearby.

They have all been scientifically catalogued and most are at least 10,000 years old.

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Now were off to the high Andes.

We drive along the highway connecting Chile and Argentina and stop near the top for a photo opportunity.

It features 29 bends and is nicknamed the snail by the locals.

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We arrive at Hotel Portillo – In winter its a ski resort (the oldest one in South America).

The staff lend us some glasses and were able to wander around outside with spectacular views of the Torres del Payne national park.

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After this, we sit down for lunch. In my case, its a delicious steak, and were already into our 2nd bottle.

As usual I offered to buy lunch for our guide and driver, but they declined.

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The view outside through the window, The Portillo Inca Lagoon. An image that will stay with me to the end of my days.

We head home. The guide and myself both drift off to sleep. The end of another fantastic day, and were only 3 days into our 3 week trip.

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Our last day in Santiago and we’ve got a couple of hours free.

We wander around and see this colourful street.

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Our target for the morning is Santa Lucia hill.

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The fountain in Patio Circular.

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We walk up the hill (230 steps), there are forts and ramparts throughout.

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An arcade road at the top has shops and nice places to sit.

We have an ice cream and then head back down the hill.

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But it’s not all fun.

After this, we get the bus back to the airport.

Our room was clean, the food was nice, but no matter what they do, airport hotels are normaly quite dull (see the view out of our bedroom windows !).

Next day, we fly to Easter Island.

Falklands 1 – Small Island in the middle of no-where.

 

intro

When I was 13, Britain was at war with Argentina over control of the Falkland Islands (which the Argentines call the Malvinas).

Every day when I got home from school and turned on the TV, there would be reports of bombing raids, interviews with soldiers and stuff like that.

I don’t glorify war, but it was a key moment in my “growing up”. When I found out the cruise I was on, would visit the Falklands, I was was excited about seeing some of locations I’d seen on the 6 oclock news all those years previously.

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Additionally, about 2 years after the war, was a drama over 2 evenings called Tumbledown.

It told the story of the Scots guards and their attack on mount Tumbledown (which once taken would secure a victory for Britain)

So, with 1 day in the Falklands, I decided to split my day with the morning exploring Tumbledown and battle sites with a local guide, and in the afternoon, seeing a bit of the town and finding out what life is like on an isolated Island.

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The boat arrived at the Islands (we were visiting East Falkland, though its possible to visit West Falkland as well) around 6am in the morning.

The Falklands are really difficult to get to. The only other route I know, is on a military transport stopping at Ascension Island, and for civilians, it costs about £2000 return.

With 18 decks, our ship was to big to fit in the harbour. So we were transported ashore by tender.

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At the main landing point, loads of poeple were milling around (tourism is a major industry in the Falklands and lots of people had booked day trips to see Penguins and the like).

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Considering the war was 37 years previous, you would think it was last year.

There are signs everywhere defiantly protesting the independence of the Falklands.

People of the Falklands are called Kelpers (after the seaweed), have their own defence force (very well equipped the the Stayer AUG) and are governed by a council elected from the islanders (Britain maintains a massive military force on the Island but they largely run their own affairs).

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For parity, I’ve included this sign which is on show at the harbour of Tiera del Fuego in Argentina (you can see that someone had tried to damage it).

Many of the people on our cruise ship were Argentinian as well as British. Both call the Islands by a different name and using the “wrong” name in front of the “wrong” person can call grave offens. I was very impressed by the cruise staff who refereed to our destination as Stanley (Port Stanley is the capital of the Islands) a compromise that doesn’t offend anyone.

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Most of the cruise organised, battle site tours had been booked so I got in touch with a local guy Tony from Discovery Falklands.

I explained the things I wanted to see in an en email a few weeks before our arrival and he was able to assist.

He picked us up and we drove off towards the hills (and since he had a 4×4, we drove a fair way into the hills as well).

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We head off and start seeing the area around Tumbledown Mountain (It overlooks Port Stanley)

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We saw some Argentine mobile kitchens, left over from the war.

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You can see from this picture how bleak the terrain is.

If the weather turns bad here, there is literally no cover. In freezing wind and rain, it mus have been awful.

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Tony showed us some ammunition left over from the war.

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Some of the improvised “caves” used by the Argentine soldiers who were dug in to defend the mountain.

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Technology has moved on. Modern armed forces would use encrypted short wave radio, but back then they used field telephones to communicate between their positions and the wire is still there.

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We were showing the route 42 Commando took, along with other area’s like wireless ridge.

It was incredible to be standing in the places I’d seen on tv almost 40 years previously

Falklands 2 – Small Island in the middle of no-where.

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The terain was really rocky it must have been very difficult to attacking soldiers to cross in the dark, when it was wet.

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Combatants from both sides of the conflict are frequent visitors to the Island.

On some occasions, Argentine conscripts who arrived in the dark had hired our Tony to show them where they had been (at the time, they’d had no map, and were just left there with no food and told where to point their rifles).

During the attack, there was a sniper on top of these rocks. Our guide had given a tour with the Scots guards one of them had climbed up with a bayonet on the the night of the attack with a bayonet.

When he returned he’d said simply we won’t have any more trouble from him. The stark reality of war, this isn’t John Wayne.

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Nearby, this grassy area is where a helicopter made 5 trips ferrying injured men back to the field hospital (including Robert Lawrence featured in the BBC Drama Tumbledown).

He had no night vision equipment. At one point, the helicopter skids became tangled on a fence and the pilot had to fly backwards, 5 feet from the ground in the dark, to free the helicopter.

 

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As the Scotts guards reached the top, the sun was rising and they could sea Port Stanley.

At that point the war was effectively over and Margaret Thatcher would announce “White flags flying over Stanley” in the house of commons.

It was the last time British forces used fixed bayonets in combat and the Tumbledown assault itself cost the lives of 9 Scotts Guards.

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These men were made of Iron. Around the cross that marks the top of tumbledown, they’ve left pictures, small bottles of whisky and such like to fallen friends.

But that’s not all. I found out, that most military crosses setup by the ministry of defence, face north. The Scots Guards had asked for it to be moved to face Port Stanley.

Admin and bureaucracy had taken too long, so the Guards took leave, flew over and with picks and shovels, re-cemented the cross to face Stanley (and nobody seems to have complained or attempted to put it back).

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Back from our sobering adventure, we wander around the town. The graveyard.

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Christ Church Cathedral. On the right is the whalebone arch, built in 1933.

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Historic Dockyard Museum.

Inside, a re-creation of a small general store.

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There were loads of interesting things in the museum. Too many to show here, so just for fun, I’ve included a commode.

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What could be more British than a red double decker bus.

These, days, its used for day trips. Basically, there are 2 sorts of journeys in the Falklands trips around Stanley where you can walk and travelling around the Island which can take up-to 8 hours !.

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The red telephone box. Not for show, these actually contain working telephones.

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The Mizzen Mast from SS Great Britain.

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The Falkland Islands Police station and HM Prison Stanley.

A day earlier on the cruise, we’d been given a talk on the Island. It was joked that the prison can only hold 17 people, so if you’re the 18th person theyl just send you home 🙂

Interestingly, the police run an exchange program with the UK, and its quite common to run in a scouse, brummy or cockney bobby on the beat in the South Atlantic.

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On the right is the 1982 Liberation memorial. Behind it, is the Secretariat Government building and the top floor on the right is where the  Argentine surrender was signed.

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Well, the only thing I didn’t get to do, was eat fish and chips and drink a pint of beer in a “British” pub in the Falklands. All the pubs were full with diners, so we had some coffee and a nice cake instead.

On special thing for me was this monument.

Only a while after Margaret Thatchers death, when poeple in Manchester and Liverpool were hosting street parties and ding dong the wicked witch is dead reached number one in the UK…

I see this. A monument to Margaret Thatcher, on a road called Thatcher drive. She is a hero to the people of the Falklands. When she visited the Islands for the first time (she visited twice, the only UK prime minister to do so) security had to surround her. Not for her safety, but because the Islanders wanted to carry her down the road shoulder high !.

As our guide said. Some people might not like her but when we needed her she helped when nobody else would.

An amazing experience. I’m not sure what I’d find to do if I was there for 2 weeks, but the Falklands are a must see sight for any serious traveller.

Sorry this update has taken so long, loads on at work. Near and Far the search for adventure continues…

 

 

 

Cuba 2.

Fidel Castro's hideout

We travelled to Sierra Maestra and overnighted in a chalet complex.

In the morning, we trekked to Castro’s hideout in the mountains (we drove up an enormous hill in 4×4’s to a car park).

From here it was about 2.5 hours walk. There were lots of huts where cooking and first aid were done. Our guide pointed out that they try to make it as authentic as possible, but the buildings rot every 15 years, so the ones were looking at are replicas.

We get to see Castro’s own accommodation (it was a simple shack with 2 rooms).

It had a kind of “trick” entrance to trap people (a bit like one of those ninja houses with trapdoors and stuff). In reality, I thought it was a bit silly.

If someone got into the compound would they really tip toe up the steps like some character from Scooby Doo, or more likely just fire an rpg or heavy machine gun into the building from 50 metres away !.

Castro’s 1 luxury, was a fridge (which was gas powered, as there was no electricity).

A streetside radio repair business

From here we travelled on to a place called Sanncti Spiritus (which to me seemed the wrong way around, but its their country, so what the hey).

I love to see innovation at work.

Transistor radios and the simple pleasure of listening to music, can’t be underestimated in Cuba.

For this reason, someone some had setup this “table & chair” business on the pavement.

I wish I could have hung around and found out what kind of person it was.

The English bridge

As we continued wandering around the town with the back-to-front name, we came upon this.

The oldest bridge in Cuba, which spans the Yayabo river.

Not widely known, but as well as the Spaniards, the British (referred to locally as the English) colonised Cuba for about 6 months.

It was during this time that they built this rather iconic bridge.

Che Vavara's resting place

After 90 mins of baking heat and cheese sandwiches I never wished to see again, were back on our coach headed for Santa Clara.

It’s famous as the turning point of the war, when Che Gavara attacked an armoured train with a bull dozer and captured all the soldiers and weapons there in.

Realising re-enforcements weren’t coming, it was just a few hours, before Batista and all his crony’s were hopping onto planes with suitcases filled with US Dollars (well, that’s what local propaganda will tell you).

Che Gavara was originally from Argentina and a Dr by profession. He was given honorary Cuban nationality and after the war helped “rebuild the economy”.

Later he travelled around helping out with other revolutions all over South America. It was here, that he was captured, and later executed on the orders of the CIA (highly probably, but again, propaganda).

His remains were found some years later and returned to Cuba where they now reside in his museum and mausoleum.

Freedom fighter or international trouble-causer. Whichever you think, he cut a romantic dash, and the museum has many fascinating artefacts inside (which sadly you aren’t allowed to photograph).

On top of the building is a giant statue of him, which really seems to capture his courageous/devil may care persona. He was revered by most of the Cubans that I met.

Train memorial

Staying in Santa Clara, we visit a museum dedicated to the Battle of Santa Clara.

Its made up of the armoured trains, originally captured during the battle.

Each of 5 carriages has pictures and artefacts, retelling the story.

They even had the original bulldozer used to derail the train.

Cuban Five

Posters like this are common all over Cuba. Usually positioned in front of key tourist sights, the idea is that you photograph them unwittingly and when you show them to your friends, they spread the word.

What I can make of it, the 2 sides to the story are…

Cuban: Terrorists based in Florida bombed hotels in Havana, in order to hurt the Cuban economy and later bombed a plane with the Cuban fencing team on-board.

Castro’s WASP network of operatives were activated and sent to find the people responsible (it being reasoned they would have more success than white FBI agents, who it’s said they were working with).

Once the terrorists had been captured, the FBI “turned coat” and arrested their “allies” as spies and they received lengthy prison sentences (3 remain in prison today).

American: There were enemy spies operating in our country working against American interest. When we caught them, they went to gaol.

It’s controversial (just try googling it) but it won’t go away, and the Cubans still argue passionately for the return of their countrymen.

Sugar loaf mountains of Vinales

Two nights in Vinales.

Not much I can say about this, except it was lovely countryside, and some amazing “sugar loaf” mountains.

We had a morning tour, with a guide with a very strong American accent, who kept insisting on telling jokes.

We only seemed to wonder through fields and stuff, and didn’t get into the mountains I could see high up all around me. Overall, a bit disappointing.

In the evening we had run low on local currency, so had dinner in the “expensive” hotel restaurant (which we realised was a 3rd of the price of the Paladare !).

Valle de Vinales caves

In the morning, we went for a boat ride through some caves.

Our captain used a laser pointer to highlight naturally occurring rocks, that looked like elephants and stuff like that. I found the overall rock formation far more interesting.

Saw a sign for cheese sandwiches. 1.2 cuks. I had been paying between 4 and 6. More rip.

Cayo levisa island

Next day, we drove to the coast, then got a boat out to the island of Cayo Levisa.

A cliché I know, but this really was a tropical paradise.

We were still low on local currency, so we couldn’t pay for canoeing or anything.

Since the trip had been so long and arduous, I simply got on a sun lounger in the shade and slept for about 4 ours. I was well overdue a rest.

Back home on the ferry, and a 2nd night in Venales. Next Stop Havana.

The rooftop Garden of our Casa in Havana

We arrive back in Havana. We’d decided to stay 2 extra days after the trip to relax and chose a Casa, owned by a local Dr, which he shared with his wife and his housekeeper.

The accommodation was simple, but more than adequate. We were actually living in a normal Cuban house. Returning home from an evening out, I was initially a bit nervous, but needn’t have been.

These people have nothing, but are mostly happy and perfectly law abiding.

It featured a rooftop garden, and both evenings we had an hour up there to unwind.

Tank outside the revolution museum

On a previous visit, the museum of the revolution had been closed, so we were delighted to head back there and find it open.

Its based in a building, that was previously Batista’s palace and outside a piece of mobile artillery (which many people mistakenly called a tank) is located.

A sign next to it states that it was Fidel Castro who personally fired on (and hit) an American warship from this vehicle during the Bay of Pigs.

How true that is, I dont know.

Torture equipment in revolution museum

Inside they had offensive murals to American presidents, models of Che Gavara and a whole host of pictures and memorabilia from the war.

One awful thing, was the display above.

Used by Batista’s forces during interrogation, the “scissor” thing on the left were pliers and used on the private parts of those being interviewed.

The delightful thing on the right, a device for removing finger nails.

Harrowing.

Hotel Seville from Our man in Havan

Most people associate Sloppy Joe’s bar with the Alec Guinness film Our Man in Havana.

A bit touristy for my liking. Lesser known, and a far more relaxing and desirable location is the bar in the Seville hotel.

A lovely venue with some fine music.

The outside bar in the middle of this picture, is the one (albeit re-decorated a few times since) featured in the film.

The iconic Bacardi building

We carry on exploring around. From our hotel, we’d seen the Bacardi building.

A rare view inside the Bacardi building

What I didn’t realise, walking past it, on our way back from the Museum of the Revolution, is that you could go inside.

No, not an organised tour, the security guard, flagged you down and said he’d let you in for 2 cooks.

Above is a photo of the foyer.

View of Havana from the Bacardi building

He allowed us to go up in the lift on our own.

The building inside was literally crumbling, but from the top, I got this spectacular shot of the rooftops of Havana.

Hotel Nacional from the Malecon

A place my friend Dan had talked about many times, was the famous hotel Nacional (Dan had stayed there, previously).

Built in 1930 by the Mafia, it hosted a Mafia summit in 1946 which was dramatised in the Godfather Part II.

Relaxing in the shade at Hotel Nacional

The hotel foyer was spectacular.

We wandered through and found a spot in the garden, where we relaxed in the shade.

Mohito and Crystal. And since its lunchtime, 2 cheese sandwiches. The nicest thing I ate on the whole trip.

The whole place is fab, and filled with the splendour of a bygone era. The only thing that was tacky, was a sort of museum of people who’d stayed there.

It was just sections of the wall with pictures of people (and not particularly taken in the hotel ether, so hardly authentic).

But there was something far more fascinating to see. Just like the Bacardi building, not featured in any guidebook.

Tunnels under the hotel from the Missile crisis

During the Cuban Missile Crisis. Tunnels were dug underneath the garden in anticipation of an invasion.

We were able to wander around in them.

It was pretty cool.

Tuk tuk or potatoe cart

Its time to head back.

The heat of the afternoon and several Cristal’s have made me tired.

We travel home in a potatoes taxi, sometimes called a tuk tuk, which it technically is not.

I like this shot, as it shows a cyclo, a potato taxi and a Chinese coach. All the types of transport we’d used on a trip (well, with the exception of the KLM plane, that flew us in).

The potato taxi uses recycled vegetable oil as fuel. Reminded me of a documentary I’d watched on the coach.

It talked about 1991 when Cuba was in financial crisis. The Russians weren’t trading oil for sugar, and the country had to think of something quick (which they did).

The converted the cars to run on diesel. Promoted cyclo’s and bicycle’s. Created the potato taxi’s and most fascinating, ran power stations, by burning sugar.

The American woman in the documentary said it was a superb case study for peak oil. One day supplies will be limited not matter how much money you have, and the Cuban solution is one we should all pay attention too.

Leaving drinks at Ambos Mundos

On our Final afternoon/evening we decided to visit Ambos Mundas.

Most people know about it, as its the place where Earnest Hemingway lived for 7 years (they even have his room available on show for tourists).

We weren’t that bothered, having previously visit a bar “where Hemingway used to hang out” and finding it to be awful.

Instead we headed for the rooftop bar, and just relaxed.

An amazing trip overall, and an absolute roller coaster. I think I saw and experienced practically everything you can cram into a 2 week trip. I was exhausted, and it would be another week at home in the UK before I’d fully recovered.

But that’s adventure. If you want to lie in bed, holiday in Ibiza, and don’t get in anyone else’s way.

Cuba 1.

Me in Havana

After I completed the bluelist in 2009, I got bored, so ended up writing a 2nd bluelist.

The recession bit hard on a lot of people. Although I continued to travel, I mainly did shorter trips and nearer to home, like the former Yugoslavia and places in Europe I hadn’t been.

After last years financial successes from the office move, I decided it was time to get back to a long hall tour.

Cuba was on the 2nd bluelist, and as Nikki hadn’t been there either, it seemed the ideal destination.

Cuba is sometimes described as “The US through a broken mirror”. In this picture, I’m standing on front of the capital building in Havana, which is a replica of the one in Washington, only 30m taller, and covered in scaffolding.

Planning is essential on any trip (just get there and go where the mood takes you, is for students with 6 months off, or retiree’s with plenty of money). I used DK Eyewitness guide as usual, but an informative book called Slow Train to Guantanamo (which has nothing to do with Guantanamo bay and the war on terror).

Map of our journey across Cuba

I’d spoken to many people who’d visited Cuba (it seemed much more popular than I’d expected). I was a bit suprised, as most them werent what I’d call adventure travellers.

Then I realised why. Most of them had been there on an all inclusive beach holiday.

My intention was to tour the island and see the real Cuba. Explore run a tour, that visits the entire place over 15 days.

We booked private accommodation in Havana for 2 additional days so we could relax before coming home.

A run down building in Havana

As most people know, there was a revolution in Cuba in the late 50’s. As a result, the US wanted nothing to do with a communist country (a feeling they still have today) and implemented an embargo.

As a result, although Cuba is a poor socialist country, even if they had something the world wanted and plenty of cash, they’d still struggle to get hold of the type of routine stuff that would allow things like this building to be repaired.

That said, all over the country, improvement work was being done, albeit slowly.

The kind of food we got to eat for 17 days

One thing about Cuba that has to be mentioned is the food. Its awful.

Although they grow chilli’s and stuff like that, they dont seem to use it, so the food is mundane to say the least.

After a few days, a bowl of porridge from our staff canteen at home would have, in comparison, tasted like the hottest curry I’d ever eaten 🙂

You generally get chicken or pork grilled, some rice and some black beans, and that’s it.

Because food is hard to come by in Cuba, local proprietors are obsessed with the quantity of the food. They don’t seem to get the idea, sometimes a smaller amount of higher quality would be just what the customer wants.

For days when we were on the road there were cheese and ham sandwiches. All of it ludicrously overpriced, but more about that later.

The Havana Club, Rum museum

We arrive in Havana the night before the start of the tour. After checking in to our hotel, we have a wander around and get a couple of drinks.

In the morning, it’s breakfast and then the tour brief. It still amazes me, that weeks after receiving the trip confirmation and documentation, this event always takes ages.

People start asking if they can pay the tip kitty in £ sterling. Others have to go back to their rooms to get travel insurance documents. More than half the people on the trip did this, and the other half, having done the right thing themselves, had to sit through this inconvenience.

Anyway, we had a tour around the town in baking heat, then popped into Havana Club Rum museum.

In the old days, I would have put up about 25 photo’s for each individual place that we visited in Cuba (so 25 photo’s just for Havana). On this occasion, I’ve tried to capture the entire trip in 44 photo’s over 2 blog posts.

Revolution square

After the walking tour of the old town, we jump on our coach (a superb Chinese manufactured thing that was comfortable, air conditioned and had a dvd player so we could watch documentaries during long journeys).

Revolution Plaza is massive (this is a view across it). Our guide started talking about Fidel (strange I thought, when I talk about the prime minister of the UK, I dont refer to him as “David”). Also, I noticed that his name was pronounced as Feedell.

Although many in the west see Castro as a tin pot dictator, and a bit of a joke, in Cuba he is very highly regarded. This square can hold over 1 million people. On one occasion, Castro got up to address them. He got a bit carried away, and kept on speaking (I know how that feels).

In his case, he carried on speaking, for 7 hours, and the audience largely remained where they were and applauded.

With his face covering the entire interior ministry on the left, is  a picture of Che Gavara. On the right, a picture of Camilo Cienfuegos, slightly lesser known, but Castro’s right hand man during the revolution. At that distance, I couldn’t help thinking he looked like the Ayatollah Homeni.

A "zoo" with domestic pigeons

Next day, we head out towards the Bay of Pigs.

We had a toilet stop and some coffee at something described as a Zoo. It’s no match for Chester Zoo, here in this cage are domestic pigeons !.

A while later, we stop off and some of us go swimming (and the smart ones, remain in the bar).

Anti aircraft gun

There wasn’t actually a bay as such to visit, most of the battle took place in a forest.

We visited a small museum at Giron (the Cubans dont call it the Bay of Pigs).

There were lots of weapons and stuff (once the battle was over, the Cubans were able to liberate a great deal of modern weaponry, otherwise denied to them.

They also captured hundreds of prisoners, who they later traded for 50m worth of medical supplies.

Around the bay of pigs museum

They also had lots of stuff about the people who’d died and the corruption of “The Yankee’s”.

I dont normally shy away from contentious issues, but with something like this, the most reliable source I know is the BBC, so read this, if you want to find out what happened, without the whole “blood on the hands of the Americans” type thing.

One of the nicer hotels that we stayed in

Accommodation throughout the trip was varied.

Sometimes we stayed in beautiful places like this in Santa Domingo when we trekked to Castro’s hideout in the mountains (but for the first 2 hours after we arrived, there was no hot water for a shower).

Our hotel in Camaguey, like a prison

Our accommodation in Camaguey, looked (and felt) like a prison, but at least had air conditioning.

Awful soviet hotel we visited for lunc

We didn’t stay here, but visited it on a motorway stop.

A communist era hotel. Garish design and decoration, pool filled with plankton and the entire place smelled of urine.

During the communist era, every 2 years, families got to stay in a hotel like this and have the novelty of being waited on for food and drinks. It also had a tennis court.

The only minor thing, was it wasn’t actually near anything. The nearest beach was 100 miles away, and no countryside or mountains nearby. It was just a Brutalist style hotel in the middle of nowhere.

Old Chevvy's to take us to dinner

One of the things I really wanted to see, was American cars.

Its said that the mechanics in Cuba are some of the best in the world. The reason:

Well, for a long time, the newest car they had was a 1956 Chevvi. Today, it isn’t just the embargo for spare parts that causes a problem. The spare parts for these cars haven’t been made in over 50 years. The Cubans are adept at making there own spares with simple tools.

Our first evening in Trinidad , we had dinner in a Poladare (I’ll explain later) part of the evening, was that the proprietor would send a fleet of old American cars to pick us up.

Today, most of them have been converted to Mitsubishi diesel engines, but the driving experience in one of these, harks back to the golden age of motoring.

 

State run shop

The following day, we have a walking tour of Trinidad. We saw many interesting things including the Casa de Alderman Ortiz, a fascinating contemporary art gallery. I also learned 2 things about Cuba that had previously puzzled me.

1. There are no indigenous Cubans. They died out, when Cuba was first colonised. Cuba’s culture is a mixture of European and African, which melds rather well, and explain the strong musical influences within the country.

2. Just about every place in Cuba, apart from Havana is named after a city in another country (Trinidad, Santiago and they even had Australia).

We get the chance to visit a government shop. Its a controlled economy, and as you can see, supplies and variety are limited.

One advantage, is that everyone in the country gets a ration book, and gets free rice and basic supplies.

Younger people are embracing the free market, but they worry about older people getting left behind.

Two initiatives that the government have “enabled” are Cassa particular and Paladar’s.

A Cassa allows a Cuban to let out a room or rooms in there home and charge rent.

A Paladar allows a Cuban to serve food in a room in their home.

The idea is to provide variety and quality for tourist from owner managed businesses, while generating badly needed currency for the country.

The reality is, our tour guides frequently took us to paladar’s, where we found later the prices had been significantly inflated (we never saw a menu). Turns out, government hotels don’t give kickbacks to tour guides, and paladar’s do.

At points in the trip, it became ridiculous, when on an all day drive, we drove an hour out of our way for over priced cheese sandwiches (they were more expensive than the same sandwiches at the Hotel Nacional !)

By the end of the trip, we were a bit sick of it (the rip off I mean, not the sandwiches). The daft thing is, the actual people on the street, shop keepers and bar staff of Cuba were very laid back and with the odd exception not predatory at all.

 

Trinidad - music in the evening

 

In the evening, live entertainment, in the open air.

Music is a common part of Cuban life and featured frequently during the trip.

On a lot of occasions, it was 3 blokes playing for loose change when you were eating your dinner.

On this occasion, we went to a massive open air music and dance festival, with lots of innovative tunes and experimental styles.

A few people asked where the Buena Vista social club which featured in the film was (actually, this happened in Havana anyway !). The reality, Jazz music isn’t normally played in bands. Its perfectly possible that a cornet player will play with 4 different bands and just get together to Jam.

A few places advertised themselves as the Buena Vista social club, but we were told they were tourist traps and too avoid them.

 

The old Russian truck

In the morning we wake in our beautiful chalets in splendidly kept grounds and tuck into our horrible breakfast.

Shortly afterwards, our carriage awaits.

Its an old Russian truck, which is used to transport people to Topes de Collantes, the largest national park in Cuba.

There are 4 must do walks in “Topes”. We would do all of them, and spend 2 nights in the jungle. Some people carried a bit more stuff than they needed which left little room in the back for comfort.

That said, racing through the mountains in the truck, with the wind blowing in my hair was one of the highlights of the trip.

In the jungle

 We leave the truck, and set off trekking (the truck took our bags to our overnight accommodation). The heat was unbearable, but it was great to be back in the jungle again.

Some of the other people on the trip, seemed to be struggling with their fitness. I had to explain several times, as a seasoned walker, that there isn’t any rush, and were supposed to be enjoying it.

We see various farms along with way and places where coffee is grown wild. We arrive at our accommodation (and obviously, I have a can of Cristal, far superior to Bucanero, which tastes like paint !).

It’s basically, a veranda with tables. We have lunch here, and then realise that once we’ve had our evening meal later, well have to move the tables and sleep on the floor. But that’s for later.

We head off on another walk, to a small lake, where those without common sense can go for a swim. There is a waterfall a short walk away (Salto del Caurni), but I’m lost in the moment.

Sat in the shade in the jungle, I find a spot away from everyone and do the sit spot thing I’ve been taught on bushcraft tracking courses. I’m in a contemplative mood.

A snake we found on the trail

We wander back to the camp. Its an hour before dinner so I sit by the river with a can (and subsequent cans) of Cristal lager.

Food is the usual mediocre nonsense, but good company, humorous and informed conversation and more Cristal (and mohito’s seemingly for everyone else) make up for it.

Time for bed, and we have mats to sleep on (the kind, people of my age used to do PE on). I’m a bit miffed that a French group have arrived and nabbed all the optional tents, which seems a bit selfish.

I remember the farmers wife in the French Alps some years ago, who showed us such kindness for absolutely no personal gain. Does the “tent takeover” really matter after all.

Well maybe… Insects bite the hell out of me through the night despite practically bathing in jungle formula deet and I get no sleep.

A pretty bobbins night overall, but this is adventure, there’s no time for mincing around complaining about things on the periphery.

And so we head off, on 3rd of our walks. On the way, is this amazing scene. I beheaded snake. It still seemed to be moving. There was some debate about whether it was death throes, or actually something the snake had eaten inside.

Like most sensible “proper” travellers I seek out adventure, prefer low key and don’t boast of my adventures.

But just for once, how many people who holiday in Ibitha have trekked and slept out in the jungle, and seen something like this.

Improvised bridge

In the morning, its get ready and have breakfast (Why god why ?. Even the coffee is awful, and they export this crap all over the world, so that others can suffer along with them).

We do a different trek this time including crossing a river on this Bridge. Brunnel would have been envious. We trek to the Batata cave and see its underground river.

On the left of the picture is Carol, from New Zealand, a fab girl, and in the middle, Sam, who harks from my home town of Manchester, and a fan of City like my brother David and friend Frank.

On the right is a Church of England priest called Jane. I don’t go in for religion much, but although opinionated, she had 5 degrees and there was no doubt of her informed travel knowledge. Two couples on the trip from Australia. Don’t need to say any-more, if you’ve spent any time on this site you know I love Australia and Australians.

At this point, I should point something out. I could put loads of stuff up here about local plant life, the route we walked and things like that. The truth is, you can find that out, anywhere on the internet these days (or just ring Explore).

This is johnsunter.com, the adventures of an ordinary person. I’m writing about the sort of experiences an ordinary person would have on this trip, which I think is quite unique.

We arrive around lunchtime, where we’ll be staying for dinner/overnight. A working farm which subsidises it’s income by offering veranda/camping accommodating.

Our bags are waiting for us, and just like last night, there’s a shower. We get our usual glass of complimentary orange juice on arrival, which is refreshing in the baking heat.

I’m delighted to find that there are tents available. Nikki decides to do the afternoon walk. Exhausted from the heat, I get some rest in our tent, which I’ve furnished with 2 mattresses I had to carry down a big hill in baking heat.

In the evening there’s more bland food, but if I mash chicken, black-beans and rice together its halfway as tasty as a wet shredded version of the Guardian.

I sleep much better that night and in the morning, the truck takes us back to our air conditioned coach.

Cycle taxi's

Quite a long drive (with cheese sandwiches) and we arrive at our destination for the evening Camaguey.

I want to write loads of things about Camaguey about it being unique and exciting, but the truth is, after seeing 3 other “colonial towns” this was just the same.

We were invited on a cyclo tour (Cuba has some innovative forms of transport since 1991, but more about that later). The cyclist looked delighted when Nikki walked over, but when I joined her, he visibly groaned.

Still, if you take money to do a job, you should do it as well as you can, that’s what I always say.

One other thing, was the guy in the photo above. Everywhere we went people seemed to have Union Jack T shirts of one kind of another.

We had dinner later at a buffet restaurant, which was really good.

In the morning, we woke in our prison (sorry, hotel) and wandered around a government shop to buy water. I couldn’t believe it, when they checked our bags.

Did they think there was ANYTHING in that shop I couldn’t afford or would want to steal !.

Were back in the coach, and on the road towards Santiago de Cuba.

Moncada Barracks

On the outskirts, we visit Monkada Baracks.

Its now a school, but on the 26th of July 1953, it was attacked by Castro and some students.

The attack failed. A few of the attackers were killed in action. Those that remained, either went off for trail, or were killed in cold blood, had guns placed in their hands and were described as dead enemy combatants.

Its this kind of tyranny, which led to eventual revolution. Castro, got 13 years in prison (which like Hitler he used to study and formulate his plan). He was released 2 years later.

The walls are said to be scarred with bullet holes from the attack. Yet in 1960 Castro personally drove a bulldozer which destroyed the outer walls.

In 1978 he ordered the wall rebuilt to house a school and museum and interestingly, they now have bullet holes.

Colon cemetary

We also visited the national cemetery, Cementerio Santa Ifigenia

It has the graves of many revolutionary fighters (quite a few of them, killed in “interventions” in Africa).

They also had 2 members of the Buena Vista social club (fantastic musicians, but not sure how they’re hero’s.

Finally the grave of the Bacardi family (this was confusing, they were disliked by the people before the revolution, got the hell out when it started and funded the training of soldiers for the Bay of Pigs).

There is a 3 person ceremony every half hour, to commemorate the brave fallen with an eternal flame. Reminded me of something similar I’d seen in Russia.

Santiago de Cuba square

We arrive in Santiago de Cuba.

It’s probably not the hottest place I’ve ever been, but mother of god it felt like it.

We had a few drinks in a rooftop hotel overlooking the square. You probably can’t see, but the building on the top left of the picture is a bank. It had a sign with the time and temperature on it.

Humid heat had been a problem for me throughout the trip, but the sign showed a temperature of 43 degree’s centigrade (for those that didn’t pay attention in science, that’s a bit less than half the boiling point of water, and as a man from Manchester, it was unbearable.

We stayed out of town, and after a debaucle with the tour guides trying to con/press-gang us into visiting “their” Paladare, we made our own way into town for the evening.

We found a really nice rooftop place that evening and had dinner there. The food and service were very good, but I loved the value added.

The Chicken Nikki ordered was “delayed” due to a problem with the stove. As we looked over into the street, a moped appeared, with a plate and cover being carried by the pillion passenger. Suddenly, there was no problem and the Chicken was served 🙂

It’s well known that in some countries, bootleg films are the main staple of entertainment. Our waiter was completely charming, but after the first couple of conversations, I couldn’t help feeling he’d learned English from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.

With heavy facial emphasis (he obviously thinks this is how we chat in the UK) – “LISTEN TO ME VERY CAREFULLY ! – Would you like fish or chicken ?” and “YOU’VE GOT AN IMPORTANT DECISION TO MAKE ! – would you like sugar with your coffee or without ?”.

That’s why I travel, when else would you get to experience something like this.

Santiago music and dancing

We wandered over (and even went over on the 2nd night as well) to the much talked about Casa de la Trova.

For all the hype, the music was original, and delivered with genuine charisma.

There was a balcony outside where you could get some fresh air, but inside the mood was electric.

Some hired dancers performed but loads of other people got up too.

I’ve often said, I don’t like football, but I love being in a pub when an important match is on. I don’t care who’s playing or the score, but I can feel the atmosphere and energy in the room and this was much the same.

San Pedro castle

On our free day, we got a taxi to Castillo del Morro. This place was amazing.

I could have taken 100 photographs and not captures it.

Anyway, it took 2 full hours to explore and when the guidebook says worth seeing, I think its a must see.

Exploring the Ancient City of Machu Picchu.

memp Having completed the Inca Trail, had a shower, and spent the night in a comfortable bed, we are given a whole day, to explore the amazing Lost City of Machu Picchu.
The train carrying day trippers, arrives around 10am.Our Guide suggests getting the early bus, so that we can get there, when its practically deserted.

I was quite looking forward to a lie in, but adventure called.

It was dark as we queue ‘d to get on the bus from Aguas Calientes.

bus
arrival You can see just how quiet it was, when we arrived.Yale professor Hiram Bingham discovered the ruins buried beneath dense undergrowth in 1911.

The first sight of Machu Picchu is almost magical. The temples, fields, terraces, and baths appear to be part of the hillside itself.

Separated into three areas – agricultural, urban, and religious – the structures are arranged so that the function of the buildings matches the form of their surroundings.

As we look across the valley, I see the famous Putucusi (2,600m). I prefer its local name, “happy mountain”.Its shape reminded me of earlier in the trip when we visited Coricancha.

The Incas had been forced into Roman Catholicism, and painted religious pictures with women with strange shaped dresses.

These were actually the shape of mountains like this one, which the Inca’s originally worshipped.

happymountain
sunrise The Sunrise of Machu Picchu.I have always found anything involving the Sun rising/setting over anything famous, to be a let down. This was different.

As I took this picture, a person with a bald head was standing nearby, and the Sun shining of his head, was blinding.

The Temple of the Condor is ingeniously created from a natural rock formation resembling the outspread wings of a condor in flight.On the floor of the temple is this rock carved in the shape of the condor’s head and neck feathers.

Historians speculate that the head of the condor was used as a sacrificial altar.

condorstone
tomb The Royal Tomb.A mummy was found under here.
Our guide explained that a double doorway like this (with an inner and outer doorway) was an indicator, that the person who lived here was of significant importance. doubledoor
round2 The Temple of the Sun (on the right) and surrounding buildings, showing the tongue and groove construction used by the Inca’s.
The temple of the Sun is one of the most recognised ruins in Machu Picchu.It was explained to me, but I never completely understood, why it was round. round1
botgarden Botanical Garden.A modern and not particularly inspiring selection of plants in a moderate sized flowerbed.

It was still nice to some of the local flowers we had passed on the Inca Trail.

Central Plaza, a large grassy field that separates the Sacred Plaza and Intiwatana from the more commonplace areas on the far side. building2
building1 The Sacred Plaza.You can see the array of different types of building in this shot.

It sort of captures this diversity shapes within Machu Picchu.

Next to the Principal Temple is the Temple of Three Windows, named by Hiram Bingham for its three identical, trapezoidal windows that open into the main plaza. 3windows
goodwall The Principal Temple inside the Sacred Plaza is an example of excellent Inca stonemasonry, with its large stone blocks polished smooth and joined perfectly.The Inca used no mortar to hold their walls in place; they relied upon precisely cut stones, geometry, and female and male joints in the corners and foundations.
Their best-built structures withstand the passing of centuries, and even multiple earthquakes, without suffering.The jumbling of the stones in one corner is due to the settling of the earth over the years, and not to any defect in construction. badwall
condor With my camera on maximum zoom, I get this (admittedly small) picture of a Condor, flying over Machu Picchu.
The Centrepiece of Machu Picchu. Intiwatana or “hitching post of the sun” is a carved rock pillar whose four corners are oriented toward the four cardinal points.The Inca were accomplished astronomers, and used the angles of the pillar to predict the solstices.

The Intiwatana at Machu Picchu is the only one of its kind not lopped off by the Spanish conquerors, who made a point of destroying all implements of Inca religion

During the filming of a beer advert, a crane, dropped a 1000lb weight onto it, and it was damaged (not badly, but this is a priceless relic).

Its now cordoned off, with rope, and you aren’t allowed to touch it. This is a shame, as many people believe it connects heaven and earth.

sacredrock
smallmountain In the background Huayna Picchu or little peak.Its possible to climb up here (it takes an hour to the top) and get spectacular views of Machu Picchu.

Problem is, only a certain number are allowed to do it, and like a nightclub, once a certain number are there, everybody has to wait until someone comes out.

This means you can end up standing there for ages doing nothing.

At the bottom of the picture is a small rock, with is said to be an exact replica of the mountain (not sure how much I believe that).

Our guide Carlos (no, this man doesn’t need the toilet).The prison complex stands directly behind the temple, and is comprised of human-sized niches and an underground maze of dungeons.

According to historical chronicles that documented similar Inca prison sites, an accused citizen would be shackled into the niches for up to 3 days to await the deliberation of his fate.

He could be put to death for such sins as laziness, lust, or theft. Carlos wasn’t guilty of any these, so we let him out after a few minutes of laughing.

guide
earthstone At the far end of Machu Picchu is the Sacred Rock, an object common to every Inca village.Many people today feel that Machu Picchu is one of the Earth’s magnetic focal points, and carries an inherent spiritual or metaphysical power.

Indeed, it is difficult to sit at the edge of the Sacred Plaza overlooking the Urubamba River below, the stone temples and plazas to the front, and the mountain peaks of Machu Picchu and Huayna Picchu to the left and right, and not feel the magic.

I was too tired to feel an “energy” I just wanted to sit down.

After a couple of hours, we decide to wander back to Aguas Calientes.Danny’s enlightened face, illustrates that the morning had been enlightening.

The road used by the bus downhill zigs and zags, but the path, runs in a straight line through a series of forests.

One of our group decided to travel on the coach. We joked about how funny it would be if he passed us on the way.

At that exact moment, he did.

walkback
river As we continue along the road, we see this wild river.If you look carefully, you can see a series of planks held in place with rocks, used as a bridge.

As an engineer, I am comfortable with improvisation, but I wouldn’t have trusted my life, to that construction.

To the right of the track, this VW camper van had come off the road some years before.We couldn’t find out any details, I just remember hoping that nobody was hurt. vw
town The main street of Aguas Calientes, where the train from Cusco cuts through the centre of the City.The girls did some more shopping, and Dan and I grabbed a table and relaxed with a couple of drinks (and no food).
I walked back up the hill to our hotel, to get our stuff and get the train on the first leg of our journey home.I saw this poor guy pushing these heavy gas bottles up the enormous hill, in the centre of town.On his back, he wears a bin liner as a coat.

Not for the first time, I am faced with a cultural dilemma.

Should he envy me, because I come from a place with free hospitals, centrally heated houses and too him, endless comfort ?.

Should I envy him for living in one of the most beautiful places in the world ?.

I think in quality of life terms, we should all strive to better ourselves, but celebrate what we have.

gas

I visit Cusco in Peru, and see some of the ruins in the nearby areas.

flight Embarking on a trip to walk the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, part of my trip takes me from Lima to Cusco.

The flight takes us over the Andes’, and as advised by our guide, we all get seats on the left hand side.

I find myself sat next to a newlywed Japanese couple, who cant keep there hands of each other.

The pictures of the mountains bellow were spectacular.

We arrive at the airport and are picked up by our driver and local guide, Wilfredo.

Cusco was the capital of the Inca Empire, and means literally navel or center, to signify it as the center of the Empire.

All the traffic police seemed to be women in thigh length boots !.

plazadearmas
hotel We are driven to our hotel, where we get cleaned up, have a couple of hours free time, and then start a tour of Cusco

Our hotel had a beautiful courtyard where I sat with a bottle of coke.

Coricancha or temple of the sun was built during the reign of the Inca Pachacutec to honour Tawantinsuyos’ most important divinity and served as astronomical observatory .

At the summer solstice, sunlight reflected into a niche in the wall where only the Inca were permitted to sit.

qoroutside
qorsquare The walls floors and alters were originally covered with gold.

Much of the wealth was removed to pay ransom for the captive Inca ruler Atahualpa at the time of the Spanish conquest.

Atahualpa was later murdered and Francisco Pizarro awarded the site to his brother Juan.

Upon Juan’s death, the structure passed to the Dominicans, who began to construct the church of Santo Domingo, using stones from the temple.

Many of the pictures show woman in skirts, which resemble high mountains (the people were forced to pretend to convert to Catholicism, but secretly held on to there own religion). qorroom
qorcorr An ingenious restoration to recover both buildings after the 1953 earthquake lets you see how the church was built on and around the walls and chambers of the temple.

On the left, the walls of an Inca Temple, on the right, the wall of a Roman Catholic Church.

The Cathedral dominates the north-east side of the Plaza de Armas (main square) and sits directly over the foundations of the Inca Viracocha’s palace.

The Cathedral took 100 years to construct and inside there is an amazing Basilica, and more than 400 paintings.

One of the paintings is of the Last Supper by Marcos Zapata showing Christ and the Apostles about to dine on guinea-pig, washed down with a glass of chicha!.

It was one of my favourite sight’s in Cusco, but you weren’t allowed to take photo’s inside, which was disappointing.

cath
mesac We didn’t spend very much time at Sacsayhuamán, probably the most known tourist sight in Cusco.

The whole area was made of large walls (they only go up so high, as the top rocks were removed by the Spaniards for building).

It is noted for an extensive system of underground passages known as chincanas which connect the fortress to other Inca ruins within Cusco.

Several people have died after becoming lost while seeking a supposed treasure buried along the passages.

This has led the city of Cusco to block off the main entrance to the chincanas in Sacsayhuamán.

Still in Sacsayhuamán we were asked to look closely at this rock, which apparently resembled a Condor or Llama or something.

I couldn’t see a thing.

sac
qenqo We visit another site called Qenqo.

Until 1934, the whole are was covered beneath 3 meters of earth.

On the right is the Condor monolith stone which in ancient times cast the shadow of a Condor onto the rocks behind it.

We head underground, and see this amazing chamber.

In the middle is a carved stone emplacement, which is either a throne or alter.

Some children were around selling mint leaves. I bought some (saved me picking it myself) and it really did clear my nostrils.

I was still suffering with AMS at this point, and at times appeared to stagger around, to the amusement of the other people on the trip.

quenqoalter
tambomachay The Tambomachay fountains

I tried and tried, but I couldn’t get a clear shot of the fountain, without someone in it.

One the way back, I bought a warm hat for the trip from some stall holders.

An interesting thing about Cusco, is that traders near to tourist sites, are actually cheaper than shops in the main square.

This is the opposite of my experience in most tourist places around the world.

I also bought a meditation blanket, which Ash found hilarious.

Back to our hotel, for a quick shower and a rest, and then out for the evening.

We visit a nearby Irish bar, Dan quickly becomes a regular as we discuss professional ethics (“would you write the software for landmine’s, for 10 times your salary” etc).

Later we wander around the square, and visit a pretty good pub, called the Cross Keys. Only problem is, they didn’t do food, and we were hungry.

We find a “Restaurant” offering Steak and Chips for around a fiver and sit down. A decision I am happy to forget.

children
campaniadejesus The following day was free time. In reality, we were at 3400m and the main thing was just to get used to the altitude and acclimatize.

Many people who do similar trips, visit Colca Canyon and go white water rafting. This was a much shorter trip.

I wander around the square a couple of times, and to be honest, wonder what I am going to do with the rest of the day.

In the main square, in addition to the Cathedral was the Campania de Jesus.

If you look to the right of the Church, you can see messages, “drawn” into the hills around Cusco (Cusco is completely circled by hills and mountains).

The Plaza de Armas or main square.

In ancient times it was called Huacaypata. Some say this means “The Warriors Square” others that it means “The Place of Tears” or “Weeping Square”.

Anyway, there were plenty of latter day warriors out that day, celebrating something.

Not sure what, but a video here, shows what it was like.

tattoo
breakfast Just in the nick of time, I run into the girls, and we have some breakfast/11’s’s at a cafe overlooking the square.
Having hooked up with the girls, we decide to continue exploring.

We head out of the square, and through the back streets and squares, to the place referred to by the locals as “up the hill”.

backstreets
stairway Although the City is created on the ground in the shape of a Puma, its contours are more of a stadium or bowl shape.

I guess somebody has to walk up these stairs, each evening after work.

I am glad its not me !.

I found a small park, and photographed the Town and buildings bellow through the tree’s. tree's
llamas  

These 2 fine ladies pose in traditional dress with Llamas.

They only wanted about 50p, to be photographed and I thought it was well worth it.

Back at ground level, we wander out of the square to the place where the local villagers live etc.

A bit more modest than the touristy area.

mainstreet
dentist I had seen a sign like this before in Nepal.

Some of the marketing techniques, used by local dentists, really are rather sinister.

In the end though, I was walking around with girls, and it wasn’t going to be long before we visited some kind of shop.

Between us, we bought most of the shop, from this friendly and helpful woman.

shop
ash Ashima tries on this Alpaca wool jumper.

That isn’t a twinkle in her eye, she is wearing a money belt.

Although our guide didn’t know much about the town/nightlife around Cusco, my friend Amanda had been there 6 weeks before, and had all the inside info (she had actually been staying in the same hotel as we were).

We wander down this alleyway (which I was able to photograph, as my new camera has adjustable shutter speeds).

alley
jacks Amanda had recommended Jacks, “up the hill”.

Everyone came with me, and we had dinner there.

I really liked the place, and wished I could have visited it again.

There was another restaurant called Fallen Angel, that I really wish I had visited.

The following day, we drive out, and visit Olantay tambo.

Right next to the modern town, that sells walking sticks and Mars bars, is the site of this ancient ruin.

The shape is said to resemble a llama.

It was my first sight of classical Inca terraces (apart from a scene in Halo 2).

They are used for farming.

oly1
olywalkway The Sun temple.

Like many of the other ruins in the area, the enormous rocks, are so well carved, that its impossible to slide a piece of paper in between the joins.

The stone used to build this temple came from high up a mountain on the other side of the Urubambo river.

It would be a feat just to move this rock, let alone, carve and position it to withstand earthquakes.

olyrock
olypath Having seen the temple, we see a path that leads along a mountain side, right out of Indian Jones

The mountain in the background, contains a sort of warehouse carved into the rocks, Petra style.

Apparently the temperature and humidity there are perfect for storing grain.

Oliver and Jess get married in Vegas. Gambling, drinking and horrendous shirts.

oljess1 I travel to the amazing city of Las Vegas in the United States, to celebrate the wedding of my good friend Oliver and his (now) lovely wife Jessica.It’s taken a little while to get this page done. I would like to thank Sarah Williams for providing the photographs, as I didn’t have a camera with me on the trip.
We stayed in the famous Riviera hotel.It was the hotel used in the film Casino.Like all the hotels in Vegas, all its facilities were open 24hrs a day. riv
arrdrink Like most international trips, it was about 24hrs door to door.Upon arrival, it was important to drink lots of water, and get some rest…But we didn’t !.

We went straight out to a bar, and stayed up for another 10 hours, drinking into the night (this would set the theme for the entire holiday).

At the back of this picture, is Martin. He was quiet and laid back throughout most of the trip.

One night, we visited a night club (I was a bit nervous going through a metal detector !), and he came to life, we couldn’t keep him off the dance floor !

The only truly awful thing about the trip, was my clothes !.I have to confess, that for several months during 1998, I owned and wore THIS shirt !.Oliver and Jess had organised the trip, when I arrived, I found that I would be sharing a room with John Davis (left) who Oliver worked with in London.

He was a cracking bloke, and we had loads of laughs throughout the week.

On the right, Matt, was there with his girlfriend Fiona.

medrink
sarahnicky Most of the people on the trip were in couples and John and I frequently had knocks on our door, and invitations for a pint, whilst wives/partners watched the tv etc.Nicky and Sarah, lived in a shared house in the centre of Manchester. On nights when everyone went out “coupling”, we all went out together.We all went to see a comedian and wondered why table next to the stage was free, but thought nothing of it.

The comedian came on stage, realised we were Brit’s, and used us as a foil, for the rest of his act !. Painfully embarrassing.

Also on the trip was Scott, one of Oliver’s oldest and closest friends.It was a pleasure to meet him, as Oliver had told me lots about him.He came with his then girl friend (and now wife with 2 children) Victoria, who was from Canada.

On one occasion, during an evening out, I was telling everyone about a really famous film mistake in a James bond film made in Las Vegas (a red car is jacked up onto its right hand wheels to enable it to drive through an alley. When it comes out of the other side, its on its left hand wheels !)

The next day, amazingly, it was on the television, and everyone saw it ! (how strange is that ?)

scott
dive In the daytime, we wandered around the “strip” there were some amazing things to see (The mirage hotel has an underground zoo with white tigers.There was also an amazing water show, in the man made lake in front of the Belagio (featured extensively in oceans 11, it had only just been built at the time.This was one of the many amazing eateries we found there, based on a submarine, it was owned and built by Steven Spielberg.
Many of the hotels were enormous.The Venetian, and the Paris, have since been completed, but were still being built whilst we were there (at the time, the 5000 room MGM Grand, was the largest hotel in the world.

The New York New York, had a theme park complete with roller coaster on the roof.

Of special interest, was the treasure Island hotel, which featured a pirate show, every hour.

treasure1
treasure2 There was all sorts of activity, with people swinging from ship to ship, sword fights and stuff like that.You can see how popular it was, by the backs of peoples heads in this picture.
Once again, a truly gruesome shirt, worn by me.When wearing it, people looked at me as though I should be picking cotton !.

The food in Vegas was superb, with buffets costing the equivalent of about £3, and you got all you could eat with up to 300 different dishes, from Thai Green curry, to pancakes.

My favourite food here, was steak, which was delicious, and cost next to nothing.

We sit down for the evening, at a steakhouse inside the hotel.

On my right, is Oliver’s excellent uncle Pete, who was a great laugh, throughout the whole trip.

food1
food2 Just to show the size of the portions, this rack of ribs, is too big for the plate, and cost a few pounds.The steak I normally ate, was the thickness of a 20 cigarette packet and 8 inches in diameter for £5.

They take customer service very seriously in that country, and it was a delight to be looked after so well.

You wouldn’t go to Egypt, without riding a camel.Sarah gets started on the slot machines.

They even provided plastic cups for storing coins.

gambling1
gambling2 Oliver puts a few “bucks” onto the roulette table.I am not a massive fan of gambling, so I set myself a budget of £30 (which I lost in about 15 minutes !).
Oliver’s brother Dale on the slot machines.We found out that the longer you gamble on a machine or table, the more perks you get.

If you played the slot machines for long enough, you would get drinks, cigarette, and even sandwiches (which sometimes cost more than the total you had “lost” to the slot machine).

dale
hen The night of the stag and hen Party.Unfortunately, these are Sarah’s pictures, and so only feature the Hen do

The girl on the right, is Matt’s girlfriend Fiona.

They went to see a Jazz band at the amazing Bellagio hotel. jesshen1
jesshen2 Here, hearing of her impending marriage, the lead singer of the band gives Jess some “attention”.
The stretch limo “thing” just had to be done !.We were picked up from outside our hotel, and driven to the New York, New York hotel further up the strip, for the wedding ceremony. stretch
jess The bride, resplendent in her beautiful wedding gown.
Oliver is my friend.He has always had a bit of a cynical edge to him (as most of my friends do, which perhaps says something about me !).

I have seen Oliver happy many times, although usually, this is because of a particularly good kebab, or the first pint of a Friday night.

On this occasion, he really was happy and contented, and I knew that they would be happy together.

Jessica’s sister Andrea was her maid of honour, and Scott was Oliver’s best man.

oljess2
wedding The next day, Jessica’s family hosted a farewell Barbeque for the visiting UK guests.At first I expected to see Jessica’s step father operating the grill, and Jessica’s mum putting the burgers onto the buns

However being Americans (and thinking a bit bigger than everyone else), it was actually cooked and served by outside caterers in a holiday apartment that belonged to a friend of theirs.

It was nothing short of spectacular.

We flew home the following day, and it snowed in Las Vegas for the first time in 14 years.

Oliver and Jess now live in Chicago.

I remember the young mouthy engineer from IBM, and I knew then he would amount to great things.

I have had many chances to go back to Las Vegas, but I never will, I wouldn’t want to spoil the memory of such a special trip.